Sunday, February 02, 2014


Atlas Rides Again

This one wasn’t supposed to be about Unk’s Atlas EQ-6 mount, muchachos. It was supposed to be about using Celestron’s SkyQ Link, a widget that allows you to connect your laptop PC to your Celestron mount with wi-fi and, thus, run NexRemote without a cable or hardware hand control. I liked the idea of that, since I prefer to use NexRemote without the HC in the mix, and I hadn’t found a way to do that with my new VX GEM mount.

Unlike the NexStar GPS and some other Celestron mounts, the VX doesn’t have a “PC Port” that allows you to connect a computer to the mount bypassing the hand control. The Auxiliary Port Accessory add-on that gives mounts like the CG5 a PC Port so you can run NexRemote without the HC won’t work with the VX. I was forced to connect the laptop running NexRemote to the base of the hand control with a serial cable.

Since Celestron was advertising their SkyQ link module as compatible with the VX, I figgered it might be just the thing. It wasn’t overly expensive, and I thought it might even be fun to run the VX with Celestron’s iPhone app, SkyQ. When the little gadget arrived, I downloaded the SkyQ PC Link program required for communications with a laptop, and, after connecting to the mount with the software, fired up NexRemote. I pushed Enter on the virtual hand control and, alas, immediately got the dreaded “Cannot Communicate with Telescope” message.

I tried different laptops. I tried plugging the SkyQ Link module into the mount’s Aux Ports instead of the hand control port. Nada. Zip. Zilch. “Cannot communicate.” I began to wonder if the problem was a simple hardware failure with the Link. I tried the SkyQ app on my phone. The app would connect to the module, and would even let me slew the scope, but it would not let me run the go-to alignment. It wouldn’t even let me choose to do an equatorial goto alignment instead of an alt-azimuth alignment. I was out of ideas after four hours of struggling with the dern thing, and fired off an email to Celestron support.

Celestron was prompt getting back to me; they phoned and emailed the following day. The tech was of the opinion my problem might have something to do with the wireless transceiver in my laptop; some, he said, had problems with SkyQ Link. I doubted that, since I’d used two different laptops with two different brands of wi-fi adapters. He also allowed as they (Celestron) were aware of problems with the iPhone app and some equatorial mounts, including the VX. I decided to sleep on it all.

Sleeping on computer and electronics problems almost always gives me fresh insight, and it did this time. It seemed to me the problem was not with the SkyQ wireless widgit—the program used to create a connection between SkyQ and PC seemed to work—it was that for some reason NexRemote and SkyQ had a problem recognizing which mount they were connected to. They didn't seem to know what a “VX” was. So, I wondered what would happen if I tried the Link with my old CG5 mount. NexRemote connected wirelessly to the CG5 without complaint and worked perfectly.

I sent an email to Celestron support describing my further troubleshooting experiences, which resulted in an email exchange that culminated in one in which the tech said, “the heat is on” and that “a fix is in the works and should be available soon.”

Well dadgumit. What do do? Return the Link module for a refund? I decided to hang onto the cotton-picking thing since it hadn’t cost that much, returning it would be a bit of a hassle, and even assuming Celestron never gets it working with the VX, it is functional with the CG5. I would also guess Celestron will eventually get the iPhone app working with GEMs. The SkyQ Link does not work with my NexStar 11 GPS either, but Celestron warned that would be the case with earlier NS11s. It not working with my GPS scope might not be a factor, anyway, as you’ll hear shortly.

‘Twas a shame, since if it had worked the SkyQ Link would have been perfect for the VX. Takeaway? It appears Celestron is having problems getting their firmware and software act together lately. Their new StarSense auto-goto-align device has, I understand, also had software problems, most of them having to do with equatorial mounts.  The bottom line? I am NOT happy about this, campers, but I have been using Celestron gear for nearly 40 years and they have always seen to my problems.  I believe they will come through for me this time, too. We shall see, anyhow. I will keep you posted.

Since the SkyQ Link turned out to be a bust, I turned to another agenda for my Saturday night run at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site. That was imaging the recent bright supernova in M82, SN2014J, and giving my old (but seldom used) Atlas a workout to see if I might consider putting my NexStar 11 OTA on it at some point. That’s why the fact that the SkyQ Link wouldn’t work with the NexStar 11 didn't bother me much.

Why would I want to take the old girl off her massive fork? Because it is so massive. Last year, I was maneuvering Big Bertha in her case down the front steps of the Old Manse. Banged up my knee real bad, nearly doing serious injury to myself. And lifting the scope in her case into the back of the Toyota 4Runner is not exactly a joy, either.

Part dos is that I rarely do visual with the C11, and that its tracking in alt-azimuth mode is never going to be as good as in EQ mode. I do have a heavy-duty (non-Celestron) wedge, but getting Bertha on an equatorial wedge is about ten times harder again than getting her on the tripod in alt-az. While tracking in alt-azimuth is sufficient for video imaging, it is not perfect for that.

There is also the fork and camera issue. I have had to get creative with the Mallincam setup on the rear cell so the camera doesn’t bump into the drivebase at high altitudes. A diagonal and a special adapter for my f/3.3 focal reducer prevent that, but I don’t get all the focal reduction I need. I can get maybe f/5 with that setup, which has the reducer on the eyepiece end of the diagonal instead of screwed onto the scope’s rear port. I have a third configuration to try, f/6.3 reducer on rear port and f/5 reducer on camera nose, but it sure would be nice to get by with just the Meade 3.3 reducer on the telescope.

So, would I do the deed? Defork Bertha? That depended. I’ve had Atlas for over six years, but have not put many miles on him. I bought the mount to get some decent long exposure DSLR images for one of my books, and have only used it (occasionally) for DSLR work since. I’d never had a complaint about the mount’s go-to accuracy, but I also didn't have a sense of how it would be in a typical video run, where I might hit 100 or more objects lying all over the sky. Maybe it was time to find out, and also to image the bright new Type Ia supernova in M82 in the bargain.

I was a little concerned about the weather forecast for Saturday night. A big front was getting ready to move in, and my fave astronomy weather app, Scope Nights, had Saturday evening as RED—poor, that is. As the day went on, it did change a little, eventually winding up showing the first part of the evening, till 9 p.m., as green, “good,” which the Clear Sky Clock (Charts) agreed with. I was skeptical, however; it would be just like the dern weather gods to tease me and close me down right before I could get a look at something special—the supernova. They've sure done that a time or three over the years.

Nevertheless, I loaded up the 4Runner at quarter after four. Which was when I first began to doubt the soundness of my idea of moving the NS11 OTA to the Atlas mount. I reckon I’d forgot how heavy the Atlas is. Its equatorial head weighs about fifty pounds and is awkward to carry. It did not, in fact, seem that much more pleasant to tote out to Miss Van Pelt than the NS11 would have been.

In addition to the Atlas, I loaded-out everything else I would need for a full-blown Mallincam run:  laptop, camera, portable DVD player I use as a display, three gear boxes, assorted cables, and, last but hardly least, my Edge 800 C8. I haven’t done a lot of video runs from the dark site lately. The weather simply hasn't encouraged me to carry so much stuff out there. But the M82 supernova was too good to miss. Sure, it will be around for a while, a Type Ia, which is what this one is, will last for months. But given the vagaries of the weather, I thought best to strike while the freaking iron was hot.

One nice thing as I was setting up? I had some company for once, my old friend and observing companion Max Harrell. Like most clubs, maybe about a quarter of our membership is serious enough about observing to be interested in dark site runs. Subtract the people who can observe from home and those who live far enough away to make a trip to the dark site onerous, and you can see why most of the time a small outfit like the PSAS might have two or three folks on the observing field max. Often, it’s just little old me with my only companions being the Skunk Ape, Mothman, and the pea-picking Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II. So, it was nice to have Max with me on this dark night.

Anyhoo, I didn't waste any time putting the telescope together. I noted clouds to the west, not bad clouds, but cirrus strands with some thicker stuff behind them, and wanted to be ready to roll at dark. With the SCT, PC, camera, and display set, I started a polar alignment using EQMOD’s polar alignment helper as soon as the North Star winked on.

What is “EQMOD,” you ask? Well, I’ll tell ya, Skeezix, in some ways it’s like NexRemote, but for the SynScan mounts, the Atlas/EQ6, the Sirius HEQ5, and the EQ8. Like NexRemote, it replaces the hand controller with a program running on a PC. EQMOD diverges from NexRemote, however, in the way it does that. It doesn't just duplicate the hand control on the computer screen and add a few extra features, it replaces the SynScan hand control altogether with something entirely different.

While the SynScan HC computer is not bad, and has continued to evolve over the years, don't get the idea that it is as sophisticated as the company’s NexStar hand control (Synta makes both the SynScan mounts and the Celestron mounts and scopes). It's not. Goto accuracy is not as good, and its features are (still) fewer. EQMOD addresses all that, kicking the goto accuracy up several notches and adding features Unk missed in the SynScan HC.

Another thing that makes EQMOD different is that it is not a standalone program like NexRemote. Instead, it is a very sophisticated ASCOM telescope driver and must be used in conjunction with an ASCOM compatible astronomy program of some kind like Cartes du Ciel, which is what I use. I do the goto alignment by slewing to stars with Cartes and syncing on them. This is very effective and allows me to use many, many alignment points. I have never had go-to issues when I’ve used EQMOD to control the Atlas, but I wanted to triple-check it with a video camera to be 100% sure I would be happy with with EQMOD and Atlas for the C11.

Hokay, polar alignment time. What EQMOD does for you here is rotate the polar axis of the mount till the reticle where you place Polaris is in precisely the correct position. To do that you must first, of course, move the mount in declination till the hole in the dec axis the polar scope looks through is opened up. I picked up the wireless gamepad I use with EQMOD (another of its great features), and pushed the joystick north. Alas, absolutely nothing happened.

I finally got EQMOD to move the scope, but it moved in fits and starts, and not in all directions. Something was wrong. Maybe with my cable or the EQDIR level converter used to translate between the computer’s serial output and the Atlas’ TTL input. It was getting cold, it was getting dark, and the supernova was already high enough to image. I didn't feel like I could waste any time troubleshooting. I should have given EQMOD and the mount a good check ride in the house the day before, but I didn't. So, my only alternative was the dadgum SynScan HC.

Which really ain’t that bad. If you are careful with alignment star choices—which is critical. With a NexStar (or Meade Autostar) hand control, you just accept whichever alignment stars are offered and you are good to go. Not so with SynScan. You must pick the best of the stars that are listed. Nothing too high or too low. First two stars need to be separated by several hours of right ascension.

I did purty good with the first two stars, Rigel and Capella, lining them up on the monitor with the aid of the crosshairs the Mallincam software throws up on the screen, but I think I screwed up with star three over in the west. I accepted Deneb, which was getting low. A little too late, I recalled the last time I used the mount down in Chiefland I found that a higher star number three dramatically improved goto accuracy. Well, that might be, but I dang sure didn't think I had time for a redo. The stars in the south and southwest were slowly disappearing into clouds.

Alrighty…let’s see if this sucker is gonna do its thing or not. Mashed an “M” and a “42,” and away we went to the east. The SynScan HC beeped when it finished slewing (one of the few things it does that the NexStar HC doesn't), and I had a look at the monitor. You know, I am still amazed at what the cotton-picking Mallincam Xtreme can do with a mere two fraking seconds of exposure. Yes, I know the Orion Nebula is bright, but, dang, two seconds?

Just because the SynScan hits a target in one part of the sky doesn't, unfortunately, mean it will land on one in other areas. So I crossed my fingers and my toes and entered M82. I sure hoped the mount stopped somewhere close to the galaxy, because it felt like my time was running out. We might in reality have a couple of hours left, but it seemed like the clouds were already breathing down my neck.

Another beep, and the cigar shape of M82, which my daughter Lizbeth used to call the Exploding Cigar Galaxy, was centered onscreen. Focused up a mite, and I could see the supernova, which is on the southern end of the disk, despite still having the exposure at two seconds. I upped the camera integration to 15-seconds, but that was almost too much, burning out some of the Cigar’s bright lobes. Amazingly, a mere 7-seconds seemed to give the best detail without making the sky background too bright—M82 was still relatively low.

With a couple of sequences safely recorded on my teeny-weeny Orion DVR, I decided to play around a little. Some time back, I’d bought one of Orion’s “imaging” deep sky filters, essentially a mild light pollution filter designed to darken the sky background in pictures. While the difference with the filter on the Xtreme was not like night and day, it was there. I found I could expose for up to a minute without making the sky too bright or burning out the more luminous portions of the galaxy. The filter also seemed to bring out some extra detail, like hints of the red stuff being expelled from M82’s center. Looked just like a Hubig’s fried cherry pie somebody stepped on.

After I finished recording plenty of M82 footage, I decided to cruise to a few other purties to gauge the accuracy of the SynScan HC. As expected, it was dead-on on the eastern side of the Meridian. The western? Not so much. By the time I’d got to M33, which was getting low in the west, accuracy had fallen off. Maybe as much as half a degree.

A few more targets, and it was big switch time. Max, who’d taken lots of M82s with his Sony ILC (interchangeable lens compact camera, a type of camera I think is gonna be big in astrophotography shortly), had moved on to the Horsehead. I could see the Horse on his camera display after a mere 30-second exposure, but the sky background was the brownish red that spells “clouds coming.”

Back home at Chaos Manor South, I was unloaded in time to watch the last half of Svengoolie’s weekly masterpiece, this time Boris Karloff in The Invisible Ray. I also had a quick look at my videos. Most of them were dang good, I thought. Those through the filter could have been a little better focused—the filter changes focus a surprising amount, and I didn't get it quite re-tweaked—but they were not bad and showed a surprising amount of detail, including a way dim LEDA galaxy or two.

As for the NexStar 11 GPS “problem”? I’ve continued to ruminate on that. Oh, I will give the Atlas a check-ride with EQMOD once I get that sorted, and I will get it sorted, but I am not sure the Atlas is the way to go afterall. It’s heavy enough that it’s not that much more pleasant to haul around than the fork mount NS11. And I would have to tote three stinking 11-pound counterweights along to balance the scope on a GEM.

I could use the NS11 on the VX. Not a thing wrong with that despite what you may have heard. My buddy Joe Kuhn has had his C11 on a CG5 for years, and I have always enjoyed it for visual use. I suspect the C11 would be just ducky for video use on the VX. Except on a windy night, anyway. All I’d need to make the change would be a Vixen dovetail for Bertha.

Now that I think about it, though, I believe a large part of the NS11 conundrum is the scope’s big JMI case. Oh, it’s a wonderful case, but it is big, heavy, and somewhat awkward. I believe most of my pain is caused by having to maneuver that case around and lift it in and out of the vehicle with less than ergonomic handles. I may check Home Depot and Lowes for wheeled plastic toolboxes big enough to hold Bertha, but not as big and heavy as the JMI, and with better handles and better wheels. 

Finally, while I do not use the NexStar 11 for visual that often, I do do visual observing with it. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, is more comfortable for that than an alt-azimuth mode scope. Big Bertha in alt-az on her tripod with a Denkmeier power switch/filter switch on back and I am in eyeball heaven. Hate to give that up. So...stay tuned, y’all.

Saturday evening was a journey from the sublime to the ridiculous. I started out at a white dwarf 12-million light years distant that had gathered so much matter from its companion star that it exploded with enough fury to outshine its host galaxy. From there, I traveled to the Carpathians to watch Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi threaten humanity and tickle our funny bones with RADIUM X. That, muchachos, sure is an Uncle Rod kind of Saturday night.

Next Time:  Down Chiefland Way (If'n Unk can rent a cotton-picking dogsled and a team of huskies to get there, anyway.)…

Hi Rod,

nice images of the supernova. No chance to see it here in Austria (I have not seen the sun or the stars for over a month - it is always cloudy/foggy... I am also a Mallincam owner since a year or so, but I am still a newbie. Although I got some nice images already.

One thing makes me wonder. I am using the s-video output of the Mallicam Xtreme and a frame grabber to get the signal into my laptop. I think you are doing something similar. But in addition to that you also record movies to a DVR (via composite output?). How do you know if the output to the DVR is okay if you only see the s-video output on the laptop? Because as I understand it the software can only change the display of the s-video output? Or do you use a different configuration?


Hi, actually I am doing something entirely different. I have found that standard composite video to a monitor, a video monitor gives better images than fooling with SVHS and frame grabbers and computers. What I do is run the video to a switchbox. I view on the monitor, and when I see something I want to record, I switch to the DVR (which has a small built-in monitor) and record. The Mallincam does not have enough drive to run both the monitor and DVR at the same time. I could use a video amp, but I had the switchbox on hand and I am cheap. LOL.
Ah, that explains it. No more "how on earth are they doing this?" for me. :-D

Best regards


P.S.: Hope you have fully recovered from your little accident by now.
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