Sunday, March 28, 2010
The Mighty C90
Sorry, Mike Weasner. I know the 90mm ETX, the MIGHTY ETX, beloved of many of us, including Unk, is the classic small MCT—even moreso than the Questar 3.5, since many more people have been able to experience the charms of the little Meade Mak. But the ETX ain’t the only small CAT that deserves our attention. The seldom-seen Parks Jovian Four 4-inch, for example, is one cool kitty (the old JSO-made models, anyhow). So is a real sleeper, the good, old Celestron C90.
As I recount in my Used CAT Buyer’s Guide, I got right excited when, in 1977, rumors began to circulate that Celestron was fixing to release a new scope. That excitement turned to dismay, and even disdain, one evening when I was On Alert at Titan II Missile Launch Complex 373-4. I often tried to save up Astronomy and Sky & Telescope to read on alert. Almost as soon as I pulled one of ‘em outa my B4 bag (Sky ‘n Scope was usually first) and began thumbing through it, I encountered an ad not unlike the one above, an ad for that very new telescope. Turned out the new CAT was called the "C90" and it was a 3.5-inch MCT, a Maksutov Cassegrain, not a Schmidt Cassegrain as I’d oh-so-blithely assumed it would be.
Yep, a small, very small, CAT that cost about 500 dollars for the “Astro” version, which came on a one-arm-bandit fork mount. Just about as much as an 8-inch Criterion Dynascope, fer Chrissakes. I was disappointed. Badly disappointed, doing enough under my breath muttering about the depredations of California telescope companies to make my fellow crew member begin looking at me funny. Admittedly, there was a bit of disconnect in my attitude; after all, I loved the idea of the (unobtainably expensive) 90mm Questar. Why was I so P.O.ed at the idea of a 90mm Celestron MCT that cost a lot, lot less than a Q?
Mostly just that disappointment, I reckon. What I was hoping for was a cheaper small SCT, maybe a nice “C4,” a 4-inch. At the time, Celestron telescopes were still tough nuts for me to crack. I I just couldn’t stomach having to miss lunches (and dinners) to accumulate the large amount of George Washingtons even a C5 commanded—not much less than the price of the original C8. Bottom line? Looked like I'd be sticking with my beloved if not quite perfect Tasco 11TE unless Celestron released a less expensive scope.
Despite my disdain for Celestron’s wee kitty, I did absorb the details. It wasn’t just one scope, but three: Astro, Spotter, and Telephoto. The optical design was the same on all of ‘em: a 90-mm aperture MCT of the Gregory design (aluminized spot on the corrector serving as the secondary) with the moderate focal ratio for a Mak of f/11. This basic tube was—unfortunately and to my further chagrin when I found out—set up to use only .965-inch Japanese Standard eyepieces and other accessories. In addition to the scope and a .965-inch diagonal and eyepiece, you got a smallish 5x24 finder on two of the three models. I had to admit this C90 was cute, no doubt about it, with a tube painted that famous Orange.
The most expensive of the three variations was—wouldn’t ya knowit?—the most interesting for us amateurs. The 500 buck Astro model cost that much, I suppose, because it was furnished with the single arm fork perched on a C5 drivebase. Despite the lack of dual tines, it was a sturdy little rig, maybe e’en a mite sturdier than the Questar 3.5’s mounting, despite that shiny polished aluminum thing’s twin fork arms. Because of the one-arm nature of the mount, a counterweight was attached to the tube opposite the fork arm to steady the OTA when tilted over on a wedge for astro-use. Naturally, the smallish drivebase included a clock drive, and also naturally, for the dark ages, it was an AC model. Plug it in, it ran, unplug it, it stopped.
What could you do with the puppy—err, “kitty”? 90mm is not a huge amount of aperture, but it is sufficient for casual viewing of the moon and planets, and will bring back most of the Messiers, even from compromised skies, if not in detail. To make much astronomical use practical, though, you’d need a wedge in order to polar align the little thang and a tripod to carry the whole shebang. Celestron offered what was basically the C8/5 tripod and wedge for that purpose, and that did indeed make for a very stable platform for Little Kitty. Unfortunately, adding those items jacked the already surprisingly high price up to a cool seven-hundred and ninety-five simoleons, equivalent to at least two-thousand 2010 dollars, depending on how you measure such things. You can see why I was put out.
If the Astro was too much, you could opt for li’l sister, the mountless Spotter version, which included the OTA, and, same as the Astro, the 5x24 finder, .965 diagonal, 18mm f/l . Kellner eyepiece, and 2.5x Barlow lens. Also like the Astro, the Spotter came with a beautiful little attaché style case made of plastic composite. At $395.00, it was at least approaching “reasonably priced.” Course, that was more than your buddy paid for his unarguably more capable RV-6 six-inch Dynascope, doggonit. Still, with the Gas Crunch of 1973 fresh in memory, and Pinto and Vega-size cars beginning to outnumber the Mercury Montereys (younguns: don’t ask), a lot of amateurs was beginning to put a premium on “portable,” and the C90 most assuredly was that.
If $395.00 was still too rich for your blood, you could bargain basement it down another hundred bucks with the final (for the moment) C90 configuration, the Telephoto. Initially, the OTA was exactly the same as the other two. Well, exactly the same except for the tube color; it was black, better to match your SLR, I reckon. While you got the same nice attaché case as with the Spotter and Astro, all you’d find in that case was the scope and a T-adapter; it was shipped sans finder/diagonal/eyepiece. I’ve been told Celestron sold more Telephotos than either Astros or Spotters. Maybe that was true in the beginning, but most of the C90s I’ve run across over the years have been Spotters. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the Astro didn’t sell well, and was discontinued in fairly short order.
After a while, Celestron began to offer the Telephoto in a focal ratio of f/5.6 to make it more practical for photography (a fixed focal length f/11 1000mm lens not being much sought after), if not as useful for astronomy. The secondary obstruction was larger and the optics of the 5.6 were, in general, not as good as those of the f/11s.
The Spotter? In various guises, including many with protective rubber armoring, and occasionally with mounts, including the EQ-2 GEM, it continued on its merry way for decades and decades, and was the sole survivor of the original trio by the time the original C90 was put in the ground by Celestron.
As the 1980s faded into the 1990s, and both disco and Orange Tube telescopes became dim memories, the little C90 carried on in, as above, slightly different permutations. (Celestron even sold one with a brass tube/barrel for a while!) I didn’t pay much attention, though. I’d got it into my head that the C90 was optically BAD, BAD, BAD. What did I base that on? A few brief peeps through one or two over the years, and what some of my buddies said about the Wee One. That was it. Which wasn’t much. How little did I know about the C90? I didn’t even know how she worked.
This worthy, one of the rubber-armored versions from the late 80s - early 90s, I recall, was riding piggyback on a C11. Seeing me staring at the little thing, the rig’s obviously proud owner stepped up and asked how I liked his guide scope? “Cute,” says I, “but don’t you have trouble with its mirror flopping during exposures?” The owner quickly informed me the C90 didn’t have mirror flop problems, since the mirror in a C90 don’t flop. As he demonstrated for me, the C90 focuses more like a lens than a telescope. Unlike the Celestron SCTs, the primary mirror doesn’t move; the forward part of the tube is separate from the rear cell and turns in threads to focus. Embarrassment reigned supreme. I’d been roundly critical of the C90, and didn’t even know how to focus one.
I came back to this particular 90 during the course of one of TSP 97’s few clear evening stretches, and found its owner had set it up for visual use. High winds and poor seeing meant nobody was gonna be taking pictures or doing serious visual observing despite the clearing. He offered me a look through the little scope, and I accepted—rather eagerly, actually. Surprise. The C90, this C90 anyhow, was not bad optically; it was actually pretty good. Especially given the less than optimum conditions. To be honest, its images of deep sky objects didn’t look much different from those a buddy of mine’s Questar 3.5 produced. In other words, pretty danged good for a three-and-a-half inch scope.
How did the C90 acquire a less than stellar reputation? Frankly, most people who actually own the telescope like it. A lot. Most of the bad press comes from those who haven’t used one much. I suspect the uninitiated’s views on the C90 are mostly the result of two things: focusing and mounts.
The C90’s focusing, via the rotating forward section of its OTA, is smooth when properly lubricated, but not overly easy. Place the scope on a light camera tripod, as many Spotter owners tend to do, and there’s Big Trouble in River City. Once you develop the proper touch, focusing the scope, e’en on a too-puny tripod, is reasonably easy. Someone not used to the 90, however, will probably never get the telescope focused properly. It’s focus-jiggle, focus-jiggle, focus-jiggle until the person trying to sharpen up Jupiter gives up and walks away from the 90 shaking their head at how “bad” the optics was. And even when properly focused, an f/11 telescope, even of this small aperture, cries out for decent support.
Following my C90 epiphany, I started thinking casually and informally about getting me one. I’d picked up a Short Tube 80 refractor to satisfy my grab ‘n go needs, but it would have been nice to have something that would handle magnification a little better than the achromat, which pooped out at about 100x. The C90, based on what I’d seen at TSP, clearly would allow you to pump up the power a little. The new G3 model, in particular, caught my eye in the late 1990s. This was a C90 mounted on a decent Synta EQ-2 German equatorial mount that sported an R.A. drive as standard equipment. Purty sweet. But I dawdled. The C90 had been around for twenty years; surely it would be around for a few more?
Alas, no. After the turn of the century, during the course of the various changes and hiccups that wracked Celestron, the C90 disappeared. Oh, they still sell a “C90” MCT. Actually they have sold a couple of "C90s" in recent years, but they are all Chinese imports, none of which has had anything at all in common with the real C90, and none of which has had optics or build quality as good as the original Little Kitty.
I considered hunting up a used specimen, but shortly after the C90 was discontinued, I acquired what has proven to be my favorite grab ‘n go rig of all time, the Orion (Synta) StarBlast 4.5-inch f/4. So, I didn’t feel motivated to go seriously looking for a 90. I figgered that if I were destined to own one, it would just fall into my hands somehow, someday. Which was exactly what happened, believe it or no.
I hadn’t thought much about the 90 in quite a while when, one afternoon a few weeks back, Miss Dorothy returned from the University with a little plastic attaché case with the word “Celestron” emblazoned on its side. I wasn’t surprised; I knew she’d be bringing a Celestron telescope of some kind home, I just didn’t know which one. One of her colleagues was helping her elderly Daddy sell off his camera gear, and knowing Unk Rod’s penchant for telescopes, and especially the telescopes of a certain Torrance, California maker, she wondered to Miss D. if I might be interested in a BIG Celestron. I knew “big” is relative when it comes to lay people and telescopes, so I didn’t think this would be no C14. I figgered it might be a C5, which would have been cool…but in the back of my mind was the whisper, “C90…C90…C90.”
Down-checks? Firstly, the finder. It did not seem to be the original orange finder scope that shipped with the Spotter and Astro versions. Instead, it was a gloss-black painted 5x24, though apparently of the same vintage. It was also rattling around in its mount. Like many Celestron finder ring-mounts, then or now, only one ring had finder-alignment adjustment screws. The other should have been equipped with a rubber o-ring to hold the finder steady. At any rate, I later learned this probably was the original finder. Celestron had begun using black-tube finders at some point in the original C90's run for some reason known only to them.
What else? Experimentally twisting the orange-painted section of tube to focus resulted in sticking and grinding rather than the smooth motion these telescopes usually display. While the focus-action on C90s is not, as I mentioned earlier, ever what I’d call “easy,” the proper amount of damping grease on the threads should at least yield “smooth.” That and the finder would have to be dealt with before the scope would be useable.
In the course of evaluating the little refugee so I could come up with a reasonable monetary offer, I checked the still visible (if slightly worn) serial number of the little feller against what I knew about Celestron’s numbering scheme. This one appeared to have been produced in 1982.
One thing was sure: the original eyepieces, diagonal, and Barlow was gone. The star diagonal in the case was an uber cheap (and very dirty) one made completely of plastic, and was not labeled “Celestron” anywhere. The eyepieces, likewise, were clearly not Celestron. In the box were seven (!) very cheesy .965s. The barrels were metal, but the tops plastic. There was another real blast from the past: an 80s vintage Meade .965 zoom eyepiece. Finally, there was an old Minolta SLR body, a T-adapter and a Minolta T-ring.
Now, I had to come up with a fair price. I didn’t want to lowball the daddy of one of Dorothy’s colleagues, but, while I’d thought about acquiring a C90 off and on over the last several years, it was not something I was desperate to have. Yes, the seller had included that manual SLR body, a good condition Minolta SRT-201, in the deal, but I figgered the chance of me running any film through a camera in these latter days was slim to none at best. I gave Dorothy a price quote to relay to her friend, though I wasn’t sure it would be accepted.
The reason being was the “Must Be” factor. As I said when I initially mentioned this C90 a couple-weeks back, laypersons tend to have an exaggerated idea of what REAL TELESCOPES are worth. Remember, this had been described to Dorothy as a BIG Celestron. As I’d expected, the daughter was dubious: “But Daddy paid almost 300 dollars for the scope alone when he bought it; all this stuff MUST BE worth at least that much now.” She did say she’d ask her father. I promptly forgot the cute little scope.
Imagine my surprise, then, when Dorothy returned a week or so later once again bearing the C90. Turned out Daddy and Daughter decided they were very happy with my offer after all. OK! Now, I’d just have to do a little work on the scope. First task was greasing up the focuser. How? With what? Gotta hand it to Celestron; not many companies would have any information to offer about a discontinued thirty-year-old telescope. They did. A little Googling found a Celestron webpage with instructions for lubricating the focuser, including a suggestion as to which sort of grease to use (Mobil 1).
|Step one is getting the tripod footsie off.|
That done, removing the front tube section was easy once I partially backed out the two aforementioned screws. I just “focused” clockwise until the orange section of the tube screwed off. That left me with two tube sections with the primary in one half and the corrector plate and secondary (spot) in the other, all of which looked good and needed no attention of any sort. All I had to do was clean the threads with a little alcohol to remove the last vestiges of the old, semi-dried grease, and apply an appropriate amount of Mobil 1. Threaded the tube back together, focused in and out a few times, replaced the ¼ -20 mount, and that was that.
I also needed to secure the finder. A check around the Old Manse and a visit to Pep Boys didn’t turn-up an appropriate O-ring for the ring mount, unfortunately. Hmm… What’s right after duct tape in the amateur astronomer’s bag of tricks? VELCRO! A small strip of adhesive Velcro in the forward ring worked just as well—or maybe better—than the missing O-ring, and we were ready to roll.
Jim is normally a real speed-demon, so I hoped to have the diagonal before the clear skies evaporated and the Moon made it to Full. Yep, Scopestuff is amazing. I’ve sometimes ordered something on a Monday and got it on a Wednesday. Not this time. The clear sky came and went; International Sidewalk Astronomy Night was clouded out for us and with it my chance to use the C90 to watch a crescent Luna drift through the Pleiades. The rain passed, the sky cleared, and the Moon fattened, but still no diagonal did I find on my front porch.
I emailed Mr. Jim this morning, and he responded quickly that my diagonal is out of stock, and that despite his best efforts it will likely be anudder week or so. Not that it makes much diff at the moment, as the clouds have now rolled back in and we will soon be at Full Moon. But that’s just as well, I suppose, since our time and space for this week have done disappeared faster than a backward-stepping tachyon. I’ll update you on the C90 next week, I hope. Meantime, a new issue of the excellent Astronomy Technology Today has just dropped through Chaos Manor South’s mail slot. If’n you don’t mind, I’m a-gonna grab me a… “sarsaparilla” …and read for a spell.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Unk’s Mini Messier Marathon
I don’t have to tell y’all what a “Messier Marathon” is, do I? Oh, you’re the wettest of wet behind the ears novices? OK. Here’s the straight poop. When you hear the folks down to the club goin’ on about a “marathon,” they ain’t talking ‘bout no foot race. The marathon they are jawboning about is a hugely popular feature of amateur astronomy that’s practically become a Rite of Spring for lots of us.
“Messier Marathon” was something that first popped-up in the 1970s, appearing spontaneously at various clubs around the country at the behest of many different “discoverers.” If any single person can be credited with popularizing the Marathon Idea, it’s probably comet hunter Don Macholz; he at least helped bring the concept to the attention of the amateur community at large.
“Enough beating around the bush, Unk! WHAT CONCEPT?!” That it’s possible to see all 110 M-DSOs (if you count a whole 110 Messiers, which some folks do and some do not ) in one night at one special time of the year. What’s the special time of year? There’s a window of opportunity centered on the Spring Equinox that stretches from mid March through early April. Not that catching ‘em all is easy, mind you; it helps to be at a latitude of no more or less than about 25 – 30 degrees north. Even given good skies and optimum latitude, there are challenges.
The challenges mostly come at Sunset and Sunrise. Sunset is toughest. There, you’ll have to catch the notoriously faint face-on Sc spiral galaxy, M74. This fuzzie, which ain’t called “The Phantom Galaxy” for nothing, ain’t always easy when it is high in the sky, and when you put it low on the horizon in the dusk it becomes insanely tough. M33 is right behind it. That Local Group galaxy is not normally real hard, but it gets that way in a right quick hurry when it’s low and in a less than dark eyepiece field. In the morning, the usual culprit is M30, the odd-looking globular star cluster in Capricornus. Like M33, it’s not a difficult object, but when circumstances put it deep in the dawn, it will be tough. Very.
The rest of the list? Most are falling off’n a log easy. I do sometimes hear folks complain about The Realm of the Galaxies, the rich galaxy fields of Coma and Virgo, but if you’ve spent some time there before, and have a decent set of charts (best is a program like SkyTools or Megastar running on a laptop), it ain’t that bad. No need to freak out in Virgo, anyhow, since you can purty much take your time. Once you do them galaxies, there is a significant break before the summer objects begin to rise high enough to mess with. Take your time, back-track if’n you have to, and get ‘er done. After Virgo-Coma, it’s a tour of the summer objects, early and late, and a couple of fall fuzz balls. Nothing even close to challenging till you come to the aforementioned Capricornus Cluster.
You do need to keep on schedule if you want to have plenty of time on the back end and not miss anything in Sol’s glow. What I’m a-telling you is that there is an optimum search order. Luckily, there are numerous websites with lists of the Messiers in Marathon Order. Some planning-type astro computer programs, like RTGUI, which we discussed last week, even have readymade Marathon lists. The best thing of this type I’ve found, though, is Larry McNish’s free online Messier Marathon Planner. Bring up this interactive web page, input your latitude, longitude, and date and out comes a search list optimized just for you. This not only includes notes and specs for each object, but even thumbnail images (if you wish) for each M.
What’s Unk’s Messier Marathon history? Come si, come sa. I’ve done it the hard way, with Telrad and finder scope, a time or two, with my best being “everything but M30,” I believe. Mostly, though, I’ve taken the easy/lazy way out, pursuing ol’ Chuck’s cosmic lint balls with go-to, digital setting circles or, like this past weekend, analog setting circles. I already hold an Honorary Messier Certificate from the Astronomical League, so the attraction for me ain’t the hunting, but the seeing. How you run the marathon is up to you. There ain’t no rules. Leastways unless you are after your Messier Certficate. If so, you need to follow the strictures laid-out on the AL M-Club website.
Be all that as it may, I set out to do this year’s Messier Marathon this past weekend. Or, actually, I didn’t set out to do it. My goal, as I tole y’all last time, was to get The Herschel Project cranking again. That fell through. The main reason was the weather forecasts. For days, the damned weather-goobers had been predicting mostly cloudy for Saturday night. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in recent years, it’s that if the forecast even mentions clouds, you can expect plenty of ‘em. Ironically, they got it mostly wrong this time, but that is, shall we say, “unusual” of late, especially in the time of an el nino (whatever the frack that is).
Given the projected weather, I set the H Project aside. I hope to have quite a few days down in Chiefland next month or the one after to go for the spring sky, so it warn’t no tragedy. Whatever the weather, I wanted to see something, though, and I began to think “Messier Marathon.” I did not plan to do the Whole Big Thing, though, understand. The lovely Miss Dorothy had been gone to a conference in Ohio, and I’d been Up North for a couple of days before that myself. I wanted to be back home at least shortly after Miss D. arrived on Saturday night. I’d do a mini-marathon. All the objects up to Virgo, I figgered—about half the list.
The telescope? Since it didn’t sound like the consarned weather would be so hot, I forgot about the C11. Even a C8 seemed a bit much. Same sure went for Old Betsy, my 12.5-inch Dobbie. I considered Sweet Charity, our ETX 125, the star of last week’s blog, but I thought a little more aperture might be appropriate. What seemed right was my 8-inch f/5 Dobsonian, Old Yeller. You can read all about him at that link, but the short ‘n sweet is that he is a cool-looking truss type scope built around a Synta primary I had. No digital setting circles. He has analog altitude and azimuth ones.
You can learn more about setting circles for Dobs here, but there’s really not much to tell. You make a graduated azimuth circle, attach that to the base of the scope somehow, and mount some kind of angle indicator on the tube. Since the sky is forever in motion—well, the Earth is, anyhow—you’ll need a way to calculate current altitudes and azimuths of objects. Today, that is laughably simple. Almost any PC astronomy program will do it for you.
So will the increasing number of astronomy programs designed to for PDAs (like the Palm Pilot) and similar devices. I chose to use SkyVoyager, a wonderful planetarium that runs on my iPod Touch, and which will also run on an iPhone or on the upcoming iPad. One of these days, I may devote an entire blog to phone/pod astro-ware, but I will say rat-cheer that the astronomy-ware coming down the pike for Apple’s “mobile devices” is both beautiful and useful.
I had made two changes to Ol’ Yeller’s setting circle system since the last (and only) time I’d used it. Most important, I’d built a leveling platform out of a piece of scrap plywood, some bolts and T-nuts, and some furniture glides. When using altitude/azimuth circles, you’ll find that the scope must be close to level. If it ain’t, objects at low elevations will be easy to find, but those near the zenith will be way, way off. I ran into that big time last time, and knew I had to come up with a way to level Yeller. Construction of my platform was simplicity itself: I cut a square of plywood, drilled a hole in each corner, inserted a T-nut in these holes, threaded a bolt through each T-nut, and affixed furniture glides to the bolt with nuts.
The only other thing I did was replace my analog angle indicator with a battery-powered digital job. The analog indicator, which only cost a couple of bucks at Harbor Freight, did OK, but its gradations were fairly rough, one degree increments. I figgered a digital unit (also from Harbor Freight) reading tenths of a degree ought to improve my accuracy. Danged good thing I decided to check the digital indicator, which I’d bought months and months ago, on Friday afternoon. Stone, cold, dead. Apparently it draws a little current even when not on. Unfortunately, them dead batteries was dadgummed little CR2032 button cells. The three required would set me back some 15 bucks at Walgreens. Penny pinching ol’ Rod decided to order some off’n eBay instead, and just use the analog job for Saturday’s marathon.
As always when using a Dob of this size, setup was laughably easy. Since I’d added the leveling platform to the mix, there was a little more to it than just plunking down the rocker box and ploppin’ the OTA in it—but not much. I set my platform on a reasonably level piece of ground, checked it with a bubble level, adjusted the feet as necessary by screwin’ ‘em in and out, and proceeded to the plunkin’ and ploppin’. I’d eschewed my laptop, bringing only the iPod, so all I needed as an observing table was a small collapsible camp table that’s just a little bigger than TV tray size. Unloaded that; my eyepiece box; and a drybox containing my filters, flashlights, and assorted accessories and I was ready to go. Total time? Maybe 10 minutes—tops.
|Red filtered reading light is used for illumination.|
What now? A test. It wasn’t fully dark yet, but Orion was shining in the south, and that peculiar fuzzy star in his sword was visible. Started SkyVoyager by poking its little icon on the screen of the iPod, and selected “search,” “Messier Objects,” and “M42.” In a second or three, up came a screen loaded with information about the Great Nebula, including its current altitude and azimuth. I moved the scope till the pointers were on the given coordinates, inserted the 13mm Ethos, and saw—NOTHING.
Probably the most important thing I learned during this evening’s run was the need to be reasonably precise with the setting circles. The display on the iPod read “193 degrees, 42 minutes azimuth,” yet I just blithely moved the scope till the pointer was somewhere close 193. Resetting so that the azimuth pointer was ¾ of the way between 193 and 194, and being as precise as possible with the (rough) altitude scale as well, placed M42 in the field of the 13mm. M35 at the zenith would be the kicker, though, and would show whether my leveling platform helped. I got the coordinates for the Gemini cluster, set the scope as close to them as I could, and there was M35 looking sweet in the TV Ethos.
What was the short and long on the alt/az setting circles? They worked. But using ‘em seemed like a lotta trouble. I found myself setting and resetting numerous times as I hunted dimmer Ms. The brighter objects were easy enough to run down by means of a little aimless slewing around the coordinates. The less prominent Messiers, like M108 and M97, though, seemed to require an inordinate amount of fooling around. That’s the way it seemed, anyhow. The evening’s total, 40+ objects, was actually a little higher than what I’d done the previous week with Charity’s full go-to system in about the same amount of time. Maybe all that hunting was more perception than reality. Finally, I believe getting the digital angle indicator working will improve my accuracy.
The most surprising take-home, however, didn’t have a thing to do with the finding system, but with the telescope. I was gobsmacked that most Messiers didn’t look much better—if any better—than they had in the considerably smaller ETX. Yes, three inches more ought to make a difference, but under my hardly optimum sky conditions, and given the fact that I was not hunting truly faint fuzzies, almost all of ‘em looked about the same as they had in Charity. That in mind, I might in the future lean more to the ETX on so-so/quick look/short time nights. She not only offers go-to that usually requires no slewing around to find targets, she brings all the cool features and utilities inherent in her Autostar hand controller to the table. The main thing in favor of the 8-inch f/5 (in addition to the fact that she’s a pretty thing) is that she can accommodate my Ethos eyepieces. Even the 1.25-inch/2-inch Es are problematical for Charity’s focuser due to the design of her rear cell.
The biggest hit of the evening was undoubtedly SkyVoyager. Yeah, the iPod’s screen, though large for this type of device, is purty tiny for my late-middle-age eyes, but I didn’t feel a bit deprived. The program can do anything a full-size planetarium can—and more—and the iPod’s screen, if small, is surpassingly clear and sharp. Add-in the new wireless wi-fi go-to system from SkyVoyager’s maker, Carina, and maybe run the program on the big screen of the upcoming Apple iPad, and a lot of us may think about givin’ up our Windows laptops for good.
Having made friends, more or less, with the setting circles, it was time to get down to bidness. The following objects were observed in a relatively short window from about seven to nine-thirty PM. My most frequently used eyepiece was the 13 Ethos, though I would occasionally switch in the 35mm Panoptic when I was having trouble locating objects and when I was in a relatively dark part of the sky that would allow the big Pan to shine.
The Western Horizon Huggers
M74: Ha! I convinced myself I saw a trace of this face-on Sc spiral low in the gloaming. Maybe. Probably not. I dunno. This is the marathon’s evening heartbreaker, and I don’t believe I got it this year. I did see it without tremendous difficulty last year, but that was with my Sky Commander DSC-equipped 12.5-inch.
Despite normally being an easy target, M33, 25 degrees above the horizon and in the Sunset glow when I went after it, was a pain. A maybe/probably.
M77: Now we are a-talkin’. Not much to look at of course—fuzzy star—but there indisputably.
The Andromeda Nebula, M31, and her little sister, M32, were like shooting proverbial fish in a barrel.
M31’s other nearby satellite, M110, is larger than M32 and saddled with a lower surface brightness and was a surprising challenge. Got it, but barely.
M52: Only 17-degrees high in the west, but easy to see. Thankfully, it’s a bright and prominent open cluster.
Out of the Murk
Galactic cluster M103, about 30-degrees up, was extremely attractive. So nice I wanted to linger. But that is not in the cards on a Messier Marathon night.
M76: The Little Dumbbell was easy. Even showed off its twin-lobed nature.
M34, a large open cluster in Perseus, was nicely framed in the 13 Ethos.
Didn’t need a scope for M45’s Pleiads.
M79: Back down closer to the horizon for thisun, but not much of a problem. A round fuzzball in the 13mm, and didn’t show much in the way of resolution.
M42 and M43? Amazing and amazingly easy—nuff said.
Found M78 with just a little poking around. Very prominent around two stars.
M1 was quite good, showing off its “S”/lightning bolt shape. I was gratified that my analog circles put this in the field; obviously my leveling platform was doing its job, since this fairly dim supernova remnant was pretty derned high up.
M37 was superb. Seemed to form a spiral pattern around its “central” red star.
M36: Never been a favorite of mine, but I must admit this Auriga open cluster looked sweet on this night.
The third Aurigan, M38, is probably the weakest of the constellation’s trio of Messier opens, but it was nice enough in the 8-inch f/5.
Had to switch to the 35 Panoptic to make sure I was on M41. It is very large and relatively sparse—more of a binocular object.
M50: This open cluster is respectable in the Panoptic, if nothing to write home about.
M47 looked pretty much like it did last week in the ETX. Big and a little sparse, that is.
Galactic cluster M46 with its planetary nebula, NGC 2438, was cool. The nebula was a little more distinct than it was in Sweet Charity, but there was not a world of difference. Good enough that I replaced the 35 Pan with the 13mm Ethos and a Celestron OIII filter for a better look, marathon or not.
M93 in Puppis was good-looking, if not good-looking enough to make me want to hang around longer.
The large open cluster M48 is about ¾ degree across, and would probably have looked better in the 35 or 27 Panoptic. But I moved on, instead.
M44, The Beehive Cluster, was visible (barely) as a misty patch near zenith with my naked (huh-huh, huh-huh, he said “NAKED”) eyes.
Cancer’s other open cluster, the far more compact M67, was easily captured with just a little fine tuning of my aim. This ancient (for a galactic cluster) group of stars is one of my all time faves.
M81 and M82: These two beautiful galaxies fit easily in the field of the 13mm Ethos.
|Good, old Owly.|
In contrast to M108, M97, the Owl Nebula, was reasonably easy, if not any better, really, than he’d been in Charity last time.
M109 was a hassle. I spent what seemed like at least ten minutes running it down. Not that dim, but easy enough to pass over in the increasingly bright background sky.
M106 took at least as much effort. When found, about the same as in the 5-inch ETX—an elongated blob.
Once I un-dewed the secondary with my dew zapper/12vdc hairdryer (didn’t have the Kendrick turned up enough, I reckon), M95 and M96, two Leo galaxies, were easy, if not much to look at in the light dome.
Finally, another easy one, M105! This elliptical galaxy and his two companions looked about the same as what I saw in the ETX the Saturday before.
M65 and M66: These Leo fuzzies were nicely framed and easy to make-out in the 13 Ethos.
The Sunflower, M63, finally fell to Ol’ Yeller after considerable huntin’ around.
M101: Did I see this legendarily challenging Sc galaxy’s nucleus? I think I did. Perhaps, anyhow.
Wheeeew! Much, much easier is M94, a small Canes Venatici galaxy with a bright “peculiar” nucleus.
The Blackeye, M64, was also down in the trash, but easy to find. No more sign of the galaxy’s black eye dust-spot than there was in Charity.
And that was the logical stopping place for an early evening’s Messier hunt. It would have been at least another hour before Virgo’s horde began to lift substantially out of the light dome. In ten minutes, Ol’ Yeller was in the backseat and I was on my way back to Chaos Manor South to welcome the wonderful Miss Dorothy home.
What else went on over the course of the week? I had the distinct honor and privilege of doing my two-hour presentation, The Past, Present, and Future of the Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope, for the good folk of the Chester County Astronomical Society way up yonder near Philadelphia, PA. The trip, a quick one, up Tuesday and back down Wednesday, was made most pleasant by the hospitality of this outstanding club, whose members forgave Rod his corny jokes, occasional mistakes, and hillbilly manners. Special recognition is due two outstanding CAS amateurs, Ann and David Hockenberry, who not only retrieved Unk from the airport, fed him lunch and dinner, and hauled him around, but also opened their home to him. Thanks, guys! Your kindness made it easy to forget the depredations of U.S. Airways. (Them suckers wanted five bucks for a two-bit bag o’ peanuts!)
Stop the Presses! The cute little Orange Tube Celestron C90 who visited Chaos Manor South couple of weeks back has returned as a permanent resident of The Massive Equipment Vault. Details soon.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Simple. Simple and Good.
Wussup? Well, muchachos, if the weather cooperates, I promise The Herschel Project will be back on the rails come next weekend. This past weekend, however, I just couldn’t bring myself to lug a ton of gear out to the dark site. Miss D. and Miss Lizbeth and me had spent a fun but tiring day at Coastcon. The weatherman was being a pill, too. Predictions had started out “clear all night,” but by late morning had devolved into “30% cloud cover.” Which meant it was a perfect night to hang out with Unk’s little girlfriend, Charity Hope Valentine.
Yep, you know, Sweet Charity, Unk’s beloved ETX 125. As I’ve often said here, I love her very much; her exploits usually get at least one blog entry every single year. I can’t say that, much as I love her, my girl always behaves, though. As you might gather from her name, she does have a somewhat neurotic streak. While she’s never collapsed to the ground of the observing field in a self-pitying heap, she has most assuredly threatened to. So it was this past Saturday’s eve.
I arrived at the PSAS dark site a good half-hour before Sunset, earlier than I normally would be moved to show up when toting “just” Charity. Ya see, my goal wasn’t just to scan some deep sky delights with the 5-inch MCT, but to report on a couple of astro-ware programs, Stellarium and RTGUI, I thought y’all might like to hear about. Using ‘em to drive Charity to her targets seemed peculiarly appropriate since they, like she, represent the simpler side of amateur astronomy life. Anyhoo, I got out to Tanner Williams early so I’d have plenty o’ time to set up table/laptop/laptop shelter before dark.
Before I could think about getting the two programs running, Charity would have to be go-to aligned, which I did just as the first bright sparkers popped outa the twilight. That went smoothly enough. Set Charity in “home” position (cranked counterclockwise in azimuth to the hard stop). Powered up, and Miss Charity did her dance, leveling and finding “tilt” and north. Then she headed to the first of two bright alignment stars, Capella, I believe.
I centered that with some difficulty, and she moved on to Rigel. I lined that up as well, though, as with Capella that wasn’t so easy. Why? I don’t know about your Autostar, but I find that, coming up on four years of use, the buttons now require me to mash ‘em like the dadgummed Incredible Hulk before they’ll “register.” Trying to precisely center a star given that and Charity’s drive backlash ain’t no picnic. I got ‘er done, though, and Missy claimed “alignment successful.”
However, like Ronald Reagan, my mantra is “trust, but verify.” I sent Charity to M82, and plastered a peeper to the eyepiece, a 20mm 66 degree AFOV job that gives a decent amount of true field in this 5-inch f/15 MCT. No galaxy did I see. A little slewing finally turned up the culprit. It was at least half-a-degree—if not a whole degree—away from the field’s center. Hokay…M35. Same-same. CHARITY!
Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. Charity hadn’t had any training in about a year. By “training” I don’t mean in the latest steps favored by taxi-dancers. I mean drive training. Since the ETX mount is, as above, “somewhat” prone to backlash, the computer has to be aware of backlash magnitude and sign in order to place objects in the field. You do that by centering a terrestrial object (which for some reason seems to work better than Polaris). The ETX slews off this target and you re-center it, performing the operation for both altitude and azimuth. Seems like if’n you don’t do this about once a year, your go-tos will suck righteously, even if the scope ain’t been used much over the course of that year.
M82 was a perfect little sliver of light in the 20mm ocular, showing some of its famous dark lane detail. Just to be sure, I entered M35 again, too. There was that luscious cloud of stars in the middle of the field. And so it was for the remainder of the evening. Charity put almost everything in the field of a 15mm Orion Expanse eyepiece at 125x. Expanse? Yeah, one of the inexpensive (Synta) 66 degree AFOV oculars I’ve had for years. Put one of these in an f/4.5 telescope and you’ll start thinking about that moldy-oldie band “Flock of Seagulls,” but in f/15 Charity the edge of field is Nagler-like. These eyepieces are light, cheap, and simple. Perfectly suited to Miss C.
With all well on the Charity side, it was time to get the laptop going. I’d already plugged a Meade format serial cable into the Autostar (why in the hail can’t scope makers use STANDARD SERIAL CABLES?!) and had my old reliable Toshiba Satellite fired up. Five years ago, this 3.2 ghz P4 laptop was a real powerhouse. These days? Maybe not so much, but OK. Easily OK enough to run Stellarium.
|Stellarium's twilight display.|
Which ain’t necessarily a bad thing. Yeah, SNPP will, admittedly, do just about everything for you but pop the popcorn. You can even get satellite weather pictures with it. How many times do I use those tons of features, though? Most of the time, I just click on NGC objects to go-to ‘em with the scope. For that, and most of the what else I do, Stellarium is more than sufficient. And I don’t have to stand around on a dark observing field scratching me head and trying to remember how to work the thing, as I sometimes do with Starry Night Pro Plus or TheSky 6 Professional.
Just because it’s relatively simple feature-wise don't mean Stellarium is easy on your computer. Doing them cotton-picking Open GL graphics and such-like means your laptop’s got to be up to snuff. Mine mostly is, but not quite. I had originally intended to test the program with one of my Celestron scopes, but since I never use ‘em without NexRemote, that proved impossible. Running NexRemote at the same time as Stellarium slowed the planetarium program to a crawl and caused NR’s Microsoft Mary voice to get a bad case of the hiccups. Hence, Charity Hope Valentine.
This would be my first time to use Stellarium in the field with a telescope, and it took some fiddling to get ‘er going. Mainly because I decided to eschew the program’s built-in telescope drivers and use ASCOM. Why? ASCOM will control just about any scope under the Sun—like my Atlas mount when running EQMOD—Stellarium’s built in drivers are pretty much limited to “Autostar and NexStar” at this time.
So it was with everything I selected from Stellarium’s screen thereafter. Following the initial folderol and fiddle-dee-dee, there were no more problems. The program behaved and Charity behaved as Stellarium sent her to multiple objects. How many? A pretty good bunch; see below. How many DSOs does Stellarium include, by the way? Dunno. I ain’t seen a list of the program’s objects anywheres, but it must have all the NGCs—even the obscure objects turned for up me up using the program’s Search function. Which, like all Stellarium’s functions, is initiated by clicking a pretty icon. The icon bars at the bottom and left sides of the screen appear when you mouse over ‘em and disappear when you mouse off ‘em so as not to mess up all the prettiness. All in all? Uncle Rod sure likes the program’s good looks, simple functionality, and price. Will it take the place of that freeware giant Cartes du Ciel for me? No, not for everything, but it will replace CdC for some things around here.
And that was Stellarium. Simple and good. But it is not the only simple and good (and free) astro-app out there. Another program that fits that description is “RTGUI.” What the hell? Yep, RTGUI, “Real Time Graphic User Interface.” Like Stellarium, it ain’t exactly new. It’s been around for at least six years, and I even wrote a review of it in my old Skywatch newsletter one time. But I ain’t used it much of late—not as much as I should have, anyhow—and new versions have added substantially to its capability without compromising its vaunted simplicity.
|RTGUI search screen.|
I hadn't interfaced RTGUI to a scope in a long while. Maybe since I wrote that review all them years ago. So I was a little apprehensive--when I get much beyond the most basic "point and click," I begin to have problems. I needn't have worried, since getting the program going with the ETX turned out to be nothing.
I’d already entered the info all astro programs require, latitude and longitude; the program took care of date and time with the PC’s clock. All that remained was to set my telescope type and com port: “Meade Autostar, Com 5.” And, of course, to select a go-to target, which you can do with either RTGUI’s Simple Search tool (input the object’s name or number), or with the program’s Search Wizard (which can return multiple results, just like a planner program). You toggle through retrieved objects with “Next Match.” If’n you want to view all your matches at once, click “view matches.” When the object of your heart’s desire is onscreen, all you gotta do to go there is press “Goto.” That’s it. No further configuring, no connecting, just go.
Which I did to some pretty DSOs till them dadgummed ol’ clouds closed us out at about 11pm. What really tickled me? RTGUI’s Best of the Sky button. Don’t know what you wanna look at? Click “Best of,” and the program will offer suggestions it considers the greatest objects available for a given night and time. It’s like “Tonight’s Best” in the HC, but it don’t require you to mess with the Autostar and its many menus.
|RTGUI and CdC: Better Together.|
Any down-checks? Not really. It is what it is. It is not a sprawling masterpiece like SkyTools 3; it’s a simple little program more than adequate for many tasks much of the time. No, it doesn’t support every telescope under the sun with built-in drivers, but if your scope happens to be one RTGUI does not include, you can still do the robo-scope thang using Cartes’ ASCOM fueled go-to system. You select your objects in RTGUI as always, but CdC handles the go-to part of the deal. I do wish RTGUI would support Cartes du Ciel 3.0 as well as 2.76, but the fact that it doesn’t do so yet is not the fault of RTGUI’s author, Robert Sheaffer; it just means CdC 3.0, still in beta, is not quite ready for prime time in all ways.
It had been a long time since I’d had as much fun with any astro-soft as I had with RTGUI on this night, sending Charity from one “best of” to the next. Below is my tally (the first objects were “captured” with Stellarium). Admittedly, nothing overly challenging for even a 5-inch telescope, but it may be of interest to novices and others wondering what the heck they should look at in this brief hold-your-breath spell between the winter and spring skies.
When my silly little telescope finally got there, M82 was nice sliver of light, with several of its famous dark patches/lanes obvious
M81 was surprisingly large in the 15mm Expanse, showing off its oval, elongated central region.
NGC 3077, the third and least obvious member of Ursa Major’s M81-M82 group, looked nice in the 20mm Expanse eyepiece. Basically a roundish glow. No central condensation apparent, but this area of the sky was just emerging from the Possum Swamp light dome in the east.
M42. One of the better looks at the Great Nebula I’ve had recently in any scope. The “wings” of this great bird-shaped cloud were well-defined, the Trapezium burned away (if the seeing had been better, I suspect I could have seen the two “extra” stars), and the southwest expanse of the nebula was extensive. The comma shape of M43 was also easy to see, along with hints of the dark lanes running through it. Many colored stars apparent. 20mm Expanse.
M79. The only even marginally nice “Winter Glob” was pretty low in the sky, but did show off a few stars around its periphery in the 9mm Expanse.
|M46 in Stellarium|
By the time I finished with M46, it was clear the sky was beginning to degrade. I enjoyed using Stellarium—a simple click/Control 1 and away we went, object to object—but it was time to give RTGUI a spin (via its Best of the Sky function) before I found myself in Sucker Hole City.
M35 was large, rich, and very attractive in the 20mm. Didn’t see the “companion” cluster, NGC 2158, but I didn’t want to spend too much time looking for it given the scudding patches of clouds. Onward!
M37 was RTGUI’s next “best” pick. Lovely and field-filling with the 15mm Expanse. The red star at the center of the cluster was prominent and looked startlingly red—moreso, maybe, than it usually is in larger aperture scopes.
M47 ain’t no M46; it’s larger and sparser than its neighbor. Fairly well framed in the 20mm. The impression was “some bright stars” rather than the “many dim ones, too” of M46.
M48, the Hydra open cluster, was what RTGUI gave me next. Like M47, it’s nice enough, but its sprawling size makes it less impressive than it would otherwise be in this long focal length telescope. I remember struggling with this one in the city with my Palomar Junior 4-inch when I was writing The Urban Astronomer’s Guide; the cluster is fairly low from our latitude, and spring hazes tend to just kill it.
Then came M50. Sweet. Little more compact and better looking than the last opens. Main body of the cluster looked box-shaped. I had the impression of nebulosity in the 15 Expanse, but that was just unresolved background stars, I reckon.
NGC 2362, a.k.a. the “Tau Canis Majoris Cluster,” a.k.a. “The Jumping Spider Cluster.” Wow! A real showpiece. A triangle-shaped mess of tiny stars less than 10’ across surrounding bright Tau Canis Majoris. Contrast effects between the dimmer cluster stars and Tau (one of the intrinsically brightest stars known) seem to make Tau hop around, like a big spider jumping in its starry web. How do you get this spider to jump? Once you’ve got it centered, tap the tube of the telescope and Tau will seem to move—to jump—with a motion different from that of the cluster stars.
Despite its location over to the east in the light dome, The Spindle Galaxy in Sextans, NGC 3115, was bright and obvious when the ETX stopped moving. Even if I couldn’t see its spindle shape too clearly, I could at least see that it is strongly elongated.
NGC 3242, The Ghost of Jupiter, was up next, said RTGUI. Whether at high or low magnification, this planetary nebula still just looked like nuttin’ more than a featureless blue-gray disk…like, yes, the ghost of Jupiter.
M51 was in the field when Charity’s slew ended, but I had to stare for a minute to pick him up. Still low and in the bad part of the sky. Haze was continuing to creep in, too. Nevertheless, I could see a big blob that was M51 and the smaller blob that was the little interacting galaxy, NGC 5195. Once in a while, I seemed to notice a stellar core in the big galaxy. Some faint haze was visible surrounding the two. Probably best in the 20mm, despite the fact that the sky background was a little brighter in it than in the 15mm.
Leo was still mostly in the light pollution, and M65 didn’t put my eye out, but it was there and surprisingly prominent. Obviously elongated and almost seemed to want to give up some detail. If you want to see spring galaxies from light polluted areas, now is the time to do it, before the season gets truly underway and brings more and more haze and humidity with it.
Member Two of the Leo Trio, M66 was also right pretty. Obviously more elongated than M65, and stood out well from the background glow thanks to Charity’s good contrast—despite her rather large central obstruction (DO NOT tell her I mentioned that!).
NGC 3628, the third Leo Trio bandito is larger and dimmer than the other two, and I needed averted vision to see it much of the time. Occasionally I thought I could make-out hints of its impressive dark lane. The 15mm improves the object’s contrast with the sky background, but the galaxy is not framed as well as in the 20mm. That’s always the tradeoff when dealing with light pollution.
M95 was smack dab in the center of the 15mm when Charity stopped her squealing. Not overly impressive; just a round—if fairly sizeable—blob. No sign of the central bar.
Like 95, M96 was dead in the center of the eyepiece when Charity finished her slew. Prominent, and looked round most of the time. When the seeing settled down, it became clear M96 is strongly elongated. I could also pick-out a small nucleus once in a while.
M105 was hardly a challenge, even for a little 5-inch Mak girl. It’s a bright, round elliptical galaxy that looks mucho like an unresolved globular cluster. The challenge is seeing its two nearby companions. NGC 3384, another elliptical, ain’t hard either, and I picked it up right away. What I had to fight for was NGC 3389, the third member of this little triangle, a magnitude 12.0 Hubble type Sc that has a scary-low surface brightness. After a while, though, I did begin to see it with averted vision. Yay Charity!
The Owl Nebula, M97, was good in the 20mm Expanse without a filter. I could easily make out some of the dim stars involved in its disk. I almost thought I caught the eyes once in a while. To convince myself I’d actually seen ‘em took an LPR filter. On this evening with this scope, the Lumicon UHC did considerably better with Owley than the Lumicon OIII did. With the UHC I could occasionally see the two mottled areas/dark spots that represent the bird’s eyes—if not easily.
On a good night in a medium – small telescope, M108 tends to look a lot like M82, though, in reality, it’s not much like M82 at all. Tonight, 108 was somewhat subdued, though obvious with direct vision. Its edge-on self occasionally gave up hints of the clumpiness than makes it resemble M82 in smaller telescopes.
M109 was there, and that’s all I could say about it on this evening given worsening conditions. Elongated glow with no hint of the bar. Best in the 20mm, with the 15mm Expanse yielding too much magnification for the iffy seeing and poor transparency.
RTGUI insisted I take a gander at M63, The Sunflower Galaxy, despite the fact that it was still low. What the heck. Didn’t look that bad. Obviously elongated, and, in the 9mm Expanse, I thought I could see traces of the patchy arms that give it its moniker “Sunflower.” That may have been averted IMAGINATION, though.
M64 was at least as compromised by haze and low altitude and light pollution as M63, but it burned through the mess with fair ease. No, I couldn’t really see the black eye, the huge dust spot near the nucleus, but I could see the impressive large, bright, elongated core.
M3 was very low, but I just had to have a look at the premier spring globular anyhow. Bright core, but I needed averted vision and the 9mm to see many of this monster glob’s stars.
The bright Seyfert type galaxy M94 in Canes Venatici has always a fave of mine for city observing. I don’t care how bad your skies, this strange galaxy shines on like a diamond. Surprisingly large in the 9mm Expanse. Looked a lot like the average planetary nebula.
RTGUI didn’t suggest it, but I wanted to take a peep at NGC 4565, the famous Flying Saucer Galaxy in Coma Berenices. All I had to do to bring it back was push the “Simple Search” button, type-in “NGC 4565” (just typing “4565” won’t do), and hit Goto. When Charity came to a stop, this edge-on galaxy was in the field of the 15mm, and despite the fact that there were now enough clouds and haze that some of my bubbas was beginning to pack up, this galaxy was fairly impressive. The central bulge was visible along with at least some of the saucer-disk on each side.
Clouds ever’where now. I took a quick look at Saturn—nice disk detail and a brace of little Moons—and Mars—polar cap and some dark features visible in the 6mm Expanse—but the seeing was not good enough to let Charity strut her stuff.
And that was that. Urania had given us just about as much as she as willing to give on this night. Wouldn’t you know it, though? As soon as we resolved to call it a night at about 2300, conditions began to improve again. I figgered that ol’ dame was just a-teasing us, though. Whatever. My feet was getting colder and colder in the punishing (for me) mid-30s temps. I threw the Big Switch.
The real beauty of a Charity Hope Valentine night? In less than five minutes, I had the little scope snug in her case and her tripod in the back seat of Miss Dorothy’s Scion Xb. I did have to put the laptop back in its case and pack the observing table, but that was the work of maybe another five minutes. I waited around for my bros to finish breaking down their monster GEMs and forks, but that was easy to endure since I knew I was all ready to go and would soon be enjoying my vehicle’s heater and some iPod tunes on the trip back to Chaos Manor South.
Sunday, March 07, 2010
This is the End, My Friend
And that’s OK, muchachos. The story of Celestron has always been one of near-death experiences and periodic rebirth and renewal. They are still here and are still selling reasonably priced telescopes that make a lot of amateurs happy. Telescopes that hearken back to the company’s genesis in the golden 1960s. What more do ya want? But I’m getting ahead of myself, ain’t I? When we left off last time...
Celestron had just weathered the post-Halley telescope depression, if only by the skin of their teeth and with the help of company old timers like Tom Johnson and Alan Hale. The 1990s saw some advances and some cool products like the Ultima 2000, but, to be honest, Celestron was not competing well with Meade. They had not found a way to crack the LX200 nut. That may have had more to do with their owner, the Swiss company Diethelm, than with Celestron’s technological savvy. The Swiss had lost interest the telescope business after the Halley folderol and fiddle-dee-dee. The Gubmint had said “no way” to Celestron’s and Meade’s proposed merger, but Diethelm still wanted to divest themselves of Celestron as soon as they could find another buyer. Any buyer.
Find one they did, if not till 1998. Imagine the scene, younguns: it’s a quiet, if cloudy, evening. Unk Rod is sipping a glass of…err… “sarsaparilla” and watching the latest thrilling episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the phone rings. Normally, Miss D. and I let the answerin’ machine pick-up. On this night, though, somethin’ told me I’d better take the call. Turned out to be one of Unk’s friends in the astro-gear bidness:
“You heard yet?
“Yeah, about Tasco buying Celestron.”
“WHAT THE FRACK?!”
Fired up the PC, logged onto the (late, lamented) sci.astro.amateur bulletin board, and saw a passel of messages saying the same thing. Celestron, our beloved Celestron, had been bought out by the notorious Tasco, longtime purveyor of department store trash-o-scopes. Had to be a joke, just HAD to be. Didn’t it? It did not, as I was soon to confirm.
Like my fellow Celestron fans, I tried to put the best face on the whole darned deal. Tasco? They really weren’t that bad, were they? They hadn’t been that bad before the comet, had they? Actually, they hadn't been. If you’d like to learn a bit more about a company many amateurs think they know a lot about, but really don’t, you might have a gander at my blog entry from some time back, “The Good Tasco.” I suppose it’s enough to say here that the company George Rosenfield started back in the fifties, and which became the major U.S. importer (never maker) of telescopes, brought in some wonderful instruments over its first twenty years or so of life. Big and wonderful names like Royal Optical and Goto and Vixen. Not all Tasco telescopes were good, but many were. Very.
Like many of us who’d bought Celestron SCTs and followed the company over the past thirty years, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. A feeling not helped by a question I got at the first star party I attended after the Tasco news got out: “Hey Unk! How’s yout T8 doin? You know, your TASCO 8!” We put up with a lot of slings and arrows from the Meade brigade. Yeah, yeah, I know, “sticks and stones,” but I could only imagine what Tasco would do to Celestron, and began thinking about jumping ship. I figgered it was time I considered going go-to, and had near-about decided the telescope to do that with would be a Blue Tube. I’d wait and see, sure, but I had little doubt the Miami based 60x600 bunch had evil in their hearts.
It appeared I was wrong about that, though; at first, anyhow. Over the first two years of the Tasco Regime, it seemed, at least to us outsiders, that all was rosy at Celestron. Certainly, it was not like what’s written on Company 7’s Celestron history page, that Celestron was “Tascoized.” In some ways, the company did better during the Tasco years than it had during the whole previous decade. The company seemed to be operating in standalone mode, and, most important, they began to release some cool products again. The first of which was the latest incarnation of the vaunted C5 SCT, the NexStar 5. I’d purty much given up on Celestron and go-to, given the U2K’s not exactly earthshaking debut. That changed when I was floored by a one-two punch starting with the NS5.
The NexStar 5 wasn’t a downsized Ultima 2000. It was new and different from the ground up. The Tangent DSC box-like hand control was gone, replaced by an HC more like the Autostar controller the brothers and sisters at Meade had come forth with in ’99. Not only was the NS HC more capable and user friendly than the U2K rig, it looked a lot better. Modern. Very modern. In fact, the whole package was striking, with the little CAT looking like she’d be right at home on the bridge of Captain John Luc Picard’s Enterprise. When Celestron followed up with a NexStar 8, it ‘peared to this old boy that, Tasco or no Tasco, everything was coming up roses for the little ol’ telescope company from Torrance.
And that’s the way it was for a while. Celestron seemed to go from strength to strength, with their spate of new product introductions culminating in a telescope that was, finally, well and truly the LX200 killer they’d sought for so long. Not only were the NexStar GPS scopes, which included an 8-inch, a 9.25-inch, and an 11-inch beautiful, they had GPS. The Global Positioning System, way high-tech for the time, coupled with the telescopes’ built-in electronic compasses and level sensors, meant these hound-dogs practically go-to aligned themselves. And they had carbon fiber tubes. And even more advanced hand controllers than the initial NexStars. Suddenly, the LX200 began to look very, very old. The amateur astronomy public just loved—and still loves—the NS GPS SCTs. Surely Celestron’s future was assured. What could happen?
What could happen was T-A-S-C-O. Just like Diethelm, they really couldn’t leave Celestron alone over the long run. Why? Hard to say. It didn’t have anything to do with Celestron’s performance as far as I can tell; as time went on, it became pretty obvious Celestron was the only part of the formerly profitable Tasco that was doing well. Whatever. Tasco decided they’d, essentially, operate Celestron from their headquarters in Florida, and, once again, Alan Hale was put on the bench (and the company’s official relationship with Tom Johnson was again ended). Still, Celestron persevered. Local authority in California was the talented Joe Lupica, and nothing much changed. Until…
By 2002, I’d just about got over my Tascophobia. I now owned a NexStar 11, and had about decided that whoever was doing whatever at Celestron knew exactly what the hell they were doing. Little did I know things were falling apart. Tasco’s new management had never been able to get a grip after the retirement of Rosenfield, and, after some ill-advised expansion schemes fell on their butts, had, by 2002, begun to hemorrhage cash badly. Yes, Celestron did well, but all the money they produced was being snatched up by the foundering parent corporation, leaving little for the Torrance operation. In 2002, Tasco, once a 110 million-dollar-a-year outfit was toast. Their house of cards collapsed, and they filed for bankruptcy.
At first, the situation looked dire for us Celestron-heads. It was not at all sure our fave telescope company would survive in any shape, form, or fashion. Oh, Meade had quickly come sniffing around, and entered discussions to purchase the Celestron name and assets. This didn’t look like it would be a good thing, though, if “good thing” was defined as the survival of Celestron. They might have maintained the Celestron name for some products, I reckon, but I had the suspicion that if Meade had its way, Celestron would be history. Not that that made Meade bad, you unnerstand; bidness is bidness, but I wanted to see two SCT makers press on. Apparently, the Government once again felt the same way, putting the kibosh on this latest “merger” plan.
Just when it looked like it would indeed be curtains for Tom Johnson’s telescope company, three dudes rode to the rescue in an end-of-reel cliffhanger. Alan Hale, Joe Lupica, and Rick Hedrick banded together to take Celestron independent again as an employee-owned concern. Whooo-eee! That was a close one! Surely everything would be violins and champagne now, as Celestron rode off into the Sunset to live happily ever after? That would have been nice.
The three years Celestron was once more an independent business appeared relatively placid. The product line, which now included the go-to GEM “CGE” packages in addition to the NexStars and NexStar GPSes, had been well-received. That was the surface, however. Underneath, all was not well, apparently. Not that us Joe and Jane amateurs knew pea-turkey about that. You could have knocked me over with a feather when word came in April 2005 that Celestron was being sold again.
This time it wasn’t to someone as “bad” as Tasco, but still. Most of us fanboys and girls had just assumed Celestron was back on the path it had trodden from 1960 to 1980, and would, like Meade, once again be “just Celestron.” To put it mildly, we was distressed by this latest development. The new owner was one Suzhou Optical Company, better known to amateur astronomers as “Synta.” If this had happened a decade previously, I’d a-thought they were at least as smarmy as them Tasco rats, but in the relatively short period of time Synta had been selling telescopes in the U.S. (mostly through Orion and sometimes under the “SkyWatcher” badge), it had become apparent this Mainland Chinese company was intent on improving itself to the point where they could compete with legends like Meade and Celestron.
Which don’t mean all of us were happy Synta had bought Celestron. Many of us positively hated the idea of yet another U.S. company being offshored. There was little doubt in my formerly military mind that Celestron’s production, all of it, would be moved to China as soon as practical. Yeah, a lot of us was mad, but there was something of a silver lining. It’s pretty clear in retrospect that the only choices were “Celestron - Synta” or “no Celestron at all.”
Why was that? You’d have to be an insider to know the whole story, but I’m guessing that, for one thing, the independent Celestron really didn’t have sufficient capital to compete successfully against Meade considering the extremely tight bottom lines inherent in the SCT biz. Meade winning a major lawsuit against Celestron didn’t help, either. Meade’s lawyers convinced a judge that they could patent the process of pointing a telescope north to do a go-to alignment. That meant Celestron would have to pay Meade a substantial royalty for each NexStar GPS it sold.
That was not the real problem, though. The real problem, one Meade suffered from as well, came down to profit margins, which were laughably small for the SCTs (and all the other scopes, even the 60mm department store jobs Celestron had been sellin’ for a while). Over the years, Meade and Celestron had established that they would sell amateurs 8-inch SCTs with every feature imaginable for less than three thousand dollars. Often, their top-of-the-line 8-inchers was closer to two thousand. Having to build those telescopes in California with California workers meant profit on individual scopes continued to shrink yearly. The choice would have been to raise prices—which for either company would have been equivalent to showing their belly to the competitor—or the production of telescopes would have to be moved out of the U.S. Which Synta began doing shortly after the ink was dry on the sale.
Celestron - Synta moved quickly to stop the royalty cash flow to Meade. The NexStar GPS series was discontinued; replaced with the “CPC” GPS fork mount scopes, which abandoned the Meade-proprietary North and Level go-to alignment system. In quite a coup, the Celestron software mavens came up with a revolutionary idea, “SkyAlign.” SkyAlign eliminated the infringing process; instead of pointing itself north, leveling, and heading to an alignment star selected by the scope or user, SkyAlign has the user center three bright objects. Said user doesn’t have to know the names of the stars. They don’t even have to be stars—the Moon or a planet will work, too. The scope’s computer figures out which objects have been centered.
SkyAlign was eventually adopted for both the new CPC scopes and for Celestron’s other fork-mount models. I was initially skeptical as to whether this “don’t even have to know the stars” alignment could possibly work, and tested it using my NexStar 11 GPS (via NexRemote). Verdict? Alignment accuracy with my scope was at least as good as when I used the old North and Level software. Yeah, many of us still prefer the NS GPS, with its carbon fiber tube, but there is no doubt the CPC is a worthy successor.
Which leaves Celestron where today? They is trucking right along, having just released the new “Edge HD” SCT OTAs (is every cotton pickin’ thing “HD” this year, includin’ the sunglasses they hawk on WTBS late at night?). These SCTs improve upon Meade’s advanced - ACF rigs by addressing not only the SCT’s coma, but the design’s curved field. Ol’ Unk is excited by these pretty kittens, whose gleaming white tubes hearken back to days of yore. Leastways he thinks they look pretty. He’ll have to get his hot little hands and eyes on one before blessin’ ‘em.
That’s not all, either. Celestron - Synta has also come forth with a pair of GEMs, the CGEM, a reworking of Synta’s EQ-6, and, more interestingly, the CGE Pro, a heavyweight GEM with a big payload capacity. Alas, it looks like the venerable CGE, Celestron’s G11 analog, whose lineage stretches back to the Losmandy/Celestron combos of the early 90s, is a gone pecan. Too expensive to produce in California—or even in China—I reckon. I would not be surprised, howsomeever, to see Celestron come out with a three thousand dollar-range GEM that’s more modern, cheaper to produce, and done in China. Kickin’ the CGE to the curb leaves a significant hole in the Big C’s GEM lineup.
Yessir, “in China” is where Celestron is at, now—production-wise anyhow. Torrance carries on with development, distribution, and customer service. Production has, at this time, been purty much all moved offshore. The C14 may still be coming out of Califor-nye-ay, I ain’t sure, but if it is, I predict it won’t be for much longer. That’s OK, I reckon. I’d rather have imported Celestron SCTs than no Celestron SCTs at all. If nothing else—and this is the opinion of an outsider, remember—Celestron appears to be off life support, recession or no. Certainly they seem mucho bettero off than the once high-ridin’ Meade, who’s truly fallen on some hard times of late. But that is really a story for anudder day, muchachos.
So, yes, Celestron’s story has once again reached its end—its story as an independent U.S. of A. company, anyhow. But… The CAT Came Back the Very Next Day, and still they press on as they have for fifty dadgummed years, selling some great amateur telescopes. Sure, that could change at any time. We’ve seen that often enough. If the history of Celestron has taught anything, it’s that nothing is forever. But they are still kicking, and I salute ‘em for it. HAPPY BIRTHDAY CELESTRON.
Before departing the subject of Celestron, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the efforts of Bob Piekiel and others who’ve had the good sense to realize Celestron’s history is an important part of U.S. amateur astronomy’s story, and who have made efforts to preserve that history before it disappears down the corporate memory hole. As I said last time, if you are interested in Celestron’s early days, especially, you owe it to yourself to find a copy of Bob’s Celestron: The Early Years.
Teaser Department: Last time, I mentioned that a “new” li’l 90mm might be coming to Chaos Manor South. One did, though not for very long, looks like. The delightful Miss Dorothy arrived home from the University one afternoon recently totin’ a smaller-than-briefcase sized box that, on close examination by the curious Unk, was revealed to bear the logo “Celestron” on its side. That got my attention, you betcha.
It wasn’t in perfect condition, but pretty good. The orange paintjob, thankfully, was mostly intact. Downchecks? The “twist the barrel” focuser was rough and sticky. The scope would need disassembly and relubing. Not a big job, no, but a job nevertheless. The finder and finder mounting stalk did not appear to be original equipment, the finderscope being glossy black rather than orange, and the mount being gloss black as well rather than the peculiar brownish “gray” Celestron used back then. The finder was rattling around in its mount, too; the rubber o-ring that usually stabilizes the finder in this design was missing.
Still, not bad. Checking the case revealed a brace of .965-inch eyepieces, a Meade .965 zoom ocular from those simpler times, a .965-inch plastic diagonal, and a T-ring/prime focus adapter. Also in there was a Minolta SRT-101 35mm camera body. This was a nice if not outstanding manual SLR that was purty well-regarded by astrophotographers back in the day when we was using something called “film.”
Would she fly? I mounted the little scope on our Bogen tripod (this was the C90 spotter version, remember), trotted her out to the front yard, and pointed her at the gibbous Moon. After running back inside for a minute to grab a Lenspen and clean off the uber filthy ocular, I got the C90’s balky focuser fine-tuned on the good, ol’ Moon. Sweet. Nice ‘n sharp. I even showed Luna to a couple of passersby on Selma street in sidewalk astronomy fashion before the cold got the best of me and I headed inside to do a bit of cogitating and back-of-the-envelope cyphering.
Since Dorothy’s colleague was selling this to help her Daddy, I certainly didn’t want to shortchange her. I figgered 150 bucks would be about right for the C90 spotter, which would need at least a little fixing and fussing, and a manual film SLR, which ain’t exactly a drug on the photo market in these digital days.
That’s when I ran into what I call the “Must Be” syndrome. I mentioned this very thing the other day on the Cloudy Nights Classics bulletin board when someone posted that they were concerned folks, non amateur folks, was getting ripped off because they don’t know how much older scopes is worth. I opined that the opposite is usually true, that non-amateurs tend to have INFLATED rather than DEFLATED ideas of the value of any telescope. A “lay” person comes into a scope of some kind. Often “just” a 60mm refractor. It’s big and gleaming and scientific-looking compared to the spyglasses most folks think of when they think “telescope.” When they go to sell it, the tune is, “I believe Granpappy paid THOUSANDS for this; it MUST BE worth that much now.”
So I wasn’t overly surprised when Dorothy returned with the word that her friend had recalled Daddy paid two hundred dollars at least for just the telescope. While I’d been willing to go 150, which I actually considered an overly fair price, 200 George Washingtons was a mite above my price comfort level considering the fact I really had no immediate and pressing use for the wee kitty. I tole Miss D. to carry the C90 back to her bud, and to tell her if she later decided she wanted to sell it for my original figger, the offer would still be open.
If the C90 does make it back this-a-way, y’all will be the first to know, and I’ll maybe even devote a blog to its restoration. In other words, as Rod’s ol’ Granny used to say, “We’ll see.”