Friday, June 11, 2021

 

Issue 574: A Short One…

 

Plenty of clouds down Chiefland way...
I haven’t been able to keep the blog on a monthly basis. Heck, I haven’t been able to keep it on a bimonthly schedule. When I can’t/won’t get out with a scope thanks to clouds, what am I gonna write about? Oh, I could go in for nostalgia, but there’ve been a bunch of posts of that sort over the fifteen years the blog has been around (yes), and that well is almost dry, muchachos.

I know it’s a cliché, but the dadgummed weather is just crazy-cloudy these days. A decade of Unk’s impressions doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the world of climate science, I know, but my impression is things are worse clear sky-wise. As I’ve said before, I noticed a change in my part of the country, the deep south, beginning nearly a decade ago, around 2012.

In those days, I was still loading up the truck, Miss Van Pelt, with a ton of astro-gear and heading south to the Chiefland Astronomy Village down in Florida at the drop of a metaphorical hat. I maybe didn’t get down there every dark of the Moon, but I got down there plenty, whether to pursue the Herschel Project, or just to take a picture of M13 from a dark sky, or play around with some new gear.

I’d usually do three days, and you know what? Even at the height of those southern summers I’d usually get two clear nights and sometimes three. But, then, about, yeah, 2012, I noticed the summer weather seemed different. I began to spend a couple of nights of a three-night run in the cotton-picking Chiefland Days Inn instead of on the observing field. And then there began to be complete skunkings. To the point where I grew reluctant to drive six freaking hours to sit in a déclassé motel room.

A rainy night in...Florida.
And it has now got to the point where (to me) the weather is more than noticeably worse year-round; not just in the summer. To include increasingly troublesome hurricane seasons  that stretch well into the fall.   And the weather ain’t just worse way down in Florida, but here along the northern Gulf Coast and throughout much of the country from what I hear. I maintain, again without scientific evidence, that something has changed with the weather and not for the good.

I’ll also admit I’m less hardcore than once I was. To be honest, I have trouble convincing myself to brave the clouds and the bugs and the haze and the heat to see a little something from suburban skies. I know I’ve missed some cool views that way, but there it is. Forty lashes with a wet noodle for Unk, and I promise to get out into the backyard more frequently henceforth. If it ever clears up and Gulf storms stay away.

Rather than let another month go by blogless, I thought you, my (overly) loyal and kind readers, might enjoy a little something…just a few bullets, really, about what's been going on around here (I almost said “around Chaos Manor South,” but those days are gone forever).

·       I had the pleasure of reviewing Phyllis Lang’s latest edition of Deep Sky Planner (Version 8, if you can believe that). You can read all about it in my Test Report in the upcoming issue of Sky & Telescope, but I can tell you it’s a goodun. 

·        Don’t forget to check your scope covers before you use them. I had a Telegizmos cover I bought back around 2016. While it wasn’t their “365” model, it was a good one, well made I thought. Six years is six years, though, and it did get a fair amount of use in my backyard. It’s so nice to be able to leave a scope set up under a cover for a few days. Almost as good as an observatory (which I have no interest in building at this juncture in my life). I should have paid more attention to it, though. The cover was looking a little tattered…but so what? The “so what” is we got a right good rainstorm in the early hours one morning and the cover leaked. Badly. 

There was some water intrusion into the tube of my SCT, Mrs. Emma Peel. That was not a huge problem to fix, however, since I’d become rather experienced in disassembling the Celestron (I’m still mad at them). However, what was even more drenched with water was my Advanced VX mount head. Rut-roh, Raggy. 

·       I love the AVX. It has never failed me for anything I’ve wanted to do with it. Heck, I’ve even gotten good guided astrophotos with it and the SCT at f/7. I’d hate to have to think about replacing it. I opened up the mount, dried it out, and let it sit in a low humidity environment disassembled for some days. Back together, I did a fake alignment indoors and the mount seemed fine. The only true test is under the stars, of course, and I have not been able to do that yet.  Fingers and toes crossed. 

·       If I have to replace the mount, what would I replace it with? Maybe not an AVX. You never know the truth of what you read on the consarned Internet, but it seems like not everybody gets a VX as good as mine. I’d probably replace it with… I dunno… An HEQ-5? iOptron’s new lightweight mount, the GEM 28? Search me and hope I don’t have to find out. 

·       What else…what else? Some folks get the impression I’m now telescope poor. Yes, I did sell off a lotta stuff, the larger instruments (good thing I did given my current condition), and also some of the less used astro-junk. But I’ve still got… 

66mm William Optics SD patriot refractor.

80mm WO fluorite APO.

80mm SkyWatcher f/11 achromat.

90mm Orange Tube Celestron C90.          

100mm f/5.6 Explore Scientific achromat.

100mm Celestron f/10 achromat.

120mm SkyWatcher f/7 ED APO.

125mm ETX 125 (the storied Charity Hope Valentine).

150mm Zhumell f/8 achromat.

200mm Edge SCT, Mrs. Peel.

250mm Zhumell f/5 Dobsonian, Zelda, who is now my Big Gun. 

And I still have a couple of boxes of eyepieces, three mounts (the AVX, a SkyWatcher AZ-4, and my Losmandy GM811G). So, don’t weep for me, AstroBloggers. That I got rid of so much and still have so much is a sign  I let my astro-buying get a little out of hand for a “while.” I’m good now and feel good equipment wise. 

·      What gets used the most? That’s easy, the 80mm APO, the SCT, and the 120mm APO. That’s for “serious” astronomy. What do I mostly use for a quick look at something and to keep my proverbial hand in? The 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher on the AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount. 

·      Do I at least think about new stuff? Not much. I don’t need more eyepieces, I’ve clearly got all the scopes I can use, and the three mounts are more than good enough. Assuming the Advanced VX still works. If it doesn’t? I need something in a similar weight class. As above, in the event, I’m thinking about an HEQ-5. I wouldn’t mind going back to EQMOD for scope control. I’ve also, yes, considered the iOptron GEM 28. Its weight and payload are impressive sounding. But I hear a lot of not-so-good experiences with their mounts. But I’m, yeah, hoping not to have to go our and buy any mount anytime soon. 

·       Astronomy software? These days my needs are simple. What I mostly use is three programs, which tend to the simpler compared to what I ran during, say, the go-go days of the Herschel ProjectDeep Sky Planner, Stellarium, and Nebulosity

·       There are many things to like about DSP. It is a mature and capable astronomy program. But sometimes it’s the little things. What has encouraged me to adopt it for my personal use? Nice large fonts. Having to squint at minute text on a dim red screen, even with your glasses on, ain’t no fun. 

·       Stellarium? I still love Cartes du Ciel and use it for some tasks. But Stellarium has come an awful long way in the last five years, and I don’t know what else I require. It’s just so pretty, too. That it now has built-in support for ASCOM makes the deal on this (free) software even sweeter. 

·       Nebulosity? It just works for acquiring images with my old Canon 400D and 60D (which are actually more sophisticated and capable than your silly old uncle needs for his astrophotography). It also has the best stacking routine in the bidness.

And…and…and… Can’t think of nuthin’ else campers. I hope to be back here again soon. Probably with the results of the AVX post deluge check ride. Till then, then...


Sunday, March 28, 2021

 

Issue 573: Charity Hope Valentine Rides Again!


"No blog for February? Why, Unk, why?  I could say, “Well, muchachos, the weather was lousy most of the month, with clouds almost invariably in the sky when the Moon was absent. And it was cold. I mean, sometimes in the freaking 20s Fahrenheit.” And that is part of the reason, sure. Without doing any observing, and without any new astro-gear to talk over, I didn’t feel like cranking out a blog just so y’all could hear me jack my jaws. But let’s have a little ground truth, here, y’all…I’ve always tried to be upfront with my readers. That was hardly the sole reason.

That often sought after but also much-feared Ground Truth? I am a FAR less active observer here in my late 60s (it feels awful strange to say “late 60s”) than I was even five years ago.  In part, that is due to the accident I had in early 2019 that most of y’all know about. I talk about it more than I should, perhaps, but that is because it now seems to have been the watershed between “young” Uncle Rod and "old" Uncle Rod.

How has that affected my observing? Well, most noticeably it left me not as able to deal with gear setup. And I don’t just mean heavy stuff. This afternoon I made the mistake of picking up my ETX 125’s tripod with my “bad” arm and it sure let me know that wasn’t what I should have done. Thankfully, I began selling off my big/heavy astro-stuff—the C11, the truss-tube Dobsonian, the Atlas mount, etc.—about five years ago. I had a strong whiff of “change is in the air” even then.

Certainly, I still have telescopes and mounts. I have a C8, a Celestron Advanced VX mount, some nice refractors ranging from 6-inches to 66mm in aperture, a Losmandy GM811G, and my 10-inch truss tube scope, Zelda. And, when I’m feeling good, I can handle any of ‘em. When I’m not so good but still want to look at something, my 80mm f/10 Celestron achromat, Midge, on an AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount works—like she did for the Saturn – Jupiter conjunction.

But it ain’t just that I sometimes have a hard time physically dealing with telescopes and mounts. That is far from the whole story. Another result of the accident is a lingering fear of falling in the dark. For that reason (and the pandemic, of course), I haven’t been to a star party since January 2019. Heck, I haven’t even been out to the local dark site. I feel much more relaxed in the familiar backyard even if it means giving up magnitude 6 skies for mag 5 ones (at zenith on a good night).

I also feel the cold more acutely than I did. This had actually begun some time before 2019, but seems to have accelerated since then. The result is unless it is a mild night, I’m staying inside. Oh, I can still do astrophotography on cold nights, since I can get the scope/camera/mount going with the aid of PHD Guiding and Nebulosity and duck back into the den while the exposure sequence runs. But that doesn’t much feel like a night out with the telescope to Luddite Unk.

Even my astrophotography has ebbed. Not so much in the number of targets I shoot, but in how I do it. ‘Twas not long ago I was eager to embrace the latest hardware and software to hit the imaging game. Now? I have more time to play with such things, but I just don’t seem to have as much patience for the new and (for moi) complex—at least not when it’s dark and I’m hooking things up by flashlight.

I know the big deals today are things like Sequence Generator Pro, and small computers like Raspberry Pis mounted on the scope to manage everything and shoot images to a phone or tablet. Not for Unk, I guess. If I take pictures, it’s usually with my thirteen-year-old Canon 400D DSLR. And I no longer participate in the Cloudy Nights mounts forum quest for ever tinier PE figures. Nor do I dream of more-better-gooder to the tune of ten thousand-dollar telescope mounts. If my stars look round, and I think my pictures look pretty, that is enough. More than enough.

Still as pretty as the day I met her.
I also find I am enjoying the astronomy I do more as a solitary pursuit than as a group activity. In addition to all the above and other things I haven’t mentioned, I prefer spending a quiet night in the backyard with my scope and my thoughts to being out with a group, or, most assuredly, inside at an astronomy club meeting. However, I did enjoy showing off that conjunction to quite a few passersby, so I ain’t quite a hermit yet.

And that’s the way it is at the beginning of a new decade of this new century. Hey, y’all, I ain’t looking for sympathy. Don’t need it. I was quite active in astronomy from the 80s and into the mid-90s, and extremely active from the mid-90s to about 2015. There weren’t too many things in the sky I didn’t see or image; too many outstanding astronomers I didn’t meet; and too many star parties, museums and observatories I didn’t visit. It was “What a ride, what a ride!” folks. I just wanted y’all to know the reasons you don’t and won’t see the blog as frequently as you once did (I would still like to do at least one new article a month).

Enough of that stuff. Let’s talk telescopes. Not quite a year ago, I resolved to get my beloved 15-year-old ETX125 PE, Miss Charity Hope Valentine, out of mothballs. I replaced her LNT battery, got her into the backyard and had a good time. For a while. The next time I drug Charity out, she was acting a mite peculiar. The Autostar display would come and go. Sometimes she wouldn’t respond to commands. Once in a while the Autostar computer would reset.

Now, I was tempted to say “She’s just gettin’ old—like you, Unk.” But I didn’t want to leave it at that. Charity still looks beautiful—as pretty as the day I met her. I’m proud to say I’ve taken good care of her. Surely, I could do a little troubleshooting?

A 16-year-old Autostar cable.
It didn’t take much. The next morning, I began, as I always do, with “cables and connectors.” One look at the Autostar hand control cable told the tale. The coiled cable had the white, dusty look that spells deterioration. It was obviously dried out, and I found a couple of spots where the insulation had cracked and given way. “Well, reckon I’ll just order another Autostar cable.”

Which I did—some eight months later. What was up with that? Well, at the time I discovered Charity’s problem we were right at the start of the 2020 hurricane season, which was a doozy, and whose storms stretched on to November. Then it got cold and I went “refractors on grab ‘n go mounts” all the way (Charity is less of a hassle to carry and set up than a fork-mount 8-inch SCT, but not by much).

Anyhoo, couple of days ago, I got off my butt and ordered a replacement from one of my long-time go-to vendors, Agena Astro Products. After it arrived, a test with Miss Valentine showed it and her worked just fine. What was left to do other than set the girl up in the backyard on a cool but not bitter spring night?

Now, originally the scope to be set up wasn’t going to be Miss Valentine. I still have every intention of carrying on with the New Herschel Project. However, one look at the afternoon sky showed that was likely a non-starter. While still clear, there was obviously increasing haze. The C8 would stay inside and the ETX would go outside because of the degrading conditions—the situation that is her forte'.

When it finally got dark (blast this DST), out back went your old Uncle. As you know if you’ve read my past installments concerning her, Charity can be a neurotic sort. Some nights, gotos are bang-on all over the sky. Others, she can’t find anything. Which would it be tonight?

While I probably should have done drive training after a year, almost, of the scope not being used, it was chilly, so I just set Miss in PE home position—turned counterclockwise in azimuth till she reaches her hard stop—and turned on the power. That is all you have to do with the ETX PE. The scope reads the time that’s kept current with the battery in her LNT (“Level North Technology”) module, finds tilt, level, and north with the aid of her sensors and compass, and heads for the first of two alignment stars. Charity chose Sirius and went that-a-way.

I can usually tell what kind of a night me and the girl are gonna have from her behavior with alignment stars. If her slew lands more than a degree away from ‘em, she ain’t gonna be great go-to-wise. When Missy stopped, Sirius wasn’t in the eyepiece, but it took just a little squinting through her red dot finder and slewing before it was. Second star? Capella. Charity went there, and when she stopped the Goat Star was in the eyepiece, a 25mm Plössl that yielded almost 80 power. I thought that boded well, but the proof is in the pudding, they say. I decided to test my little girlfriend.

Charity has the most trouble with targets anywhere near zenith. That is compounded by her long focal length and the fact that since she is limited to 1.25-inch oculars, you ain’t gonna be using long focal length ultra-wide 2-inch eyepieces to make finding easier. Nevertheless, my girl put both M35 and M37, both of which were up pretty high, in the field of that 25mm. How did they look? Not so hot. The haze was thickening and really scattering the light pollution.

But, with Charity aligned, I thought we might as well visit some old friends anyhow. Which? Oh, the usual heavenly masterpieces like the above-mentioned open clusters, and, of course, M42. If you’re an “advanced observer” you’d probably scoff at the targets Charity and me essayed (we spent quite a bit of time on the near First Quarter Moon). I know. I once fit that “advanced” appellation and was more interested in chasing quasars than looking at the dumb old Moon. But that was then and this is now and Rod and Charity had a fine time oohing and ahhing at marvels that never age even as we do.

Note Bene:  Miss Dorothy and I have now received both doses of the vaccine and hope the same is true for you.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

 

Issue 572: Happy New Year’s 2021 from the AstroBlog

 

While things don’t exactly look good now (to say the least), I hope we can expect something better than another whole year of “I’VE GOT A BAD FEELING ABOUT THIS!” Anyhow, this is the traditional AstroBlog New Year's update, muchachos.

Before we get to that, however, I know y’all wanna know WHAT SANTA BRUNG Unk. Well, not any new telescopes; that’s fer sure. If you follow this here blog even intermittently, you know Unk has been engaged in thinning the scope herd over the last several years. Oh, I’ve still got telescopes and eyepieces aplenty. But I’m down to one SCT, a few nice refractors, and a 10-inch Dobbie.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t get anything that was kinda-sorta astro-related, however. Something I like to do every week when I can is check into the Amateur Astronomy Digital (radio) Voice Net. A weekly meeting of amateur radio operators who are also amateur astronomers. This very fine net, hosted by NCS Jason Hissong, NX8E, a great ham and a great observer, can accommodate both DMR and D-Star users. The net meets every Wednesday night at 9 pm EST.  It’s a good net, but I wasn’t checking in very often. Why? Because the only D-Star radio I owned was a HT (handie-talkie, that is). Unk has never been a big fan of HTs, you see.

Anyhoo…the little VHF rig in the shack here, a Yaesu FT-1900, was about a dozen years old, so I figured it was time to upgrade. What did I ask Santa for? I thought about the Icom ID 5100—I love its big display—but it really seems more suited to mobile use, so I went with the ID 4100. And, after wrestling with the RT Systems programming software on Christmas afternoon, I got it set up for both analog and digital operations, and hope to become a regular on NX8E’s net henceforth. You can too if you hold at least a Technician license. If you’d like to join the net, see the Amateur Astronomy Digital Voice Net page on Facebook for details.

Anyhow, now for the annual wrap up…

January

The little old blog from Chaos Manor South was idle during most of 2019. If you can believe it, there was but a single post that year, my annual Christmas epistle. The reason there was essentially no blog in 2019 was two-fold. First, I suffered a serious accident that year and was laid up for months. When I was up and around again, I had a book to get out the door, the long awaited second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT that so many (well, maybe one or two of y’all) had asked for. But with that done and 2020 on the way, it was time to get the blog, which will always be near and dear to my withered old heart, back on the air.

January brought an article on poor, old Meade, which was in the midst of yet another bankruptcy. The long and short of it was the company that bought Meade after their last crash some years ago, Ningbo Sunny, lost an anti-trust suit, declared bankruptcy, and was looking for a buyer. Where are they now? I haven’t heard much news about ‘em lately. They are apparently still getting some product to dealers, however. The website comes and goes and products, even bread and butter ones like the LX90, are frequently shown as “out of stock.” The irony? As that bad news came out, I’d just completed a review of their LX85 and was quite impressed. “Meade is back,” I thought.

In a good sign for the revival of the Blog, January 2020 featured not one but two entries. The second being an account of my yearly ritual of photographing M13. This edition concerned me doing that with the above mentioned LX85 the previous fall. As above, I was quite impressed by the optics of the 8-inch Coma-Free SCT that came with the LX85 GEM package, and also by the quality of the AVX-like mount. Actually, I thought the Meade LX85, which features ball bearings on the declination axis as well as the RA axis, unlike the Advanced VX, tracked better and was easier to guide.

April

April? How about February and March? There wasn’t any February and March. Unk wasn’t quite ready to get the Blog back on the rails till April, but when I did, I swore I would get at least one and sometimes two new articles out the door every stinkin’ month. The first of these was a real blast from the past, since it found me in the backyard with my Mallincam deep sky video camera I hadn’t used in years.

I was curious to see how it would work—or if it would work at all—since I had not applied power to it in at least five annums. But the Mallincam Xtreme fired right up and worked just as well as it ever had. So did everything else. Yes, your silly Unk did fumble around a bit with the Mallincam software, but he finally got back in the groove.

May

The theme of 2020 was resurrecting the AstroBlog and my astronomy gear, too. My beloved Losmandy GM 811G had lain fallow for a long while. This mount was such a breath of fresh air when I received it:  all that beautiful machining was so darned impressive after many years of  using Chinese GEMs. And so was the Gemini II controller. Campers, not only does it have a color touchscreen, tactile buttons if you prefer them, an Ethernet port, and a USB port in addition to a good, old serial port, it is amazingly easy to use and accurate.

As with the Mallincam, I was hoping all would be well after going on two years of disuse. And it was save for one thing:  the mount’s internal battery, a button cell. After getting over the shock of what one little battery can cost on fricking Amazon, Unk installed it in the Gemini II, got the mount into the backyard, and got it going again. “Going” meaning this wonderful mount performed just as well as ever.

Confronted with a downright strange stretch of clear spring weather, your uncle was able to get another Blog entry into virtual print in May. I realized that if I were to get outside with a telescope more regularly again, I needed a project. That project, I decided, would be The New Herschel Project.

Which would be decidedly more modest than the original Herschel (2500) Project documented in this blog. That project, a.k.a. “The Big Enchilada,” involved me observing all 2500 Herschel deep sky objects in less than three years. This time? Fewer objects, but more challenging in its own way:  I would observe the original Herschel 400 objects from my average suburban backyard. I would use the Mallincam when necessary, but the largest aperture telescope would be the largest left in my inventory. My sweet 10-inch Dobbie, Zelda.

June

The month’s first entry was about the first evening of the New Herschel Project. And, more prominently, the telescope I used to essay that:  Charity Hope Valentine, my Meade ETX 125. Like everything else the little scope had lain dormant for years.

Before I could think of getting her into the backyard, I knew I’d want to replace the battery in Charity’s LNT finder (she is a PE style ETX). That battery, like the Gemini II’s cell, keeps the scope’s clock running. I ordered one for Charity, and ordered one for the Celestron AVX as well, since I reckoned it would be good and dead too. Replacing Charity’s battery was a pain as always, but I got ‘er done and got the little scope into the backyard.

Alas, clouds scuttled our mission after we’d seen but one object. I was glad I’d got the little scope outside, though. For one thing, I found that the hand control cable was going bad. The insulation was gone in places. I’ll replace that “soon.” Another reason? She is a good little telescope and I still and always will love her.

There was a third entry in June, believe it or not. But it recounted a rather bitter affair. I’d found my Celestron Edge 800 had a severe problem. After seven years, the paint on the interior of her tube was failing. That necessitated carefully removing as much of the old paint (which had quite obviously been applied to an improperly prepared surface) as possible and repainting the interior.  

July

Following the above debacle, I was anxious to get the Edge, Mrs. Emma Peel, under the stars to make sure everything was well with her. I did, and managed to snag quite a few Herschels as well. That evening was also my introduction to Celestron’s CPWI telescope control program, which I dubbed “the new NexRemote.” I had been so out of touch during 2019 that I hadn't even been aware CPWI had been modified to work with the Advanced VX mount. Overall, I was quite pleased with the Celestron freeware.

July’s second article took Unk from the high-tech to the very lowest tech. Wherein your correspondent went hunting for the amazing Comet Neowise with binoculars. I began with my 100mm giants, but when it became obvious I’d have to hunt up the parts and pieces of their mount, I backed off to my Burgess 15x70s. The comet looked amazing nevertheless.

August

August recounted Unk’s adventures with hand-held astronomy software from the Palm Pilot days onward. This was spurred on in part by a Sky & Telescope assignment I was working on, a Test Report on the new version of SkySafari. Needless to say, I was impressed by the new ‘Safari. I’d skipped a version, and was amazed how far the software had come in a short while. I don’t hesitate to say it is now fully the equal of most PC and Mac astronomy programs.

September

Well, Muchachos…September was not exactly an astronomy-friendly month down here in Possum Swamp. We were hit by a pretty serious hurricane, Sally. This installment was about the passage of the big storm. While it caused a lot of damage to our east, the sum total of her depredations here was a downed 6-meter antenna and a few limbs in the yard. We were on the standby generator for less than an hour.

October

The year began with my M13 tradition and it was ending with the same. I knew I had to get out right away, as soon as the Gulf calmed down, or there would be no yearly M13. To be honest with y’all, it had been about three years since I’d done any astrophotography, and I was a mite nervous about whether I’d remember what to do and how to do it.

To make things easy on myself, I employed my beloved William Optics Megrez II Fluorite, an 80mm f/7, Veronica Lodge. She makes astrophotography as easy as that difficult art ever can be with her excellent wide-field optics. My results were nothing special, but got me back into the groove of polar alignment, guiding, and image processing.

Annnd…there was a second blog in October. With a splendid Mars opposition in progress, I just had to get into the backyard with telescope and camera—my old ZWO ASI120, and the Edge. The shots I got were not the best I’d ever taken; it had been a long time since I’d shot the Solar System. But they were not bad, either.

November

November brought another Herschel evening, and a pretty good haul of objects. The ostensible goal was getting CPWI working in wireless fashion with the AVX mount, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that was a no-go. My first generation Celestron wireless dongle just wouldn’t stay connected for long. I went back to “wired” and had mucho fun doing Herschels visually.

December

The final post of the year was about—what else could it have been about?—The Christmas Star, the grand conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The article also comprised my annual Christmas card to you, my dear readers, but the focus was on the opposition. For once the weather cooperated, and I was able to see the spectacle and show it off to Miss Dorothy and a few neighbors with my 80mm f/11 achromat, Midge.

2021? Who knows what this year will hold? It is starting off in genuinely crazy fashion. Unk? I have two hopes:  that me and Miss D. get the vaccine soon and that I get up the gumption to get a scope outside and really start knocking off some Herschels. Which I promise to do just as soon as it gets a little warmer, muchachos.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

 

Issue #571: Merry Christmas 2020 from Uncle Rod and the AstroBlog…

 

Well, I did manage to sneak in another issue before this cursed year was history, muchachos. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do that or not, though. It’s been cloudy more often than it’s been clear this December, and the clear nights we have had have been unseasonably cold for us down here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp.

That’s a problem for your correspondent of late, since, for some reason, I seem to feel the cold more acutely after my accident last year. Much as I might want to do some observing, the idea of shivering in the dark sometimes keeps me inside. Be that as it may, I did get out one recent chilly evening. How could I not? It was the GRAND CONJUNCTION.

Like everybody else, your old uncle was very much looking forward to the once in a lifetime experience of seeing Jupiter and Saturn in one eyepiece field. Howsomeever, as the 21st of December approached I sensed not all was sweetness and light with my fellow astronomers. What was raising some of you folks’ hackles, oddly enough, seemed to be the public’s excitement about the event.

Yeah, that did seem a mite strange. Most of us want mom and pop to look up and see the stars. Alas, some of us also insist that has to be done our way, with respect and no appropriation of our turf. What I’m referring to is irritation over the conjunction being touted in the media and by the man-on-the-street as “the Christmas star.”

Why did that bother anybody? Well, some of us said it was merely because they wanted the facts clear in the minds of the public. This wasn’t any star. It was merely an effect of perspective. The two planets only appeared to be close to each other in the sky from our vantage point. There was no magic or miracles to it. “Why can’t we just stick to the cold, hard, immutable laws of physics?”

“Now, now. Calm down, y’all” was my advice. I suspected most of the general public actually knew the conjunction wasn’t a star, but the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The reports I saw on CNN and MSNBC certainly emphasized that.

Anyhoo, I believe the problem for some of us wasn’t so much  our fear the public would confuse planets for a star as it was the religion angle. But you know what? For many people, including people in the sciences, even in these latter days,  faith is important. Very important indeed. And if this conjunction reaffirmed that faith and brought a little hope at the end of a dark year, so what? Is that such a bad thing? What’s also worth noting? A conjunction very much like this one did take place in 3 BC.

Another irritant for not a few sky watchers? That darned public was poaching in our private preserve. Trying to filch OUR conjunction. We’ve seen this before with Blue Moons and Super Moons. I admit the latter used to drive me bananas, too. Until the night I was strolling Selma Street back in the heyday of Chaos Manor South on the evening of one such Super Moon... 

I was all primed to tell any of my neighbors who inquired, “Sorry, the difference in the size of the Moon is undiscernible by the human eye. There is nothing ‘super’ about it.” That’s what I was gonna say until I noticed all the little families gathered on their front porches gazing at Luna in wonder. Instead, I bit my tongue and let them marvel at a glorious sight.

Which is what I advised folks in our community to do when the subject of the Christmas Star came up. I took some heat for that. But I didn’t care. I took quite a lot of heat for a Focal Point (editorial) I wrote for Sky & Telescope many years ago wherein I opined the (now bygone, I guess) practice of buying and selling stars was maybe not the bad thing some of us made it out to be. I didn’t care then, either. If “buying” a star or gazing at a Christmas one causes someone to wonder, I am happy.

Anyhow. Enough editorializing. I wanted to see that Christmas Star with my own eyes. The question was how. It didn’t take long for me to decide I’d do it simply. No fancy cameras or tracking mounts. Just my 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher refractor, Midge, on her AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount.

There were several reasons for that. Given our weather of late, it wouldn’t be unlikely we’d be clouded out at the last minute and I’d be setting up a big scope just to tear it down and carry it back inside a few minutes later. Also, the planets would be awfully low by the time darkness came on December 21st. I suspected I’d have to move the scope around to avoid trees. Finally, I just wanted to enjoy the event and maybe show it to a neighbor or two, not worry over cameras and computers.

Pretty Moon.
So…when it started getting dark on the 21st I hied myself to the backyard with the SkyWatcher. Nope. Jupe and Saturn had gotten a lot lower since our last clear spell and were now in the trees. To the front yard I went with the 80mm and a box of inexpensive Celestron Plössls I won at a star party some years ago.

Almost ready, I had a quick look at the fattening Moon so I could precisely align the red-dot bb gun finder on the scope—Selene was beautiful, natch. But I didn't linger, quickly moving over to the pair of planets—who were now, indeed, a single point to my eyes. In went a 13mm Plössl, and to that went my eye.

To say the sight was a beautiful one would be an understatement. It wasn’t just that the planets looked good in the (relatively) long refractor. It was the idea of the thing. Those two enormous gas giants in one rather small eyepiece field. Furthermore, it was the realization that Jupiter was a much closer foreground object than the ringed wonder, who was about twice as distant as Jove. Pondering on that and looking and looking almost made it feel as if I were seeing the depth of a 3D image…and I almost thunk myself into a mild case of vertigo!

While it was the juxtaposition of the two that was so striking, there was no denying my inexpensive refractor was delivering the goods. At 68x, there was plenty of banding detail and color on Jupiter. Saturn was a deep yellow, showing off Cassini’s Division and a little disk detail. Upped the magnification to 150x and they still looked great despite the fact the Christmas Star was getting lower and lower and the seeing was naturally becoming lousier and lousier.

The SkyWatcher, Midge, came to me quite a few years ago and for only one reason:  I fancied her mount. I had originally intended to buy the alt-az rig from Orion, where it was badged “Orion Versago.” Luckily, I announced that intention on a Cloudy Nights forum, and a kind person clued me in to the fact I could get the same mount for less money from B&H Photo, where it was being sold as the SkyWatcher AZ-4. And not only that, the SkyWatcher package included an 80mm f/11 achromatic refractor.

Naturally, I went for the SkyWatcher and immediately recognized Midge was a fine little telescope. Beautifully finished tube, good focuser (though only a 1.25-incher), and surprisingly good optics. I will admit the scope was little used for the longest time. But a decade later she is out in the backyard a lot. She is trivial for your now somewhat feeble old uncle to set up—if I am just going to be giving something a quick look, I leave the eyepiece tray off the tripod, and am able to quickly collapse the legs to maneuver through doorways.

My souvenir of the evening...
Anyhow, Midge and I viewed the Christmas Star for quite a long time, showing her off not just to Miss Dorothy and my neighbors, but to a couple of passersby who stopped their cars and got out to ask, “Can you see it? Oh, that’s it over there? Can I look?” It was a lot like a long-ago morning when little Rod spied an elusive but beautiful visitor from Mama and Daddy's front yard.

Eventually, of course, the Star really got down into the mess at the horizon. Before winding things up, I held my iPhone up to the eyepiece and shot a few pictures. Not because I expected much of an image, but just so I'd have a "souvenir" of the evening. I went back to the pretty Moon and shot a few of her as well. Soon thereafter, your uncle retreated to his den for a warming potation and a second viewing of the season 2 finale of The Mandalorian

I am always a little stressed out over big astro-events that capture the public's attention. There have been a lot of Kahouteks over the years, afterall. But this was one astronomy Special Event that really worked out; not just for me and my fellow astronomers, but for everybody, and for that I am glad.

Christmas Eve

These latter-day Christmas Eves are nothing like those huge Christmas Eves of yore at old Chaos Manor South with a giant tree and little kids, eyes full of wonder, running everywhere. And no trips to old El Giro's for margaritas like we used to do each Yule eve, either. This Christmas in the Year of the Plague was an even more quiet one than those of late. Just me and Miss Dorothy. On the morrow, I’ll fix a nice Christmas repast for two (I’m doing a ham this year) and see what the Jolly Old Elf brought me. 

Whether I get out with a telescope or not between now and New Year’s, I’ll be back before long with an article to, if nothing else, tell you WHAT I GOT! Have a beautiful holiday, muchachos. 

"Wait just one cotton pickin' minute, Unk! Ain't you forgettin' something?!" Almost did:  My traditional Christmas Eve viewing of that greatest and most numinous of ornaments, M42, The Great Orion Nebula. It hadn't looked good when I had arisen at my accustomed 07:30 on Christmas Eve morning. Windy, thunderstorms, generally yucky. Looking at Accuweather on my phone (I got tired of the Weather Channel's pop-over ads), and the Clear Sky Clock (I will never call it "Chart"), however, showed maybe there was some hope.

Following my normal Thursday night routine, checking into the Lockdown Fun Net on 28.420Mhz, I peeped out the radio shack door. And there was Rigel shining on like some crazy diamond. I hurried into the house, fetched Midge, and inserted the 17mm Koenig eyepiece I'd purchased at the 1993 Deep South Regional Star Gaze into her diagonal. Best view of M42 I've ever had? No. This was a 3-inch telescope under suburban skies with a waxing Moon nearby. But beautiful? Yes. I looked upon it as a good omen.



Sunday, November 29, 2020

 

Issue 570: The New Herschel Project Night 3: 29 down and 371 to Go

 

When I resurrected the good, old AstroBlog some months ago, muchachos, I said it was my hope to bring you a new article at least every other week. ‘Twas not to be in November. In this time when everybody with a lick of sense is sticking close to home, it wasn’t like I could travel to a star party or a dark site somewhere. I’d have to report on my backyard adventures. That is just OK, but it takes clear skies to do that and late-season hurricane Zeta saw to it I didn’t have any of those.

So, the first half of the month went down the tubes thanks to the lousy WX. What about the second half? As November neared its end and hurricane season finally petered out, it was time to play telescopes. It was time to do a little backyard astronomy before the month was done in hopes of keeping my head above water Herschel-wise.

That was what was on the agenda: Night Three of the New Herschel Project, my quest to observe and/or image all 400 deep sky objects from the first, the best, the brightest list of ‘em, the Herschel 400. And to do it from my humble suburban backyard. I had another mission, though. I had satisfied myself Celestron’s neo-NexRemote, CPWI, worked fine with my Advanced VX mount. It worked fine with a serial cable from the PC to the AVX. How about with a wireless set-up?

Since I expected to do some wrestling with the laptop trying to get CPWI squared away, I thought I’d keep Night Three relatively simple. I’d leave the Mallincam alone and go visual. On a good night, my backyard has a zenith limiting magnitude of about 5, so doing the more prominent aitches with an eyepiece shouldn’t be a problem.

There would be one other change from Night One. I decided to put SkyTools 3 on the bench. While I love the program, there were a couple of issues regarding its use in the New Project. First off, something is squirrely with the H-400 list I downloaded from Skyhound.com. When I’d load the list and connect SkyTools to CPWI so I could initiate gotos from SkyTools, the program would crash. Investigation revealed it was fine with any other list. Apparently, something in the list of 400 objects was driving my Lenovo laptop computer bats. I tried redownloading the H-400, but no dice. SkyTools 3 would just suddenly go away.

Problemo numero dos? My eyes have been going south for over three decades. I’d always had outstanding vision and expected that not to change. Until one evening in the late 80s when I was out cruising the Messiers with a small scope and Jay Pasachoff’s Field Guide to the Stars and Planets. The Tirion charts in the book are on the small side, and they are of the white stars on black sky variety, which is harder to make out in the dark than the opposite. But I’d never had trouble using them with a dim red light. Until this particular evening, when I realized they were now totally unreadable for me. How does that relate to now? The text in SkyTools 3 is on the small side, and can be a pain even though I’m wearing glasses.

Deep Sky Planner 7
So, what to do? I already knew the answer; in fact, I’d known the answer for over seven years: Phyllis Lang’s Deep Sky Planner. One night I was working the Big Enchilada, the original Herschel (2500) Project at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage. On my agenda that evening was trying Phyllis’ program. What I found was that not only was it an outstanding deep sky planner, the text on the lists it generated was easy for me to read despite the laptop’s dim, red-filtered display (with my glasses, natch). For these reasons, it looks like DSP will be the official software of the New Herschel Project.

Once the Edge 800, Mrs. Emma Peel, was on her mount in the backyard in late afternoon, I took a couple of minutes to check her over. As you know if you read thisun, I had to do some rather serious maintenance on the telescope not long ago. The problem, if you haven’t read that entry yet, was the paint on the inside surface of her tube was failing. I had to remove as much of the old paint as I could, which wasn’t hard—it was coming off with mild scrubbing—and repaint the interior. I’m still awfully mad at fricking-fracking (this is a family friendly blog, y’all) Celestron, but the new paint is adhering well. My brush-on job will never look as good as spray-paint, but it looks OK.

Emma’s physical done, all that remained was to set up the laptop. That wasn’t hard since I’d be going visual. All I’d require was the Lenovo itself, its power supply, mouse, and the Xbox gamepad (a wired model) I use to slew the scope when it’s under the control of CPWI.

I did round up my Celestron-style serial cable just in case the wheels fell off the wireless business. But I had some hopes since I’ve recently had very good success controlling the scope with the SkyQ Wi-Fi dongle and SkySafari. I also fetched the StarSense hand control just in case. Finally, I plugged the StarSense alignment camera into the port where the HC would normally go—no hardware HC is needed when you go wireless.

When darkness arrived—blessedly early these days—I powered up the Advanced VX, turned on Emma’s DewBuster heaters, and got set to tackle wireless scope control. Next step, of course, was to fire-up the CPWI program. It has been updated fairly recently, so you might want to check your version and head to Celestron’s website (such as it is) and do a download. There are some bug fixes and also some additional features for the gamepad. Those gamepad options are still not nearly—not NEARLY—as robust as they were for NexRemote, so it’s reassuring Celestron seems to be slowly chipping away at that.

Celestron's latest CPWI.
OK, might was well see what was what. Selected the SkyQ as the laptop’s Wi-Fi on the Windows taskbar, and told CPWI to search for and connect to that Wi-Fi device. I was skeptical but <BOOM!> CPWI found the dongle and connected to it without complaint. Next would be a StarSense auto-align, which also went without a freaking hitch. Sent the scope to the ET open cluster in Cassiopeia and the little guy was placed dead center if the field of my beloved 13mm TeleVue Ethos. I was so excited to have such an easy success I ran inside and told Miss Dorothy all about it.

Alas, your silly old Uncle’s elation was not to last. Remember what I said up above about wheels falling off? Well they came off my wireless wagon in just a few minutes. There was no apparent cause; CPWI just disconnected from the telescope and there was nothing I could do to get it to reconnect short of rebooting the laptop. It wasn’t just a fluke, either. I tried a couple of times and the same thing happened:  I could connect and align without a hassle, but that connection only lasted a few minutes.

Why?  It wasn’t the strength of the Wi-Fi signal from the SkyQ dongle. I was less that three meters from the scope and the laptop’s Wi-Fi signal strength indicator was maxed out. Also, I was using the SkyQ’s simplest mode, Direct Connect, which does not involve your home network. I suspect the problem lies deep within the SkyQ.

My SkyQ Link dongle (it's now called "Sky Portal Link") is, as I’ve mentioned before, the seven year-old first version of the device. Today, it works pretty reliably with SkySafari, but apparently that is kind of its limit. Even there, if I let my iPhone go to sleep it takes the App about 15 seconds to reconnect to the scope. I don’t believe that can be normal, and suspect that’s because of the shaky first version nature of the dongle. Heck, at least I can do something with it. When I first got it, it wouldn’t do a derned thing.

Oh, well, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles and not overly surprising. I shut off the mount, shut down CPWI, connected the serial cable between the Lenovo and the StarSense hand control and started over. There were no surprises thereafter. 

The night was getting slightly old by the time I finished messing around with my wireless debacle. I did a StarSense alignment, brought up Deep Sky Planner 7, connected it to the CPWI program and essayed a few objects before it was time to shut down so your Uncle could go inside and watch the latest episode of The Mandalorian, a show he fancies.

Before I address the evening’s rather paltry haul of objects, I do want to talk a little about Deep Sky Planner. I’ve gone into detail about this wonderful program both in the AstroBlog and in a Test Report I did for Sky & Telescope some years ago. But I want to give it a little space here since it is one of the best planning programs in the business, has been under constant development by Ms. Phyllis for many years, and is remarkably stable.

This subject is particularly appropriate at the moment since Unk has heard Deep Sky Planner 8 has just been released (I used 7 on this night). If you haven’t given the program a try—there is a limited trial version available, I believe—you owe it to yourself to do so, and I’m hoping a few words on it here might impel those benighted souls who don’t know the program to at least visit its Knightware website.

What is great about Deep Sky Planner? It’s not just that it is very legible out on the observing field, even for my tired, old eyes. It is its simple, elegant design. As you can see in the screenshots here, DSP sports a fairly standard Windows menu system—you, know File, Window, Help, etc. Certainly, it has specialized menus because of its specialized nature as astro-ware: Observing Log, Telescope Control, etc. But here’s the thing, campers…the menus, even the specialized ones, are in the usual place at the top of the display.

The Herschel 400 plan loaded and ready!
So what? Why does that matter? Because keeping the user interface simple and standard and as intuitive as one for a program like this can be helps new users begin using DSP in a hurry, and those, like moi, who haven’t opened the app in a long time pick it up again. Of course, Deep Sky Planner does many, many things, so having some guidance in the form of Help files and documentation helps. DSP has that, but it has something that’s maybe even better: numerous YouTube videos where Phyllis demonstrates how to do stuff with her software.

What else? These days, the number of objects contained in a program is not as much of an issue as it used to be. Heck, even smart phone astro-apps contain millions of deep sky objects. However, those of you who, like me, started using computers in astronomy back when the Yale Bright Star Catalog and the Messier list made a planetarium program a heavy hitter, probably want to know the totals for DSP. They are impressive. Deep Sky Planner 8 holds 1.6 million objects (you can get the breakdown on the Knightware website). I believe that will satisfy most of us even in these latter days. Let me add that you may not have to spend any time searching that big library to build observing plans. The program's website has many ready-made plans posted (accessed with the "Community Page" selection in the Help menu).

Any downsides to the program? I’m not sure it’s a downside, but DSP does not offer charts of any kind. That may surprise some, since sky maps have been a feature of most planning programs since this type of software appeared way back in the early 90s with DS3D (Deep Sky 3D, an MSDOS program). But that’s the way Deep Sky Planner has always been

Truthfully, though, it doesn’t bother me regarding DSP. You can download images of target objects from the Digitized Sky Survey, so you can easily see details of an object's field. More importantly, the program can be linked to a number of planetarium programs including TheSky and Cartes du Ciel. Only wish I had? That Phyllis would figure out how to connect DSP to my fave planetarium, Stellarium. Guess what? That has happened in Deep Sky Planner 8.

OK, so I hope I’ve encouraged you to visit the Knightware site and have a look around at least. Anyhoo, once I had the scope aligned via CPWI, and Deep Sky Planner runnin’, I had a look at a few of the Herschel 400’s bright showpieces. Wait. What? You didn’t know the Herschel 400 had bright showpieces? Hoo-boy, are you in for a treat when  you begin the list! These are just a sampling of ‘em. Oh, if you find the Herschel Numbers puzzling, have a look at this somewhat dusty old AstroBlog entry.

First up was one of my all-time favorite open star clusters, H45-4 (NGC 457), the ET Cluster (DSP lists the common name for this one as the “Dragonfly,” but it will always be the little Extraterrestrial to me). It was quite a sight in Mrs. Peel with my 25mm 2-inch Bresser wide-field eyepiece (that Unk, amazingly, won at one of the last Deep South Regional Star Gazes he attended). The field of the Bresser was littered with myriad little gems, and ET’s googly eye, bright Phi Cassiopeiae, just blazed away.

Since I was in the north, I decided to view the Dragon’s H37-4 (NGC 6543), the Cat’s Eye Nebula. It’s bright, at magnitude 8, but if you expect the Cat to look anything like its amazing Hubble portrait from your backyard with an 8-inch telescope, you are in for a big disappointment. At high power with the 4.7mm Explore Scientific 82-degree (another win, from my last Chiefland Star Party), I could get fleeting hints of some sort of internal detail. But that’s all it was, “fleeting.” Mostly it was just a somewhat off-round blue-gray ball of smoke with a prominent central star.

In early evening this time of year, that great old horse, Pegasus, sprawls across Northern Hemisphere skies. He was my next stop for an easy and pretty catch, H18-4 (NGC 7662), the Blue Snowball nebula. At the 298x delivered by the Explore, the magnitude 8.4 Snowball was quite obviously blue, and, yeah, looked like a ghostly snowball. Pretty, but no hint of any detail.

Another piece of low hanging Herschel fruit is in Andromeda, H224-2 (NGC 404), Mirach’s Ghost. This is a relatively small (3’) S0 galaxy with a magnitude of 11.7. You’d think this might be hard from the suburbs, but it is not. The only impediment is that magnitude 2 Mirach is a mere 7’ away. Nevertheless, even in the suburbs the galaxy is easy-peasy looking very much like the “ghost” of Mirach—or maybe an eyepiece reflection.

Old Betsy in her original form 26 years ago at Chaos Manor South.
How about a trip to the far south, to H1-4 (NGC 700), the justly famous Saturn Nebula. How was it in the eyepiece? It was no trouble to see this planetary nebula’s strong elongation and slightly greenish hue, but the “ring,” the “ansae,” the extensions of the nebula that give it its name? Fuhgeddaboutit. It was a difficult task to see the ring with my long-gone 12-inch, Old Betsy. It took a very special night to detect it—barely. Of course, with the Mallincam Xtreme Mrs. Peel will show the ring easily on any night and on a superior one will reveal the “fliers,” the clumps at the tips of the rings.

The night was getting older, and, almost unbelievably, the great swan, Cygnus, was preparing to dive beneath the western horizon. I had just enough time to visit one of the constellation’s many wonders, H73-4 (NGC6826), the Blinking Planetary. The popular name comes from this object's peculiar feature:  look straight at it in the eyepiece and the round nebula surrounding a bright central star disappears. Look away, use averted vision, and the nebulosity pops back into view. Alternate looking at and away from the nebula and it indeed blinks on and off.

Normally, my skies are good enough and Mrs. Peel is large enough that the blinking effect is reduced (more aperture allows you to see the nebulosity with direct vision and the blinking pretty much goes away). Tonight, however, the effect was pronounced—likely because the object was in the thick and dirty air at the horizon.

With later evening upon me, the stars of winter were beginning to glitter in the East. One of my all-time fave planetaries is located in Gemini, H45-4 (NGC 2392), the Eskimo Nebula (I know it’s now politically correct to call it the “Clown Nebula,” but after this many years I can’t get used to that name). How was this bright ball of fluff? As midnight approached, it was able to put on a pretty good show with the Explore. The central star is trivial to observe; the goal is detail, like “ruff” of the Eskimo’s parka (the central star is the Eskimo’s nose).  I’ve at least had hints of this with a 4-inch from the city. With the SCT from the suburbs it really wasn’t a huge challenge—of course I’ve had many years of experience with this object. Pretty!

Time enough for just one more. Unk’s warm den was really beckoning by now. H27-5 (NGC 2264), Monoceros’ Christmas Tree Cluster is another DSO I’ve often visited over my decades of amateur astronomy. Verdict? It looked good from Chaos Manor South with an ETX, and it looks good from the deep suburbs with an Edge 800. It sure doesn’t take much looking to see how this open cluster got its name. Bright (magnitude 7.8) 15 Monocerotis forms the base of the tree and scads of dimmer—but still brilliant—sparkers form the near perfect outline of a Yule tree. What about the famous Cone Nebula, LDN 1613, at the top of the tree? It is a challenge for very large Dobsonians from the darkest sites. On the other hand, my Xtreme will make pretty quick work of it with the SCT from reasonably good skies.

After sitting there at the foot of that beautiful Christmas Tree for quite some time, gazing up at its numinous ornaments, your aged Uncle began to feel chilled. It was time for that den, a little TV, and perhaps some warming libations. 

This night was fun, but thanks to the weather I am badly behind the New Herschel Project power curve. I need to do objects and lots of them to keep on my “one year” informal timeline. So, next time, whenever that is, it will be “Mallincam Xtreme” all the way, muchachos.

Finally, given the pandemic, it was a quiet Thanksgiving at home for Unk and Miss Dorothy. Our many Thanksgivings at the beautiful Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans' French Quarter seem a long, long time ago now. Nevertheless, it was a nice holiday and Unk's turkey--the first one I've ever brined--turned out very well indeed. I hope all of you, my dear readers, had a happy and safe holiday, too. 


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

 

#569 Mars Redux


The ASI120MC, Shorty Barlow, and Meade flip mirror.
This will be a somewhat short one this Sunday, muchachos, since there’s no need to re-cover ground I’ve covered extensively in the past, as in “How do I process Solar System images, Unk?”  You can read all about that here. Or the long story of Uncle Rod and Mars, which you can get here. But I do want to tell you about my first expedition to the Angry Red Planet in quite some time.

Did I take a peek or two at Mars in 2018? Sure I did, but it wasn’t a very good year for the planet what with the dust storms and all. I’d been hearing, howsomeever, that this year’s apparition was turning out to be a Real Good one.

And….as I thankfully have frequently of late, one afternoon last week I felt the call of the backyard. “Time to get the C8 set up, I reckon.” What would I set up Mrs. Peel, my Celestron Edge 800, for, though? That was obvious. While we are now pulling away from the Red One, when Mars was at opposition on the 6th of October, we were a mere 62 million kilometers from that mysterious world, we won’t be as close again for 15 more years, and the planet is still awfully big and bright.

15 years? That will make your old Unk…well, “15 years older,” and I question whether I’ll be up to getting even an 8-inch SCT into the backyard by then. Frankly, thanks to the injuries I suffered last year, it ain’t exactly a piece of cake for me to get the freaking Advanced VX set up now. That being the case, I figgered I’d better take advantage of this Mars opposition. And I will, y’all, I will. The image you see here will just be the beginning, I hope. As I was during the BIG opposition of 2003, I plan to be in the backyard taking my humble planetary snapshots almost every clear evening.

First step, then, was deciding on the camera to use. Well, that wasn’t much of a decision to make since I really only have one planetary camera these days. Planetary camera? Without going into a lot of detail which will be amply explained by the links above, what you want for taking pictures of the Solar System is a camera with a small sensor which is possessed of many pixels. And you want it to output .avi video. You’ll take as many frames as possible and reasonable and stack those into a finished still image.

Sky & Telescope's Mars Profiler helps you find your way across Mars. 
For me, that is the good, old ZWO I purchased, oh, about a dozen years ago. Back then, I was searching for something to replace the meh cameras I was using on the planets at the time, the SAC7b, the Meade LPI, and a Celestron planet-cam. All were “just” converted webcams. All worked, but I wanted something with a little more speed (frame rate-wise) better build quality, and the ability to use with more modern software.

That’s when I began hearing about a new mainland Chinese company, ZWO optical. Looking at their offerings, I found they had a camera that appeared might do the job for me, the ZWO ASI120MC, a one-shot color job with a maximum resolution of 1280x 960 (all my other cameras hovered around 640x480). As above, when you’re imaging planets the idea is to take a lot of frames and stack them in the interest of reducing noise and catching moments of good seeing. The 120, ZWO said, was capable of up to 100 frames per second (fps) at lower resolutions and 20fps at max. That sounded right good to me, so I took a chance.

This was before ZWO, which is now one of the top CCD/CMOS astronomy camera vendors, hit the bigtime. When I ordered, they had no U.S. dealer; my little widget had to come all the way from the People’s Republic of China. Which it did in a surprisingly short time.

What was in the box when it appeared on the front porch of the legendary Chaos Manor South and your not-quite-so old Uncle got it into his hot little hands? Well, there was the substantial and, frankly, impressive camera itself. Metal, nicely finished in red. There was also a 1.25-inch nosepiece, a short USB cable, a CD with some software, and an IR block filter to make it easy to get shots with easy to balance color. Heck there was even a fisheye lens for the cam, which some folks have used to turn the 120 into an inexpensive all-sky camera.

Anyhoo, the little camera has been my sole Solar System imager over the last decade. Hey, I don’t aspire to become the next Damian Peach or Chris Go—even if I had the talent and dedication to achieve the results of those masters. As always, Unk is a dabbler. One night, I’m looking at a bright comet with a 3-inch refractor, the next I’m doing deep sky video, the next, spectroscopy. You get the picture. The ZWO proved to be simple to use and has produced results that have pleased me.

Oh, Unk did fib a bit. I do have another camera that would work well on the planets, my QHY5L guide cam. However, it’s black and white. I want color, and if you think your fumbling Uncle is gonna start shooting through RGB filters, you’ve got another think coming. It’s one-shot color all the way ‘round here.

By the way, the 120mc is still readily available from ZWO and their dealers. It’s a little more expensive than mine was, but you do get a little lagniappe for the extra dineros:  the camera now sports an ST4 auto-guide output. Is the 120mc color version sensitive enough for guiding? Based on my experience using the camera for short-exposure deep sky imaging, I would say it definitely is. And for planetary use, it is still the bomb. You can get ZWOs with bigger chips these days, but, again, for the planets you don’t need bigger chips. The megapixel range 6mm sensor in this little camera is just right.

Would it still work, though? I hadn’t used the camera in quite a while, and many Windows 10 updates had intervened. Only one way to find out…downloaded the latest driver from ZWO’s website, rounded up a USB “printer” cable, connected it to the laptop and cam, lit off Sharpcap, and she started right up, no problem.

Sharpcap? Yes. While I previously used Firecapture (and before that, the now-forgotten K3CCD Tools), I’ve chosen to move on to Sharpcap for control of my planetary camera. Firecapture is still great, but, for one thing, I am more used to using Sharpcap now, since I fire it up on a regular basis to do polar alignments (its polar alignment tool is flat-out amazing).  Also, I might as well get my money’s worth out of the software since I am paying for a subscription to the Pro version Sharpcap. Finally, it is an impressive, professionally executed, frequently updated piece of software.

And so, it was time to put the scope together on one cool if hardly chilly Possum Swamp afternoon. The telescope was, as I’ve done mentioned, Mrs. Peel. To get planetary images that show much detail, you need mucho focal length. Even my girl’s 2000mm would not be enough. I would increase that, however, with a 2x Barlow.

I began with the ringed wonder.
The Barlow I use for imaging the planets isn’t anything special; just an Orion “Shorty” I got from them several decades ago. It is surprisingly good optically, however, and gives me 4000mm of focal length with the SCT, which is a nice match for the camera on many nights. When the seeing is really fine, as it sometimes can be down here on the Gulf of Mexico coast, I’ll kick that up a notch to 6,000mm. I do that with a good 3x Barlow I got from renowned (and now retired) astronomy dealer Gary Hand recently. Well…recent for your Uncle, which these days is “about ten years ago.” OK, so I use a Barlow. I don’t just plug it into Mrs. Peel’s (ahem) rear port, though.

Many years ago (more than I like to remember) when Unk first began imaging the Moon and planets with small-chip electronic cameras (primitive video cams at first), I was amazed at how terribly difficult it was to get even the Moon in the frame. That’s still true today. Even if your goto mount yields spot-on gotos, you will likely find that at 4000mm Mars is not visible on the computer screen when the mount stops. So, you do what? Waste a lot of time slewing around trying to get to your target. After spending much too much time doing that, you’ll say to yourself, “Self, there’s gotta be a better way.”

There is. The secret is a “flip mirror.” A flip mirror is like a star diagonal, but with a couple of differences. Normally it works just like a diagonal:  light enters from the telescope and is diverted 90-degees by a mirror and to the eyepiece. However, a flip mirror includes a knob or lever that allows you to flip the mirror down, out of the light path. Images then go out the back of the diagonal through a camera port. Put an eyepiece in the flip mirror’s eyepiece holder, attach your camera to the camera port, center up the target in the eyepiece, flip the mirror down, and it will be in the field of your camera (flip mirrors are adjustable so you can align the camera and eyepiece views).

A flip mirror makes finding and centering objects at large image scales and with small imaging sensors trivial. Only fly in the ointment? While you can still buy flip mirrors, they are not as plentiful as they once were. They were originally popular with deep sky imagers as well as planetary imagers back in the dark ages. Once DSO astrophotographers went to large chips, they had little further use for flip mirrors, and there was then a reduced demand for them. But you can still find them both new and used. I’m am still chugging along with the 1.25-inch Meade I’ve had for the better part of 20 years.

Not my fave side of Mars, but there's Olympus Mons!
OK, so flip mirror attached to Mrs. Peel, Barlow in flip mirror, camera in Barlow. Anything else I did to prepare? Yes, I did a precise polar alignment with Sharpcap. At long focal lengths, declination drift from poor polar alignment will be exaggerated and you will get tired of mashing the dec buttons all the time to recenter your quarry.

Alrighty, then. I did a quick StarSense auto-align (yes, I am too lazy to center a few stars with the hand control these days, folks). Mars was still low and in the trees, so I thought I’d give Saturn a look see. Maybe Jupe, too. I started with the king, old Jupiter. Got him framed nicely, and focused and started exposing. And, in Uncle Rod fashion, I screwed up right out of the gate.

To begin, I forgot one of the first things I learned about planetary imaging way back in the webcam days:  aim for the shortest exposure possible; one that yields an onscreen image that looks slightly underexposed. I didn’t. I overexposed Jupiter. However, since I plan to get out at least every couple of nights (giving Mars time to rotate new features into view) I’ll be back to Jupiter soon.

My other foul up? You want plenty of frames, but not too many. Jupiter rotates so rapidly that if you go much over a minute features will actually begin to blur. More importantly, stacking programs like Registax and AutoStakkert will refuse to process videos that are too large. For moi, about 30 – 45 seconds at 20 fps or so is more than good enough. Yes, more frames can yield a less noisy image, but you do reach the point of diminishing returns after about 1000.

The B.A.A.'s excellent Mars Mapper.
Head finally on straight as I shifted to Saturn, I got in the groove. One thing I really like about Sharpcap? Its simplicity. Now, you may be surprised to hear that, since the program is renowned for its power and features, but it is true. Yeah, it will do stuff like live-stacking and even more complex things, but it can be operated simply and easily for basic planetary imaging.

All you need to do to capture Mars or whatever is set exposure and gain till you get that slightly underexposed look onscreen, open the capture menu, click “start capture,” tell Sharpcap how long or how many frames, and hit the go button. When your sequence completes, the program conveniently places your file in a folder called “Sharpcap Captures” on your desktop. Whether you go for Sharpcap Pro or the basic version, the software is highly recommended by your old Uncle, and if he can get pretty good results with it, you surely can.

When Mars finally got high enough to fool with at about 21:00 local, I went there, touched up focus and ran off a few sequences. Now, what was on display was not my favorite side of Mars. I find the Mare Serenium “streak” slightly blah. However, it’s not entirely without its points of interest. On this steady night, even before I processed the images, I could see Olympus Mons was visible. Of course, Mars’ rapidly shrinking polar ice cap was on stark display.

“Mare Serenium?! Unk, I don’t know pea-turkey about that-there!” If you’ve done everything correctly, including when stacking your video frame with Registax or AutoStakkert, and have judiciously applied Registax’s famous wavelet filters, you will be surprised at how much detail you’ve recorded. You obviously need a map to sort out that detail. Ideally, one tailored for the date and time you took your pictures.

A chart just like that “MarsProfiler,” this can be found on Sky & Telescope’s website. It’s actually a little app.  You enter the date and time of your image’s acquisition and it will show just what in tarnation you are looking at. While it’s not quite as detailed, I also really, really like the British Astronomical Association’s “MarsMapper.” In some ways I prefer its Mars disk format to S&T’s flat chart, but I find both of these apps absolutely indispensable.

The beloved Rat-Bat-Spider from Angry Red Planet.
So, what remains for you to do? If you don’t yet have a camera like the ZWO 120, there’s still time to get one, but don’t hesitate; Mars will recede into the distance quicker than you might expect. Ring up yore favorite astro-dealer and tell ‘em Unk Rod and the Rat-Bat-Spider sent ya.

Then, get out with the scope and get some shots of the Angry Red Planet. Even if you don’t know a thing about processing planetary images right now, you’ll have some video sequences in the can that you can work on next month—or next year—and your results will just get better as you go along.

Unk? I’ve got to teach my university classes tonight, so I may not get back to the 4th stone from the Sun this evening, but I darned sure will tomorrow night. No, it ain’t as good as 2003, but it sure feels a lot like that, muchachos, it sure feels a lot like that.

Postscript...

One thing you can say for your old Uncle Rod? He ain't no piker. Well, he tries not to be one anyways. Two nights after I snapped the image above, I thought I'd give Mars another try. Two days is enough time to give the planet, which has a day only a bit longer than ours, a chance to rotate into a slightly different position so it will reveal a few new features. 

Edge 800 8-inch SCT, ZWO ASI120MC, 6,000mm
Standing out on the deck on Tuesday evening, I could tell that, while seeing was not absolutely perfect, it was pretty darned good following the passing of a cold front several days before. Typical Possum Swamp October evenin'...warm, humid, still. Seemed like a great time to, yeah, kick it up a notch. To the Tune of 6,000 rather than 4,000mm of focal length.

Naturally, even with a flip mirror, imaging at a focal length of nearly 20 feet can make aiming downright tough. Hairline reducing tough. Unk, however, got smart for once, centering up the Angry One at 4,000mm before switching out the 2x Shorty Barlow for the 3x Handson Optics job.  I tried to be careful with focusing, too, working on it for quite a spell.  Frankly,  however, the seeing was good enough that focus was easy enough to achieve.

My results? I had to throw out a few sequences due to dust on the sensor chip. Once I noticed that, I moved the planet to a clear spot (I'll clean the ZWO's chip before doing any more work). The remaining sequences I got were easy enough to process, and the resulting final stills, while they darned sure won't win any prizes, are good enough for me; they make me feel like I've come home to Mars once again. 

Which I'll admit is sometimes MY Mars. Not the Mars of NASA's rovers, but an old Mars of beautiful princesses, bizarre creatures, and mile-high skyscrapers adorning strange Martian cities. That's what I dreamed of when I shut down the laptop, stowed the bottle of Yell, and dozed away on the couch, anyhow.


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