Sunday, December 24, 2017


Issue #551: Merry Christmas Eve from the Astroblog!

Well, it wasn’t quite a white Christmas on the Gulf Coast, but, as you can see from the picture at left, taken a couple of weeks previously, we came close. Closer than in years, and years, and years. Maybe since the 1950s.

Anyway, what is Christmas without the Christmas Eve edition of the little old blog from Chaos Manor South? That has taken several forms over the eleven years we’ve been on the air here (hard to believe it’s been eleven freakin’ annums, true believers). Sometimes it’s been an epistle to Christmas Eve and its ghosts. Sometimes it’s been memories from my Christmases Long Past. Once in a while it’s been a short and sweet “Merry Christmas Everybody and Goodnight!” I thought this time might be a little different. Perhaps a recap of my astronomical year, something I’ve normally reserved for New Year’s.

Before we get to that, “MERRY CHRISTMAS CHARLIE BROWN!” And a wonderful night before Christmas, too. This one looks to be calm and uneventful here. Just me and the cats watching Netflix. Naturally, I put a telescope in the backyard, my 3-inch f/11 achromatic refractor, in hopes of getting my traditional Christmas Eve view of that most beautiful and numinous of all ornaments, M42. Shall we step out into the cold and have a look?..

“OK…what did I do with that darned red dot finder? Oh, yeah, I was using it with the Meade APO. Here it is…hope I remembered to turn the sucka off. Lucky Orion is in a sucker hole...looks like fog coming in. OK…smidge to the right and up.” And there it was, shining brightly through the suburban light pollution and lingering haze. Did M42 look as good as it does with a big scope at a dark site? It did to me. This was my first Christamas Eve look at the Great Nebula in a while, and I cannot help but think it’s a good omen for the coming year (fingers crossed, y’all)…

However, on this deep night the subject is 2017, not 2018.

Winter 2017

The year began with the end of my series on observing the Messier objects as we signed off with Messiers 107, 108, 109, and 110. Most of you seemed to enjoy the voyage through the Ms, which had been going on for most of 2016, but my title for this installment, “This is the End, My Friends” did upset a few of my faithful readers.

Given some of the changes I’d gone through over the previous two years, which I’d occasionally shared with you here, and my slowly decreasing output of blog articles, you were to be forgiven for thinking the title meant we were done, that the blog was finis. Not so—there weren’t to be quite as many updates in 2017 as in the past, but I still kept moving forward in my bumbling fashion. 

As the cold months wore on and the skies grew ever cloudier, I turned to a new series, “The Novice Files.” The entries covered the basics of the sky globe, things like R.A. and declination, star and object names, object catalogs, etc. etc. Things that are familiar and obvious to most of us but puzzling for Joe and Jane Novice. 

That was in part so I’d have something to write about. I sure wasn’t going to be doing many observing articles unless I could glom onto an x-ray telescope. I didn’t just do these articles to have fodder for the blog, though. I thought the subjects covered were pretty darned important for the newbies amongst us.

January also found me blogging about the latest and quite major update to the Stellarium program, which is literally the only planetarium software I use these days (other than the also great Cartes du Ciel occasionally). Yes, Stellarium is free, but it’s also so good, so pretty, so easy to use, and has so many wonderful features that the heavy hitters of commercial software, TheSky, Starry Night, and all the rest, sit unused on my hard drive. Couple Stellarium with the ASCOM scope control add-on, StellariumScope, and I am sitting in high cotton and don’t want for more.

As February came in and the sky began to get a little clearer, I found I needed some images for my magazine work and drug out my trusty Celestron Advanced VX mount. Why the VX? Why not my EQ6 or CGEM? The AVX had one big advantage: light weight. As you know if you’re a faithful reader, I injured my back in 2015 while washing the porch of our old Garden District Victorian home, and have suffered recurrent bouts of pain. Bad enough that the last thing I want to do is aggravate my back.

Light weight is good, but as I recounted in the blog entry, the VX is also surprisingly capable. With the telescopes I normally use for deep sky imaging in these latter days, f/7 5-inch and 80mm APO refractors, it works very well indeed, always delivering round stars. The VX has some cool modern features, too, like auto-alignment with Celestron’s Star Sense accessory.

Since I was doing imaging with the AVX, I thought I’d share some of the issues involving using the Chinese “clones” of the Vixen Great Polaris—like the AVX, the Explore Scientific Exos, the SkyWatcher HEQ5/Sirius, and others--in “Astrophotography with Inexpensive German Equatorial Mounts.”

I’ve always hated polar alignment, so when I found a way to polar align more easily and accurately than ever before using the Sharpcap software, my guide camera, and my guide scope, I just had to share that with you in “A New Way to Polar Align.” There is no doubt in my mind that the better polar alignment possible with Sharpcap is one of the things responsible for me being able to kick my astrophotography results up a notch.


Spring began to approach, and I found myself out in the backyard ever more frequently thanks to the slowly improving weather. So, I was back to fiddling with everybody’s favorite auto-guide program, PHD2. One of the recurring questions I get from new astrophotographers is, “Rod, what do I do about all those darned PHD brains settings?” I set out to answer that in “Getting Your PhD.”

Despite the time I was spending in that backyard—or maybe because of it—I found I had to bite the bullet and slow the blog down. In “Is This the End?” I broke the news to my faithful cadre of Sunday Morning aficionados that I just couldn’t keep up the weekly publication schedule I’d maintained for years. I hoped, I said, that I could eventually begin to get new articles out the door every week again, but cautioned that “once a month” was more likely—which has turned out to be accurate.

Looking over my output for late spring and summer, I’m actually amazed I published as often as I did. The weather down here was frightful. It was as cloudy as it has been in a long time, and that’s saying something given the nasty weather cycle we’ve been in for the last five years or so.


Despite Stormy Weather, I pressed on through a tropical summer. I even managed to get my traditional yearly image of M13 in July. From my backyard—I’ve grown weary of lugging a ton of gear out to my dark site. Despite the scudding clouds of a muggy night, one on which I felt like was observing from underwater, I was still able to bring home My Yearly M13 with my SkyWatcher 120mm APO and the reliable and dependable AVX.

Despite raindrops and mosquitoes, July actually turned out to be a good month for the blog, with several entries appearing. It seemed that with the pressure to publish turned off, I was having more fun writing the Astroblog than I’d had in a long while.

One of my favorite articles from this time was “To PEC or not to PEC?” wherein I not just explained the Periodic Error Correction feature of modern telescope mounts, but programmed PPEC into my VX, bringing its RMS error down to a very respectable (for a sub 1000-dollar GEM) 1” RMS or so.

The next July entry, “Good, Old EQ6” was an epistle to my much-loved Atlas GEM mount, which I’d owned for ten years by this time. It was also a goodbye to it. Unfortunately, back problems meant the handwriting was most assuredly on the wall for the EQ6—it was too heavy for me to lift safely anymore, and I’d just have to get rid of it. The article came from my backyard checkout of the mount prior to selling it. The Atlas performed so well that I almost decided not to let it go after all. Until I was removing the mount from the tripod and almost aggravated my back, wouldn’t you know it?

The final July article was in the same vein, and concerned my disposing of some more beloved gear beginning with my Celestron CGEM. The mount had been a great performer for me—don’t believe everything you read on Cloudy Nights—but, like the Atlas, it was just too freaking heavy and I had to sell it too. Which I did.

Perhaps even more sadly, I let go of my C11 for the same reason. If there’s an SCT I’ve loved best over the years, it’s probably Big Bertha, my NexStar 11 GPS. However, I decided leaving the OTA sitting in her case month and month after month wasn’t doing either of us any good. So it was that with a heavy heart I determined that the C11 would follow the CGEM and Atlas.

Don’t feel too sorry for your Uncle Rod, though. Having a small pile of cash before me allowed for the purchase of a new GEM, one a little lighter and easier to manage than the two Syntas had become. A brand spanking new Losmandy GM811G arrived in late August, which was chronicled in “A Losmandy GM811G Comes to Chaos Manor South.” 


The summer weather was awfully punk, and the fall was most assuredly no better. Thanks mostly to that weather, I didn’t get to put in a lot of hours with the Losmandy. But what little I was able to do with this very pretty mount impressed me. I especially loved the full-color touch screen Gemini 2 hand control and the mount’s Ethernet connectivity.

September and October only featured a single entry apiece. One concerned the experience of using the GM811 for visual observing, and the other my (semi) return to video observing—prompted by the arrival of a wonderful box of video goodies from the legendary Orange County Telescope.


November? November only got one entry as well, a report on the Deep South Star Gaze for 2017. Alas, that much-looked-forward-to star party was a bust for me this year. Poor food, poor skies, and a couple of rather irritating episodes gave this piece its title, “You Can’t Win ‘em All.”

December looked like it would only be blessed with a single update too, this one—no way am I gonna skip the Christmas Eve blog. But the week before the holiday brought another article. With the pressure to take pictures for magazine articles off for the moment, I thought it would be nice to get out for some relaxing visual observing with my simple, non-electronic GSO 10-inch Dobsonian Zelda. It was and I frankly enjoyed that run more than I have any observing in a while. Sometimes the secret is “Minimize”…

…and so, Christmas approaches, me stirring from my semi-doze on the couch only long enough to click Netflix’s accursed “Are You Still Watching?” button. What more is left to say? Only “Have a great holiday, God bless us everyone, and here’s to a wonderful 2018”—old glass half full me (on my good days) has decided it IS gonna be a good one.

Sunday, December 17, 2017


Issue #551: The Simple (Suburban) Astronomical Life…

2017 wasn’t a very active year for me in astronomy. The freaking weather, if nothing else, saw to that. The Deep South Spring Scrimmage, for example, one of two star parties I still attend each year without fail, was clearly in for a rain-out and I didn’t even bother to register. That event’s fall edition, the just-finished Deep South Star Gaze, yielded only one good night out of the four I signed up for. Sigh.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t do any telescoping. What I did do this year was mostly imaging from the backyard. That can be fun, but I have to admit the actual picture-taking part of it just ain’t that engaging. After set up is done and the mount is guiding and the camera exposing, my astrophotography consists of me sitting inside watching TV while telescope and computer do their thing on their own.

As fall segued into winter, however, the skies improved (somewhat), and I found myself in a nice clear pre-Christmas stretch. What to do? I was tired of worrying about cameras and computers for the moment. I was longing for some of that old one-on-one relationship with the cosmos that’s what got me interested in this crazy game in the first place.

To that end, what went into the backyard the other night was my consummately visual scope, Zelda, a 10-inch GSO solid tube Dobsonian reflector who came to stay with me a couple of years ago.

There are no computers involved with Miss Z. The closest things she has to electronics are her primary mirror cooling fan and her illuminated zero power aiming device, a Rigel Quick Finder. Also into the backyard went the folding aluminum camp table I use as an observing table, and my case of favored eyepieces.  Setup took all of five minutes and I was done. 

Well, I was nearly done, except for star charts. As I tell my undergraduate astronomy students, “You can’t find the stars’ homes without a map!” Did I say “no computers”? I did, but only ON the telescope. My Android tablet running Sky Safari Pro went on the observing table next to the eyepiece box. I could have used one of my print sky atlases, like Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas (or the new Jumbo edition, which I love). And I often do that when the yen for simple visual astronomy takes me. But you know what? In some ways, Sky Safari is simpler to use in the field than a book.

Want to find some object? No paging through an atlas, no trying to remember exactly which constellation NGC umptysquat lies in. Just click a little magnifying glass icon, type the DSO's name/designation, and the target will soon be centered on the screen under a Telrad reticle. Given my (somewhat) aging eyes, I also find SkySafari’s screen more legible than the pages of a book illuminated by a dim red LED flashlight.

On a recent cold (for me) Tuesday evening, the TV was showing nothing but reruns—when did the rascals come up with this "mid-season hiatus" nonsense? That was OK. In the backyard, the curtain was rising on the great sky show. I was excited at that prospect. Maybe more excited than I’d been about astronomy all year.

Excited, yes, but also unsure, as in being unsure exactly what to look at. While I am a big proponent of observing lists—usually if you go out to observe without one you won’t see much of anything at all—I hadn’t made one this time. Lazy? Maybe a little. Just wanting to recreate those spontaneous nights under the stars I experienced as a youngun? Perhaps that too. But I still needed some idea where to point Zelda after I’d had a nice, long look at the sinking Ring Nebula, M57.

Sky Safari sure proved its worth here. I haven’t used the program much since I bought the Pro version some months back—I’d been tied to a laptop and using Stellarium during my picture taking. However, I dimly remembered SkySafari has pre-made observing lists…

I clicked the search icon, and, sure enough, there were those lists displayed before me. Including, thank goodness, “Tonight’s best.” I began running through ‘em starting with the wonderful starball that is M15. When I applied 200x to it in the somewhat hazy (and growing hazier) sky, the Pegasus globular broke into a horde of minute suns.

And so it went till my feet began to grow cold and the haze began to devolve into clouds some time later. I had plenty of fun. But I also had some epiphanies. “Rules” if you will, for observing the deep sky under suburban backyard skies.

Telescope: OK, so you wanna do some casual backyard visual observing, do you? Which scope? If you only have one, naturally that’s it. If you have a stable like some of us do, however, which one to use?

There is something to be said for a small telescope, especially a refractor, for casual backyard use. Especially for spur of the moment observing. I can have my 3-inch f/11 achromat or even my 4-inch f/10 achromat in the backyard and ready to rock in minutes. Since there is basically no cooldown required, I can have a quick look at M13 and be back inside for more Gotham after the commercial ends.

Casual observing, looking at the showpieces in an off-the-cuff sort of way, is great. But what if you want more? I, for example, have been thinking about running through the 600 objects in Orion’s (great) Deepmap 600 list. Some of these objects—in fact a of lot them—are  a challenge for a small suburban refractor. At this point it's time to kick the aperture up a couple of notches.

What is the optimum aperture in the backyard for me for deeper deep sky observing? I’ve found that to be 10-inches. The horsepower gain over a three or four inch (or even an 8-inch) is considerable—don’t believe the old urban legend that says that more aperture doesn’t help in a light polluted suburban sky. A 10-inch solid tube (especially) Dobsonian is also very portable, if not in grab ‘n go fashion.

Equatorial or alt-azimuth mount? Either is fine with me, but my backyard observing does tend to be of a more casual nature than what I do at dark sites, and I usually don’t want to spend a lot of time fooling with a goto GEM. With a decent Dobsonian I don't miss tracking motors. Even my humble GSO “tracks” fine by hand at 300x. Its motions are smooth and easy, and even novices will soon get the hang of following objects with a scope like Zelda.

Yes, even a 10-inch Dobsonian can be a handful for some of us, especially as we grow older. If you’re observing in your backyard, however, you can minimize the amount of setting up and tearing down you have to do. If you have a reasonably secure yard, why not leave the telescope set up through stretches of clear weather? That’s what you'd do at a star party, so why not at home? A good cover like a Telegizmos one will keep your beloved telescope snug and safe from unexpected weather. Doing this is like having an observatory without the expense and hassle of actually putting up a dome or roll-off.

Eyepieces:  Even if you’ve only been in our avocation for a short time, you’ve probably already begun to accumulate a box full of oculars. Which are good ones for the backyard?

As I've said many a time before, don’t scrimp on eyepieces. Buy the best you can afford. You'll be able to use them for the rest of your observing career. Good coatings and light transmission characteristics and build quality (a decent eye-cup is important if you have considerable ambient light to deal with in the backyard) are frankly even more important under the suburban sky than at a dark site.

Getting a good eyepiece does not mean you have to spend a mint. I love my TeleVue Ethos eyepieces, which I bought not long after they were released. But if I had to do it over again, I would likley not spend the money they command. As you know, I'm cheap and to my eyes the considerably less expensive Explore Scientific 100-degree eyepieces are every bit as good. And the even less expensive Meade 100s pleased me a lot when I reviewed them for Sky & Telescope not long ago.

Ethoses and other 80 - 100-degree jobs, are what your old Uncle favors? Yep. Especially if I'm using a Dobsonian without automated tracking. With a non-motorized telescope, keeping an object in view is much easier with a wide apparent field eyepiece. If you've got a wide field eyepiece, it's also sometimes possible to star hop using that eyepiece rather than a finder. That is particularly nice in areas like Virgo where there are few guide-stars visible in a 50mm finder. I can "eyepiece-hop" to those multitudinous galaxies.

A top of the line eyepiece may be wonderful, but that doesn’t mean it’s wonderful all the time, including in compromised suburban skies. I’ve had a 27mm TeleVue Panoptic for years and will never part with it. It’s a classic from a master of eyepiece design. However, in the backyard, I find a much humbler ocular, a 2-inch Bresser 25mm I won at a star party last year, trumps it. Slightly more apparent field, slightly darker field. Would I trade the 27 for one? No way. But the more expensive eyepiece isn’t always better.

Finding Objects:  If you’re gonna see objects, you gotta find ‘em. The question is how to do that. Especially in the backyard where object finding is harder than anywhere else thanks to the bright skies and lack of stars to use as guideposts.

Certainly you can use goto. I’ve been a big proponent of automatic object locating since I realized goto was practical, affordable, and reliable over twenty years ago. Goto makes finding things in star poor suburban skies simple. One big benefit? If you know your goto mount places objects in the field without fail, you may be able to spy a very marginal DSO by scanning that field intensely. Not sure if the object is in the field or not? You’re tempted to move on after a little looking.

However, if, like me, a big part of backyard observing is “simple,” you may want to eschew batteries and cables and computers as I do with Zelda. What is effective for object locating in brighter skies? Not a zero power sight like Zelda’s Rigel Quick Finder, at least not by itself. There are not enough guide stars to allow you to pin an object down precisely without optical aid. That’s why I always use a 50mm finder in concert with the Rigel. I roughly position Zelda with the zero power sight, and then home in with the the  finder scope and SkySafari.

What sort of 50mm finder? I prefer a right angle-correct image ("RACI") finder like the one Zelda came equipped with. The finder has a star diagonal which means I only have to shift my eye a short distance from the main scope eyepiece to view through the finder—very convenient and comfortable. The finder’s special built in star diagonal presents an image that is both right side up and mirror correct.

So, then you star hop. You look at your charts and draw imaginary lines and shapes to find your object: “M57 is halfway along a line between those two stars”…"M15 makes a shallow triangle with those bright stars" and so on and so  forth. One tip? I find that if I can’t locate an object after several tries, it means I’m not just slightly off from its position in the sky, but way off. I further note it’s pretty easy to get out of practice with star hopping. If I haven’t done any in some months, it may take an evening or two to get back in the swim of things. Knowing that, I don’t get frustrated (“Why can’t I even find M37? I’m going back inside!”). I keep going and it all eventually comes flowing back.

Finally, don’t discount star hopping as fun in and of itself. Especially in suburban skies were the objects themselves don’t always look that great. The hunt is its own reward and sometimes that is enough.

Observing. You know all those observing tricks you’ve learned over the years? Or, if you’re a novice, the ones you’re reading about online or hearing from the old-timers at the club? They are very important for maximizing your viewing under compromised skies…

Averted vision:  The light receptors toward the edge of the retina, the rods, are more sensitive than those near the center, the cones. So, if you’re observing an even marginally dim DSO, look “away” from it rather than directly at it to see the dimmest details.

Which eye? If you’re right handed, your right eye is likely the "dominant" one. If you’re left handed, vice-versa. Usually the dominant eye is better for deep sky observing, but experiment with the opposite eye as well.

Shake it! The eye-brain combo has an easier time registering moving objects, so sometimes a tap on the telescope tube will cause a challengingly dim DSO to appear as if by magic.

You can see a lot more if your eyes are as dark adapted as they can be. In the suburbs, what usually prevents that is not so much the general light pollution, but ambient light. Turn off nearby lights and shield your scope and yourself from those you can’t turn off.

Most amateur astronomers tend to use too little magnification on objects rather than too much. In the suburbs, more power darkens the background sky and increases contrast between it and the object of your desire.

Growing older. Alas, it happens to the best of us, even me. Being aware of the changes you’re experiencing or will experience will help you deal with them.

Your eyes’ corneas are probably beginning to yellow for starters. That can be good and bad. Bluer objects won’t be as bright, but if you, like me, are a fan of achromatic refractors, you’ll find the color purple has been much reduced. Your eyes now have built-in yellow filters and it’s as if your fast achromat has suddenly become an APO. Eventually, if you progress to cataracts, your eye doctor will say it’s time for the big fix, surgery. That will both return the stars to their accustomed brightness and turn your "APO" back into an achromat.

You may develop increased sensitivity to cold. I was pretty OK in this regard all through my 40s and well into my 50s. In my 60s, I find I get colder more quickly and can’t ignore that as easily as I once could. When my feet get cold, I know it’s time to quit. There is a big plus for backyard observing in this regard:  When my feetsies get cold I can take a break inside and go back for more when I warm up.

Feeling creaky. Except for my (self-imposed) back problems, I’m pretty good here. The time will come for all of us, however, when it’s harder to contort the old bod to do things like look through straight-through finders. Luckily, there are work-arounds like the above-mentioned RACI finder. Did you know you can even get a right-angle adapter for a Telrad sight?

Weight can become a problem as we age. Make that will become a problem. That’s no reason to stop observing, however. Even if you have to drop down a couple of aperture notches, some telescope is better than no telescope. Also, modern designs like ultralight Dobs mean many of us are going to be able to carry on with at least as much horsepower as we used in middle age. The backyard is a big win here, since you can do things like wheel the scope out of and into a garage on a set of "wheely bars," etc., instead of having to carry the instrument to and from a vehicle.

Some of the older observers I know are beginning to go inactive due to a fear of falling in the dark. If you are in your 70s or 80s, there’s no doubt falls can be dangerous. In the backyard, however, you can do things like position small red lights on the ground to show the way, mark the scope  and observing table with more red lights, and turn on white light when needed. In the backyard, you’re at least very familiar with your surroundings, too.

So, I've given up dark site observing? No. Not quite. I’ll go to a dark site when I’m chasing the dimmest of the dim, or want the best astrophotos I can get. But otherwise, it’s the friendly and comfortable back 40 for me these days.

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