Sunday, February 04, 2024


Issue 601: A ZWO SeeStar Comes to Chaos Manor South


Wow, just wow, muchachos
… Now, admittedly I’ve turned into something of an astronomical Luddite who is easily impressed by modern technology. Hell, I’d still be using NexRemote if they’d update it to a version that would take advantage of all the features of my 10-year-old Celestron Advanced VX mount. What’s an ASAIR? What’s plate-solving? What sort of witchery is all that?

If I didn’t write the occasional Sky & Telescope Test Report, I’d be even further behind. For example, all y’all know about plate-solving. Been around for years I reckon. But I was recently gob-smacked in the course of doing an S&T Test Report when a plate-solving camera widget would unerringly center the telescope on anything. I mean dead center. Every time! Some kinda hoo-doo it seemed like.

Anyhoo, that was the way it was when a box appeared on the doorstep of (the new, of course) Chaos Manor South. When I saw it there, I was both excited and intimidated. If you read the previous installment of the Little Old AstroBlog from Possum Swamp, you know I was casting about for something that would get me observing more frequently. And you know I decided that might be a Smartscope. One o’ them small, robotic image-makin’ telescopes that are the current rage. To that end, I gave the good folks at Highpoint Scientific, who had ZWO Seestars in stock, my credit card number and hoped for the best.

Why the SeeStar? If you indeed read the previous edition of this-here AstroBlog, you also learned its price—about 500 dollars—was just right for your stingy old Uncle. But it wasn’t just that. I had looked at quite a few online pictures obtained by the scope. And I had viewed a passel of YouTube videos on the SeeStar (our resident black cat, Tommy, Thomas Aquinas, got real tired of those—he favors World War II documentaries). What I gleaned was the pictures the little thing takes are impressive for a 50mm aperture refractor, it appeared simple to use, and nobody had much bad to say about it including Dennis di Cicco in his Test Report in S&T. I was still worried, though. Mostly about getting it going. All the stuff about wi-fi and Bluetooth and blah-blah-blah.

As your Old Uncle is wont to say, though, “Nuthin’ to it but to do it!  I grabbed up the box, moved it to the dining room table, opened it up, and pulled out a nice-looking color box. The packaging was very professional; ZWO sure has come a long way in the decade-plus since I took a chance on one of their initial products, a little 120MC planetary camera. Inside the pretty box was a nice enough case containing the scope. This case was sorta weird…being made from something like slightly denser Styrofoam…but it was nice to have some kind of case anyhow.

Inside that was the scope itself—which, as you can see, didn’t look anything at all like a telescope—a tripod, a USB C cable for charging and communications with a PC, a solar filter, a couple of small instruction pamphlets, and a packet of silica gel helpfully labeled “DO NOT EAT.”

There was not the slightest chance of using the scope under the stars—or even on the Sun. It had been storming for days. But I figgered I could download the app for my iPhone (there's a version for Android, too), initially connect it to the telescope, and see whether everything at least appeared to work.  

One thing I’ve learned about Chinese widgets from cat toys to radios that are powered by cell-phone-style batteries: it’s best charge ‘em up before doing anything else. From the row of indicator lights on the side of the SeeStar that illuminated when I plugged it into a 5-volt phone charger, it was about 75% charged out of the box. I left for a radio club meeting, and when I returned a couple of hours later, Missy was all charged and ready to go.

Next step, I imaged the QR code on the instructions with my phone and downloaded the impressive-looking app to my iPhone 14 Pro Max. That done, it was rubber-meets-road time. As instructed, I did a short press of the power button, then a long press, and the scope came to life announcing, “POWERING UP! READY TO CONNECT!” (I also had to push a reset button on the underside of the scope’s mount during first-time set up). Unlike some reviews I’ve read that stated the telescope’s initial voice (yes, this telescope talks) was in Chinese, my small wonder spoke in perfectly un-accented English. ZWO must have tidied up some of the installation details.

Then? Well, I just touched "connect." The app responded by asking permission to use Bluetooth, location, etc., etc., etc. I accepted it all. When the app showed “connected,” I clicked the telescope's picture at the top of the screen to go to communications settings and put it in Station Mode. That way, the telescope joins your home network and it and your phone communicate over that network, not directly with each other with wi-fi. That ensures greater range and a simultaneous Internet connection. If you are away from home, you can connect directly to the scope with your phone or tablet. There were no snags when it came to set up. All went smoothly and without problems.

App and Atlas (zoomed way out)...
Well, there was one problem to solve before I could get started with the SeeStar:  the small carbon fiber tripod that comes with the telescope is nice, but fully extended it raises the scope less than two feet off the ground. I don’t want to have to crawl on me belly like a reptile to hit the power button, put the filter solar filter on, or do anything else. I could round up a small camp table to place scope and tripod on, but was afraid that would be too shaky for imaging.

Then it came to me. I’d use my good, old Manfrotto tripod.  Its tilt/pan head has a ¼-inch bolt and the SeeStar takes -inch, but I recalled you can unscrew the head to reveal, yep, a -inch bolt. I did that. What I also did was attach a tripod leveling widget (I got from B&H photo some time ago) between scope and tripod in case precise leveling was needed. That done, I put the scope back in her case and the tripod back the closet and waited for clear weather.

Which came the following afternoon when I noticed ol’ Sol peeping out. I got the scope and tripod into the backyard, set the tripod up in the spot where the Advanced VX usually goes (there are three flagstones there for the tripod feet to rest on), leveled the tripod with a bubble level, and mashed the “on” button. After a short interval missy announced she was ready to connect. I opened the app, connected to the scope, tapped the “solar” button just below the weather window. Following instructions, I moved her li’l tube up in altitude with the onscreen buttons so I could insert the solar filter over the objective.

Shortly, the SeeStar informed me she was going to the Sun. When she stopped, I was offered an onscreen joystick thingie and told to adjust until the Sun was centered. I didn’t have to. The Sun was already centered when the scope stopped. I skipped that, mashed “AF” (autofocus), the SeeStar focused, and with “photo” selected, I pushed the big red button to take a picture. I did that several times, and also shot a short video.

The results? Unfortunately, I caught Sol at one of his more peaceful moments of late. There were a couple of big sunspot groups about to rotate off the limb, one small spot in the middle of the disk, and one new group on the opposite limb. However, for a rather short focal length scope the pictures (which were sent to my phone from the SeeStar) were impressive. The lighter areas around the groups were easier to see than they are for me in my white light-filtered C8 SCT. And so was granulation. Miss Dorothy and I thought the video, which showed incoming clouds moving over the Sun’s face, was awful pretty. Yes, the clouds were back.

And then I sat and waited again. The weatherman said it would be clear Sunday evening…but there was a fly buzzing in that butter. I had a Mobile Amateur Radio Club Board meeting to conduct, which would no doubt go on for quite a spell Sunday evenin’. Also, we always have our Board meetings at Heroes Sports Bar and Grill…and it was somewhat likely I’d consume a “few” cold 807s over the course of said meeting—just to wet my whistle for my orations, you unnerstan’. Would I be in any shape to take pictures of M42 with the new scope when I returned?

When I got back to Chaos Manor South that evening at around 8, somewhat groggy Unk was glad he’d had the sense to set the SeeStar up in the backyard beforehand. I removed the plastic bag I’d covered her with “just in case,” connected to the scope, and mashed “M42” in the “tonight’s best” section. Once the li’l gal unfolded herself, pointed to M42, and began taking her brief preview shots, I autofocused and that was about it. I touched the big red button and she started taking and stacking ten second frames. Oh, before that, I had had the presence of mind (barely) to go into the telescope menu and enable the SeeStar’s internal dew heater on this somewhat damp night. The scope had already engaged her built-in dual-band nebula filter herself.

Yes, M42 is bright, but I was still FREAKING AMAZED that by the time I’d got back inside and was in the den with Miss Dorothy, the telescope had already produced an image of the Great Nebula far better lookin’ than what I see visually in a ten-inch telescope like my Zelda in the backyard. And it just kept getting better.

What did I have to do next? Not much. I turned on the cotton-picking television set for me and Tommy, Miss D. went off to bed, and I and that rascally feline sat and watched TV while the SeeStar did her thing out in the cold (man alive, it was around 40F out there!).  You don’t have to watch the scope. The phone doesn’t need to be awake. The SeeStar does just fine on her own.

When our program wrapped up somewhat over half an hour later, I thought to look at the iPhone again. HOLY COW! The SeeStar had accumulated just over half an hour of exposure (she will occasionally discard a frame due to star trailing or other issues). The result was, frankly, competitive with anything I’ve ever done with a “real” telescope and mount! I was just gobsmacked. Yes, it seemed like hoo-doo witchery! The picture at the top of the page is just as it came out of the telescope. I tweaked it a little later, but only with the minimalist tools in my iPhone 14.

With a little processing...
Let me add that what you see at the top of the page is just the .jpg the scope transmits to your phone automatically. If you connect to the SeeStar over the network (like with a PC), you can download the original .fits file of your quarry. If you cannot connect the telescope to a network with its “Station Mode,” like out in the boonies, you can still download images to a computer using a USB cable. If you’ve instructed the scope to save the unstacked frames as well, you can download ‘em and stack ‘em yourself. Unk? In these latter days stuff like that tends to confound me. For now, I’m happy just admiring the simple .jpgs that show up on my iPhone.

That was good. But after the big meeting, those 807s, and the excitement of first light on the night sky, Unk was feeling the need to wind things down. I swiped “shut down” on the app, and by the time I got to the scope in the backyard, she’d tilted her little tube down to its stowed position and powered herself off. I picked her and the tripod up, carried them inside, put her in her case, and was back in the den with Mr. Tommy in about 5 minutes.

And then we waited again. What should I go after next? There are numerous winter targets, but I thought one I should essay before it got too high (the SeeStar does not like tracking objects much about 80 degrees) was M1, Old Crabby. The SeeStar app is quite full featured, and tapping M1 in its object list gave full details of the supernova remnant including a graphic showing its elevation over the course of the evening. Oh, let me also mention the app includes a very high-quality star atlas. You don’t have to select objects from a list. You can go to the atlas—which appears to have a very large complement of DSOs—and select and go-to them from there.

The next night was pretty anticlimactic. Sent the little telescope to her target, Messier 1, and after some hemming and hawing about “enhancing-calibrating-please wait,” she began shooting. I could see she’d do a pretty good job on the Crab after just a couple of frames, but there was a problem:  the object wasn’t well centered. On a hunch, I went to the star atlas. There was a frame around M1, but not centered on M1. I dragged it to center the nebula, missy said she was doing a goto, we began shooting again and all was well.

A this point I had checked into our weekly 6-meter SSB net, signed off, locked up the radio shack, and walked back to the main house. There, I picked up the phone and was greeted by the very nice shot of the Crab Nebula you see here. Oh, it’s not as impressive as M42; M1 is a smallish object not as well suited to a small, widefield telescope. Still, the colors and detail easily rivaled what I used to do with Big Bertha, my old C11, and Mallincam Xtreme from the dark skies of Chiefland, Florida. And the wide-field nature of the SeeStar did place the nebula in a dramatically star-rich field.

Before channel surfing for something for me and Tommy to watch on the dadgum television, I thought I might point missy at "one more." By this time, approaching nine pm, many of the winter marvels were beginning to climb high in the east, putting them out of reach for a little alt-az rig. It was also feeling humid damp out in the yard, so I double-checked I had turned on the dew heater (nope). I took care of that, and, with the star atlas, began searching the eastern sky for a good target.

M35, the big galactic cluster in Gemini would be fine for a while, it appeared. I sent the scope there via the atlas (inexplicably, the wonderful M35 didn’t seem to be in “tonight’s best.”).  There, I adjusted framing to put the smaller, more distant cluster NGC 2158 in the field, autofocused, and let the ZWO have at the cluster for around 15 minutes.  All this was done while sitting on the couch in the den, you understand.

The results? The pair of clusters is maybe not as inherently interesting an object as the supernova remnant, but is really more suited for a widefield instrument (in fact, it coulda used more field). Being able to place the smaller cluster in the frame really helped, and I was pleased with the results. And ready for the evening to begin reaching its conclusion as 10pm came on. When M35 finished up, I commanded “shut down” and retrieved scope and tripod from the yard, putting the little scope back on charge after two nights. Miss Dorothy was somewhat startled to see the odd-looking scope—she’d only seen it briefly once—sitting in the living room attached to a cell charger when she got up the next morning.

And that was that after two nights. I was frankly thrilled by the small scope, think we will have a lot of fun together, and told her she could officially join the Chaos Manor South family. She then whispered me her name (y’all know I name all my telescopes), “Suzie,” as in “Suzie-Q,” she said. That sounded about right. She is a cutie in her odd way. But this little thing is also surprisingly powerful. If you’re an over the hill suburban astronomer like your Old Uncle? RECOMMENDED.  




Sunday, January 21, 2024


Issue 600: Smartscope Revolution?


ZWO SeeStar S50
Issue 600, muchachos?! If somebody had told me 18 years ago that the Little Old AstroBlog from Chaos Manor South would still be around and going strong in 2024, I’d have laughed. Actually, it goes back even farther than that, to almost 25 years ago and AOL’s old blogspace. No, it’s not quite what it was in the go-go days of the amateur astronomy explosion of the 1990s and early 2000s, but, yeah, here we still are more or less...

Not long after I retired, I found for various reasons I had to back off the weekly blog releases I’d done for years and years. For a while thereafter, it was hard for me to buckle down and get a blog out the door every few months. There was one year, 2019, when there was one new entry. For the whole freaking year (one of my excuses is in 2019 I delivered TWO new books to their publishers). Eventually, however, I adjusted to retired life, the Universe, and everything, found I missed doing this, and, yeah, here we are. The last year or so, I've even found I don’t have to make myself do the AstroBlog. I want to again.

Twenty-five years, yeah. Retirement. Getting older with a capital “O.” Your old Uncle put up a brave fight and played Peter Pan up until the fricking pandemic, which kinda took the wind out of me sails. Now, I have to admit age ain’t just a number as some boomers like to say. Hit the big 7-0 as Unk has, and you’ll gain a real understanding of that every freaking morning when you get out of bed. To the accompaniment of more aches and pains.

None of which means I don’t observe or at least want to. It’s just getting harder. A recent Sky & Telescope assignment required me to set up a scope and a mount and a computer and do some imaging, somethin’ I hadn’t done a lot of in the last several annums. It was doable for me mainly because of the stretch of OK weather we were having. Once I got the telescope set up, I could leave her (the Edge 800, Mrs. Peel) outside under a cover for multiple nights.

Not that getting her, an AVX mount, etc., etc. into the yard was a treat. Neither was operating her when she was set up. Not so much because of age, but because of the accident I suffered in 2019. One of my multiple injuries was a compound fracture of my right arm. The docs did a good job of putting me back together with the aid of screws and metal plates. But I noted none of ‘em assured me I’d be as good as new.

Five years down the line, I have regained most lost dexterity. I can get on my Vibroplex keyer and send Morse code at 30 words-per-minute again. BUT…  It’s clear the strength in that arm is not coming back. I can very easily drop something if I am not careful, and the arm will quickly warn me if I try “too heavy.” Ever since the accident I have also, strangely, found my ability to endure the cold much reduced. To top if all off, I have developed a lingering and seemingly unreasoning fear of falling in the dark. None of this a recipe for setting up and operating old-fashioned astrophotography rigs. Or big, complicated telescopes of any kind.

So, what have I done when I want to observe? I’ve mostly kept it simple. I can still get my 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, into the backyard if I am careful, take is slowly, and use a hand truck on bad days. Her simple operation means my fuzzy-headedness as the hours grow late (as in 11pm) is not going to cause a major equipment disaster.  It’s not a night when I feel like wrestling with Z? One of my smaller refractors on my SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount serves me well when I get cosmic wanderlust.

Equinox II
I still love my big 6-inch achromat and Losmandy mount. But. The last time I tried to get that OTA on the Losmandy I nearly dropped her and injured myself in the process. I hope to get that big glass out this summer for a stroll through the wonders of the season, but night-in-and-night-out, it’s clearly best if I stay with simple.

Which brings us to our subject this morning, smart telescopes. “Wut’s they-at, Unk?” If you’ve been under a rock the last three-four years, they are a new breed of scope. Most are small-aperture short focal length reflectors or refractors on alt-azimuth mounts. While at least one allows you to view objects with a built-in display, most depend on your smart phone for both display and control. And the big deal with all is something most of us have experimented with:  taking and stacking many short exposures (like 10 seconds) into finished images. All feature goto via plate solving and include the usual frippery like GPS.

 I knew about these scopes almost from the beginning since an old friend and accomplished observer, Jack Estes, was an early adopter and has shared the images he’s obtained with his Unistellar smartscope with me on occasion. I had to admit I was impressed. But, somehow, the whole thing seemed like heresy. Like cheating. I wasn’t quite ready to hang up my Peter Pan duds.  I’d sold my C11. Was I now going to embrace a tiny telescope that sat in the backyard and took pictures for me as I sat in the warm den?

Well, why the Hell not? Would it really be such a come down? The thing is seeing. If that means with a big scope and an eyepiece…or a smaller scope and a Mallincam extreme…or a tiny scope and a digital camera, that’s still seeing the Universe, ain’t it? I never felt like the Mallincam was a compromise; it was just the opposite. It expanded my horizons from the Messier and NGC to the dim and distant marvels that lie beyond them.

Vespera II
The question that remained was whether one of these small scopes could get the job done. From what I’d seen and heard from Jack and from other observers, it was clear these little telescopes can produce deep sky images that please. No, one wouldn’t go as deep as the Xtreme and C8 would in a minute or so. But allowed to stack images for longer, they could go deep. Real deep. And produce images that looked far prettier and more finished than what my analog Mallincams can do. Keep in mind these scopes are mainly for the deep sky. They can produce nice full-disk images of the Moon and Sun, but the image scale is not suited for the planets. 

I began to think all signs pointed to a smartscope as being what I needed to get me observing more frequently again. Then, of course, the question became which one?

So, who do we have here?

Unistellar’s instruments, most of which are 4-inch reflectors, go from around $2000 to $5000. The middle of the road is the Equinox II.  Unlike some of the more expensive Unistellars, it doesn’t feature the unique electronic eyepiece technology that makes you feel like you’re using a “real” telescope. Instead, like other smartscopes, it depends on your phone for display of the images produced by its Sony IMX347 sensor, and communicates over Wi-Fi. Seemed nice. But…I dunno. $2500 made Unk skittish despite the fairly impressive pictures I’ve seen from these scopes.

Vaonis produces several different models. The one I’ve heard the most talk about, however, is the futuristic looking Vespera II ($1590 without field tripod or case). It’s a 50mm f/5 refractor, and features the usual things: built-in camera, automatic stacking and—necessary for an alt-azimuth telescope, natch—field de-rotation to prevent star trailing. Various filters that fit on the front of the OTA are available as options. The image sensor is a Sony IMX 585.

Cheap as your old Unk is…investing in a technology I wasn’t sure I’d like to the tune of well over a thousand dollars didn’t seem smart, smart telescope or not. Then I heard about a Chinese company, Dwarf Labs

Dwarf II
The Dwarf II is a rather odd looking smartscope—it looks more like a…I dunno…can opener? Clock radio? —than a telescope. But it was clear to me from the images produced by it that the Dwarf and its Sony IMX415 sensor get ‘er done. And get ‘er done for less than $500.  The only “I dunno” for me being its very small (26mm) aperture. As with the Vespera, filters are available that fit over the objective end.

I don’t know why I was surprised when Celestron announced recently that it’s getting into the smartscope game. Anyhoo, it’s a sign these little scopes are going to be a big factor in amateur astronomy going forward. Probably including Celestron’s not-so-little new one, the Origin. Yes, it really kicks things up a notch. This is a larger Smartscope, based on a 6-inch aperture f/2.2 version of their Rowe Ackerman astrograph OTA.

The Origin is mounted on a pretty standard-looking Evolution mount…but obviously that’s been upgraded with some fancier firmware. The brains are in part from Celestron’s StarSense autoguider technology. Their Smart Dew-removal system is also incorporated—I was impressed by that when I did the S&T Test Report on it a while back. Finally, the mount can be placed on a wedge and used in equatorial fashion with a guide camera, giving it the capability of much longer than 10-second exposures. Impressive specs, indeed, I had to admit.

The images taken by the Origin and its Sony IMX178LQJ chip displayed on the Celestron pages look good. Impressive, even. But…well…the chip is similar to what’s in the other smartscopes, so the Origin pictures are not in a whole other category. On the good side, Celestron says the onboard camera can be replaced by possible future models (I would assume from 3rd party manufacturers, too).

So, did I preorder an Origin? No. It wasn’t so much the 4K price tag that dissuaded me (though, of course, it did), but the fact the Origin is right back in the “getting difficult for Unk to handle” category. It’s substantially larger than my ETX-125, Charity Hope Valentine, and she is pretty much the limit of what I’ll use frequently.

Celestron Origin
Which left a smartscope I’d heard about a lot recently. ZWO’s SeeStar S50. Despite the somewhat corny name, I was impressed by what I’d heard about it, what Dennis di Cicco had written about it in his recent S&T test report, and by the images I’d seen. This is a 50mm f/5 refractor that uses a Sony IMX462 sensor. Unlike any of the others, though, there’s a built-in filter wheel and an included LPR filter. A solar filter is also provided that fits over the objective (third parties make filter holders for your own 2-inch filters), there is an integral dew-heater, and, best of all for your miserly Uncle, the price is about $500. 

I still wasn’t sure…but screwing my courage to the sticking place, I ordered one and wondered if I’d done the right thing or not. I trust ZWO—I’ve used one of their planetary cameras for years—but a smartscope? For me? Really?

And then…and then...  We are out of time and space for this morning, and Unk is waiting for the ZWO to arrive as he writes this. I will be back with the big reveal in a week or three, after I’ve had some time with the new telescope.

Sunday, December 24, 2023


Issue 599: A Chaos Manor South Merry Christmas 2023


“What in the hail are you goin’ on about now, Unk? Ever’body knows you and Miss Dorothy decamped from the Old Manse to the suburbs almost a decade ago!”  Yes and no, Skeeter, yes and no.” I have come to realize Chaos Manor South is more a state of mind than a place, no matter how much I sometimes miss that place itself and those grand old Christmases of yore on Selma St.

Yeah, muchachos, those exciting Yule eves sporting a giant tree crowded by presents and a house of little ones unable to sleep. And me sitting, a season of furious preparations done, watching for a glimpse of that most numinous of all Christmas ornaments, Messier 42.

The years have passed as years do, crowding one upon another. Christmas is again on the doorstep—they seem to come thick and fast in these latter days.  Here I still sit on the couch in the den with Chaos Manor South’s resident black cat, Thomas Aquinas, waiting for the sky to clear and for us to get a glimpse of the Great Nebula. Tommy and I are older now, but that is the only difference. Our hopes for clear skies on Christmas Eve are as firm and resolute as ever.

Admittedly, it doesn’t look as if those hopes will be borne out this year. I was awakened at three in the morning by the weather radio alarming its head off about flood warnings. By 9am, it began to sprinkle. It would, looked to me, be a blue-eyed Christmas miracle if we got even the tiniest sucker-hole.

But you know as well as I do the key to practicing amateur astronomy successfully is being ready to take advantage of miracles, Christmas or otherwise. To wit, I needed to have a scope ready. Oh, I could have just said to myself that my old but still beloved Burgess 15x70 binocs would be fine “just in case.” But somehow that didn’t seem in the spirit of the thing, my traditional Christmas Eve look at “Orion,” as I simply and innocently called the Great Nebula when I was a boy.

Perfect for those unlooked for looks? Tanya, my rescue telescope. As I wrote in the article that detailed her coming to Chaos Manor South, she is not perfect. In addition to having lived a hard knock life, with a few dents in her steel tube bearing witness to that, she is saddled with an f/5.2 spherical mirror. That somewhat limits her performance—well, theoretically. “Theoretically” because I don’t use her for high-power views of the planets. She is perfect for wide-field looks, which is what my quick looks usually call for, but is quite capable of handling 100x or so. Cleaned and collimated, her 114mm primary does a surprisingly nice job.

So, Tommy and I sat and waited. And waited. He watching something or other on television. Me, naturally, ruminating on Christmases past as I am wont to do on Yule Eves. Which one spells “Christmas” for me? There are several, including some newer-ish ones, like the first Christmas I spent with Miss Dorothy at the Old Manse. But if you are going to pin me down, I guess Christmas for me is still and will forever be:  Stars instead of Cars.

Here we still sit as it pours.  The weather goobers are predicting 2-inches of the wet stuff before morning. I’ll be surprised to hear the rain slacken, much less see a single star wink through this mess. Them’s the breaks. I’ve had a pretty good run of clear Xmas Eves of late, and, as always in amateur astronomy, you take what you get. We shall sit a while longer, Tommy and I. Till I finally drift off and a little black paw nudges me, telling me it is time for bed.

Have a merry one. When we meet again in the new year, I will tell you what the hell happened to my other yearly tradition, my annual imaging run on the Great Globular, M13. Till then… “This is Chaos Manor signing off and clear.”

Sunday, November 19, 2023


Issue 598: When is a Star Party Not a Star Party? Redux…


The answer is still the same as it was many a year ago, muchachos: “Never!” I almost always have a great time at an astronomy event, even when I don’t see much—or anything at all. It’s nice to hang out with friends, look at other folks’ astro-gear, yadda-yadda-yadda. But for all that, there is, as I have also said before, one big reason I go to a star party that trumps all:  To see the deep sky. Alas, that is the one thing that was in short supply at the just completed 41st annual Deep South Star Gaze (née, Deep South Regional Star Gaze).

The extended forecasts for the event’s location near Sandy Hook, Mississippi hadn’t been looking good for weeks. They indicated the time Miss Dorothy and I would be on site, Thursday – Sunday, would be resolutely cloudy, and most likely rainy—game over, end of story zip up your fly. The “safe” thing to have done would have been not to even register. Or, to have saved some gas and not hit the road for the Mississippi backwoods when November 9th came around.

Nope. No way. I was finally back in the mood for a star party, and, in particular, for this star party after a lay-off of six years. After not the best star party experience in 2017, mostly thanks to deteriorating conditions at the event’s previous location, the Feliciana Retreat Center in Louisiana, and the change of venue in ’18 to the current White Horse Christian Retreat Center, we took a couple of years off. Then came covid. And we hadn’t been back since the end of the plague. Once you get out of the habit of going to a star party, it’s sometimes hard to get with it again, but this year, I’d decided, would be different.  

In dipping-toe-into-shallow-end-of-pool fashion, Miss D. and I began slowly, ever so slowly, planning for the 2023 Deep South Star Gaze. At first it seemed strange to be rounding up the sleeping bags and the tent canopy again (I sprayed plenty of waterproofing on the latter in view of the forecast). But mostly, it just seemed right and natural. After all, Deep South was something we’d been doing together since we were married in 1994. What was feeling strange now was those six autumns without a Deep South.

In addition to gathering up the ancillary gear, I naturally had to decide “Which telescope?” The weather forecasts didn’t quite look horrible, not yet, but they did not look good. It was not a year for fancy mounts and SCTs and computers. Also, something simpler would be more in line with the “dipping-a-toe-back-in” theme for the year. So, what I decided on (at first) was my 10-inch GSO Dobsonian, Zelda. Object finding assistance? Her 50mm finder, her Rigel Quickfinder, and Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition backed by my treasured deck of George Kepple’s legendary Astro Cards.

Wednesday evening before our departure, I loaded up the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt. What I did not load up, after all, was Zelda. Why lug a 10-inch when there was little—if any—doubt it would be clouds and rain for our entire stay at White Horse? The forecasts had just got worse, not better. I wouldn’t be without a scope, though. I packed a smallish one just in case we saw something. Frankly, for reasonable people (obviously that does not include your strange, old Uncle) this would have been the time to say, “Let’s stay home and watch it rain in comfort.”

Nope, nosir-buddy. Not only were we interested in giving the new star party site a look-see, we wanted to show we still support the event, and, maybe more than anything else, we wanted to see friends we hadn’t seen in years and whom I’d begun to wonder if we we’d ever seen again. I finished loading the truck, just like the good, old days and called it a night reasonably early…after indulging our resident black cat, Thomas Aquinas, by watching WWII videos on YouTube (he favors “Midway” and “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”).

Interior of the rustic lodge...
Thursday morning dawned to heavy clouds—which have been the rule rather than the exception down here for weeks and weeks.  There was no need to get on the road early. The drive is a reasonably short one, about two-and-a-half hours, and the event’s only meal, supper, would not be served until 4pm daily. With that situation in mind, I’d loaded up on snacks and Hormel’s “Compleats” stabilized microwave dinners (like I used to keep in my desk at work long ago).

The drive was, yeah, a short one, and there wouldn’t have been much to say about it if not for the nostalgia factor. Like our long-ago visits to Percy Quin State Park, original home of the star party, the journey to White Horse is up Highway 98 to Hattiesburg (and then on to Sandy Hook). Miss D. and I sure did a lot of reminiscin’ about our trip on this very road through the Mississippi piney woods in 1994 when we were newlyweds.

A big difference this time? No AAA trip-ticks or Rand McNally Road Atlas. It was GPS all the way, and she did get us to White Horse, albeit not without one bit of minor unpleasantness. As we neared our destination, the GPS, Samantha, told us to turn onto THE ROAD. Yep, no name, just “the road.” A dirt road that quickly devolved into a rutted two-lane track, and then into mudholes just short of a swamp. Miss Van Pelt loved it, since she rarely gets to be a real off-road 4Runner. Dorothy and I sure were bemused…to put it mildly…wondering what would have happened if we’d turned down THE ROAD in her Camry!  I am still washing the mud off Miss Van P.

Soon, we were on another nondescript (but at least paved) road.  The excellent directions Barry provided for the area near the site reassured us we were indeed in the right place. Soon, there was, as mentioned in said directions, a column with, yep, a white horse sculpture atop it. And…in just a moment we were at the facility.

White Horse Observing Field...
What was it like? See the pictures…but what it reminded me of was the hunting camps the daddies of my pals used to belong to back in the sixties (my own Daddy was not exactly an outdoors type), and which I’d visited occasionally. That is, a complex of structures that involved tin sheeting and which the owners appeared to have expanded as they’d gone along.

Driving toward the building we noticed a paddock-like area on the right festooned with a few tent canopies and even a few telescopes. We figgered that must be the place, parked there, grabbed our suitcases, and headed back to the main building. Inside, we were informed by the friendly star-partiers there that DSSG Director Barry Simon had left the site for lunch and would be back shortly. We spent half an hour or so looking around and getting a feel for the place. The interior of the lodge continued the hunting camp theme but was really purty darned nice. Oh, and there was Wi-Fi. At poor, old Feliciana that had often been missing.

Upon Barry’s return, he pointed us at our room—the facility has several small motel-like rooms in addition to bunkhouses. It was even tinier than what we had become accustomed to at Feliciana, but was clean and really just perfect for us. The window air conditioner was noisy but cooled remarkably well.

The storied pumpkin...
Thence to the field for a prize drawing. Despite Dorothy drawing the tickets from the legendary orange DSRSG plastic pumpkin (the same one from back in the vaunted Percy Quin days), I didn’t win a dadgum thing—and they were giving away a real nice widefield eyepiece and some other cool stuff besides. That ain’t exactly a surprise. I rarely win anything in a raffle—other than a raffle for ham radio gear. That, I win again and again—strange.

Afterwards, there not being much to do before supper, it was back to the main building, “the lodge,” for web surfing and getting reacquainted with old friends. If I don’t list your name here, I’m not slighting you. It’s just that I’d have to list 40 or more. All of you, old friends and new ones alike, are important to us.

That hour or two in the lodge was the high point of the star party. What else did I do other then get caught up with buddies?  I took frequent trips outside for looks at the sky—all in vain. And I kept my eye on an app recommended to me by Sky & Telescope’s Sean Walker some time back, Astropheric. It took a while for me to get used to it, but, yeah, it really is better than Clear Sky Charts. In fact, it’s like CSC on steroids. If you don’t have it on your phone already, you should (it's free).

Then came supper. Miss Dorothy and I were signed up for the meal plan, but were informed that had been cancelled (because the weather kept attendance down so much, I guess). Instead, there were hamburger and hotdog plates available for a reasonable price. Dorothy and I ordered hamburgers…and were a little surprised at their definitely different taste. The ebullient lady who owns White Horse informed us that was because they were made from not just beef, but pork, and deer meat, too! Well, when in Rome do as the Romans do, I reckon.

My usual mascot promoting "Dark Nights."
And so, we hung out in the lodge till the Sun was long gone. Outside, Len Philpot pointed out the only light dome visible around the horizon was miniscule. Far smaller than what we’d had at Feliciana and certainly minor compared to what Percy Quin’s sky must be like today (it’s near what is now verging on a small city, McComb, Mississippi). I suspected the sky would have been great if it had been clear. Which it wasn’t. Since it was obvious there wouldn’t even be sucker holes, I said my goodnights and headed back to the room where Dorothy was already relaxing.

The good thing? While the Wi-Fi was not exactly strong outside the lodge, it was strong enough in our room for my Macintosh Airbook M2 to pull in YouTube with ease. I spent the evening looking at whatever whack-a-doodle videos my heart desired until it was nigh-on ten o’clock.

In the morning, another cloudy morning, Dorothy and I showered, dressed, and said our farewells. There were to be talks Friday, but we’d decided it would be best to get back down Highway 98 before the weather worsened. Barry was already planning on finishing up with all the talks and the prize drawings as well that afternoon. Which was wise—the field was already practically empty, and it was clear few folks would hang on till Saturday, much less the official end of DSSG Sunday morning.

As we pulled away from White Horse, was I sad to be leaving? Well, sort of. I was happy to have seen my old buddies again. But…leaving a clouded-out star party just doesn’t have the same feel—that wistful regret—you get when departing one that’s had nights and nights of deep space voyaging. Well, maybe next fall.  Maybe even this coming spring (Deep South still does its smaller Spring Scrimmage edition).

Thursday, October 19, 2023


Issue 597: The Big Eclipse


Well, in a small way, muchachos. Not that it wasn’t a fairly big deal, but it hadn’t assumed much prominence in my reckonings in the days before the event. Saturday morning’s annular eclipse had been somewhat on your ol’ Uncle’s mind, of course. How could it not be? Every weatherman, local and national, had been talking about little else for the last week. And yet, and yet…  I felt unmoved. Yes, it would be a fairly deep eclipse, around 75% of Sol’s face would be covered by Miss Hecate in the environs of Possum Swamp…but…yeah, just another partial eclipse.

Anyhoo, Eclipse morning, I wasn’t thinking much about the Sun; I was thinking more about my current addiction: breakfast biscuits, fried chicken breakfast biscuits slathered in honey sauce. “Guess I’ll head up to Whataburger for breakfast with the hams like I do every Saturday.” In addition to my guilty pleasure, those dadgum biscuits, I am the president of the Mobile Amateur Radio Club and feel like it’s part of my job to attend every edition of the Saturday morning assemblage of OMs and YLs—the fried chicken is just a perk (uh-huh).

It was a jolly gathering at Whataburger that morning. Everybody was awful excited about the Swains Island DXpedition, which had been causing quite the stimulation of the HF ether. But, also, the solar eclipse, which would begin about 90 minutes from the time the nice li’l girl brought Unk his breakfast tray.

Hams and astronomy? There are lots of amateur radio operators who are also amateur astronomers. Radio propagation depends on the Sun, so most hams have a natural interest in it. More than that, amateur radio is a scientific hobby, and hams tend to be curious about things like, yeah, The Great Out There. Question a ham and you’ll often find she/he has a telescope. A dealer at our last tailgater, Bud’s Tailgator, had a couple of scopes for sale, smallish Meades, and they generated a heck of a lot of interest. “Rod! What do you think of this one?”

Our efforts and success or lack thereof in working Swains Island in the South Pacific (I got him without much trouble on CW) talked over at fair length, the ragchewing turned to ECLIPSE, ECLIPSE, ECLIPSE. I grumbled it was just an annular eclipse, and a partial one at that from the Gulf Coast. Nothing to get excited about. My friends looked at me as if I were crazy, “But W4NNF, it’s a solar eclipse!”

Unfortunately, I reckon I got off on a bad foot when it comes to solar eclipses just over 50 years ago. I am talking about the great total eclipse of March 1970.  Not only would it be a deep partial one for Possum Swamp, over 90%, the path of totality wouldn’t be far away. It would pass relatively near here in fact, the path going right through this little town on the Florida – Georgia Parkway, Chiefland, Florida (!).

The "pinhole effect."
Now, I didn’t know a thing about Chiefland; it was just a spot on the map. I certainly had no inkling one day there’d be such a thing as the Chiefland Astronomy Village there or that I’d spend many a night under the stars on a Chiefland observing field. All I knew was it was on Highway 19/98, Highway 98 could be picked up right across the Bay, and the map I got at the Gulf Station indicated there were motels there. What if…what if…  What if I got in my 1962 Ford Galaxie and headed for Chiefland to observe the eclipse? Hell, maybe even to take pictures of it. It would be a real eclipse expedition just like the pros did!

While I had enough money saved up from my various endeavors—mostly lawn mowing—to pay for gas and maybe even enough for a cheap motel room, one impediment remained—the old man. OK, no use holding back; nothing to it but to do it. I apprised W4SLJ of my plans for the eclipse expedition.

His reaction? I feared it would be the same as the previous month, when I’d asked if I could borrow $24.95 for a Gotham Vertical antenna for WN4NNF: “Daddy," I'd said, waving a copy of 73 Magazine under his nose, "It says right here in the ad it will let me work plenty of DX!”  

I was correct. When I paused for breath THIS TIME after pouring out my eclipse plans, he gave a me a look that indicated he was momentarily speechless and/or concerned his peculiar young son had finally taken complete leave of his senses. He grabbed me by the shoulder and led me outside to the driveway where my prized Galaxie was parked.

“For crying out loud, you are going to drive six or eight hours on Highway 98 with this? Look at those tires!  I’m surprised when you go into the gas station and ask for a dollar’s worth that the attendant doesn’t ask ‘Gas or oil?’ No. I’m guessing you wouldn’t get halfway there. And I’d have to take a day off work to come and retrieve you and figure out what to do with this—junker.” Said he, looking over at my poor Ford and shaking his head.

To soften the blow, he patted me on the shoulder. “Sorry coach. That’s the way it is. Say, you want to put up an HF vertical? Let’s build you one. I’ve got some aluminum tubing here somewhere, and we’ll put together a loading coil.” And that was that.  I was frankly embarrassed I’d troubled the OM, who usually maintained a calm if serious demeanor indicative of his European heritage. I imagined daddy was a lot like Enrico Fermi must have been. Yes, I was embarrassed and had no intention of bringing the subject up again.

The coda on the big spring eclipse of 1970? The OM was mostly right. Oh, I still wonder if the Galaxie might not have made it there and back in one piece…but it wouldn’t have made any difference. It was cloudy in Chiefland. And it was cloudy up here on the Northern Gulf Coast. The way I remember it, I didn’t get a glimpse of the eclipsed Sun that day.

The above somewhat bitter memory did pass through my mind at breakfast, but, on the other hand, no eclipse I’ve ever actually been able to see has, yes, failed to move me. Anyway, I was brought back to the present by the excited chirping of my fellow ops about the cardboard box solar viewers they had ready to go—I’d printed instructions on safe solar viewing and plans for a pinhole viewer in the radio club’s weekly newsletter.

I looked at my watch. 9:30 had come and gone and the eclipse would begin at 10:37. I announced we’d all better get a move on, and we headed for the doors nearly en masse—no doubt to the astonishment of the Whataburger crew.

Back home, I couldn’t deny it; a bit of the ol’ eclipse fever was setting in. If you want heresy, lunar eclipses have always meant more to me than solar ones. Maybe because of the events surrounding a memorable one early in my astronomy career. But, like the ops had said, “’NNF, it’s an eclipse!”  Having not prepared in advance for this one, there wouldn’t be any fancy telescopes or cameras. I grabbed my humble 80mm SkyWatcher refractor, Eloise, and headed for the backyard. I plunked her down on the driveway in a spot with a good view to the east, slapped the Thousand Oaks solar filter over her objective end, and was ready.

iPhone 14 Sun.
And soon it began, Luna creeping across the solar disk. As partial eclipses go, this would be a good-looking one. We are at a time of high solar activity here in Cycle 25. It’s been wild for months, and we are not at max yet—some fellers are saying this solar cycle might rival the legendary Cycle 19 for activity. That meant the solar disk was peppered by sunspots including one impressively large group. I reckoned it would be especially purty in a hydrogen alpha scope. Alas, your stingy Unk doesn’t have one of those. The Thousand Oaks filter did produce a beautiful yellow-orange Sun, however.

What was it like? Yes, any solar eclipse is an experience, one that isn’t duplicated by looking at photos of one. For one thing, looking at the Moon blotting out the Sun always gives me a real feeling for the depth of the sky. The Moon, our nearby pal, passing in front of far more distant Sol…I almost get a feeling of vertigo and the view in the eyepiece seems to assume almost the look of 3D.

Feeling that semi-vertigo, I pulled away from the eyepiece for a moment and thought, “Hell, this is a GOOD ONE. Oughta take a picture.” How? Just with my cell phone. I recalled I’d purchased a smartphone mount, a plastic widget that clamps your phone onto an eyepiece, to use when I was writing a Sky &Telescope Test Report on a SkyWatcher reflector and ran inside to fetch it.

With a little fiddling, I got the iPhone 14 set up and starting taking little snapshots. I didn’t expect much, just a souvenir of the day, but the iPhone 14 Pro Max does have a surprisingly good and versatile camera as phone cameras go, and I was able to get a couple of OK snapshots despite my excited fumbling.

With eclipse maximum upon us, I ran inside to get Miss Dorothy so she could have a look (and also document Unk’s uber-simple setup). Soon that eerie semi-twilight that comes with a deep partial eclipse set in, and the world was silent and still for a while. And we looked and we looked and we looked until the Moon passed on in her timeless path. It was a good one y’all and I was happy to have seen it.

Next time:  Shortly, I should have finished my yearly M13 image quest (I would have done that this evening but for dratted clouds moving in in advance of a mild front). So that will—knock on wood—be my subject next edition.  


Saturday, September 30, 2023


Issue 596: My Favorite Star Parties


Miss Dorothy and Friend, 1994...
This one was intended to recount my efforts taking my traditional yearly astrophoto of the Great Globular, M13 in Hercules, y’all. That didn’t happen. It wasn’t weather that prevented it, but equipment snafus.  You’ll learn more about that in the near future, muchachos. But as you know, sometime back I swore I would not let a month pass without a fresh article for the Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp.

What did I start thinking about as I was pondering what to write about here? Star parties. Why? Well it is definitely and obviously the fall star party season in the Northern Hemisphere. There was more to it than that, however. Mostly, how much I miss the star party experience. I haven’t been to one in, oh, about four years.

“Whyzat, Unk, whyzat, huh?”  A couple of reasons, Scooter. The biggest one being covid. 2020 wasn’t any year to gather with a bunch of people even if you tried to keep your distance. 2021 wasn’t either. 2022, the supposed last year of the plague? I had a relatively mild case late that year and I am not anxious to get it again. But… 

I sure got sick of the fracking lockdown and am glad to be back teaching undergraduates in person. Dorothy and I made it through this year’s big Huntsville Hamfest no problem…so, what's to worry? Yes, I can still get skittish about crowds. But I think that is psychological more than anything else, and I can shake it off as I did at Huntsville.

That ain’t all that’s kept me off the star party trail, though. A combination of health issues and me getting older is maybe more the reason I haven’t been back to an observing field than fear of the covid cooties. Miss Dorothy and I made a short trip the other day, to Biloxi, Mississippi, and I realized I was just…I dunno…hesitant about driving I-10. I felt shaky behind the wheel. Of course, that is probably just that I haven’t driven long distances much thanks to the combination of retirement and the virus. I’m thinking I could get more comfortable with it again—though never like in the days of my two-hour daily Interstate commutes.

Anyhow, thinking about these things just naturally led me to thinking about the wonderful star parties I’ve attended. I became a regular at the game about 30 years ago. Oh, I’d been to a couple before that, but wasn’t a regular star-partier. By the 2000s, though, I was star party crazy and you could find me on observing fields from sea to shining sea, both observing the sky and speaking before the assembled multitudes. In fact, I did so many star parties as a speaker in 2016 that a dear friend said in retrospect that that long spring and summer was Uncle Rod’s Farewell Tour.

Maybe, maybe not. I am thinking about the Deep South Star Gaze in November as a way of dipping my toe back in—we shall see. And who knows what the new year will bring? I know I’m interested in going again. But I will only go if I want to. If I know it will be fun.

Be that as it may, over the years I have naturally accumulated some favorites when it comes to star parties, and I thought I would share them with you this morning. As in the old series of articles, My Favorite Star Parties I ran for a long time, “favorite” doesn’t necessarily mean “best.” Sometimes it does…but mostly these are the ones where your ol’ Unk just had him a Real Good Time.

Deep South Regional Star Gaze

This event is still ongoing, now being called the “Deep South Star Gaze.” So why do I refer to it by its older name? I’ve had good times at this Mississippi/Louisiana event for three solid decades, but I believe I loved it best when it was in its original home at beautiful Percy Quin State Park near McComb, Mississippi.

Why is this one of my great ones? I’ll fess up that is mostly because it was the first star party I went to with my beautiful new bride, Miss Dorothy, way back in 1994. But that’s not the only reason. Another is it is focused on observing. Oh, there’ve been talks and occasional contests over the years, but what everybody is out for at this star party is observing. It’s also that I’ve been so many times over the years my fellow attendees have become genuine friends. I will also admit it’s also been wonderful to have a good star party just around the corner, less than three hours from home.

How is it now? I’ll just have to go to find out, won’t I? While the star party is in its fourth home, and while I still miss Percy Quin, I admit I have had terrific times at all of the DSRSG’s locations.  Stay tuned…

Chiefland Star Party

This one is long gone. Oh, various people have tried to revive it a time or two. And a semi-Chiefland was held fairly recently when a hurricane caused the Winter’s Star Party’s usual home to be unavailable one year. I will make no bones about it:  I loved the Chiefland Star Party. Expansive observing field. Motels and (good) restaurants close at hand. Often outstanding skies. Hell, they had wireless internet on the field years ago.

The straight poop on Chiefland? It was held year after year in the first decade of this new century at the Chiefland Astronomy Village near, natch, Chiefland, Florida. Other folks loved it, too, for the above reasons, and also for the incredible friendliness and welcoming attitude of the CAV residents. Maybe we loved it too much. The attendance became so large it overwhelmed the facilities (like porta-potties) and caused various headaches for the residents.

In addition to the WSP year, there’ve been several revivals of the CSP. In fact, I was at one of the last organized ones. But…while it was a good enough star party…it just wasn’t the same. How could it be? The original movers and shakers at Chiefland have like all of us grown older. Billy and Alice Dodd are gone, have passed away. My old friend Carl Wright has left us as well. Others, like the heart and soul of Chiefland, Tom and Jeannie Clark, moved away years ago. I’m thinking I’ll have to be content with my memories. I won’t lie, though:  If somebody decided to put on a CSP in the old mode, your Uncle would be SOUTHBOUND.

Texas Star Party

There’s got to be a number one in everything, ain’t there? There are other events that might lay claim to the title of “The Greatest” when it comes to star parties, like Stellafane or the (now gone) Riverside. Most active observers will admit, however, that when it comes to deep sky pedal-to-the-metal, The Texas Star Party is it.

How could it not be? Where is it? Near Fort Davis Texas. Where is that? Go west till you almost run out of Texas. There’s little there other than the picturesque town of Fort Davis, McDonald Observatory, and, yeah, the Prude Ranch. Sometimes it doesn’t rain for months and months. The dude ranch where the event is held is dark, oh, it’s real dark, folks. It’s so dark the sky is that dark gray color it assumes when there is no light pollution. The Prude Ranch is also very nice, the food great, and if you want to meet the big names in amateur astronomy, you will meet them there.

I am proud to say I was at Prude Ranch twice (as an unassuming attendee, not a speaker or anything). It was wonderful. I’ll never forget it. I haven’t been back, though. It’s such a long way. When Dorothy and I were at the height of our careers, there wasn’t time. Now that I’m retired? As above, the idea of that long of a trip on crazy I-10 is a non-starter with moi.

Almost Heaven Star Party

If you haven’t heard of this one, you should have. It’s another Real Dark One with outstanding facilities. It is held on Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia, at the Mountain Institute facility there. Do you long for dark, DARK skies (only compromised, of course, by our weather east of the Mississip)? Do you want to sleep in a wooden yurt? Hear great speakers? Go. Just go. You’ll thank me later.

I have been at Spruce Knob many times thanks to the kindness of a couple of sets of organizers (associated with Washington DC’s outstanding NOVAC) who had me up as a speaker. God knows why they’d want to hear your silly Uncle more than once, but I’m glad they did. I would dearly love to go back. As with TSP, what has prevented me post-pandemic is my physical ailments brought on by the accident I had in 2019. An airplane ride from the ‘Swamp to DC (and a car ride from there to West Virginny) just doesn’t seem doable. Well, it hasn’t seemed so. Maybe next year will be different. Sure hope so…

Five Star Final

Those are my big four, y’all.  But there are other greats, some of which I only got to experience once. The Idaho Star Party is sure one. Dark, I mean CRAZY dark—topped off by folks who instantly became friends. One of the nicest times I’ve ever had and another of the friendliest groups I’ve encountered is the Miami Valley Astronomical Society (in Ohio, not Florida), who put on the Apollo Rendezvous. You want to get out of the heat, meet some great observers, and experience truly dark skies? Try the North Woods Starfest (Chippewa Valley Astronomy Society) in Wisconsin. Their star party at Hobbs Observatory is just….well, it’s fab, y’all, fab, I tell you.

Next time? Keep your fingers crossed for Unk to get some hours with M13…

Tuesday, August 29, 2023


Issue 595: A New Way to Autostar Part II


Well, muchachos, don’t ever say your old Uncle doesn’t love you. It was hot—90F well after sunset—it was humid. There was a bad something brewing out in the Gulf. Nevertheless, I did not shy from the accomplishment of my goals. I wanted to get out and finish testing Digital Optica’s new Bluetooth module for the Meade Autostar. Secondly, I have resolved not to let a single month go by without an update to this here old blog, so I had to do something so I could write about something.

So it was on one recent passable, though far from good, evening I got my ETX125PE, Miss Charity Hope Valentine, out into the backyard. No, the sky wasn’t good at all. A gibbous Moon was shining bravely in the east, but one look at her and I knew there was a layer of haze encompassing at least that part of the sky. And despite Sweet Charity not being much of a handful to set up, I was sweatin’ by the time I was done getting her on her tripod. I quickly retired to the den to cool off and await darkness.

As those of y’all who’ve observed with me know, however, when there is observing on the menu your old Unk tends to get Go Fever. I fidgeted on the couch for a while, tried to watch the boob tube (Ahsoka), then went back outside to Charity to see how things was a-goin’.

They were going just a mite slow. Yes, here at the tail-end of August it is getting dark a little—a little—earlier, but we won’t see much improvement on that score till dadgum Daylight Savings Time ends. So, I fiddled around, repositioning the eyepiece case, opening it up and looking inside to make sure my fave 1.25-inch ocular was still in there (a Konig I’ve had for almost 30 years), and taking an occasional gander at the sky.  I didn’t like the way it looked, but reckoned it was better than nuthin’. I did precious little observing last month, and August has been even worse in that regard. One good thing:  It has been strangely dry the last few weeks and there were no skeeters buzzing.

Maybe it was thinking about that Konig that somehow led me to ruminating on my long-ago Chaos Manor South nights. Those who haven’t been with this here blog for long might not know what “Chaos Manor South” is (or was). Well, it was the old Victorian Manse where Unk lived with Miss Dorothy from the time of our marriage till about a decade ago, when Unk retired and he and D. decided they no longer needed the space the stately manor offered, nor wanted to do the upkeep it required.

Oh, those long-ago nights under the stars in an urban backyard! Yes, the light pollution was heavy. The Milky Way was utterly invisible—well you might catch the merest glimpse of it on a cold and clear December’s eve. I could make out M31 naked eye on any reasonable night, but that was as good as it got. I didn’t care. I was in astro-heaven. As recounted here, not only had the lovely Miss Dorothy recently come into my life, so had Old Betsy, a 12-inch Meade StarFinder Dobsonian. She was the largest telescope I’d ever owned, and I was amazed at what and how much I could see with her from downtown Possum Swamp.

An evening of observing would begin with me dodging cats. Chaos Manor South’s resident Siamese cat (and queen, she thought), Miss Sue Lynn would watch as I began to gather the things I needed for an observing run and would resolutely insist I needed her help. I had a horror of her wandering off in the dark. And being downtown, there was enough traffic to make that a real hazard for her. So, I’d bribe her with a can of Fancy Feast and somehow try to get that enormous old OTA outside before she wised up (in those days, Betsy was still in her original Sonotube body, and it was like wrestling with a water heater).

With Old Betsy in our small urban backyard, what else did I need? The observing table (a TV tray) held the very same old black plastic Orion eyepiece box full of 1.25-inchers I had outside with Charity on this evening. Inside it? Some treasured Plössls from Orion and Vixen, the utterly horrible “Modified Achromats” that shipped from Meade with Bets (why I didn’t just toss them in the trash I don’t know—that bad), and of course, that lovely 17mm Konig I bought at the 1993 Deep South Regional Star Gaze.

This was long before I began using a laptop computer in the field with a telescope. At the time, a laptop was still an expensive thing. It gave me the heebie-jeebies to think about subjecting one to Possum Swamp’s dew-laden night air. I was using a computer (a genu-wine IBM 486) for amateur astronomy though. I’d print out charts from two of the greatest astro-programs there ever were: David Chandler’s Deep Space 3D, and Emil Bonanno’s Megastar. Both are more or less forgotten relics of the amateur astronomy past (DS3D never even made the transition from DOS to Windows), but both could produce very beautiful, very detailed, very deep printed charts.

You might think it funny I’d need detailed charts for a light-polluted urban sky. But in those days, they were actually more valuable to me there than they were under dark skies. As you know, higher magnification tends to spread out light pollution, revealing objects that might be invisible at lower powers. Often, I’d star-hop in an area like the Virgo Cluster with the main scope. I would, as I called it, eyepiece hop with my treasured 12mm Nagler Type II and those DS3D or Megastar printouts.

Of course, I needed wider field guidance—charts—as well. What I used then was the old Desk Edition (black stars on a white sky) of the esteemed Wil Tirion’s Sky Atlas 2000. I’ve tried ‘em all, campers, e’en the vaunted Millennium Star Atlas, but I still do not think there is a better tool for getting you in the general vicinity of your target than SA2000 Desk (though the much more recent Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition is a close second).

What else was out there with me as a slight chill descended on a mid-autumn urban evening? If I was being serious, I had some blank observing forms and a sketchpad, pencils, and pens to record what I saw of the urban sky. Not so serious? Just my Orion astronomer’s flashlight (the yellow one with—gasp—an incandescent flashlight bulb powered by two D-cells). Those were the simple days, weren’t they? Of late, at least when it comes to backyard astronomy, I seem to be pining for them.

And then…  I’d just pick a constellation in the clear from the huge old oaks that blocked much of it and see how deep I could drill down. A typical project (I’ve always liked observing projects)? Observe every single open cluster Betsy and me could see in Cassiopeia (there are a few). Whatever I looked at, it was wonderful.

Said ruminations came to a halt when I realized it was finally getting good and dark, and no matter how much I missed The Old Way, it was time to concentrate on new-fangled stuff like Bluetooth

Well, alrighty then. As I mentioned in Part I, the Digital Optica Bluetooth Module is impressive. It snaps onto the bottom of the Autostar hand paddle and honestly looks like it came out of the same factory that produced Charity. Module plugged into the Autostar, and hand control cable plugged into it and into Charity, it was time to get aligned.

The ETX PE provides a semi-automatic goto alignment routine that makes it a joy to use. Put the tube in home position (level and rotated counterclockwise to the hard azimuth stop), turn the girl on, and she does a little dance, finding north and level. That done, she heads for two alignment stars, bright stars. You center them with the red-dot finder and in the main eyepiece (I use an ancient Kellner equipped with crosshairs) and you are done. Charity’s gotos were good all night, as I expected them to be, since she’d stopped close to both alignment stars.

Next up, I went inside to fetch the laptop I’ve used for astronomy the last several years. A nice Lenovo with a solid-state hard drive. On said drive being more astro-ware than humans should be allowed to have. What I intended to use on this summer night would be my favorite in my current “simpler” days, Stellarium. It is really a capable program now, containing many thousands of deep sky objects. It certainly does everything this old boy can even dream of needing to do.

As I said last time, use the instructions that came with the Digital Optica module only as a rough guide when it comes to Stellarium. You don’t have to select the module or Bluetooth from within the program. All you need do is pair the widget to your computer just like you would a Bluetooth speaker or any other Bluetooth device (you will find the Autostar module is called “ScopeAccess”).

With it successfully paired, the rest is duck soup if you’ve ever used Stellarium with a telescope. In Stellarium’s scope-set up menu, establish an Autostar connection; you will see there is a com port (like “com 3”) now associated with ScopeAccess. Choose that, click “connect,” and you should be, well, connected. The Stellarium software is savvy enough to establish a serial connection over Bluetooth for you; you don’t have to know anything about any of that—thankfully. Once you are connected, the scope is controlled exactly the same as if you had a serial cable between scope and computer—no difference.

What is the bottom line on Digital Optica Bluetooth device? It works. It just works. It never dropped out on me or did anything funny. There were no delays when I’d choose an object in Stellarium and issue a goto command. If you didn’t know the scope and computer were connected by radio, you’d think you had a serial cable plugged in. I think that is the most praise I can give any observing tool—it worked well, and it worked simply and transparently. Note that the module does not require you to use Stellarium. Any program you can connect to a telescope over a serial port should work just fine. I just like Stellarium. It’s pretty and it is cheap.

“But what did you look at, Unk? What did you look at, huh?”  I looked at quite a few things. Beginning with M3 and M13 and M53. Which almost ended my evening. One gaze at the Great Globular in Hercules and I near about threw the Big Switch, “Hell, it don’t look worth a flip tonight.” But then I thought back to those ancient nights at Chaos Manor South. What would I have done then?

I knew the answer very well. I’d tell myself, “Wait. Concentrate. Look some more. Spend plenty of time with the object. Increase the magnification. Try a different eyepiece. You will only see if you look.” Indeed, following those old strictures I began to see. "Dang! There are some stars in M3! Wonder if I can pick up some in M13 with a 5-inch on a punk night? Yep, takes 200x, but I’m seeing ‘em. M92? Stars, yay!” And so it went till the night grew old (it did not grow cold, alas), and I had finally had enough of the deep sky. Well, enough for one late August’s eve.

As for the Digital Optica Bluetooth widget (well, “module,” or “transceiver” if you prefer). It works. End of story. Game over. Zip up your fly. If you think you’d prefer connecting wirelessly to the scope rather than having a cord you will inevitably trip over for your Autostar equipped Meade, just to get you one. The price sure is right.

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