Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Who Wants a 66mm Telescope?

66 millimeters? You mean 66 millimeters of telescope aperture? You’re joking, right, Unk? What good is that?

“Not much” would’ve been most amateurs' answer back in the days of the Dobsonian revolution. But if you’ve looked around you recently on the club or star party observing field, you’ve probably noticed that smaller aperture telescopes, mostly refractors, have made a dramatic comeback. Yeah, you still see some honking-monster Starmasters and Obsessions, but you’re also seeing far more SCTs, MCTs and, yrs, refractors of late.

Why? Because many amateurs have decided that, while aperture is a very important thing, it’s not the only thing. A portable--not merely transportable--telescope on an accurately driven goto mount has a lot going for it, even if you have to sacrifice some (or a lot) of aperture. That’s what I am hearing from quite a few scope-savvy boys and girls, anyway.

SCTs and MCTs? Y’all know how I feel about them, but what’s my take on small refractors, color-free APO refractors? It’s no surprise APOs are popular and that their popularity shows no sign of abating, especially now that you can obtain very well-made (Chinese) apochromat OTAs in the 60 – 80mm range for prices in the half-a-grand category or less. These little telescopes are finely made and super portable, things that tend to appeal to quite a few folks, especially as they hit late middle age. Small APOs have multiple uses, and almost any observer will find one is good for something. In fact, the only real bar to the appeal of these little apochromats heretofore has been the many $$$ required before you could get your hands on one.

Now, even for the cheapskates among us (like your Ridiculous Old Uncle), excellent 80mm apochromats are beginning to replace the ubiquitous 80mm short-tube achromats we’ve loved so much and used so much over the last seven or eight years. Who’s the real star of the Chinese apochromat show, however? The 66mm. That’s right; suddenly everybody seems to want a 2.6-inch telescope.

2.6-inches? Who wants a scope that small? Well, to learn the whole consarned, dad-blasted story of why you should want a 66mm APO , you’ll have to wait for me to finish my in-depth review of the William Optics 66mm pictured above riding on my C8, but, just to whet your appetite…

I got a chance to tote this elegant looking little scope out to our club dark site located near the metropolis of Tanner-Williams, Alabama this past Saturday night. It was a muggy evening, that’s for sure, just like you’d expect in late August down on the Gulf Coast. Nevertheless, the Milky Way was dramatic away from the Possum Swamp light-dome, and the summer deep sky beckoned in the heavy air.

This was the first time I’d had a chance to really use the 66, and I wasted no time pointing it in the direction of the countless burnished wonders crammed into Sagittarius. What was the experience of using a small, medium focal ratio (about f/7) scope like? Frankly, I came away amazed.

Yes, it is just 66mm, but those are 66 finely made millimeters. Despite a not-inconsiderable reduction in aperture when compared to my dear little Synta Short Tube 80, the WO easily outperformed that scope, showing stars, or at least graininess, in quite a few globulars, and not just M22. Anything but 22 basically turns up as a fuzzball in the ST80. Bright stars? Dang. In focus or out of focus either way, no spurious color did I see. Weight and size-wise, the WO 66 Zenithstar APO is just about a perfect match for a C8.

One thing to remember? The images, astrophotographic images, in a 66mm refractor will be no dimmer than those in a 200mm aperture telescope. The only difference is that the 66mm will display a much wider field.

Have I made you anxious to learn more about this wee scope? If I have…hope your Old Uncle gets some clear star partying weather over the next month or two, weather that will allow him to really put the 66 through her paces (and maybe even use her for an astrophoto or two).

Stay tuned, Muchachos...

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Celestron's SkyScout: Uhhh! What is it Good for?

Absolutely Nuthin’?

That was my initial impression when I heard about the Celestron SkyScout “star finder” a year or so ago, muchachos. Oh, the concept sounded interesting, I'll grant: take an enclosure about the size of a small camcorder and equip it with a GPS receiver, a digital compass, and a level sensor. The user points it at “something” in the sky, a star, a planet, whatever, and the little gadget identifies said object, both on an LCD display window and via audio. The audio spiel doesn’t just say “Sirius,” either, it includes a nice commentary on the star (and many other objects). Add a “Locate” mode that guides users to chosen objects, nightly tours, constellation stick figure displays, and the ability to upgrade the firmware with a USB connection and add new features via an SD card slot, and, yeah, you’ve got a right interesting little device.

Then I saw the price, $399.00, which gave me pause, you'd better believe it, Bubba. No, 399 ain’t that much in these affluent times (to you, maybe, anyway), but as I began ruminating about the utility of the device, this price seemed to attain larger and larger significance. Given the capabilities of the SkyScout, I imagine a prime target audience of “12 and under” along with some older teens. This audience probably would enjoy the SkyScout (for a while, anyway), but I would guess their parents, even those somewhat free with money when it comes to iPods and Xbox 360s, might balk at opening their purses and wallets one more time given the limited utility of the SkyScout. While I wouldn't say an Xbox has much educational value, it does have enduring fascination for the young set. and it darned sure will get used (admission: I like it too).

So, the bottom line? The "catch" when it comes to the SkyScout is that it is not a telescope (think TELRAD, no light gathering power). Given this overriding fact, it seems to me the SkyScout will be of  limited interest to amateur astronomers, or even to the lollipop set: "Well, this here pinpoint is Sirus, this one is Rigel, this one is Saturn, and I think I am now going inside and play Halo III.” Sure, I admit the average teen or amateur astronomer could have a lot of fun with this for a few nights, but, no, I’m not convinced of its enduring appeal and hence value at this price.

At $199.00 this would be an incredible buy for anybody; just for the built-in GPS receiver.

However, your old Uncle Rod must admit he has not yet seen a SkyScout in person, much less used one. Maybe I’m missing something. One thing I do know? Folks are snapping up SkyScouts like beer and peanuts at the ballpark. Celestron's little gadget, I’m told, is backordered and is being sold on eBay for $599.00 e’en as I speak. Is it the next Cabbage Patch Kids? Will parents be fighting over these things as Christmas approaches?

Me? I’m willing to be convinced. I suppose I could find some use for one of these (maybe helping me and the public get oriented at my star-poor urban star parties), but I am still shakin' my head. Maybe it’s just that, to this child of the 1960s, 400 George Washingtons is a lot of money!

Friday, August 11, 2006


Uncle Rod, What Am I Supposed to Bring to a Star Party?

Glad you asked, muchachos. The 2006 Fall Star Party Season will be here before we know it, and a lot of new star partiers are no doubt concerned/confused about exactly what and how much stuff they should pack. And I'm sure y'all are ready for a change of subject and are for sure tired of hearing me pick, pick, pick at poor old Meade.

When I'm going to be at a star party for several days as opposed to a single evening at a club dark site, I bring the following (well, some of it depending on the circumstances) in addition to scope, mount, eyepieces, dew-shield, DewBuster, laptop, cameras, battery, red flashlight, star atlas, etc.

Sufficient, suitable clothes and all the personal hygiene items needed for the length of the event. If it is likely to be cold, dress in layers. Pay particular attention to head and feet. Spreading a carpet square on the ground next to the scope will keep the footsies insulated from the cold, cold ground and will help a lot. The personal hygiene part of the equation should include vital things that are rarely furnished at a star party--like towels and soap. You might want to bring a roll of TP, too.

Desert storm type cover for the scope. Quite a few novices ask me if I take down my scope and put it in its case/the car every night at a star party. I give them my best "Are you kidding?" look and advise them to get a good scope cover that will protect the instrument from rain and sun.

Line/tent stakes to stake down the tripod if there is any chance--any--of high winds or thunderstorms. Staking down the tripod might not be a concern in most places, but at some, like the Texas Star Party at Prude ranch, it is a must.

Tent canopy (aka "EZ Up"). If these are allowed on the field, they are a godsend. Even in fairly northerly climes the sun can be brutal, even in the fall. One will also give you a place you can duck into to get out of the dew at night, and, if you're an imager, where you can sit comfortable and dry at the computer.

A canopy is a must for both sunny days and dewy nights.
Tent. I tend to eschew tents as I get older, but I will still sleep in one if there is absolutely no alternative; no accommodations onsite or nearby (my idea of "roughing it" is now the Holiday Inn Express in Chiefland, FL). If a tent it must be, err on the side of "too big" rather than "too small." You'll be much happier. The important thing in my experience is not so much floor space as height. If you can't stand up straight in a tent when changing clothes, etc., you are not gonna be a happy camper. I'd say "choose a tent that's easy to erect," but, luckily, most tents are pretty easy to set up these days.

Sleeping bags. Even if there are cabins and bunks onsite, I bring a sleeping bag. Much easier than messing with sheets and blankets. Make sure the bag you bring is suited for the temperature conditions you will face. If it's warm, don't bring a bag suited for sub-zero temps and vice-versa. And don't forget pillows for your poor noggin.

Ice chest and plenty of bottled water and whatever other beverages you may require (ahem). Always have plenty of water available, and don't forget to drink some occasionally while observing. If you get dehydrated, you WILL get tired. For that reason and others, save the RebelYell for dawn. Oh, and plenty of ice (unless it's available onsite).

Binoculars. I rarely use 'em on a club dark site evening, but I always wind up using them at a star party. Usually a pair of nice Canon 12x35s for Dorothy and some humble Burgess 15x70s for me. If you're an astrophotographer, what are you gonna do while the 2-hour imaging sequence is underway? You'll get tired of wandering the field.

Emergency eyepieces. I squirrel away a few "OK" oculars in the scope case just in case I ever forget the eyepiece case (was that too many "cases"?). Forget to bring any eyepieces and you'll be at the mercy of a vendor who will be only too glad to sell you a 25mm Kellner for fifty bucks.

Snacks for late-night consumption. I favor jerky and chocolate these days. Take a break at mid evening, eat a little, drink a cup of coffee, and stretch your legs with a ramble around the field. Do this every hour or so and you'll be surprised how easy it is to keep goin' till dawn.

A jump start battery is adequate for most goto scopes.
Plastic or paper cups.

Trash bags.

Paper towels.

A tool set, to include small hex wrenches (and, certainly, a hammer). Since most of us are using plenty of electronics on the field now, a multimeter, a soldering iron, solder, and a few other electronic maintenance items should go in your star party tool kit, too.

Tie wraps and bungie cords. These have innumerable uses on the observing field day and night.

A plastic tarp or two always come in handy. For one thing,  I sometimes like to set the scope up on a tarp. If I drop wee little things in the night they do not become lost in the grass. Bring some landscaping nails to stake down the tarp at its corners (tent stakes will stick up above the ground and you will be tripping over them all night long.

Coleman stove and coffee maker. Even if meals are available onsite or close at hand offsite, I sometimes bring a modern electrically lighted two-burner Coleman. If nothing else, one of the Coleman Mr. Coffee style makers that fits over the stove means you can make a thermos or two of fresh coffee at sundown (unless you can shield it, you do not want to fire up the Coleman after dark...the burners put out a surprising amount of light).

Camp/lawn chairs. I favor the folding canvas chairs that go in bags. I do bring one lawn-style chaise lounge, as both Miss Dorothy and I like to use that with binoculars.

Entertainment stuff (for use when it's cloudy or during the day). Books/magazines, etc. I also usually bring some DVDs that can be played on the laptop. I often bring a CD player/MP3 player to listen to while observing. Sometimes I use it; sometimes I don't. I don't usually listen to music early in the evening—I prefer to talk to my fellow observers, or just listen to the ambient nature sounds. Late in the evening as the field thins out, however, listening to CDs seems to help me keep going.

Batteries. Even if there is supposedly power on the field, I always bring plenty of 12v batteries The batteries you need will depend on what your equipment needs. I usually bring two automotive jump start packs. This has allowed me to operate normally when the field AC power was unavailable for some reason. Also, don't forget AAs, AAAs, etc. to serve as replacement batteries for flashlights, radios, etc.

DC-AC inverter. If there's the possibility you might have to run your computer off battery power and you don't have a 12vdc cord for the laptop, pack a good inverter (I have one of the little inverters from Harbor Freight that plugs directly into the cigarette lighter socket on a jump starter). Forget getting much time out of the laptop's onboard battery, especially if you're using a USB camera that needs power from the PC.

A good battery charger. If you're using something other than jump start packs (which come with charging cords) like a deep cycle marine battery, don't forget a good battery charger. I favor one of the heavy-duty computerized quick-charge jobs. They are surprisingly affordable.

An enclosure will keep your computer warm and dry.
Flashlights, at least one red one and one white one (or a red LED light that can be switched over to blue/white LEDs at the touch of a button). That will come in handy when you are off the field and walking back to the cabin or vehicle.

A long extension cord(s) and a multi receptacle power strip or similar. Make sure you bring enough cords to reach the field outlets. If you don't know how long the run will have to be, bring more extension cords than you think you will need.

Space heater. If it's toward the end of the season and I know I'll be staying in a drafty cabin, I bring a small, safe heater. I like the catalytic heaters sold by Coleman and others. As long as there is a little ventilation, they are quite safe. If I want comfort on the observing field, I'll tie-wrap tarps to my EZ Up to form walls and station my Black Cat heater at my feet.

Hand warmers. If we're moving into November and I think it's gonna be chilly, I bring some chemical handwarmer packs in addition to coats, gloves, etc.

Observing table. I usually use one of those folding camp tables, one that folds in the middle and is the size of two card tables (or larger). However, a card table can also work if you don't have much stuff.

Shield/enclosure for the laptop to keep dew off, keep the computer warm on cold nights,  and shield the screen (suitably red filtered, natch) from other observers' eyes. I made my own using Velcro and the plastic sign material (corrugated stuff) politicians use for their yard signs. A web site will turn up vendors of the material, and you can even choose among various colors.

Do I bring this much stuff all the time? No. If I'm flying in to speak at a star party, I just bring myself and maybe a pair of binocs. For a day or twoer, maybe half this much stuff. For a multi day affair (e.g. the Deep South Regional Star Gaze or Texas Star Party if I ever get back there), yes, all of it.

In recent times I've tended to reduce/minimize. A C8 on a GEM instead of a larger/fork mount scope. Small, disposable Styrofoam ice chest, no stove and coffee maker if there's decent coffee on site or a Micky D's in range, etc., etc. You should have seen what some buddies of mine and I took to the 1997 TSP (we rented the largest Ryder truck available), only to be mostly rained out. But back then I was young(er) and decidedly more foolish.

At any rate, keep a sense of perspective. You'll have to pack all that stuff back in your vehicle when the star party is over, and most of us want to make as quick a getaway as possible when the event is done. Anyhow, happy star partying!

Thursday, August 10, 2006


How Much Would You Pay for a Meade Catalog?

Well, how much, muchachos? What's one of the Irvine, California Telescope Company's glossy uber-full-color-100-plus-page extravaganzas worth to you? How about five bucks? Yep, Meade, whose new print catalog has been "in production" for at least a couple of years, proposes to sell you the new one for an Abraham Lincoln.

There's little doubt it's gonna be a nice catalog, sure. It's been the slickest pub of its kind amateur astronomy has ever seen (compare even the earliest editions to the pitiful brochures Celestron hands out).  I know many folks have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it over the years. I've gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it over the years. No, I've never really used it to make buying decisions, but it's provided a tremendous amount of reading pleasure as I've browsed through it while sitting on the...on the—well, you get the picture.

Since a new Meade Wishbook was long overdue, I was excited to see it announced on the company's webpage the other evening. Yeah, I was surprised, when I read more closely, to find that: 1) Meade is taking "pre orders" for the catalog; it's not actually available yet, and 2), they want you to send 'em your credit card number for the privilege of looking over their newest toys (and, to be honest, the pretty astrophotography of many of your Meade-using brothers and sisters, something, maybe, that's enough to make you decide five smakers ain't so much).

Actually, I wasn't exactly dumbfounded by this. The last time I talked to a Meade rep, he'd mentioned that the new regime at the company was troubled by the expense of creating the next edition of the legendary Meade monster of a catalog. All in all, I really wasn't put off or put out by their abject begging for a fin—I've often wondered how they can afford to produce these things.

But would I really give 'em a fiver for this? Prob'ly; all things are relative. Hell, y'all oughta see my bar tab from last weekend. No, it's not the fiver that troubles me; it's the image this scheme seems to present. 

Meade insiders have said the company's top management is aware of and concerned about the unfriendly image they have developed with some amateurs. OK. Good. But then this sell-the-catalog idea comes along and seems to say, "Send us your astrophotos, guys, and we'll be happy to put 'em in our advertisements and sell 'em back to you. Suckas!" Not very helpful to Meade given the current state of the telescope market, even if gleefully shaking us down is really not the intention.

What's most disturbing? for over a decade Meade had been the premier maker of telescopes in the World. Then, not long after the turn of the century, it seemed to begin struggling compared to a resurgent Celestron. And it's products--like the RCX, which now seems to be struggling (more on that soon)--do not seem to be a good as they once were.

Me? Yeah, I'm gonna send 'em my five bucks...well, maybe... I want there to be two healthy American telescope makers, and if one lousy Abe Lincoln helps ensure that, I am all for it. 

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Coronado Gone? Solar Observers Tell Uncle Rod: "We Told You So!"

If you have any interest in observing ol' Sol, especially or mainly at hydrogen alpha wavelengths, you've heard of Coronado Instruments, muchachos. Their Ha filters began making a big impact on amateur Solar observing several years ago. In fact, many amateurs and small colleges couldn't even dream of setting up a scope for hydrogen alpha work Before Coronado. "B.C.," Ha filters were expensive, difficult to use, and usually didn't deliver the kind of results amateurs dreamed of (images like those we saw from scanner-equipped pro scopes).

But then along came a little amateur astronomer-run company from Tuscon, Arizona, Coronado Instruments, a tiny outfit that began to sell some truly amazing gear. Imagine: Ha filters that didn't need to be plugged into a mains supply and fiddled with endlessly. Imagine razor sharp and detailed images of prominence and disk detail. Imagine being able to view in hydrogen alpha and not having to sell your firstborn to pay for it.

Coronado's initial output was amazing enough, but they did not stop there, oh, no. The Coronado filters and some dedicated Solar scopes, including 60 and 70mm refractors, impressed even the most jaded Sun-watchers, sure, but it was not until they introduced their "PST," Personal Solar Telescope, that Coronado really set daytime amateur astronomy on its ear.

The PST was in every sense a breakthrough. It was/is a 40mm refractor with a built in hydrogen alpha filter and performance similar to that of Coronado's earlier and larger scopes. The PST was advertised as being able to deliver stunning views of both prominences and disk detail, just like its big sisters.

There was one huge difference between the PST and Coronado's other Solar telescopes, however: price. Yeah, the approximately $3500.00 tab for the Coronado 60mm was OK compared to what we were used to paying to observe Mr. Sun in the deep red end of the spectrum. OK. But the $500.00 that Coronado began quoting as the price for a PST for literally astounded us. How could they possibly do it?

Amateur astronomer skepticism quickly turned to enthusiasm, however, when we got our first looks at the Sun through the little 40mm aperture thing. While disk detail may not have been as good as what a Coronado 60 or 70 could show, it was still very good indeed. And the PST's views of prominences, what many new observers are most interested in, were, frankly, just as good as what the more expensive models could do. Certainly much better than what many of the horrendously expensive hydrogen alpha filters the well-heeled used to slap on their Orange Tube C8s back in the bad old days.

Not to paint too much of a Jack Armstrong All American Boy picture. If I recall correctly, Coronado started life on the Isle of Man, and decamped for the greener pastures of Arizona once success began to come, leaving their original employees in the lurch.

ANYWAY, Things shortly began to look incredibly good for Coronado Instruments, with us members of the astronomy chattering classes predicting incredible success for them--at least in a small amateur astronomy sort of a way. Then, wouldn't you know it, dark clouds began to gather.

First and shockingly, Coronado was sold to Meade Instruments. I've always liked Meade equipment, but there's no use denying that many amateurs look on the California SCT maker as the Deathstar of the equipment biz. We were all just real surprised that Coronado would throw in the towel when it looked like the only way for them to go was up. This move became a little less surprising when we learned that Coronado's founder, David Lunt, was seriously ill.

Following David's death in January 2005, Coronado fans began to wonder what would happen. Would Meade close the company's little plant? Move production to China? Me? I told everybody who'd listen I doubted that would happen. Coronado had become very well respected among amateur astronomers, and respect is something that's hard to beg, borrow, or buy. Especially, it seems, for Meade these days. Wasn't the respect and admiration the Coronado name had engendered in its short life worth a lot to the Irvine bunch?

When it became clear (or seemed to) that Coronado would stay in Tucson where it could continue to take advantage of its (second set of) dedicated employees and also the resources of the Tucson optical community, everybody relaxed a little. Meade said they wouldn't move the company, and that sounded believable now. Like Uncle Rod said, "Why kill the goose that laid the golden egg of the Sun?" Surely Meade understood that. They seemed to. At least, Coronado stayed where it was and the quality of the filters was as good as ever.


Until Meade began, apparently, running into escalating financial difficulties. What that meant for their Coronado "division" became clear in a July 27, 2006 news release. In addition to some mumbling about cutbacks and layoffs (excuse me,"RIGHTSIZING"), the following paragraph was included:

"The Company also reported the planned closure and consolidation of its Coronado(R) Instruments manufacturing and distribution facility in Tucson, Arizona, which will result in an additional estimated decrease of $800,000 in annualized operating costs. This consolidation will eliminate 16 employees by August 31, 2006. All Coronado operations are being consolidated into the Company's Irvine facility, with no associated increase in SG&A expense expected for that facility. "

What more can I say at this point? I do hope Meade will continue to produce excellent filters under the Coronado name, filters David Lunt would be proud of. Do I believe Meade will? I'd like to say "yes," but after being proven wrong once in a big way, I'm gonna wipe the egg off my face and wait and see what goes on in Irvine (or Taiwan). 

I would like to have a PST of my own. I'm not a huge solar observer, but I am interested in the Sun in the context of my amateur radio obsession. Still, I shall wait and see and decry that, once again, by being stingy, Unk waited too long and missed the proverbial boat.

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