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.


Sunday, October 11, 2020

 

#568 My Yearly M13: 2020

 

My Yearly M13, like my Christmas Eve peek at M42, is a tradition I’ve maintained through the years—when I can, anyhow. 

“What the heck is Unk goin’ on about now?” One of two astronomical things I’ve tried to do every year, muchachos, is get out and take a picture of Messier 13, the Great Globular in Hercules. Why? Well, it’s tradition. But even moreso, it ensures I’ll have to get behind a camera mounted on a telescope at least once per annum.

Now, I certainly try to and usually do get out and do astrophotography more than once a freaking year. But long stretches do often separate my sessions. The main reason for that being the weather. As I have oft-opined here, it seems to me imaging-worthy skies have been less common over the last 8 years or so than they used to be. I’d be the last to claim you can make any conclusions about weather trends from a mere 8 years of observations, but that is the way it seems to me.

One thing I do know for sure? In the first decade of this new century I had many mid-summer nights of imaging and observing fun down south in Florida at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. That good summer observing began to dry up around 2012, and Chiefland weather the rest of the year began to decline not long after. That is one of the reasons I have not been back to the fabled CAV in nearly five years. Even the still somewhat hardcore (well, a little) Uncle Rod can only stand so many nights holed up in a cotton-picking Quality Inn under cloudy skies. Unfortunately, it ain’t just Florida skies that now seem worse year-round; the same is true up here on the northern Gulf Coast in Possum Swamp.

Be that as it may be. Resolving to shoot M13 once a year, yeah, ensures I get out with a camera and a telescope at least once between late spring and early autumn.  The last time I did some honest-to-God prime focus, long exposure, guided imaging? Wellllll...that was…I can’t exactly remember, y’all, but maybe not since last year's M13.

So it was that once bad old Hurricane Sally had become just an unpleasant memory, and the clouds that had followed in her wake had all flown off, I prepared to shoot my annual portrait of the big glob. Two weeks after the storm, we were enjoying a nice stretch of weather. Plenty of Sun and blue skies with highs in the upper 70s and lows at night in the 50s. While “50s” is a little cool for your aged Unk’s bones, I prefer being a chilled to having the sweat dripping off me and onto the laptop as I try to take deep sky pictures in my bumbling fashion.

So, as October came in, I would be getting out into the backyard with telescope and camera. But which telescope and which camera? As I said last time, I’m lazy in these latter days. What is a pretty much guaranteed way to get recognizable deep sky shots without much effort? Shoot them with a short – medium focal length 80mm APO (color free) refractor. My beloved 80mm William Optic Fluorite f/7.5, “Veronica Lodge,” would fill that bill.

Veronica is elegantly and sturdily built, but still light enough not to challenge my Celestron Advanced VX GEM mount, so that was what I would put her on. The only question in that regard? “Guided or unguided”? The sky Friday before last was clear, but man was it hazy. Haze scatters light, making the light pollution of my suburban backyard worse than it is on a clear and dry evening. That meant I’d probably limit my exposures to two minutes. Since I’d be doing a precise polar alignment, I probably could have gotten away with no guiding at all for 120-second shots. But since I’d have the guide camera with me to do a Sharpcap polar alignment, why not guide?

Scope, check. Mount, check. Camera? I thought that would be my old Canon Rebel. It’s dependable, I have an AC power supply for it, and as things are reckoned today, the 12-year-old camera has relatively large pixels. That ain’t a bad thing in the deep sky imaging game, campers, since “larger pixels” naturally means “more sensitive.”

All that remained was to decide on the software I’d be using.   As always, I’d be controlling the Canon and acquiring images with Nebulosity. The program, by Craig Stark, author of the original PHD Guiding, will do anything I need it to do and more including acquiring, stacking, and processing DSLR images. While it was initially intended for use with Canon DSLRs, it also works with many astronomical CCD cameras.

I dunno about you, but when I’m imaging I do not like hanging out at the freaking telescope. I want to sit at the computer and run the show from there. I could have used Celestron’s CPWI program, the successor to NexRemote, which we talked about a couple of weeks back. That would have allowed me to control everything from the laptop including the goto alignment. I don’t have much experience with the program yet, though, and thought it best to keep things a mite simpler.

The new Cartes du Ciel beta.

Likely I’d be fussing with the other software, trying to remember what little I ever knew about it. So, instead of CPWI I thought I’d use a nice, friendly, simple planetarium program with an ASCOM driver. ASCOM would give me a little onscreen hand control useful for centering objects in the camera’s frame.

What I’ve used most over the last few years when it comes to PC planetariums is the excellent Stellarium. However, a sentimental favorite, Cartes du Ciel, was, I heard, in a new (beta) version, 4.3. That being the case, I thought I’d give the latest CdC a whirl. I’ve noted quite a bit of traffic on the program’s mailing list of late, so Cartes is obviously more than just still alive.

Guiding? I ain’t used anything but PHD2 since it came out. And I hadn’t used anything before that but the original PHD Guiding since the dark ages when I was photographing the skies with my old self-guiding SBIG black and white astro-CCD. It would be PHD2 Guiding all the way. I had to get it going on a new laptop about a year ago, and was quite not sure I had all the settings correct—I hadn’t used it since then—but I figgered it wouldn’t much matter with short focal length Veronica.

Anything else? Well, I was darned sure glad I checked out Sharpcap the day before my M13 expedition to make sure all was well with it. It turned out my subscription had expired. You see, I use the Pro version (the one with the polar alignment tool). It ain’t freeware, being offered on a yearly subscription basis. Seemed like I had just renewed the program for the very reasonable fee of 15 dollars a year, but, yes, another year had flown by. Anyhoo, it took but a few minutes to get a new subscription and a license in place. Glad I wasn’t blindsided by that in the dark backyard, though.

So, into that backyard I went, setting up in my usual fashion with the scope beside the deck and me and the laptop on the deck. It’s like an observatory for somebody who doesn’t want an observatory: I can leave the telescope set up in my secure backyard for as long as the weather stays nice. Sitting at the patio table under a big umbrella, I’m out of the dew and so is the PC. And I’m just steps from my den where I spend my time while the exposures are clicking off. Oh, I check things once in a while, but watching The Mandalorian on TV while drinking a…uh… “sarsaparilla” is a lot more fun than watching the PHD2 guide graph, friends.

While I hadn’t used Veronica in a long while, she went together smoothly:  plunked her into the mount’s Vixen saddle, attached her tube extension to the focuser, put my (excellent) Hotech field flattener into that, and mounted the camera via a, natch, Canon format T-ring.

Nebulosity doing its thing.
Of course, that was only the beginning. The Orion 50mm guide scope had to be secured in Veronica’s finder shoe, the QHY guide-cam had to go into that, and a USB cable and an ST-4 cable had to be hooked up. Had to have dew heaters on both telescope objective and guide scope objective even in the autumn down here in the Swamp. They had to be connected to the DewBuster controller, and it had to be hooked to a power supply. Gotta rustle up the StarSense hand control and StarSense camera. Oh, need an AC power supply for the mount, and—well, y’all get the idea; even setting up “just” an 80mm refractor for imaging is a complex and rather lengthy task.

Whoooeee. I was close to sweating even in the cooling air as the stars winked on. Next order of bidness was polar alignment. I temporarily placed the laptop on a little tray-table next to the scope, plugged the guide scope into the computer’s USB port, and fired up Sharpcap.

How long does a Sharpcap polar alignment take? Maybe 10 minutes first time out. Five minutes or less after that. The process is simple. Set the mount in home position pointing north in declination with the counterweight down. Click in the Tools menu to start the polar alignment.

Sharpcap will expose a few frames and will shortly tell you to rotate 90 degrees in RA. That done, you’ll use the mount’s altitude and azimuth controls to point at the North Celestial pole with the aid of onscreen graphics and text directions (“Move up 12’…”). How accurate is it? Now that it takes refraction into account, I have faith that when it tells me I’m just seconds from the pole that’s just where I am. And my results indicate it is telling the truth. If you have a guide camera, Sharpcap is the obvious cure for the polar alignment blues.

Polar alignment done (the somewhat course altitude/azimuth controls on the AVX make the process more difficult on that mount than on my Losmandy—but it’s not bad), it was time to essay a goto alignment via the StarSense auto-align camera. I’ve never had a problem with the StarSense; it’s always produced an alignment as good as what I can do with the normal hand control. But there are a couple of gotchas to watch out for—one of which your hapless raconteur encountered on this very evening.

Full sized image.
The StarSense camera is furnished with two mounting brackets. One for Synta-style finder shoes and one for the peculiar and proprietary finder mounts Celestron uses on its Edge scopes (and maybe others these days). I’d last used the StarSense on my Edge, so I’d have to unbolt the camera from the Edge bracket and put it on the Synta mount on Veronica. I knew changing mounts would probably affect the camera’s aim and calibration and the accuracy of the goto alignment. But given the wide field of the 80mm, I hoped I could squeak by.

‘Twas not to be muchachos. The StarSense did the goto alignment successfully as always, going to four star-fields and plate solving. When it was done, I sent the mount to Vega, which I thought would be a good target for rough focusing. Fired up Nebulosity, started clicking off focus frames and…no Vega did I see. Tried slewing around a little. Nope. No Vega. Sighted along the tube and did some more slewing. Nope, sorry, Charlie.

There was nothing for it. I’d just have to calibrate the StarSense. That is easy if you, unlike your silly Uncle, remember how to do that. Send the mount to a bright star (Vega in my case). Get the star in the field of an eyepiece or camera (I did that by replacing the StarSense with a red dot finder temporarily). Press Align, and use the hand control’s direction buttons to precisely center the star.

That sounds easy. And it is easy if you, unlike Rod, remember to press Align, not Enter. Pressing Enter sent the mount back to where it was in the beginning; where it thought the star oughta be. So, Unk got to start all over from the beginning after biting the bullet and digging out the StarSense manual.

Got ‘er done, and all should have been well. But wouldn’t you know it? Uncle Rod did some assuming, and you know what they say about that word. Once the calibration is done, the HC tells you you need to do another alignment. That’s easy, just press enter and it will be executed automatically. Silly old Rod, however, thought he should set the mount back to home position first—which you do not need to do. You will not be surprised to learn the AVX pointed the scope to the Earth for the first plate solve. Power down, start over from scratch one more time.

Zoomed in with a crop.
Well, alrighty then. All was finally well. Completed the goto re-alignment, requested Vega, and it appeared in the frame of the camera. I focused until it was as small as I could get it, and then attained fine focus using Nebulosity’s focus utility, which has you use an unsaturated, dimmer field star, adjusting until its displayed HFR (Half Flux Radius) number is as small as you can get it.

OK! We was rollin’ now. That’s what Unk thought, anyhow, but the gremlins weren’t quite done with his sorry self. Time to engage Cartes du Ciel. Started the program, connected the ASCOM driver to the mount, clicked M13, and then the slew button, and off we went for the globular. The mount was about halfway there when the computer went fitified with a blue screen of death. I don’t know I’ve ever had that happen with Windows 10, but it sure did happen on this evening.

Luckily, the mount continued to M13 unaffected, I restarted the computer, reconnected all the software, and the laptop was OK from then on. What was the problem? Despite the fact that I was using a beta version of Cartes, I’m guessing the culprit was actually the older ASCOM version I was running, 6.1. By the light of day, I investigated and found some people had had problems with that one. So, I updated to the current v6.5, even though I had had no further problems with Cartes for the remainder of the evening.

Cartes du Ciel? Other than that hiccup, it was wonderful. No, it does not have the pretty sky of Stellarium, but it makes up for that with the legibility of its display in the field, and has many more features for observers than Stellarium, despite me loving that program very much. Go out and get the new CdC; it is another winning version in a long string of winning versions.

The rest of the evening was frankly pedestrian in the extreme. I got PHD2 Guiding doing its thing without a hitch. While the seeing, never good, was degrading as time went by, my errors were just a little worse than 1” with PPEC not turned on. Well, till M13 began to get lower on the horizon after about an hour, and I began to approach 2”. Unfortunately, in October there ain’t much time before the glob begins to get low; especially if, like your fumbling Uncle, you waste at least half an hour before taking your first sub-frame. But the higher guide error toward the end of my sequence was not a problem. Again, an 80mm scope is very forgiving. You almost have to work not to get round stars.

And...the clouds are back.
A sufficient, I thought, number of 120-second sub-frames in the can, I threw that accursed big switch. The bugs were beginning to bite, the humidity was spiking, the Roku was calling, and so was that sarsaparilla. Not a bad night once I got on track, I thought.

The denouement? Early Saturday evening, I shot a series of T-shirt flats using the sky at dusk as illumination. As I was doing so, I witnessed the darned old clouds begin to flow back in after giving me almost a week’s respite. Not just that...another big storm was shortly threatening the Gulf. So, I was glad I’d got out, full Moon or no (did I mention shortly after my imaging sequence began, a fat Moon began to rise in the east?).  That done, I went through the usual processing steps with Neb:  debayer both lights and flats. Stack lights and flats into single images and combine master flat and master light into one photo, process using Nebulosity, and do final touchup with Photoshop.

“But what about darks, Unk? You gotta shoot darks, doncha?” I did, Skeezix, but I did that as I was shooting the lights, automatically. I set the Canon Rebel to subtract a dark after every image. It takes twice as long to get through your sequence, but I find doing it that way yields better results.  With an uncooled camera like a DSLR, it’s always best to shoot a dark immediately after the light so the sensor is at a similar temperature.

My results? Not so bad. While something like this would never appear in the magazine’s Gallery section (!), I’ve done worse on a hazy night in the suburbs with big Moon rising. Frankly, this year’s shot is at least as good as what I got in 2019 with an LX85 mount and a Meade 8-inch ACF under similar conditions (in late 2019; the blog article didn't appear till January 2020). But you know what? This exercise ain't about results, anyway; it’s about Unk getting his silly old self out under the night sky with a camera and getting back to work, muchachos.


Monday, September 28, 2020

 

#567 Hello Sally!

 

It will be a short one this time muchachos. But I’m posting this for a couple of reasons. I’ve had numerous enquiries about how Miss Dorothy and I fared in Hurricane Sally, which came ashore just to the east of us. Also, I’ve vowed that come what may I will post at least one new AstroBlog article every month. And I was hoping that might usually be two.

You didn’t get two in September for a very good reason:  it was resolutely cloudy in the weeks leading up to Hurricane Sally—September is the big month of hurricane season, after all—and it has been resolutely cloudy since. It is threatening to clear up this week, no doubt due to the presence of a waxing Moon. Moon or no, I need to get a telescope into the backyard for a photo-shoot to accompany my next Sky & Telescope Test Report, so I may actually grab a camera and give M13 a try. As those of you who've hung out here for a while know, I try to image the grand Great Globular once a year no matter what.

Anyhow, what happened during the storm? Well, a couple of days before Sally hit, I had a premonition:  this was gonna be another Elena. A what? Hurricane Elena struck Gautier, Mississippi back in 1985. Unk, a young, freshly-minted engineer with his first real job happened to be living in that little coastal town at the time. But that wasn’t the kicker.

The kicker was that my wife at the time and I had gone to bed Saturday night after hearing a weather report that assured us Elena would hit Apalachicola, Florida. Being late risers on Sunday who liked to read the New York Times over much coffee sans TV or radio, we didn’t give the storm any thought in the morning. Till the phone rang. It was one of my colleagues asking what the wife and I were gonna do. I replied, "I think she’s still reading the magazine section; I’m making more coffee.”

“No, I mean about the storm.”

“What storm? Elena? Why should we have to do anything?”

“You haven’t heard? Turn on the freaking TV. She’s going to come ashore at Gautier and go right over our heads!”

And so she did. And quite an experience it was; it’s the only time I’ve experienced the passage of the eye of a hurricane. Frightening? Yes. Strangely exhilarating? Also, "yes."

I had that ineffable feeling that Sally was gonna be a repeat, so to speak, and it became clear that was precisely what would happen. Sally’s track got pushed to the east past Louisiana, past Mississippi, and right to Alabama.

Ever since Elena, I’ve taken these things seriously even when I’m told I’ve got nothing to worry about. Most of our preparations were already complete by the time Sally drew a bead on the Alabama Gulf Coast. I’d made a run on Publix for bottled water and other stuff (pop-tarts, peanut butter, bacon; the usual survival supplies), and the 25kw whole house generator we’d had installed last year had coincidentally just been serviced and was ready to go. Only thing left to do was to tip-over my amateur radio HF vertical antenna. It has a tilt base for just such eventualities, so that was easy.

The evening before landfall was eerily calm, though looking up and seeing clouds literally dashing across the sky foretold there was something bad in the Gulf headed our way. I went to bed about midnight just as the bands of rain began to come thick and fast and winds began to gust up to 30 – 40 mph.  I slept well but for a couple of times when I was awakened by the power going out, the generator coming on, and power being automatically transferred. But I was able to fall back asleep each time. Until about 5 am or somewhat before when it really began to blow and the power went off and stayed off.

Gotta tell y’all: your old Uncle really squealed about the price of the generator and its switchgear and their installation, but I sure was happy to have it on this morning. The winds howled—did they ever! —gusting up to, I’d guess, 85 at least, but we had TV, air-conditioning, the Keurig, the microwave, pretty much everything. The cable TV did go out after a while, but the fiber Internet never faltered and we found a good weather channel on the darned Roku.

The W4NNF shack and the 6-meter antenna.
When it was obvious the storm was passing, I went out front and had a look. It was still dark, with just our home, the house across from us, and a couple of others in the neighborhood lit up. There were a few big limbs down in front, but just a few. 

Venturing out on the deck showed the backyard was about the same. The patio table was on its side but OK (I'd stashed the chairs in the radio shack the afternoon before). Oh, the driveway was covered in small limbs and leaves, and there were a few down at the back of the backyard, but nothing really major. Amazingly, my 6-meter antenna which was mounted on a cheap TV mast still stood. So did the 2-meter aerial on its TV mast. Alas, with one departing gust Sally knocked the 6-meter one down. Oh, well, I’d been meaning to replace the pitiful thing for a long time.

A trot around the neighborhood after the rain finally paused showed a few of my neighbors had lost trees. Those were invariably pines or palms, neither of which grace Unk's yard, thank goodness. Lot of limbs down, some older wooden fences had given up the ghost; that was about it.

The denouement? Power came back on at 7:30 am and stayed on. Part of the reason for that is our power lines are underground in this neighborhood, and the substation we are connected to also serves the local hospital, so getting it back working is a big priority with the power company.

Now, just across Mobile Bay where the eye had come ashore, the flooding and power loss and wind damage were terrible. Power was still off in some areas a week after the storm. Heck, some people in the city—like the downtown neighborhood where good old Chaos Manor South still stands in all her glory—were without power for almost that long. So, all things considered, I’d say me and Miss Dorothy were pretty lucky.

So that’s it, campers. Sure, I feel sorry for the folks with severe damage and who were without power for a long time. But this is the first storm I’ve ever been able to ride out in comfort. It wasn’t that long ago that Dorothy and I and daughter Lizbeth were evacuating to Atlanta in the middle of the night or—after Katrina—living in her university office for days. So, I know how it is. But we down here are tough when it comes to these storms; they are just a part of life on the Gulf.

Astronomy? As above, I plan to get my yearly M13 taken before time begins to run out. Hercules is already beginning to get a little low. I ain’t gonna wimp out like I have a time or two in the past and use video, either. No, it will be a DSLR, flats, darks, all that good stuff.

Well, I might wimp out a little bit. C8? No. 5-inch APO? No. It will be my beloved f/7.5 80mm fluorite refractor, Veronica. Yes, I know a little more focal length would be nice here in the relatively bright suburbs, but I’m lazy and it is just so easy to get pretty pictures with Ronnie.

So, stay tuned. If I actually get the skies and haven’t totally forgot how to do deep sky imaging, I should be back here this coming Sunday or (more likely the one after). Until then, muchachos, until then… 


Sunday, August 30, 2020

 

#566 Stars in the Palm of My Hand Redux


Yeah, muchachos, I know. I said not long ago that I hoped to put a new AstroBlog article on the air at least twice a month, but I barely managed one for August. What happened? The weather is what happened…or didn’t happen depending on your perspective. It’s been nothing but clouds and thunder boomers here. Well, except when there’s a full Moon of course. As I write, there are two tropical storms in the Gulf. So, no “My Yearly M13;” not yet anyhow. Instead let’s talk about the cotton-picking cellphones.

Now, your old Uncle, Luddite that he is, is not that big a fan of the danged pocket computers. I could, as I often say to the annoyance of everybody around me, go back to a black dial-phone hardwired into the wall. Happily. But I must admit they can be handy for some things--like astronomy.  I’ve been involved in using smart phones and their ancestors, the PDAs, in stargazing for quite a while.

I got started not long after the turn of the century with something some of you may remember, Palm Pilots. If you’re young, or like your old Uncle occasionally a little short on brain cells, what the Palm was was a “PDA,” a Personal Digital Assistant. It did some of the things we do with smart phones these days:  keep a calendar, manage contacts and appointments, make notes, stuff like that. But with no connectivity. Not only could you not make a phone call with one, in the early days of PDAs you couldn’t even connect to the Internet. Well, you could—sorta. Plug the Palm into a PC (via an RS232 cable) and it would update little news and weather apps; stuff like that. Sounds primitive 20 years later, but these things were actually amazingly useful.

And not just because of the built-in apps like the calendar and stuff. Soon there were third parties producing all manner of software to run on the Palm, just like with today’s iPhones and Androids. In a short time, there was a whole Palm industry producing serious software like word processors. And even hardware like keyboards. While it might seem a little strange to do word processing on a PDA, it worked thanks to the devices’ increasingly good screens. That was a life saver for me in the days when I was still riding destroyer sea-trials. I needed to do some writing on deadline, and couldn't bring a non-secure, non-government laptop with me. A PDA was no problem, however, and I was able to get my work done with my Palm and my (folding) keyboard.

And all that was just ducky, but what I was really interested in, as y’all might expect, was the growing inventory of astronomy software for the Palm. Yep, there were quite a few astro apps, some quite powerful; especially the one I settled on for regular use: Planetarium for Palm. One of my fonder memories is of using my Palm IIIxe and my wee ETX60 (by means of an RS-232 cable from Palm to Autostar) to tour dozens of deep sky objects from the dark Smoky Mountains.

Astromist
Planetarium for Palm worked great on my original IIIxe, and even better on my “upgrade” PDA, the Palm Tungsten E2 which had—get this, campers—a color screen and the limited ability to use Wi-Fi with an add-on card! However, soon Planetarium for Palm had competition, a remarkable bit of programming called Astromist. Not only did it sport nearly 20,000 deep sky objects; it took full advantage of the Tungsten’s color screen. The Tungsten had the power and the features to show what hand held devices could (potentially) bring to astronomy.

Not that I needed to be convinced. I was so impressed by my Palm that I started a Yahoogroup just for the use of PDAs in astronomy, "PalmAstro." For a couple of years, it looked like the sky was the limit for the gadgets. Till it all came crashing down and Palm wound up belonging to freaking HP. What happened? Poor management on the part of the Palm execs was part of it, but mostly it was the coming of the smartphone, which made PDAs almost instantly obsolete. 

Palm did sell some phones, but with very limited success. The cells they rolled out that still used the Palm O/S unfortunately used a version of it that made the phones incompatible with all the tons of good software that had been written over the years. That was pretty dumb and that was pretty much that for the company. To this day, HP occasionally releases a phone under the Palm name, but these Palms have nothing in common with the good, old PDAs.

While I kept the PalmAstro Yahoogroup on the air until Yahoo shut all its groups down earlier this year, there’d been little interest in it in a long time, including by moi. It was time to move on to something more capable than a PDA as cool as they were. Something with a still better display and Internet connectivity. What was that? Not the smart phone, not for Unk right away. iPhones just seemed stupid-expensive to me. How about a nice iPod instead?

While the early iPods did very little other than play music, the later ones were more like iPhones, just without the phone stuff. That was the iPod touch. It could do anything my Palm could do—calendars, contacts, etc.—but with a color touch screen, more memory, a faster processor, and built-in Internet connectivity. And, naturally, there was already plenty of astronomy software to take advantage of that pretty screen (most apps designed for the iPhone ran fine on the Touch), beginning with SkyVoyager, the ancestor of today’s SkySafari.

But, soon enough it was time to move from Pod to Phone. Not only to play telescopes, but because I found having one increasingly necessary given changes at work. I was now commuting to both Pascagoula and New Orleans to work on the NAVSSI system (a navigation suite of radars, computers, and other sensors) on the Navy’s LPD landing ships. I found an iPhone made my work much easier with its instant access to my colleagues with  phone and email--not to mention all the other smart phone features we take for granted now. And, naturally, when SkySafari cranked up, I got started with that amazing software.

If you’d like to know more about SkySafari or my take on it, at least, watch for an upcoming Test Report on the app by me in Sky &Telescope. Suffice to say, however, that the program takes all the power of a desktop planetarium program, and stuffs it into your smart phone or tablet (including Android devices). For now, however, let’s switch gears slightly and talk about the other half of the smartphone astronomy game:  how you make your goto goto its gotos with your freaking telephone.

It took me a while to get friendly with the SkySafari's telescope control features. I got my first iPhone, an iPhone 4, loaded it up with SkySafari, looked at the app a time or two, and that was it--oh, used it once in a while to see how high up Jupiter or something was, but not much more than that. Why? Unk practiced a different sort of astronomy a decade ago. I was still ensconced at good, old Chaos Manor South, our huge old Victorian home in the city’s Garden District. There, there was very little chance to observe.

I could look at the Moon or a planet from the front yard, but that was about all and all it had been for the better part of a decade before that. Not so much because of light pollution, which I knew how to deal with, but because of the countless oak trees old and young. My backyard was so overgrown by the end of the 90s that I was limited to a few “windows” here and there—and God forbid you cut down a Garden District oak! So, Moon and planets it was, and I didn’t need all the deep sky objects and stars now packed into SkySafari to tour the Solar System.  There also didn't seem to be much point in connecting the phone to one of my telescopes.

SkyQ Link plugged into CGEM port.
How about dark sites and star parties? When I did dark observing, I wanted heavy-hitter software like SkyTools or Deep Sky Planner or maybe The Sky X if I was in a planetarium kinda mood. Ten years ago, SkySafari was already pretty powerful, but not that powerful.

There things remained for quite some time. Until I heard Celestron was bringing Wi-Fi to their scopes and mounts. Not only that, but that the dongle they’d developed, SkyQ Link, would, they said, not just allow you to control a scope with your phone via Celestron’s SkyQ app, you could use the widget to connect your laptop running NexRemote to the mount wirelessly.

Now, that got my attention. Back in the go-go days of The Herschel Project, I invariably controlled the Advanced VX or the NexStar 11 GPS or the CGEM with NexRemote, which took the place of the hand controller. You didn’t even have to have the HC plugged in. And the SkyQ link would, I thought, make the NexRemote experience a whole lot better.

Eliminating a cable between PC and mount wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics. More than once, one of the zombie-like folks you’ll encounter at most star parties (you know, the people who set up a scope but never use it—instead they wander the field all night long) had tripped on and disconnected my NexRemote cable in their quest to determine, “WATCHA LOOKIN’ AT?” causing me to lose my goto alignment.

When the Link arrived, I was impressed. It looked professionally done, and the instructions for getting it set up were simple enough. Plug it into the mount, connect your PC’s or phone’s wireless to it, start the SkyQ app or NexRemote (along with a helper program for NexRemote), and you were good to go. First problem? It didn’t work with NexRemote. Period. End of story. Game over. Zip up your fly. OK, how about SkyQ? It refused to work with the Advanced VX, though it would work with the NexStar 11 GPS in alt-azimuth mode—in very limited fashion.

Now, normally when something like this happens, I just stuff the junk in question back in the box and return it. But I really, really wanted this thing to work. So I got in touch with Celestron. They readily admitted they knew their app would never, ever work with the Advanced VX or any other German equatorial mount (despite what their ads said). They did insist NexRemote ought to work. They offered me troubleshooting tips and promises about upgrades to the software used to allow NexRemote to access the Link. And they kept doing that, stringing me along, until it was too late to return the SkyQ Link. Oh, well. I stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it.

And that was the end of wireless scope control for me for some time. Until, in fact, early 2017 when I was assigned to do the Sky & Telescope Test Report on Celestron’s new Evolution 9.25 SCT. There was a lot new about this telescope including a built-in rechargeable battery and a new-design fork mount among other things. Some of these things were good and some not so good, but what was really good was the scope’s main selling feature, built-in Wi-Fi.

Evolution 9.25
Not only could you point your telescope to sky object with your Apple or Android smart device, you could also do your Evolution’s goto alignment with the cell phone or tablet. The app Celestron  paired with the scope, “Sky Portal,” was developed by Simulation Curriculum and was actually a basic version of SkySafari. Anyhoo, it offered various Celestron alt-azimuth alignment options including SkyAlign (pick any three bright stars to align on) and routines for German mounts too. Not only that…the alignment routines were now also included in SkySafari Pro. Sounded like the days when I’d need NexRemote were drawing to a close.

If the Evolution worked as advertised. Some owners had complained about weak Wi-Fi signals with early Evos. Me? I found I could control the telescope just fine from 100 meters away on an open observing field. Naturally, in a backyard with lots of obstructions the range was shorter, but it worked more than well enough nevertheless. I still wasn’t sure I preferred a phone to a hardware HC—I missed the tactile feedback from actual buttons—but I was at least becoming a believer.

Part of the reason for that was my astronomy way of life had changed. Following my retirement, Miss Dorothy and I had moved from Chaos Manor South to the suburbs. I now had a nice, open backyard and skies that would show mag 5 stars at zenith on a good night. Since I could now look at the deep sky any time I wanted (when we had those increasingly rare clear skies), I found I was far less interested in doing pedal-to-the-metal observing from dark sites. Me getting older and less inclined to stay up late and to brave the heat or cold and the bugs also had something to do with it. At any rate, a phone with SkySafari running on it suddenly seemed to fit my lifestyle a lot better than a big laptop packed to the gills with astro-ware.

BUT… (there’s always that annoying “but”). I was perfectly happy with the telescopes and mounts I had. I really wasn’t interesting in dropping a couple of thousand bucks on a Celestron Evo 9.25 SCT; that was for sure. So, I did some research. The SkySafari folks and others offered Wi-Fi solutions of their own that would work with just about any telescope/mount. But these generic solutions didn’t give you the Celestron no-hand-control-required alignment capability. Which was when I began thinking about the SkyQ Link again and doing a little research.

What I turned up was the new dongle Celestron began selling at about the same time they rolled out the Evolution was little different from my old SkyQ Link. In fact, the electronics were exactly the same; the only changes were its slightly redesigned appearance and a new name, “SkyPortal Link.” With the Evolution on its way back to California and me rested up from all the observing I’d done with the 9.25, I decided to hunt up the widget and give it a try with SkyPortal and SkySafari.

Doing an AllStar alignment with the Evolution.
Luckily, your old Uncle thinks long and hard before throwing anything away. Even more lucky? The Link made it from Chaos Manor South to the new digs—and I even knew which box it was in (I’ll admit a couple of years down the road, I still hadn’t unpacked all the astro-junk).  Out it came and into the Advanced VX it was plugged.

With the AVX set up and polar aligned I plugged the dongle into the hand control port, powered on the mount, and grabbed my trusty iPhone. I had some hopes, since the lights flashing on the dongle as it booted up looked correct—unlike with the SkyQ app. I had no trouble connecting with SkyPortal, either. But then came the acid test—goto alignment.

After all the drama I’d experienced with the Link previously, the denouement was almost boring. I centered four stars, two on each side of the Meridian, SkyPortal said I was aligned, and the Advanced VX went to anything I requested for the remainder of the evening, just like it always did. Any downers? Only that after not having used a touchscreen to center a star in a long time, I was back on square one with that.

And now? The events of the years since I tried out the Evolution have just led me more and more in the direction of smart phone astronomy. In 2019, I was laid up for months thanks to an accident I have still not fully recovered from. After I healed enough to want to do some observing, I found I was less likely than ever to traipse around to star parties and dark sites carrying a PC. Often it’s no goto at all…just me, my good old 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, and SkySafari in the friendly backyard.

2019 was bad for me, yeah, but 2020 has been just as much of a loser of a year in its own way. And for everybody thanks to the the Bad CORONA (as opposed to the good kind that comes in frosty bottles) among other disasters, tragedies, and constant confusion and mayhem. Now, there are no star parties to traipse to even if I were up to it physically and mentally. I'm moving everything except astrophotography to my phone and tablet, and am thinking about doing the same with that (which is made possible by some innovative products from ZWO and others).

I don’t know that I’m ready to get involved with a gadget that allows me to control my imaging sessions with a phone yet, but what say we kick it up a small notch anyhow? When it comes time for me to do my observing for my SkySafari Pro test report lets’ throw in a curveball. I am told the program now supports the Celestron StarSense alignment cam. How will that work out? We shall see just as soon as I get a clear night here.

Otherwise? Anything else I’ve got planned…the continuation of the New Herschel Project, My Yearly M13, getting a few pics of Mars…will have to wait until the stormy Gulf calms down. I will have something for y’all in September, but unless and until the weather improves, I cannot swear it will be much. 


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