Sunday, August 09, 2015


Get Ready...

Yeah, I know, sitting under stagnant and hazy or cloudy and stormy skies as August comes in, it’s difficult to believe the fall star party season will soon be here, but it will be. It actually gets under way for me in mid August with the famous Almost Heaven Star Party in West Virginia. From then on for me it’s one after another till November begins to wane, often as a speaker, but sometimes just as an attendee seeking relief from the months of deep sky deprivation we’ve typically been through thanks to a stormy summer.

I won’t be taking a telescope to AHSP, but I will be hauling a load of gear to the other ones I do this fall:  the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, the Peach State Star Gaze, and the Chiefland Star Party. Maybe even one or two more. I don’t just plan to do a bunch of star parties this fall, either; I plan to do ‘em right after a near-all-summer layoff. I’ll be packing Big Bertha, My C11, and her CGEM mount—or at least Mrs. Emma Peel, the Edge 800, and her VX GEM. Mallincams. DSLRs. Computers. Monitors. The whole nine yards.

Seeing as how we’re barely two months out from PSSG, I thought I ought to slowly, ever so slowly, begin checking out the gear that has sat unused for most of the last six months. So, on a particularly rainy Wednesday afternoon last week I began the process of getting the star party stuff sorted. Maybe you should do the same…


You might not have to do anything to the telescope. If you’ve got an SCT or a refractor or another semi-sealed tube scope that’s done nothing but sit, you probably won’t have to do much more than give the corrector or objective a quick eyeball to make sure it doesn’t need attention. Don't mess with it unless it needs it; as you know I am very much against cleaning optics unless they are really dirty.

However, if yours is an open tube scope, a Newtonian for example, it might be time to clean. I don’t clean the mirrors of my Newts every year, though; I don’t have to. “But Rod, but Rod, I shined a 10,000 candlepower flashlight down the tube and saw some dust!” Leave that dust alone, Skeezix. It’s not hurting you. Optics will almost always have a little dust on them, and it will not affect images. Yes, modern mirrors are over-coated and their surfaces are not as prone to damage as they used to be, but you still run the risk of doing more harm than good by cleaning. Pollen, fingerprints, bird poop? Yes, clean. A little dust? No.

If you simply must clean, go the traditional route.  Rinse in the sink. Wash with tap water with a few drops of Dawn dishwashing detergent added. Scrub problem areas with wetted lens tissue or white Kleenex applying little or no pressure. Rinse with distilled water. Correctors and objectives? I use a Lenspen for small areas. For larger areas I employ the time tested combination of original blue Windex, original white (no lotion of course) Kleenex, and canned air.

Otherwise? Check out your OTA (optical tube assembly) fittings. I like to mix and match different finders with my scopes, so I always triple check that the finder in the case with the scope is the correct one for the finder mount shoe currently installed on the tube. If you have an illuminated finder, now is the time to replace those cursed little button cell batteries. Give the focuser a few twitches to make sure it’s in tune. Maybe polish up the scope’s tube with a little Pledge if you want to impress your buddies, and you are done.


This used to be easy. “Does it still move when I undo the locks?” “Does it track in R.A. when I plug the plug into a wall socket?” That was it. Today, it is far more complicated since you are likely using a computerized goto mount or at least digital setting circles. At the minimum, I’d set the mount and scope up in the house and do a fake alignment and few fake gotos to make sure the scope points in approximately the correct directions given the time you entered in the hand control. Check all cables and connections and clean with zero residue electronics cleaner as required.

Doing a fake goto alignment in the house or seeing if your digital setting circles seem to “track” OK when you move the scope is a minimum. Personally, I would not think of taking an electronically assisted telescope, especially one that hasn’t been used in a while, to a star party without a complete check-out in the backyard.

If your mount, like most of Celestron’s newer ones, features a real time (battery backed) clock, make sure it is still keeping time. If you have not set the time in months, it will no doubt be a few minutes off, but shouldn’t be more than that. If it is, replace the battery. Go ahead and change the battery in your digital setting circles computer whether it still seems OK or not. 9-volt batteries are cheap and it’s easier to replace one at home in the daytime than in the middle of the night on a dark star party field.

Finally, get your power squared away. If you will be using batteries, make sure they are in good shape. The best way to do that is by keeping them in good shape. Lead-acid batteries (including jump start battery packs) should be charged for 12-hours after each use. If they have not been used over the course of a month, charge them for 12-hours anyway. If you are smart, you will test your batteries with a battery tester before the event. Jump start packs have built in ones, but one for your golf-cart or deep cycle battery is only a few dollars. Checking the voltage of a battery not under load with a multi-meter will tell you little. A battery tester is better and is convenient to use.


Check ‘em out. Make sure the ones you’ll want to use at the event are in your case. In the course of observing from the backyard, my oculars tend to get distributed around the house. Cleaning? Sure, if they’ve got gunk on ‘em, clean ‘em. Eyepieces are like camera lenses; they are tough compared to first-surface mirrors and will stand up well to repeated wrong-headed cleaning. I use nothing but a Lenspen on eyepieces.

Might be a good time to fill in the gaps in your eyepiece collection. If you, like me, are addicted to 100-degree apparent fields of view, this is a particularly nice time. Several vendors—Explore Scientific, SkyWatcher, Meade, Lunt, and William Optics—have introduced lines of ultra-wide 100s in the 200 dollar range. About what I paid for my Zhumell Happy Hand Grenade 16mm 100-degree a few years ago. And guess what? All are very much better in every way that the good, old HHG.


Do the usual things…make sure all the software you’ll want to use is installed and operational. That’s particularly important right now, since many of you will have just updated to Windows 10. Now, Win 10 is much more like Win 8 and Win 7 that it is different, so theoretically there shouldn’t be any compatibility problems. What ran on 7 or 8 should run on 10. But, like I always say, “Trust but verify,” which is one of the few things Ronnie R. ever said that I (sort of) agreed with. It might not be a bad idea to test your really critical programs, like auto-guiding software, in the backyard or at the club site.

Make sure you’ve got your computer power sussed, too. If you are going to be at a site without AC, you’ll need batteries. Unless you are running a little netbook, it is unlikely your laptop’s internal battery will last more than a couple of hours. How much battery you need depends, of course, on your computer’s power consumption.

Even if your site has AC power, you might consider taking along a battery for the computer (and scope, too). I’ve been to more than one event where every single power outlet on the field was taken up by the time I arrived, and I had no choice but to run on batteries.

How do you actually run a laptop on a battery? There are DC to DC solutions, but most convenient for me is a simple inverter. DC to AC inverters put out power more than good enough to keep the laptop’s internal battery charged. Choose one with enough current capability to suit your machine (taking into account any devices like cameras that will be powered from the USB port of the computer). Harbor freight is a good source of inverters. A 17ah jump start battery will power my laptop for an entire run, and I found an inverter at HF that plugs right into the jump starter’s cigarette lighter socket.


If you will be taking pictures, check the camera thoroughly. Shoot some pictures if possible. Even just terrestrial ones with a DSLR or a quick grab of the Moon with a CCD. Ensure all the cables you need are present and in good shape—please triple check this. Adapters to attach your camera to your telescope should be in the camera case, not on a shelf somewheres. Other imaging items like guide scopes or off axis guiders should be in the camera case or telescope case, too. If you run a DSLR, make sure the camera battery is in good shape, that you have an extra on hand and that all are charged. If you want to be extra safe, you’ll invest in a 12volt or AC adapter for your DSLR.

If you use a cooled CCD camera and your camera features a desiccant pack that keeps the interior of the camera dry and frost free, make sure the desiccant is ready to go, that it is dried out. With most cameras that involves baking the desiccant plug in an oven at low temperature for several hours. A few cameras allow/require you to replace the desiccant. Do whatever you need to do; a frosted-up chip makes a CCD camera utterly useless.

Camping gear

If you camp on the field like I occasionally do—when there is no other alternative, usually—inventory your stuff: tents, sleeping bags, cots, camp tables, and ancillary items like camp stoves, fans, and heaters (ones that are safe for use in tents).

This is the time to replace or add to your camping stuff as required, in late summer while the outdoor stores still have plenty of camp-out stuff on the shelves. Is your tent in good shape? Large enough, and, most importantly, tall enough, to make it bearable for a few days? A small tent you cannot stand up in when you are changing clothes, is a recipe for, yes, an unhappy camper.

Pay attention to your sleeping bag. Is the one you have appropriate for the temperatures you’ll face? What will you put the bag on? Some people can live with air mattresses or even foam pads. Not moi. I like to put my bag on a cot, which is a much more comfortable arrangement for me. Not only is a cot more comfortable, being off the cold, cold ground, even with a good bag, keep you warmer.

Finally, if you are using a Coleman stove or a catalytic heater, make sure these things are in good working order and that you have enough gas bottles to last your entire stay (always buy at least several more than you think you will need; propane is cheap). If you are planning on cooking your meals onsite (not me), begin gathering up the pots and pans and implements you use when doing camp food.

Assorted Stuff

You’ll likely need extension cords. Round up yours and make sure they are longer than you think you will need. If you are in the least doubtful, get to Wal-Mart and buy an inexpensive but reasonably heavy duty outdoor cord. While there, pick up plenty of batteries in sizes appropriate for everything you have that needs batteries.

One other thing you might as well take care of is warm weather clothing. If you’ve been at amateur astronomy for a while, you know that you will never be colder than you are when you are out under a clear sky standing stock still or nearly so for hours looking through a telescope. If you don’t have enough warm clothing (layer yourself), get to the store and get what you need when they start putting out the winter things (won’t be long).

Along the same lines, visit an outdoor merchant—Academy, Bass Pro, etc.—ASAP and get a season’s supply of those little chemical hand warmer packs. They are useful to keep not just you warm, but also things like telescope hand controls. Unfortunately, the stores, down here anyway, tend to sell out quickly since hunters snap them up as hunting season nears. “Early bird catches the worm” and all that rot.

And that does it for now. Squirrel your new purchases away somewhere where you’ll be able to find everything easily in a month or two when it is time to PARTY. When we get a little closer to that time, we will take up the next step: getting all that stuff in your vehicle.

Rod - really appreciate the good gouge you put out on practical preparations! Going to the AHSP for the first time...looking forward to it!

Great advice, Rod! From years of experience forgetting thing, I use a detailed checklist of prep tasks and a list of all the gear I'm taking (or might take). I don't trust my memory. As final insurance, I check them off as I pack it into my vehicle, and this makes it less stressful.

Regarding CCD cameras (especially those for planetary imaging), I also inspect the chip with a lighted magnifier and clean them if needed. Tiny bits on the chip glass can mean big "boogers" that will ruin your images. Chips attract dust and it seems to always be right in the middle of the image, and they mysteriously show up even when it was fine the last time you used the camera. It is a pain to clean chips in the dark on the field.

Clear skies!

Alan C.
HI Alan:

You can go wrong keeping your gear in top shape. However, I don't worry to much about dust on the chips anymore. The Canon DSLRs do a great job of keeping themselves clean with their cleaning mode. The CCDs? Unless it gets to egregious, I just do good flat...
One thing I would add is a good chair or two. One for general sitting about, preferably with an attached side table and a recliner like a zero gravity chair if you do anything with binos. I am preparing for a star party now and already have a mountain of gear in the garage ready to go. After years of star parties I have narrowed things down to take just one scope. I wholeheartedly endorse the cot vs air mattress as they are as comfortable as my own bed and much warmer off the ground. I also bring an easy up gazebo so I can have shade during the day and shelter at night. As I do astrovideo, it also acts as a light shield so I don't disturb others. I set up my scope on a ground sheet (tarp) to minimize dew and to capture dropped items. ......Dwight
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