Sunday, June 29, 2008


The Trouble with the Magazines

If you’re an American amateur astronomer, you won’t have to ask what I am talking about when I say “the magazines.” You know I mean Sky & Tlescope and Astronomy. These very special publications have not just served up information for our little community for a Real Long Time (over seven decades in the case of S&T and going on four for Astronomy); they’ve continually defined and redefined the nature of amateur astronomy as practiced in the good, ol’ U.S. of A. I might even go so far as to say that between the two of ‘em these rags practically invented amateur astronomy. That beingthe case, it’s sad to report both these storied publications seem to be in decline.

When it began a few years back, the changes were small and incremental--but steady. Cheaper paper. Fewer pages. No mailing wrappers. Not that the lack of a protective outer wrap or the customary plastic bag was a huge deal. I didn’t even mind S&T’s new, odd, semi-glossy stock too much when it came. Nor Astronomy’s still glossy but oh-so-thin pages. I wasn’t over-perturbed when Sky & Telecope abandoned the “perfect binding” they’d used for years to return to the earlier stapled paradigm. But when both magazines began to shrink, Sky and ‘Scope going from 130 pages or so (I ran across one that clocked in at 150) to around 100 and Astronomy from well over 100 to a very skinny 80-something, this old boy sat up and took notice, you betcha. And began to get a little scared.

Scared? Yep, and I ain’t exagerating neither. Back in The Day Sky & Telescope was amateur astronomy for me. Sure, there was the informal little club me and my teenaged buddies got up, but most of what (little) we knew came from the holy pages of S&T. When new issue time got close, you’d find me camping out by the mailbox like Charlie Brown waiting for Valentines.

To this day I remember what a fresh new issue of Sky and ‘Scope smelled like when I ripped open the big manila envelope it came in. So, yeah, I’m scared, scared of losing what I’ve loved for so long. I like and have often liked Astronomy too, and if S&T is more on my mind at the moment, maybe it’s because the changes there have been more visible and seem to be coming thick and fast.

“Thick and fast” is right. Especially since S&T’s buyout a couple of years ago by New Track Media, a “conglomerate,” whatever that is. Their first move? Sky & Telescope’s spin-off, Night Sky, a magazine I considered the best new astro-mag to appear since Hector was a pup (and not just because I contributed to it) was shut down. Then, familiar names began to disappear from the masthead. Steve O’Meara decamped to join the competition last year. Next, we heard Editor Rick Fienberg was leaving.

Then, almost unbelievably, the other day the man many of us looked on as “Mr. Sky & Telescope,” Executive Editor Kelly Beatty, announced his position is being eliminated and that he is leaving too. That was a real shock for the freelancers who write for Skypub (excuse me, “New Track.”). Kelly was often the person we dealt with day-to-day and it’s hard to imagine S&T without him. Were all these changes necessary to keep the magazine afloat? I don’t know. What I do know is that losing all that talent and experience has got to hurt. Kelly, for example, was on the job for 34 years.

The changes at S&T have been more visible, but similar things seem to be going on at Kalmbach’s Astronomy, though, since I’ve never worked for them, I know less about the scene there. I have met Dave Eicher, and have admired his work, but that is it. It’s apparent (to me) that Astronomy is struggling. The addition of O’Meara’s column was a plus, and the magazine has other talent, too, including, especially, Phil Harrington. B-U-T… This now-thin monthly continues in the throes of the identity crisis that began with the previous Editor’s tenure. Is it a Discover type magazine for astronomy with some amateur astronomy content, or is it an amateur astronomy magazine with some Discover-style armchair astronomy material? This confusion seems reflected in the structure of the magazine. One issue some “amateur” columns are in the front, next they are in the back. Some issues have excellent product reviews (usually thanks to Phil); some issues have no reviews at all.

What’s the “why” for the decline of these titanic (in a small amateur astronomy way) periodicals? Looked at Time and Newsweek lately? They are hardly what they used to be either. One thing’s sure; the newsstand biggies have a much, much larger subscriber base and advertising revenue to fall back on than our favorite little niche publications. Niche publications, is it? Yep. That’s what they are. The astro-mags are small, very small, in the larger scheme of things. Kelly once told me he thought many of his subscribers would be positively shocked if they got a look at Sky & Telescope’s modest (pre-New Track) “office complex,” a couple of nice old houses and a modest 1960s commercial building. The general decline all magazines are experiencing is harder for Sky & Telescope and Astronomy to bear because of their comparatively minuscule size.

But why are magazines in trouble? There’s, unfortunately, not one reason, but a slew of reasons. The reality of the current economy is no doubt numero uno, however. Not only does everybody have less money to spend on "luxuries" like magazines, increased energy costs probably do more to hurt magazines than they do many other industries. When the cost of energy goes up, so do paper costs and delivery costs, the life’s blood of print pubs. But there is more to it than that: there’s the Internet.

In some ways, the growth of the Internet has affected astronomy magazines in a more dramatically visible way than it has other periodicals, if less than it's hurt the biguns like the news-zines. Before the electronifiction of amateur astronomy, all we had was Sky & Telescope and Astronomy (well, there were two or three dusty astronomy books in the Possum Swamp Public Library) and the local club. Now? There a virtual astronomy club meeting/bull session/teach-in going on every hour of every day thanks to the Yahoogroups, Cloudy Nights, and Astromart. We don’t have to wait for the first of the month for the new magazine or the club meeting to get an amateur astronomy fix.

There’s a heck of a lot more to Internet astronomy than just discussion groups, though. Remember how you used to flip through each new S&T and drool over the ads before you even thought about reading any articles? Yeah, admit it: if you’re like yore ol' Unk, you enjoy looking at the scope advertisements almost as much (sometimes more) than you enjoy reading the editorial content. With every astronomy merchant who is anybody now having a huge website, where’s the need for a magazine subscription in order to look at new play-pretties?

And there’s yet more to draw the rank and file to the PC and away from the mags. Like equipment reviews. A-mart and CN have that purty much covered and do very well at it. Editorials? Look no farther than this here blog or dozens more like it. Observing articles? Ton’s of that on the ‘net. Some of it—like Adventures in Deep Space and Skyhound--is extremely well done, too. Astronomy news and gee-whiz articles? That stuff’s only a click on “” away. Why pay for it? Many boys and girls have decided they don’t have to and won’t, especially as subscription fees have rocketed.

So is that it? End of story. Curtains for the big-time astro-zines? Not necessarily. While being niche publications is a weakness, it's also a strength. If Time folds, it's readers can go many other places (including online) and get the exact same thing. S&T and Astronomy go under and there is not yet anyplace else to get what they offer at the same level of quality.

I think it’s at least possible both S&T and Astronomy can continue just as they are, limping a little bit, sure, but hanging in. Sky & Telescope’s new Editor, Bob Naeye, impressed me as a very capable sort when I met him a while back, and I think he will do an outstanding job for them. Astronomy? Probably can press on relying largely on impulse “airport newsstand” sales and subscriptions by a (possibly) shrinking audience of novice amateurs. But the feeling I have in my bones is that there is more trouble ahead for both periodicals unless they find a way to make a place for themselves on today’s amateur astronomy scene. What can they do? If you ask me (why would you do such a silly thing?), there are some possibilities for salvation, even at this late stage of the game:

Most of all? Forget ink and paper. Too expensive, and a surprising number of folks, especially younguns, now prefer reading on a PC, anyway. Make receiving an Adobe Acrobat file rather than a hardcopy at least an option. For a reduced rate, of course. Some of the codgers among us (I are one) won’t like that at first, but many will accept it, especially once they realize it’s possible to print-out articles or the whole blamed magazine when desired (you gotta have something to read in the loo, right?). Some of the semi-pro-zines astronomy magazines are doing this with some success right now.

Folks need an extra enticement to wean them from paper ‘n ink? It’s easy to revise and repost an Adobe file. Add a continually updated News section to each virtual issue. How about a list of the editors’ favorite (and clickable) Internet links? Maybe a “user contributions” section--not just for photos, but for readers’ articles and reviews and other stuff. The possibilities once you go to an inexpensive (relatively speaking) medium like Adobe Acrobat .pdfs are endless.

E-zine too radical? Then why not add value to print ‘n paper issues electronically? The last time Miss Dorothy and I were in the UK I wandered into Victoria Station’s WHSmith (bookstore/large newsstand). What struck me was that just about every single magazine on display was accompanied by a CD or DVD. An included disk would seem a natural for an astro-mag. The possibilities are even more exciting than those that come with a .pdf. Not only could the text of the magazine be on the disk, so could astronomy software programs, interviews, and image galleries. I derned sure guess those sweated-over reader astrophotos in the gallery sections will look much better on a monitor than on constantly coarsening paper stock.

The UK’s newest astro-rag, The Sky at Night, has included a CD with each issue since it cranked-up, and that may be one of the reasons it seems to be thriving. While not too much was made of the disk at first—a video of the latest Sky at Night TV program and a shareware astro-soft or two was about it--more creative things have been done with it of late. A recent CD, for example, included plans/videos to accompany the issue’s telescope making project. At this time, The Sky at Night’s disk is merely an adjunct to a full-sized print-zine, but nobody says you have to include a “real” magazine with a CD.

In the past, several U.S. computer magazines have tried “paperless,” putting the whole issue on a CD. These disks were shrink-wrapped with a printed magazine-sized table of contents and sold on the rack just like normal. While nobody seems to have had continuing success with this format, there’s no reason it couldn’t go if done right. One thing is in the disk’s favor: it gives us Luddites something tangible for our money that we miss with a mere file download from a website.

What else? However it’s done, paper or no paper, the magazines need to play to their strengths. One of which used to be equipment reviews. When the astro-Internet first began to grow, folks were suspicious of the equipment reviews found there and continued to place more credence in what was printed in Sky & ‘Scope and Astronomy. Now, some people say they actually trust the “reviews” done by their fellow amateurs on Cloudy Nights and other websites more. That's what some say, but when you pin them down, most admit they are going to trust a review by Dennis di Cicco in Sky & Telescope more than they are going to trust something by Joe Spit the Ragman on Cloudy Nights. Solution? The magazines need more reviews.

What else? I reckon it’s time to go easy on the news. We don’t need stale news when it’s a click away on the Internet. Sky & Telescope has been moving in this direction for a while, but my guts say “go farther.” Unless it’s earth-shattering (“Large Hadron Collider Swallows Switzerland”), leave it out. While we’re at it, let’s talk about the Gee-whiz/astronomy fact/professional astronomy articles. There is a place for these but don’t let them dominate the whole magazine. Sure, armchair/impulse/educator buyers are important, but do not forget that it is we, working amateur astronomers, who’ve supported you-all through thick and thin. Don’t make us feel ghettoized; sometimes we get tired of articles for/about us always going in the back of the rag.

Anything else need the heave-ho? Think about cutting back on the other stuff we don’t really need because we get it on the PC. When just about ever’body has a dozen planetarium programs on the hard drive, we don’t need the same old - same old every month: Saturn is in Gemini, Venus is the evening star…yadda, yadda, yadda. I suppose the monthly star chart should stay, and special event coverage—eclipses and such--but only just. In general terms, what I want from you is not a rote recitation of “what’s up this month.” I know what’s up this month. Hell’s bells, even Boudreaux down the street, who can hardly program his VCR, knows how to work Cartes du Ciel and bring up Leave this stuff for your website if you think we need it from you. What I want is what Sue French and Steve O’Meara are doing. What I want is what’s up that’s SPECIAL and WHY.

Do I think suggestions like these (or better ones smarter folks can come up with) will save the magazines over the long run? Maybe. But I ain’t sure about that. It is just possible the age of the magazine is passing. I hope not. Deep down inside there is still that 12 year-old anxiously awaiting yet another big, brown envelope.

Shameless Book Plug Department: Quite a few of you have been kind enough to ask about the status of my forthcoming book, Choosing and Using the New CATs. It’s moving along smartly and is due out in December. Read all about it HERE.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Is There Cheap and Good?

When it comes to eyepieces, muchachos? If you read the last installment of the Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp, you’ll recall I spent that one pontificating about what a novice needs to begin a stroll down the path to amateur astronomy fulfillment. I talked about almost everything except eyepieces (“oculars”). I believe that is an important enough subject that it deserves some in-depth discussion in my breezy way.

The question Jane Newamateur invariably has is: “How expensive is a good eyepiece, and what’s a good eyepiece, anyway?” Actually, I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s enough confusion about today’s ocular scene to mean some of you not-exactly-novices out there might also want to keep reading.

What is a good eyepiece? I could go on and on all day jawboning that—within the limits of my paltry optical knowledge. I can distill what I know down to a paragraph or three, though, which should be good enough for novices and us “casual astronomers.” What you want in a good eyepiece is good eye relief, good field edge sharpness, and good apparent field.

“Wut’s ‘eye-relief’,” you ask? That’s easy; it’s the distance you can hold your eye from the ocular’s “eye lens” and still see the whole field of view. How much is good? For an eyeglass wearer, anything less than 15mm means not being able to see the entire field circle. Because of the glasses, the wearer’s eye will be positioned beyond the eye-relief “limit” and the field will be cut-off, “vignetted.”

Even if’n you don’t wear eyeglasses, you will find that more eye-relief rather than less is more comfortable. Who wants to jam an eyeball up against an eyepiece lens? Surprisingly, there can also be too much of a good thing when it comes to eye-relief. Get in the 20 – 25mm range and eye positioning becomes difficult and annoying.

Let me add the above doesn't mean all eyeglass wearers need to restrict themselves to long eye-relief eyepieces. Unless you have astigmatism, it's best not to wear your glasses while observing. Instead, use the telescope as your glasses.

Field edge? That’s the bugaboo for many folks. It’s easy to describe the problem: “What good is having a wide field eyepiece if the stars at the edge of that field look like dadgummed comets instead of pinpoints?” The other part of the equation is that, no matter how good the eyepiece, “fast” telescopes, those with short focal length/low focal ratio mirrors or objectives, will suffer from a bad case of comet-itis.

An expensive eyepiece may be better than a cheap one, since it will correct for some edge-destroying problems, but a fast scope—one in a focal ratio of f/5 or fasterwill still display a less good field edge than a slow one (an f/10 SCT, for example) eyepiece for eyepiece. The addition of coma correctors and field flatteners can fix the field edge of an expensive ocular at the cost of adding and paying for more glass. No matter how many super-duper correctors you add to the light path of a cheap ocular, though, the edge will still probably look purty yucky. Often because of astigmatism.

The most deviling optical quality problem an ocular can suffer is astigmatism. It can make stars all across the field look less than sharp, but those at the edge will be will be especially bad. Unfortunately, astigmatism is a common ailment of the el cheapo oculars. The field centers of many inexpensive eyepieces are quite passable, however, so The Stig is not necessarily a deal breaker. Most of us, afterall, spend our time looking at what's in the center of the eyepiece, not what's on the edge of the field.

“Apparent field” is a confusing concept for Newbies, I reckon. When I tell you my Ultra-Super-Mega field eyepiece has an apparent field of view (AFOV) of 80 degrees, I don’t mean I’m taking-in an 80 degree swath of sky; I mean the eyepiece field circle subtends 80 degrees in my view. Still confused? Think about it this way: using an eyepiece with a large apparent field as compared to one with a small “AFOV” is like watching The Beverly Hillbillies on a 60-inch LCD instead of a 12-inch portable TV. but, an 80 degree AFOV eyepiece will also show more “true field,” actual sky, than a narrow field eyepiece in the same scope.  It will not be 80 degrees worth, though.

How much field makes a wide field? My ciphering says a “wide” (aka “ultra wide”) is 100 – 80 degrees, a “medium is 60 – 70 degrees, and a narrow is 55 degrees and below. Big AFOV is always good, right? Not necessarily. If, as above, there’s not enough eye-relief to let you see all of it, what good is it? Or, if you only look at planets, why waste money (more apparent field usually means more $$$) for unused, empty space? Bigger AFOV, as long as there is the eye-relief to go with it, is always good for Dob users who must nudge the scope along. Wide AFOV means less nudging, magnification for magnification.

That’s as far as Unk’s simpleminded sum-up of eyepiece theory goes. What’s the ground truth when it comes to eyepiece buying? Do you and me and Aunt Jenny all have to spend for Ethoses and Naglers to get a pleasing observing experience? The answer is “NO.” If you can put up with a less than perfect field edge and a less than expansive AFOV, there are good alternatives. Real Cheap Alternatives. 

This is the golden age of inexpensive ultra wide and medium AFOV oculars. Depending on your tolerance for comets (and the design of your scope) you can lowball it and still have fun while saving for the Ethos or other ultra-wide-field ocular you really want. Or, you may not need to save for an Ethos at all. If you don’t care about AFOV, you can get images that may actually be better than those of the most expensive ultra wides and only spend 50 bucks to do it.

I won’t lie to you, though. I have an eyepiece case full of Naglers, Panoptics, and Uwans. And…I’m fixing to add an Ethos to my stable as soon as I can figger out how to sneak one into Chaos Manor South past Miss Dorothy’s watchful eye. Yeah, money is money, but there’s a lot to be said for the old adage, “You can never go wrong buying the best eyepiece you can afford.” You can use a Nagler or Ethos for your whole observing career. Over 40 years, six-hundred Georgie Washingtons don’t seem that bad.

Can’t begin to afford a box full of the high-priced spread? A single 13mm Ethos or Nagler might bring more pleasure than a stringerful of Chinese cheap-cheaps. Well I know not ever’body can or wants to pay six hundred or even three hundred dollars for a cotton-picking eyepiece. Period. That’s the reason I’m offering choices. If I were to be honest, I’d say that if my expensive eyepieces disappeared tomorrow, I could observe more than happily with any of the following.

Ultra Wides

These used to be the problem children in the bargain basement class, and to some extent they still are. It’s harder to make a good ultra wide than it is a narrower AFOV ocular. That hasn’t changed and likely won’t. Even TeleVue has struggled to; for example, bring good eye-relief to the ultra wide. That doesn’t mean you can’t save a little and still get “as good or almost as good” as TeleVue.

The 82-degree AFOV William Optics Uwans are not to be sneezed at for sure. I regularly use these excellent oculars and, shoot, a couple of the Uwans are actually better than the comparable focal length Naglers in my opinion. Downchecks? Just that at this time there are only four Uwan focal lengths and there is no sign WO is going to release more. Ever. The Meade Series 5000 Ultra Wide Angles are nearly as good as the Uwans, and should be considered as well. I’ve also heard some good things about Celestron’s new Axiom LX eyepieces, which appear to be similar to the Meades in optical quality and superior to them in mechanical quality. Bringdowns? The WOs, Meades, and Celestrons are cheaper, but not a whole lot cheaper. They go for ½ - 2/3 the cost of the Naglers and Ethoses.

Not that there ain’t bargain brigade ultra wides. There are, and the Chinese factories have been pumping ‘em out for about four years now in ever increasing numbers. The best of the bunch I’ve tried are the Bird’s Eyes (Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird) and the Knight-Owl Ultrawides (Owl Astronomy Productes). Available in focal lengths ranging from 30mm and down to about 11mm, these will make a lot of astronomers happy.

No, they are not TVs, but at less than 100 bucks a pop, who would expect them to be? “How good, Unk Rod, how good?” That depends. In my f/15 ETX they are wonderful, in my F/10 SCTs they are very good, in my f/8 Newtonian they are OK, in my f/4 StarBlast they are downright UGLY. Most of this ugly is at the field edge, however, and I don’t know about you, but, as above, I spend my observing time looking at what’s in the center of the field. Yeah, I do know some folks obsess about The Edge; if that’s you, go ahead—you ain’t gonna hurt my feelin’s. One thing you fer shure might want to obsess about is ultra wide eye-relief. Check out the manufacturer’s spec before you buy. Many wideuns, cheap and expensive, tend to be deficient in that regard.


This is where it gets interesting. That’s because it’s a lot easier to do a 65 – 70 degree apparent field that’s competitive with a TeleVue Panoptic than it is to make an ultra wide cheapun that’s as good as a Nagler (or Uwan). As you might guess, the relative ease of design and good results mean there are lots of medium-wide alternatives out there.

On the upper end are Orion’s Stratus 68 degree babies ($129.00) and Astronomics/Astro Techs’ 70 degree Titans ($99.95 and down). The Orions and the ATs are both good eyepiece lines that will not stress out until you get to f/5. Even then, the shorter focal lengths will be useable for many folks.

What? You’re a brand new and young Newbie with a houseful of rugrats, a mortgage, and a car payment to deal with first? You need the cheapest of the cheap? Well, I’ve got a deal for you. Orion’s Expanse 66 AFOV oculars might be just the thing. They are cheap ($54.95), and amazingly effective. Only the 20mm model tends to go to pieces in shorter f/l scopes, and then only at f/5 and below. Eye-relief is also decent, with the 15mm being the tightest in the bunch with about 13mm of ER.


Let’s say you can live without lotsa field. For whatever reason. Maybe you’re a planetary observer who doesn’t care pea-turkey about Uncle Al Nagler’s vaunted “spacewalk experience.” Or you’ve got a driven scope and think you don’t need as much AFOV as a Dob owner. Or you’d just rather have optical quality than mucho space. If any of these things fits, I’ve got two words for you: “Plössl” and “Orthoscopic.” Either of these types of oculars can potentially best the most expensive Uwan or Ethos in image sharpness at the expense of making you live with an AFOV field circle of about 50 degrees or less.

Even if you’re a Newbie--the greenest of Newbies--you’ve probably already tried a Plössl, since that’s likely what came with your scope. In the last decade and a half, Chinese optics factories have churned out Plössls in such numbers that these four-lens-element eyepieces have all but sent the ocular that was formerly The Novice’s Best Friend, the Kellner, to the happy-hunting-grounds. 

The reason? Plössls are good, sharp eyepieces that offer reasonably generous field of view of around 50 degrees, have sufficient eye-relief in anything but the shortest focal lengths, and are inexpensive to produce. Since a Plössl doesn’t have to do the spacewalk thang, its field can be very sharp edge to field edge, even in fast scopes. Also, the fact that they only (usually) need four lenses to do their magic means their views can be brighter and truer in color than the seven-plus-lens-element wides and mediums.

Which Plössls? There’s no shortage of brands, but two I can suggest on the lower and upper ends of the scale, respectively, are the GTOs and the TeleVues. The GTOs (from range in price from $22.95 to $39.95, and though they won’t break anybody’s bank, do a bang-up job. They are what I use in my binoviewers, since it’s so cheap to acquire pairs. More Better Gooder? The TeleVues. There is no doubt about that. They are sharper, better coated, and mechanically more solid than the rock-bottom squad. The wonderful thing is that this does not come at a huge price penalty. Except for the monstrous 55mm model ($235.00), the TeleVues are all very reasonable at $89.00 to $119.00. Both the TVs and the GTOs are made in a wide range of focal lengths to suit any task.

Don’t need even 50 degrees? You’re a Mars Maven, a Jupiter Junkie, a Saturn Sap? I’ve got your eyepiece: the Orthoscopic. These four-lens-element jobs are what me and my buddies drooled over back in the 1960s but could never afford ("TWENTY BUCKS FOR AN EYEPIECE, WAYNE LEE? ARE YOU KIDDIN’?!"). They are extremely sharp field-edge-to-field-edge in almost any scope long or short, and are card carrying cheapos in these latter days. The only stop at Bummertown? About 45 degrees is the max AFOV you can expect. So what? When I want to look at a planet I don’t care (as much) about spacewalking and I do not (always) reach for a Nagler or Uwan. I still often use one of my cherished “Circle T” Celestron Orthos from way back when. They are sharp.

Here and now? One company’s Orthoscopics stand out: University Optics. Their Abbe Orthos are excellent and sell for a modest $59.95 a pop. Too plebian? University recently introduced a line of “H.D.” Orthoscopics for 20 bucks more each that some folks say do achieve the vaunted More Better Gooder. Me? I’d stick with the originals. They will please (within the limits of their soda-straw-AFOVs). Do watch out for Ortho eye-relief. It tends to be 10mm or tighter in this otherwise sterling design.

So...what should Joe or Jane pick out of all these here choices when the most important requisite is “cheap” but good? Depends on Joe and Jane and the scope in question, but, ‘twere it me, I’d go for the Orion (Synta) Expanses if I owned an SCT or an MCT. Oh, if I were feeling a mite adventurous and wanted a taste of spacewalking I wouldn’t hesitate to glom onto at least one Bird’s Eye or Owl. Faster than f/5? Plössls. Let me say that again: P-l-o-s-s-l-s. TeleVue Plössls, if possible. No, you won’t feel like you just stepped out of the Gemini 4 capsule for a look around, but you will be happy, real happy, with the images nevertheless, and, as is the case with any quality eyepiece, a TV Plössl will be something you will find uses for way down the line. Even when you are as old and gray and opinionated and crotchety as Uncle Rod.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


To Set Sail on a Wine–Dark Starry Sea…

You gotta have sails and a rudder. You need stuff, astro-stuff. Telescopes, eyepieces, atlases, filters, computer programs—all that wonderful gear you and me drool and obsess over. If’n you’re reading this, I’m guessing you are probably to the point where you’ve got what you more or less need. You’ve got a scope you can at least live with—even if you sometimes think you can’t. Sure, there’s always the attraction of the More Better Gooder, but those of us who’ve been in this wonderful avocation for a year or three are probably getting by somehow.

But what about the excited new sprout down to the astronomy club? Or your formerly skeptical brother-in-law who got one look at the Moon through your C8 and is now showing all the signs of incipient amateur astronomyitis?

The time-honored answer is, “Forget telescopes, get a pair of binoculars and a planisphere, learn the sky, then we’ll talk telescopes.” That may not have been too bad a suggestion back in the day, when everybody had to star-hop and there was no way of getting off square one without some basic knowledge of the night sky. But even back then I had my doubts.

Problem is, whether learning the sky is or is not a good thing (and I still think it is), it misses one important fact: most beginners don’t care pea-turkey about the deep sky. Oh, they might be impressed by the look they got of M42 or M13 in your eyepiece, but that’s not what they lust after. What the newbies want (and what I wanted way back when, too) is Lunar craters and the rings of Saturn. A pair of binoculars won’t satisfy these wants. And “binoculars only” may mean the new recruit starts paying more attention to TV Guide than the Clear Sky Clock (or is that “Charts”?). In my opinion all astronomers, new and old, need a telescope.

Yep, a genu-wine telescope. Oh, I think it’s probably a good idea to insist your novice buddy equip herself with a pair of 10x50s and a Phillips Planisphere in addition to a scope, but that’s cheap enough to do these days. A perfectly useable pair of Bushnells can be found at the local Wally-World. Might not be a bad idea to go along on that buying expedition, though, lest your charge be seduced by a pair of fixed focus (“auto focus”) or red tinted objective (“Ruby Lenses!") horrors. Binocs in hand and constellations being learned, there is still the matter of a telescope.

In some ways it’s easier to play “don’t buy” than “do buy.” I, first of all, steer novices away from go-to. You may be surprised to hear that, since ever’body knows I’m a go-to fanatic, and think it’s the best thing to hit amateur astronomy since Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey. It’s just that I think a computer is more of an impediment to fun than a source of it in the beginning.

Most go-to systems require at least a basic knowledge of the brightest stars in order to align the scope. For Mr. or Miss Greenhorn, that’s a real showstopper. Sure, modern go-tos are fairly easy to use, and just telling the novice to “center the brightest star closest to where the scope stops” sometimes works. Alas, it just as often doesn’t: “But I see more than one bright star, Uncle Rod.” Also, even with a system that doesn’t (supposedly) require sky knowledge, like Celestron’s SkyAlign, all the computer frippery is almost always more confusing than helpful to start, and endless concerns about alignment choices and HC menus and drive training and tripod leveling may mean the scope makes a quick trip to the hall closet and the formerly enthusiastic beginner makes a quick trip to the couch in front of the boob tube.

What else don’t you “let” ‘em get? A lot of newbies start reading the Forums or Yahoogroups and get all het-up about small APOs, “It’s small and cute and expensive; that oughta really show me something.” Alas, after a while, most novices find they aren’t very impressed by what they see through an 80mm scope, no matter how fine: “Well, I think I see the rings.” Interest wanes and into the closet or onto Ebay goes that jewel-like refractor. “OK, then how about a longer focal length refractor? A 4 or 5 or 6-inch achromat, maybe?” There are a few decent ones around that eschew go-to, but generally, the Color Purple and the shakiness the long tubes impart to the class of mounts you usually see these puppies sold on makes the experience less than a happy one for the typical beginner who expects perfection for 500 bucks.

What about a small SCT? One like Celestron’s Omni XLT C5 on a non-go-to GEM? Or maybe one of the Synta-made small MCTs that Orion sells? That could work, but in my experience most tenderfoots (feet?) find GEMs a little scary, and are far more comfortable with “point ‘n shoot”—an alt-azimuth mount of some kind. Something like the new-style alt-az mounts sold by several vendors might serve. I hear lotsa good things about the Astronomy Technologies Voyager mount, especially. Bottom line, though? Without a whole lot of money to spend, the small MCT/SCT arena is almost as bad as the APO/ED refractor game when it comes to the aperture-for-the-dollar ratio. A 90mm MCT won’t show much—if anything—more than that 80mm ED.

I hope you-uns are sitting down. You are about to be surprised. Me, Mr. SCT, thinks, and has for a long time, that the best beginner’s scope of all is a DOBSONIAN. Yeppers. A Dob in the 4 – 10-inch range has been Just the Thing for almost every newbie it’s been my pleasure to initiate. Which Dob? Ain’t no shortage. Meade, Orion, Zhumell, Sky-Watcher, and many more all sell rock bottom priced scopes in this aperture range.

Why do I draw the line at 10-inches when even larger aperture Dobbies (of Chinese heritage, natch) are so blasted cheap? A too-heavy scope, like a too-computerized scope, is a leading cause of the Telescope-in-the-Closet syndrome. You want these folks to see something, sure, but you also want them to want to see it often. A reasonable size Dob will encourage Jane Newamateur to get into the backyard for a 20 minute look at the Moon on a work/school night. A 12 or 16-inch monster won’t.

Which Dob? Specifically? As above, there are plenty of bargains out there. All the brands listed above are fine for beginner use. But if you just insist on me being specific, I suppose my choices would be either the 4.5-inch Orion StarBlast shown above, or Orion’s 6-inch Skyquest XT-6. Both of these Synta-made scopes are available from major scope dealers in addition to being sold direct by Orion.

They are somewhat different instruments, but either will make a tyro happy. The 6-inch XT is probably the closest thing to an all-round scope, even in this latter day. Being blessed with that classic 6-inch f/8 set of optics, it is fully capable of showing all the basic wonders of the universe. All the basic wonders? “Just” a 6-inch? Why, back in my day (you whippersnappers), a 6-inch f/8 Newtonian was the telescope of a lifetime for more than one amateur, and was what most beginners hoped to get SOMEDAY. In addition to a low price that leaves room for plenty of accessories, the XT has, above all, got good optics, optics that will amaze and gratify. Caveats? Be prepared to do some novice hand-holding during the first trip to Collimation Town, but that is what you and me are here for, ain’t it?

Why would I recommend the StarBlast alongside the XT? It ain’t that much cheaper, and is “only” a 4-inch. Yessir, but what a 4-inch. That’s enough aperture to show many, many objects, and its f/4 focal ratio and red dot finder mean point ‘n shoot heaven. Little escapes even the greenest novice given the tiny Dob’s enormous field of view. I use a StarBlast regularly myself, and it is capable of jaw-dropping deep sky views (e.g. the entire Veil shining bravely in the scope’s huge field), but will take 200x on the Moon and planets. It is also supremely portable, cute, and anything but intimidating. Only “uh-oh” is that it gains much of its portability by means of its tiny one-arm-bandit Dob mount. It’s quite stable, but you’ll need something to set it on unless your name is “G.I. Joe” or “Barbie.” L
Either of these scopes, those Bushnell 10x50s, a planisphere, and your steady guiding hand will set any newbie on the voyage of a lifetime and will pave the way for the succession of big and complex scopes that will surely follow if you have done your job right.

What’s that? How about the What Else? The charts, eyepieces, and what-nots the youngun will also need? In addition to the planisphere, I recommend good old Sky Atlas 2000. Don’t have ‘em buy a magnitude 6 atlas that will be quickly outgrown. SA2000, a little red LED light, and maybe a free download of Cartes du Ciel and your ward is ready for lift-off. What’s that? I’ve left out the most important accessory of all? Wuddabout eyepieces? Ah, now that’s a touchy and thorny subject that deserves its very own blog entry. In other words, “stay tuned.”

Sunday, June 08, 2008


Doin’ It the Old-Fashioned Way

R"It" being recording the objects I see as I travel the deep, deep sky with nothing more high tech than a pencil and a piece of paper.

Your Old Uncle Rod has been doing astrophotography for nigh on 45 years, since that first magical evening when I lined-up the lens of my Argus box camera with the eyepiece of my Tasco 3-inch Newt in hopes of getting a picture of a fat full Moon (you can see the—ahem—"results" by going here and scrolling down).

From there, I progressed to a succession of 35mm SLRs and imaging scopes . As this new century dawned, I went digital with a tiny-chipped StarLight Xpress rig, and soon upgraded to big(er) chip SBIGs and Canon DSLRs. I even threw an APO or three into the mix as the first decade of the new age began to wane. But film and silicon have never been my only means of “imaging.”

One thing I’ve done regularly since I was a sprout is draw what I see in the eyepiece. Yep, funny little sketches done with pencil and paper. Nothing’s more low-tech than that, I’ll admit, but, surprisingly, nothing can be more rewarding. When I was doing my city observing book, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, I had the occasion to pull out a bunch of my old logbooks and pore over the hundreds of eyepiece drawings I made between the mid 80s and the present (sadly, my logs from my first 20 years of amateur-dom have disappeared over the course of numerous moves). What did I glean from this trip down memory lane other than some drawings to use in the book? A renewed sense of how wonderful and valuable deep sky sketches are. In some ways they are better than the hugest, best guided CCD images you or me or anybody else can bring home.

How can that be? How can a simple HB pencil costing fifty cents best an umpteen thousand dollar CCD cam in any way? Well, first off, nothing, and I do mean nuttin', is better at showing how deep sky objects look visually in a telescope than a carefully and skillfully made drawing. Want to know how the latest Meade-o-tron wonder will show M13? Don’t look at a half-hour CCD image taken with the subject scope. Those remarkable CCD cameras can go insanely deep, even with a 66mm refractor, but that has no relation at all to what your eye will see in the eyepiece. Look for a drawing. Where? There are plenty online now. Seems as old Unk ain’t the only observer still interested in the Luddite way of picture taking. Two great resources are Deep Sky Observing and Sketching (formerly Skyrover Sketches), and the very active sketching forum on the Cloudy Nights Website. Again, a good drawing comes much closer to the way objects look in the eyepiece than any photograph or digital image ever will.

What else good? You may not think of your humble sketches as “art,” but they are. Once you get into the sketching groove, you’ll come to realize why painting and drawing have survived alongside photography for going on two centuries. They don’t just show what is in the subject, they show what is in the observer’s mind. I don’t mean you should go KUH-RAZY, drawing in enormous spiral arms when none were seen in the scope—a drawing should be a record, too—but, for example, rather than trying to record every single star in M13 placed exactly as in the eyepiece, allow your impressions to have a little free reign.

If you see the stars on the east side of the glob as forming a spiral pattern or a spider’s leg, allow some of that to enter the drawing. This is the truly remarkable aspect of sketching, and is what made those old drawings of mine seem so fresh. Looking at my picture of M13 from a 1987 summer’s eve, I not only recalled the way my homemade 6-inch Dobsonian showed the Great Cluster, but what it looked like to me, and, with that, a strong waft of memories of a long ago night.

Convinced? Great. Unsure of yourself? You can’t draw, you say? Sure you can. Remember, you ain’t gonna be doing Mona Lisa. All that’s needed for deep sky sketching is the ability to draw dots and smudges. Why, I’ll bet even you can do that. Tips on technique? A great place to garner those is the above-mentioned Cloudy Nights forum, but here are some of Unk's idees along these lines:
  • Don’t make your sketches too small. It’s much easier to draw things big. I like to use the 11x9-inch sketch “diaries” I buy down to the corner Walgreens Drugstore (“Chemist” for you UKers…you know, like good, old Boots). Before going outside, I’ll draw a series of 6 – 7-inch "field circles," one per page, using a compass and a fine tip marker.
  • How do you hold a pencil, a sketch pad, and a red flashlight all at the same time? You don’t. It ain’t easy, anyhow, though I’ve done that. These days I illuminate the sketch pad with one of those red “head (band) lights” you find in the hardware stores, which makes for a nice, hands-free sitchy-ation. Be forewarned the red LEDs on most of these thangs are way too bright. I’ve had success dimming ‘em down with a little of Miss Dorothy’s nail polish.
  • Can you use a Dob for sketching? How can you nudge and smudge at the same time? A driven scope does make life easier, sure, but after a while the nudge-sketch, nudge-sketch routine become as easy as pie—no fooling.
  • What do you draw on? One of the aforementioned sketch diaries provides a nice firm surface. If you choose to use single sheets of paper, a clipboard like the Rubbermaid Storage Clipboard works great. It snaps open and provides a nice place to store pencils and paper too.
  • What do you draw with? In the field I only use pencils. Drawing pencils (from an art supply store) in grades from about 3H to 6B. For erasing and detail work I use an art gum eraser, also from the art store.
  • How do you produce smooth, blended nebulae and galaxies? In the field, I don’t. Instead, I make notes on the paper, “smooth, clumpy,” and just fill in the appropriate tone with the pencil as best I can. Next morning I use my finger (or a “blending stump” from the art store, natch) to smooth M51’s graceful arms.
  • I sometimes redraw field stars using a fine point marker the next day, but lately have taken to using the air brush function on my PC draw/paint/imaging program to make the stars look nicer and more even. I like to reduce “hardness” to zero on this function, which gives the stars an attractive “soft” edge.
  • Obviously, to modify my drawings on the PC, I must scan them into the computer, something I’d do anyway. Not only does that get them into a format that is suitable for posting on the web or inserting into the log I keep on my PC with the help of an observing planning program, it means I have backups in-case my logs go missing.
  • As hinted above, if at all possible I try to finish my drawings the very next morning, before my memories of the way the objects looked begin to fade. Certainly, you’ll need to finish/improve your drawings by light of day. What you did under red light will probably look like Hell…BUT… Take care and beware not to add details you didn’t really see.
As you can no doubt tell, Your Old Uncle is a huge fan of Eyepiece Drawing. Not only have my little sketches provided an endless source of pleasant observing memories, they have, I think, added a lot to the books and magazine articles I’ve used 'em in.

That doesn’t mean I think they replace digital imaging or should. Sketches and digital images are very different things. CCD pictures (when I can get ‘em to turn out) are great. They allow me to go deep and "see" things I never thought I’d see with my telescopes. My drawings, though? They don’t go near so far into the Great Out There, but they have one huge advantage over the latest mega pixel wonder: they don’t show how those ancient photons impacted a chunk of silicon, they show how they impacted my heart.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


Do you VMA?

If you’re a Lunar observer, you really oughta if'n you don't. What theheck is Ol’ Unk going on about now? What I’m going on about, muchachos, is something you should be going on about too, one of the best pieces of astronomy software to hit my hard drive in many a Moon, Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand’s Virtual Moon Atlas. Not only is it great, a breakthrough of sorts, it’s free--just my kinda software.

I know most of y’all probably associate Uncle Rod more with deep sky observing and imaging with SCTs than you do with “serious” Lunar observing, but, truth be known, I’ve had an ongoing love affair with graceful, silv’ry, Diana. The first thing I looked at with my first telescope was the Moon, and I never quite got over her. Earth’s faithful companion has drawn me to her for over forty years thanks to her lustrously beautiful, ever-changing face.

Eventually I found myself moving beyond quick glances at a gibbous Moon and idle staring at the occasional Lunar eclipse. I was becoming seriously interested in this little world, both as a visual observer and as an imager (especially with the coming of the webcam revolution). Heck of it was, though, my growing fascination with Selene was stymied at every turn. Until recently there wasn’t much in the way of resources to guide a serious student of Luna.

Oh, sure, there were and are some fairly good general interest and even a few observer-oriented Moon guides. The name “Patrick Moore” comes to mind. But once a Lunar observer moved beyond fledgling status what was there? Well, there was Rukl. Antonin Rukl’s time-honored (and currently out of print, though still available) Atlas of the Moon. Which is a great book. A lovely book. Surprisingly, however, given its quality and near-legendary status among amateurs, “Rukl” is also fairly quickly outgrown by the dedicated student of mysterious Hecate. It most certainly is a landmark work; it’s just that it is the Lunar equivalent of Sky Atlas 2000, which is also a great book. Those of us serious about the deep sky usually move on from SA2000 to more detailed atlases like Uranometria, though. What is the Moon maven to do after Rukl?

That “what” used to be tough. The “professional” Lunar atlases, things like the Lunar Aeronautical Charts (LAC), developed for the Apollo program, were usually locked away in government archives and observatory libraries out of reach of greedy amateur fingers. That began to change recently, with several of these resources becoming available on CD and DVD (one of the most notable of these, in addition to the LAC, being the LOPAM, the Digital Lunar Orbiter Photographic Atlas of the Moon). Which was cool. But not overly convenient. Page scans work OK, but what I really wanted was not just a book on disk, but a TheSky or Megastar or Starry Night for the Moon. Which finally happened. As the new century began, several Lunar programs aimed at amateurs appeared. Some were good, like Lunar Phase Pro. But none were really what I had in mind.

Not until Patrick Chevalley turned his hand to developing a Lunar atlas soft. Patrick, who many of you know from his stand-out planetarium program Cartes du Ciel, teamed with noted Lunar observer Christian Legrand to create Virtual Moon Atlas, VMA, which is currently in version 4.0.

What’s so great about VMA beyond the fact that it don’t cost nuttin'? Almost everything. If you want the complete rundown, you need to trot over to the program’s website, but, in brief, what you have in Virtual Moon Atlas is a beautifully detailed computer model of our favorite satellite. There are thousands and thousands of features identified and described. Start this puppy up and zoom in on Copernicus, for example, and you’ll see what I mean. When you reach max zoom, you realize you’ve gone way beyond Rukl (Yay! All them little a-b-c-d-e craters). Lot more convenient for use in the field, too; identification of a feature is just a mouse click away. Not just names, either, but detailed information including size, geological data, observing tips, and much more. The basic VMA map is just the start, however.

One of the huge pluses for Virtual Moon Atlas is its extensive image database. At a minimum, expect even a minor feature on the main map to be accompanied by an LAC chart and usually a LOPAM. Often there are also numerous other images from various sources displayed on the thumbnail bar that comes up when you click the little camera icon on the VMA menu. Click a thumbnail, and a beautiful “plate” opens in a new window. Fancy yourself a Lunar imager? You can add your own pictures to Virtual Moon.

But I’ve still barely scratched the surface of what Virtual Moon can do. Relax, I ain’t gonna bore you much longer; just suffice to say that VMA also includes multiple textures for the main charts (switch from an albedo style map to a crust thickness depiction, for example), an ephemeris (when is it Full Moon?), distance measurement facilities (how big is this crater?), a good search engine (where the heck is Ukert?), and even a go-to system for computerized telescopes (click on a Lunar feature and VMA will send your scope there with the help of ASCOM).

One huge, HUGE plus this program has over print Lunar atlases for us CAT fanciers? WE CAN MIRROR REVERSE THE CHARTS TO MATCH THE VIEW IN OUR SCOPES! Yeah, that may not sound like a big deal to you Newtonian toting Bubbas and Bubbettes, but, trust me, if you’d been trying to mentally flip Moon maps for thirty years while viewing through a star diagonal equipped CAT (or refractor), you’d know the all-caps bidness is warranted.

What about the mechanics of all this good stuff? How demanding is this program for your ol’ Aunt May’s observatory computer? You won’t run it on a 286 DOS machine. You’ll want a recent flavor of Windows (the current release has been optimized for Vista). The main need for a smooth and powerful VMA experience, however, is a GL compatible video card. That is frankly not a huge deal, since even 400 buck BestBuy boxes are now ready to go in that regard. Virtual Moon will run on less capable video cards, but will not be as much fun.

Convinced? OK. Where do you get it? Off the website link above. How big is it. Well, that depends. While there are a couple of smallish versions available, a “Light” VMA and an “Expert” VMA, if your love affair with Artemis is as serious as I hope it is, you’ll want VMA Pro. Alas for those of y’all without broadband access, Pro is a whopping 422 megabytes. Now, don’t get excited. Mssrs. Chevalley and Legrand are not leaving y’all out in the cold. A CD with the Pro version on it (and some cool extra goodies, too) is available for a very reasonable—even considering the current exchange rate—20 Euros.

But why, Uncle Rod, why? If this program is so great, why are they a-giving it away for free? I’ll let Patrick and Christian answer that:

“The authors make [the program] free for amateur astronomers, lunar observers and students who wish to practice selenography. They hope to promote Moon observation and knowledge because our satellite will become one of the next human spatial exploration step.” Ain’t that cool? Sure is, muchachos, sure is.

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