Sunday, February 23, 2014


The Case Conundrum

I love my NexStar 11 GPS, Big Bertha, muchachos. She and I have been together for dang near a dozen years and have seen some incredible wonders at dark sites from the lowlands of Florida to the mountains of Tennessee. I’ve never had a major problem with her; she just keeps on truckin’ year after year.

Yet there was no doubt I’d stopped using her as much as I once had. At first, it was just the runs at the local PSAS dark site where she stayed home. When you’ve got an exemplary C8 like my Edge 800, especially one riding on an easy to transport and very accurate goto mount like the VX, it’s hard to convince yourself to lug a 66-pound fork mount scope out to the site for an hour or three, even if the weather looks to be good.

Yes, I can see more with the C11, but not that much more, not with a deep sky video camera, a Mallincam, which is usually the way I roll. What the C11 brings to the table as opposed to the C8 for video is image scale. At the same focal ratio, objects are larger in the C11 meaning I see more detail. That’s not always a good thing, however. If I want to image a bigun like M33, the Edge 800, Mrs. Peel, is a better bet. But for the small Herschel and Arp galaxies I favor? Bigger can be better.

At first it was only the local observing runs where Bertha stayed at home. I continued to take her down to Chiefland just like always. Unfortunately for the NS11, the Edge 800 really strutted her stuff at last spring’s Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, and it’s been the Edge/VX at CAV every single time since then. Not only is Mrs. Peel easier to pack, given the weather we've had over the last year there didn't seem much reason to struggle with Bertha. If I am not likely to see anything, I am happy not to see anything with a lighter scope.

And yet…and yet. I recently found myself missing the C11. Yes, the Edge is wonderful. Her views are refractor-like. 8-inch APO refractor refractor-like. But I missed some of Bertha’s elegance and simplicity. I can run her directly from the computer with NexRemote without worrying about a hand control in the mix, something I have not been able to do with Emma Peel.  I have never upgraded her motor control board firmware to the latest and greatest, which means I can still do a GPS alignment: turn on the power, Bertha takes a GPS fix, levels, finds north, and heads for the first of two alignment stars. Center the star, and she goes to number two. Center thatun and I am done.

In alt-azimuth mode—I have a wedge for Miss B. but rarely use it—there is no telescope that’s more comfortable to use visually than Bertha. I don’t have to do a polar alignment, either, which can save some time on nights when I am racing the weather. How is the scope’s alt-azimuth tracking with the Mallincam? It is not perfect, but usually it is more than good enough if I can get her down to f/3 or so (more about that a wee bit later).

I missed Bertha, I just wasn’t sure I missed her enough to start using her again. Every time I thought about dragging her out, what came to mind was banging my knee on her case as I was trying to get it down the front steps one of the last times we took the NS11 to the CAV. I didn't do any real damage, but I could have.

I wasn’t happy about lugging Bertha around but still wanted to use those 11-inch optics. What would I do? What would I do? The natural thing would be to defork Bertha. Remove the poor thing from her fork mount and place her on a German equatorial. Which GEM? I had an Atlas EQ-6 on hand, so that seemed, again, like the natural thing to do. Before I did that, however, I thought I’d better give the Atlas a field trial. I only use her for DSLR imaging, and with our skies, I don’t do much of that. I wanted to see if I’d be happy using the Atlas as a mount for my video imaging.

The denouement was that whatever the Atlas’ other strengths and weaknesses, it had one big down-check against it:  weight. Lugging the big GEM head, which weighs close to 50-pounds, out to the truck was not fun. Not only is it heavy, it is awkward. I could find or make some sort of wheeled case for it, but then, it seemed to me, we’d be back to square one.  I might convince myself to sell the Atlas and use the proceeds to finance a Celestron CGEM, I supposed. I do prefer the NexStar HC, but the CGEM’s head is nearly as heavy as that of the Atlas. I also suspected I’d miss using the NS11 in alt-azimuth mode with the GPS alignment.

So…I decided to…I decided to…procrastinate.  As long as Bertha’s 12-year-old electronics continued to work, she’d stay on the fork. If they quit? I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. As my friend and fellow old coot, Pat Rochford, said, “Rod, you may go out of service before the NS11 mount does.”

That didn't mean I didn't want to improve the transport situation, however. My first thought concerning that was the case I use with Bertha, which I have used since day one, purchasing it from JMI at the same time I bought the scope. It is a very strong case—Jim Burr, Mr. JMI, used to run ads showing a Volkswagen Beetle sitting on one. It is not perfect, though. If there’s a major fault, it’s the handles. Standard luggage-type handles. They are not overly easy to grip, and due to the length of the scope, they are far apart. Your arms are, too, when you are lifting the case into the vehicle, which makes a difficult task even more difficult.

One other thing I’d come to look askance at regarding the JMI case was the wheels. Oh, it has ‘em, four three-inch wheels in pairs. They are what makes moving the case around doable for those of us without (ahem) Charles Atlas physiques. The trouble with these wheels is that they are relatively small and are of hard plastic/rubber. Larger wheels would be better.

Thus, I came to believe the case was at the heart of my NexStar 11 problems. My first inclination was to have a look at JMI’s current offerings. Since the CPC 1100, the current replacement for the NexStar 11 GPS, has the same dimensions as the earlier scope, CPC cases are compatible with a GPS.

I gotta say I liked the cut of the new JMI case’s jib. There are several improvements. It is now in a “vertical” format with the scope still lying on its side but with the fork arms positioned up, vertically, rather than horizontally. That looked to me like it would save on room in the truck. I also noted that the scope’s base is now positioned at the wheels end of the case, which would make it easier to lift the opposite end of the case to roll it along. The huge improvement? The new case uses big 10-inch inflatable tires like those on a hand truck. Only one thing dissuaded me: the price of admission, over 600 bucks.

Unk had got it into his head a new case would make life with Bertha easier. But he didn't want to pay for one. Surely there must be an alternative. I kept my eyes open when I was down at the Chiefland Astronomy Village recently, and noticed what my friends John and Bobbie were using for their NS11. What they had was a big Rubbermaid bin into which they’d inserted one-half of the scope’s original packing foam. This idea, which had been devised by the telescope’s original owner, another CAV buddy, Carl, seemed to work. The height of the foam and the scope (lying on its side with the arms vertical) meant you couldn’t put the cover on the Rubbermaid container, but so what? For trips, I could see it would work. Carl swore by it.

I wondered, however, if there might not be another way. I wasn’t particularly fond of not having a cover on the case. What if you were in a traffic accident? And I’d have to transfer the scope back to its original case in hopes of keeping dust (and mucho cat hair) at bay when the scope wasn’t being used. I also wasn’t sure it would be that much easier to lift the whole shebang than it was the JMI case.

OK…then how about some kind of rolling toolbox? A modicum of research revealed Home Depot was selling two big toolboxes, “job boxes,” a Husky and a Stanley, with large wheels and extendable handles. Either might work, I thought. In fact, a search on the Cloudy Nights forums showed a lot of folks were using these for their CPC 1100s. Yeah, well do I know not to take everything you read on the dadgum CN too seriously, but there seemed to be enough votes for these big toolboxes to indicate one might serve.

Miss D. and I hied ourselves to the Home Depot one recent Friday morning to have a look. I’ll tell y’all, once you are retired it is a different world. One almost solely inhabited by your fellow gray-haired compadres. Not much traffic till lunchtime, and every customer you see in every store and at the cotton picking Mickey D’s for breakfast (especially) looks just like Unk:  O-L-D, that is. Anyhoo, we found the job boxes without much trouble.

There was a lot to like about both toolboxes. Big wheels, large extendable handles for pulling them along that would actually give you some leverage. On the downside? BIG. And the Husky did not have integral handles for lifting. You could lift with the towing handle on one end, but the other? You’d wind up trying to find purchase for your fingers under the edge of the closed lid. The Stanley had molded-in handles, but the way they were molded-in meant an inch or two less space in the interior. Be that as it might be, it was obvious it would be easier for me to lift the Stanley. We took it home.

The first rut-roh came when I loaded the thing into the 4Runner. It took up a substantial portion of the cargo area. No, I hadn’t put the rear seats down, but still. The double rut-roh came back at Chaos Manor South as I experimentally loaded Bertha into the big box. Even though I positioned the arms “up,” and lowered the scope into the box with the handle on the right fork, it was not easy. No, it was not easy at all—the box was deep enough to make it a slightly scary task.

The fatal problem, though? The Stanley was slightly too small. No matter how I positioned Bertha or the packing foam, the rear port of the scope was in contact with the wall of the box. That would probably have been OK, but I didn’t like the idea overmuch. A good sharp whack to that side of the case would be transmitted directly to the rear port and baffle. I just didn’t like it. We decided to return the Stanley and get the Husky.

Back at the Home Depot, we had no trouble getting a refund. These folks sure have improved their customer service over the last few years, and I now much prefer them to Lowe's. On the way to get the tool aisle, though, I suddenly stopped, turned to Miss Dorothy and said, “I have had an epiphany. I am not going to like loading and unloading the scope into either one of these things. Let’s look at the Rubbermaid containers like John and Bobbie are using.”

We hunted the Rubbermaids up and found one similar to the one Carl had bought for the NS11, but I wasn’t convinced. What brought me up short was “no wheels.” I would definitely not want to carry the NS11 and Rubbermaid container far, and most assuredly not down the front steps. Off to Wal-Mart to see if we could find a big storage bin with wheels (I’d seen one online). Nope. They didn't have one. Neither did the nearby Lowe's. OK, what if I got a hand truck, a good one… It was then that I had the wisdom to shut the whole business down. “Honey, I believe the JMI case I have is better than anything we've seen today.”

And in at least one important way it is. Jim kept his case as shallow as possible. The fork is laid flat in horizontal position. That makes getting the scope in and out of the case much easier. It also means there is plenty of room to stack stuff on the case in the truck.

I was beginning to think, then, that what I needed wasn’t a new case. Maybe what I needed was a new loading procedure. Some serious thinking about how I could make it easier. I did the same thing a while back concerning my general approach to packing the 4Runner, and it had made doing that easier than it ever had been.

The subject for this week’s blog was supposed to be an observing run with the Edge 800 from the PSAS dark site on a full Moon (near about) Saturday night. Despite a big Luna, I’d be able to get spectra with the ZWO camera and the Star Analyser grating. I am finding doing that with the aid of RSpec fascinating and wanted to continue. Hell, I might even get some Jupiter images before all was said and done. But Bertha intervened.

I was determined to put the case conundrum to bed now. I had sworn we’d take Miss B. to the Chiefland Spring Picnic, which is coming up next month. So, I’d haul her out to the dark site after analyzing my loading procedure. Once there, I’d mount the Xtreme on her to see if I could solve the other NS11 problem:  getting her focal ratio down.

“Well, that shouldn't be no mystery Unk. Just screw your Meade f/3.3 reducer onto Bertha and have at it.” I wish it were that simple, Skeezix. That’s just what I used to do when I was using my old Stellacam II video cam. Going to a better camera, the Mallincam Xtreme, made that impossible. The body of the Xtreme is about twice as long as that of the Stellacam, and when the camera was plugged directly into the reducer/visual back with its 1.25-inch nosepiece, it would contact the drivebase of the scope when the OTA was higher in altitude than 75 or 80 degrees.

The first thing I tried after I got the Xtreme was putting the camera in a star diagonal. No workie. With the camera that far from the 3.3 reducer, it wouldn’t reach focus. So, I purchased a special adapter from, a 2-inch tube that was threaded so I could screw the reducer onto one end. The whole thing was inserted in the eyepiece end of a 2-inch diagonal. That worked, but having the reducer far from the rear port meant I didn't get much focal reduction. Maybe I got f/5.

I’d come back around to an idea I’d had a couple of years before. I’d place an f/6.3 reducer on the scope’s rear port, and a (Baader) .5x reducer on the camera. The Baader was in a standard filter holder and would thread right onto the Xtreme. I’d tried this arrangement once before at the CAV, but the 2-inch diagonal I had used had not provided optimum spacing. Reduction was good, but the stars at the field edge were pretty punk. I thought the fix might be my nice William Optic 1.25-inch star diagonal.

Alright, 4:15, time to get ‘er done. Actually, it was a little early. With the Sun setting ever later now, I don’t have to hit the road till 5 p.m., but I was antsy and wanted to get started. I’d been doing considerable cogitating on Big Bertha the whole day, and the first alteration I made to my procedure was that as I was rolling the case along, I kept it much closer to vertical than horizontal. I also pushed it along in front of me most of the time rather than pulling it behind me. Finally, instead of cutting across the yard on the way to the truck, I stuck to the walk and sidewalk. A little more distance, but a whole lot easier.

The sticking point, of course, would be getting the big case into the back of the 4Runner. In the past, my “method” was one hand on each handle and LIFT, trying to do that with my legs, not my back. Did it have to be that way? I had a hunch. I stood the case up vertically and propped one end on the bumper, grabbed the handle on the end resting on the ground, tilted, and pushed. In she went, smooth as freaking butter. No, I won’t lie, it was not as effortless as loading the C8, but it was at least twice as easy as my dumb old method of madness. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? Probably because it wouldn’t have worked with my previous vehicle, a Toyota Camry. Anyhow? Total packing time for the whole mess, including all my video gear was less than 15-minutes.

Out to the dark site we went. Alas, we are at the time of year when my required departure time coincides with a 5 p.m. rush hour. Why is there a traffic surge at that time on Saturday? Maybe droves of cheapskate oldsters like Unk are taking advantage of happy hour, who knows? Anyway, I probably should have left a little earlier; I didn't hit the field until about fifteen minutes after sunset and immediately felt rushed.

Not just rushed, either, but put out. As soon as I’d left home, I’d begun seeing bands of clouds verging on overcast, especially to the west, which was the direction I was going. That stimulated a cell call from Pat over on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. He wanted to know if I was seeing clouds here. “Yep, and lots of ‘em.” The cotton picking Weather Channel, Clear Sky Clock, and Scope Nights had all forecast dead clear, so I was fuming by the time I got to the PSAS dark site.

didn't think there was much sense in setting up the Mallincam. Part of me wanted to, just to try my reducer scheme, but the thought of assembling all that gear when I might be socked in at any minute dissuaded me. I thought that if I could just check out Bertha—who had not been used in a over a year—and do another iteration of my loading/unloading scheme, the evening wouldn’t have been wasted.

As you would expect, I was again all by my lonesome on an evening one night past Full Moon. The airstrip’s big yellow tomcat did keep me company for a while, till I made him mad by shooing him out of the back seat where he’d curled up for a nap. I have visions of arriving home one evening and finding Bubba napping in the back.

How did the unloading go? Very well. It wasn’t much—if any—easier than loading since to get the scope out of the 4Runner, I had to lower the heavy (drivebase) end of the case to the ground, but it wasn’t bad. I worked slowly, sliding it out, tilting it down, and lowering it, leaving the opposite end propped on the bumper. Then, with the case near vertical, I rotated and lowered the “corrector” end, the wheeled end, to the ground. Not bad. I felt no complaints from either my back or my nether regions.

How did it go with mounting Bertha on the tripod? Due to the scope’s ergonomic handles, I’ve never minded mounting her in alt-az mode. The problem was not getting her on the tripod, but getting her working when she was on it. Shoot, if I told you it went smooth, you wouldn’t believe me anyway, so I might as well fess up. It wasn’t exactly duck soup. Most of the trouble was because I had not used the scope in so long. I started out pulling my usual trick:  trying to connect with NexRemote before turning on the power on the scope. There is no way to back out of that; you have to reboot the computer. I also forgot to enable the joystick and set NexRemote to “always on top” (so I can use other programs alongside it).

After dang near half an hour, I finally got all my brain cells firing and Bertha squared away. She requested Sirius and Rigel as alignment stars, and despite those being a little close together in the sky in my opinion, she hit everything I requested dead center after  the alignment was finally done (either I centered a wrong star, which is possible, or she glitched, because I got an “alignment failed” initially).

What did I look at? Not a whole lot:  M45, M79, M35, M37, M42. Just enough to make sure she was doing her thing correctly. And she was. I had to say I was impressed. She always seems so powerful, yet quiet. Her Pitman servos barely hum at full slewing speed, which, if you are used to using a CG5 or a VX like me, is striking—the quiet is in fact almost disturbing.

Then, as I gaped at M42 in an Orion 20mm Expanse eyepiece (didn't bring the “good” eyepieces; didn't think I’d need eyepieces) I began to feel eyes on me. Somebody or something was watching. Just then, the neighborhood coyotes let out a chorus of howls—some of which seemed almost human in character. What might be lurking in the tree line across the dark field? The Skunk ape? Maybe…Wolfie? Nope. I looked up to see it was the friendly old Moon. She had been over the horizon for a little while, but had been near extinguished by a cloudbank. Now she was beaming down on me with a passion. Big Switch time.

Loading was a snap now that I knew what to do. Packed away the PC and cleared the cargo area. First step was returning Bertha to the case, which is easy due to the aforementioned shallowness of the thing. I lift the NS11 off the tripod using those excellent handles, stand her upright in the case, position my hands at the balance points on the fork arms, and let her do most of the work, gently tipping her over to the horizontal and lowering her into the box. After that, I used my prop-on-bumper idea again, slid her in, and was on the road in a mite less than 15-minutes. Yes, there is still effort involved, but my observation is that it is actually quicker to load Bertha now than it is the VX/Edge 800.

And so, back to the storied Old Manse for my favorite potation (y’all know what that is) and a ration of cable TV. The gear was stowed and the Yell poured out by 9 p.m., just in time for Svengoolie’s horror host foolishness. This week the feature was She Wolf of London, which seemed highly appropriate after spending the night listening to hair-raising howls under a fat yellow Moon. I’d forgot She Wolf of London has the dubious distinction of being the werewolf movie without a werewolf, but it was fun anyhow.

So, the final score for this Saturday night? Was it Monkey 0, football 1? Not quite, almost, but not quite. I did plenty of fumbling around, but I did get things done. I’d been able to give Miss Bertha an almost clean bill of health prior to the Spring Picnic. There were a couple of little glitches (whose cause might have been either me or her), but I should be able to get her out at least once more before the CAV trip to be sure she’s really OK. Letting her sit idle for a year was not a good thing. Otherwise? I really and truly believe I solved the case conundrum, muchachos. Maybe. Only hauling Bertha out regularly will tell the tale, so I have resolved to try to get her on the observing field once a month from now on. Stay tuned to see if Unk has the gumption to stick to that.

Next Time: How do you Video?.. 

Hey Unk,

Ran into similar issues w/my NS8GPS (Black Betty),and my JMI case. Strangely enough, I came to the same conclusion as you. I also ran into the clearance problem with my club's Mallincan Hyper - the HD wedge took care of that. ;-)

Clear skies!
I am glad to hear you decided not to defork Bertha now. Prop-on-bumper (actually, trunk lip) is how I get my 12" LX200GPS in its JMI case into my trunk. In the field though I only carry the telescope between the tripod and the open case in the trunk.
You're right, the Stanley case is just slightly too short because of the handle indents. So i sawed off the indents and duct-taped up the resulting openings. Works great for me now, even two years later. And when the telescope is in action, the big chest doubles as my observing table. With my two eyepiece/equipment cases laying on top of it, it's just about the right height. So i save space/time by not having to bring along and set up a separate observing table.
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