Sunday, May 28, 2023


Issue 592: “A New Way to Autostar” or “Sweet Charity Combs the Tresses of Berenice” Part I


Well, muchachos, as is frequently the case of late, this is not what I intended this installment of the Li’l Ol’ AstroBlog from Possum Swamp to be about. What I had in mind was—never mind; I’ll surprise y’all another time. Anyhoo, what changed things was a delivery from the USPS.

It ain’t like the good old days at Chaos Manor South, where whatever was small enough dropped through the mail slot in the front door with a ker-plop. I have to walk out to a standard suburban mailbox on the freaking curb now. One afternoon, I moseyed out there and found a fat envelope among the junk mail and bills. “From Digital Optica? Who the hell is that?”

By the time I’d wandered back to the kitchen, it was beginning to come back to your forgetful old Uncle. Sometime back, a nice feller had emailed me about a new product from the above concern and wondered if I might like to try it, a Bluetooth module for Meade Autostar scopes. I said “yes” and promptly forgot all about it.

Anyhoo, I set the rather intriguing package aside temporarily, as I had remembered something else:  I had an ARRL Field Day 2023 planning meeting this evening at our usual radio club committee meeting spot, Heroes Bar and Grill (natch).

Upon my return (not too late), I recalled the package and got it open. What came forth was a professional-looking black plastic module and a USB cable terminated on one end with an Autostar HC connector. Perusing the instructions (before I had yet another cold 807, much less a dollop o’ the ‘Yell), it sounded pretty simple: “Plug module into base of Autostar and Autostar cable from scope into Bluetooth Module.” 

The USB cable was, according to the instructions, to allow you to update the Autostar without having it connected to a computer. Could be handy, I guess, but I don't believe the standard Autostar has had a firmware update in a long while.

That was as far as I got on that particular evening. I was most assuredly not up to fooling with computerized scopes and phones and computers and pairing stuff and yadda-yadda-yadda. Before I turned on the TV at the request of that rascally black cat, Thomas Aquinas, it came to me if I were to test the Digital Optica Bluetooth widget, I’d better do something about Charity Hope Valentine.

If you’re a faithful reader, you know Sweet Charity is my near 20-year-old Meade ETX-125EC.  What would I need to do about her? Well, as I have said before, at this juncture the girl is in better physical condition than Unk and still works as well as her somewhat mercurial personality has ever allowed. But I figgered before I started connecting girly to computers and phones, I’d want to change out the fricking-fracking button cell battery in her LNT finder.

“Her whatsit in her whosit?”  The PE ETXes were like GPS scopes without a GPS receiver.  Enter time and date and location, and unless you moved to an observing site a considerable distance away, you didn’t need to enter anything next time. “LNT?” That stands for “Level North Technology,” Meade’s Autoalign system. The little LNT finder assembly (that also serves as a red-dot finder) includes level and north sensors.  Charity aligns just like big sis LX-200 GPSes, finding north, tilt, level, etc. and heading to two alignment stars.

Nicely done indeed!
“But what does a button cell have to do with that, Unk?” I said you don’t have to do anything unless you move to a site a long ways away (60 miles in distance or a different time zone). For that to be the case, the scope has to keep time and date current with the aid of a Real Time Clock powered by a battery. That’s what the cell, a 2032, is for. Now, that sounds pedestrian in a day and age when most mounts have RTCs, but 20 years ago it was purty high tech.

Since this was a new idea at the time for Meade—the REAL Meade, the John Diebel Meade, not no Ningbo-Sunny nor fracking Orion—they must not have given much thought to batteries nor done much testing. They said it would last four or five years. The reality? “About two if you’re lucky.” They later redesigned the LNT finder and made the battery more accessible, but if you’ve an older ETX PE like Unk, you are in for some work to get that dang battery changed. Oh, I could replace the button cell with a pair of higher capacity AA batteries in an outboard holder, but I want to keep Charity just as she is, lookin’ factory fresh with no homebrew hacks.

So, one thunderstorm-bedeviled afternoon, I carried the girl out to The Batcave, my workshop of the telescopes/radio shack. “Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.”  I removed the first of two screws (which also serve as aim adjusters) and its associated (small) spring without incident. I thought I was home free; Unk was being extra careful, since at least one of the two springs usually winds up hiding somewhere on the floor.

Sorry. Removed the vertical screw and, dadgummit (this is a family friendly blog), that cotton-pickin’ screw went flyin’. Sometimes Unk gets lucky, though. I could hardly believe it, but that cursed spring landed right in my little magnetic screw holder dish (a Harbor Freight special)!

I carefully lifted the top half of the finder off (there is a thin wire between top and bottom that powers the red-dot LED) and replaced that battery. You can bet I was cautious getting those little bitty springs back in their respective positions. All went well, though, and now I could do—had to do following an LNT battery replacement, I recalled—“Calibrate Sensors.” A procedure in the hand control that calibrates the electronic compass, etc.

Well, hell, nothing else to do, and the storm had passed. Why not take care of sensor alignment right now and not wait for dark? Meade users are probably laughing about now, but Unk had forgotten what the Calibrate Sensors business entails. I just remembered it was a little like a goto alignment, an “Easy Align,” without alignment stars. So, I plunked miss down outside the door to the shack and had at it, connecting her to an AC/12vdc supply I have. And, yes, she did her little alignment dance finding tilt and all that good stuff and headed for north. What should I next see on the Autostar, of course? DOH! “Center Polaris!” That’s what I forgot.

While the evening was hazy in advance of yet more thunderstorms, Polaris was visible most of the time. I got Charity on her tripod in the gloaming, fired her up, and went through that sensor calibration stuff again. This time I could indeed CENTER POLARIS. Done, I did drive training, which allows the Autostar to take backlash into account, having you center and recenter an object. The Meade manuals all say “use a terrestrial target,” but I use Polaris most of the time and that works OK.

Done with all that-there good stuff, conditions were getting worse and the skeeters was biting Unk’s legs (he was, foolishly, in shorts). I needed to test Miss, though, who can sometimes amaze you with her goto accuracy, and sometimes do the opposite. I powered the scope off, essayed a normal Easy Align, centered two stars, and mashed the buttons for Messier 3, which was fairly high in the sky, something that can sometimes give ETXes problems.

Nevertheless, there was a big blob of glob in the eyepiece when the slew stopped. It looked purty good given the punk conditions, and even wanted to be “grainy.” Sometimes I reckon I’m too hard on Miss Valentine vis-à-vis goto performance. I forget she is a 5-inch f/15, that a 25mm eyepiece gives you almost as much magnification as in an f/10 C8, and that Charity is dang near 20 years old. Anyhoo, M3 admired for a bit, I decided “one more.”

Off to M53 in Coma Berenices. This is a much more subdued globular than M3, and I wasn’t sure 5-inches would have an easy time with it in the heavy haze and light pollution. But there it was when the slew stopped, shining bravely. I looked upon that as a good omen. On to Bluetooth. But not tonight…the sky was closing in for real.

As you might expect, a long succession of cloudy nights followed…during which I got bored, decided to set Charity up indoors in the Sunroom (natch), do a fake alignment, and see how the Bluetooth widget worked. Which was probably a good thing. As above, there really didn’t look like there was a whole lot to it…but outside in the dark, it’s always something, your old Uncle is easily confused, and it’s just better for him to at least halfway know what he is doing.

Hokay. Got missy on her tripod, plugged the Bluetooth module into the base of the HC (which made for something of a handful), connected the Autostar cable to that, applied power, and did a fake indoor alignment with Charity, just accepting the stars she offered and mashing “Enter.” The alignment seemed perfectly normal, and I went on to the next step, pairing the Digital Optica module with…with…something or other.

I at first hoped that would be my iPhone 14 Pro Max, which has a nice, big screen and is running the very latest version of SkySafari Pro. I was skeptical, however, since the instruction sheet that came with the Bluetooth module only mentioned “Android and PC.” I had a look at Siri’s Bluetooth page anyway, but, no, no “ScopeAccess,” as the Wi-Fi thingie calls itself was listed. Darnit. Oh, well. I’d realized from the get-go that might be the case.

So, it would have to be the PC, the module’s instructions mentioning Stellarium. Well, alrighty then. Fired up a PC in the Sunroom, turned on Bluetooth in Winders, and, sure enough, was able to easily pair the Windows 11 PC with “ScopeAccess.” Now to connect Stellarium (the most recent version) to it.

Which turned out to be a wee bit confusing for your computer ignernt ol’ Uncle. Oh, there was that instruction sheet, but I assume it must have been written for an earlier version of Stellarium or one running an external scope control “helper” app. The instructions talk about selecting “Type = Bluetooth.” You will search in vain for that on Sterllarium’s scope set up menu, muchachos.

What works? Make sure the PC is paired with the ScopeAccess module, then, in Stellarium, set up a connection for Meade Autostar. You will see a com port associated with that (like com 3). Go with that, mash connect, and you will be connected. The software is smart enough to establish a virtual com port over Bluetooth and take care of ever’thing.

And...we have CdC connected!
That hurdle in the rearview mirror, I tried a couple of gotos, refreshed my memory on how to do that and things like “sync” with Stellarium, and shut Charity and the laptop down. I pronounced the afternoon a success. With a phone out of the picture, I reckoned I’d, yeah, start out with Stellarium on a laptop. Which ain’t a bad thing, campers.

If you haven’t looked in on Stellarium in a while, you may be surprised. This is a much more expansive program now, and one far more usable in the field with a telescope than it used to be, even a few years ago. Oh, its many features are still buried in help-menu key-combination lists, and its user guide is always several program versions behind, but it can do what you want it to do. Like build observing lists easily. I did that, mashing <alt>-B and making a list of objects fit for a spring night, the objects from the “Tresses of Berenice” chapter of my book The Urban Astronomer’s Guide.

I love Stellarium. It’s my meat and potatoes planetarium program in these latter days. I can use it with my deep sky planner software, Deep Sky Planner. It works great with the Losmandy GM811. It is really all I need. HOWSOMEEVER…  Its prettiness sometimes gets in the way on late nights on an observing field, and sometimes having functions buried in menus or only easily avalable as key combos is annoying in that setting. That means, an old favorite of mine is still used as well, Cartes du Ciel.

With Stellarium squared away, Unk thought he’d get CdC up and running on Bluetooth. “Shouldn’t be no big deal,” he thought. The Bluetooth connection establishes a com port like any other. “Ain’t nothin’ to it.” Ha!

At first CdC refused to connect to the scope over Bluetooth. Every time I tried, “connected” on the ASCOM (the scope driver system Cartes uses) window remained a solid RED. That made no sense; why shouldn’t it work. Then I noticed Thomas Aquinas looking at me with that “Daddy doesn’t understand computers” look of his. What was I missing?

Well, could that be ASCOM itself? As in updating to the latest platform? V6.6SP1? I did that and guess what? No workie. One last thing to (easily) try, a new scope driver. A little looking around on the ASCOM site turned up a link to a recent Meade “generic” driver. Installed that, configured it, mashed “connect,” and we was in business, sending Charity on fake gotos to various objects with Cartes.

Then followed still more cloudy nights (lower case). It finally cleared, but that coincided with a fattening Moon, so following the computer testing, I decided to make this a two-parter. I believe you’ll agree Unk has run on long enough. Meet me back here next time and we’ll see what Charity, Bluetooth-enabled Charity, did with the spring stars. 

Next Time:  Using Bluetooth Under the Stars...

Saturday, April 29, 2023


Issue 591: The Moon and You Volume 2, “I Miss the Moon”


And I do, muchachos, I do. “But Unk, the Moon is shining bright over Possum Swamp right now, just as she always has.” Well, yeah, but that don’t mean I’ve paid requisite attention to her.  During the years of the Herschel Project, all Luna was was an annoyance, her shining face getting in the way of my quest for ever dimmer and more distant galaxies.  When the Project ended, I cast about for a new observing project, trying out everything except our neighbor without success.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I came to believe my next observing interest would be something with a little more form and substance than yet another quest for “small, dim, slightly elongated” PGC sprites. This looking for a new something to look at also coincided with my retirement, which I struggled with and which had left me less than willing to haul out big telescopes to look at anything. Then, in 2019, I suffered a near-fatal accident that temporarily rendered me unable to set up anything but the smallest telescopes. And left me permanently unable to deal with the largest ones.

During that time, I found I wanted to look at something, though. Anything. Something-anything just spelled, yes, good old Hecate. As I related some time back, when I was a kid I knew the face of the Moon, her mountains and craters, as well as I knew Mama and Daddy’s subdivision, Canterbury Heights. But I let that slip away over the course of long years of deep sky voyaging. I came to regret that, and decided I wanted to go home to the Moon I missed.

And I wanted to share that with you, and, so, started this series, a follow on from my old “Destination Moon” articles. This new series will be different. Less rigorous, perhaps. More focused on the ineffable charm of the Moon than on her geological history.

You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about that charm, and found there is another way I miss the Moon. I miss the old Moon. The Moon of Chesley Bonestell and Men Into Space. A Moon of mystery, a Moon of razor-sharp peaks and crater walls. A Moon where almost anything might happen. Oh, even when Unk was a sprout we knew Luna was probably lifeless. But, still, who knew what strange things might lurk there?

I missed that old Moon, but it turns out she is still with us. Yes, the landscape is a gentler one than that depicted above in an illustration from Doubleday’s old book The Moon (from their Science Service series), but the mystery is still there. As I came to realize watching the recent Artemis mission, the prelude to a new age of lunar exploration, we still don’t know pea-turkey about the Moon. Not really.

Despite centuries of observation with telescopes, decades of examination with spacecraft, and all too few years of manned exploration, we haven’t even scratched the surface of our neighbor and friend. What might we find up there? Who knows? Contemplating that, I grabbed a handy telescope and got out under a just-before-First Quarter Moon.  

Before I tell you what I saw on a gentle April evening in the Swamp, though, maybe a word or two about the instruments I’ve used to explore the Moon. I began with a cheap set of plastic binoculars from the toy department of our local discount store ‘round about 1960 or so.

These were humble glasses to be sure, though they did, unlike what you’ll likely find in toy departments these days, feature glass lenses. Likely they weren’t really binoculars, so to speak, but actually two Galilean telescopes side by side. But you know what? They showed, just barely, CRATERS to little Rod’s amazed eyes when he thought to turn them on the Moon (said glasses having been bought to use while playing Army).

VMA 8.0...
Yep, they did show a little of that rough lunar terminator. You had to use your imagination a bit…they were awful shaky hand-held even at 5 – 10x or so, but you could, yeah, see something of that strange and alien landscape. I wanted to see more. And that is the hallmark of any astronomer, amateur or professional, I guess, that need to SEE MORE.

Flash forward five years to my first telescope, a 3-inch Tasco reflector. It really wasn’t much of a scope, being far inferior to most of today’s similar instruments. I never could make out the rings of Saturn I longed to see. The little thing did do a workmanlike job on the Moon, though. Not just good enough to allow me to begin to begin finding my way across the Moon’s labyrinthine surface, but to actually try taking pictures with my little Argus box camera.

But what finally gave me the Moon? My 4.25-inch Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior. Let me say this:  In lunar observing, more aperture is always better, always. But a 3 – 6-inch telescope is more than adequate—MORE than—for showing you the basic wonders of the Moon, and to allow you to do as I did as a 12-year-old, learn her surface (with the aid of the Moon Map in a long-ago edition of Norton’s Star Atlas).

Of course, I went on to the bigger and better…a 6-inch Newtonian, 8-inch and larger SCTs, bigger and bigger reflectors, computer-controlled electronic cameras, etc., etc., etc. Today? I am back to, yeah, 3 – 6-inch telescopes. They show me what I want to see and they let me relax and enjoy it. Imaging the surface of the Moon in detail with a big CAT and a camera was fun, but the act of doing so always seemed a challenge, a test. Could I succeed in bringing home images? Now I just bask in Luna’s silv’ry glow and marvel at her, not unlike all those nights when I stared open-mouthed with that 3-inch Tasco.

Unk's first Moon picture, 1965...
And on this evening, I was, yes, back to a 3-inch. Albeit a 3-inch refractor, a 3-inch (80mm, actually) f/11 SkyWatcher who came to me somewhat unlooked for. I love this little telescope. She is small and light and she is very effective on the Moon, taking high magnification (for a 3-inch) well. My eyes, which now feature (still mild, thank goodness) built-in yellow filters mean chromatic aberration, which isn’t terrible at f/11 anyway, is just not a factor.

Anyhow, I grabbed the 3-inch, Eloise by name (who has been with me—GOSH!—for about a dozen years now), and headed for the back 40 just after the passage of a rather violent storm front the day before. “Grabbed”? I was abashed to realize “grabbed” wasn’t the proper word. Maybe “lugged.” As Unk prepares to embark on his 70th trip around Sol in a few months, it appears the 80mm refractor and “light” alt-az mount have put on weight!  It was enough of a struggle getting Eloise and the AZ-4 out the back door I decided to do it in two trips next time. Out back, finally, I didn’t expect much. The Clear Sky Charts were predicting clear and clean skies, yeah, but, in the wake of a front, as you might expect, seeing would be so-so at best.

With Eloise out in the driveway, how was it once dusk had come and gone? No, seeing wasn’t great, just as predicted, but it wasn’t that bad. Luna looked pretty steady in the 3-inch. That’s one of the benefits of smaller aperture:  you are looking up through a smaller column of air, and the wiggles are less obvious. Funny thing, though? Used to be on a somewhat brisk, seeing-disturbed night we could expect crystal clarity. Not of late. There was substantial haze the front hadn’t cleared out. The reverse is also all-too-true now. On a hazy, humid night, we’d normally have very steady seeing. Not anymore.

Anyhoo, I inserted one of my favorite 1.25-inch eyepieces in the diagonal, a 16mm Konig I’ve had for 30 years (it was the first wide field eyepiece more sophisticated than an Erfle I owned). Focused up at 57x, and had a cruise up and down the terminator. Despite the haze, Diana was beautifully sharp, being just past culmination. But where would I plunk down? Which area of Selene would I concentrate on? My rusty knowledge of Lunar geography impelled me to focus on the northern highlands rather than the crowded southern expanses.

What there was above all was Plato, the great walled plain, a dark lava-floored crater that extends about 100 miles. Foreshortening makes Plato look strongly oval, but it is actually round. What’s to see there? The game I’ve always played is “find the craterlets,” the tiny craters (a couple of miles across or thereabouts) that litter the floor. Replacing the Konig with a 6mm Plössl (151x) showed strong hints of ‘em, though, as you might expect, 150x is about where a 3-incher’s images begin to dim. But some of the little guys were not that difficult with Plato near the terminator on this evening.

VMA has pictures aplenty!

Most beautiful aspect of this giant, however? The shadow of its rough, mountainous western rim. It hearkened back to that vision of the old days, those razor-sharp peaks. The shadows of Plato’s walls, which are relatively gentle in reality, looked just like something out of a Bonestell painting.

Next? To the south of Plato is another huge walled plain, Archimedes, which is about half the size of Plato, but in other ways much like it, sporting a dark floor and its own gang of craterlets. For some reason, lunar observers tend to talk less about this amazing feature than Plato, but it is well worth study.

As are the two great craters east of Archimedes, Aristillus (34 mi.) and Autolycus (24 mi.). These are more normal looking craters than the two walled plains, with Aristillus sporting an interesting and intricate central peak and terraced walls. Autolycus is without a central peak but there is still plenty of floor detail to pour over.

I didn’t really want to cross the lunar Apennine mountains, so I turned back north, touching down on another pair of exceedingly prominent craters, big Aristoteles (54 mi.) and Eudoxus (42 mi.).  The former looks much like the walled plains we visited earlier, but it doesn’t quite have the “plain.” Its floor has not been completely covered with lava. There are numerous hummocks in the middle, the remains of central peaks not drowned in lava.  There is also wall terracing and other details that invite exploration. Eudoxus? Heavily terraced and intricately detailed walls will catch your eye in any telescope.

I thought I’d head over to the Alpine Valley next to see what I could see. After that, maybe a stop at that fascinating crater, Cassini? Uh-uh. Nosir buddy. Urania had other ideas and just as I finished exploring Eudoxus, she covered her sky with more haze that in minutes devolved into clouds.

But that was OK. I’d seen a lot. And while Eloise was definitely not as easy to haul around as Unk remembered, it was the work of but a few minutes before your correspondent had put Eloise to bed and was sampling the waters of Lethe (which come from a Rebel Yell bottle) while watching TV with the cats.

Before leaving you this morning, let me insert a plug for Virtual Moon Atlas, which I’ve mentioned here a time or two. I was embarrassed to discover I was a couple of versions behind and promptly downloaded and installed the current one, version 8.0, the 20th anniversary edition (hard as that is to believe).

Sure glad I did. More “textures” than ever, including one from the famous Lunar Aeronautical charts I love so much. Oh, and something you will find useful for deep sky observing, too, “Calclun,” which at a glance will show you lunar phases over the course of a year or give you details for a single night. Go get it, muchachos—it’s still free!

THE MOON AND YOU” (LeRoy Shield)


Friday, March 31, 2023


Issue 590: What Has Stuck with Me?


Stellarium:  Now that's a pretty soft, paw-paw!
Which astronomy software has stuck with me, I mean, muchachos. Which is not what this one was supposed to be about. It was intended to concern my ongoing re-exploration of the Moon. Or maybe, if I got awful sanguine, getting my big 6-inch refractor and Losmandy GM811 out of mothballs. Alas, with the month running out, I found myself under typically gray and stormy spring Gulf Coast skies. So, what we’re going to talk about this morning is which astronomy software I’ve found enduringly useful over the years and which I haven’t.

Nota bene:  this time we are talking only about planetarium/planner software…some other time we can jaw about imaging and guiding programs and stuff like that.

What Has Stuck


I was awful skeptical about this astro-soft for the longest time. It was awful purty, sure. Very. And amazingly responsive on modest PCs despite that beautiful depiction of the sky. But it just didn’t seem to offer much beyond that. Hell, it wouldn’t control a goto scope, and its selection of deep sky objects was quite limited. It was an “armchair astronomer” kinda thing, I reckoned.

Not anymore. This freeware program has evolved into a powerful tool for doing many things in amateur astronomy. It has built-in telescope drivers, ASCOM compatibility, and a huge number of DSOs. Stellarium’s visualization of the sky is prettier than ever, and the performance hasn’t suffered.

Cartes du Ciel

Cartes du Ciel. As pretty as Stellarium? No, but very useful!
I shouldn’t have to tell you this is a perennial favorite of mine. It has been since my late friend and talented observer and writer Jeff Medkeff told me I should have a look at it many a long year ago. It works simply and well and offers all the features most working amateurs could want.

Howsomeever. Understand that comes in a pretty plain package. Oh, it has been frequently updated by author Patrick Chevalley, and doesn’t look like a refugee from the early 90s, but it doesn’t worry about an overly realistic depiction of the sky. Its display is plain but clear and it is legible, which is often a good think out on a dark observing field.

Skytools 3

Author Greg Crinklaw has had Skytools 4 out for a number of years. But you know what? I never got friendly with it like I did with 3.  Maybe that’s because the version of ST4 I have is the imaging flavor and is far more powerful and complex than simpleminded moi needs. 

ST3 was the software that carried me through the Herschel Project, my quixotic quest (this is alliteration day) to observe all the thousands of deep sky objects discovered by Sir William Herschel. Skytools 3 gave me all the tools I needn't for that enormous observing project:  a versatile log, robust planning features, a highly detailed sky atlas, telescope control, etc., etc., etc. I think it is fair to say I could never have finished the huge Herschel list without Skytools 3.

Deep Sky Planner

“DSP,” by Phyllis Lang, now in version 8, is, like Skytools, a planning program/logger. I don't doubt I coulda used this program to do the Herschel Project if that was what I’d had on my hard drive at the time. What initially drew me to DSP (when I rediscovered it; it has been around for decades), however, was something simple: its large screen fonts. I found them easier to decipher with my old eyes. Once I started using Deep Sky Planner, though, I realized what a powerful and versatile package it is. One feature I particularly like is it allows me to use my favorite planetarium programs for charting and integrates very well with them. DSP is what I mostly use these days.

Virtual Moon Atlas. Still free and still the best.
Virtual Moon Atlas

As I have said many a time, for years I dreamed of lunar observing software as detailed as the big deep sky planetariums and planners. And once again Patrick Chevalley hit a homerun. Oh, there’ve been a few other attempts at a computerized lunar atlas, but none has come close to this freeware software.

What’s great about VMA? Well, the detail for one thing. It leaves print atlases like the venerable Rükl atlas in the fricking dust. It incorporates a lot of professional references and images like Lunar Orbiter data. Hell, it will even send your goto scope to lunar features (I have done that and it really works). I don’t have to dream about computer Moon atlases anymore. Virtual Moon Atlas gives me everything I need and want.

What Hasn’t Stuck


This is heresy, I know, since Software Bisque’s TheSky is such a long-running and, I’ll readily acknowledge, powerful tool. Straight skinny on it from Unk? I used TheSky 6 quite a bit years ago and dabbled with TheSky X, but the program was never quite silly old Unk’s cuppa tea. It just seemed counterintuitive to the way I work. And, if’n you axe me, overly complicated.

Another factor? I had transitioned to planners like SkyTools and DSP, and didn’t really need a humongous standalone planetarium program. Finally? TheSky is good software, but it ain’t cheap:  $400 for the top-of-the-line non-imaging version. That may be a very reasonable price for those who need its power, but for the relatively simple observing I do of late, I just don’t need to spend that kind of money. $400? That will pay off my bartab for quite a while.

Starry Night

I gave Starry Night (6) a good try some years ago thanks to a review copy that came my way. I was somewhat impressed. Its depiction of the sky was unarguably even more beautiful than that of Stellarium—its sky was stitched together with actual images by way of the old Desktop Universe software (that the Starry Night folks had bought out). It had some abilities I hadn’t seen in any astro-ware, too, like built in links to weather services—that came in right handy one time down Chiefland Astronomy Village way.  And yet…at yet…

Starry Night 6 seemed a little, I dunno, “clunky.” A little sluggish, for one thing. Also, even more than Stellarium, it didn’t seem as legible for my tired eyes at 2am as Cartes du Ciel, not by a long shot. Then came Starry Night 7, which I am told was pretty derned buggy. The current release is Starry Night 8, which I hear is quite good. What dissuades me from giving it a try? Mostly the $259 price tag. That, again, sounds like something that does more than I need. I’ll use the money I save for yet another evening at my favorite sports bar, Heroes USA.


I used this venerable planning program for many years. I believe it was the second planner on the market after Ms. Lang’s original Deep Sky Planner (unless you consider David Chandler’s Deep Space 3D the first planner, which maybe I do). It had some things other planners still don’t, like the log entries of talented amateur observers like the late Barbara Wilson. Unfortunately, it was never quite up there with Skytools and DSP, lacking such simple things as a way to rearrange column order. Author Steve Tuma gave up on it a few years back, but it is still available as a free download now…but…  It always had a few problems and I suspect as Windows has evolved it has even more today.

Finally, there’s that group of programs I might still use if they’d run on a modern PC. The above-mentioned Deep Space 3D comes to mind. It did pretty great charts; it was the first astronomy software to be able to produce maps comparable to those found in a print atlas.

Another is Skyglobe. Like DS3D it was a DOS program (a semi-working Windows version was released shortly before Skyglobe sank), and you’d have to know more about Winders than I do to get it to run there. But there has never been a better soft for quick “What’s up?” looks to see what your sky is like right now.

Finally, there’s Megastar. After the transition of its former seller, Willman-Bell, to the AAS, I believe this has been made into a free download by its author, but I’m not sure whether it would run on a modern machine. Be that as it may be, Emil Bonanno’s software was the most detailed computerized deep sky atlas ever seen when it came out in the early 1990s, and I shall remember it fondly.

To tell the truth, y’all, astronomy-computing is in transition here. I have switched to Macintosh for many of my computing tasks, including astronomy. I am currently using the Mac versions of Cartes du Ciel and Stellarium, but am thinking about ponying up for the Mac version of SkySafari. I love it on the iPhone, I do not hesitate to say. When/if I do, you shall here all about it.

What else? I swear, y’all, I will get out with a scope next month. I am about to go stir crazy here. Every night the same thing, TV with the cats accompanied by catnip for them and cold 807s for me. I need some photons!

Tuesday, February 07, 2023


Issue 589: A Tale of Two Comets


What’s strange, muchachos? The effects hairy stars, visitors from the outer Solar System, the great comets have on us. What’s a great comet? Simple:  any comet prominent enough to be noticed by the general public.  Many minor, dim comets come and go year by year, but only occasionally does a great comet come along and make a spectacle of itself. And when one does, many Earthlings take it to be a star of ill omen.

In fact, in the past the arrival of one has driven some humans plumb crazy. Halley’s brilliant apparition in 1910 inspired a DEADLY COMET GAS scare. As the story goes, some poor mooks were so frightened by the prospect of dying from AGONIZING COMET GAS (cyanide in the tail) they committed suicide. I would guess that’s an apocryphal story—the suicide part, anyhow, yellow journalism about comet poison gas was very real.

The maleficent effect comets have on us isn’t something of a century or centuries ago, either. Well I remember the madness associated with the passage of another great comet, Hale-Bopp, back in ’96. That time the suicides were all too real. Members of a crazy-ass cult, Heaven’s Gate, killed themselves. Why? Their whack-a-doodle leader, “Bo,” told ‘em HB was really a spaceship carrying their other guru, the recently deceased “Peep,” and they could board it and join her if they offed themselves by gobbling Seconals washed down with vodka.

A few years back…well, actually going on a decade now…your old Uncle was excited by the visit of another comet. While in no way “great”—it went mostly unheard of and unseen by the general public—little Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, put on quite a show in January and February of 2015. At that time, your correspondent was pretty hardcore amateur astronomy-wise and was determined to get plenty of astrophotos of the wee, green feller, including from a dark site.

I was fairly successful in that quest, as you can read here and here. That really ain’t the point, though. The point being the effect the visitor had on me. It threw Unk for a loop. Those evenings watching the exposures come in and—Shazam!—actually looking at the comet occasionally with a pair of binoculars seemed to have an unlooked for effect.

I don’t know exactly what it was. Maybe it was the lonely nights under the stars. Or the contemplation of the fact we’d all be dead and gone and forgotten when the little sprite paid her next visit to the inner Solar System in, oh, ‘round ‘bout 8,000 years. Whatever it was, I entered a period of contemplation of my years on this flyspeck of a world, focusing mostly on the mistakes and missteps. No doubt the shock of retirement, going from 50- and 60-hour work weeks to near full-stop, had more to do with Unk’s mental outlook than the comet, but, still, this not-so-happy time did coincide with the apparition of Lovejoy.

The denouement? Once the following year was out I had begun to come to terms with Life, the Universe, and Everything—as much as any of us can, I guess. Oh, there were changes going forward. A new mindset began to crystalize. Some of that new mindset having to do with astronomy.

Talk about "well placed"!
I had actually begun thinking about downsizing the telescope herd in the months before Lovejoy. I was coming to the realization I was fast approaching the point where I simply could not physically handle big telescopes and mounts anymore, but Lovejoy’s flyby accelerated that. I was taken by the urge to simplify. I was happy with the photographs I’d got of the comet, but realized I’d only observed her shimmering form visually a time or two and that didn’t seem right.

While I’ll still slap a camera on a telescope and fire up Nebulosity and PhD Guiding on occasion, those occasions are fewer by far than they used to be. I now want as little between me and the sky as possible. I don’t want to lug equipment cases around nor spend an hour (or two) setting up a scope. I just want to see.

So came this winter’s little visitor, The Green Comet, Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF. The weather hasn’t been exactly conducive to observing of late. It’s either been cloudy or cold, real cold. These days I find I don’t bear cold weather as well as I did in, yeah, 2015. If my feet get cold it is end of story, game over, zip up your fly. Still, something about ZTF, mostly its passage exactly eight years after Lovejoy’s, seemed auspicious. The sky cleared, and despite the presence of a full Moon, I determined I’d have a look at the new comet.

When that Moon began to rise a little later, I thought I’d better get a move on. The possibility of clouds is always with us down in the Swamp, and I knew capricious weather could easily spoil my chances of seeing ZTF while she was still bright. One other thing the last ten years has brought is cloudier winters. It used to be unusual for us to get lines of vicious thunderstorms this time of year. Now? Not so much. So, I’d get out to see the comet right away. But, how would I see it? Not with DSLRs and goto mounts and laptops, that was sure.

My first thought was to leave it at simple-as-simple-can-be with my beloved Burgess Optical 15x70 binoculars. These excellent glasses have shown me much over the <gulp> 20 years since I bought ‘em at the 2003 ALCON convention in Nashville. Their larger aperture and higher magnification compared to 10x50s allows them to do a pretty derned good job in my suburban backyard. But, I dunno, that just didn’t seem to be enough, somehow.

What would have been perfect or nearly so for a little comet like ZTF? My old Orion StarBlast Richest Field Telescope, Yoda. A 4.5-inch reflector capable of low magnification and wide fields makes comet-snaring as easy and pleasant as can be. Unfortunately, when I was thinning the scope herd, the StarBlast went to a new home. I just wasn’t using him and am thrilled his current owner gets him under the stars frequently, which he deserves, being a Good Little Telescope.

But now I’ve got another StarBlast for all practical purposes. As you read last time, a new, small scope, Tanya, has come to live with me. She is much like Yoda despite the fact she is mounted on a little tripod with an altazimuth mount. She is also a little different optically.  She is of an identical aperture, 4.5-inches, but has a slightly longer focal length and slower focal ratio, f/5.1, compared to Yoda’s f/4.0. While that narrows up Tanya’s field a bit, that’s a good thing for me. The somewhat higher magnifications she delivers eyepiece-for-eyepiece are a plus for my suburban skies. She’s still just about perfect for eye-popping widefield views; a 25mm eyepiece delivering 23x.

Getting Tanya into the backyard was, of course, nothing. She weighs maybe 10 pounds sopping wet with dew, if that. When darkness finally came, that’s just what I did, waltzed her into the back forty. Well, it was dark enough, nautical, not astronomical, twilight having arrived. With a big Moon on the rise in the east and already illuminating a wide swath of sky, I figgered I’d better not wait and quickly positioned Tanya’s OTA on the proper spot using her red-dot finder.

Finding the comet’s position was trivially simple since she was just a smidge, about a degree and a half, northwest of bright Capella. In went Tanya’s cheap Celestron 26mm Plössl and to that eyepiece Went your Uncle’s eye. Seeing was typical for winter—punk at best—but coulda been worse. At first, I saw…nuttin’ honey. But I continued to look, slewing the little scope around a mite…and…there it was! ZTF was subtle at first, just an unassuming patch of nebulosity, but, yes, there.

I didn’t settle for just having seen the Green One (who was, not surprisingly, gray in the little telescope’s eyepiece), I continued to watch, and as it got a little darker ZTF took on form and substance. The coma became brighter and larger and a small nucleus popped into view. Was I seeing a hint of tail? Maybe, maybe. ZTF was good enough that I hopped inside and retrieved the Burgess binocs. At first the comet wasn’t easy in the glasses, but soon it was looking marvelous with that 3D effect only binoculars can deliver. I went back and forth between RFT and binocs for quite some time. Until the Moon got high enough to ring down the curtain on the show.

Takeaways? Tanya, the Celestron 114-AZ really is quite a little telescope. Every bit as capable optically as the StarBlast—the StarBlast’s mini-Dobsonian mount is somewhat steadier. I suspect she’ll get a fair amount of usage here. Well, every once in a while, anyhow. A suburban backyard sky is really not much of a place for a Richest Field Telescope. As I said last week, she’ll, like Yoda, likely eventually be passed on to some deserving scope-less person.

The comet? It’s a pretty li’l thing; get out and see it before it is too late. Your ol’ Unk was feeling pretty darned good after his night of comet watching and takes ZTF’s passage as that rarest of things in comet lore: a good omen.





Saturday, January 28, 2023


Issue 588: Uncle Rod and the Rescue Telescope


Back in her natural element...
Sounds like the title of the next Disney Channel animated series, don’t it, muchachos? I bet you thought Unk would be writing about the comet nine-day-wonder, Comet 2022/E2 ZTF, dincha? That will come. Up to now it’s been too cloudy or too cold and the comet has been rising way too late (early, that is) for your lazy Uncle. Today, the subject is Uncle Rod’s latest rescue telescope.

What in pea turkey is a rescue telescope?! A “rescue telescope” is most often a modern iteration of the Department Store Telescope that has fallen on hard times, has fallen about as far as a telescope can fall. Maybe it began as a Christmas or birthday present to a young person or an impulse buy by an adult. It was quickly found to be deficient in that its images didn’t rival those of the Hubble Space Telescope. It was under the stars a few times and brought its owner a pretty Moon but was soon found to be Too Much Trouble. The briefly loved scope, its wonderfully gaudy box long discarded, finds its way into a closet where it sits bereft of starlight for a long, weary time.  

The scope’s descent doesn’t stop there. Sooner or later, it becomes an annoyance, taking up room in that closet, crashing to the floor every time the owner retrieves their galoshes, and making a general nuisance of itself. Sometimes it’s given away and the story thus far repeats itself. Most often, it is put on the curb, to be either plucked by the trash pickers or sent to its final demise. Sometimes it gets lucky, though; the owner donates it to a charity thrift store and sometimes, just sometimes, someone comes along and gives the poor thing a second chance.

Anyhoo, one recent Thursday evening, Unk found himself arriving a little early for a radio club meeting held at a Goodwill Community Center adjacent to a Goodwill Thrift Store. The previous week I’d found a Simpson 260 multimeter in there for the grand sum of nine dollars. With a little time on my hands, I wanted to see if I might get lucky again and headed for the back of the store where the electronics are kept…but didn’t get that far.

At first Unk thought he was going crazy(er). I seemed to be hearing a plaintive little voice. A little female voice: “HELP ME, UNCLE ROD! YOU’RE MY ONLY HOPE!  My puzzlement turned to understanding when I spotted a 4.5-inch Newtonian sitting beside the aisle on her spindly tripod.

“Hello, little one. How long have you been here?”

Oh, Unk, I’ve been here the longest old time!”

“Well, let’s have a look at you.” What was before me was a current Department Store Telescope (DST). You thought they were gone? No, they, the telescopes in-between toys and genuinely serious but inexpensive scopes like the Orion Starblast, are still with us.  They are still sold in actual department stores, but also in hobby shops and, of course, online. Most of them are the ubiquitous 114mm (4.5 inch) Newtonians, 60mm refractors being less numerous than they once were.

How is the current crop compared to those of yore, like the famous Tasco 11-TE? Compared to 60s – 70s DSTs, they are mostly worse. The big and debilitating problem is their mounts are shakier (and they weren’t the Rock of Gibraltar way back when), wooden tripods having given way to extruded aluminum jobs barely adequate for low power. Eyepieces, however, are definitely much better now. Most are fairly good 1.25-inch oculars that blow the doors off the .965-inch horrors of the past. Finders have improved, too, red dot jobs having displaced small-aperture, stopped-down optical finders or the dreadful “reflex” finders Jason-branded scopes once sported.

That glorious box promising wonders...
“But how about the optics?”  They are generally well-made, BUT… Back in the glorious day, 114mm reflectors from Japan, and, later on, 114mm reflectors from China, had spherical primary mirrors, yeah. But they also had focal ratios of f/8. At f/8, a 4-inch spherical mirror is quite close to ¼-wave of wavefront error and can perform very well. Alas, most DSTs now possess f/5 – f/6 spherical mirrors. At that focal ratio they approach a half-wave of error. Not horrid, perhaps, but worse. Why the move away from f/8? I guess f/5 tubes may be cheaper to produce and cause less stress for today’s pitiful DST mounts.

Looking at the waif before me, I noted the label on her (plastic) focuser read, “Celestron 114-AZ SR D=114, F=600, F=5.2, MADE IN CHINA.” I almost walked on, knowing the limitation that would impose given the spherical mirror I knew this little girl would have. But I didn’t. I’ve seen Celestron 130mm scopes with spherical mirrors do OK on the Moon and other subjects at similar focal lengths, so why not?

I’ve also gotta admit the Celestron tugged at my heart strings, looking sad and pitiful with her banged-up steel tube tarted-up with paint to make it look like carbon fiber.  And I am always on the lookout for scopes to pass on to enthusiastic young undergraduate astronomy students. Also, there was the price tag on her, “$19.99.” Finally, paraphrasing Charlie Brown, I said out loud, “Besides, I think this little telescope needs me.”

The Celestron, who told me her name was “Tanya,” begged to be taken home: “Uncle Rod, my red dot finder alone is worth 20 bucks. PLEASE GET ME OUTA THIS PLACE!” I took a look at her primary, which appeared bright and clean, and surveyed the rest of her. She looked complete with a couple of cheap Plössls, one in her focuser and one in her little eyepiece tray. Well, almost complete; her aperture cover was long gone. I scooped the girl up and headed to the checkout, “Oh, thank you, Rod! I know we’ll be great friends!”

A hard-knock life.
Back home after the radio club meeting, Miss Dorothy wasn’t too surprised to see me come in with yet another wayward scope in my arms. She was rather surprised by the 20-buck price, though.  You know, so was I. Sitting in the kitchen, Tanya looked far better than she had under the merciless fluorescents at the Goodwill store. Next step was seeing precisely what was up with the girl.

My initial examination showed one of the two eyepiece locking screws was jammed. It was so tight I had to resort to (carefully) unscrewing it with a pair of vice-grips. To my surprise, it wasn’t cross-threaded and stripped, just screwed down awful tight. When it was loose, I was able to extract the 9.7mm Plössl (both eyepieces being Celestron’s extra-cheap ones with metal barrels but plastic bodies) and examine the secondary mirror. A look in the now empty focuser showed several big blemishes on it. Might just be dirt or might be damage to the coating—there is no telling what a kid who got a telescope instead of the battery-powered scooter they really wanted will do to torture the poor thing.

Otherwise, it was clear Tanya had indeed led that proverbial hard-knock life. There were several small dents and dings on the tube, and something—who knows what?—had been sprayed on it here and there. There was also plenty of the dreaded Chinese glue-grease (apparently made of ground-up weasels), which had migrated from focuser, to tube, to mount, to tripod with the aid of young fingers.

There was a crescent Moon in the sky, so naturally I got little Tanya into the backyard for a look. Before doing that, I gave both her oculars a good cleaning—they were filthy. How was that Moon? Not bad. It was sharp enough given the obvious mis-collimation of the un-cooled-down optics, poor seeing, and the only fair quality of the eyepiece (these plastic-bodied Plössls are used on many of Celestron’s/SkyWatcher’s lower-priced scopes). Anyhow, Tanya did well enough I declared she had possibilities and told her we’d get her cleaned up in the morning.

That morning, if not too early that morning, I set off to obtain something I knew I’d need, paper-reinforcers to make a center dot for her primary mirror so I could collimate her. To my astonishment, Publix had none. Neither did Walgreens. Nor did the Walmart food store. I finally turned some up at CVS drugs. Is there a paper-ass*&^% shortage or something?

Back home, out in the Batcave, my radio shack cum-workshop of the telescopes, I thought my first task would to be to clean the secondary. As you can see in the image below, the secondary’s spider is an integral part of the plastic fore-end of the tube, as is the finder mount.  I spotted a few Philips-head screws and removed those. It was apparent the focuser would also have to be removed to get the plastic section loose.

I did that, which was just as much of a pain as removing the other screws, since all were held in place by tiny nuts and Unk couldn’t get his fingers very far into the tube due to the thick plastic spider vanes. Finally, all screws were removed, but the plastic assembly still refused to budge. It was pretty obviously glued as well as screwed into place. One of the problems with this and similar little scopes is they are not made to be maintained—they are like Chinese puzzle boxes.

Ready for collimation.
Rather than try to defeat the glue, I decided I’d clean the secondary in situ. With the focuser removed, the hole in the tube was large enough to allow that. To my surprise, gentle cleaning took care of the multiple spots of dirt or whatever (it almost looked as if—horrors—someone had spat on the secondary!). It was now clean and pretty, and I was able (with some difficulty) to get the focuser back in place.

Next up was collimation, but to do that, I’d have to center-dot the mirror. I was surprised not to see a dot on the primary. Even Celestron’s lower-priced “amateur astronomy class” scopes like the aforementioned Starblast have ‘em. I suppose they don’t bother with those like the 114AZ bound for hobby/toy/department stores.

How do you center dot a mirror that ain’t got one? Grab a compass, draw a circle the same diameter as the primary on a piece o’ paper, fold it into quarters, snip off the apex of the cone formed, unfold it, place it on the mirror, and carefully make a dot on the primary through the hole. Center the paper reinforcer on the dot. If you’re as OCD as Unk, you’ll then take a Q-tip moistened with alcohol and gently remove the sharpie mark.

I collimated the little thing using the Celestron combo sight-tube/Cheshire I’ve had for years. If you want to know how to do Newtonian collimation, see my blog entry on the subject. Having done a Newtonian fairly recently, I did not have to reference my own article. Denouement? Secondary and primary were both off a considerable amount but were easy enough to get “in” in just a few minutes.

Done for the moment with the OTA, it was time to see what I could do to improve the mount. The azimuth axis had a healthy dollop of that glue-grease. So much of the viscous stuff the tube tended to continue moving in azimuth when I stopped pushing it. A little of my favorite cure, DeOxit, and the application of some Blaster synthetic lube freed up the motion quite a bit. There was only so much I could do, since the azimuth axis was pressed into place and would have been difficult or impossible to remove, but it was better.

Wasn’t a whole lot to be done for the altitude axis. A little lube in the trunnions and that was it. The altitude slow-motion arm (talk about a blast from the distant past) did not need any attention.  Finally, I used some 99% isopropyl alcohol, DeOxit, and WD-40 to banish the many patches of weasel grease on mount and tripod.

The spider is part of the end assembly of the tube. 
I then returned tube to mount and proceeded to see if I could do sumpin about the stiff, wobbly plastic focuser. Replacing its glue-grease with synthetic lube helped. I was also able to make its motion easier by adjusting the two screws on the rack and pinion focuser’s underside. However, it was clear the focus tube would always be floppy. Like the similar plastic focuser SkyWatcher uses on its “tabletop” Dobsonians, there is no lock screw, and mechanical tolerances are large. I thought if the scope performed halfway decently, I’d think about some Teflon shims or something.

Last thing? I tried to make poor Tanya pretty again and was partially successful. I was, with mucho scrubbing and application of Pledge furniture polish, able to remove most of the nasty-looking spots on the OTA. Oh, she’ll never look like she did the day excited hands pulled her out of her Technicolor box, but, yeah, she looked much better. I picked her up, cradled her in my arms, and took her to the backyard to acclimatize ahead of darkness. You know what? The little scope positively glowed sitting there.

While waiting, I thought I’d learn a little something about Missy. It turns out she is a currently sold scope retailing for about 100 bucks at—fittingly—Kohl’s department store. Seems to me I may even have seen a 114AZ in the Kohl’s up the street last Christmas.  I also solved a mystery:  what the “SR” in the telescope’s model number means. The 114AZ SR is smartphone ready. What does that mean? As she came from the factory, the scope was furnished with a little cell phone mount so you could take pictures through the eyepiece. That mount, which apparently involved rubber bands, was not with Tanya at Goodwill, and had no doubt gone missing along with the aperture cover (and a pack-in DVD of the Starry Night software) long ago.

I sat and waited for it to get dark enough. But you know Unk; I got “go” fever: “Hail, it’s dark enough to look at the Moon.” And it was. The difference between bedraggled Tanya the previous night, and tonight’s prom-queen Tanya was more than palpable. The just before first quarter Moon was simply scrumptious.

At 60x with her so-so (or maybe not so so-so) 10mm eyepiece, Selene was a thing of wonder. With darkness having arrived, I thought I’d push her a small amount. I plucked one of Celestron’s slightly better Plössls, a 6mm, out of its case to see what she could do with 100x, a more practical magnification for observing the Solar System. With a little more power, the trio of craters, Theophillus, Cyrillus, and Catharina, was simply breathtaking.

Was the wee scope perfect? Hardly. Even at “just” 100x, there began to be problems. Not with the optics, but with the mount. At that modest magnification, it began to border on unusable. Oh, I could get the telescope in focus, but it was quite shaky and I had to exercise a light touch. Combine that shakiness with the shallow depth of focus of its fast focal ratio, and a scope like this challenges the very people it is supposedly designed to serve, children and beginners. However, it is definitely at least OK with the two supplied eyepieces, which furnish 23x and 60x.

Looking and feeling much better!
Maybe the biggest surprise of the night was ol’ Jupe. He is not an easy object for small telescopes, really, and is where many cheap ones fall completely apart. “Is that Jupiter or a custard pie?”  With the 6mm in place we headed for the King. I didn’t expect much and was frankly amazed. The four Galileans were sharp, sure, but the big deal was I was seeing banding, plenty of it, on the disk, and maybe the even Great Red Spot, too (I wasn’t sure whether it was visible or not; I checked later and it was).

While the sky was beginning to haze over, as it had been since sundown, I just had to take a look at M42. The Trapezium was easy and there was as much nebulosity on view as I’d expect any 4-inch to show on a less-than-average night. Oh, we made a few other stops as well. The ET Cluster, NGC 457 was pretty if more subdued than on a good evening. But we ended on Luna again. I couldn’t stop marveling what at what this formerly debased little telescope was showing me.

Frankly, I was thrilled I’d been able to bring this sad little refugee back to life. Unfortunately, while the sky wasn’t looking any worse than it had, and the winter stars were glittering bravely in the haze, the one thing that always indicates it is time for Unk to end an observing run occurred. My feet got cold. When that happens, it is end of story, game over, zip up your fly. I picked the little scope up, deposited her in the Batcave (her aperture covered with a shower cap), and was inside watching television with the cats in just a few minutes.

When the time is right, yes, Tanya will undoubtedly go to some deserving young person, but till then, yeah, it’s just as she said; we’re going to be great friends.


Saturday, December 24, 2022


Issue 587: An Uncle Rod Merry Christmas 2022

Well, muchachos, another Christmas Eve is upon us, and as usual I choose to spend it with y’all. Well, part of it, anyhow. In the wake of the covid, this was a more normal Yule's Eve for me and Miss Dorothy. As “normal” as it ever gets with your somewhat odd old Unk in the mix, anyhow. But, yeah, a little more like those grand Christmases of yore at Chaos Manor South. Oh, no little kids running the sainted halls, all excited by the imminent arrival of St. Nicholas, but more normal than it’s been, nevertheless.

In witness of that, I hoped we could take our Christmas Eve luncheon at El Giro's Mexican Restaurant, just as we used to all those long years ago (it seems strange to say that, but, yes, those days are 25 years or more up the timestream, though it doesn’t feel like it). Anywho, that's what Unk planned, El Giros, the new El Giro's out here in far west Possum Swamp. 

Ma Nature had different plans for Unk as she often does, though, plans in the form of a screamer of a winter storm named "Elliot" (when did they start naming winter storms?..musta missed that).  We did make it to Whataburger for the Mobile Amateur Radio Club's weekly breakfast. I am the president of the club, so I figgered it was incumbent upon me to face the elements (to the tune of 24F) bravely. 

After arriving back at the New Manse and thawing out, I decided lunch at home would be just ducky. That was OK. Like many other things post-covid, I suspect El Giro's might not be quite the same, anyway. I still hope to find out sometime soon.

Be that all as it all may be, back home, I ruminated on Christmases Past. Not those at Chaos Manor South, but those of long, long, long ago. Christmases I’ve recounted in this here blog a time or three. Two of those reminiscences, I think, sum up my feelings about this most numinous time of year better than anything I could write on this Eve:

Uncle Rod’s Christmas Carol


Stars Instead of Cars

Unk puttered about the place the rest of the afternoon. While it was comfy up in the main house, out in the radio shack, aka "The Batcave," the little heater struggled to keep the temperature at around 65F.  But you know what? The cold made it seem a bit more like Yuletide than the usual Possum Swamp t-shirt weather does. While we can still have cold at Christmas, it's less frequent than when Rod was a boy. Hell, it's now getting rare for us to even have a hard freeze.  Unk spent the remainder of Christmas Eve day with a wary eye on the sky. Clouds had begun to roll in just after dawn to his dismay.

As A Charlie Brown Christmas wrapped up on TV (thanks to a DVD), I found myself growing drowsy—couldn’t have that!  I wasn’t at all interested in hanging out with any of those dadgum Christmas ghosts this year! I jumped up—badly startling the felines. I wasn’t gonna fall asleep and miss my Christmas Eve tradition.

That's something that’s been a constant over many years:  My Christmas Eve look at that greatest of all ornaments, Messier 42, the Great Orion Nebula. IF IT WAS CLEAR. Was it?  Unk poked his head out the Sunroom doors. Despite being assaulted by an icy blast that near-about blinded him with was obvious it was, yes, clear. Time to get about my business.

How would I look at M42? “Simple” would have been my 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher achromat. Given the insane temps, that would have been understandable. Understandable, but still The Way of the Astro-wimp. No. I would do it right, really right, for the first time in a long while. With my ancient and beloved Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior

I had got my Pal outside in late afternoon before the cold and a few eggnogs sapped my will, as I was pretty sure they would. I am a lot older and weaker than I was in these days, and the Palomar Junior sure didn't feel like she'd lost any weight over the intervening six decades. Getting the heavy old mount and pedestal out the door wasn't a bit easier than way back when (Luckily, I didn't have to worry about bashing Mama's prized mahogany coffee table in the process!). I got the scope to a spot on the turnaround with a clear view to the east, just as I might have in days of yore.

And then it was time, about 2000 local, when the Great and Glorious Cloud had ascended above the neighbors' trees. How was it? Well, IT WAS COLD MUCHACHOS. Otherwise? Sometimes these sorts of things are anti-climactic. Not this time. The way M42 looked in this little scope over half a century ago is locked in my mind, and you know what? Despite my fading eyesight, it looked exactly the same on this night. Maybe the eyepiece I used, an inexpensive Celestron Plossl, was better enough than the Kellner I used on those long-lost nights to make up for my poorer vision. I don't know. And I don't care. 

What I know is the feel of it was so much like those ancient December nights that I could almost feel my old friends, Wayne Lee and Miss Jitter Jones, standing by my side. Was it just my imagination that Jitter exclaimed at the beauty we were witness to, or that Wayne Lee begged for a look? I choose to think not. 

Anyway, what this all means, my friends, is MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY!


Tuesday, November 08, 2022


Issue 586: The Moon and You Volume 1


I’ve remarked here a couple of times how fast the days, weeks, months, and years seem to fly by at your Old Uncle’s increasingly advanced age. However, you could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather when I realized Charity Hope Valentine has been at my side for some seventeen years now.

“What in pea-turkey is Unk going on about now?” It’s like this, muchachos. With a waxing Moon in the sky, I thought it was time to seriously revisit her. For me, like for many of you, Luna, Selene, Diana, Hecate, Artemis was my first love in astronomy, a love I’ve never quite got over. So, I thought I’d drag a scope into the backyard for a quick look. But which scope?

“Quick look” is just about synonymous with “3-inch alt-Az refractor,” and I could certainly have used my SkyWatcher 80mm f/11 on her AZ-4 mount. I wanted “easy,” yeah, but I wanted more. I wanted to kick up the power on an evening predicted to deliver good seeing.  The scope that would excel in all those things? Charity Hope Valentine is an f/15 125mm aperture Maksutov-Cassegrain with excellent optics, an OK drive, and at least some claim to portability—if not anything approaching that of the SkyWatcher reflector.

As above, I was gobsmacked to realize how long Charity had been with me. That one of my first blog articles about her, “Two-and-a-Half Years After the Honeymoon,” had been written in <gulp> two thousand and fracking eight! Not only has she been with me for a long while, it has been months since Charity was out of her case, and it was time. So, one morning out here in suburbia, where every day (they say) is like Sunday on the farm, your Unk determined to give the scope a checkout prior to lugging her into the backyard.

Protected by the decent aluminum case Meade used to sell for the ETX scopes, Charity is in good physical condition. Frankly, she looks brand new and has weathered the near two decades since she came to stay with Unk better than he has. My main concern was her LNT battery, a button cell that keeps date and time current among other things. I found a 12-volt power supply with a cigarette lighter style connector, plugged Charity in, and fired her up. I was hoping the battery was OK, since replacing it ain’t no fun, lemme tell you. It had been over two years since I’d swapped it out, so I wasn’t hopeful.

Power up, mash “Mode,” scroll down to time…and…  It was way off. But the fact the Autostar HC displayed the date of the last time I used the scope, January of this year, not something random, led me to believe the battery might have some life left. I entered the correct date and time, cycled power, and, yeah, it stuck. I figgered if time were off by evening, I’d have to bite the bullet and replace the cell—“soon.” I’d manually set in the correct time if necessary and keep on truckin’.

Some months back, I talked about resuming my lunar series, Destination Moon. So how come up top it says “The Moon and You,” not “Destination Moon Night Umptysquat”?  A good reason. That series was largely concerned with me imaging lunar features. I planned to do 300 of them, the prominent ones shown in the old Moon map in the mid-sixties edition of Norton’s Star Atlas. I got a lot of ‘em, but not all of ‘em. The holdouts were those of unimpressive nature visible at inconvenient times. So… I didn’t quite make it. Just like when young Rod resolved to draw those 300 and also got much of the way there…but not quite all the way.

My conclusion was if I failed to finish those particular 300 features twice, it meant I was likely never gonna do ‘em all. Also, I wanted this series to be a little broader in scope. If I wanted to capture Selene’s beauty with my ZWO camera, cool. But if I just wanted snapshot Moon pictures with a cell phone, that would be good too. Heck, if I only wanted to look. Or maybe make a quick little sketch of a feature than interested me like I used to do all those years ago, I’d write about that.

After essaying Destination Moon’s multiple installments, I was left knowing the Moon a lot better than I had during my deep-sky-crazy years. Heck, I now probably know her surface almost as well as I did when I was a kid and it was as familiar as Mama and Daddy’s subdivision, Canterbury Heights. But I’d still need a map.

I’ve got several, including the outstanding Rukl Atlas of the Moon (autographed by its late author at a star party, the Peach State Star Gaze, right after he finished enjoying the Moon in my old Ultima C8, Celeste). But if you use a star diagonal with your scope, as I do with Charity (she has a built-in diagonal), be it refractor or CAT, printed maps will never match what you see. You get an upright but mirror-reversed image.  Also, once you get beyond basic lunar touring, the level of detail in Rukl is a mite low.

What to do? Easy-peasy. Virtual Moon Atlas. Yes, this (Windows) program by the author of the Cartes du Ciel software, Patrick Chevalley, and lunar expert Christian Legrand is still around and better than ever. I talked about it frequently in the Destination Moon days, but suffice to say it’s the program I always dreamed of for lunar observing. In addition to displaying crazy-detailed charts that can be customized to match the view in any scope, it will even send your goto mount to lunar features. It’s free, and if you are interested in the Moon, it should be your number one observing tool.

It seemed an appropriate week to resume my wandering of the Moon, what with her being in the news and all over the Internet. The reason for that, of course, was the upcoming total lunar eclipse. The news goobers waxed enthusiastic despite this being an early-early eclipse, at 4-5am-ish at mid eclipse for the eastern half of the country. Nevertheless, I hope many were impelled to arise for it. As of this writing, the Friday before the eclipse on Tuesday, November 8, your old Uncle wasn’t sure if he was game to get up at that hour or not. If I do, a recap and an image (if any) will appear at the end of this here article.

So, on a gentle Gulf Coast early-November evening, one on which the Moon shone down turning the landscape to silver, I set Charity up in the driveway, a spot with a good view of the eastern horizon. All ready to go, I turned the on-off switch to “on” and checked date and time. The date was still good, but time was already off by over six hours. I set it correctly and returned inside for a box of eyepieces.

What sort of oculars would I use with Charity this evening? Nothing fancy. I didn’t feel the need to drag out any of my heavy-metal TeleVue or Explore Scientific eyepieces. Instead, I grabbed the box of Celestrons I won years ago at one of the last Deep South Regional Stargazes I attended. They are all 1.25-inch (Charity is limited to that format anyway) Chinese Plössls that perform just fine. Frankly, it’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen a truly bad ocular from any half respectable vendor.

In went a 32mm for alignment. I coulda grabbed a crosshair reticle eyepiece out of Charity’s case up in the house, but I didn’t feel like going inside again, and a so-so alignment would be good enough for lunar work anyway.

Anyhoo, Charity is a PE model ETX, which means she can perform an automatic alignment not unlike a GPS scope sans GPS. Set her in home position and she does a little dance, finding north and level. This took a couple of minutes, but eventually she headed for alignment star one, Vega. It wasn’t in the eyepiece, but just outside it. The next star was a problem, though.

Because of my position in the backyard, many of Charity’s choices were in the trees. I rejected one star after another till we got to Enif and could finish up.  How was the resulting alignment? Saturn was in the eyepiece at 60x when Charity stopped, no problem. OK, OK! I’ll fess up. That was the result of my SECOND alignment. In typical Uncle Rod fashion, I kicked the tripod by accident, ruining the first one just as I finished centering Enif. In my defense, the legs on Charity’s tripod are more wide-spread than on most.

Where to begin? With the most striking crater near the terminator of this young 8.5-day old Moon, Eratosthenes. Oh, all the pictures here are from Virtual Moon Atlas. North is up, but I’ve flipped ‘em east-west to match what was in Charity’s eyepiece. My first look at this great crater was a bit of a disappointment. The seeing was nowhere near as good as had been predicted, it was fairly lousy in fact, with 250x being a bit of a stretch. 150x was more like it, and when the seeing would briefly settle, Eratosthenes looked purty danged good.

It shouldn’t be surprising mighty Eratosthenes was my first stop. It was perfectly positioned at 8.5 days, just a bit off the terminator. It would be hard to miss even if this 60Km diameter crater didn’t display such beautifully sharp, terraced walls. It is located at the termination of the lunar Apennines; your eye just naturally follows their arc to this stupendous formation. Despite blah-blah-blah seeing Charity easily revealed the complex central peak and the rough floor of this great crater.

Where next? I moved north, flying over a tremendous amount of territory LM style with a push of an Autostar direction button. I skimmed over many wonderful destinations, but something had caught my eye; that “something” being the amazing 101Km crater (or is it really a walled plain?), Plato. While Plato, lying at the other terminus of the huge arc of mountains that begins as Apennines and winds up near Plato as Alps, looks elongated due to its position, it’s, like almost all craters, actually round.

What does every observer long to see of this giant? Some of the craterlets that pepper the dark lava-floor. At eight and a half days, the crater is a little far from the terminator to make that easy but running up the power to 250x and waiting for good seeing stretches revealed a few spots that mark the (relatively) tiny pits.

What else is of interest in the area? Plenty.  Only beginning with the Alpine Valley, which runs for over 130 Km through this mountainous area of the Moon. It’s beautiful in any telescope, but the prize is the rille down its center. About a mile wide, this sinuous “channel” is a high challenge for a visual observer even when the Alpine Valley is perfectly placed. I’ve seen it at those times, but, frankly, the best way to view it is really in images with a planetary camera like my little ZWO.

At this point, I was frankly feeling a mite overwhelmed. Yeah, I’m more familiar with Luna than I was in the days when I’d deserted the Moon for the outer depths of the Universe, but I’d had a long layoff, from Moon-watching and was feeling confused (so what else is new?) trying to orient myself and remember what was where.

One more, though. That “one more” was mighty Tycho. When the Moon approaches full, Tycho is the most prominent feature on Luna thanks to its draw-dropping system of lunar rays. End of story, game over, zip up your fly. But even at this phase, it stood out like a sore thumb in the rough lunar highlands.

What makes Tycho so prominent even when its rays don’t shine is it is sharp, and it is young (the reason its rays are still so prominent). This 86Km diameter formation’s imposing walls contain a complex and interesting triple-central peak. Anyhow, Tycho just looks young (it’s less than 1 billion years old) and is eye-catching at any phase.

And that was that. I could have kept going, but I decided to savor what I’d seen and visit more old friends “next time.” One of the beauties of Miss Valentine, of course, is she’s easy enough to get back inside and in her case despite bringing quite a bit of horsepower to the observin’ field. Soon, I was in the den watching TV with the cats, sipping a portion of Yell, and strategizing about the upcoming eclipse…

The Great November 2022 Total Lunar Eclipse

Nah, not as good as a Christmas eclipse, but this one was pretty spectacular from the ‘Swamp. Course, there would’ve been no eclipse at all for Unk if he hadn’t been able to drag himself outa bed at freaking 4am. Amazingly enough, he did!  I’d stationed a tripod bearing a Canon DSLR with a medium telephoto lens by the front door so things wouldn’t be too painful at that now unaccustomed early hour (I went about ten years getting up a 4:30 every morning for work, but that seems a long, long time ago). I’d just waltz into the yard with the rig, shoot some pretty pictures, and that would be it. I hoped.

Arising at such a ridiculous time wasn’t as bad as I feared. In fact, the only pained individuals were the cats, who believed it should be breakfast time as soon as I walked into the den despite it being four in the fricking morning. I asked for some temporary forbearance, and got tripod and camera into the front yard, on the driveway, where I had a good look at Luna, who’d soon be entering totality as she sank in the west. Not only would the Moon be at just under 30-degrees altitude as totality began, the sky was dead clear.

There’s not much more to tell. It had been a while since I’d shot a lunar eclipse, but I still remembered how. Lens wide open, ASA 1600, exposures under a second, 250mm of focal length, lots of shots. Despite my bleary eyes, I could tell the images displayed on the Canon’s little screen were pretty good. One nice thing was Luna was in a fairly star-rich area (and Uranus was nearby), making her extra photogenic. It was a pretty dark eclipse, too.

Done just before five, I downloaded the images to a laptop to make sure all was well and uploaded one to Facebook to share with my friends. Yep, looked purty darned good, I told Miss Dorothy, who was bustling about, serving the felines their breakfast at their strong insistence.

To be honest, I’d been sorta dreading the morning…having to get up so early, get a camera outside, and see if I remembered how to take lunar eclipse photos. But it all went amazingly smoothly…the whole thing was, to quote the poet, “simple — neat…no trouble at all — not the least.” I was glad I’d imaged (and experienced) this grand eclipse.

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