Sunday, August 15, 2010


The Sky on His Shoulders

“He” being Atlas, the Titan who, in Greek mythology, was condemned to hold the sky up. But how does the modern Atlas hold up to the sky? And what in tarnation is Unk going on about now? If you ain’t guessed, I am talking about that most ubiquitous of German equatorial mounts in the first decade of the 21st century, the Orion Atlas, a.k.a. the Synta EQ-6.

The Atlas has been around for quite some time now, beginning life as a non-computerized German equatorial about a decade ago. Frankly, it was the first Chinese-made mount to impress western amateurs. It wasn’t perfect, suffering from less than good gears, but it was big and it was cheap and it was clear Synta intended to keep improving it, just as they had their smaller EQ-4/CG5 mounts.

In a remarkably short time, the Atlas was given a complete makeover, which included go-to via a new motor control board and a “SynScan” computer hand controller. Many of its former faux pas were corrected, too. The gears on the go-to version were much higher in quality than the old ones, and the weasel fat-based glue-grease slathered on ‘em had been replaced by a decent lubricant.

We amateurs noticed what Synta was doing with this mount, and before you could say “Jack Horkheimer” err… “Robinson,” the EQ-6 had become the choice for budget-conscious astrophotographers the world over. The EQ-6/Atlas developed a reputation for being one of the most trouble-free go-to GEMs available at any price for use in any amateur application. That’s what everybody said, anyhow. What did I think about the Atlas?

I didn’t think anything about it. I was perfectly happy with the Celestron CG5 I’d bought to replace the fork mount of my beloved 1995 Ultima C8 SCT, Celeste. That decision is a story in itself, but, to summarize, I was tired of not having go-to for my C8, I was tired of wrestling with an equatorial wedge for visual observing, and I was tired of contorting my middle-aged bod to find objects and view them with the wedge-mounted Celestron.

The CG5 worked out splendidly. I was gobsmacked at how good its pointing accuracy was, almost as good as that of my NexStar 11. No, it wasn’t in the Astro-Physics or even Losmandy league, but it was able to bring back some long-exposure deep sky images that made me happy. Why would I need another mount? That became clear one windy early spring night at the Chiefland Astronomy Village.

My usual astro-camera is not a long exposure CCD rig, but a deep sky videocam, my Stellacam II. It lets the C8 go insanely deep, and is pretty forgiving when it comes to tracking errors. I’ve been using the CG5 with the C8/Stellacam ever since I got the mount, and it’s proven to be quite adequate for that combo of scope and camera. “Adequate”? It’s usually fantastic. Not on the run in question, though. What started as a mild breeze wound itself up into genuine gusts of wind, and afore long my images were dancing all over the monitor. Removing the dew shield, which was acting like a sail, helped some, but not enough. Worse, even with the dew heater cranked up to ten, I had to shut down due to a soggy corrector long before I was ready.

Also, while I generally do my imaging with video, there are times I want to use a DSLR or my SBIG CCD, and three years ago was one of those times. I was finishing up a book, Choosing and Using a New CAT, and I needed pictures. Not just pictures, either, but my pictures. I’d sworn every astrophoto in the new book would be a genuine SCT shot, preferably done by me. While I’d got some OK images with the CG5 and my still CCD cameras, I decided a new GEM mount was in order in the interest of More Better Gooder.

Which German mount? Tightwad that I am, I not only ruled out Bisque and Astro-Phyiscs, I also crossed the Losmandy G11 and Celestron CGE off my list. These are the usual “step up” GEMs, but 3K seemed like a hell of a lot to pay given my lack of astrophotography talent and the lack of nights down here good enough to practice that difficult art. Which left what? The EQ6/Atlas.

I’d heard a lot of good things about the Atlas, which is what Orion Telescope and Binocular Center has always called the Synta EQ-6es they sell. How good did I think it really could be, though? Its maker, Synta, also made the Celestron CG5, which I adored. Surely the Atlas would be a little better, a little steadier at least. I was ready to pull the trigger on the big Synta just before Christmas 2007. There was one other decision to make, though: go-to or no go-to?

Y’all know me. I love computerized scopes. Why would I consider popping for a non-go-to GEM? I wouldn’t. If I got the non-go-to Atlas, it would only be with the idea of turning it into a go-to. How the hail would I do that? Save for the SynScan hand control, the (no longer sold) non-go-to version of the Atlas was the same as the go-to. Same internal electronics, just a different, “manual” HC. I could save myself a couple of hundred by opting for the no-go version and making it a go-to with EQMOD, a freeware program that, like Celestron’s NexRemote, takes the place of the hand controller. In the end, I opted for go-to; I figgered having the SynScan HC would be handy for those times when I didn’t want to lug a computer out—public outreach nights, for example.

Before we talk about the “what” of the Atlas, we maybe should talk about the “why,” as in “Why should you buy an Atlas/EQ6 instead of the more recent and snazzier Celestron CGEM?” That is a question I hear a lot of late. Many of you, it seems, are agonizing over the choice between these similar—yet different—GEMs. What do I say? I say you’re lucky to have a choice, I didn’t.

I was sitting fat, dumb, and happy with my new Atlas. I was impressed with it, and especially by its bulk. I remember the mount’s first real night under the stars down at Chiefland in January of ought-eight. I was done with set-up and was strolling the field waiting for dark. My orbit eventually took me past one of the mounts I’d briefly considered in my GEM quest, the Celestron CGE. It was a sweet-looking thing, but I was flat-out amazed at how small its EQ head looked compared to the Atlas. Certainly size is not (always) everything, but the Atlas proved himself that night, taking guided astrophotos that delivered round stars for as long as I wanted to go.

Which don’t mean the Atlas is perfect. It is a 1500 dollar-class-mount. Unlike the twice as expensive CGE, it is not a good choice for a C14 (neither is the CGE or its inspiration, the G11, really), but with a payload capacity of 40 pounds, it is well suited to a tricked-out C11 and many other sizeable tubes. If there’s anything that drags it down, it’s the too-light tripod and Vixen style OTA mounting saddle. Those aren't huge impediments, however. There are enough Atlases out there now to support a third party industry selling add-ons for it, and creative owners have come up with improvements that have moved the mount at least half a step up the ladder.  Atlas users not satisfied with the stock tubular-steel tripod have adapted G11 and CGE tripods to the mount, and several vendors are selling Losmandy "D" compatible saddles to replace the Vixen dovetail bracket.

Course, switching from the NexStar way of doing things to the SynScan way wasn’t all gravy. A lot of the features in the NexStar I’d come to take for granted are lacking in the SynScan. The Celestron HC, for example, includes an effective polar alignment routine. With the Atlas, you use the mount’s built-in polar alignment scope, just like the bad old days. Oh, well. I’d get used to it, I reckoned. The reduced feature set as compared to my CG5’s computer seemed worthwhile for such a solid mount.

So I was happy. Till I heard about the CGEM. It seemed Synta was putting together a new “EQ-6” for its Celestron brand. Not only was the EQ-6’s old Takahashi-EM-200-clone external appearance radically updated, the mount’s innards were changed, too. Synta swapped the EQ-6 stepper motors for servo motors, which allowed the SynScan hand control to be replaced by the fancier NexStar HC.

Dadgummit. If only I’d waited a few more months I coulda had what I really wanted: a bigger mount and the Celestron computer. I was in a snit for a while, but the mount blues began to lift shortly. My Atlas did everything I wanted and needed it to. Taking the images I required for the book was as painless as astrophotography ever gets. I was even able to bring back some recognizable images of M42 the first night I ever tried a DSLR with a telescope. The EQMOD program was fantastic, fully the equal of the much-loved NexRemote. More importantly (or worriedly), it seemed the CGEM was not to be one of Celestron’s more trouble-free product introductions.

It’s hard to tell what the real story is with a piece of gear—at first, anyhow. Whether you talk to owners in person or over the fracking Internet, you get a biased view, with people who have issues tending to speak up more loudly and often than those who don’t. Nevertheless, the number of serious problems I was hearing about told me all was not rosy in CGEM land.

Most of the difficulties seemed traceable to the NexStar hand controller. Some weren’t quite right. Some acted slap crazy. Some were dead out of the box. There sure seemed to be a lot of bad ones, too. One evening when I was having supper with one of my mentors in this business, Doc Clay Sherrod, I mentioned the CGEM debacle. Doc confirmed what I’d suspected: Celestron had got a bad batch of HCs. Which didn’t sound that bad; if that were the only problem, Celestron ought to be able to get things back on the track without much trouble.

Alas, CGEM problems continued even after the HC situation began to improve. Distressingly, mechanical issues began to be reported: locks that wouldn’t lock down the right ascension and declination axes firmly. Backlash. Mechanical binding that would crop up after months of use. I noted some outfits were beginning to sell replacement lock levers and other “fix” items for the CGEM. Which left me a little dubious. When I see vendors offering accessories designed to make a mount work right rather than just better, I get nervous.

Does this sound like sour grapes? It really ain’t. I want Celestron to succeed with the CGEM. When the bugs are out, it will probably take over from the Atlas as “best value in a medium duty mount.” With the strength of Atlas and the smarts of NexStar, it will be hard to beat. But it ain’t there yet. I’ve heard less about problems of late, but I still hear about them. Me? For a while I was considering selling the Atlas for a CGEM. Not now, and not just because of the CGEM’s growing pains. I’ve become reacquainted with my Atlas, and have been impressed all over again.

REacquainted? I hadn’t used the Atlas much since I put Choosing and Using a New CAT to bed. Why not? The CG5. It’s gone through numerous software revisions in the five years I’ve had it, and Celestron has turned it into one of the best working mounts it’s ever been my pleasure to use. Yes, I knew it could be a mite shaky under the wrong conditions, but it was so nice and light and easy to load and unload that that didn’t seem a bad trade-off for the longest time.

Then came a blustery eve on the PSAS (Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, natch) observing field, windy enough that I had to forget about imaging with the Stellacam and go visual, which was annoying. I got to thinking, “Maybe it’s time to give the Atlas another shot. Shame not to use the bigun. Sure woulda come in handy on a night like this.” I resolved the CG5 would stay home in favor of the Atlas for the next dark-site run.

When that night came, just a couple of weeks back, conditions were not encouraging. It was clear it was gonna be a sucker-hole-ridden hazy one at best. I decided to forget the Stellacam. It would have been tempting just to lug Charity Hope Valentine, my ETX125, out to the club site, but I’d resolved to get the Atlas going again, and that I would do. But not with a computer and EQMOD. I’d keep it simple. I wanted to try out the SynScan HC, anyway. I’d never used it under a decent sky, and despite updating its firmware as new releases had come out, I’d used it exactly twice in the near three years I’d had the mount.

I always hope to be pleasantly surprised on these iffy evenings: “Hell, all of a sudden, the clouds blew off and the Milky Way started burning.” Sometimes that actually happens. Not on this night. It started out cloudy, hazy, and humid and stayed that way. Until it got worse. At sundown it did look good enough to get the Atlas and C8 aligned, so I proceeded to do so.

Yes, the SynScan looks a lot like the NexStar remote, but it is a horse of a different color (the one you’ve heard tell about). The keys are different, the feature set is different, and the alignment procedure is different. One difference I approve of is that the SynScan plugs into the mount head via a nice DB9 connector instead of the puny RJ telephone style plug Celestron uses. And this HC beeps at you with a teeny-weeny speaker, unlike the mute NexStar.

With dark coming and the sky looking at least passable, I fired Atlas up. Not that I was ready to start the go-to alignment yet. I’d have to polar align the thing first. Turning on the Atlas illuminates the polar scope crosshairs and (after some data entry) displays the current Polaris Hour Angle on the SynScan.

The wha? Unlike the NexStar, there’s no polar alignment routine in software to help get the GEM’s right ascension axis pointed at the North Celestial Pole. So, you’ll use the mount’s polar alignment borescope. There are a couple of ways to do that. Easiest, though least accurate, is to just move the mount in R.A. till the pictures of the Big Dipper/Plough and Cassiopeia on the polar scope reticle match the approximate positions of the constellations in the sky. After that, you move the mount in altitude and azimuth to put Polaris in a little circle on the reticle and you are polar aligned. Sort of, anyhow. Almost as easy, and considerably more accurate is using Polaris’ Hour Angle.

That sounds scary, but is easy. Once you’ve got the mount set up, you rotate in R.A. until the circle on the reticle where Polaris goes is on the bottom, as close to straight down as you can get it. Loosen the set screws (two of them) that hold the analog R.A. setting circle motionless, and turn the circle until 0 (hours) is under the pointer. You don’t move the mount in R.A., just the circle. When it reads 0, tighten the setscrews down. Setting circle set, light-off the mount and enter the vitals: time, date, etc. The SynScan will come back with the current Polaris H.A., which will be in the form of a “time,” 13:30, for example. Unlock the mount’s right ascension lock and rotate in R.A. until that time (on the circle's inner scale) is under the pointer.

The rest is easy. Look through the polar scope and adjust the Atlas in altitude and azimuth (not R.A. and declination) using the bolts and knobs on the mount head until Polaris is centered in its circle. Voila! You are decently polar aligned. Not as easy, maybe, as the computerized Nexstar procedure, but not bad, and good enough for me.

Possible complications? If you use a long-tube scope, you may want to remove it during the polar alignment procedure, as positioning the reticle properly may put the tube in positions where it will bump into a tripod leg (you must keep the tube perpendicular to the polar axis, at declination 90, to use the polar borescope). Also, some folks worry about the altitude and azimuth adjusters, as they seem awfully hard and sticky on some mounts.

I definitely had that problem with azimuth. Moving the mount right or left with the (too small) knobs practically tore the skin off my fingers one night. Solution? Some people place a thin Teflon disk between mount head and tripod. That works well, but seemed like a lot of trouble to me. My cheap, lazy solution? A thin coating of bicycle chain grease on the two surfaces ensured I had no further problems. Leaving the threaded bolt/rod that fastens mount head to tripod a little loose until alignment is done also helps.

Then there is altitude, which, as is the case with most GEMs, is adjusted by alternately tightening and loosening forward and aft “latitude” bolts on the mount head. The secret to moving the mount in altitude without busting a gut? Loosen the forward bolt and adjust only with the aft bolt. If the mount doesn’t want to go down when you need to go down, just a little downward pressure on the counterweight bar will ease things along. Apply firm, even pressure when raising the scope in altitude and don’t use a cotton pickin’ pair of vice grips. Too much force and you can bend the bolt. It’s not needed anyway. If “up” seems too hard, remove scope and counterweights (in that order) during polar alignment and you will be in like Flynn.

So you are polar aligned with the polar scope. Do you need to drift align? Probably not. Not unless you are a much more serious astrophotographer than I am. An alignment with the Atlas’ polar scope allows me to do 3-minute integrations with my CCD camera and my C8 at f/6.3, and that is all I need. If you are just observing visually, don’t even worry about adjusting the polar scope’s reticle and figuring out hour angles. Just center Polaris in the borescope. Admittedly, the closer you are to the pole, the closer the mount will come to the first go-to alignment star, but that’s all. Oh, if you insist on doing a one or two star go-to alignment instead of a three-star, a close polar alignment will help with pointing accuracy.

How about go-to alignments? In this area, the Atlas is, again, a little more primitive than the NexStar, but is completely adequate. These days, you align a Celestron GEM on as many as six stars, which ensures excellent accuracy all across the sky. SynScan? It is where the NexStar was several years ago. Unless you have a dead-nuts-on polar alignment, you do a three star go-to alignment, which consists of two stars on one side of the Local Meridian and one on the other. This third star is the “cone alignment” star. Centering it up allows the computer to take any mechanical misalignments present into account.

One thing I’d been told and had found out for myself in my two outings with the SynScan HC was that, unlike with the NexStar, you are wise not to blindly accept the first alignment stars the HC comes up with. Instead, use the SynScan’s up and down keys to select the best candidates. The first two stars should be fairly far apart in azimuth, up to 60-degrees apart, and not too close to the horizon. Certainly no closer than 15 degrees or so. MOST importantly, star 1 and star 2 should be separated by several hours of right ascension. That appears to be critical for go-to accuracy. Star 3 should be between either declination +30 and +70 or between declination -30 and -70--in other words, not too close to the poles or the celestial equator. Like stars 1 and 2, it should not be close to the horizon, either. The Atlas manual does a good job of explaining the requirements for alignment stars, so read it. A couple of times.

My problem on this poor night in Tanner – Williams, Alabama was finding three stars in the clear that fit these requirements. The number of possible alignment stars the SynScan allows you is fairly limited, too. I just did the best I could. Star one was about a degree out when the slew stopped; stars two and three were right on the edge of the center ring of Celeste’s Telrad, which I habitually use for alignment instead of her 50mm finder. “Alignment Success” Atlas said. We’d see about that.

M13, which was close to culmination, almost straight overhead, would be a good test, as many go-to systems tend to have trouble with stuff up in Dobson’s hole. I punched in “M13” (at least SynScan doesn’t demand you enter “M 013” like the NexStar). In due time, the HC beeped and I stuck a 20mm Expanse eyepiece in the diagonal—yeah, I was really going minimalist on this evening. There was M13, on the edge of the field at f/6.3, but in the field nevertheless. I then essayed a walkabout of the midsummer sky, visiting everything from Lyra in the east to Virgo in the west. Anything I requested was somewhere in the field of the 20mm, and often in the field of a 9mm Expanse.

I had a lovely time for an hour or so, checking in on all the summertime gang. Those sitting in sucker holes, anyhow: M57, M56, M27, M71, M80, M4, M13, M92, M22, M8. Then to the other side of the sky, to the rapidly descending spring bunch: M3, M53, and every Virgo Messier that was even minimally clear of the clouds. One especially pleasant thing? How quiet the Atlas is compared to the CG5, which is near the Meade decibel level. Atlas is so quiet that it’s a good thing its HC beeps when it’s reached a target; standing a couple of meters away, you’d never know otherwise.

Just as I was contemplating having a look at Ursa Major’s Messiers, the sky began to close down. It was pretty clear it was time to start thinking about packing up, even though it wasn’t quite 11pm. The sky wasn’t going to get any better any time soon, and had the look of incipient “much worse.” An old Moon would be on the rise before long, anyhow.

Alrighty, then. I lugged Atlas’ head back to the Toyota. It is, at close to 40-pounds, considerably heavier than the CG5. It didn’t feel that way, though, and packing up for the drive home was a breeze. Maybe because the Atlas is less awkward than the CG5. You can retract the counterweight shaft into the body of the mount, and there’s no external declination cable to snag on anything or cheesy plastic motor covers to worry about. For good or ill, the tripod is almost identical to the one shipped with the CG5, so that is not a factor.

Verdict on the mount’s go-to capability with the hand control? If you choose alignment stars carefully, the SynScan’s accuracy is on a par with that of the NexStar HC, despite the fact that it is limited to a three-star alignment. While the extra cone stars the NexStar HC allows you to use supposedly improve pointing accuracy, the SynScan seems just as good at object finding. Need more better gooder? Use the EQMOD program instead of the SynScan controller, and you can center on as many alignment stars as you need, which can, potentially at least, deliver arc second level pointing accuracy.

OK, then. It sounds like the SynScan is good but EQMOD is better. How does EQMOD fit into the Atlas story? I’d intended to tell y’all, but we are utterly out of space for this morning, and that will have to be a story for another Sunday. Cain’t wait? I did a pretty complete review of EQMOD in the December 2008 issue of Astronomy Technology Today magazine. Don't have that one? Individual back issues are not available at this time, but a mere 30 bucks will get you ALL the back numbers, which I call a b-a-r-g-a-i-n.

Anyhoo, where things stand with the Atlas now is that I have at least provisionally demoted my CG5 to “backup GEM” status. We will see how the Atlas/EQMOD does with the Stellacam II and the Herschel Project when I finally get some clear and dark skies, but I think I am gonna be one happy camper with the combination. You’ll know how that went soon after I do, muchachos.

Coming Soon: The good folks at Hotech are lending your ol’ Uncle one of their new fangled Advanced CT Laser Collimators for an eval, and, as you might expect, that will be the subject of a blog as soon as the gadget’s in my hands and as soon as dumb li’l ol’ me figures out how to use it. Given the excellent documentation, which I’ve already looked at, I speck that won’t be too long.

Book Heads Up

This is not a review, not yet, since I haven’t had time to even start the book in question, but I just received an advance copy of what looks to be a fantastic novel, Michael Byers' Percival’s Planet. While this is a partial fictionalization of Clyde Tombaugh’s story, my brief browsing shows it is pretty true to that story, nevertheless, and that Mr. Byers has not spared the technical detail and background you and I crave.

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