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. 

Good one, as always.
Two things:
1) You really are doing yourself a disservice NOT getting a 6" Achro. I have the C6R, and it is a wonderful scope, and it does work for planetary also.
2) My Dad is also from Alabama, and "walking" in high cotton is not the first word in that phrase as he uses it! LOL
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