Sunday, June 29, 2014
Return of the Denkmeier
This is just what I was afraid was going to happen, muchachos. “What’s that, Unk?” The arrival of summer has brought mucho clouds with it—big surprise. With the Solstice came the afternoon thundershowers whose clouds linger well past sunset. Not that I didn't have hopes for this past Saturday evening. The cotton-picking Clear Sky Clock (I still can’t get myself to call it “Clear Sky Chart”) showed a few light blue squares, so Unk high-tailed it to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site. I had a mission, you see.
The genesis of that mission came one recent morning when I was puttering around the New Manse. I don’t teach at the university in the summer, and I was caught up on my writing for Sky and Telescope for the moment, so I was idly rearranging some of the astro-gear I’d stashed in the shop when we moved in. What should I run across in the course of that but the case containing my good, old Denkmeier binoviewer.
If you were a member of our avocation about ten years ago, you’ll recall binoviewers, devices that allow you to use two eyepieces with a telescope for binocular-style observing, enjoyed a tremendous vogue for a few years. They’d been around for a long while before that in the form of surplus microscope stereo viewer heads, but the fields of view those permitted were limited due to their small prisms, and their minimalist optical coatings meant you lost a lot of light. They were cool enough for viewing the Moon and planets, but that was it.
As the 21st century got underway, though, TeleVue and other companies began selling binoviewers specifically designed for astronomical use, including on the deep sky. Using two eyes at the scope seemed a natural, and before long, in addition to TV, new outfits like Denkmeier, Siebert Optics, and Burgess Optical jumped into the two-eyed-viewing game with a wide range of binoviewers from inexpensive imported ones not much different from the old microscope heads to massive (and expensive) models capable of using 2-inch eyepieces.
For a couple of years, Unk was binoviewer crazy. I tried and reviewed not just the TeleVue and Denkmeier units, but models from Burgess, Celestron, and others. New binoviewers, including, natch, el cheapo Chinese ones, were hitting the market every day and the binoviewing forum on Astromart was insanely active.
Yessir, binoviewing was all the rage for a while. It almost took on the tenor of a holy CRUSADE against what us cognoscenti called “Cyclops (one-eyed) observing.” Then, after a few years, it all just stopped. Well, not really. There’s still an active binoviewer forum on the pea-picking Cloudy Nights BBS, but the binoviewer brigade is unquestionably smaller than it was in its heyday. Why? I’m not sure. Hell, I’m not completely sure why I stopped binoviewing.
Suddenly, Unk, like a lot of other folks, went back to Cyclops-style. In my case, it wasn’t because I’d come to dislike binoviewing. I’d just moved on to other things—largely Stellacam and then Mallincam video cameras. When it came to visual observing, those dadgum Ethos eyepieces had me in their grip. Stingy ol’ Unk wasn’t about to spend for pairs of ‘em and a 2-inch binoviewer that could handle the long focal length 100-degree jobs just to keep going with two eyes. So, the Denks stayed in their case for dern near eight years.
Which brings us back around to Unk idly peering at the Denks’ case one bright suburban morning. Almost against my will, I picked up said case, dusted it off, and carried it inside the house. There, I had a look at the Denkmeier Standard binoviewer. Still in perfect shape. There was the StarSweeper f/6 focal reducer I’d used with it on so many nights. And the pairs of Hands On Optics GTO Plössl eyepieces I’d accumulated for the Denk—I’d meant to upgrade to “better” (wider AFOV) oculars, but never quite got around to it before I stopped binoviewing.
Anyhoo, looking at the Denk, I began to recall how much fun I’d had with it, and soon went from reminiscing to becoming determined to take the thing out to the PSAS dark site Saturday night and see how it would work with my Edge 800 C8, Mrs. Emma Peel.
That was the plan, anyhow, and Saturday dawned reasonably clear. Then came those dadgum early evening showers, which left plenty of clouds behind when they finally moved out. Should I throw in the towel? When I’ve done that, I’ve often missed a great night, so I stuck to my mantra: “If It Ain't Raining, Head to the Dark Site.” Unk loaded up the 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, and lit out about 7:15 in the p.m.
This time of year, there’s always a chance the clouds you are seeing over your head are a local phenomenon, and that a few miles away you’ll find blue sky. That was the theory, but when I arrived at our much-loved observing site, an airfield that is closed at night, the clouds were, if anything, thicker than they had been at home. What was that off to the west? A lightning bolt in a particularly thick patch that appeared to be headed my way, dagnabbit.
I hung out on the field for another half hour to see if the sky would improve or if I’d be joined by any of my Possum Swamp A.S. compadres. “Nope” to both. I visited with the big yellow tomcat who makes his home in a hangar, killed a few more minutes walking around, and finally did throw in that accursed towel at about 8:30. With thunder booming and lightning growing ever closer, Unk quitted the field with no little alacrity. I hadn’t unpacked a thing, so it wasn’t long before I was back at the New Manse, ensconced in the den and watching Svengoolie, who was showing a goodie, Curse of the Werewolf.
I’d seen that urpic of a horror film just a few months back, though, so I didn't give it my full attention. Instead, between draughts of Yell I was ruminating on the question of what the next blog should be about. Since my plan to do dark site binoviewing was now in ruins, I thought I’d give the Mallincam Micro EX a good workout in the backyard. It had impressed me at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage in April, even though I’d had to shoot through sucker holes.
Alas, the weather gods ruled against the Mallincam, too. I hope to get the Micro out of mothballs soon, but I wasn’t able to last week, which was even cloudier than the previous one had been. Thanks to Mr. Jack Huerkamp, I have a new video cable and am ready to go whenever the weather changes for even the slightly better.
What about this week? There’s always the vaunted “My Favorite Fuzzies” and “My Favorite Star Parties” to fill in the holes, but then I had an idea (Unk still gets 'em occasionally). It occurred to me some of y’all missed the binoviewer explosion of a decade ago and might be interested in reading my review of the Denkmeier Standard from back then. This piece has appeared in several places over the years, including Cloudy Nights, and I was happy enough with it, but one look showed it could use some serious tweaking. Which is what I did. Next week, you should get “Revenge of the Return of the Denkmeier,” but this morning, from 2004, here is “Return of the Denkmeier”…
As some of y’all may have read, I had the opportunity to test the Denkmeier II Binoviewer a couple of months back. I was suitably impressed, but due to the weather we were experiencing down here on the Gulf Coast at the time, my opportunity to use the “Denk” on a variety of objects was limited.
Saturn looked great, the Moon looked great, but clouds and haze prevented me from using the binoviewer on any but the most prominent deep sky wonders. M42 was superb and so were a couple more bright Messiers, but conditions didn't allow going deeper. What I wanted to know was “How does a binoviewer, a modern top-of-the-line binoviewer, do on a wide variety of deep sky objects?” Especially dimmer ones. Sadly, the Denkmeier II had to go back to its maker, so I was left wondering.
Unk was not to remain in the dark long. The good folk at Denkmeier Optical soon asked if I'd like to borrow their newest baby, the Standard binoviewer, for further testing. Since my experience with the Denk II, the company’s 2-inch binoviewer (the barrel that goes in the star diagonal only; the eyepiece holders are 1.25-inch), had been positive enough to make me something of a binoviewing convert, I couldn't help but say "yes."
By way of background, before I tested the Denkmeier II, I was not much of a fan of binoviewers. I had never had much success using them. I couldn't easily merge their images, resulting in eyestrain and headaches. Even when I could get the two pictures together, objects, including the Moon and planets, seemed dim, and longer focal length wide field eyepieces were “vignetted”—their fields were cut off. I was pretty sure binoviewing was Not for Me.
You can read the story of my experience with the Denkmeier II in my review, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Binoviewers,” but to boil things down for y’all, I found it easy to merge images with it. Observing with the Denk II was far more comfortable and rewarding than I’d imagined.
In fact, the only criticism I had of the Denkmeier was its friction-fit eyepiece holders. None of my eyepieces ever dropped to the ground, and they would stay put when I slid them in and out for diopter adjustment, but they weren't as secure as they could have been. According to Denkmeier, that one problem had been corrected. They said both the premium Denkmeier II and the Standard Denkmeier (1.25-inch barrel) now had twist-lock self-centering eyepiece holders. I figgered that would be a far better arrangement and was anxious to see how well it worked.
When the box containing the new Denk arrived at Chaos Manor South, you can bet your old Uncle immediately ripped into that sucka. Within was a black plastic case of obvious sporting goods store heritage—a pistol case like they sell at Academy—that nevertheless provided adequate protection for the binoviewer and its accessories.
Inside that minimalist case was Denkmeier’s Standard SCT Package. In addition to a 1.25-inch barrel binoviewer, there was a 2" StarSweeper (focal reducer), a 2x "multiplier" lens (Barlow), and requisite adapters. The binoviewer itself? I could tell at first blush that the eyepiece holders on the Standard were a major improvement. Smoothly threaded, they held eyepieces securely when the lock rings were screwed down and seemed easy to use as well as attractive.
Naturally, the arrival of the new binoviewer brought considerable cloudiness with it. Apparently, the dreaded new scope curse doesn't just apply to telescopes. Nevertheless, I was able to get the Denk out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s in-town observing site for a shakedown one night. Using it there showed how much nicer the new eyepiece setup was, but the light pollution didn't allow me to assess what the Denkmeier could do with the deep deep sky.
For that, I needed dark skies. Well, the legendary Chiefland (Astronomy Village) Star Party was right around the corner. For those of y’all who've never attended that event, you dang sure should; the skies are D-A-R-K and the temperatures are almost always balmy into the late fall. The trip to the CAV is a reasonably easy one for me; it’s about 6 hours from the Swamp to Chiefland, which is roughly 65 miles north of Gainesville in the Florida interior.
Anyhoo, I packed up the Denk, a box of eyepieces, and my faithful NexStar 11 GPS, Big Bertha, one amazingly cloud-free November Friday morning, and my old friend Pat Rochford and I made tracks for the Chiefland. In due course, we were Checking into our usual “campsite,” the Chiefland Holiday Inn Express, and proceeding on to the CAV. There, as it always is for the two big bi-annual star parties, the observing field was jam-packed with telescopes and amateur astronomers, and it took us quite a spell to find a spot to set up our scopes.
For once, it looked like Pat and I had hit Chiefland just right. It appeared we'd be favored with two excellent nights, and we were. I spent the first one working my observing list (I am determined to finally finish the dadgum Herschel 400) in single eyepiece mode with the aid of the StarSweeper focal reducer. As I reported in my earlier review of the Denkmeier, I'm impressed with that gadget with or without a binoviewer. It provides a decent-looking field edge with most eyepieces, and I really didn't miss the Celestron f/6.3 reducer - corrector I normally use with the NexStar 11. One thing’s sure: the StarSweeper is mucho better than the f/5 reducers we used in the bad old days.
I did break out the Denk for Saturn on the first night, and with the planet riding high as 3 a.m. approached, the view in a pair of 8mm Plössls was freaking amazing. I was just blown away, campers. The color variations across the ring system, from the dusky red of the Crepe Ring to the dirty yellows and snowy whites of the A and B rings, was amazing. The disk itself was highly detailed, with the banding beginning to look more like Jupiter's belts than the faint pastel smudges you usually see on Saturn.
Yes, as I don't think many folks will dispute, you can see more detail on the planets with a binoviewer than with a single eyepiece, no matter how good that single eyepiece. But that’s the Solar System, which has always been the beat of binoviewers. Would the Denkmeier Deepsky Binoviewer live up to its name? That was a question for the next night. Just as I finished admiring the ringed wonder, the sky began to degrade noticeably and Mr. Pat and I retired to the Holiday Inn for cable TV and, in Unk’s case, a large portion of the Rebel Yell.
Saturday dawned clear and reasonably crisp (it’s hard to escape humidity down Chiefland Way, even in November), and it was obvious it was going to stay that way. Pat and I hit the Chiefland Wal-Mart for some necessities—beef jerky (for the field) and Kolorado Kool-aid (for after)—and proceeded to the CAV to prepare for what would obviously be a long evening of deep sky voyaging.
Enough with the Cyclops-style deep sky observing. As the Sun sank, I declared my NexStar 11 a "single-eyepiece-free zone" and got the binoviewer ready to go on the telescope’s rear port. Using the 1.25" barrel version of the Denk was not a huge hassle. Yes, the Denkmeier II has some advantages beyond a 2" barrel, including superior coatings and tighter optical tolerances. The Standard doesn't give up much of anything optically that I could see, however, and I found its smaller barrel not to be a problem.
A good 1.25 – 2-inch adapter, my compression-ring-equipped Intes, in a 2-inch star diagonal provided a secure mounting for the binoviewer and I didn't miss the larger barrel of the more expensive Denk. The Denkmeier Standard is, like any binoviewer, heavy, especially with two eyepieces onboard, and you definitely want to use it with a hefty 2-inch diagonal and adapter. The StarSweeper reducer, which is a 2-inch accessory, can either be attached to the the nose of the Denk via an included adapter or screwed onto any 2-inch – 1.25-inch eyepiece adapter that is threaded for filters—which is what I did.
I suppose the most memorable view I had on Saturday night was NOT M42, though I did take a good long look at it once it cleared the horizon, natcherly. No, the hit was M33. With a pair of 25mm Plössls in the Denk and the StarSweeper screwed-on, it was perfectly framed. Big enough to show plenty of detail, but enough dark sky around it to provide good contrast.
The first thing I noticed when Bertha’s slew stopped at the Triangulum Galaxy was how easy it was to see spiral structure. The Pinwheel shape was prominent. This was a good night, however, a very good night, so to make sure conditions weren't giving the Denk a big leg up, I removed the binoviewer and switched to a single eyepiece, a 22mm TeleVue Panoptic. The spiral structure was considerably less evident. Back in went the Denk in a right quick hurry. The galaxy's huge HII regions, its equivalents of our Orion and Tarantula Nebulae, were picked off one after another, but the real treat was the tiny burning nucleus of M33 winking in and out.
Of course, there's always the question of brightness when using a binoviewer on the deep sky. There is no question that a binoviewer decreases the amount of light reaching each eyepiece. There’s a beam-splitter dividing the light between two oculars, after all. How obvious and serious is this? With the Denkmeier Standard, it was evident but not a handicap. Yes, when I went back to Cyclops-mode observing, I could detect an increase in image brightness, but not as much as I expected. Anyway, the increase in detail I noted with the binoviewer was well worth a small brightness penalty.
Did this decrease in brightness make any objects normally visible in the C11 disappear when I used the Denkmeier? No. I found any galaxy visible with a single eyepiece was also visible in the binoviewer. I took particular care to check this, and looked at a variety of smaller galaxies in the magnitude 12 – 13 range. Any that were visible in a single eyepiece showed up in the Denks as well. As with M33, brighter galaxies that had details to give up gave up those details more easily to the binoviewer than to a Cyclops-mode eyepiece.
Sumpin’ else kinda cool about the Denk? You sure can "wow" people with it. Being a recent convert to the binoviewing religion, I naturally wanted to do a little proselytizing, but I didn't really have to. The word spread that I had a Denkmeier, the only one on the field, and that ensured I had a steady stream of visitors wanting to check it out. One look at M42 peppered with "3D stars" and I had plenty of converts.
3D? Yep. Obviously, the tiny baseline formed by the distance between your eyes ain’t close to large enough to show any sky object in true 3D. However, your brain doesn't know that. You are looking with two eyes, so you MUST be seeing in three-dimensions. The faux 3D effect produced by a binoviewer is both beautiful and downright startling.
There were, by the way, several other brands of binoviewers on the field and I had the opportunity to compare their performance to that of the Standard Denkmeier, if not in side-by-side fashion. My opinion? For me, the Denkmeier worked better and was more comfortable to use. I do understand "comfort" when using binoviewers is a subjective thing, and that what suits one person might not suit another, but I can only report what I experienced, y’all.
Did I say M33 was my fave? Actually, my most memorable observation at Chiefland was not M33. Oh, that was great, but the greatest sight came in the last hour of the star party, just before it was time to head back to the motel in preparation for the drive home in the morning. Done showing off M42 to yet more visitors, I moved the scope to the nearby and normally subdued Running Man Nebula just north of M42 in Orion’s Sword.
In the past, I'd often admired the star cluster there, NGC 1977, but I’d never been completely sure I'd seen the nebula around the bright stars, the Running Man. It's like the Merope reflection nebula in the Pleiades; it's easy to mistake scattered light in the scope/eyepiece for nebulosity. Nevertheless, the Denk pulled-out the real deal. Not just haze around bright stars, but a big thing fanning off into space and showing surprising detail—including a dark central region in the shape, of, yep, a little running man.
What a night! Wish you'd been there.
And so it went Down Chiefland Way back in 2004, muchachos. What Unk wonders nearly a decade later is whether he'll still like the Denk as much in 2014 as he did in 2004. I have hopes. And reservations—my eyes are certainly not what they were ten years ago, and I have never had a particularly easy time merging images, not even in low power binoculars. We shall see. Stay tuned.
Next Time: Revenge of the Return of the Denkmeier.
Sunday, June 22, 2014
Good Old CG5 (and a Little RSpecing)
Plenty of y’all like the Celestron CG5, muchachos; even members of the “An A-P Mach 1 is the minimum mount for astrophotography” crowd admit it was a pretty good little GEM (German Equatorial Mount) for a little money. But it still doesn't get all the credit it deserves. Mainly for being the mount that gave plenty of near-cast-off 1980s and 1990s SCTs a second lease on life.
Howsomeever, I come here not just to praise the CG5. No matter how fondly we remember Celestron’s first popularly priced go-to GEM—it was superseded last year by the new VX—it was not perfect. Not hardly. And reviewing some of those imperfections may help elucidate the situation regarding the VX, which—surprise—ain’t perfect either.
The GEM we know and love as the CG5 wasn’t actually Celestron’s first CG5. By the mid 1990s, the company was selling Chinese clone copies of the Vixen mount formerly sold with the Great Polaris C8, which was the follow-on from the company’s earlier C8 + GEM configuration, the Super Polaris C8. The GP C8 was popular, but it was only popular at a price point around 1000 dineros. With Vixen gaining popularity at the time and increasing prices out of all reason, that price point was impossible for Celestron to maintain.
Enter the CG5. The initial CG5 looked a lot like what we think of as a CG5 today sans motor housings and an electronic control panel. No go-to for this 90s GEM. You could, however, order it with a pair of bolt on Chinese motors that provided tracking and slow motion/guiding via a dual axis HC that ran off D batteries. Superficially, it looked a lot like a Great Polaris down to the D battery bag with its silly little “purse” handle.
Appearances often deceive in the import scope biz, however, and the CG5 was no exception. It was OK, mind you, especially if you took the time to clean out the Chinese glue-grease (made of ground up weasels, apparently) and relube it. Unfortunately, though, it didn’t have ball bearings. Plastic sleeve “bearings” were on both axes and that limited the mount’s performance potential. My good friend Pat Rochford had one of these proto CG5s for a while, which he rigged up with the Mel Bartels home-brew go-to system, and while his mount worked, it just barely worked.
When Celestron announced a go-to configurated CG5, the “ASGT” CG5 (Advanced Series Go To), I was appalled. Given my experiences with Pat’s CG5, I couldn’t believe this would work reliably, not unless major improvements were made to the mount.
Celestron (and Synta, the mount’s Chinese maker, who was soon to own Celestron) knew that, too, and had made improvements. The glue grease was gone. While the bearing situation on the declination axis was unchanged, there were now ball bearings on RA. The mount was also somewhat (if not a whole lot) better finished. The bolt-on motors had been replaced by servos in plastic housings. The non-goto CG5’s dreadful extruded aluminum tripod was trashed in favor of a hefty 2-inch diameter tubular steel-legged job. Maybe most importantly, go-to was furnished with a standard Celestron NexStar HC, which was getting better all the time.
Unk was still skeptical but not immune to the ASGT’s charms. I had been spoiled by the goto on my NexStar 11 GPS, which I got in 2002, and it was getting ever harder to make myself use my old fork mount Ultima C8, Celeste. Which was a shame. She had good optics, especially by the standards of the mid 1990s. Didn't matter. I was over polar-aligned fork mounts. I had had enough of navigating the sky with finder, Telrad, analog setting circles, and freaking Sky Atlas 2000.
Anyhow, it sure would have been nice to have a go-to rig a little lighter than the NS11. There was the non-GPS NexStar 8, but that telescope and the similar NexStar 5s I’d tried left me cold regarding their so-so go-to accuracy. Howzabout a NexStar 8 GPS? Unk, stingy then as now, didn’t want to pony up that much cash.
Hokay, I’d get me a cotton-picking ASGT CG5. Just the mount. I’d defork the Ultima 8 OTA, and give it a whirl. If I decided I liked using a C8 on a goto GEM, I’d put the CG5 on Astromart and get a good goto GEM. A Vixen or a Losmandy or sumpin’. I was sure the CG5 wouldn’t have the go-to chops to keep me happy.
My purchase of a CG5 was not without incident—Unk’s astro-gear purchases never are. On its way to me from Anacortes, Washington in the spring of ought five, the UPS truck it was in crashed and burned on the Interstate. The good folk at Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird got another one on its way to me promptly, however, and the delay gave me time to figger out how to get the C8 off her fork and equipped with a dovetail. It turned out that wasn’t much of a task. Removed some screws, and the Ultima 8, Celeste, was free of her old-timey mount. A few dollars to Scopestuff for the dovetail and maybe 15-minutes attaching it to the tube and we was ready to go.
As I have told y’all before, I was gobsmacked when I got the C8/CG5 combo into the backyard. I hadn’t expected much in the way of goto accuracy; nevertheless, after a simple three-star alignment, the mount placed anything I requested smack in the field of my 12mm Nagler. The hand control operation was identical to that of the 11 GPS, and Unk just fraking zoomed around the sky. The first night, anyway.
The second night? That was testimony to the split personality of the CG5. After my success at first light, I was anxious to give the mount a second night in Chaos Manor South’s backyard (which in the early spring of 2005 still had enough openings among the trees to allow me to see a few things). Started the alignment, the scope headed for star one, and kept right on going past it till I killed the power. “Well, hot damn. Dadgum thing lasted all of one night.”
The declination axis seemed to be the problem, so I opened up the motor housing. All seemed well. I put it back together and hit Chaos Manor South’s kitchen computer for a look through the archives of the (already burgeoning) ASGT Yahoogroup, which I’d joined when I first ordered the CG5. I was swiftly edumacated about one of the mount’s Achilles’ heels, POWER.
Seemed as this was one power hungry sucka. I was accustomed to getting two nights (partial nights, anyway) out of the NS11’s battery without charging it. That, I read, was not going to be the case with the CG5. If you didn’t start each evening with a fully charged batt’ry you was in for t-r-o-u-b-l-e. There was also the mount-side power connector. The center pin of which was composed of two halves that apparently never made good contact with the power cord’s connector.
The simple solutions, I read, were to charge your battery, natch, and to use a knife or jeweler’s screwdriver to gently spread the pin halves a mite. I did both things and hoped for the best on night three. I was rewarded with sterling, nearly unbelievably good, performance. It is no exaggeration to say I saw more with the C8 in the first year it was on the CG5 than I had with it the previous ten years. The Celeste went from being a bench warmer to being my most used scope again.
So the goto was good. How about tracking? Not bad, not bad at all. Now that I had a manageable C8 on a go-to mount, I decided it was time to try that fraking electronic imaging bidness again via the inexpensive Meade DSI. When I used the NexStar HC’s built in polar alignment procedure (the old non-AllStar one that had you center Polaris), I could easily get decent unguided 30-second sub frames I was able to stack into nice finished shots. When I moved up to a big-boy cam, an SBIG ST2000, I could do 10-minute self guided shots without much hassle.
As always, when it came to the CG5’s nature there was a good angel and a bad angel, however. Yes, the scope could guide well (some users had problems with stiction in dec guiding, but I never did). BUT… only if you were properly balanced, a little east heavy that is. Ignore that and you would get trailed stars. Move to a different position in the sky, maybe closer to the horizon, where your balance was not so hot? You’d get star trails again if you didn't re-balance. A pain in the butt, yeah, but manageable considering the mount’s 800 buck price tag.
I loved doing visual observing with the help of the CG5’s wonderful goto system, but that wasn’t perfect either. Those of y’all used to Celestron’s current GEM mounts, the VX, the CGEM, etc., are more than familiar with the 2+4 alignment method. Align on two stars, add (up to) four calibration stars, and your gotos are crazy good all over the sky. But did you know ‘twarn’t always so? That the original CG5 didn’t have no calibration stars?
What it had was a three-star alignment like the current SynScan mounts. That was OK, but, as with the SynScans, you had to be damned careful about your alignment star choices. As I found out during the mount’s first visit to the Chiefland Astronomy Village. That was, I recall, in the spring of 2006, and on the first night, things didn’t go as I’d hoped. As usual, I just accepted the three stars the alignment routine offered. Now for some Virgo galaxies. Alas, anything I slewed to was on the hairy edge of a low power eyepiece or just outside the field.
Standing on the crowded observing field with Pat Rochford, I thunk and I thunk. “Hmmm…the first alignment two stars shore were low on the horizon.” I powered down, did another three-star, and rejected the first stars the HC offered, selecting a pair a little higher up. BAM! Anything in the Virgo cluster was well within the field of my 12mm Nag again.
These were early days for the CG5, and Celestron was continuing to work on its HC code, so I figgered there would be improvements. I also knew those improvements would come at a cost. The original CG5 HC, you see, just like the original NS11 HC, was not upgradeable. Want improved firmware? That meant a new HC at worst or sending the controller back to California at best. Luckily, by the time I got my mount, Celestron had fixed the worst faux pas in the CG5 code—which caused runaway slewing during gotos and guiding.
|A cold CAV January, 2009...|
As I’d hoped, Celestron soon came out with a user-programmable hand control, and the improvements in the CG5 firmware began to come thick and fast. Some were a godsend, like the 2+4 alignment routine, others, like AllStar, took a while to catch on with me. While I usually ran the mount with NexRemote, I nevertheless bought a new “Version 4” programmable hand control for those times when I didn’t want to tote a computer. The 2+4 alignment was so good that after that firmware upgrade (version 4.10), I never used the original hand control again.
Finally, about five years in, another notorious CG5 problem bit Unk. The mount’s control panel was small and the power switch was correspondingly tiny. It was also crappily made. I have never heard of a CG5 switch that’s lasted more than five years.
Luckily, I knew what to do when the switch failed on me. Power light wouldn’t come on. HC was dead. I unplugged from the battery and exercised the switch mucho times. Plugged the power cord back in, turned the switch on and the power came up. I knew it wouldn’t last, though. Once that little switch went, it was a gone pecan. The answer—if you were lazy like Unk and didn’t want to replace the switch—was to leave it in the on position and turn power on and off by plugging and unplugging the cord. Not elegant, but it worked and still does.
Yeah, the CG5 was a great mount but it wasn’t perfect now matter what old timers like Unk “remember.” The new VX is considerably better in comparison. The CG5’s corners have mostly been rounded off. That nasty little power switch and iffy connector have been replaced. The finish of the mount is mucho bettero. It’s even a little quieter than the CG5, which as I have said more’n once sounds like a weasel with tuberculosis when slewing at high speed.
None of which makes me or the other folks who’ve received a bum VX feel much better, of course. As I related here, my initial mount head had improperly threaded holes for the declination shaft’s toe-saver and, fatally, for the tripod’s threaded rod. Bolted mount to tripod and that central bolt locked forever.
The up side, however, is not just that my replacement mount was perfect, but that us VXers didn't have to live through the travails of the CG5’s early adopters: runaway slews, punk alignments, slow boat gotos to nowhere, and more. The VX has had a few problems, but its introduction has been a helluva lot smoother than that of the old reliable CG5, that’s for sure.
The CG5 did mature, however, at least vis-à-vis the hand control and its firmware (mechanically the mount never changed much over its lifetime). In the end, the CG5 became a SOLID performer. But what’s it like to use one today, in this day of the VX and the innovative mounts coming out of places like iOptron? Unk thought he would find after not giving the CG5 a real workout in over a year. I’d had it out a few weeks back for some casual videoing, but I didn't take much care with the alignment or try to determine how it compares to the Victor X-ray. I also thought I might kill two chirpers with one rock.
I last reported on RSpec and the Star Analyser diffraction grating in January. Your old Unk was just on the crux, he thought, of learning the difficult art of astronomical spectroscopy using these excellent tools. RSpec is the software that allows you to acquire and analyze stellar spectra ; the Star Analyser is the 1.25-inch filter-like diffraction grating you screw onto your camera to turn stars into rainbows.
I was beginning to make progress, but then some things intervened. Mostly, the weather. As I don’t have to tell my fellow Southrons, it was a crazy-cloudy winter and early spring south of the Mason Dixon line. I got out a few times, but only a few, and the only really successful outing over those long months was at the 2014 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, where I was busy wrapping up the reimaging of some Herschel Project objects.
Now that June’s here, the skies have improved, though they are not perfect—that would be a lot to ask for on the Gulf Coast with summer coming in—and at the New Manse I can now observe from my backyard. There’s light pollution, and, worse, it’s been continually hazy, but that didn't hurt my lunar imaging none, and I didn't expect it would stop me from RSpecing either.
Setup last Saturday night was a leetle different. As I’ve mentioned previously, my best view of the sky is near the deck. I plunked the CG5 tripod down there, positioned a little table on the deck for my laptop, and put all the pieces together: Celeste on CG5, flip mirror in rear port, ZWO camera on flip mirror. Hooked the mount to the laptop via the NexRemote cable and got ready to rumble.
Need it be said that Uncle Rod’s observing runs do not usually go smoothly? My problems on this evening had nothing to do with the CG5, howsomeever. I had to pick a few alternate alignment and calibration stars due to trees, but that was it. Last cal star was near the center of my old Meade 12mm reticle eyepiece when the slew stopped. Polar alignment (via Polaris; stars to the south that would be good for AllStar are currently blocked by a tree) was a breeze. My last calibration star was Vega, so I left the mount sitting there. RSpec’s author, the talented Tom Field, advises you to begin with Vega when you are just learning, since it has a very prominent h-beta line, and is easy to “calibrate.”
I had used RSpec several times before, so I shouldn't still be “just learning,” but I had a sneaking suspicion I would be anyway. Too many months without using the program left me foundering. “How do I get it to connect to the ZWO camera? How do I set the exposure? Where do the files go?” I fooled around and fooled around, locked things up a time or two, restarted a few times and finally got back in the swing of things. Did a couple of .avi sequences of Vega, and moved on to Arcturus, Spica, and Aldebaran.
What’s it like using the CG5 in lieu of the VX? It ain’t that much different, y’all. Certainly the CG5’s goto is every bit as good. It was routinely placing stars on the tiny chip of the ZWO planet cam at f-freaking-10. Otherwise, about all I noted was that the mount does have more declination backlash than the VX. Reverse declination directions, and it can take quite a while for the mount to start moving. Not at all unmanageable, but worse than in the newer mount. Oh, and it’s definitely louder than the Victor X-ray. My new next-door neighbor stuck his head out mid-evening, no doubt wondering what that weird whining noise was.
Last star in the can, I headed to the den to watch the remainder of Svengoolie, who was showing a good one—Evil of Frankenstein—after a long dry spell. A little Yell and a little Hammer horror and it was soon well after midnight and time for some shut-eye. As always, I didn't even peek at my images; that would wait for morning.
Sunday morning, I did yet more fumbling on the way to getting my spectra calibrated (converting pixels to angstroms, that is), but I got ‘er done despite the fact that during our move I lost the RSpec cheat-sheet I’d made up. I still have a long way to go with spectroscopy and I am starting all over, but Vega, from what silly old Unk can tell, is my best spectrogram yet. RSpec was great. The Star Analyser was great. The ZWO was great. But what was the greatest despite its few blemishes was my wonderful old CG5. Long may she wave, muchachos, long may she wave.
Next Time: Revenge of the Return of the Denkmeier…
Sunday, June 15, 2014
Destination Moon Night Five
Life is full of adjustments, muchachos, but it sure seems like I’ve had more than my share to make over the last four years. First, I moved from the Navy’s AEGIS destroyer program to their big LPD amphibious ships. Then, as that program began to wind down, it was time to—shockingly—think “retirement.” Then came act 3, moving out of good old Chaos Manor South.
Despite all that, I tried not to slow down in my observing. In fact, I kicked it up several notches. Hell, I completed what will probably turn out to have been the biggest observing project of my life, The Herschel Project, where I viewed all of William and Caroline Herschel’s multitudinous galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. That wasn’t all; I also started a couple of subsidiary observing projects, including one I called “Destination Moon.”
That particular program goes back a lot farther than a mere four years, to my first days in amateur astronomy and my first love in the sky. The Moon was not the first object I saw through a telescope; that was the Whirlpool galaxy through the 12-inch Cave Newtonian at Springhill College when our Cub Scout Den visited their observatory. The Moon was the first thing I put in the field of a telescope myself, however.
As I have written before, the first telescope that could be considered “mine” was not the Tasco 3-inch Newtonian Daddy rescued from a pawn shop, but a 6-inch f/12 reflector built by one of the Old Man’s colleagues at the TV station where he was an engineer.
That person had become interested in making a scope and had fabricated the 6-inch from the ground up. All he bought was a mirror blank and abrasives. Everything else—tube, focuser, mount, eyepiece —was handmade. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with ATMs, he found he liked building better than using. When the OM mentioned his son had become obsessed with astronomy, that kind soul offered to turn his telescope over to me.
What was the scope like? When Daddy got it home after somehow loading it into the backseat of his 1960 Ford Fairlane, li'l Unk was excited, sure, but maybe not as impressed as he thought he'd be. Even by the simpler standards of 1960s amateur astronomy, the 6-inch was not much. Its tube was a white painted length of stovepipe. A long length of stovepipe, a smidge over 6-feet long. The mounting? A battered boom microphone stand the TV station had cast off. This mount’s “slow motion” was provided by a screen door spring. The mirror wasn’t old but looked it. Instead of having it aluminized, the maker had silvered it himself, and that non-overcoated silver had soon begun to deteriorate in our salty Gulf atmosphere.
|Cave 12...now that's a scope!|
And yet…to me this hulking thing was still beautiful. Beautiful with potential. While even a greenhorn eleven year-old could see the 6-inch was definitely a poor relation of Springhill’s beautiful Cave, that didn't matter. I knew, knew, it would show me things in the sky. Beautiful and mysterious things. Starting with that big Moon ascending in the east. It was full, and surely that would be the perfect time for lunar gazing. More to see, right?
What little Unk didn't know was that “full” means “noon on the Moon.” The Sun is high in the lunar sky, there are no shadows, and craters and mountains become nearly invisible. Oh, you can make out the bright ring-shapes of younger craters and the ray systems of Tycho, Copernicus and a few others. It’s also a good time to look at the Moon’s seas, the mare, but you are denied the beautiful, detailed terminator, the sunrise/sunset line that is a welter of detail.
All li'l me knew was there was a huge yellow Moon rising on a gentle spring night and I now had the power to explore it. Hell, this telescope made my classmate Stephanie’s 60mm AC Gilbert reflector look pitifully small. All I had to do to get started was get the Moon in the eyepiece.
Which wasn’t easy. My first problem was the tube’s length. Even given the Moon’s reasonably low altitude as 9 p.m. came on, aiming the tube in its general vicinity resulted in the eyepiece being over my head. Solution? Mama had recently made the proud purchase of a new dinette set, and one of the chairs from the old one was stationed in the carport for the Old Man's use when he worked on his radio projects in the utility room. I grabbed it and standing on the seat I could reach the eyepiece.
I looked into the eyepiece but no joy. I repositioned the tube best I could. Nada. The scope’s builder had neglected to provide it with a finder, and even the long focal length eyepiece (maybe 30mm) gave a magnification high enough, about 60x, to make locating anything crazy hard. Even today, I suspect it would take me a while to get the Moon in an eyepiece at that magnification by sighting along the tube. Worse, that tube was riding on a mount (if’n you could call it that) shaking like a sinner in the hands of Elmer Gantry.
But…finally…I noted a glow in the field, zigged a little up, zagged a little right, reversed directions and—dang—there she was. I couldn’t possibly have seen much detail on a full Moon, but even today I remember that first look as the most wonderful view of the Moon I have ever had.
My hollering, “Daddy, you have GOT to come look!” also summoned the three neighbor boys who were my regular playmates. Apparently, they’d been doing a little weekend camping out in the backyard and had been about to pack it in before things got too spooky (we knew from watching the Early Show that “Full Moon” equaled “Wolfman”). The five of us, Daddy, me, and my three companions, spent the next half hour admiring Luna.
Until the youngest of the neighbor boys burst into tears. Evidently, he’d developed the theory that Santa Claus didn't live at the North Pole, but on the Moon. He was only six and maybe he’d been influenced by another Early Show masterpiece, the very odd film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. When he couldn’t see Santa in the big scope as he’d expected, it was just too much. He ran home bawling his head off, his brothers said goodnight, and that was the end of my first glorious night on the Moon.
Which brings us around to this latter age. I still like to look at the Moon. Hell, one of the few things I could do from the old Chaos Manor South was drag the StarBlast or the 3-inch SkyWatcher refractor into the front yard for a quick look at those well-loved features. In the go-go days of the Herschel Project it was nice to occasionally pull back from the dim and distant and visit my old friend Diana again. It was also a little sad. Every time I looked at the Moon, I’d remember how much better I knew her surface when I was a sprout.
There was a time when I knew Earth’s satellite as well as I knew Mama and Daddy’s subdivision. That familiarity stuck with me well into the 1970s, until I turned almost completely to the deep sky and that hard-won knowledge began to fade away. One evening in the Old Manse’s front yard when I realized I couldn’t remember which Mare was Tranquilitatus, I decided I wanted the Moon back; I wanted to know Hecate again.
How would I relearn the Moon? When I was a little feller, I took Sir Patrick Moore’s advice and began to draw. I went a couple of clicks beyond what my mentor suggested, however. Rather than 100 prominent features, I resolved to draw all 300 shown in the beautiful old map in my 15th edition of Norton’s Star Atlas. That dern sure taught me the lunar surface. What if I did that again? Sorta.
I wasn’t up for doing all that sketching, but how about imaging? I’d been hearing about this cool new planet-cam, the ZWO ASI120MC. Didn’t cost much. What if I got me one of them? So I did, and began touring the Moon’s surface with it, which has been a ball. It’ s been slow going thus far, but I can now image the Moon on any clear night from the New Manse.
|Hazy Moon o'er the New Manse...|
Anyhoo, last week, with the Moon approaching First Quarter, I decided it was time to get Destination Moon back on the rails. Unfortunately, conditions weren't too good, in addition to the haze that’s been filling our skies of late, even when it is “clear,” there were scattered clouds. Normally I’d have said “frak it” and spent the night in front of the dadgum cable TV. With Miss Dorothy out of town visiting daughter Beth in DC, however, I was bored and lonely and wanted something to take my mind off that. Out came the CG5 and Celeste, my good old 1995 Ultima 8 OTA.
I inserted the ZWO in the rear cell of the C8 via my flip mirror, or, actually, into a 2x Barlow inserted in the camera port of my faithful Meade flip mirror—which I’ve been using for over a decade. If you want to do planetary imaging at long focal lengths, a flip mirror is a must. No matter how good your go-to, your scope may not put targets in the field of a small planetary camera chip at f/20 or f/30. A flip mirror lets you center your object in a crosshair eyepiece, ensuring it will be in the frame of the camera. When it’s in the crosshairs, FLIP the flip mirror down to send images to the camera.
If you’re using a planet-cam like the ZWO, you have to hook it to a computer, of course—no built in storage or image viewing with ‘em. I plugged in the camera’s USB cord and got a reassuring BING-BONG. The ZWO is so simple to run you wouldn’t think anybody would ever have problems with it. It’s powered by the USB bus, and images and camera control signals run over that single USB connection. Nevertheless, Unk being Unk, I’ve managed to get the poor little thing badly confused a time or three.
One of the best things about my planetary setup is the program I use to control the camera and capture images, Torsten Edelmann’s freeware masterpice, Firecapture. When it comes to planetary image capture programs, I’ve used ‘em all, from the simple like Sharpcap to elaborate ones like K3CCD Tools, and there is no doubt Firecapture is the best. I won’t talk your ear off about its multitudinous features or the fact that it is so simple to work that even a caveman—or Uncle Rod—can do it. I’ll just say, “If you are into Solar System imaging, DOWNLOAD FIRECAPTURE.”
The other half of my lunar imaging equation is the ZWO. Even at full resolution, 1280 x 960, my (color) ASI120MC will still capture frames at 30 - 35 fps. As I have said before, I haven’t found anything this little camera doesn't do well. I’ve used it for spectroscopy, Solar (hydrogen alpha) imaging, and may even get around to trying it on the deep sky someday—quite a few people are turning in remarkable deep sky images with the little sucker despite its small chip.
If that sounds interesting, I recommend you read my buddy Sean Walker’s excellent review of the (monochrome) ZWO in the July 2014 issue of Sky and Telescope. While Sean talks about the black and white camera, much of what he says is also applicable to the color one, and his review is dern sure information-packed. Another great review of the camera, this one by Jeff Turner, can be found here.
If that sounds interesting, I recommend you read my buddy Sean Walker’s excellent review of the (monochrome) ZWO in the July 2014 issue of Sky and Telescope. While Sean talks about the black and white camera, much of what he says is also applicable to the color one, and his review is dern sure information-packed. Another great review of the camera, this one by Jeff Turner, can be found here.
Anyhoo, brought up Firecapture (which I believe is now included on the DVD shipped with ZWO cams) and got ready to do some Mooning. Before I could proceed further, howsomeever, I had to get the CG5 mount aligned. That was simple enough. If you are using a GEM mount, all that matters is that you do a reasonable polar alignment and get the mount tracking at sidereal rate. I usually go so far as to at least do a Solar System alignment with the CG5 and VX—for a couple of reasons.
First off, I am lazy; it’s easier to let the scope slew to the Moon on its own than it would be for me to stand there mashing a direction button (or pushing my Logitech Wireless Wingman’s joystick when I am using NexRemote). For a Solar System alignment, you choose your object, the Moon in my case, and the mount slews to where it thinks the target should be given a perfect polar alignment, no cone error, and precise time. Since NexRemote uses PC time, which is generally purty accurate, the main variable is polar alignment. Just using a compass to “polar align” will usually ensure the scope stops with Luna somewhere close to the Telrad’s illuminated bullseye.
I use the Solar System Alignment rather than a normal 2 + 4 star NexStar alignment for my lunar work because I don’t want to wait till it is dark enough to see alignment stars. Our seeing down here on the Gulf Coast is usually good, but in my experience it is often best right after sundown. I get rolling as soon as it’s dark enough for the Moon to look reasonably contrasty on the laptop’s screen.
Alignment finished and the Moon in view of the flip mirror’s eyepiece, I focus up. My flip mirror is set up so what’s in focus in the eyepiece will also be close to focus on the ZWO’s chip. The flipper has a helical focuser that can be locked down with a knurled ring. When I first got the camera, I achieved good focus onscreen and adjusted the focuser so the Moon was also sharp in the eyepiece. I may still have to tweak focus a mite for the camera, but usually not much.
After I’ve got focus, I select my first lunar feature by moving the scope while looking through the flip mirror eyepiece. It has a much wider view than the camera, and it’s way easier to find what I want that way than by slewing around while viewing the image on the computer. When I locate what I’m looking for—usually a feature not far from the terminator, flip goes the flip mirror, and I go to the computer.
The rest is simplicity itself. I don’t mess with many of Firecapture’s numerous controls and features—though I may want to someday, who knows? I just frame, focus, and expose. With my target on the display, I’ll tweak focus till it is as good as I can get it—a motofocus system of some kind is as important as a flip mirror for good Solar System imaging results. When the Moon is sharp, or what passes for sharp most of the time—even way down here images will almost always be swimming/simmering due to seeing—I set my exposure.
I learned how to do that way back in ought-three when I was chasing Mars: adjust shutter speed till the subject looks good and bright on the screen, and then shorten the exposure so the image looks slightly too dim. That ensures a better frame rate and prevents overexposure, which is worse than underexposure.
When I’m satisfied with the preview image, I mash Firecapture’s record button. How long do I run a lunar capture? I find that around 800 – 1000 frames is usually plenty when seeing behaves. The ZWO will deliver that many frames in just a smidge over 30-seconds. I’ll generally do a couple more sequences of the target as “insurance” and in hopes of hitting a patch of superior seeing. Then it’s onto the next feature and repeat as needed.
On Night 5 of the Destination Moon Project, I wasn’t able to go as long as I needed or wanted. Dadgum clouds saw to that. Oh, and I was still figuring out where to set up the scope and screwed up. When I’d finished my first two target areas, the Moon was in pine trees. So it goes with your old Uncle Rod.
|Theophilus and company...|
Thus ended a too short lunar run. After the scope was put to bed, I retired inside to the cool and bug-free den for a little Rebel Yell and a little cable TV. The Yell was right good. The TV? Not so much. Of COURSE there was nothing at all on the 300 plus channels we get. I sat for a while watching the Weather Channel, got right tired of hearing predictions of more stormy weather, and ended the evening with the pea-picking BBQ Pit Masters. I was tempted to have a look at my images, but I know better than to do that. Even poor ones look mucho bettero in the morning. Off to bed went your weary Uncle.
Next morning after my requisite two cups of Community Coffee, it was time to run my Moon pictures through the amazing Registax 6. The process of doing that is a subject for a whole ‘nother blog, but if’n you’ve never heard of Registax, what it does is take the .avi movies produced by a planetary camera and stack the best frames into still images. It then allows you to apply freaking amazing sharpening tools to those images. We’ll talk about it some Sunday, but for now I’ll just say I did all that and was pleased with my results despite haze and seeing that was below par for the Coast.
“Cut to the chase, Unk, what did you image?” My first shot was the area of the remarkable crater Theophilus. I’d already essayed it for an earlier Destination Moon installment, but couldn’t resist “just one more” of it and its companion craters to start the evening off.
My favorite computerized lunar atlas, the only one I use, Virtual Moon Atlas, calls this 101km crater an “exceptional formation,” and it is that in spades. It is a sharp, steep-walled crater that shows tremendous detail, including a central mountain 1400 meters high composed of four separate peaks. As you might expect given its fresh appearance, the crater dates from one of the more recent if not most recent lunar epochs, the Eratosthenian (3.2 billion years to 1.1 billion years). This is one you have really got to see. As Patrick Moore says (in The Amateur Astronomer) “[Theophilus] is one of the most magnificent of all the lunar craters.”
Theophilus is not alone. It is in a group with two other craters of similar size. Cyrillus, with a diameter of 98km is just a little smaller than Theophilus. There is quite a difference in their ages, however, as you can tell just by looking at Cyrillus, which has an unmistakable eroded look. It was formed in Nectarian times, nearly 4-billion years back. Frankly, if it weren’t for nearby Theophilus, nobody would pay much attention to Cyrillus. It is soft, soft, soft with three central peaks that look like nothing more than rounded nubs.
The last big crater in this group is Catharina to the south of Cyrillus. This 101km formation also dates from the Nectarian, and is almost as worn looking as Cyrillus. Its walls do look a little steeper and sharper, but not much. What’s to see inside Catharina? A couple of ghost craters on the floor accompanied by some small craterlets and several small craters that have intruded on Catharina’s walls.
I probably should have quit while I was ahead, y’all. By the time the last Theophilus footage was in the can, conditions had degraded badly. I wasn’t about to give up the ship without capturing at least a couple of new ones for the Project, though. Which included another truly magnificent crater, Posidonius. This 98km “walled plain” formed in the Upper Imbrian period (3.2 – 3.8 billion years ago) is one of the most identifiable and remarkable sights on the Moon. What makes it look so cool is a flat, almost raised looking floor that is home to a looping network of rilles, lunar valleys. There’s also a fresh looking crater, Posidonius A, almost smack in the center. Finally, there’s 51km diameter ghost crater, Chacornac adjacent to Posidonius.
And that was that, muchachos, a measly two more added to the total. I sure hope to cover more ground next time, and believe I will if the weather gods allow it. I’ve got a better idea where to set up in the yard and I’ve re-familiarized myself with the ZWO to the extent that my fumbling should now be at a minimum (ha). Current Destination Moon tally? 50 down, 250 to go.
Next Time: More Star Rainbows…
Sunday, June 08, 2014
The Universe from My Backyard
With apologies to Astronomy Magazine's Dave Eicher, muchachos, whose The Universe from Your Backyard is still one of Unk’s favorite deep sky observing books over twenty-five years down the line. The subject this Sunday, however, is not the Universe from your backyard, but from my backyard, the backyard of the new Chaos Manor South out in the far western suburbs of Possum Swamp.
How is the sky? I will cut to the chase: it is hardly pristine. We are still inside the city limits after all. That said, even on the uber hazy nights we had at the end of May, I found I could pick up magnitude 4.29 Zeta Ursae Minorus without much trouble when it was a smidge over 30-degrees over the horizon. I believe on a clear, dry night I should be able to see stars well innto the 5th magnitude range without much hassle. Which may not seem like much for those of y’all who live in dark locations, but it danged sure is an improvement for little old me.
We had plenty of good times at the old Chaos Manor South, and despite city lights that brought the limiting magnitude to four or worse on a “good” night, I was able to do a fair amount of productive deep sky observing for ten years. Especially with my big gun, Old Betsy, who I received shortly after I moved into the Old Manse. Over the last decade, however, my backyard observing had been completely shut down.
That was due to the growth of the oaks that surrounded Chaos Manor South. My few windows on the sky were slowly strangled to the point where it was an exercise in frustration to try to see anything from the backyard, even when most of the trees were leafless in winter. Don’t even think about cutting down an oak tree in the Historic District, either. There was the front yard, but it was only good for casual looks at the Moon and planets. That was not just because of more trees; there were streetlights all up and down Selma Street. About the only deep sky work I did from home over the last decade was our yearly Christmas Eve look at the Orion Nebula.
So, on to the new place, which had a couple of things going for it astronomy-wise that I didn’t fail to note the Sunday morning Dorothy and I visited the open house. Most importantly, a fairly open backyard. There’s only one tree that will cause much of a problem. Dorothy and I have already decided the poor thing’s days are numbered.
Another (big) plus was the presence of an air-conditioned shop. It began life as a standalone garage, but had been improved with some sheet-rocking and the installation of a big workbench, a window air-conditioner, fans, plenty of AC outlets, and a connection to the main house’s alarm system. It was obvious that was where most of the telescopes would live (Mrs. Emma Peel, our year old Edge 800, and her VX mount are in the house with us). It was also obvious that would be where I would do most of my observing.
Miss D. and I have already discussed the observatory question and have decided a dome of some sort will eventually go in the backyard. What sort? We don’t know yet. Could be an Exploradome. Could be a Skyshed Pod. At the moment, the Pod is probably ahead in the running, but we decided an observatory is for next year. For now, I would do my Solar System imaging and Mallincamming by setting a scope up outside the shop and running it from inside.
Before I could do anything with the shop, however, it would need no little cleaning. It would have been best to do that before I moved in the scopes, mounts, and copious accessory cases, but they had to have a place to live during the move. Cleaning had to wait till we’d been in residence at Pine Needle Drive for a week.
And what a job it was. Don’t get me wrong, the folks who owned the house before us were scrupulous about maintenance and cleanliness. But the husband, a Coast Guard officer, had been interested in building hotrods, and that’s what he did in the shop, to include, apparently, lots and lots of grinding.
That the floors were covered with a fine film of what appeared to be a mixture of iron oxide and carbon wasn’t apparent at first, but it dern sure became so when I decided to sweep up. The result was me, the scopes, the gear cases, and everything else was soon covered in fine orange dust. The poor old RV-6 looked like she had been sitting on the surface of Mars for a year or three. It took the remainder of day one to clean up the gear and myself.
It was obvious what I’d have to do on day two: move all the stuff out of the shop, wash down the floors (and walls), give the equipment a second dusting/cleaning outside, and move it back inside. Doing that took the balance of a day. After enjoying my customary two cups of java on the New Manse’s deck just after dawn, I got to work in hopes of beating the heat of the day—we are already in the 90s F. down here, y’all. First step was rinsing floors, workbench, and walls with the garden hose. That done, I squirted plenty of Dawn dish soap on workbench and floor and began scrubbing with a broom.
The scrubbing, rinsing, and scrubbing again went on for a couple of hours till I wasn’t seeing any more black or orange in the water I was sweeping out of the shop. When that finally happened, I turned on the fans to help dry things out, grabbed dust rags and damp rags, and commenced cleaning the gear. I’d grab a case, dust it, and wipe it down till it was good as before. Actually better than before. Some of the gear had admittedly been on the dusty side—after not getting much use this long, cloudy year—before I’d moved it into the shop.
When I was finished, it was 3 o’clock, over eight hours after I began, and Unk was plumb tuckered despite having taken frequent breaks in the heat. A long, hot shower followed by a nap in the den (sans TV, alas; at this point we still didn’t have cable) brought me back to life somewhat. I decided that after all that work, I should give the backyard observing setup at least a preliminary try out. It would be a long time till astronomical twilight, and I didn’t know if I was going to make it that late, but I thought I could at least get some shots of Jupiter in the gloaming with my amazing little ZWO planet cam.
First order of bidness was finding a place for the computer, the Toshiba laptop. The workbench was not only too high for the seated use of a PC, it was on the wrong end of the shop. I set up my camping table, the one I use for the PC and video monitor at star parties, near the door and ran the cables out to the scope.
On this evening, that scope was the time-tested pairing of Celeste, my 1995 Ultima 8 OTA, and her CG5 mount. In addition to a USB cable (plus two extensions) for the ZWO, the cabling consisted of the NexRemote line for mount control, an extension cord for the mount and dew heater power supplies, and the JMI motofocus cord for focusing. Only hiccup was that it looks like I will need a longer motofocus cable. I had enough slack for the focuser, but just barely enough.
How’d it go? Purty good, despite me not having much in the way of results to show for it. Poor seeing and a low Jupiter prevented me from getting any shots that were worth a hoot. Oh, and the skeeters were back in force. I lit off the Thermacell for the first time this year. I’d taken it with me to the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage a month ago, but hadn’t had to use it, not even in the wilds of Louisiana. I dern sure did have to use it this night in my backyard.
That was the bad. The good was that while not as convenient as having an observatory, the setup was far less labor intensive than hauling all the stuff to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site. Throwing the Big Switch at the end of the evening was much easier, that’s for sure.
Without wheelie bars or a dome, I still had to remove OTA from mount and carry both inside separately, but I didn’t have to pack all the cables, power supplies and other astro-junk back in cases. Nor did I have to drive home; I was home. I laid the stuff out neatly on the table for use next time and quitted the shop, heading inside for a little Yell and a DVD of Season One of the pea-picking X Files.
I pronounced Run One from the new Chaos Manor South a success, but what I was really interested in finding out was what the Mallincam, maybe equipped with a light pollution filter, would bring back from the skies of the New Manse. Had to wait a few days to see about that. The surprisingly long clear, dry spell we’d been having ended the following day with heavier haze that turned to clouds on Memorial Day and dadgummed thunderheads shortly thereafter.
Would you be surprised if I told you everything didn't go smoothly last Wednesday night, the clear (if hazy) evening I chose for my first Mallincam Xtreme run from the new place? Nope, prob’ly not. As I have said before, it wouldn’t be an Uncle Rod observing run if everything went as planned. I certainly had my share of foul-ups, but you might be surprised if I told you that for once the only major malfunction was not Unk’s fault.
I set up as I had the first time, Celeste and the CG5 outside the shop door, maybe a little closer to the door this time so as to give myself more slack on the Motofocus cord. I’ve ordered an extension cable (Unk’s way too lazy to build one himself), but it has not yet arrived. Fired up the scope and went back inside the shop to get the computer going. I thought that if there were any problems they would have to do with that Bad Tree blocking the East – Southeast and my view of alignment stars.
I intended to keep things uber simple and record video on the laptop using my EZ Cap frame grabber cable. I’ve formerly eschewed that for a couple of reasons. One being that it’s so convenient to be able to pop the SD card out of my Orion StarShoot DVR. Insert the SD into the desktop and my videos are ready for viewing and processing on the main PC. No copying nothing off the hard laptop’s drive. No figuring where to tell the Mallincam capture module (I am still using the original Mallincam Xtreme software for now) to put it—or finding it later. The video the StarShoot records is not perfect; there are some compression artifacts, but it still looks mighty good even on our 60-inch LG.
The other reason is that I have not yet figgered out a way to record audio to the computer from a microphone while I am recording video. Maybe one of you smart folks can tell me how the hell to do that. One of the things I like most about the little Orion recorder is that it has freed me from using an outboard audio recorder for observing notes. I went from micro-cassettes to a solid state recorder, which was an improvement, but using the dadblamed thing was still awkward. With the Orion, once I get an object on screen, I just mash the one-button (wired) remote, it begins recording video, and speak my notes into its built-in mic in a more or less normal tone of voice.
While the StarShoot ain’t much more than half the size of a pack of smokes, I thought I’d eliminate it for this one run. I wouldn’t be doing any serious deep sky work, and leaving it in the house would mean one less piece of gear to worry about. Two less, actually. The Mallincams don’t have quite enough drive, enough oomph, to feed video to both a recorder and a monitor at the same time. So, I use a little analog switchbox left over from the VHS days. When I have sumpin onscreen I want to save, I mash the switch to send video to the StarShoot, engage that one-button remote and record to my heart’s content.
Alrighty then. Scope power on. NexRemote lit off. Let’s plug in the frame grabber and get the Mallincam software capturing. I tried to do that, but computer did not seem to be seeing the EZ Cap. What the—? It had worked perfectly during my tests just before we moved out of the Old Manse. Unplugging and replugging the thing from its USB port didn't help—no bing-bong. Restarting the Toshiba didn't work either. I wondered what I should do next. I could think of a couple of troubleshooting steps, but I was now burning dark as astronomical twilight came and went. That would normally have been OK, but the weather goobers were predicting clouds after 2200.
Dagnabbit! Twarn’t nothing for it but to drag out the DVR and the switchbox, hook ‘em up, and keep on trucking. Which was what I did, but I most assuredly did not keep on trucking. I could see there was no “raster” (or whatever you call the presence of a video signal in these digital days) on the monitor, and checking the “crosshair” box on the Xtreme control program didn’t result in crosshairs being drawn on the portable DVD player I use as my monitor. Well, what in the h-e double L was I gonna do now?
Then, as occasionally happens, one of my few remaining brain cells decided to do its thing and fired. Last month at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, I’d had video problems when I was doing my initial testing of the Mallincam Micro. I’d thought they’d had something to do with the connector on the little Mallincam. But maybe not. Maybe they were due to a fraking BAD CABLE. The same cable I was using now.
A little of the old jiggle, jiggle proved that to be the case. Moving the cable would result in me briefly getting a picture. Unplugging and reseating it more firmly didn't help, unfortunately. Apparently the cable had deeper problems. Luckily, I recalled I had a semi-spare. “Semi” because I knew the other cable had some kind of a problem, too (that I’d never got around to diagnosing). But I also remembered it worked most of the time and that would have to be good enough.
Plugging up the new cord got me video immediately. It was now time to see whether I’d be able to center enough alignment and calibration stars to get decent goto performance. Star One, Pollux, was visible, barely. Star Two, Arcturus was behind a tree. Vega was rising right over the house, though, so I used it. It was now time to do the four NexStar calibration stars, which greatly improve goto accuracy. By running through all the star choices with the Undo button, I was able to find three that were visible. That proved to be enough. When the scope slewed to the third star, Mizar, it was near the center of the monitor’s crosshairs when the mount stopped.
Sheeesh. Between fumbling with the fricking-fraking video cord and “undoing” bunches of cal stars in the search of visible ones, I’d been outside for over an hour and had absolutely nothing to show for it. Normally, I would have done the NexStar’s polar align procedure next, but that would have probably meant doing yet another 2+4 alignment, which did not appeal (if you have to move the mount much in altitude and azimuth to polar align, you will need to redo the goto alignment). Given the light polluted, hazy skies, I didn't believe I’d be able to go longer than a 14-second exposure, anyhow, and since I’d been careful about eyeballing the North Star through the CG5’s hollow polar bore, I thought we might be in Good Enough territory.
Hokay, rubber meets road time. I mouse clicked the virtual hand control buttons to enter “M82,” mashed the virtual Enter button, and crossed my fingers. Celeste’s CG5 made the weasels-with-tuberculosis sounds common to all CG5 mounts and stopped. On the monitor? I could see M82 was dern near centered, but OH! MY EYES!
Even at 14-seconds, the sky background was bright. Real bright. Then I realized the Xtreme’s gain was still set to the “6” I use at dark sites. It would obviously have to be dialed-down. I went to “4,” and while waiting for the camera’s 3-minute “safety timer” (to prevent a camera crash when you change settings) to run out, I took the additional step of screwing my Orion Imaging Filter onto the Xtreme’s nosepiece. It is a mild light pollution filter much like the old Lumicon Deep Sky, and while I haven’t used it a lot since I bought it a couple of years back, when I have put it on the camera I’ve noticed it does darken the sky background a mite without dimming galaxies much.
“Now that’s better.” I still don’t like consarned Wendy’s hamburgs, but the above and a little tweaking of the gamma resulted in an image that was respectable. Color looked OK, and—dang—I was actually seeing a right fair amount of bright and dark detail along Cigar’s strange disk. Nearby M81 was OK, but I wasn’t seeing any arm detail. That takes more exposure and more gain and that wasn’t going to play well from the backyard. I moved on. Where did I move on to? Bunch of Messiers and some NGCs, too…
M97, the Owl Nebula. I was somewhat to surprised to see old Owley show up. But there he was, and he was even showing the weird dark patches that are his “eyes.” Hell, I could even make out his green hue.
M108 is just a hop, skip, and a jump from M97, so that’s where I went next. Even in dark skies, this isn’t the brightest galaxy around, but it was visible and showing off a little of its nice disk detail.
M101. I couldn’t possibly see the Catherine Wheel Galaxy from my backyard, could I? I went there anyway. It didn’t put my eye out, but it was visible the instant the slew stopped. It was even visible with a freaking 7-second exposure. At 14-seconds, I saw the magnificent face-on Sc’s spiral form easily enough.
M13. How ‘bout some eye candy? It’s hard to make the Great Globular look bad in a Mallincam no matter how compromised the site. It was magnificent, rising over the New Manse. Nuff said.
M92. Hercules other, smaller glob wasn’t half-bad, neither.
I wasn’t completely sure I’d see Hercules’ little Turtle Nebula, NGC 6210, but the oddly shaped planetary nebula was eminently visible.
M57 is another one that looks good under any circumstances, and it surely did.
I’d done forgot M51. How could I do that? There I went. While not as good as it is from a dark site where I can pump up the gain and exposure, I’ve definitely had worse views of the Whirlpool.
Wonder how NGC 4565 will look? Not like it does from the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site, but not bad. The dust lane and the Day the Earth Stood Still flying saucer shape were there.
And so it went, campers, me sitting snug in the shop, issuing gotos and viewing marvels on my little monitor. Till about 10 p.m. when I noticed images were becoming lackluster. Even M13 wasn’t so hot when I revisited him. Had the predicted clouds begun to move it? I stuck my head outside for a look. Nope, still clear. Well, damn, what now? Couldn’t be dew could it? Maybe I should turn up the ‘Buster? It was then I noticed both the DewBuster’s lights were blinking in unison. When do they do that? “When the controller is turned on without the temperature probe and heating element being plugged in, Unk. You dummy.”
I reckon I could have hunted up my dew-zapper, my 12-volt winder defroster, and cleared the corrector, but, to tell y’all the truth, after all the alarums and excursions I was a mite weary. Even though there wasn’t a whole lot of packing up to do, there was, as above, still some. I threw that cursed big switch, and when Celeste was tucked in I headed inside for a little Rebel Yell and a little Atlanta Braves baseball courtesy a replay of the evening’s game on the cable TV.
Next morning, after reviewing my SD card full of videos, I located the Two Men with a Truck box that contained my multimeter and checked that dang Mallincam cable. I was hoping it was a connector problem, but my testing revealed the cord had a problem somewhere along its length. In other words, it was ready for the ol’ round file. Reckon I’ll have to rustle up a replacement. Gull dernit.
The EZ Cap? Almost unbelievably, yet another cable problem; in this case, the frame grabber’s little USB extension. Plugged directly into a USB port the EZ Cap worked. Plugged into a USB hub, it worked. With the extension? No-go. Into the rubbish bin went the cord.
Naw, things didn’t go that smooth, but I didn’t expect ‘em to. This is a new situation and the start of a new observing life for me. I knew there’d be plenty of wrinkles to iron out in the beginning and for a while thereafter. I am overjoyed with these early results of mine, but there are changes and decisions aplenty ahead. One thing I discovered is that there is a far better view of the sky from the area of the deck than from closer to the shop.
It may actually be better to set the scope up next to the deck and operate from the deck. Once I get a Pod in, I may sit with the laptop on the deck on pleasant nights (don’t think I want to sit inside a freaking Pod). When it is c-o-l-d, I may run things from inside the sun room. Yeah, there’s a right long road ahead, but the thing is, y’all, after all these years I can finally see the deep sky from home again. That is one hell of a change for the better.
What’s up next? There’s a Moon back in the sky, so, assuming the clear weather hangs in (you know what they say about “assume”), muchachos, I’ll be back to my Destination Moon project with the ZWO and maybe with Big Bertha, our NexStar 11. The next Big Thing on the agenda, however, is—once I have a new video cable—more testing of that cute little Mallincam Micro. I intend to do that in conjunction with checking out a new Mallincam control program, AstroLive, which looks like it could be the kitten’s meow. Stay tuned, you-all.
Next Time: Destination Moon Night Five…