Sunday, March 30, 2014


A Year with the VX

Well, almost a year, anyhow, muchachos. I bought Celestron’s successor to the much-loved CG5 German equatorial mount last May. I thought y’all might be interested to hear how we are getting along and some of my observations on the mount after using it as much as I could over the course of a year that was the cloudiest I remember since 1994.

“Wait just one cotton picking minute, Unk. I thought the subject of this week’s blog was supposed to be your latest jaunt down to the dadgummed Chiefland Astronomy Village?” That it was, Skeezix, that it was. There were two flies in that ointment, however. The first was weather. The closer we got to the date of the legendary Chiefland Spring Picnic, the worse the 10-days on Wunderground and became. The forecasts settled into a dreary sameness:  “Overcast Thursday night. 80 – 90% chance of rain and thunderstorms Friday and Saturday.”

Frankly, y’all, I wasn’t much in the mood to spend yet another long weekend sitting in a room in the Chiefland Quality Inn looking at the dadgum cable TV. I’d hate to miss the big spring do and seeing all my old friends, though, so I spoke to good buddy Carl Wright, who is a lot closer to the CAV than I am, to see what he thought. Alas, Carl didn't offer a speck of encouragement weather-wise. Nevertheless, I’d normally, as you know, have said, “Damn the Wunderground; full speed ahead.” But there was another factor to consider this time…

If you’ve been following this here blog long, you know Unk retired from his engineering job last year, in February of 2013, to be exact. One of the things Miss Dorothy and I agreed would happen after that was that we’d pull up stakes and move out of the Old Manse. Much as I love our Victorian home in the Garden District, it has become too much. Too much room. Too much upkeep. I was also longing for a place where I can do at least some observing. The growth of trees in and around Chaos Manor South’s backyard has prevented that for years.

Miss Dorothy and I hopped in the 4Runner last Saturday with no grander intention than of driving around and having a look at a few suburban neighborhoods. We almost immediately found a subdivision we liked, one close to the University and numerous friends. When we got home, Unk fired up and started looking at details of the homes we’d seen for sale in “Hickory Ridge.”

Right off the bat, I found a house I liked. Single story. Brick. Big backyard. Miss Dorothy liked it too, especially after we had a look-see at the Open House Sunday. In fact, she was downright enthusiastic. Still, as we always do, D. and I maintained a “business is business” attitude when we talked to the seller’s agent. Keeping emotion tamped down is the best way, we've found, to assure success in business endeavors—which is what buying a house is, no matter how many emotions are stirred in the process.

Anyhoo, by Tuesday morning, almost unbelievably, we were making an offer, which was promptly accepted, and we've now begun the mountains of paperwork and mucho hoop-jumping required to purchase a home these days. Miss Dorothy and I were uber-busy, tired, and most assuredly not ready for a big observing expedition, y’all. We cancelled our motel reservations down Chiefland Way—is there any sadder phrase in the English language than that? Rest assured, I WILL head back to the CAV this coming May New Moon come hell or high water, I promise (April’s dark of the Moon will bring the 2014 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage).

Does this spell the end of fabled Chaos Manor South? Nope. We will be here for some weeks yet. More importantly, “Chaos Manor South” is not just a place. It is a state of mind. It is the state of Unk’s mind, such as it is, and he carries it around with him wherever he goes. Expect to hear a lot more about the new Chaos Manor South in the coming months, but I believe you, our friends, will be pleased for us.

Back to the Celestron VX. Why did Unk want a VX anyhow? He had a perfectly good CG5. That mount performed as well as it ever had at last spring’s Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, helping Unk image over a hundred objects despite there only being only one fully clear night during the whole three day event. Since the VX and the CG5 are roughly comparable, why would your stingy Unk offer up dineros for a VX?

The main reason was that the CG5 was getting a mite long in the tooth. It was nearly a decade old; Unk bought it on a semi-whim in the spring of 2005. Yes, it did as well as it ever had at the Spring Scrimmage, but it had a lot of miles on it, and was not an expensive mount to begin with. Seeing as how I rely on a C8 – GEM combo for much of my observing now, having a reliable medium weight mount is important to me. I dang sure don’t want to lug my Atlas all over creation. I decided the coming of the new VX was a signal it was time to relegate the CG5 to backup status.

I also wanted a retirement present. I make no secret of the fact that retirement was a big adjustment for me. The excitement of a new telescope and mount would, I thought, help ease the Rodster into his new life. Coincidentally, Celestron had just announced a package deal consisting of the CG5’s new replacement, the VX, and an Edge 800 SCT OTA for an attractive price.

I’d been admiring the Edge 800 for months and months and months, and we will talk about her and her sisters again sometime soon. Today, though, the subject is the mount. Would the VX be better than the CG5? Looking at the specs and talking to people who’d used the mount, I could tell the newun was more like the old mount than different. Similar payload capacity, and, I suspected, a similar periodic error. Which was good, since I never had any problem guiding the CG5 for any length of exposure I wanted to do. Also good was that the VX’s weight was about the same as that of the CG5—nice and light, a godsend for your broken down old hillbilly Uncle.

There were differences. Quite a few, actually. The VX was not just a gussied up CG5, it seemed. Yes, the tripod was almost the same as that of its predecessor, but that’s where the similarities ended. The GEM head had been completely redesigned. It was more attractive, better finished, and sturdier. In the “real good” category, Celestron completely redid the control panel. It was now part of the polar axis—the old mount’s control panel was on the RA motor’s plastic housing and had a definite tacked-on look.

The new control panel offered the same connections as the CG5, auto-guide (ST-4 input), declination, and hand control, plus a couple of new ones, Aux 1, and Aux 2. The connector for the declination cable had been moved away from the others on the VX and was now vertically oriented on the right side of the panel. That would make it much less likely you’d plug the HC into the dec port, which Unk used to do frequently with the CG5—risking possible electronics damage. Only complaint? How come the hand control receptacle was the second port on the control panel instead of the first, which would seem to make sense? Oh, well.

A constant source of irritation for CG5 owners, including Unk, was the mount’s small power switch, which inevitably failed. Mine lasted about three years. After that, I left it in the “on” position permanently, and turned the mount on and off by plugging and unplugging the power cable. That worked, but was hardly an elegant solution. On the VX, the power switch, I could see, was now a nice big one that looked easier to operate and which I suspected would be longer-lived.

There was a red pilot light on the control panel, and, finally, a 12-volt power connector. The new power connector was furnished with a threaded collar like the one on the CGEM’s power socket. That allows you to thread-on the power cable as well as plug it in, which helps maintain a good connection, I suppose. Might not be a good thing if you tend to snag or trip over your cables, howsomeever.

That was it for the visible electrical/electronic improvements. There were apparently some invisible ones too, including a new motor control board that supposedly helped with guiding, but I never had problems in that regard with the CG5.

The remaining upgrades were of a mechanical nature, and they were significant. The altitude and azimuth adjustment bolts, the flimsy little adjustment bolts of the CG5, had been replaced with hefty bolts with great, big knobs. The VX’s counterweight shaft was of the same diameter as the CG5’s, but longer, allowing a C8 to balance with a single 11-pound “pancake” weight. The single included counterweight (with the C8 package) was redone, too. It was much more attractive and modern looking than the old Synta weights, and its clamp bolt had a nice big T-handle (the old style weights still work on the VX). The CG5’s RA axis end cover, which always wanted to fall off, was ditched for a nice molded plastic thread-on job for the VX.

Finally, Celestron replaced the silly stick-on labels that served as index marks for the CG 5 with engraved lines on the RA and declination axis. These index markers allow you to set the mount in its proper “home” position before beginning alignment—ain’t no position switches on a CG5 or VX. I thought the new ones would be easy to see after dark with the aid of a dim red light.

Actually, I fibbed. There was one other electronic/computer change, Unk was told, and one he wasn’t sure he liked. The old Celestron NexStar hand control was history. What was shipping with the VX mounts was the new “Plus” version. While this thing supposedly had a faster computer and better display, Unk had not been impressed when he’d tried his buddy John’s Plus HC at the CAV the previous winter. Main complaint? There are no longer “M” and “NGC” buttons. To get to either catalog, you have drill down through a deep sky object menu, just like on a cotton picking Meade Autostar. Sheesh.

Your silly old Uncle was quite impressed with the mount’s specs and with the pretty full-page ads he saw for the Edge 800/VX combo in Sky and Telescope. Course, now he had to get one, which is always an adventure in amateur astronomy. It had taken forever for Unk’s CG5 to arrive. It had been on its way to Possum Swamp when the UPS truck carrying it had crashed and burned on the Interstate—that’s what the seller told Unk, anyhow. It was weeks before the CG5 finally arrived.

At first, it looked like things would go smoother with the VX/Edge. I ordered it from my go-to guy, Bob Black, whose Skies Unlimited is my dealer of choice in these latter days. The new scope and mount arrived at the Old Manse promptly, right after I returned from a gig at the renowned Raleigh Astronomy Club, where I gave a talk on the Herschel Project.

Yep, it looked like the newun would spare Unk the travails usually associated with buying new gear. The OTA was perfect, and the mount at first seemed to be the same. I did notice a couple of peculiarities. The “toe-saver” bolt on the end of the declination counterweight shaft would not thread on all the way. Also, the central rod that threads into the GEM head to attach it to the tripod didn't want to screw in as easily as the ones on my CG5 and Atlas. In all other respects, the new mount appeared to be “go,” however.

Till I tried to remove the GEM head from the tripod to take the rig out to my buddy Pat Rochford’s observatory for first light, that is. Seemed kinda hard to unscrew the central bolt/rod. Then, suddenly, it locked down. Hard. Wouldn't unscrew at all. Period. Couldn't tighten it back up, either. Gentle persuasion wouldn’t loosen it. Spraying a little WD-40 didn't help. With a sinking feeling, I realized I was in trouble.

The head would obviously have to come off the tripod somehow for me to ship the mount back, which was purty obviously what was going to have to happen. I began gently with a strap wrench, which wouldn’t turn the rod a millimeter. I wound up with a pipe wrench that bent the central rod in the course of getting the head off the tripod, not surprisingly destroying the hole into which the rod was threaded in the process.

My assumption was (and is) that the hole for the central bolt was improperly threaded, just like the one for the counterweight shaft toe-saver. Anyhoo, having a good dealer made the difference. Bob and Celestron got a new mount on the way and issued a UPS call tag for the old one. Unfortunately, the replacement didn't quite make it in time for the Spring Scrimmage, which is why the CG5 mount got a crack at the star party. The VX was waiting for me when I got back home and this time everything really was perfect.

Did the Edge 800 OTA, Mrs. Emma Peel, do as well on the VX as she had on the CG5 at the Scrimmage? Yes. But it took me quite a while to find that out. The sad fact was that after that single good night at the star party, we’d seen our last clear weather for a long, long time. For months, it seemed like.

I did get out a couple of times under marginal conditions, and was able to verify the new mount’s basic operation in a half-hour of clear skies I got one evening. The goto accuracy seemed every bit as good as that of the CG5, which is saying something—the CG5’s goto prowess was always equal to or superior to that of my much more expensive NexStar 11. The new mount’s motors were also much quieter than those of the CG5; there were no more weasels-with-tuberculosis noises to disturb the sanctity of the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society observing field.

There things remained until October 2013. I did to a considerable amount of lunar imaging and some spectroscopy, but a full-blown Mallincam crusade against the deep sky, a hundred object deep sky tear (as Miss Dorothy calls 'em)? Uh-uh.

I didn't see a fraking thing, really, till October began to approach. When I finally got a semi-good night, I was ready for it. My mission was both to give the VX a completely clean bill of health and to test a new deep sky video camera I was excited about, the Mallincam Junior Pro. That night on the PSAS field wasn’t perfect, but I did have enough sucker holes to allow me to image about a dozen objects with Junior. The mount did brilliantly, and I even made friends with the pea-picking AllStar polar alignment procedure.

The VX, like the CG5, does NOT need a good polar alignment for visual observing. Just sighting the pole star through the mount’s empty polar axis bore is enough. If you are imaging, however, even doing short exposures with a Mallincam, you want to do a better polar alignment to ensure stars are nice and round in your pictures.

Celestron has had an automated polar alignment routine in their hand controls for a long time. The original procedure used Polaris. Center Polaris it the eyepiece (or camera) using altitude and azimuth adjusters after the mount pointed to where its computer thought the North Star should be given a perfect polar alignment, and you were done.

In 2008, though, Celestron gave into the dreaded The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better syndrome and released a new firmware load for their GEMs that replaced the Polaris procedure with the AllStar polar alignment system, which would allow you to use any star (sort of) except Polaris for polar alignment. I tried the new firmware with my CG5 down Chiefland Way one January—and immediately went back to the old firmware. I just thought the Polaris method was easier, and it was more than good enough for video imaging.

When I got the VX, I figgered I’d load up the HC with the old GEM firmware and continue to use the Polaris align system. Uh-uh. Nossir buddy. The old firmware couldn’t be loaded into the new Plus HC. Hell, I couldn’t even run the old code with NexRemote connected to the VX. NexRemote would not work with the mount without using the newer firmware builds.

A Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do, so that night with the VX and Junior I buckled down and learned how to use AllStar. Wasn't bad at all. Worked well and easily (if not as easily as the old method, if’n you ask me) if you used a star near the intersection of the Celestial Equator and the Local Meridian. Due south and not too high, that is. It even seemed like the polar alignment I got was a smidge better than the ones produced by the old Polaris alignment.

The VX finally got its chance to shine last November at the 2013 DSRSG. The main goal was imaging as many Arp galaxies as possible with the Mallincam Xtreme, but on one of the two good nights, I also did visual observing with Miss Dorothy’s new Explore Scientific AR102 refractor on the VX. The mount performed superbly on both evenings, doing over 75 Arps and dozens and dozens of showpiece DSOs besides. I noted the stars stayed pleasingly round even in one-minute Mallincam integrations—with no guiding, natch.

After the DSRG? Mostly, the VX and Unk have sat under cloudy skies. The few times we've got out, the mount has shown itself to be a reliable, solid performer—just like the CG5. How about guided imaging? Cain’t say. Ain’t done none. Ain’t been able to. I hope to rectify that in the near future, however. What do I expect in that regard? I expect the mount to be at least as easy to guide as the CG5, which would be a good thing. I used to have no trouble doing up to ten-minute subs with the C8 and the CG5 and my SBIG ST2000 CCD cam.

Is there anything I do NOT like about the VX? Only one thing: the way I have to connect my computer to the mount to run the NexRemote software. Y’all know I like to operate my Celestron mounts with the program. I sit warm and cozy under a tailgating canopy viewing Mallincam video on a monitor and controlling the scope with an on-computer NexStar HC courtesy of NexRemote. It is a big deal for me.

I connected the computer to the CG5 via a “programming” cable that ran to a “PC Port” on the mount. Unlike some Celestron mounts, the CG5 doesn't have a native PC Port. One was provided by a (no longer made) gadget called the “Aux Port Accessory.” You can also run NexRemote by plugging a standard serial cable into the base of the NexStar hand control, but going to the PC port is a better solution. You don’t have to fool with the hardware HC. Doesn't have to be plugged in. You can leave it at home.

Thought I’d do the same with the VX, which, like the CG5, has no PC Port. Nope. The Aux Port Accessory wouldn’t work with the new mount. OK, Celestron was advertising that their latest widget, the SkyQ Link, would allow you to run NexRemote wirelessly from a laptop. Wouldn't have to have the hand control plugged into the mount, neither. Since they specifically advertised it to work with the VX, I thought my problems was over and ordered one.

But it didn't work with the VX. I should probably have returned the blamed thing, but Celestron made some soothing noises about fixing things in a couple of emails to me. As you might guess, I haven’t heard back from them since. I don’t really expect to, either. While the wireless widget does work with my CG5, it won’t work on the mount I bought it for, so I feel like my pocket has been picked by the danged rascals. I’ve got used to connecting NexRemote through the hardware hand control, but that don’t mean I have to like it, y’all.

Should you opt for a VX instead of a CG5? The CG5 is, after all, a modern classic given its modest price and outstanding performance. Nevertheless, I think the VX is the way to go now. Even if it weren't getting almost impossible to find a new CG5, the VX is a better finished, somewhat more solid mount. How about the competing mounts from iOptron? I haven’t used one of the new ZEQ25s or, indeed, any of that company’s GEMs. I’ve heard they are good performers, but using one would mean giving up NexRemote, and, more importantly, giving up the VX’s incredible NexStar goto accuracy. Not to mention, muchachos, that dagnabbed AllStar alignment, which your mercurial old Unk must now admit he likes.

Nota Bene:  I have in my hands Rock Mallin’s latest creation, the Mallincam Micro EX. I had high hopes of reporting on it here this week. Obviously, with the cancellation of the CAV run, that didn't happen. Rest assured, as soon as I can get the cam out under a dark sky, you will hear all about it. I did fire it up in the house, and your techno-challenged old Uncle was able to figure out how to work it without much trouble, which bodes well.

Nota Bene 2:  While bagging up stuff to throw out as we prepare to move, I ran across a long-lost set of pictures, including a few from the 1994 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, Miss Dorothy's first star party. So, I updated my article about that event with some of the pix and some additional text, even. See it rat cheer.

Next Time: Sketching…

Handy hint: iOptron counterweights fit this. That's how you get a 2.5-pound counterweight, since, as you've discovered, the existing 11-pound one is not quite enough for telescope plus camera.
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