Sunday, December 29, 2013

 

Power Problems


Electrical power ain’t always a problem, muchachos, but it can be. Today’s amateur astronomer is ever more likely to be running a computerized go-to telescope, sometimes controlling that with a laptop computer, and often observing with power hungry CCDs or video cameras, so “juice” in the field—or at home—is an important subject.

Actually, that was not the original topic for this Sunday morning’s blog. This one was supposed to have been “A Guide to Department Store Telescopes,” an article designed to help you help the owners of semi-putrid Christmas scopes. But you know what? Down here at least, the good old Department Store Christmas Scope is an endangered species.

Five-six years ago, the Christmas scope still inhabited the big retailers’ shelves from October to January, but since then it has practically disappeared. Its decline actually began some years before that with the closing of the big-box “jewelry” stores like Service Merchandise, who sold everything under the sun, including cheap telescopes, before they were put in the ground by WallyWorld, Target, and Costco.

The final nail in the Christmas Scope’s coffin was Walmart banishing the poor things.  For years, Tascos and Bushnells and Meades would appear in WallyWorld’s optical department at the start of the season. Then, one year their yearly migration didn't happen, and I haven’t seen ‘em since. Their disappearance coincided with the start of the Depression—sorry, “Great Recession”—so that might have had something to do with it. Also, the optical department of Walmart where they were sold is run by an independent contractor, and maybe that contractor has changed or changed policies.

Anyhoo, the only Department Store Scopes I’ve seen lately have been pitiful semi-toy refractors like the one here, which are mainly found in drugstores like CVS and Rite-Aid and sporting goods outlets like Academy. Maybe somewhere Christmas 4-inch reflectors and 60mm refractors live on and are still luring kids and adults, but they don’t seem out in numbers big enough to warrant a blog post. If you know somebody who did get a puny Christmas telescope, see thisun from a cupla years back for some tips on how to tune it up.

Pore little CVS scope...
So, on to our subject for this first Sunday morning after Christmas, electricity and amateur astronomers. That used to be short and sweet:  a pair of D cells for your red flashlight and maybe—MAYBE—a 9-volt transistor radio battery for them new-fangled digital setting circles. Goto scopes and laptops changed that. Most amateurs are using one or the other on the observing field now, if not both, and need plenty of electricity.

So how do you power a telescope mount or a laptop? With AC (mains) current out of the wall or with a battery of some kind. But before we investigate the “hows,” we’d better talk about the “whats,” the basics of electricity.

Basic electrical/electronics theory can be confusing to the point of scary for the neophyte. It is full of strange and puzzling words describing various quantities and effects:  volts, ohms, amps, watts, henrys, farads, and more. Luckily, us amateur astronomers only have to be concerned with two of these critters most of the time, volts and amps (amperes).

You can get a complete grounding (yuk-yuk) in electricity online or in what I consider and always have considered the best reference for learning electronics, The (ARRL) Radio Amateur’s Handbook (a.k.a. The ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications). I won’t naysay it if you want to pick up that time-honored tome and read the whole story of volts, amps, ohms and their cousins. However, for those who ain’t interested in that, I can boil it down for y’all this morning. If you want to understand volts and amps easily, a good analogy is water flowing through a pipe.

Voltage, volts, the electromotive force (E.M.F.), is equivalent to water pressure in them pipes. Too high a water pressure can damage your dishwasher, and too high a voltage can damage your telescope mount. Some telescope mounts take care of too high (or low) a “pressure” by voltage regulation, having components in the power section of the mount that decrease (or increase) the incoming voltage under changing input voltage and load conditions. Within limits, the mount won’t be affected by the “wrong” voltage. Others depend on the power supply to furnish a voltage of the proper level.

A"TIP" voltage regulator IC...
The other biggie is amps, amperes, “current.” If voltage is equivalent to water pressure in pipes, current is like the amount of water flowing through those pipes. Amps is similar to “gallons per minute.” A lot of newbies have a basic misunderstanding of current. They worry that using a power supply rated for 14-amps of current output, for example, will damage a telescope that only needs 7-amps. Not so. The scope (or any other device) will only use the amount of current it needs. Even a flashlight battery can supply a lot of amps (for a little while). Again, the scope will only use the amount it needs.

Closely related to amps is a specification associated with batteries, “amp hours.” Theoretically, a 6-amp hour rated battery can supply 1-amp of current for 6-hours (or 3-amps for 2-hours, etc.). It is like the volume of a tank feeding water pipes. One important thing about amp hours? Always choose a battery rated higher than you think you will require.

If the gear you have connected to your battery consumes 2-amps of power continuously and you normally observe for four hours, you will need a battery with more than 8-amp hours capacity. Various factors prevent an 8-amp hour battery from really supplying 2-amps for four hours (or 1-amp for 8-hours). One of the ubiquitous 17-amp hour batteries would be a better bet.

You are probably already aware there are two types of electricity, AC and DC. But do you really know what that means? The difference between the two is key to understanding electricity and electronics. A battery has a negative electrode (excess of electrons) and a positive electrode (lack of electrons) and that never changes. DC current flows in one direction only. The AC that comes out of the wall is different. Its polarity and thus the direction of current flow is constantly switching back and forth, 60 times a second in the U.S. of A. If you view a DC current on an oscilloscope (a device that shows a graphic representation of current and signals on a screen), DC is a flatline. AC appears as a sine wave.

And that is it, y’all, all the electrical theory you need. Well, almost all. One thing that confuses some amateur astronomers in the lowly fuse. Yes, you want a fuse in your power cord or in your telescope. But not because it will save your equipment from being destroyed by a short (a path to ground being formed somewhere in the circuit, resulting in a high amount of current flowing and doing much bad juju). A fuse MIGHT in some cases prevent some damage to the equipment is serves. But a fuse’s true purpose is to protect the power supply side of the circuit and prevent fires. Period.  No fuse can blow quickly enough to always prevent damage to solid-state components.

You can operate your telescope with DC (batteries) or AC that has been converted to the DC your scope, like most electronic devices, needs. Which is better? As is often the case in amateur astronomy, “that depends.” For some applications, a battery is clearly superior. If you are running a video camera as I often do, you will find the “pure” DC of a battery generally produces cleaner, less noisy images than the minimalist “wall-wart” AC supplies that often come with vidcams. Since video is susceptible to poorly filtered current (DC that hasn’t been perfectly converted from AC), I generally run my video camera off a 12-volt battery.

In the past, I ran everything—go-to mount, telescope, PC, CCD camera, everything—from batteries. I was afraid of damaging the equipment with poor AC when I was at a site that had mains power. As I became more comfortable with go-to scopes and computers, and also became lazier, I began running everything except the video cameras with AC whenever I could. I’ve never had a problem doing that anywhere, but I do use good power supplies and run the AC through a surge suppressor.

But, let’s say you want or need to operate off batteries. I have to do that at our club site. What kind of batteries? Even if your go-to telescope can run off internal AA, C, or D 1.5-volt cells, forget ‘em. Those little batteries are sufficient for digital setting circles, sure, but for driving mount motors? Not unless you like lining the pockets of the dadgum Energizer Bunny by constantly replacing batteries. How about rechargeable AAs, Cs, and Ds? That sounds like a good solution, but they can rarely supply the voltage and current a scope needs.

Almost all go-to telescopes can be operated with 12-volt batteries, and that is the way you want to go. But, again, there are choices. Lawn tractor battery? Gel cell? Deep cycle marine battery? Car battery? I generally discourage the use of lawn tractor and car batteries. They are not bad in the field, but the fact that you have to connect your gear (or a female cigarette lighter receptacle) to their posts, often in the dark, can be a recipe for disaster.

Reversing the polarity of the power cable going to your mount, accidentally connecting “plus” to “minus” or vice versa, can spell doom for your scope’s electronics. You can buy a battery box and permanently wire a female cigarette lighter receptacle to it, but that’s  a lot of trouble if’n you are lazy like Unk, and you’ll have to shell out more $$$ for a battery charger. I think there are better solutions.

I make an exception to my dislike for vehicle batteries when it comes to deep cycle marine (“trolling motor”) batteries. They have a couple of advantages. They are available in high amp-hour ratings:  75-ah, 100-ah, and more. That may be necessary if you are running a lot of power hungry gear or must operate for several days without charging. They are also tolerant of being fully discharged, which will eventually kill a normal lead-acid battery—that’s the “deep cycle” part of their equation. Downside? They are HEAVY. How do you make a lead acid battery a deep cycle? By making its lead plates thicker. As with other vehicle batteries, you will have to provide a charger and be careful about polarity.

Anderson Power Poles...
Then there are the modern batteries, more sophisticated ones like gel cells, lithium batteries, and innovatively constructed lead acid batteries. The good with 'em is they can often provide the same amount of juice as a conventional lead-acid battery in a smaller, lighter package. One company, iOptron, even makes a battery in the shape of a GEM counterweight. Unfortunately, more sophisticated batteries are also usually more expensive, especially once you add a charger, than my number one choice, the ubiquitous jumpstart power pack.

If you’ve been to a star party or just out to your local club’s observing field, you’ve seen “jumpstart” battery packs, 12-volt batteries in plastic enclosures equipped with built-in chargers, 12-volt cigarette lighter receptacles, and more. That “more” starts with a pair of attached cables to, yeah, let you jump-start your vehicle in an emergency. That’s just the beginning; I’ve seen everything from lights, to air compressors, to AM-FM radios built into jumpstarters.

These battery packs have been a big hit with amateurs for a couple of reasons. The most important being that they are self-contained and portable. Yes, they can be fairly heavy, since they are built around lead-acid batteries, but they have built-in handles that make them much easier to deal with than a car battery.  They are also relatively inexpensive, around 50 – 75-dollars including a charger.

They are not perfect, of course. The highest capacity readily available jump starters are rated for about 25-ah, with 17-ah being more common. Luckily, a 17-ah job is enough to run most scope mounts for an entire night, even when you also power a dew heater system from the battery. The only other problem is that jumpstarters are at least as likely as other lead acid batteries to fail from abuse. It’s easy to keep one going, though. The jumpstarter I use for Big Bertha, my NexStar 11 GPS, is over 10 years old. The secret? Charge for 12-hours after each use. If you don’t use the battery over the course of a month, charge it for 12-hours anyway. The same goes for all other lead-acid batteries including deep cycle marine batteries.

Where do you get a good jumpstarter? When the scope companies saw how popular they were with amateur astronomers, they began slapping their names on these battery packs. The units sold by astronomy merchants, often as “power tanks,” are no better than other jumpstart batteries and are sometimes worse. They are most assuredly more expensive than the brands I use. I’ve gotten good ones from Walmart, Pep Boys, and Harbor Freight. Main thing to look for? Don’t buy one with less than 17-amp hours of capacity.

A small inverter sufficient for a laptop...
Using a battery to power your scope doesn't involve many gotchas, but there are a few. I’ve found that running my video camera and the dew heaters (which are continually cycling on and off) from the same battery can result in noise in the video images. Some folks have also reported computer problems when running a go-to scope and dew heater controller from the same battery.

Other than that? Keep your connections and connectors well maintained. Some amateur astronomers replace cigarette lighter style plugs and receptacles with the Anderson Power Pole connectors used by radio amateurs, but I’ve kept on trucking with “ciggie” plugs and haven’t had major problems. Do keep a supply of the fuses cigarette lighter plugs have in their tips on hand. I’ve been known to blow them occasionally and been left dead in the water at a dark site.

Operating off batteries at a remote site seems simple. Till you realize you’ve got a piece of gear—like a laptop or video monitor—that needs AC, not DC. Most of us don’t want to haul around even a small generator, and if we did, our fellow observers wouldn’t look kindly on the noise and exhaust. What you need is an inverter, a widget that turns DC into AC. When I first began using a laptop in the field, I quickly discovered its internal battery wouldn't last even half the evening. But I was afraid of inverters, thinking their AC would be “rough” and might hurt the PC. Instead, I invested in an expensive and underpowered 12-volt DC supply for my computer.

The joke was on Unk. Modern inverters, even inexpensive ones, produce good AC. What kind do you need? The prime consideration is that the inverter is able to supply enough power for your device(s). Make sure its rating (usually given in watts) is high enough. There are two general classes: small inverters that plug into a cigarette lighter receptacle, and higher capacity jobs that attach to the posts of a battery via clamps. When you are thinking inverters, be aware considerable energy is expended in making AC out of DC and that you should always use a higher capacity battery to power the inverter than you think you will need. As for where to get an inverter, try an automotive discounter or Unk’s beloved Harbor Freight.

Several years ago when the Herschel Project first got into the deep waters of the Herschel 2500 and I began spending a lot of hours observing at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I decided to make the switch to AC when I was down there. There was plenty of reliable AC power available on the field, and I was tired of having batteries give out before the end of an observing run. Before I could move everything to AC, though, I had to round up a couple of AC power supplies.

Unk's big honkin' Astron...
There are three main types of AC power supply to consider. There are unregulated supplies, linear (regulated) supplies, and switching (regulated) supplies. The cheapest and simplest is the unregulated “wall-wart,” the ubiquitous power brick. There ain’t much to them beyond a transformer and some diodes to make DC and some capacitors to smooth it out a bit. They are generally of the linear design (see below), but have no voltage regulation. That can be OK if your scope/mount has onboard voltage regulation and problematical if it don’t.

I was wary of the freaking wall-warts, but had to admit the one Celestron supplied with my NexStar 11 worked fine. So does the one they recently sold me for my VX mount. I haven’t put either one on an oscilloscope to see how good the DC they produce looks, but both have been reliable and glitch free in the field. Still, if you are overly protective of your telescope, as some of us are, you might want to consider something better. A big step up from wall-warts is a regulated supply, which will maintain its output voltage at a steady level under varying input and load conditions. These power supplies are larger and usually capable of supplying more current (amps) than the wall warts. They are also usually better filtered; they produce cleaner DC.

The linear regulated supply is the old-reliable of the game. Great big transformer, rectifiers, and capacitors to create smooth DC, and a voltage regulator section to keep that voltage at a set level. The only bad thing you can say about ‘em is that they are heavy. The Astron AS35-M 35-amp power supply I use in my radio shack weighs dang near 30 fraking pounds.

The more modern switching power supplies tend to be both lighter and cheaper. A switching “mode” power supply is harder to understand than a traditional linear supply. If you are interested, Wikipedia has a nice, understandable article on them. But for today, it’s sufficient for us to know they are lighter and cheaper because they don’t need the big transformer of a linear unit. There’s always a gotcha in the world of electronics, though, and the electronic magic a switcher uses to create DC produces far more “RFI,” interference, than a linear supply. That can be a consideration when using one to power communications gear, but usually won’t be a problem with go-to telescopes.

A Jetstream switcher...
Where do you find a regulated AC supply? Some brands, mostly switchers, in use by amateur astronomers are MFJ, Pyramid, Samlex, and Jetstream. All those brands offer inexpensive (Chinese) switching power supplies, many with cigarette lighter receptacles so they will be plug and play with your scope and other astro gear. Some of the dealers that sell them in addition to MFJ, which markets its gear direct as well as through dealers, are Gigaparts, and Universal Radio. The main thing to look for in addition to sufficient current capacity to power all your gear is a cigarette lighter receptacle. A small footprint is good, too. I favor something small enough to sit on the accessory tray of my tripod.

Of course, you’ll need to get the AC to your AC power supply, and you’ll usually need an extension cord to do that. How good a cord depends on circumstances. If you are using an unregulated supply and have to run a long cord to the nearest receptacle, you want a high quality extension. Otherwise, the voltage drop incurred in a long run can prevent the wall-wart from outputting enough voltage and might make the scope computer hiccup (a laptop PC will be OK, since it’s actually running off its internal battery even when plugged into the wall). The AC outlets are nearby at my observing sites, not much more than 100-feet away worst case, so “Walmart’s best” (and cheapest) is fine for me. I tie-wrap a power-strip/surge suppressor to a tripod leg and plug both my power supplies into that.

“Supplies?” In addition to the wall-warts furnished by the manufacturer of my scopes, I have a small regulated power supply, a switcher, I use to power my DewBuster heaters. I could probably get by with another wall-wart for that, but I had a switching supply lying around, the one that came with my old SAC7B CCD camera, so I used it.

If you run off AC, you should, of course, be mindful of safety concerns. Keep your power supply out of the wet grass and use a three-prong extension cord so it is grounded. Naturally, don’t allow your power supply to get wet when you are rained out at the Possum Holler Star Party (most wall warts are sealed and won’t mind the rain).

That’s about all there is to the juice game for amateur astronomers, muchachos. Just be careful. Even a little inverter powered off a small battery can put a mighty big hurtin’ on you if you go poking around where you don’t belong. So don’t poke around if’n you don’t know what in pea-turkey you are doing. If you have electrical problems and know you are out of your depth, enlist the aid of a buddy (maybe a local ham) who knows the ropes. I want you to be around for another year of observing in 2014.

Next Time:  Happy New Year at Chaos Manor South…

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

 

Uncle Rod’s Christmas Carol


“And all through Chaos Manor South, not a creature was stirring—sorry muchachos, wrong Christmas story. Anyhoo, it’s been a rather quiet holiday season ‘round here. We were supposed to be enjoying a great comet this month; leastways, that’s what the Astronomy Magazine GREAT COMET OF 2013 special issue that dropped through the mail slot the other day said. Alas, poor ISON fizzled just as your curmudgeonly ol’ Uncle had taken pains to warn all and sundry it might. No early morning comet parties, no hordes of comet-crazy laypeople to see to.

Christmas Eve itself was awful quiet, too. Just me and Miss Dorothy rattling around in the big Old Manse. What would Santa bring me? At the top of my list was Jeff Kanipe and Dennis Webb’s The Arp Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies. It is a beautiful book and something I can use this year as Operation Arp rolls on. You will hear much more about it soon, scout’s honor.

Yes, it was something I could use, but that didn't prevent me from doing a little mooning over the fact that the jolly old man with the white beard and the big belly (Santa, not Bubba down to the club) wouldn't be bringing me the BIGGER AND BETTER this year. There would be no C14 and CGE Pro under the tree. “If only I had that great big 14-inch Edge SCT, then I could really see something,” Unk fumed.
Not that Christmas Eve wasn’t fun and all.

The day had dawned clear and cold (for us) in the 40s F., and actually felt Christmasy for the first time in a couple of years. Unk puttered around till lunchtime, when Miss D. and I were off to meet our son Chris at our favor-right Tex-Mex joint, Las Cazuelas, for our traditional Christmas Eve repast. I thought it might be best to take it easy, and ordered a small frozen margarita and the lunch fajitas. But them small margaritas (yep,"margaritas," plural) had a big kick and the luncheon portion of fajitas wasn't any smaller than the supper order. Can't say I was disappointed.

Back home at Chaos Manor South after all the fun and food, Unk eventually retired to the den to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas as always. That done, it was getting good and dark and time for my yearly ritual, a look at that greatest of all Christmas ornaments, M42, “Orion,” as I called it, simply and innocently, as a sprout. There was no question this year as to whether the sky would cooperate; the only question was which scope to use. The Palomar Junior was the natural choice, but by the time Orion was high enough to bother with, Unk was feeling a mite weary, and lugging the old Edmund downstairs is a pain. The StarBlast it would be. Yoda ain't the storied Pal, but he is a nice little 4-inch reflector.

“Let’s see…there’s the sword. Little to the left—dang these trees.” And there it was, shining bravely, the Great Nebula dimmed but not extinguished by  the urban light pollution, glowing in my eyepiece as it had glowed on the many Christmases since I began watching it as a boy.

The cold air had brought Unk back to life to a remarkable degree despite all the food he’d consumed, and he was ready for a little cable TV and his favorite potation, Rebel Yell. After considerable channel surfing, I landed on the uber-silly Ghost Adventures, and, as midnight came on, I snuggled down in my favored chair and began to feel drowsier and drowsier.

Enormous and beautiful Edge C14s dancing in my head, I had just about dozed off completely when I thought I heard a sonorous voice intone, “UNCLE ROD…UNCLE ROD…UNCLE ROD!” It then seemed as if I drifted into an El Yucatano hot sauce inspired dream; one that involved your old Uncle and a bunch of dadgummed CHRISTMAS GHOSTS. Ghosts far different from those Zak, Nick, and Aaron had been chasing all night…

And suddenly, Rod’s Snuggie was drawn back, I tell you, by a hand. At first he thought that “hand” was the paw of Chaos Manor South’s rascally black cat, Thomas Aquinas, but ‘twas not so. Unk, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with an unearthly visitor who was as close as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.

It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, in fact, its visage at times seemed to bear remarkable resemblance to PATRICK MOORE or maybe SCOTTY HOUSTON. Since the ghost didn't say a word, Unk finally screwed up his courage and addressed the shade: “You may be an undigested bit of quesadilla, a dram too much of the Rebel Yell, a fragment of an underdone chile relleno. There's more of enchilada gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

I AM!” the ghost roared in a both loud and melancholy manner, not unlike that of the aforementioned Bubba when he first laid eyes upon his new Meade LX80. Yes, that sad.  That tormented. Rod trembled. Seeing the terror on Unk’s eyes brought forth by the memory of that much wished for and most execrable Meade mount of Christmases past, the spirit seemed to relent. Its voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.

“Who, and what are you?” Uncle Rod demanded.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“Long Past?” inquired Unk.

“No. Your past.”

“Rut-roh,” thought Rod, the memory of an ex-wife or two passing through his mind. Despite those fears, Unk made bold to inquire what business brought the spirit.

“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.

Uncle Rod expressed himself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. The Spirit must have heard him thinking, for it said immediately: “Your reclamation, then. Take heed!” It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped him gently by the arm.

“Rise! and walk with me!”

It would have been in vain for Unk to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes, that the den was warm, and the bottle of Yell yet half-full. The grasp, though gentle as a woman's hand, was not to be resisted. He rose: but finding that the Spirit made towards the window, clasped his robe in supplication.

“I am mortal,” Unk remonstrated, “and liable to fall.”

“Bear but a touch of my hand there,” said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart,” and you shall be upheld in more than this!”

As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall and stood in the open. Selma Street had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground.

“Good Heaven!” said Uncle Rod, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. “I was bred in this place. I was a boy here!”

The Spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man's sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten.

“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”

Unk muttered, begging the Ghost to lead him where he would.

“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.

“Remember it!” cried Rod with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”

They walked along the road, turning into the well-remembered entrance to the old subdivision, its marker festooned in 1960s fashion with holly and depictions of angels and carolers. The name, in wrought iron script, was “Canterbury Heights.”  Unk recognised every house, and post, and tree.

And most of all the children, free of school for the holiday, playing and gamboling in the rare and unaccustomed snow that had been deposited upon Possum Swamp. And who were those three? Unk rubbed his eyes, but there was no denying; before him were two lads and a young lass. That boy…that was Wayne Lee. The girl could be none other than Jitter Jones. And the remaining lad? Unk peered through misting eyes, why it must be…it was him, that was little Rod.

“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us…”

I’ll be the first to admit Mama and Daddy were uncommonly indulgent of my brother and me at Christmastime. No, I didn't get everything I put on my yearly list—a 3-inch Unitron Photo Equatorial never did appear under the tree—but they were very generous. We got everything we wanted within reason and within the capability of our middle/lower middle class parents.

Most of the time. There were a couple of lean Christmases toward the end of the 1960s. The leanest of which began one afternoon when brother Danny and I’d accompanied Mama to the oddly named Bellas Hess, a nearby discount store. We were pointing out half of what was on the shelves to her with a constant refrain of “Yep, want that too.” Till I noticed the usually effusive Mama looked grim. She was known to complain about the work Christmas brought her, but we knew it was her favorite season and she never seemed blue this time of year.

Before my brother could add another G.I. Joe to his must-have inventory, and before I could run off to the electronics department to claim that new stereo record player that would make my Beatles albums sound so much better, Mama took us aside: “I’m sorry, boys. It’s going to be a different kind of Christmas this year. Santa Claus (who I still claimed I believed in) won’t be able to bring you everything you want. Maybe one medium-sized present and one littler one.”

Mama, I noted, studiously avoided my eyes. But, funny thing for a kid who always liked to see how much Christmas loot he could accumulate, I didn't feel unhappy. I was pretty much over the toy stage, though I could still be lured in by a cool Marx space playset. The problem lately actually seemed to be deciding what I did want.

Back home, it was decision time. Mama was back to her normal somewhat mercurial self, and declared we’d better decide what we wanted that very afternoon, “Or that tree in yonder won’t have a thing under it Christmas morning, MISTER.” I took care of that critical research project right away. I equipped myself with the Edmund Scientific catalog and the Sears Wishbook and got to work.

I only spent a few minutes with Mr. Edmund. If I had really expected to get anything out of there for Christmas I’d have had to put it on my Final List weeks ago. Through bitter experience, I knew Santa was just as subject to Edmund’s “four to eight weeks” delivery schedule as we mere mortals. Anyway, I’d sensed the beautiful 20mm Erfle that would give me an amazing 65-degree apparent field of view was out. Even before Mama’s announcement, I’d had the distinct feeling its $24.00 price wouldn’t fly, though I’d pushed through the 25 buck envelope one Christmas with what was probably the biggest chemistry set A.C. Gilbert ever sold.

I tossed Edmund’s aside and picked up that Bible of Christmas-crazy 60s kids, the Sears Wishbook. I don’t know if Sears still does catalog-order, but even if’n they do I’m sure it’s nothing like the business they did in the 1960s. And the biggest time for that was Christmas. If you were a youngun back then, you well remember the big day when the Wishbook came in the mail, the subsequent hours fighting with your siblings over who got to make their picks first, and agonizing over what your picks would be. I had a system, which I always carefully briefed Mama on. I put a single check-mark next to the “maybes” in the catalog, two beside the “goods” and three beside the “GOTTA HAVES.”

The Wishbook’s pickings seemed slimmer this year, though I’m sure they were about the same as always. It just seemed that way to me. I was getting older and some of the magic was going away, I reckon. Nevertheless, there was some dadgum cool stuff between the covers of that fat catalog.  There was a whole page devoted to telescopes. But they were all small refractors and A.C. Gilbert style reflectors that were clearly inferior to my Palomar Junior. I was intrigued/bemused by the Latest Thing in Sears scopes: one of the Newtonians incorporated a device in the rear cell for viewing Viewmaster style slides. Here was a telescope that would finally deliver on the Department Store Scope Makers’ claims of Palomar like views, I thought.

Might as well take a look in the toy department for old time’s sake. I devoted a few minutes to Moon McDare, Sears’ faux G.I. Joe astronaut. Part of me wanted to go for it, but the kid-stuff factor was undeniably there. A lot of the neighborhood boys would be getting Aurora Model Motoring slot car sets, I figgered, and I didn't want to seem any weirder than they already thought I was.  The fact that Moon McDare was accompanied by his dog, “Space Mutt,” seemed over the top no matter how you sliced it.

Marx Playsets? The pickings were slim in that department this year. No space. Just Battleground Europe, Battle of Fort Apache, and a couple of filling stations. I’d been there before and didn't feel moved to revisit any of that.

Well, DANG (I said to myself; occasionally Mama had been known to classify “dang” as PROFANITY deserving of her wrath).  One last run on the Wishbook’s rather extensive science section, I reckoned.

Hmmm... Electronics kit? The Old Man would have loved that, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to restrain himself from “helping” me by putting everything together before I had a chance to touch it.  What then?

Seemed as there was a new player in the science department this year, “American Basic Science Clubs,” whoever the hell they were, with multiple entries. Three immediately caught my eye: The Atomic Energy Lab, the Analog Computer, and the Photomicrography Lab. The price was right on all three, six – ten bucks; the problem was “Which one?” The Atomic Lab was a strong contender. It included an honest-to-god cloud chamber for viewing the trails of alpha and beta particles from a nuclear source, or so the catalog said. That was way cooler than a freaking slot car, I thought. 

There were two strikes against it, unfortunately.  Mama, the Queen of Nuclear Fear, was suspicious of anything having to do with “atomic,” often voicing her wish that daddy get rid of his radium dial watch. Also, I was aware from having researched building my own cloud chamber that I would need dry ice, and I reckoned being able to lay in regular supplies of that would require Mama and Daddy’s help and would be an expense and a problem.

How about the analog computer? The widget’s billing, that it would let you “Calculate powers, roots, and logarithms with amazing speed!”sounded cool and interesting, but the picture in the catalog looked cheesy and cardboardy.

Which left the photomicrography lab. After about ten minutes, I began to believe this was indeed IT. Yes, I had a microscope, a Gilbert, natch, but this thing could be used as a projection microscope to display slides on the wall. More importantly, the projection unit could be converted to a contact print box for making photographic prints from negatives. And there were photo chemicals, a safelight, print trays, print tongs, and photographic paper.

Not only would the kit’s microscope/projection microscope be fun to build and play with, I thought, I could use the contact printer and the rest of the stuff to equip my own darkroom. No more begging Daddy to haul out his enlarger every time I wanted to make prints of my Moon pictures. Three big check-marks went right beside the Photomicrography Lab.

That still left Thing Two, but that was easy. The Wishbook had a great deal on a set of three Tom Swift Junior books I’d missed, the first three of the series, “Flying Lab,” “Jetmarine,” and “Rocket Ship.” Actually, after a whole summer of reading and playing Tom Swift, I had almost outgrown the boy scientist, and the Marvel comic book heroes and pulp icons like Doc Savage,The Shadow, and The Spider were rapidly replacing him in my hero pantheon. I still liked Tom, though, and the price for the set, a mere $2.48, made me feel virtuous. “Why, Li’l Rod pitched right in to help his folks through Hard Times that cold Christmas.”

Funny thing about this Christmas? It was the first one that didn't take forever to arrive. Before I could do much ruminating about or fantasizing over what I would do with the photomicrography kit, Christmas vacation was flying and Christmas day was here. I guessed I was growing up and wasn't sure if I liked that.

Did I imply I was immune to a last sprinkle of Christmas magic? Not so, as I found out on the 25th when I saw there were not a mere two things for me under our rather scraggly tree, but three. That third unlooked for gift had Daddy written all over it. It was a kit that allowed you to build a Morse telegraph key and sounder and even included a handsome bust of good old Samuel F.B.  And, Daddy even let me assemble it all by myself.

The telegraph set was fine, even if I suspected it was mostly Daddy’s way of hinting I needed to get a move on and get to work learning the Code so I could get my ham license. Tom Swift was almost as much fun to read as he had been on those summer afternoons. The winner, though, was the photomicrography set.

Oh, there was a hint of cheese; the microscope’s optics were simple lenses housed in cardboard tubes, but it appeared well thought out and there sure was a lot of Stuff accompanying it. The contact printer/projector was easy for me to put together, and when I had it assembled, amazingly, the rig worked like crazy. The algae I retrieved from my little goldfish bowl (which Mama had been after me to clean), looked incredible projected on the wall of my room on Christmas night.

What I really wanted to do was process some Moon pictures. Luna would be full in two days, but that was OK. Then as now, I liked pictures of the Moon under high illumination with the mare standing out in high contrast. The only puzzle to solve was “Which camera?” The cardboard roll film holder (I won’t call it a “camera”) that came with the set might have worked, but I figured my Argus twin-lens reflex box camera was a better bet, even better than Daddy’s Nikkorex SLR. For the Moon to look like anything more than a tiny spot on a contact print (lay negative on photo paper, expose to light) you need a big negative, and the 620 film the Argus used was much bigger than the Nikon’s 35mm.

Getting the Moon shots when the sky cleared the day after Christmas was not hard. I’d been down that road plenty of times: Point Pal Junior at Moon. Put Argus on tripod next to scope. Point viewing lens into eyepiece. Focus scope as precisely as possible. Elevate tripod so taking lens was pointed into ocular. Fire away.

The kit hadn’t come with a roll film-developing tank; the instructions suggested you’d be able to develop your film in trays if you cut up the negatives. That sounded like a bunch of hooey to li’l Rod. With Daddy at work and Mama on some kind of outing with my brother, there was nothing to prevent me from borrowing Daddy’s developing tank. I did use my chemicals, which I’d mixed up and put into bottles just like Daddy did. The negatives, after they’d dried for an hour hanging in the bathroom over the tub, looked purty good. Alrighty, then. Still a couple of hours before I could expect Mama to come home and start hollering about my mess. I’d contact-print the suckers. I couldn’t use the kitchen as my darkroom as daddy did at night, so I set up in our windowless bathroom.

Again, it went like clockwork. Negatives and paper sandwiched in the kit’s print-frame (binder clips and a piece of glass). Turn on the print box light and expose for the length of time the instructions indicated. Develop, fix, and wash the little prints…and I was getting some results.

My first session with my own darkroom would have been a complete triumph except for one bad mistake. I’d removed the glass light fixture over the mirror so I could screw-in the kit's safelight in place of the regular light bulb. The safelight was kinda funky…a neon bulb with a red filter paper-clipped over it, but it worked. The problem came when I was done and was remounting the glass fixture. Ooops! Smash! Right in the pea-picking sink! I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it had happened and wondered if I could make things right with glue. Nope the thing was in a thousand shards. Was I in for it now! I would Get It for sure.

And I did, sort of, from Mama, who raised a fair ruckus. The Old Man? Not so much. Instead, it was just, “Well, sport, sorry you did that. Now, let’s see those prints you made.” As you can imagine, that got Mama to fuming.

I spent many days, weeks, and months working with my little darkroom set. It never really got put away per se, it just got upgraded. "Developer tray has a crack, have to mow a couple of lawns to get a new one. Time for a new safelight bulb." And so on. Best gift I got that year? Almost.

A day or two after Christmas, I was set up in the backyard with the Pal Junior.  I was alone as I usually was when I wasn't observing with my buddies in our Backyard Astronomy Society. Sometimes I could convince Daddy to come out for a look or two, but when it was cold, it was hard to get him to the eyepiece. With the Moon not quite up, I was aiming the telescope at M42. Then, I heard footsteps. 

I liked to have freaked out, imagining the UFO aliens or maybe the Wolfman had come to pay a call.  Good thing I didn't run for the hills like a scared little kid, because it was Miss Jitter Jones. I was just about to give her a look at M42 when Wayne Lee's voice came out of the darkness. “What y’all lookin’ at?”

That, folks, was my best gift that year, standing out under the stars with my friends. It wasn’t the last time I did that, but it was one of the last. When school let out for good that June, they would be gone, their parents moving away when our Brookley Air Force Base closed down. Maybe that’s why those few minutes with Jitter and Wayne Lee and Orion on that frosty night are still so bright and clear in my mind. And why I still get out every Christmas Eve and look at M42 and nothing but M42 and think of my lost friends.

"…and then, as in a dream, those shadows faded and vanished and Uncle Rod found himself back once more in Chaos Manor South’s den as morning began." Christmas had come as many a Christmas had come in ages past, but to have said nothing had changed would have been to be mistaken.

What Miss Dorothy thought as she heard Unk shouting, we can only speculate. But shout he did:  “I don't know what to do!” cried Unk, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man!”

The reason for my merriment? I’d found the true meaning of Christmas, and, much more important, I’d found the true meaning of amateur astronomy five decades on. Use the gear you have, muchachos, no matter how humble, and stop worrying about the More Better Gooder. I’ve never had more fun in astronomy than I had making my pitiful little Moon pictures that ancient Christmas. Most of all, appreciate the truly important part of our avocation, the wonderful friends you have made and will make in this most wonderful of all pursuits at this most numinous time of year.

In other words, “Merry Christmas, everybody!”

Next Time:  Power Problems...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

 

NexRemote Again


The winds are blowing, the clouds are scudding, and the rain is falling. So, once again, I haven’t been able to get out and give RSpec a good try. Or fire up the Mallincam Junior Pro.  Or see how well Coelix will go to its go-tos. 

Not that me and Miss D. were stuck at home without any astronomy related activities on tap. Unk had the high honor and distinct privilege of being invited up to give a talk at the Atlanta Astronomy Club’s Holiday Dinner. Not only was it nice to spend time with old friends and make some new ones, the food was purty derned good too.

Weather or no weather, the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South rolls on, and it didn't take too much cogitating to come up with a topic for this Sunday. This one is sorta like The Beatles Again in that this is territory I've covered before. I've told y’all about Celestron's NexRemote software a time or three over the years, but I feel compelled to do so again for a couple of reasons. One is that I still get lots of questions about how you install and use the program, and, indeed, even ones like, “What the hell is it good for, Unk? Why is it better than just sending my scope on gotos with Cartes du Ciel? Huh?” The other reason? We’ll get to that eventually...

I suppose I ought to explain to you greenhorns what NexRemote is and what makes it different from other astro-ware. It’s simple enough to sum up:  NexRemote takes the firmware running on the NexStar hand control and puts it in your PC (ain’t no Mac version, sorry y’all). Let’s underline that:  NexRemote is the NexStar hand control, just executing on a Windows PC rather than on the little dedicated HC computer.

“Well, what good is that, Unk?” There are several good things afoot, Skeezix. If you have the need to run your telescope remotely, NexRemote is a godsend. You don’t have to mess with networking PCs; you have a hand control right on your screen, a hand control that can do anything the hardware HC can do, since, again, it is the NexRemote hand control.

How do you hook this virtual HC to a non-virtual scope? There are three ways to do that. You can use a standard Celestron serial cable between your computer and the serial port on the base of the (hardware) hand control. In this configuration, the hardware HC doesn’t do anything; it just provides a path to connect the NexRemote HC to the scope. Since you will in essence have connected two hand controls to the telescope, pushing any buttons other than direction buttons on the hardware HC will make the scope become badly confused. So don’t do that.

Way Two is to leave the dadgum hardware HC at home. To do that you use Celestron’s “PC” cable, a.k.a. “programming cable” (different from the standard Celestron serial cable), which is connected between the laptop and the mount’s “PC port.” Alas, if you own a CG5 or a CGEM, you ain’t got no PC port. In the past, you could provide a PC port for your mount with Celestron’s Auxiliary Port Accessory. Unfortunately, they have discontinued it. Even if they hadn’t, I found it will not work with the new Celestron VX mount.

The final way? Use Celestron’s wireless SkyQ link, which is designed to allow cell phones to communicate with Celestron telescopes. You can download software that permits you to use the Link with a PC rather a phone so you can establish communications between mount and NexRemote over the air. This is still purty new, but it works reliably it could be awful cool, y’all. No hardware HC required, and one less cable for me to trip over.

“Well, that’s nice an’ all, I reckon, but how the hell do you get the scope goto aligned with NexRemote? Run back and forth between the laptop and the scope? Tote the dadgum computer out to the SCT?” You could do that, but that’s not the optimum way to align using NR. The optimum way involves one of the very best things about the program:  it allows you to use a wireless gamepad (joystick) to slew the scope, which, in effect, becomes your wireless hand control.

As you all may know, Uncle Rod is all too (in)famous for wrapping cables around the scope in the dark, tripping over ‘em, and cussing those dadburned too-short hand control cords. For a long time, I hoped Celestron would come out with a wireless hand paddle.  Meade made an abortive attempt at that with the wireless Autostar, but it just didn’t work right. I finally figured out Celestron hadn’t tried the same thing because NexRemote already gave you that capability.

Plug a wireless gamepad into the laptop and you can align the scope using the joystick. Do you still have to run back to the laptop to mash “Enter,” “Align,” etc.? No. You can map the gamepad’s buttons to hand control buttons. My Logitech Wireless Wingman has everything from slewing speed to “tours” assigned to its controls. There are enough buttons and triggers on the Logitech so I can purty much do anything I want from the gamepad.

Forgetful Unk wrote the button functions on the gamepad...
The best thing, though, is being able to move the scope with a joystick. The action is so much better than those lousy little N/S/E/W buttons of the real deal. You can tell NR to only assign north, south, east, and west to the joystick, or you can have the scope move in whichever direction you push the stick. I find just N/S/E/W more intuitive, but being able to move the scope north-northwest with the joystick, for example, is cool too.

So how do you make this goodness work with NexRemote? If you have a genu-wine Logitech Wireless Wingman or Wingman II, it is plug-and-play. Plug the wireless receiver into the laptop, let the drivers load the first time you do that, select the joystick with a right mouse click on the NexRemote settings screen, and you are good to go.

“I like the idear, Unk, but it looks like Logitech has discontinued them joysticks.” I know for a fact you can still find the Wireless Wingman and Wingman 2 on the pea-picking eBay, but if’n you can’t get one, NexRemote’s joystick.ini file can be edited fairly easily to make it work with other gamepads. The information on how to do that is in the program’s extensive help files, and there is plenty more help available on the NexRemote Yahoogroup. Other gamepads will most assuredly work. Hell, I know people using Xbox 360 controllers with NexRemote.

That is just the start of the Good Things NexRemote brings to the table. Got a mount that didn’t come with GPS, and don’t want to give Celestron two-hundred fraking dollars for one? That’s where your Unk was at when he got his CG5 mount. GPS is a nice-to-have for a German equatorial, but it is hardly a must-have and was not worth the money Celestron wanted for their CN-16 accessory. I resigned myself to entering date/time/lat/lon at the start of each session.

Till I found out NexRemote comes with an add-on program, NexGPS, that lets you to use any GPS receiver with a NMEA serial output as your scope’s GPS. While surveying the dealer tables at the Possum Swamp Hamfest one spring, Unk ran across a little Cobra GPS receiver for about 40 bucks. A few extra dollars for the serial cable for this receiver, and my CG5 had GPS as long as I was using NexRemote.

NexGPS
My cheap Cobra worked just as well as the CN-16 and was actually easier to use. When you get to the observing site, fire up the laptop, connect your GPS receiver to it, and start NexGPS. It will get a fix from your receiver. When it has that fix, you can save the position as an observing site for future use. NexGPS lets you preserve up to four locations, which is more than enough for me most of the time. Once you have your site saved, you don’t need to hook up the GPS receiver again the next time you observe from there. Actually, if you are within 60-miles of one of your saved locations, you can use that and not worry about the receiver. How do you select one of these saved sites? On the NR set up screen, the right-click menu has a “select site” choice.

How about time? NexRemote uses the time/time zone/DST data from the laptop. If you want it to be super-accurate, you can have NexGPS update the PC clock with GPS SV time when you have the GPS receiver connected. That can be a good thing if you don’t use your laptop often, and it never gets to update its time from the Internet.

What else? Do you like tours? I ain’t that big on the guided tours the hardware HC has. Its picks are invariably a run of the mill best-of-the-best and not usually /always things I’d choose to observe. NexRemote has you covered with another add-on, NexTour. NexTour is like a mini-planning program that will enable you to assemble a list of objects from the NGC/IC, the Caldwell list, the Abell galaxy cluster catalog,  and the Abell planetary nebula catalog. The magic comes when you have a finished list of objects you want to see. You can save it as a tour that can be loaded into the virtual hand control via the right click menu.

NexTour is excellent, and may mean a lot of y’all won’t have recourse to using an external planning program with NexRemote. If you are like Unk, however, chasing the dim and outré, you will still need to use a program like SkyTools 3 or Deep Sky Planner with NexRemote. How can you set up SkyTools so you can click on its objects and send your scope on gotos? There ain’t no way to plug a serial cable into a virtual hand control.

NexTour
You use NexRemote’s Virtual Port. There is a second pull-down menu on the setup screen below the one that selects the computer’s serial port. This second pull-down allows you to choose a VIRTUAL serial port. Pick a virtual port number different from your PC’s actual serial port (I usually use 6), and you are done. Once you are aligned, just tell SkyTools or your program of choice to connect to the mount using the com port number you selected for the virtual port. I enter “6” in SkyTools 3, and it connects to the scope pretty as you please, just as if it were hooked to the hardware hand control.

Unk’s history with NexRemote goes back almost to the beginning of the program, when it was just the project of a couple of talented programmers, Ray St. Denis and Andre Paquette, a project they were calling “hcAnyhwhere” before Celestron picked it and them up. Unk was a beta tester, and was happy to do that, even if he didn’t see much need for such a program.

In fact, about all I did with hcAnywhere other than checking it for bugs, was set it up in the backyard with my NexStar 11 so I could try out a new Celestron alignment routine I was curious about, SkyAlign. SkyAlign worked just fine, and so did hcAnywhere, and that was good, and there I left things for a long while.

What got me to NexRemoting seriously? One day, I noticed a Wireless Wingman gamepad on the fraking eBay for a few dollars. Thought it might be fun to try with NexRemote. If NR still didn’t ring my chimes, I figgered the Logitech would come in handy for playing Quake on the cotton-picking computer.

When that Wingman arrived, I was astounded at how much nicer a quality joystick was for scope control than four crummy little buttons. But that alone wasn’t enough to turn me into a NexRemote fanatic. That took two things, the Stellacam 2 and DSRSG.

Setting the virtual port
I bought my Stellacam deep sky video camera in 2005, but it didn’t start getting lots of time under the stars till two years later at good old Camp Ruth Lee. I had a ball out there at the 2007 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, hitting Hickson Group after Hickson Group. My NexStar 11 and the Stellacam were, amazingly, able to show me all the members of the galaxy groups I could see on the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey plates. I’d look up the next target on my (printed) observing list, walk out to the scope, punch in the NGC or IC number of the brightest member, and go back to the monitor to marvel at all the little fuzzies.

Yeah, I was having a ball, but it occurred to me that since I was doing all my observing with a video monitor under a tent canopy where I was relatively warm and cozy, it didn’t make much sense to have to walk out to the scope all the time. I could have avoided that by using my hand control extension cable, but what about NexRemote?  With NR could sit at the monitor and run the scope with that wonderful wireless joystick. And I could use the virtual port feature to connect SkyTools to NexRemote and click my way to the Hicksons without a paper list. I fired up the laptop, connected to NexRemote and never looked back.

I started liking NexRemote on that evening in 2007, but I didn’t start loving it till 2009, when I was just on the cusp of beginning The Herschel Project. I still didn’t use NexRemote every single time I observed. There wasn’t any AC power at the club dark site, and my old Toshiba laptop with its high-speed desktop Pentium chip would run through even a deep cycle marine battery in a right quick hurry. Chiefland had plenty of AC outlets on the field, however, so when I was contemplating my first summertime expedition Down Chiefland Way in July of ‘09, I decided I’d use the laptop and NexRemote the whole time.

Actually I didn’t really expect to use NexRemote down in Chiefland. Hell, I didn’t really expect to use my telescope. As y’all can imagine, summertime weather in Florida ain’t always conducive to astronomy. I knew I was taking a chance, and might not see a thing. Sometimes I do get lucky, though, and for once I hit it just right. I have never seen better skies at the CAV. Not in fall, not in Winter. The False Comet, NGC 6231, just blazed away on those hot July nights—like I’d never seen it outside of southwest deserts.

Downtown Chiefland, FL...
What was most amazing was not what I observed that week in July, but how I observed. From the beginning, I’d planned for this to be an all-video run. At the time I was working on a book idea (since semi-shelved), Uncle Rod’s SCT 100, which would be a survey of the 100 best deep sky objects for 8-inch CATs. I wanted to be sure I had at least “rough” pictures of every object in the late spring-summer-early fall skies, and video, I knew, was the way to cover lots of ground in a night or two.

I set up Big Bertha, the NexStar 11, about 8-feet from the EZ-Up tailgating canopy and ran cables for NexRemote (PC cable) and video back to the canopy. Under there, I had a little portable DVD player for viewing the videos, a DVD recorder for capturing sequences, and the Toshiba laptop for telescope control via NR.

When the stars began to wink on, I powered up the SCT, video cam, monitor, and computer and got goto aligned with NR. Which wasn’t much different from a hardware HC alignment. Go out to scope, center the first alignment star in the finder with the Wingman, walk back to canopy, center star on video display, repeat for one more star, and I was done. After that, I didn’t need to go out to the telescope again till it was time to shut down at the end of the run.

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, how did you know when it was time to push Enter and Align without looking at the display on the virtual HC on the laptop screen?” Well, there’s one thing I forgot to mention:  NexRemote talks. Yep, you can enable the Microsoft Mary (or Mike) voices so you get audio prompts, “Center star in the eyepiece and press Align!” This ain’t just glitz; it is genuinely useful. How is the voice quality? Good. Mary’s pronunciations got a little squirrely once I upgraded to Windows 7 64-bit (at the end of the night she now says “shooting down” instead of “shutting down.”), but are always more than understandable.

A July Afternoon on the Billy Dodd Field...
I spent my first night at the CAV going from one SCT 100 object to the next, till there were no more to go to before the wee, wee hours. I could easily have kept on well into the early morning if the ground fog had cooperated. It didn’t, but I still made it to 2 a.m. What was noteworthy about that was how I felt as I headed back to the Chiefland Holiday Inn:  I wasn’t tired at all.

That turned out to be a big benefit of Unk’s new wave video and NexRemote observing system. If I am comfy under a tent canopy, I can keep on rocking real late despite my rather advanced age. On otherwise comfortable warm summer nights, there’s heavy dew—down here, anyhow—and being wet with dew is just about as bad as being cold for sapping your energy. Dry under the canopy I can go long past the time when the young folks start leaving the field. Cold? Sides on canopy, Black Cat catalytic heater at my feet, and I am still chasing fuzzies when the younguns are all tucked-in. Let me also say astrovideo (now with my wonderful Mallincams) allows me to go deeper and see much more than I ever dreamed possible.

Have I made further improvements to my video and NexRemote “system”? Well, I added JMI's (excellent) Motofocus to the NexStar 11 and my older C8, Celeste, but that is about it. I have occasionally thought about putting a video finder on the scope. A second vidcam with a wide angle lens and I could get the scope aligned without walking out to it at all. In truth, that sounds like gilding the lily. It’s just not a big hassle to align on two stars with Bertha at the beginning of the evening—or even on the six the VX requires.

By the way, yes, I still observe visually, if not that often. But even when I go visual, I go visual with NexRemote. It is more pleasant to use than the hardware hand control. Since I invariably have a laptop in the field anyway—I’d no more be without SkyTools and Deep Sky Planner than I’d be without NR—there is no reason not to.

That other reason I wanted to talk about NR this morning?  It looks like Celestron is out to spoil our NexRemote party. It appears they have stopped developing the program. If so, that means no new firmware builds will be added to NR as new mounts and scopes appear. Nor will the program transition to the new NexStar Plus hand control (though I am not sure that is a bad thing). NexRemote will slowly fade away.

What makes me think Celestron has given up on NexRemote? In addition to comments by Celestron folks that have been passed on to me, as above they have discontinued the vital PC port accessory and are not selling a replacement. Even more concerning, they now give the program’s license number away for free. I am beginning to think they’d just as soon not bother with NR anymore. I’ve been told the folks in California are now referring to NexRemote as “legacy software.”

Bridge of the starship U.S.S. Possum Swamp...
Horse hockey. NexRemote works as well with my new VX mount as it does with my 12-year-old NexStar GPS. A little tweaking, maybe a version that will work with the new SkySensor setup, and NR would be ready to go for another decade. This software is just too useful for us to allow it to sink into the sunset without protest. How can we protest? If you like NR, TELL CELESTRON. I don’t have an email contact for them that I feel at liberty to share with y’all, but you can slip ‘em a note (or maybe even give ‘em a call) via this page.

Will that do any good? I don’t know, but it might. If there is anything right-thinking companies will sit up and take notice about, it is comments by their customers. One person won’t do it. Nor will two or three. But 50? 50 people singing the praises of NexRemote? Friends, they may thinks it's a movement, and that’s what it will be, muchachos, the NexRemote anti-masacree movement.

Next TimeDO NOT FREAK-OUT NEXT SUNDAY, y’all. The blog will not be updated Sunday morning. As has been our custom for years, that edition will instead appear on Christmas Eve night. It will likely be a little more sentimental than usual, too. See y’all then…

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