Sunday, April 26, 2009


Cool Stuff at NEAF

Yeah, I was a NEAF bench-sitter again this year. Which don’t mean I am not aware of all the mouth-watering gear on display up yonder in Yankeeland in Suffern, NY. Thanks to the astro-forums, and, most of all, to Tom Trusock’s annual video walkabouts on Cloudy Nights, I’ve got plenty of fodder for my next letter to Santa. Yep, just because I wasn’t there in the flesh don’t mean my want list is shrinkin’; as always it jus’ seems to grow and grow. It don’t matter what sorta cool astro goodies I accumulate (though most of my arsenal is on the decidedly modest side), it seems I am always thinkin’ about and schemin’ about the Next Big Thing. If only I had the bank account to match my desires.

Anyhoo, followin’ is the Astro Junque that has excited my interest at NEAF and over the last few months. Some of it is new, some not so new. Some was at NEAF, some wasn’t (or at least not prominently enough to interest the CN folks or the worthies who’ve been postin’ those tantalizin’ stills of the Big Do on the I-net astronomy forums).


Televue 6-mm and 10-mm Ethoses

The six came out and none of us was overly surprised. Speculation (which was all it was) ran like this, “Al just did a long one, the 17-mm; now he’ll drop back down to the other end of the f/l range.” For once our idle chit-chat turned out to reflect the truth. The big question was “next?” What many of us hoped for was a 22-mm Ethos. Why 22-mm? Well, Unk’s back-o’-the envelope calculations indicated that ‘round about 22-mm is the upper limit for a 100-degree AFOV eyepiece in the 2-inch barrel format. ‘Twas not to be. No 22 did we see. Al didn’t even wait for NEAF for a dramatic announcement like last year. Instead, he and TV brought forth a 10-mm shortly before the show. I am sure both the 6-mm and the 10-mm (neither of which I have seen in person yet) will be doubleplusgood just like the 8, 13, and 17-mm, but somehow I just can’t get as excited over 10 and 6 millimeters.

The Explore 100

I gave the rundown on the Explore Scientific 14-mm 100 AFOVer last week. Scott Roberts’ new company has had someone build (and design?) a 100-degree Ethos like eyepiece for ‘em. This nitrogen-filled thingie-my-bobbie which, as mentioned last time, Scott kept dunkin’ in a fish tank at NEAF, is drawin’ considerable notice. From folks for whom its low price—as compared to the 13-mm Ethos—is at least is doable financially. Also from those for whom the lower price is doable philosophically. And from those of us who’d just be interested in 100s in different focal lengths from what will wind up in the TV lineup. How good will this one need to be before movin’ to the top of my want list? It will need to be at least as close to the Ethoses as the original Meade Ultra Wides were to the Naglers. I’m attracted and interested and can’t wait to get my hot li’l paws on one.


Celestron First Scope

Y’all know how much I love my little StarBlast, Orion’s (Synta’s, actually) 4-inch f/4 Dobbie. I purchased him some years back after hearin’ my pal Phil Harrington rave about the small wonder. It’s probably the most convenient and powerful popularly-priced grab ‘n go scope of all time. Since Celestron is owned by Synta, it wouldn’t be surprisin’ to hear they’ve come out with a C-branded StarBlast, and they have. Almost, anyhow. The Firstscope (a name borne by many inexpensive Celestron rigs over the years) is smaller in aperture at 76-mm (f/3.95). It’s also prettier, with a lovely little tube emblazoned with the names of famous astronomers of yore. Otherwise, it is much like the SB. This scope is aimed at kids and priced to reflect that at about 50 bucks. Reports? My fellow small scope fancier Jon Isaacs has blessed it, especially once the two el cheapo oculars that ship with the scope are replaced. Celestron released the Firstscope in conjunction with the International Year of Astronomy (it’s apparently the “Official Telescope of IYA 2009”), kept the price down, and the quality up. Good on ‘em. If I didn’t have a StarBlast, I’d pick one up. Shoot, 50 clams? I still might.

Takahashi FRC/BRC

Yeah, baby! Now we come to the other end of the scale. The new one, Takahashi’s BRC (Baker Richey Chrétien) 250P 10-inch, was, I hear, not on the floor at NEAF. But I know its vitals: it is a Richey Chrétien design that incorporates a sub-aperture Baker corrector (field flattener). It’s fast at f/5 (and can be reduced further), and, Tak says, offers a flat field with teeny tiny stars over a gull-derned 100-mm circle. What was on view in all her glory was Big Sister, the FRC 300. Not only is this a big dog, it is just dadgummed beautiful. Like the BRC, it’s a Baker Richey that offers a huge field and tiny stars. “Imposin’” is the woid.

Frankly, it’s a good thing I was not at NEAF; the combination of that gleaming FRC tube perched on a gigantanormous Tak mount and the persuasive skills of Good Buddy Art Ciampi (Texas Nautical) might very well have started me schemin’ as to how to come up with the $25,000 + price of admission—for the OTA only, natch. Jus’ between you and me, I don’t need this one anymore than I needed the big Mewlon Art almost talked me into one year at one of Herb York’s legendary Telescope Expos. In truth, my meager skills and needs as an imager are served just fine by my humble Atlas EQ6 and 1995 Celestron Ultima 8 OTA. Still, a boy can dream, cain’t he?

Guan Sheng Optical (GSO) Richey Chrétiens

As above, if you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be contemplating the purchase of an RC one day, I’d a-given you the horse laugh. Me? Need one o’ them specialized and expensive Cassegrains? Huh! Not that I didn’t recognize the advantages of this design for imaging as compared to my CATs: flat, wide fields with low-coma and no dew-attracting corrector plate. I jus’ didn’t want to pay for those Good Things. That was then, though, and this is now. GSO, Astronomics, and Orion are changin’ my mind about my need for a RC.

By, as you might have guessed, getting the price down to prole levels. Currently available are two GSO RCs, a 6 and an 8, with a 10 waitin’ in the wings at Astronomics and a 12 maybe in the offing. Mind you, I haven’t seen one in non-virtual fashion yet, but the pictures I’ve seen of the scopes, which were prominent at NEAF, are encouragin’. The Astronomics (Astronomy Technology) versions are particularly mouth-waterin’, comin’ as they do with carbon fiber tubes, Losmandy D dovetails, and crazy-low prices--$1395.00 for the 8—that are smaller than I ever thought I’d see. Hell, that’s not much more than a cotton-pickin’ C8 or M8. The Orion versions are nice, too, makin’ up for the loss of the carbon fiber tube and Losmandy D with even lower prices, $1195.00 fer the 8-inch.

6-inch f/5 and f/8 Achromatic Refractors

Why would your old Uncle long for a 6-inch achromat? To understand that you’d have to be an old-timer, a real old-timer, an amateur who grew up in the 1960s. Back then, a 6-inch refractor was the ne plus ultra, somethin’ everybody wanted an’ nobody (well, nobody I knew) could afford. Why did we want ‘em? Most of the amateur astronomy books of the day praised them to high heaven, implying at least that one would leave my plebian 6-inch f/8 reflector way back yonder in clouds of dust. There was more to it than that, of course; they just looked cool. Those great big long white tubes just spelled “amateur astronomy.”

So in this latter day when your old Uncle has a respectable income, why hasn’t he fulfilled The Dream? Mainly because of his dadgummed streak of practicality. Even a short 6-inch f/8 achromat, which the Chinese have been exporting to us for the better part of a decade, is a clumsy beast. While a CG 5 GEM head might do the job, its tripod won’t. Given the front-heavy nature of these refractors, you’ll find that even at full tripod leg extension you will be down on all fours to observe the zenith. If I were to get an f/8, I’d put it on a home-made Dob mount like Richard Berry fashioned way back when for his classic Build Your Own Telescope book. I reckon that with a simple push to and a nice tall home-brew tripod I could be purty happy with one of the Synta f/8s, ‘specially now that it’s possible to buy the Celestron-badged version sans mount (from Astronomics).

What caught my eye on Tom's NEAF broadcast was the 6-inch f/5 Celestron is sellin’ as the “Omni XLT 150R.” I’ve been impressed by all the members of Celestron’s bargain Omni line. Good, utilitarian scopes at modest prices. I particularly like the blue and white paint scheme; almost seems homage to the old Celestron Blue and White SCTs of the 1960s. Only thing I don’t like about the short 6-inch? I wish they’d sell the OTA without the mount. I really don’t need a CG4 (though it might be somewhat OK grab ‘n go-wise, I reckon), and the package price of $999.99 for scope and sub-CG5 is a wee bit more than I'd like to pay for this rig.

Even more impressive (in pictures, anyhow) is the short focal length 6-inch from Gary Hand (Handsonoptics) that was on display at NEAF. These six inchers ain’t quite as fast as the Celestrons at f/5.9, but maybe that is a good thing. At an OTA price of $695.95 ($999.99 for one with a 3-inch dual-speed focuser), this is a big step up from the humble Synta not only in price but build quality, with the scope featuring a Crayford focuser that is light years ahead of the primitive Synta rack and pinion, a retractable dew shield, a hefty set of tube rings and more. So will Unk finally take the big achromat bait? I’ll tell ya, muchachos, prob’ly not. I reckon if I were ever gonna get a 6-inch refractor I’d a-got one by now. Still it’s nice to think about sometimes, and it’s nice there are more options available now on the outside chance I ever do make the dream a reality.

Normand Fullum’s Hobbit Dobs

If you ain’t seen one o’ Normand’s Dobsonian reflectors, I ain’t gonna try to describe one to ya. You need to go look fer yourself. OK, OK, if’n you want me to summarize, these wooden telescopes are so organic lookin’ they appear to have been grown not made. And “grown” in The Old Forest by Tom Bombadill and The Lady Goldberry (the river woman’s daughter). Amazing…the side bearings are beautifully carved old man Moons, the tubes are exquisitely finished things of wonder….and it just goes on and on. Why would I want one? Mainly because they are works of art, deeply evocative of the beauty and mystery of the natural world. Sure, Normand makes A-Number-One mirrors, too, but that’s almost secondary here.


Ioptron Supreme GEM

When Tom T. trotted up to this one, I gotta say I was surprised. Oh, there’s been no doubt that Ioptron is an up and comer in the astro-gear game. They began with an inexpensive and plastic-laden alt-az mount, The Cube, swiftly moved on to the much-improved alt-az Mini Tower, and now this. Now what? The “Supreme” is a GEM that, at first blush, I mistook for some kinda mutant A-P. Large, with an obviously high payload capacity (65 pounds, Ioptron sez), and a look that says “top tier.” I was briefly right excited—till the other shoe dropped. Apparently, at the NEAF the makers was quoting folks a price of “less than $8500.00.” That would be a problem. Not just for penny-pinchin’ li’l ol’ me, but for folks ready to spend that much dough on a mount. At that figger, we are in AP900 territory, and it would seem to this old boy hard to justify not buyin’ that time-tested high-quality mount instead of Ioptron’s unknown. Still, I’m willin’ to be convinced. The Supreme could be a great mount. But if “less than $8500.00” means “$8499.99” I’ll be sangin’ “Nothing but Heartache” not “I Guess I’ll Always Love You.”

Astro-Physics El Capitan

I “need” this GEM about as much as I need a Takahashi FRC to put on it—or a hole in the head. Still, this is an incredibly impressive achievement. The 3600GTO is rated for a payload of 300 pounds. Given the conservative bent of our Uncle Roland, I’d bet you could easily exceed that by a hundred pounds or so without the mount much carin’. The other great thing about this GEM? The El Capitan is at least transportable. No, I wouldn’t cart it out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s site ever’ dark o’ the Moon, but the 3600 is at least doable for TSP or other special occasions. Yeah, it’s big, and even the component pieces is heavy, but it works jus’ like the smaller APs with a plain old hand controller—no computer needed—and can run off 12vdc, so no fancy-weird power supply required either. An El Capitan, a big RC or a Meade 16—or even 20—inch SCT and I could be walkin’ in high cotton. Course, I’d be walkin’ with a considerably lighter wallet, since the base model 3600 will set you back about 20k. Still, as I’ve often observed, folks down here routinely spend way more’n that for a bass boat. Hell, after the price increases on Meade’s Max (now $29,999) and given the legendary A-P quality, some o’ y’all prob’ly call this a “bargain.”


Orion StarShoot Pro

I know at least one CCD cam vendor had a setup at NEAF; the Cloudy Nights crew waltzed past the QSI booth. They did not linger, however, and I haven’t heard any talk about what QSI or anybody else might have been showin’ new at the hoe-down, so I’ll just talk about the cameras that have interested me over the last year. Naturally, my tastes lay at the low end of the price and complexity scale, so my attention was mostly caught by the one-shot-color brigade and especially by Orion’s StarShoot Pro.

Feature-wise, there is no denyin’ our friends out in Watsonville C-A are now selling a big boys’ (and girls’) CCD: 6 megapixels, 25-mm x 17-mm chip (3032 x 2016 pixels), Peltier coolin’, and a regulated fan (which don’t mean the cooler itself is regulated like in an SBIG, unfortunately). I haven’t seen many pix with this one yet, but I suspect we will soon see plenty. I love my Canon 400D, but there is no doubt the StarShoot Pro offers considerably more deep sky horsepower while still keeping the price imaginable for us members of the peasantry: $1395.00. Oh, I like the Meade DSI III, too, which is comparable in many ways, but its lack (still) of a cooler definitely makes the Orion More Better Gooder in my not so humble estimation.

Mallincam Color

I had begun to wonder about deep sky video astronomy of late. There were some terrific cameras on the market, including the now-obsolete (well, almost) Stellacam II I own. I’ve done things with video that still blow my mind, like capturing Hickson group after Hickson group of galaxies (to include every consarned member visible on the POSS plates) with my C11, but there jus’ didn’t seem to be much interest in this imaging technique anymore. Till Rock Mallin’ introduced his color Hyper and Hyper Plus cameras. What is exciting many folks besides the color is their sensitivity, which most of us didn’t think was possible with color. With reasonable integration times (the Hyper Plus maxes out at 56-seconds) and built-in Peltier coolin’, there don’t seem to be much these vidcams cain’t do. I was amazed at the quality of the Horsehead images Mallincam distributor Jack Huerkamp showed me at last fall’s Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Not only was the Nasty Nag clearly visible, the backdrop, IC434, was a delicious hydrogen red. I don’t know if the Mallincams were on display at NEAF, but if they weren’t they dang sure should have been.


TheSky X

I have tried a lot of planetarium programs over the years since I first booted up Sky Travel on my beloved and long-lost Commodore 64 (“Hundreds of stars!”), but one I've used a lot has been TheSky, and, in particular, Versions 5 and 6—especially TheSky 6. So when I hear there is a new TheSky in the offin’, I can’t help but sit up an’ take notice. The folks who looked at the new one, TheSkyX, at NEAF appear to have been favorably impressed. From what I can tell, it appears the Bisque Bros are takin’ their soft a little more in the purty direction, more toward the Starry Night Pro Plus end of the spectrum. And there is nothin’ wrong with that, I reckon. TheSky 6 works awful well, and quickly put to bed my fears that its purtification when compared to 5 would make it sluggish and hard to use. Still, I can’t help but worry that one of my fave astro-softs is gonna get messed up. I jus’ hope that, as was the case of my other most used program, SkyTools 3, the new TheSky really makes “good” “better.” Reckon I’ll jus’ have to wait and see. While X is now out, it’s only out for Macintosh, and what do you think is the chance Unk is gonna switch from Windows to Mac? ‘Bout as likely as him taken up knittin’ as a new hobby, I reck.

My Wish List seems a li’l sparse (if still way too much to ask of pore ol’ downsized Santa) as compared to what it was last year, but I suppose I oughta be happy that in these tryin’ times there was a NEAF at all and that there was as much new or almost new astro-junk on display this year as there was. Also, I fully acknowledge I may not have heard about or may have ignored some right cool stuff, so don’ be afraid to edumacate me. I would not be at all averse to doin’ a “What I Want Part II.” Anyhow, Next year it will be a different story. Maybe, just maybe, Unk will be onsite for NEAF 2010 and will not have to rely on twice-told tales for his yearly gear-lust fix.

2020 Update

What I think about when I read this article from over 10 years ago is not how antique a lot of the gear covered in Tom Trusock's broadcast seems a decade later, but about Tom himself. I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, but I corresponded with him quite a lot and was shocked when I learned he'd passed away in 2019 at way too early an age--he was barely 50 years old.

Tom was a talented writer, and I always expected he'd break through to the bigtime. He began writing years ago for my old SkyWatch e-zine, soon moved up to Cloudy Nights, and finally, not too long before the end, had begun writing regularly for Astronomy. I am pleased to have had a small part in bringing the world a talented astronomy writer, and am still sad he didn't have time to reach his full potential. 

Sunday, April 19, 2009


The Cost of a Good Eyepiece Redux

Big surprise, huh, muchachos? NEAF is here, TeleVue has announced yet another ocular in their Ethos line, and already the Internet astro-forums are filling up with angry comments. How’s that? Well, if you weren’t paying attention last year when good ol’ Uncle Al’s Ethos releases were coming hot and heavy, the reaction to his 100-degree apparent field of view wonders was not always positive. There was soon established an ad-hoc Anti-Ethos group bemoaning not the quality of the Es, but the cost, the extravagance of the thing.

Yep, as I observed in my last entry on the subject, a sizable number of amateurs are either skeptical about or downright hostile to the TeleVue Ethos. Why would anybody have a duck-fit over a good eyepiece? That’s complicated; most observers, once they actually look through an E, quickly acknowledge the extra apparent field is just the beginning of the Ethos story. In addition to offering a far more “immersive” (whatever that is) field than even the time-honored Naglers, sharpness and contrast in those big fields are both undeniably better. So what’s not to like? Well, not everybody needs this much field. Planetary observers, for example, may be as happy as birds with 40-degrees of AFOV (though I prefer my Ethoses for planets over even my much-loved Celestron Circle T Orthos). There’s more to it than that, though, starting with a price (585 – 750 $$$) that people seem to find philosophically disturbing.

That’s not that hard to fathom these days, what with Wall Street bottom-feeding and your friendly neighborhood banker turning out his pockets. Some amateurs, I reckon, just feel offended an eyepiece this expensive is being touted when an eviction notice is goin’ up on the house next door. For some, the Ethos is just too much: too much money, too much hype (from fellow amateurs; TeleVue is, as usual, advertising in a relatively low-key fashion). Joe Amateur has made up his mind he doesn’t need this eyepiece (even if he hasn’t actually tried one), and resents being made to feel he HAS to have one after reading yet another post by yet another Ethos-happy raver on the dadgummed Cloudy Nights or A-Mart. More money out the door after all the struggle and saving it took to accumulate a boxful of Naglers? Now they are second best? Maybe there’s also a little bit of that old-time American strand of Puritanism running through the anti-Ethosism: the Ethos is too good; surely a piper will have to be paid.

Me? I wouldn’t call myself an Ethos-a-holic, though I have two and am thinking about a third. I still use other eyepieces. Once in a while. Yes, I’ve made a few posts on various forums defending the Es, but I do recognize they are not for everybody. In brief, these eyepieces are superior to anything I have ever used. Over 46 years of observing. By a large margin.

But, yeah, some Joe and Jane amateurs don’t want or can’t have the latest TeleVue triumph. What about them? No need to despair. This is a wonderful time to be a visual observer with shallow pockets. Back when Rod was a sprout, most of us had two choices when it came to eyepieces: bad and worse. Yeah, there were good Orthoscopics on sale even back in the Stone Age, but nobody I hung out with could afford ‘em. What we mostly had to put up with was Kellners (with uncoated war-surplus optics) and Ramsdens (which boasted a 30-degree AFOV). Today, you can get at least a taste of Al Nagler’s Spacewalk Experience for not much (if any) more in real dollars than what we paid for them Kellners, Ramsdens, Huygenians and worse. For a little more scratch than that, you may even be able to (almost) duplicate the Nagler experience right down to that first thrilling “I’m falling into the eyepiece” feeling. And I hear tell you may soon even be able to get an Ethos-like ride for a lot less than the Real Deal. Maybe.

Below are my fave “pore man’s eyepieces.” These are all wide and ultrawide oculars I’ve used and appreciated. I haven’t used all the good and inexpensive widefields available, mind you, and can only report on those I have used. Also, be aware that Chinese optical factories being Chinese optical factories, they will sell an eyepiece model to anybody with the dough to pay for it, so some of these oculars may be sold under a variety of names by a variety of vendors.


You can’t out Nagler Al Nagler, now can you? That’s what I used to think. Oh, the Meade Ultra Wides were fairly close, but not quite there, and they remained static as Unk Al went through multiple “types,” improving his eyepieces as he did. Then I was asked to look at a set of ultrawide oculars being sold by the Chinese (Taiwan) firm William Optics. I was aware the company had been selling some widefields, their SWANs, for a while. I’d used a couple, but not been overly impressed. OK, but a long way from a Panoptic. So, I didn’t expect a whole lot from the UWANs out on the Chiefland observing field. Hoo-boy, was I surprised, and I wasn’t the only one.

Every experienced observer who tried one of the three eyepieces I had, the 28-mm, the 16-mm, and the 7-mm, was as surprised at their performance as I was. These 82-degree AFOV eyepieces performed very similarly to their Nagler counterparts. Some observers even thought some of the UWANs superior. Only when we tried the oculars in a very fast (faster than f/4) scope did the equivalent Naglers pull ahead, and then only a little. You can read the whole story in the review I did way back when, but the bottom line was the bottom line. The UWANs were and are significantly less expensive than the Naglers, with the big 28-mm (2-inch) goin’ for $350.00, the 16-mm (1.25-inch) for $238.00, and the 7-mm (and a 4-mm which I didn’t test), both also 1.25-inchers, costing around 200 simoleons. Downchecks? Aside from somewhat tight eye relief, 18-mm on the 28 and 12-mm on the rest, only that the range of focal lengths is limited to these four. I had hoped W.O. would bring out more, but they never did.

Which doesn't mean we might never see additional focal lengths for this wonderful eyepiece series. Remember what I said about Chinese factories selling to anybody? W.O. ain’t the only game in town for UWANs any more. Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center) has just debuted the eyepieces. They don’t call ‘em “UWANs;” instead, they are now the “MegaView Ultra-Wides.” That’s OK; they are the same eyepieces from what I know and go for near-about the same prices W.O. sells ‘em for. The good thing? W.O. is retrenching slightly, closing its U.S. shop at least temporarily and pulling back to Taiwan, but Orion is going strong, and, if these eyepieces sell, maybe they can get some further focal lengths on the street. Oh, by the way, “UWAN” ain’t a city in China. Less romantically, it’s just an acronym for “Ultra Wide ANgle,” just as “SWAN” has nothing to do with waterfowl, instead standing for “Super Wide ANgle.”

Meade Series 5000 Ultra Wides

I’ve always had a good deal of respect for Meade’s Ultra Wides. Yeah, I know, many of y’all have looked askance at them because they seem a little bit too much in the nature of outright “clones” of the Naglers. There’s some truth there, no doubt, but, fact is, TeleVue never seemed to get their knickers in a bunch over the 5000s, so why should I? These eyepieces are maybe not quite as good as the Nags, not as sharp at the field edge in fast scopes, not quite as contrasty all across their fields.

Meade did update the eyepieces a couple of years back, but, near as I can tell, this only involved placing the optics in updated, futuristic-looking barrels, not any meaningful optical redesign or other improvements to the glass. Speakin’ o’ the fancy-pants housings, they are one of the few things I really don’t like about these eyepieces. Last time I used one I wound up with a blast from the past, that Rolling Stones moldy oldie, Sticky Fingers. The Ultrawides feature an integral, hard eyecup like the UWANs, but Unlike the UWANs, twisting it up exposes a length of grease-coated barrel, which gets on ever’thing. Enough to dern near spoil my Moonlight Mile.

There is a lot to like about these eyepieces, though, starting with their prices, which are UWAN, not Nagler-like, beginning at $139.00 with the 4.5-mm and going up to $399.00 for the 30. Eye relief? Not bad—not for ultra wide oculars, anyhow. It goes from 13-mm on the short end to 22-mm on the long end. One of the attractions of the series? Not only are most quite Nagleresque performance-wise, they are offered in a set of kinda odd but nicely different focal lengths, currently 4.7, 6.7, 8.8, 14, 18, 24, and 30-mm. Not that different, but different enough to maybe suit somebody looking for something in-between.


Baader Planetarium’s Hyperion eyepieces are not something I’ve used extensively, but I’ve tried enough of ‘em to be somewhat impressed. Not just with the images, but with their sheer cheek and weirdness. The ones I am talking about, if you haven’t guessed, are Baader’s Modular series. These are fairly garden variety eyepieces of the medium-wide 68-degree AFOV species.

Like many less expensive widefields, they tend to be most impressive at longer focal lengths. In f/10 SCTs, they are cool, but begin to huff and puff at f/6 and threaten to collapse in a heap in a faster-than-f/5 ‘scope. Still, they are well worth the money, given that the 3.5, 5, 8, 13, 17, 21, and 24-mm basic series oculars go for an astonishing $119.00 each. Summing up, not bad, not Panoptics, but not bad. One nice thing they do have is eye relief. About 20-mm across the whole f/l range. I also note a distinct lack of the “blackout” and “kidney-beaning” common in a lot of widefields, even rather expensive ones. That sounds purty garden variety vanilla, though, don’t it? Where’s the weirdness? Well there’s the “modular” thing.

What does “modular” mean in this context? It means you can unscrew the eyepieces’ negative field lens barrels and change their focal lengths (remember how yer Cousin Elmer tried unscrewing the field lens of his 12-mm Nager Type 2 to see if he could get a 24 Nagler for free?). Well, this is sorta like that, ‘cept what you can do here is unscrew the field lens assembly, insert one of Baader’s Fine Tuning Rings, screw the field lens back on, and shorten a Hyperion’s focal length. The 17-mm, for example, depending on which ring(s) you install, can also be a 13.1, a 10.8, or a 9.2. How well does this work? Dunno, but I’ve heard some owners say it works right well. Most folks don’t fool with the rings, being content to use these nice and nice priced eyepieces as they are. Changing rings in the dark would seem like somewhat of a challenge to me, but that’s jus’ me. The eyepieces also feature various threads on the eye lens side to allow them to be screwed onto digicams if that’s somethin’ you think might be a Good Thing.

Finally, Baader is now pushing a second bunch of Hyperions, the “Aspheric Series.” These are More Better Gooder according to Baader because they, among other things, feature some aspheric lens elements that have “Allowed Baader to eliminate eyepiece aberrations without the usual penalty of extra lens elements, excessive size and weight, or high cost.” Is that so? Don’ ask me, I haven’t run across one o’ these eyepieces yet (which come in 31 and 36-mm focal lengths at the moment). Oh, the apparent field on these is stated to be 72-degrees rather than 68. What would I expect of ‘em? If I had to guess, I’d expect good performance in longer focal length scopes, maybe not Panoptics, but worth the price of admission, maybe ($189.00 for either), just like their little brothers.

Orion Stratuses

Some years back, a fellow club member started buying Vixen’s Lanthanum Superwide eyepieces. And found he couldn’t stop, he liked ‘em so much. I liked ‘em too. They were close to the Panoptics, for dang sure, with good looking 65-degree AFOVs. Only thang cheap li’l ol’ me did not like was the prices. Most were 300 bucks; the longest was 400. That was beginning to be within shouting distance of the real-deal, and being enamored of the Panoptics at the time, I never did get around to buying one of the Vixens. These things didn’t reenter my consciousness again until one cloudy evening when I was browsing one of the multitudinous Orion catalogs that continually drop through Chaos Manor South’s mail slot. “Hmm,” says I, “Orion is selling Vixen again; here are those eyepieces Marvin useta like.”

Except a closer look at the glossy page showed these was not the Vixens, but a series Orion was calling the “Stratus Wide Fields.” They shore did look like the Vixens, though, from their barrel design, to most of their focal lengths (3.5, 5, 8, 13, 17, 21, and 24,-mm), to their generous eye reliefs (about 20-mm for all). I don’t know if these are rebranded Vixens, clones, or what, but like Marv’s eyepieces they do a respectable job, similar to that of the Hyperions, and are downright dreamy in SCTs. One supercool thing in penny-pinching Unk’s opinion? Each and every one is $135.00 bucks. That oughta count fer something, huh?

Bargain Basement Ultrawides

A good, cheap 60 – 70 degree eyepiece don’t excite.? You want more, more, more? You want 80 plus degrees? And you also want less, less, less? You can’t even afford 135 for a Stratus? I may have just the thing. There are dirt cheap Chinese ultras being sold under a variety of badges—Owl Astronomy Products “Ultra Wide Knight Owls” and Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird’s “Bird's Eyes” being two brands—that can do a respectable job in slower scopes and which can be had for under a C note. Yeah, you can’t expect Nagler at the 50 – 100 bucks these cost, but in my f/15 ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine, they are frankly amazing for the price.

What kinda focal lengths are we talking? Anacortes currently offers three 1.25-inch oculars, an 11-mm, a 15-mm, and a 16-mm. In addition to 80-degree AFOVs, all offer a degree of eye relief or lack thereof (7-mm) that means “pass ‘em by” if you must wear glasses to observe. The eyepieces bein’ sold by Owl in focal lengths of 30 and 20-mm in addition to 16, 15, and 11-mm (don’t axe me why we need 15 and 16-mm) are similar, but not identical, to the Bird’s Eyes, seeing as how their eye relief is much less tight, from 14 to 28-mm according to Owl.

Otherwise, performance is similar: good in MCTs and SCTs, bad, downright scary bad, in an f/4 StarBlast. The best one? The 30-mm Owl offers and the 30-mm Anacortes used to sell. I recently took this 2-inch eyepiece out with my 8-inch f/5 Dob, Old Yeller, for International Sidewalk Astronomy Night. The views of the Moon, the planets, and the few deep sky objects visible from the courtyard of the Eastern Shore (shopping) Center impressed the kids and, frankly, me as well. If you’ve got a CAT, but not much money and long to do some spacewalking, you might like these, and it won’t cost much more than an import Plössl to find out.

Synta Ultrawides

Need somethin’ that won’t stress out your f/5 or f/6 as much as one of the el cheapo ultrawides? Consider one of Synta’s (Celestron’s parent company) medium wide bargain bin oculars. These eyepieces are currently sold in the U.S. of A. by Orion as the “Expanses” and sometimes by Adorama as the "Pro-optic UltraWides." These are not fancy oculars, but they do offer a good chunk of sky with their 66-degree AFOVs. Otherwise, they have durable barrels (alas, with a dadgummed barrel undercut, just like a TeleVue), a usable rubber eyecup, and low prices: $59.95 a throw (they were a mite cheaper when Adorama had ‘em). Focal lengths? Not many, but enough, 20-mm, 15-mm, 9-mm, 6-mm.

What do you get for your 60 George Washingtons? You get good if hardly perfect widefields that, as you might expect, do best in slow catadioptrics. The 15-mm is an eyepiece I love in my ETX. Surprisingly, the 15, 9, and 6-mm do survive even in the StarBlast if you don’t spend too much time obsessing over stars at the edge. The 20-mm? Putrid at f/4 without a coma corrector and nothing to write home about with one. The best of the series is undoubtedly the 15, with the 9 and 6 being OK for the deep sky, but too prone to internal reflections to make you happy on the Moon and planets, and the 20-mm bringing up the rear. Interestingly, despite the tiny prices, these are not overly simple designs, with the 6 and 9-mm using a negative field lens (Barlow) to achieve their short focal lengths. I like the Expanses, always have, and will prob’ly pick up another set directly to use in my Denkmeier binoviewer.

Explore Scientific’s 100-degree Series

Call it “the return of Scott Roberts.” The former Meade honcho departed that company a while back, but did not leave astro-biz. Afore long we was hearing that he’d started a company of his own, “Explore Scientific.” At first I thought, “Ho-hum, bunch o’ import ED refractors just like ever’ Tom, Dick and Harry in the bidness is selling.” But it warn’t long before Scott started showing some more innovative products. The most shocking of which is a 100-degree AFOV eyepiece.

The first 100 to appear on the website is a 14-mm with about 15-mm of eye relief in a barrel that is honestly purty Ethos-looking. This eyepiece is not just a figment of some web-designer’s imagination; Scott and company have been showing it at star parties where the general consensus appears to have been “almost an Ethos.” What’s most amazing is the price that’s being quoted by Explore’s dealers: $399.00 (introductory price; it goes up 100 dollars after June). I would guess that’s proletarian enough for even the 100-degree Doubter Company of the Curmudgeon Brigade to at least consider.

I was mostly impressed by the information Explore’s website offered on this forthcoming eyepiece, but not completely. I wasn’t bowled over at the news that this nitrogen-purged eyepiece survived submersion in 1-meter of water for 30-minutes (Scott was seen at NEAF dunking his eyepiece in a cotton-pickin' fish tank), since I don’t normally observe from underwater--well, sometimes it seems like I do down here in the swamp. Sounds silly. I was also bemused by the site’s spiel about their inspiration for introducing a 100-degree AFOVer. Nice words, but, hey, let’s be honest with ourselves; the reason this is on the market is the tremendous reception the Ethos received from (most) amateurs. There is nothing wrong with introducing a product because someone else has shown there is a market for it. If that didn’t happen, we’d still be driving Model Ts and likely paying twenty grand for ‘em. Nothing to be embarrassed about.

Me and the Explore 100? I’m takig’ a wait-and-see. If they are as good as I think they will be, there is no reason I wouldn’t buy one in a focal length that interested me. The way to success has always been making products as good or better than the other guy for less money, and I wish Scott every success in the world.

May I leave you-all with a bit of personal eyepiece philosophy? All the above are good oculars; many folks could be entirely happy, even over the long run, with even an humble Owl. And yet, and yet… As you’ve been told many times and are tired of hearing, you can never go wrong buying the best eyepiece possible. Yeah, 700 for an Ethos hurts, but you may use that eyepiece for ten, twenty, thirty years, or more, long after that fancy widescreen TV has repaired to a landfill. If you can’t afford the best, though, and need an eyepiece now, by all means, glom onto one of the above. They will not disappoint if you go in with both eyes open: “Not a Panoptic, not a Nagler, not an Ethos, but mine.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Of DVDs and Binoculars

I could just as easily have called thisun “The Trouble with the Magazines: the Update.” I’d originally intended it to be nothing more than a follow-up to the blog from last summer that examined the state of our two much-loved newsstand astronomy mags, Sky & Telescope and Astronomy. One thing was sure, that blog generated enough heated discussion that li’l ol’ pot-stirrer me was eager to revisit the subject. And that will be the theme of this edition generally speaking. Specifically? One of the monthlies made Unk mad as a hatter, and this will be my chance to vent. Heck, what’s the sense of having a cotton-picking blog if you can’t use it to blow off steam every once in a while?

Before getting to the venting, howsomeever, let’s do a status report. If you-all don’t wanna go back and review the previous article, here’s the poop: last year I began to fear our beloved glossy astronomy magazines would not be around much longer. Aside from what little I knew about the business as a sometime magazine contributor, what made my fears tangible was the magazines’ physical presence or increasing lack thereof. I noted both had radically decreased their page counts, Astronomy going from an average of over 100 pages to eighty-something and Sky & Telescope shrinking from 130 or so to about 100. I also mentioned that the paper stock used by both monthlies was becoming ever cheaper, and would soon be approaching the quality and durability of dollar-store toilet paper. Finally, I noted with dismay the personnel changes at Sky & Telescope; two of their most knowledgeable and experienced hands, Kelly Beatty and Rick Fienberg were suddenly gone.

So where do both rags stand a year down the road from my last look? With me, they stand just where they always have. I continue to renew my subscriptions to Astronomy and Sky & Telescope year in and year out. I send them little blow-in cards in just like the swallows return to dadgummed Capistrano. Luckily, your ol’ Unk is still gainfully employed and can afford to do so. More and more I hear both magazines’ readers declare they just can’t afford it anymore. That’s not surprisin’ in this environment, I suppose. As costs have increased (and advertising revenues perhaps declined of late), subscription prices have naturally risen. Sky 'n ‘Scope stands at $37.95 per annum, and Astronomy is $42.95. When you are wondering how you are gonna pay the mortgage, it’s not likely you will even consider re-subscribing to a “hobby magazine,” even at these still relatively reasonable rates. To hear some amateurs tell it, there ain’t much need to, even if you ain’t having trouble keeping body and soul together. All the amateur astronomy stuff you need is on the blankety-blank Internet, right?

Mebbe so, Skeezix, mebbe so. B-U-T. When it comes time to seriously consider buying new gear, for example, who you gonna trust, Good Buddy Dennis Di Cicco in Sky &Telescope, or Joe Spit the Ragman over on Cloudy Nights? Not that there are not plenty of good and reliable reviews on the Interwebs, but most of the time I’ll pay more attention to Dennis. Yeah, I’ve heard that ol’ canard, “Sky & Telescope and Astronomy never give unfavorable reviews to advertisers.” Heard it for years, and there’s still no more truth in it than there’s ever been. Yes, the reviews in the newsstand mags tend to be more diplomatic and polite than what you read on your Uncle Ezra’s Telescope Review and Muzzleloader Web Site, but that’s professionalism, not bootlicking.

People have come to expect the radical and the one-sided from the Net, I suppose: “That Acme ED refractor SUX…I wouldn’t use the frackin' thing to scoop litter outa the cat box.” Me, I find that review style amusing on occasion, but I don’t want to pay for it in a magazine, or even read it regularly for free. And there are numerous other reasons for still preferring a non-virtual amateur astronomy magazine (most notably, Unk not wanting to hold a computer in his lap during his, uh, “morning ablutions”). That may change in the near future if something like the Kindle really takes hold, but for now if Astronomy and Sky & Telescope went away I’d replace ‘em with other magazines, not websites.

So, I’m still subscribing and saving each issue of the Big Two as they come in? Well, sorta. Sky & Telescope continues to be dutifully filed as each copy gets read (which admittedly don’t take as long as it used to). With the exception of the issues one of my ex-wives used to line her birdcage or fed to her Labrador retriever, I’ve got most of the Sky 'n 'Scopes going back to ’65. They often come in handy when I’m researching something for a book or article or just get curious about what Meade was touting as the CAT’s meow back in 1982. Astronomy? Not so much. As the clock slowly ticks on toward retirement, we’ve begun slowly, ever so slowly, disposing of the unloved and unused around Chaos Manor South.

One afternoon, I realized all them issues of Astronomy were taking up lotsa room but were rarely, if ever, being referred to. Gritting my teeth I—a little reluctantly—threw out almost all the post-Richard Berry issues to include all the numbers published during Bonnie Gordon's Editorship. Yes, I did try to give ‘em away, but had no takers. New issues? When I finish ‘em, I hand ‘em off to my mates who still like to read the magazine, but don’t want to pay for it.

Sky & Telescope

How has Sky & Telescope fared over the last 12-months? Come si, come sa. The first thing I wanna talk about is something I hear a lot lately on the Cloudy Nights, on the Astromart, and on the dadgummed sci.astro.amateur (if you can find anything about astronomy there between the religious rants and ads for adult videos). That in recent times Sky & Telescope has been significantly dumbed-down. That the pre 90s (or pre 80s or pre 70s or pre 60s) issues was much more scholarly, and contained much more information.

The first claim is probably true if’n you interpret “scholarly” to mean “dry as dust.” Yes, compared to, say, a 1965 issue, the articles in today’s Sky & Telescope are written in a more spritely manner. Fer example, the results of an international conference about the always popular Quasi-Stellar Radio Sources that would in 1965 have been headlined “QUASARs at Prague” will today be touted as, “Black Hearts of the Cosmos” or some such. However, just because the writing is more engaging now doesn’t usually mean there is less information. I think Sky 'n ‘Scope does a purty good job of keeping the info density high while appealing to a wider audience than in the good old days. One casualty, I will admit, is math. Today, editors do tend to shy away from printing equations—more than they used to anyhow. On the other hand, Sky & Telescope never was the cotton-pickin’ APJ, and was never meant to be. I suppose this slight dumbing down—if you wanna call it that—is a fair price for wider appeal, which helps our avocation itself as well as the magazine, I reckon.

Physically, the magazine continued to shrink, with the latest issue weighing in at a mere 82 pages of the same thin paper that made me askeered last year. Until recently, I thought Sky 'n 'Scope was doing a right good job with the lower page count. There were still enough editorial (i.e. not advertising) pages to satisfy. Mostly that is still true, but I suppose it was inevitable the effects would be felt, and so they have. As y’all know, I am a Lunatic with a capital “L;” I am a big fan of Earth’s natural satellite. Which means I have also been a huge fan of Charles Wood’s “Exploring the Moon” column, which has been edumacatin’ me about Luna for years now. Unfortunately, apparently due to the reduced page count, Chuck’s column will now alternate with a new feature on deep sky observing, Ken Hewitt-White’s “Going Deep.” I’ve enjoyed Ken’s work in Sky News, fer sure, but I am still a little miffed I won’t get my Moon fix every month.

The principal unknown when it comes to Skypub—whoops, I mean “New Track Media”? Will the corporate masters allow the magazine to continue to serve the amateur/professional/astronomy educator community as it has done for—what?—near about seven decades, or will there be about-faces and destructive “new paradigms” in an attempt to capture some of Astronomy’s airport-impulse-buy readers? Hard to say. I couldn’t help but be suspicious when Sky & Telescope was sold. And even more when Kelly Beatty and Rick Fienberg left (and more recently, Steve O’Meara and David Levy). I think we all remember the unpleasantness surrounding Astronomy’s purchase by Kalmbach (the model train folks) way back when. Thus far my fears have been mostly groundless. New editor Robert Naeye seems to be doing a credible job of steady-as-she-goes despite the straightened circumstances.

The main concern I have for Sky & Telescope? They, unlike their competitor, don’t seem to be trying much in the way of the Internet type ideas that will likely be the salvation of magazines as their lumbering dinosaur trot from print to electronic proceeds on apace. The Sky & Telescope website is OK, but does not have anything that would impel me to visit it on a daily (or weekly, or monthly) basis. When was the last time you heard a fellow amateur buzzing about what they saw there? On the other hand, they probably are continually chirping ‘bout somethin’ or the udder they read on Cloudy Nights or Astromart. Another example? S&T recently shut down its moldy-oldie Skyline telephone answering astro-news service. This was replaced by a podcast. That is a good thing. But why didn’t they KICK IT UP A NOTCH and also start Tweeting news via Twitter? Seems like that would be a natural.

What I’ve wanted for a long time is electronic versions of them gazillions of old Sky and Telescope issues. Don’t look like that’s gonna happen, I’m afraid. I understand there are contractual difficulties that preclude Sky 'n 'Scope’s older issues being made available in electronic form. But why not start converting the newer issues to .pdfs and offering subscribers the current issue as .pdf and/or print? Apparently there was some experimenting along these lines going on last year, but nothing has come of it yet. The magazine has made electronic versions of individual articles available for some time. B-U-T…even subscribers have to pay for these downloads. Come on, y’all, that is no way to run a railroad. Yes, as above Luddite Rod still wants his paper and ink, but a lot of sprouts don’t, and it seems to me that at least offering the option of an electronic S&T would be a good way to ensure their future loyalty and even save money.


Sometimes I think I'll learn my lesson. But I never do. To wit: I shoulda looked before I leaped, engaged brain before putting mouth in gear, etc., etc. Sky & Telescope is Tweeting on Twitter and has  been.


Then there’s “The World’s Most Beautiful Astronomy Magazine.” Well, that’s how they used to bill themselves in the masthead anyhow; today it’s “The World’s Best Selling Astronomy Magazine.” Something I’ve lately thought is a not so subtle symptom of the magazine’s troubles in the post-Steve Walther, post-Richard Berry era. Luckily, the rag is also in its post “Discover Magazine for Astronomy” days. Under amateur astronomer Dave Eicher, Astronomy has slowly crawled its way back from the disastrous tour of duty (as we amateurs saw it) of its previous Editor, whose tenure is little noted nor long remembered even on the “history” page at the Astronomy website.

Honestly, I know some of y’all who consider yourselves “advanced amateurs” (whatever the heck that means) have long turned-up your noses at “the other guys.” If you were to pick up a current issue of Astronomy, though, I believe you would be pleasantly surprised. Twarn’t long back that I found myself giving Astronomy my “Most Improved” award. While Sky 'n 'Scope seemed to be in the doldrums, if not decline, Astronomy under Mr. Eicher went from strength to strength. Yeah, I’ve been giving my current issues away, but I’ve found myself tearing out more and more articles to save for future use—at times the magazines I’ve dispensed to my buds have been little more than a front and back cover and the gee-whiz-black hole-astronomy-fact articles from the front.

And most importantly for the future health of the magazine, Astronomy seemed to be branching out again following the putting-to-sleep of their “Kalmbach Publishing” line of astro books some time back. While most of their non-Astronomy output has been magazine-format specials, these have been very good indeed. I particularly liked last year’s 100 Most Spectacular Sky Wonders and Atlas of the Stars. Liked ‘em? Heck, I found these two pubs useful enough that they are now included in my deep sky observing bugout kit—those things I grab for spur of the moment runs. Even more impressive, if in a tentative way, has been their online efforts. The magazine’s website per se don’t impress me overmuch, still. Seems cluttered, and has unneeded and mostly unloved stuff on there like forums (why bother when just about ever’body is gonna use Cloudy Nights or Astromart instead?). But there is getting to be more to Astronomy online than that.

A big surprise, and one of the nicest things anybody has done for the amateur community in a long  time is the conversion to Adobe Acrobat files of the much-loved, much-missed Deep Sky and Telescope Making magazines, shut down years ago when Kalmbach bought Astronomy from its founder’s heirs. No, Astronomy ain’t giving all these back numbers away for free, but almost. You can download ‘em for a lousy $3.95 apiece. I simply cannot say how happy I am to be able to finally complete my collection of Deep Sky and to have them in a format that’s more convenient for use in the field (print useful articles and stick ‘em in your observing notebook, or put all the issues on a CD for display on the laptop).

And that’s not all; Astronomy has also begun online publishing of reprints of the “Celestial Portraits” series that ran in the magazine (like Eicher’s fondly-remembered “Universe from Your Backyard” series). Only thing I don’t like? These are a mite high at $8.95 per 25-page file; to get the whole series of 11 you’ll shell out nearly a C note.

Sounds like I really like the current incarnation of Astronomy, then. Yeah. I did, anyhow. But just recently they have P.O.ed me (“put out” of course; this is a family-friendly blog) to beat the band. Yep, just when I thought I’d learned to stop worrying and love Astronomy,  just when I’m distracted by all this good stuff, I get a one-two to the Solar plexus.

This started innocuously enough when a package dropped through the mail slot and landed with a ker-plunk in Chaos Manor South’s front hall. When I tore off the wrapping I discovered said package contained a DVD from Astronomy, something called Infinite Cosmos. Cool. Sadly, my cool-meter dropped precipitously when I discovered that, far from being an original production, this was just an old episode from the History Channel’s Universe series bolstered by a minute or two of original footage (Dave Eicher speaking at you--he's a nice enough guy, but has the star potential of Mr. Potato Head). I already had the whole season of Universe this episode was extracted from, so I mashed “eject” and threw the thing into a corner. Didn’t think much more about it till I started hearing some disturbing comments concerning it on the Cloudy Nights.

These comments had nothing to do with the fact that the DVD was a retread from History, but that folks like me, Astronomy subscribers mostly, who had received this DVD without asking for it had begun getting dun notices from Kalmbach: “Either return the DVD or pay for it.” The cost was fairly reasonable, $12.95, but buying the first one would apparently get a DVD subscription started, and the cost for future disks would go up to $28.00. Which is surely something of a stretch when you consider the fact that you can get whole seasons of Universe from Amazon or Best Buy for about the same price. But that’s beside the point. The point was the “bill,” which I soon received myself.

“It’s been months since you received Life and Death of a Star, the first DVD in the series. We've checked our records, and it appears we have not heard from you.” I was right put out, lemme tell ya. Especially since Miss Dorothy, busy as always, had glanced briefly o’er this notice and took her checkbook out. A little studying of the “bill” revealed a paragraph that admitted there was “no obligation” to pay or return the disk since the DVD was unsolicited. Legal? Yes. Smarmy? That too. How many harried folks would just, like Miss D., write a check?

The more I thought about it, the madder I became. Like good ol’ Popeye, that was all I could stand, I couldn’t stand no more. I sat down and drafted a two part email to Dave Eicher, the first part excoriating (in a polite way) he and his mates or whoever at Kalmbach dreamed up the DVD-dun scheme. I pointed-out that the name “Astronomy” was now being taken in vain at every Internet watering hole where amateurs gather because of this business. I also observed that I would think that in these economic hard times he couldn’t afford to alienate his audience; least of all his subscribers, for god’s sake.

That was part one of my email; what was the subject of part two? Somethin’ even more wrongheaded in this ol’ boy’s opinion. If you’ve been an amateur for even a little while, “Phil Harrington” is a name you recognize. Phil’s many excellent books, and especially his equipment guide, Starware, should be on every observer’s shelf, and usually are. Not only does Phil write right good books—when I was larnin’ the astro-writing trade I looked to his work as both inspiration and guide—he’s been an Astronomy contributor and columnist for years. A few years back there was often not much reason to read an issue except for Phil’s work.

One great thing he has contributed to the magazine is his monthly column on binocular observing, “Binocular Universe.” Not only did Phil write the book on binocular astronomy, literally, he continues doing that in his column every month, turning out installments that are both wildly accessible to young squirts and of unfailing interest to astronomy curmudgeons like Unk. Sky and Telescope does binoculars too, but nobody does it as well as Phil, and it was especially good there was a prominent feature on this subject in Astronomy. If there’s one thing a pub at least somewhat slanted toward the novice end of the amateur astronomy spectrum needs, it’s a binocular piece ever’ month, right?

Seems self-evident the answer is “yes,” don’t it? Well not to the folks at Astronomy, not no more. I was flabbergasted to learn that Phil’s column is being discontinued. Leaving aside the fact I consider him a friend, it just seems like a dumb move. Why would they do such a thing? At first I thought it might be because Astronomy has, in quite a coup, acquired David Levy as a columnist. Only so much can go into 88 pages.

Then, I started seeing new stuff in the magazine. New fluff more like. “Astroconfidential,” for example. I reckon you can guess at the worth of this two-page spread on the basis of its name alone without me having to go into the grim details. Suffice to say, someone asks professional astronomers (never amateurs thus far) insightful, Earth-shattering questions like, “Where do you see yourself ten years from now?” Sheesh, even if they think this goo is of interest to somebody out there, couldn’t they live with one page of it and leave Phil his single page?

That was the second part of the email I fired off to Mr. Eicher: trying to point out in my rambling and misdirected fashion that they were letting their readers down and harming themselves in the process of canceling Phil’s column. To my surprise, I got a response right away. Oh, not from Dave Eicher. Turned out he was, uh, “travelling,” and had asked Executive Editor Dick McNally to respond for him. Mr. McNally apologized for the angst caused by the silly DVD game, and promised Phil would "Continue to write on assignment for us."

Normally, I’d have let it go at that, but just as I set down to the computer, the scary AH-OOO-GAH announced “mail’s in.” And what should be in that batch o’ post other than another NOTICE ABOUT THAT CONSARNED FRICKIN-FRACKIN’ DVD. I shot one last email at McNally thanking him for his apology, but mentioning that another nag letter had just now come in.

Waalll…while it had seemed the Era of Good Feelin’ toward Astronomy was to be of short duration, I was at least somewhat mollified they’d bothered to respond to me at all. Until I learned shortly thereafter that what I’d received was nothing more than a form letter response, likely prepared well in advance of the receipt my missive.

2020 Update

What's happened at Astronomy? I don't have the slightest idea. Several years ago, I got tired of the magazine--I got tired of playing the "how many mistakes can you find in this issue" for one thing--and let my subscription lapse. Frankly, I find thinking about the magazine, let alone reading it, tiresome. But that is just cynical and jaded old me. I must admit beginners in astronomy can do a lot worse than Astronomy.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


The Return of SkyTools and the New Software Curse

The return of SkyTools? Where the heck did it go? Actually, this popular computer program for observers didn’t go anywhere, muchachos. It just kept on trucking year after year meeting the needs of its legions of fans. Including me.

But there isn't any doubt I got away from SkyTools for a while. This astronomy program, a member of the “planner logger” species, has been a favorite of mine over the four or five years since it came to live on my hard drive. But, Unk being Unk, his computer continues to fill up with ever more astro-ware. Don’t ask me why, but software authors seem to think that li’l ol’ me should review their work. That’s fine by me. I might not really know much about software and PCs, but I do like playing with the stuff. Oh, I’d booted up SkyTools a time or two over the last couple of years, but only to check my facts when I was writing it up for the software section in my Choosing and Using a New CAT.

Till one day I was doing a little housekeeping on the laptop I use at the telescope, and being bored clicked on SkyTools 2’s icon. If I’d forgotten just how wonderful this program is, a little cruising around in it, updating observing lists, and playing with its beautiful “Interactive Star Atlas” reminded me. Soon, good, ol’ ST2 was back by my side on the observing field. At this past year’s Deep South Regional Star Gaze, it enabled me to tick off one Herschel 400 fuzzy after another with my 12-inch Dobbie, Old Betsy, as I cruised through that sometimes daunting list, which I am finally determined to GET DONE.

I used to think SkyTools was mainly for Dob owners, and DSRSG sure reinforced how great it and its deep, legible, flexible charts are for alt-az star hopping. Some planning programs skimp on star charts, but not SkyTools. Its maps are easily as useful as those in TheSky and nearly as pretty as those in Starry Night Pro Plus. A recent outing with my computer-happy go-to-enabled C8, though, reminded me that SkyTools is not just for the bigdobs.

SkyTools' Realtime screeen.
Sometime after I began using ST2, I sprang for the extra-cost add-on, Real Time, which allows for telescope control via ASCOM or with some built-in drivers, and swiftly came to believe that SkyTools is also at the head of the class in astro-ware for go-to scope owners. With Real Time, your list’s objects are constantly updated in, well, real time, as to visibility and are just a mouse click away from your eyepiece or camera.

Yep, Dob or SCT, go-to or not—hell, I don’t care if your “primary instrument” is a StarBlast—Sky Tools 2 will allow you to see more of your universe than you ever dreamed possible. Don’t believe me? You’ll have to experience the program for yourself, then you will believe, pards, I guar-ron-tee, but you may also be interested in reading the review of the program I did some time back.

SkyTools 2 is the CAT’s meow, then? Well, sorta. You see, there’s a new kid on the block, SkyTools 3. Things were admittedly quiet at SkyTools’ publisher, Greg Crinklaw’s Capellasoft, for a few years—on the surface at least. Then, a couple of annums back, I heard Greg was in the process of producing a major update, actually a completely new version, to be called “SkyTools 3.”

Since I was preparing Choosing and Using a New CAT at the time, I got ahold of Bubba Greg and requested a review copy of ST3 for the book. He allowed as how he’d be happy to oblige, but that the program was not close to ready to go. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t quite finished by my deadline, and I had to content myself with mentioning that a new version of SkyTools would likely be on the streets at about the same time Choosing and Using hit them.

Which turned out to be true. Shortly after the book was published, Greg contacted me, and asked if I’d still be interested in looking at “3” as the subject, perhaps, of a review. I answered in the affirmative, of course. I was curious to see if the new one could possibly displace SkyTools 2 in my affections. I was skeptical, I’ll admit, and maybe even a mite apprehensive. I don’t think I’ve ever loved an astronomy program as much as I’ve loved SkyTools 2—well, maybe Megastar comes close—and I simply didn’t see how Mssr. Crinklaw could improve on it. Would the effort to update the program ruin it? Y’all know my motto: The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better.

The Chiefland Holiday Inn Express on a rainy night.
As I always am when new astro-stuff arrives, I was mighty excited when the envelope containing the SkyTools 3 CD dropped through Chaos Manor South’s mail slot one afternoon. I ripped open the puppy with trembling fingers and fumbled it into the laptop’s DVD drive. Would my fave astro-soft be changed beyond all recognition? Would I have to spend weeks trying to figger the danged thing out like the time I got TheSky 6 Pro?

There’s no doubt Skytools 3 Professional (the version I received)—or even the “standard” SkyTools 3—has one heck of a lot of new features and capabilities, but when I booted the soft up after the install, it was: “Ahhh…thank the good Lord.” ST3 features a user interface that is comfortingly familiar—nay, almost unchanged, at first glance anyway. After a brief bit of head scratching to cipher-out how to import my “old” object lists, I was back to bidness as usual, and could take my time dipping my toe in the new stuff.

Like I done told y’all, I’m working on a full-up review of ST3, but I know you little boogers, you want to know what’s new now. Might not be a bad idea to visit the SkyTools 3 website, but here’s a list of what I think’s new and notable in SkyTools 3 Professional:

Numerous tools designed for the astrophotographer (“imager” in Newspeak), tools like an exposure calculator.

Visual Detection Model. I don’t know how it works, and I’d prob’ly be too dumb to understand the explanation if I got one anyhow, but the program is able to offer remarkably accurate opinions on how easy an object will be to see with your scope from your site. This don’t just apply to faint fuzzies; the dadgummed thing can also tell you how easy a double star will be to split.

Yeah, SkyTools’ sky simulation has always been pretty, but now it is also “real.” It takes the same things into account that the visual detection thingy does in presenting the way your sky looks.

The program’s Interactive Atlas is purty cool, yeah, but as I cruise across all them fuzzies, I can’t help wondering how they will look in my NexStar 11. No need to wonder no longer, even if the sky is cloudy. The Atlas has a little window you can bring up that shows a surprisingly realistic eyepiece simulation. If I’ve got my scope hooked up at the time, she will follow this window as I drag it from object to object. I don’t know about “in Vegas,” but as Slim Pickens said in Dr. Strangelove, “A feller could have a pretty good time with that.”

We got the scopes our of the vehicles--for a little while.
Automatic list making. Sometimes the sky clears when I don’t expect it to (though it’s mostly been the opposite o’ that this year). I need an observing list and I need it now. I know I won’t see much if I go out without a list, but I don’t got time to sort through SkyTools’ massive database looking for cool stuff. Salvation: this SkyTools 3 will make lists for you, automatically. Showpieces, cool faint fuzzies, you call it.

Let’s say you do have time to generate lists of your own for the weekend’s deep sky safari. You gotta search for them objects before you can plunk ‘em into a list. Like most planners, SkyTools 2 was a little particular about search strings. SkyTools 3 is much less so. I searched for Hercules’ premier globular as “M13,” “M 13,” and “Messier 13,” and ST3 found it every time. That seems simple, I know, but you’d be surprised at how many programs have trouble with this simple thing.

Wondering what’s up with your favorite cosmic lint ball? Don’t feel like squinting at rows of data to figger that out? This program will do that for you. ST3 will generate a synopsis of your target’s particulars for any given evening. Is it a good time for M13? With your scope and your eyepieces from your site? I selected the big ball o’ stars and this is what ST3 had to say:

On this night Keystone Cluster is best visible between 03:27 and 05:38, with the optimum view at 04:45. Look for it in Hercules, high in the sky in complete darkness. It is easy visually in the Celestron NexStar 11. Use the Ethos 13mm for optimum visual detection.

In the following 30 days this object is easy visually from April 4-7, and again from April 14 on, with the best view coming on April 21. Keystone Cluster passes high overhead at Tanner Williams Darksite. It is best viewed from early May through early October, with the best evening viewing in late July.

You tell me, is that cool or what? I know it just tickles me.

Could that be, yes, Blue sky peeping out?!
You want stars? SkyTools 3 has got zillions of ‘em, and not just from the (sometimes) less than optimum Hubble Guide Star Catalog. The program’s “integrated database” consists of, Greg says, “the best” from HIPPARCOS, Tycho 2, UCAC, USNO-B1, WDS, CCDM and GCVS catalogs. Natcherly, the thing is full up with double stars and variable stars too. Speaking of the latter, while I ain’t never been much of a variable star freak, I was absolutely gobsmacked to hear the variable stars in SkyTools 3 actually CHANGE BRIGHTNESS ON THE CHARTS!

Fuzzies? Lots. In addition to expanding its already huge databases, the new version of SkyTools offers improved positions for its catalog of over a million galaxies.

When I use a go-to scope with a PC program, I wanna initiate go-tos from that program. The grass is purty dern green in this regard with SkyTools 3 Professional. Not only is the go-to module, Real Time included now (with ST3 Professional) instead of being an extra-cost “unlockable,” more scopes have been added to its native support list (it still uses ASCOM, too). Gotta Servocat? ST3 will now have yer kitty lappin’ cream.

I could keep going, but you get the picture. Visit the website if’n you want to. Wait for my full review if you need to. Or just wise up and order it. Now.

That’s SkyTools 3, but what in tarnation do I mean by “the New Software Curse?” All y’all know about the New Scope Curse, I reckon: buy a new play-pretty and the clouds automatically cover the sky from horizon to horizon. Unfortunately, Uncle Rod found out the same principle apparently also applies to new Astronomy Software. Gotta say I was dismayed. I could understand a sudden gathering of angry-looking thunderheads in response to the recent delivery of a 13-mm Ethos to Chaos Manor South, but legions of dark, threatening, and just plain evil clouds brought on by a new astro-CD? Come on!

I didn’t just wanna play around with SkyTools 3 in the Ol' Manse’s dining room, I wanted to get it out on the observing field to see if this one was just as good as the ol’ one when it came to helping me find and view Good Stuff. I did get ST3 out to my club dark site, just to the west of Possum Swamp in the metropolis of Tanner-Williams, Alabama on a Messier Marathon night, and I did get to use it for about 30-minutes before the clouds rolled in with a vengeance, but I wanted to give it some more time under the stars before setting down to write a review.

And the rain continued to fall...
Since it didn’t look like the clouds would abate any time soon here along the northern Gulf Coast, I started thinking about my favorite remote observing site, the Chiefland Astronomy Village, which is far enough to the south to escape some of the bad weather that routinely affects The Swamp. And not only would folks be down to CAV for hard core observing as on every dark of the moon, Chiefland’s much loved Spring Picnic (star party) would be in full swing during the March New Moon, my proposed getaway weekend.

Only buzzing fly in the butter? The Weather Underground (Wunderground) forecast for that weekend started iffy and got worse. It began with “partly cloudy,” devolved to “mostly cloudy,” and by the time my Friday morning departure arrived it landed with a stinking “scattered thunderstorms” thud.

If I’d known how truly bad the weather was gonna be, I might have gone back to bed. Then again, I might not have, since I have never had a bad time at Chiefland or any other star party no matter how bad the weather. Yeah, one reason I go to star parties is to observe, sure. But I have a decent dark site 45-minutes from home. At star parties I’m also interested in hanging out with my fellow amateurs, looking at and through their scopes, and just relaxing. Something that encouraged me concerning my proposed Chiefland run? I had never, ever been fully skunked at Chiefland. Even those times I had only had two days on-site, I always got in an hour or three of excellent deep sky touring.

I did come real close to backing off a notch telescope-wise. Given the weather predictions and the fact that it was begnning to drizzle e’en as I marshaled the gear in Chaos Manor South’s front hall Friday morning, I thought about loading up my new 8-inch Dob instead of my time-tested 12.5-inch, Old Betsy. The new one would sure be a lot easier to get back into a vehicle if the weather turned from “punk” to “junk.”

I demurred, however. Betsy was already disassembled, and she has one thing the new rig don’t in addition to a bigger primary: a Sky Commander DSC computer. I ain’t forgot how to star hop, but since I’d only have two days max, I wanted to spend my limited time looking, not hunting. My observing companion, Pat, had also decided to head to CAV despite the forecasts, and he’d be bringing the twin sister of my 8-inch. If it looked too iffy to fool with Bets, I figgered I’d bum a peek or two through his scope.

The dome of the 42-inch "Beast"!
The drive down to Chiefland from Possum Swamp is a not inconsiderable one. It’s all of 375-miles from Chaos Manor South’s front porch to the CAV observing field. That is not that much different from the trip to Atlanta, however, and I can usually do that in about 5 – 5 ½ hours. Driving alone, as I would be this time, it does help to have a book on tape to make the drive less boring. 2/3rds of it is on featureless I-10, and not until you get close to Chiefland is there much to look at (eventually, you parallel the scenic Suwannee River with its lost motels and tourist attractions from a more prosperous pre Disney World age).

With that in mind, I loaded up my iPod with an old favorite from Stephen King, Cell. Yeah, I know it ain’t exactly Literature with a capital “L”—I’ve spent enough time sitting in Graduate English courses to know that—but I also know King is a gifted writer and that his creepy Grand Guignol tales sure do make the time pass. The drive would actually have been pleasant, restful even, if it hadn't been for the dadgummed weather.

Just as I finished loading up my modest gear (other than the 12-inch, I was travelling remarkably light), the drizzle increased to a steady rain, and by the time I was headed east on Interstate 10 it had become an unrelieved downpour that followed me for the 275 miles of Interstate. It’s hard to relax when every passing 18-wheeler sends up a sheet of water that reduces your visibility to zero. My five-and-a-half hour drive was extended by about an hour.

As I approached my Exit, I still had hopes. I’ve become accustomed to the clouds beginning to dissipate as I turn off I-10 to US 19 for the last 100-miles of the Chiefland Run, and, by the time I reach the town of Chiefland itself, blue sky appearing. Not this time. When I took the Highway 19 exit, it was raining harder than ever and there was intense lightning to boot. I didn't stop at the good old Sunoco station where I normally refuel and load up on snacks because the power was off and the gas pumps and cash register were dead. So it was with the other filling stations in the area. Luckily, I had more than enough gas to make it to Chiefland.

Headed south on the Florida - Georgia Parkway, the story was the same: torrential rain and seemingly never ending thunder and lightning. When I arrived at my motel, the Holiday Inn Express, the rain had at least slowed down, but I forewent my usual procedure of checking in and immediately heading to the site to unload before returning to town for grub and supplies.

There was occasionally a little Sun--very occasionally.
Instead, I waited for Pat to arrive. We'd be economizing by sharing a room, which might make a total skunking a little less painful, I thought. When he got to the motel, we left his car at the Holiday Inn and took my Camry on to the CAV. It was clear neither of us would be unloading scopes any time soon, so there was no need to take both vehicles. I wanted to gas up the Toyota, too, since I hadn't been able to do that at the Highway 19 Exit.

After making a quick run on the Chiefland Wal-Mart for supplies and then gassing up, we headed to the site, spent some time with our hosts, Tom and Jeannie Clark, and peered over at the Chiefland Star Party Group's star party location on the neighboring New Field. Seemed as we weren't the only astronomers crazy enough not to undeterred by dire weather forecasts. Between the New Field and the old Club Field there were maybe 15 – 20 vehicles and even a few well-tarped telescopes set up on Friday afternoon.

There was simply no question of it clearing Friday night, and not much to do on the field. So, I deposited the bottled water and the Monster Energy Drinks I’d purchased at WallyWorld in the vaunted Clubhouse refrigerator, and Pat and I headed off to find supper.

Which is easy to do, since the tiny town of Chiefland, Florida is graced with several good eateries. Our choice on this afternoon was that perennial fave of CAV amateurs, Bar-B-Q Bill’s. The attraction? Cheap, prompt, courteous, good food, lots of it. After our visit with the Clarks, this was the high point of a dreary day; we spent the rest of it surfing the Internet at the motel before returning to the CAV field for a memorial to a recently deceased Chiefland club member, Rick Donnelly, which was held on the field at sundown. After that, it was more World-Wide-Web, cable TV watching, and ‘Yell drinking at the Holiday Inn.

Saturday dawned and still there were clouds. The morning, which we spent in the motel room, was not wasted, however. Unk busied himself with assembling the printed circuit board for the motor controller for an equatorial platform Pat is home-brewing. I was a little apprehensive, since I haven’t done much electronics construction in a little while. Luckily, soldering skills, like bicycle riding skills, apparently never desert you, and I had Pat's PCB finished in no time. The sky? When I finished with the last resistor, it was still cloudy…but…but…but…was that a touch of blue?

This odd tent/tarp conglomeration was called "the Swamp" by its owner.
Fired up, we headed out to the site, and, for a while, it looked like Unk’s never-been-skunked record would remain unbroken. A strong wind gusting above 20-knots blew steadily, and surely it would, we thought, blow the mess out. Pat got his ultra portable Dob out of his vehicle for a while, but Betsy stayed right where she was in my Camry.

Three o’clock provided the diversion of the Picnic, the FOOD part of the Chiefland Spring Picnic, which was held under Tom Crowley’s (large) RV shelter over next to the New Field. Before lunch, I had the opportunity to visit with long-time amateur astronomer and radio amateur Tom C., who showed off his new and impressive ham station and his equally impressive radio astronomy gear. After our late lunch we meandered around the field for a while longer, keeping a weather eye on the sky, and still hoping for a break.

And so another Spring Picnic was done. The verdict? It was OK. The victuals were good enough and the folks putting on the picnic were nice enough, but some ineffable something was missing. It just wasn't the same as those wonderful picnics of yore held on the old field under the storied club pavilions. "You can't go home again," Mr. Wolfe says, but I do keep hoping.

By 5 p.m., it was becoming all too obvious the sky was not going to throw us a bone any time soon. Clouds as far as the eye could see. We spent a while helping a fellow amateur disassemble his field setup, a big tarp-covered trailer-tent affair known as "The Swamp," and in the process were nearly blown away when the wind caught one of the big tarps we were folding. A look around the field showed more than one die-hard was throwing in the towel. Pat's scope went back in his car and we headed back to C-Land to play the wait-and-see game, resolving to head on back if/when the weather changed.

There are times to head for the observing field, and times to stay at the motel. 
I’d like to tell you it did, that the skies cleared magically at sundown as they are sometimes known to do at CAV, but for once it didn’t. The timing was just a little off. A phone call to Miss Dorothy revealed that by mid-day Saturday the weather had turned beautiful up there. Down where we were, in contrast, the bad weather was just finding its legs, with the prediction being that conditions would not change till mid-day Sunday.

Unk usually plays the weather optimist but not this time. Saturday night, hanging out at the motel, Pat was determined to hop in his car and return to the CAV at the first sign of clearing, no matter how dark or late it was when the clouds finally dispersed. Me? I did not believe they would depart at any reasonable hour, and was not overly sanguine at the prospect of making my way out to the site in the dark and trying to set something up on the wet field.

Maybe I was just off my game or off my feed. Normally I would have said "HAIL YEAH!" But when I'd stepped outside not only was it still cloudy as 6 p.m. came and went, it was still raining like crazy.

I was tempted to stay an extra day, but the thought of teaching my Monday evening class after a long night of observing Sunday and a long drive back Monday morning discouraged me. We continued to surf the Web with our laptops, taking frequent peeps out the door to see if the sky's threatening appearance had changed. Nope. We filled the the remaining hours of our Chiefland stay by visiting just about every astro-web-site you can imagine, spending a long while down on memory lane at the Classic Telescope Catalog site.

At 11 p.m., I had had it, turned ASTROWIMP, and grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator and the blessed Yell bottle out of my bag. Pat tried to remain hopeful, and didn't seem too happy with my throwing in of the towel; that was OK. I'd have been perfectly fine with him heading to the CAV,  but I was keeping my butt at the Holiday Inn. It was nasty out, and even if a sucker hole appeared, observing on a saturated field with the bugs and humidity was not my idea of Saturday night entertainment. I could see the cards on the table: for once we was well and truly skunked.

But, yeah, as I reflected on the drive home Sunday morning, I’d had a good time nevertheless. Good friends, good food, got that motor controller assembled, and, most of all, I was not at work. One takeaway? My experience this time just reinforced my opinion that two nights in Chiefland is not enough. With three nights, you can be fairly assured of getting a few hours in. Four nights is even better. Two is asking to make friends with Mr. Skunk. This was the last time I ever did less than Thursday-Friday-Saturday at the CAV.

I’d not been able to cruise the spring galaxies with Betsy and ST3, but that would come soon, I promised myself, if not at Chiefland, at least at the club dark site. I just needed time to let that gull-derned New Software Curse abate. Maybe it will help if I burn my old floppy disk copy of SkyGlobe 3.6 as a sacrifice to them cruel, cruel weather gods.

Next Time:  Of DVDs and Binoculars...

2020 Update

You will be pleased to know SkyTools is very much alive and remains one of the most  capable astronomy resources available. It's now in Version 4, and has been split into imaging and visual editions.

Unfortunately, these days rain and clouds seem ever more common down Chiefland way in the spring and summer. However, at the time this one was written, I had three terrific Herschel Project summers in Chiefland ahead of me.

If not for the clouds, this probably would have been the first official night of the Herschel Project.

I believe this was the last time I attended a star party with someone other than Miss Dorothy. And that is a good thing. I am not as tolerant of the foibles of others as I should be, have plenty of faults myself, like to have my own way, and prefer solitude on the observing field. It takes a saint like Dorothy to be a good star party companion for Unk. 

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

stats counter Website Hit Counters