Sunday, March 27, 2011


Cloudy Again

Same old story, muchachos: it’s cloudy. It was clear all week, but as soon as the weekend arrived so did those fraking masses of airborne gray, scotching plans for a dark site expedition.

What do you, the committed amateur astronomer, do with your free hours when the sky won’t cooperate? There’s always the Cloudy Nights discussion groups for cloudy nights. Astromart too. Or you can catch up on your reading with the latest issue of Sky and Telescope. But what if you want to do something a little more tactile and involving, and know you shouldn’t amuse yourself by cleaning optics that don’t need to be cleaned?

What do I do when I can’t observe and the lovely Miss Dorothy and I don’t have something else planned? I have this blog and my other writing, of course, but once in a while, when that begins to feel a little too much like work, I engage in a pursuit you may find of interest. It’s been an abiding one for me.

I’m re-running the Space Race on Chaos Manor South’s dining room table.

Like most kids, boy kids anyhow, of my generation, the Baby Boom Generation, I loved glue-em-together plastic model kits. I’d assemble almost anything. I loved Aurora’s legendary Universal Monster kits. I did quite a few cars, too, mostly because my buddies, especially Wayne Lee, loved ‘em. Mainly, though, I focused on aircraft. And, most of all, the less plentiful but oh-so-interesting NASA spacecraft.

The first model kit I owned was one I didn’t put together. At four or five years old I didn’t have even the beginnings of the skills needed to assemble one of the old Strombecker Company’s complex models. But oh how their beautiful space station kit on the shelf in Sears’ toy department beckoned.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand exactly what it was, a model of Werner Von Braun’s “space wheel” space station featured in "Man in Space" on the old Disneyland TV show. To me it was a flying saucer, and like every other kid (and adult) in the 1950s I dang sure knew what that was. Eventually, Mama and I saw the theatrical version of the TV show (which also included "Man and the Moon" and "Mars and Beyond") at the Roxy, and I realized what the kit my Old Man had so painstakingly assembled was supposed to represent. That was fine, but I still called it my “flying saucer” and played with it till it fell to pieces and retired to that Valhalla inhabited by our long-lost and best-loved toys.

I didn’t get another space model till I was old enough to assemble one myself (barely) and spied an advertisement for the Science Service, who was a publisher of very good little paperback science books for kids on a variety of subjects. Mama and Daddy had got me a subscription to these books well before I could read; my first planisphere was bound into the Science Service’s Universe issue.

By the early sixties, my subscription had lapsed. I missed getting the little books, especially since I could actually read them now, and convinced Mama to re-up me. I really lucked out in that my desire for more Science Service books coincided with their new promotion. In addition to an update of Universe and another favorite, Man in Space, whose cover now featured a mock-up of an Apollo Lunar Excursion Module, what I got for the one thin dime I sent with my subscription blank was a model of the Mercury spacecraft in all its high-tech and futuristic glory (they later offered Gemini and Apollo for the same 10 cent fare).

Revell’s Project Mercury kit wasn’t much. It was small, only 1/48 scale, and looked kinda dreary, being made of haze-gray colored plastic. It would actually have looked pretty good if I’d painted it, but I couldn’t for my first “build up” of the kit—Mama believed the combination of me and Testor’s little bottles of enamel paint was a recipe for disaster.

My finished capsule didn’t look that great, no—it didn’t just lack paint, it was festooned with several glue-etched fingerprints—but I loved it. It was much more realistic than any of the toy space capsules down at Kress’ five and dime. It was a great toy to play with, me recreating Alan Shepard’s flight over and over, and I thought it also looked good on display on the dresser in my room. I wanted more.

And I got more, going from that humble spam-in-a-can capsule to the X-15 space plane, to the two-man Gemini, to the mighty Apollo-Saturn with lots of good stuff in between. While the products of my labors didn’t always turn out the way I hoped—then as now I had a problem with READ THE INSTRUCTIONS—many of my assembled kits were not bad. I’d matured from slamming one together in a single afternoon so I could play with the thing A.S.A.P., to taking my time, doing the assembly just right, and getting the spacecraft appropriately painted—when I could sneak those little bottles past Mama.

My space modeling career culminated one Christmas with the ultimate kit, Revell’s gigantic 1/96 scale Apollo-Saturn V which stood nearly four feet tall, included the Command, Service, and Lunar (Excursion) Modules from the company’s standard Apollo model, and looked just fantastic when I assembled it.

The experience was a great way to close out my space-modeling career. I still remember how excited I was to see that huge box under our skinny little tree at dawn on Christmas Morning. And how I enjoyed building it. My skills were pretty good by this time, 1969, and the kit was well thought-out. The first and second stages, for example, were made by forming thin plastic sheets into a tube. These sheets were printed in the correct colors, so my paint smuggling was kept to a minimum.

That was pretty much it for me and space modeling. After Apollo 11, the kits I craved began to disappear from the shelves as the public lost interest in Apollo, and Revell, AMT, Aurora, and the rest of the kit producers adjusted their offerings appropriately. By this time, high-school was winding down and I decided plastic model kits belonged in the past with (most of) the rest of my childhood obsessions, anyway.

But, suddenly, here I am with paint and glue again. Why did I revisit the art and craft of assembling models 40 years down the road? Partly because I was looking for a space-oriented something to occupy my free hours when I couldn’t observe, and partly because of middle-aged nostalgia for the pleasures of my youth (I am currently rereading all the Doc Savage novels). And nostalgia for the U.S. Space Program.

That’s hell, ain’t it? Feeling nostalgia for what was supposed to be man’s future. It’s the result of a time when the thrill of the final frontier is supposedly gone. An age when several Administrations have minimized the U.S. manned space program and the latest one has come close to eliminating it. The current crop of politicians ain’t stopping there, unfortunately. They are now preparing to cut back on unmanned missions as well; to the point where the future of unmanned exploration is in real jeopardy, too.

In addition to nostalgia for the sweet bird of youth, there had to be a spark to awaken my longing for the smell of glue and paint. That spark came one afternoon when Miss Dorothy and I were touring one of our favorite tourist destinations, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. As we usually do, we ended our visit with a stop at the Center’s extensive gift shop. I was browsing around as we picked up gifts for all and sundry, when what should I spy but my old pal the space-wheel. I picked up Glencoe Models’ reissue of the old Strombecker kit, gazed briefly at the beautiful and evocative cover painting, and was soon paying for the thing.

What I found when I finally began assembling the kit months later was that not only was space kit building relaxing fun, it was actually as EDUCATIONAL as I’d vainly tried to convince Mama it was all those years ago.

In the course of building Von Braun’s atomic-powered wonder, I had recourse to watch Disney’s excellent "Man in Space" show again (one of several DVD sets featuring Disneyland productions). That, in turn, led to me doing some reading and researching about the early days of Von Braun and his team and the birth of NASA. By the time my pretty space station was finished (alas, one of the cats soon tossed it off the top of the chiffarobe where I’d thought it would be safe), I knew a lot more about Von Braun’s early concepts and the beginnings of NASA than I had before.

While I’d always loved my completed kits, it was a whole other experience to finish up with a really good-looking, properly painted, glue-smear free result. In addition to paying (slightly) more attention to the instruction sheets, and having a little more patience and coordination, what’s helped my space models more than anything else has been the resources we now have available; not just a wealth of space books from publishers large and small, but DVDs and all the pictures and information brought by the Internet.

For a while, I was space model crazy again, doing an Apollo 11 LM, a small Saturn V (the big one is currently out of production), a Shuttle Orbiter, and a Vostok in quick succession one recent summer. Every time I finished a kit, I was much more knowledgeable about the spacecraft it depicted, down to the turbopump and engine level, than I had been before I began.

Since that summer, things have slowed down some on the modeling front. Another academic year at the University, a change of projects at work (I am now working on the U.S. Navy’s LPD program), and the vaunted Herschel Project mean I have less time to spend on my plastic playthings. But I have pressed on and have recently added Glencoe’s reissue Explorer I to my stable. Currently in process is a small but fairly well made Energia kit from Russia. I also have Revell’s famous “big Gemini” 1/24 scale capsule to look forward to—probably this summer when the storms begin to roll-in off the Gulf.

Does this sound interesting enough that you’d like to follow me into the world of glue and sprue (the plastic “trees” model parts are affixed to)? If so, the first step is finding a kit to build. We are in the age of the Internet, and there are plenty of online places to browse and buy from, but nothing beats the good old local hobby shop. Surprisingly, most cities still have one. I don’t suppose they sell much to kids, but there must be enough nostalgic Boomers around to keep ‘em hanging on.

Take a look at the aircraft section of the shop’s plastic model department, and you will likely find at least a few kits in our special area of interest. What do you pick? Choose one you find interesting or you may never finish it. You want a little challenge, but don’t overdo it the first time out. Stay with the old American brands. You’ll likely find a Revell easier to do than an import like a Tamiya, no matter how cool one of their models looks. Also stay away from “resin” kits in the beginning. These are usually issued by small concerns, are assembled using superglue rather than plastic cement, and are almost always more difficult to assemble than a mainstream styrene model.

Keep it fairly simple in the painting/detailing area as well. Yeah, I know you want to do an Apollo LM, but to do one even close to right, you’ll be dealing with lots of paint colors in small areas and doing things like applying gold foil to the ascent stage. A nice big Shuttle stack will be challenging without being overwhelming.

What else? You’ll need glue, of course. Get the stuff in the little tubes, just like you remember from The Day, but also purchase a bottle of liquid plastic cement for small parts and awkward places. Paint? If you know what’s required, get it, but chances are you will need to come back for that after doing some research.

You’ll need to equip yourself with a few other tools of the trade. You want to keep glue and paint off places where they shouldn’t go (like Chaos Manor South’s fancy-eating-room table), so get a small dropcloth. You will most assuredly need a sharp Exacto-type knife for trimming mold marks and such. Various sizes of paintbrushes will be required, with my inclination being to send you to an art supply store for brushes of higher quality than what you’ll get at the hobby shop. Rubber bands and paper clamps are handy for holding pieces together while glue dries. Don’t forget a full selection of sandpapers. The little kits of sandpaper at the hobby shop are much more expensive than sandpaper at Lowes or Home Depot, but are very convenient. Note that you can find many of these accessories prepackaged in kits from companies like Testors. You’ll want a place to keep all this stuff organized. A tackle box works fine, or you can get a “craft box” like the one I found in WallyWorld (Walmart, natch).

Then there is the airbrush question. You’ll usually spray rather than brush-paint larger pieces and assemblies, and an airbrush can potentially do a better paintjob than an aerosol can. One can also do detailed work. Should you buy an airbrush, then? How about a compressor? Invest in one or stick with propellant cans? Save airbrushing for later. At first, the little spray cans from the hobby shop will be good enough, maybe supplemented with Krylon Fusion (designed to paint plastic) spray-paint from Walmart.

If you do decide you want to airbrush, start with an inexpensive kit like the nice 30 dollar rig from Testors, and work your way up from there. Of course, the better your equipment, the better your results, just like in astrophotography, but if you’re like me, you no more aspire to seeing pictures of your completed kits in FineScale Modeler than you aspire to having your astro-images in the Gallery section of Sky and Telescope. Like Unk, you may just want to have fun, and one of the beauties of space modeling is that it is inexpensive. Not as expensive as amateur astronomy, at least.

Kit and supplies accumulated, where to begin? You begin with books and the Internet and maybe a DVD or two. Before you can duplicate a spacecraft, after all, you must know what it looks like in detail, including its paint scheme.

Print media can help. I especially favor the Apogee Space Books. Not only are they good sources of information and pictures, they are usually accompanied by CDs or DVDs with more pictures and video. I’ve also used Andrew Chaikin’s masterfully written and richly illustrated three-volume A Man on the Moon frequently. How about print resources for model building? The top of the heap is occupied by FineScale Modeler Magazine. It rarely has articles on or pictures of spacecraft, but there’s plenty on aircraft model building that is applicable to our interest, and lots of good tips for building any sort of plastic scale model.

Internet? There are hordes of sites devoted to modeling, and quite a few that focus on space models, including the excellent Starship Modeler website. But the numero uno Internet resource as far as I am concerned is the Yahoogroups space-modelers mailing list. There you will get your questions answered by folks who are very knowledgeable about both modeling and the space program, learn how talented modelers tackle kits, get news about new spacecraft models, and get pointed at excellent websites and other resources.

You may find DVDs, movies about the space program, helpful. Some I’ve used as reference are the rarely seen Moon Shot (from the book by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton); Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon series from HBO; the blockbuster Apollo 13; and Discovery Channel’s too short, even at over four hours, but well done summing-up of the Space Race, When We Left Earth. Some of these, like Moon Shot, are documentaries, and modern DVD players’ still-frame capability will allow you to make excellent use of this footage. Be sure to have a look at the superb multi-DVD documentaries from Spacecraft Films, too.

You know what your spacecraft is supposed to look like; you’ve got the paint ready to go. Where do you begin? You begin by strategizing. Test fit the larger pieces (don’t remove small items from their sprues until you are ready to use them or you may have difficulty identifying them later) to see how assembly should go. Most of all, try to get some idea about how to paint the kit. Some parts will need to be painted before assembly. In other cases, it will be easier to paint something after the kit or at least a section of it is assembled. Have a plan in mind before you break out the glue.

Once you are ready to go, follow the instructions exactly (usually). The process is simple. Remove parts from their sprue tree. Trim/sand to remove the mark left where you removed it (I have better luck just bending back and forth than cutting from the sprue). Glue along the joint, all along the joint, but don’t use much glue; you don’t need gobs of the stuff, just a coating of one of the surfaces to be joined. Clamp the two pieces together with paper clamps or rubber band them together and let them dry for several hours. When dry, sand to remove evidence of the glued seam. Be careful when sanding that you do not sand-off details like engraved or raised lines. And just keep going…

Painting? Before plastic surfaces can be painted, they should at least be washed with detergent (dishwashing detergent) to remove traces of chemicals the manufacturer used to help the parts “release” from their molds. In some cases, depending on the colors to be used in the final finish, it may be wise to prime first. I just use flat spray paint, usually white, for this task. Go easy on the paint, whether spraying or brushing, using thin coats in multiple layers as necessary. I find it much easier and less messy to use acrylics for both brushing and spraying (with an airbrush; most spray cans are enamel) than oil-based paints.

The first time out, your finished kit will likely not look as good as you hoped nor as bad as you feared. I find my build-ups invariably look better the next day, but are never quite what I’d visualized. Don’t worry if your results are far from perfect, however. You gained skill, and will do better on the next one. You learned something—both about modeling and your “subject”—and, I hope, you had fun.

Nah, I don’t spend as much time on my space model kits as I’d like. Who has time for that? But when it is cloudy and I am otherwise unoccupied, you can bet your bippy there’s one on the dining room table so I can once again lose myself in not just the intricacies of glue and sprue, but in turbopumps, telemetry modules—and wonder.

Night of the Big Moon: I don’t know about your neighborhood, but round here in the Garden District folks were very excited about the recent SUPER-MOON. You will be proud of ol’ Unk. I didn’t mention to any of our neighbors, who were gathered in surprising numbers on their front lawns having a good time in the Moonlight, that this Moon wasn’t different enough in size from a “normal” Full Moon for them to notice the diff, even if last month’s full Moon were hung next to this month’s in the sky. All I know is everybody had a good time and some people who rarely do actually looked up at the night sky.

Next Time: Maybe Unk actually got to do some observing this weekend? Well, you never know; stranger things have happened.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Unk’s Faux Unitron

No, the restored Charity Hope Valentine didn't get a swing at the Messier Marathon, muchachos. It was unrelievedly cloudy this past Saturday after a Friday that saw massive tornado-bearing storms roll across the Gulf Coast. Charity will eventually get to show her mettle with as many Messiers as Unk can stay up late enough to catch, but this time I want to tell you about a different telescope and a simpler sort of astronomy: unplugged amateur astronomy.

I have an undeniable affinity for telescopes. I don’t just mean I love ‘em, or, more properly, lust after them, I mean I seem to accumulate them without even trying. Take the RV-6 that a kindly gentleman donated to my outreach efforts year before last. Or the Orange Tube C90, “Stella,” who came to live with us at Chaos Manor South last summer, which resulted in the acquisition of yet another scope, Eloise.

I had no intention of adding another small instrument to Chaos Manor South’s burgeoning inventory; I just wanted a decent tripod and mount for the unlooked for Stella. If you’ve experimented with photo or video tripods with even small telescopes, you know one is the worst possible solution for mounting a scope for astronomical use. I figured, however, that our nice Manfrotto might barely serve for such a small and short instrument as Miss Stella.

Not. Though the classic C90 is small with a mere 90mm of aperture, she ain’t that light. And she boasts a focal ratio of f/11, meaning a 25mm eyepiece yields 40x. Not only was the scope out of balance and pretty shaky on the tripod, leaving the altitude lock loose enough to approximate slow-motion movements resulted in the scope suddenly flopping down with near disastrous results. I’d forgotten, I guess, how bad a photo tripod is for even a Short Tube 80 refractor, much less a long focus CAT.

What to do? The obvious solution was an alt-azimuth mount intended for astronomical use. It was also obvious it is possible to spend a lot of money on a “simple” alt-az these days; those from folks like Half-Hitch, for example. These fine mounts are popular, I reckon, due to amateurs’ ongoing love affair with short-focus, high-quality refractors. The prices of modern alt-azimuth mounts, which are perfect for these scopes, are as high as their popularity. I’d already spent more money than I’d planned on the C90—I hadn’t meant to spend any at all—so I definitely wanted to lowball it mount-wise.

When in this sort of pickle, I frequently turn to Orion, the U.S. Orion, Telescope and Binocular Center. They had what appeared to be just the thing, the “VersaGo II,” rated to support 15 pounds, way more than what Miss S. weighed. The mount was priced at a very reasonable 175 bucks, so I was prepared to pull the trigger on the thing. But first, I asked my fellow amateurs’ opinions on Cloudy Nights.

Good thing I did, since a kind person piped up with: “It’s a good mount, Unk, but did you know you can get the same thing on special from Adorama badged as the Synta Sky-Watcher AZ-4 for 25 bucks less than what Orion asks, and that they throw in an 80mm f/11 refractor to boot?”

I was well aware that much of Orion’s gear is from Chinese optical giant Synta, but I hadn’t thought to look for this alt-az mount from one of the few vendors who sell Synta’s “Sky-Watcher” brand in the US of A. I hiked over to Adorama’s website, and, sure enough, there was the same "VersaGo" mount accompanied by a 3-inch refractor for a very attractive close out price (apparently Synta has discontinued this combo). I’ve bought lots of stuff from Adorama over the years, astronomy as well as photo gear, so I didn’t hesitate to send them my credit card number. They are, with B&H, at the top of the Internet camera store heap.

One afternoon, just a few days later, I returned home to the Old Manse to find a largish package waiting in the front hall where Miss D. had instructed the Brown Truck Guy to leave it. Yeehaw! NEW TELESCOPE! Yeah, I know, I was supposed to only be interested in the mount, but, still…the thought of a brand-new scope, even a “throwaway” refractor got my withered little heart doing the pit-a-pat.

First thing first was taking stock of the AZ-4 mount, which came out of the box already assembled save for its screw-in pan-handle and a tripod-spreader-cum-accessory tray, which was soon mounted where it was supposed to go via three bolts. Which were, thoughtfully, wing-nuts, which would make it easy to collapse the tripod for trips in the trunk of my Toyota Camry.

Tell the truth, I was gobsmacked at what a few dollars had got me. The mount head was sturdy, thick cast aluminum. Both axes rode on Teflon bearings and were smooth as butter. These bearings were not just smooth; they were large enough to lend the mount quite a bit of steadiness and were equipped with large lock-knobs able to apply varying degrees of friction. The azimuth axis was furnished with a Vixen compatible dovetail saddle, making it easy to mount most any telescope.

But that was not all. In a surprising fillip, I found both the azimuth and altitude axes featured well-ruled, reasonably large setting circles. These setting circles, with the aid of an astronomy program running on a computer, would make it easy to semi-automate object locating with this “manual” mount. I’ve experimented with alt-az setting circles on my 8-inch f/5 Dobsonian, and have found it fairly easy to locate objects with ‘em. You do need a computer to figure out the current altitude and azimuth of a target, but in these days when everybody (almost) has an astronomy-enabled iPhone or iPod or iPad, that’s not much of a problem.

What else? A good tripod is important, and I had scrimped there. The AZ-4 mount is available with a larger tripod, a tubular steel one (like on the CG5/Atlas mounts) with Orion’s VersaGo HD version of the AZ-4 or with some 4-inch SkyWatcher refractor packages. I didn’t think I needed such a tripod for any of the telescopes I planned to use on the AZ-4, and thought the extruded aluminum tripod that came with the 3-inch SkyWatcher and the Orion VersaGo standard permutation would be enough and would be more portable.

Yes, the extruded aluminum tripods coming out of China in the 90s had horrible reputations, but this one seemed pretty good despite the obvious skepticism of Thomas Aquinas, Chaos Manor South’s resident black cat. Not nearly as shaky as I remembered. Hell, this one hardly seemed to notice when I put the C90 on the mount. How did I put the OT 90 on the mount? I purchased a Vixen-style dovetail bracket from Orion, one with a ¼-20 bolt for attaching it to a standard tripod socket like that on the base of the C90. Screwed it into that socket on the 90 and I was ready to roll.

Not only did the skies remain amazingly clear as the Sun set, there was a nice gibbous Moon hanging. I hauled the AZ-4 and Stella into the front yard, inserted a 1 ¼-inch - .965-inch hybrid diagonal (the Classic C90 has a .965-inch Japanese Standard rear port) and had a look. Suuweet! On this sturdy mount, the OT 90 finally showed what she could do. The Moon’s terminator was dead sharp at 150x and was a welter of detail. The scope was easy to balance on the AZ-4 by the simple expedient of loosening the cradle’s lock bolt and sliding the scope/dovetail back and forth. Combine the adjustable friction axes, the Teflon bearings, and the HUGE pan-handle of the AZ-4, and movements were just smooth as silk.

The C90 has an unjustly bad rap that’s largely due to it often being under-mounted. Put it on a sturdy support like the AZ-4 and it does not give up much to the ETX-90, with its legendarily good optics. But more about Stella some other Sunday.

Tommy likes the AZ-4.
Since the mount seemed quite stable with the 90, I couldn’t resist trying it with some of the other grab-‘n-goish scopes in our stable. It was great with the good, old Short Tube 80, muchachos. When I equipped the StarBlast 4.5-inch reflector with a pair of suitable tube rings and a Vixen dovetail, that scope became even more fun to use than it is on its small Dob mount.  I have even put one of my C8s on the AZ-4 for casual viewing—and it’s worked fine. In fact, I used the AZ-4 to support the C8 when I was testing the Hotech CT collimator.

After playing around with the AZ-4/C90 in the front yard for a while, I became curious about the “free” scope that came with it, the 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher. I dived back into the front parlor and into the box and retrieved the refractor’s long tube.

Once I’d removed the protective paper covering, I was confronted with, yes, a traditionally long refractor. Well, almost, anyhow. Real classic 60s refractors ran to focal ratios of f/15 – f/16, and this was a wee bit faster than that. Nevertheless, at f/11 the SkyWatcher is slower than most of the import refractors we’ve seen over the last decade or two.

One thing was immediately clear: this telescope was a pretty thing. She was adorned with a dark bronze metal flake paintjob, and sported Sky-Watcher’s cool logo, a red dot finder (identical to the one Orion gets 30 simoleons for), a long black dew shield, and a nice-looking and smooth-operating 1.25-inch Crayford focuser. The scope is mounted to the AZ-4 via a short Vixen dovetail bracket permanently bolted to the tube.

The optics? A look down the business end revealed a nicely coated, near-invisible objective in a non-adjustable cell. Peering through it revealed an adequately blackened tube interior and a series of baffles to reduce light scatter. All in all, my free scope was rather cool. Well, except for the diagonal. It came with a 120-degree “terrestrial” model. Those things almost always introduce annoying aberrations, including diffraction spikes, so I didn’t even try it, inserting instead a groovy William Optics dielectric job.

Yeah, my new refractor, my big—well, long anyhow—refractor, looked appealing. Even to me who hasn’t had much of a track record with lens scopes till recently. I came into amateur astronomy in the mid 1960s, a time when refractors were in decline, at least for rank and file amateurs. We were all equipped with 4 – 6-inch Newtonians and believed with near holy fervor that our telescopes were far better for anything than those old, odd, small refractors.

Course, Unk and just about every amateur of the day, young or old, spent considerable time drooling over refractor porn in secret. I am talking about the glorious catalog of Unitron, whose pages were festooned with what surely must be the most beautiful achromatic refractors ever made. Nay, the most beautiful telescopes ever made.

These gleaming white refractors didn’t come cheap, alas. A 60mm alt-az rig, the Model 114, at the bottom of the Unitron lineup, cost a cool $125.00, which is equivalent to at least 850 of our shrunken dollars. I wanted one nevertheless. Who wouldn’t? And I convinced myself that the 60mm, despite its small aperture, would surely show me things invisible to my humble Edmund 4.25-inch Palomar Junior Newtonian.

As I have written before, though, that idea only lasted till I got a look through a Unitron. I couldn’t afford one of those wonder scopes. Nobody in our little club, The Backyard Astronomy Society, could afford one. But there was one feller in the neighborhood, Eddie, whose parents were a bit better off than any of ours who was able to achieve the dream, at least at the Model 114 level.

I had been friendly with Eddie for a long time; in fact we were basically best friends for a couple of years. But one day we’d had an argument that resulted in a serious falling out. I don't mind admitting it was my fault, brought on by the misguided and ignorant hard-headedness I sometimes displayed as a youth and have struggled to overcome in adulthood. I tried to patch things over a couple of times in my bumbling fashion, but he’d have none of it.

I let things be with my former friend--what else could I do?--till one evening when I was assembling the Pal Junior for my Saturday night observing run and noticed my former friend was setting up a telescope of his own in his backyard three houses down. I had a sneaking suspicion it wouldn’t be just any telescope, either, but a Unitron telescope, which I knew he’d been bugging his dad about for a while.

I was curious enough that I swallowed my pride and walked over to see if I could cadge a look. My ex-buddy didn’t have much to say, but he did give me a quick peek at the Moon. I was hardly impressed. Luna, at about 100x, looked considerably dimmer than she did in my Pal. She displayed an orangish tint, too, unlike her visage in the Pal, which was silvery white. Finally, I thought I could make out a fringe of spurious color along her limb, though it was subtle.

I thanked Eddie for letting me have a look, and walked back home feeling blue, both because I now saw that nothing was likely to put our friendship back together, and because a telescope that I expected to be a wonder had turned out to be something less. I was right to feel bad about our friendship, and I'd have been more right if I'd taken a hint and moderated my sometimes rash behavior. The refractor? I was wrong about that. No, a 60mm can't compete with a 100mm, that's just physics, but that old Unitron could deliver remarkable views nevertheless.

And there things stood for thirty years. Oh, I was aware refractors, in the form of APOs, were much better, completely different animals in fact, as the 80s gave way to the 90s. But did I want or need one? Heck no. That changed some when I took the plunge with a Short Tube 80 and found out how wonderful the right—short focal length—refractor can be. Not long after the turn of the century, your old Unk could occasionally be found observing and imaging with a couple of cool APO refractors of his own. But a long lens scope like the Unitrons? No way.

But here I was with a sorta-Unitron all these years down the line. Not an f/16 60mm, but an f/11 80mm, which was pretty close. Would a modern achromat please me more than that long ago Model 114 had? I doubted it. Optics have gotten better over the years but this was still a plain old achro, and 3-inches at f/11 would undoubtedly display more color than 2.4-inches at f/16.

Optical quality? Hard to say what to expect. The Chinese have got pretty good at spitting out mass-produced optics, and despite what those of us who lived through the Unitron days “remember,” pretty as those scopes were, their optical quality was not always as high as their prices.

The Moon was still beautifully positioned in the sky, so I carefully maneuvered that long tube out the front door and onto the AZ-4. Fired up the red dot finder and moved the scope till the dot was on Luna. Amazingly, the finder’s aim was pretty much dead on out of the box. I inserted one of the two eyepieces that came with the 3-inch, a (modern) silver-top 25mm Plössl, into the diagonal and had a look. Well, well, well. Not bad. Yes, there was a little color along the limb, but not much. I further noted that the shadows along the terminator were black, not the purple they had been in a buddy of mine’s 4-inch f/10 Chinese refractor. Above all, the craters and mountains were satisfyingly sharp.

Wasn’t much else to see in a clear but hazy and light polluted sky other than Luna, so I spent quite some time with her, bumping up the power with the other included ocular, a 10mm Plössl, and running into the house for better eyepieces. The Moon held up much better at over 100x plus than she does in the ST80, which begins to struggle at that power-level. Despite the length of the tube, the AZ-4 maintained its steady-buttery character. I had quite a time and became curious as to what else this 3-inch refractor, which hearkened back to not just the 60s, but to an even older amateur astronomy, might show me.

I got at least some idea of that at last summer’s Boy Scout Jamboree. I was tired and there was a near-full Moon in the sky. I couldn’t bear the thought of manhandling even the RV-6 into the car. What the heck. The 3-inch sure looked like a telescope, which should impress the boys, and it would be the job of 2-minutes to get her into and out of the car.

If you’ve read the above blog entry, you’ll know Eloise acquitted herself well. Eloise? I name my telescopes, all my telescopes, and there was a certain saucily mischievous quality to the Sky-Watcher that suggested Kay Thompson’s champagne bottle-wielding heroine.

What did we see? There wasn’t much in the streetlight and Moon-blasted sky of the Jamboree, but we did see Jupiter’s currently subdued Great Red Spot with fair ease, a pretty good feat for a 3-inch telescope. Quite a few Messier open clusters looked pretty, too, with Eloise with her comparatively wide fields being the only scope who could give the boys a good look at the rising Pleiades, which several of them had noticed. The Boy Scouts, yes, gravitated to Eloise because she best fit their idea of what a scope should be. I liked the simplicity of the old-school refractor and her alt-az mount after a long, hard day at the salt mines. And I found I still enjoy astronomy the old fashioned way.

By “old fashioned way,” I don’t just mean with a long refractor, but with a telescope without any technological oomph whatsoever. No computers, no go-to, not even motorized tracking. Yes, UNPLUGGED ASTRONOMY. You-all know I am a big proponent of go-to, but I like to keep my hand in when it comes to star hopping, and Eloise made that Real Fun with her simple red dot sight and smooth alt-az mount, even in skies where there weren’t many “guide” stars.

Old fashioned, yeah, but I did make a couple of concessions to modern times in that I used my iPod and SkySafari instead of a print atlas to locate objects, and a green laser instead of my index finger to point-out objects. The laser and the iPod weren’t exactly retro, but both delighted the youngsters.

I saw a little more with Eloise just last week, last Thursday night to be exact, at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s bi-annual public star gaze. As before, I was tuckered on this weeknight, wimped-out, and threw Eloise in the car instead of the Dynascope or a C8. Again, the refractor performed beautifully. Not just on the Moon, but on the few deep sky objects peeping out of the light pollution at our in-town observing site. M42 was surprisingly sweet, with the stars of the trapezium well-resolved little diamonds at 44x in a 20mm Orion Expanse eyepiece.

Eloise has continued to grow on me as the months have passed. I’ve got a lot of observing projects in the works, including the vaunted and ongoing Herschel Project, but I am thinking of making room for one more. I’ve downloaded a copy (available for free online) of the classic observing guide of the early 20th Century, the Reverend T.W. Webb’s Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes (1904), and have begun transferring some of its objects to SkyTools 3. My goal? To see what I can see of Webb’s objects, to see how my impressions of the Rev’s DSOs and double stars compare to his using a similar class instrument—sweet Miss Eloise, that is.

Next Time: The Moon won’t be out of the way till week after next and I’ve got another lousy cold anyway, so maybe next Sunday’s blog will be something a little different. After that? Miss Dorothy and I are planning a Herschel Expedition to the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Oh, and I am currently working on a project that involves binoculars, BIG binoculars, which I hope to tell you about well before we make tracks for Florida.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


NexRemote Nirvana

I wrote about Celestron’s very special software, NexRemote (NR), some time back. If you’re interested in the program’s history, have a look at that—rat cheer. Lately, though, I’ve gotten a whole lot of confused emails on the subject. “Unk, how do I install NexRemote? How do I connect it to my Celestron telescope? Can I use other software with it? What in the hell will it do for me?” Once you glom on to its concept, NexRemote is easy to understand, but there is no denying it is different from every other bit of astronomy software on the landscape (with the exception of EQMOD).

Yep, NexRemote is simple once you wrap your mind around the idea. NexRemote is the same software (firmware) that’s in Celestron’s NexStar hand controls. Due to the exigencies of this software running on a (Windows only) PC, there are slight differences between it and the software in the “real” HC, but they are minor. Let me put it another way: NexRemote is the Celestron NexStar hand control, just executing on your PC instead of the little computer that came with the telescope.

“Hokay Unk, I get it, but why would you want to do such a thing?” Several reasons. If you don’t plan to be standing at your telescope as you observe—maybe with a CCD camera, maybe with a deep sky video camera—NexRemote makes for a much neater setup. Oh, you could buy or build a long extension cable for the NexStar hand controller; I’ve done that very thing. But running the HC on the same computer you use for your CCD program or video capture program makes things less confusing in the middle of the night. I was always tripping over the HC cable and dropping the dang thing as the clock crept into the wee hours.

Another benefit is a reduction in cable clutter. God knows, my cable situation is bad enough: power cable for the telescope, hand control (HC) cable, serial computer cable, guide cable, power cable for the camera, video output cable, dew heater power cable. NexRemote doesn’t eliminate all those, but it at least consolidates hand control, computer control, and guiding cables into one run.

What if you don’t care pea-turkey about imaging the sky? What can NR do for you? One thing I’ve always longed for is a wireless hand controller. No more cable wrap blues, no more too small and finicky buttons. Meade gave it a try with their wireless Autostar II HC and failed, but Celestron succeeded. NexRemote allows you to use a wireless Logitech gamepad with its high quality buttons and joysticks as a wireless hand control. Couple that with the program’s ability to make use of Microsoft’s Mike/Mary voice-synthesis utility and you can align the telescope with the gamepad without having to walk over and peer at the laptop.

What else? NexRemote comes with a pair of add-on programs, NexGPS and NexTour, that add features the real HC cannot claim. NexGPS allows you to use any NMEA serial output-capable GPS receiver with your telescope. That means you do not have to spring for a fancy and expensive Celestron GPS add-on if your scope/mount didn’t come with GPS. I found a perfectly serviceable GPS receiver on a swap table at the local hamfest for 25 bucks. NexTour is almost a full-blown planning software program. It helps you develop lists of objects than can be “loaded” into NexRemote’s virtual HC. Once a list is available, you can go-to its objects using a wireless gamepad.

“You’ve convinced me, Unk. How do I get Nexremote? What else do I need to make it work? How do I set the derned thing up?”

Getting NexRemote is the easy part; you may even already have a copy. Celestron ships NexRemote free with some of their telescopes. Which ones? That question causes Unk to scratch his head. The NexStar SEs, for example, come with it, but the CG5 Advanced Series scopes don’t. Doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to Celestron’s policy as to which buyers get NR for free.

There is also confusion about the license number for the program. You will have to input that (by right-clicking on NexRemote’s virtual hand control) to continue using the program past a 30-day tryout. If you got a NexRemote CD with your scope, it should have that number somewhere on the CD or its container. Often it doesn’t. What then? You are entitled to a license if the program came with your telescope. Call Celestron and get it.

If you were not lucky enough to get NexRemote with your scope? You’ll have to buy, Muchachos. The program is not overly expensive, but Celestron does not exactly give it away at about 100 clams. The toll becomes more bearable if you buy a kit; Celestron often bundles the CD with other items necessary for its use like a USB – serial converter and a “Programming Cable” (more on these two things shortly).

Actually, even if you received the NexRemote CD with your scope, you may need to obtain a copy from the Big C. If the version of the software you received is not v1.7.15 and you are using a Windows computer with a 64 bit Microsoft o/s, you will not be able to run the program until you get a fresh copy. Older versions may not have the latest firmware for your particular telescope, either. Thankfully, NexRemote’s most recent edition is always available for download at Celestron’s website. Do that and you are good to go. You are ready to get started, anyhow.

First step, of course, is loading the program. Before you can load it, however, you will need a computer to load it on. What you want is a Windows laptop. I have heard of folks using NR on Apple Macs with Intel processors and Windows installed on a drive partition, but I cannot vouch for the efficacy of that.

You need a Win machine, but it does not have to be much of a Win machine. When NexRemote (née HCanywhere) first came out years ago, I ran it quite successfully on a ‘puter with a 566mhz Celeron processor. Any fairly recent laptop should be more than sufficient. So should one of today’s netbooks. Not only do you not need a new computer, it may be best not to use one. Why not? The serial port, or lack thereof on modern machines.

NexRemote must communicate with the telescope via an RS-232 port. Alas, modern computers do not have such a thing. The PC I formerly used to run the program, a seven year-old Toshiba Satellite laptop did not. It did have a PCMCIA card slot, though. I logged onto eBay, bought a PCMCIA serial card for ten bucks, and was ready to rock and roll. As far as the computer is concerned, a PCMCIA serial card is the same as a built-in RS-232 port. Yeah, I rocked with NR—till my old Toshiba died a smoky death last year.

While I loved the Toshiba, I was sick and tired of lugging this heavy 3.2ghz monster around, anyway, especially through airports when I was on my way to speaking engagements at distant star parties. I picked a lovely and small Netbook, an Asus, to be my new astro-puter. A cool little machine with more than enough horsepower to run NexRemote. Its processor wasn’t nearly as fast as the Toshiba’s, but 1ghz or so is fast enough. And I was blown away that the Asus’s hard drive was three times the size of the Satellite’s. And that is would run for ten hours or more on its internal battery. Only fly buzzing in the butter? Not only did the Asus not have a serial port, it didn’t have a PCMCIA slot, either.

What to do? The only alternative was a USB to serial adapter cable. I’d tried these with NexRemote before without success. The problem, I suppose, is bandwidth. NexRemote needs substantially more than the average serial application. I did a little digging around on the net and found that quite a few folks were having good results with the Keyspan USB – serial cable. Which is what I bought and which has worked real good with NexRemote—mostly, anyhow.

Serial solution in hand, it is time to load NR. Whether using a CD or a downloaded file, I have never had any difficulties in this area. Follow the onscreen prompts; it’s very straightforward. If you are using Windows Vista or Windows Seven, you may have to install as administrator (right-click the install icon, select properties, and check “run as administrator”), but that is the only potential hang-up I know of.

Next, you need to physically connect the computer to the scope/mount. And this is where some folks get awfully confused. Well, gather round kiddies, cuz Uncle Rod is going to give you the straight poop on this arcane procedure.

There are two ways to connect NexRemote to the telescope. The neatest way is with what Celestron calls its Programming Cable (so called because years ago you had to use this cable to update Celestron’s motor controller boards). This is a serial cable with a DB-9 connector on one end and an RJ-45 plug on the other, and is designed to use the telescope’s “PC” port. In this method, you connect one end of the PC cable to the PC’s serial port, and the other to the PC port (marked as such and not the socket on the hand control). You do not plug the “real” NexStar controller in anywhere. You leave it in the box. That is the beauty of the PC port method; you do not have to fool with the “hardware” HC at all.

Where do you get a PC cable? Most Celestron dealers still have ‘em even though Celestron has inexplicably discontinued this item. Just be sure you are getting the real programming cable with an RJ-45 connector, not the standard serial cable that plugs into the hand control and which some dealers have taken to calling a “Programming Cable” lately. If you cannot find one and are handy with electronics, you can easily make the cable using the plans on Mike Swanson’s fabulous website,

“That sounds mighty nice, Unk, but I got news: my mount ain’t got no PC port.” It is true most of Celestron’s GEMS lack the required PC port. My CG5 sure doesn’t have one. All is not necessarily lost. Or it used to not be anyway. Until fairly recently, Celestron sold an accessory called an “Auxiliary Port Expander.” This plugged into the hand control receptacle and provided multiple Aux ports and a PC port. Unfortunately, Celestron has discontinued this item, too. Probably because it is not needed to use the new GPS receiver module they are selling. Will they introduce another port expander? Maybe. Does some dealer still have the old ones? Maybe (though my friend Doc Clay Sherrod has not been able to find one). Don’t despair. You do not need a PC port to use NexRemote.

You can run NexRemote using Way Two. In Way Two, you connect a standard Celestron serial cable to the computer’s serial port. Plug the other end into the base of the hardware HC, just like you would if you were sending the scope on go-tos with Stellarium or Cartes du Ciel. The drawback? You have to have the normal hand control plugged into the telescope, and its presence confusticates some NexRemote newbies.

NexRemote is your hand controller. If you want to use NexRemote, you must do everything—alignments, go-tos, whatever—with NexRemote. You cannot shift back and forth between the hardware HC and NexRemote. Well, there is one exception. You can use the real HC’s direction keys—but only the direction keys. Some folks want to do this when aligning the scope. It’s a pain, after all, to center the stars in finder and eyepiece with the computer, even if it is next to the scope. The real solution, though, is not messing with the real HC—if you accidentally press any button other than a direction key you will have to start over with your alignment—but using a wireless gamepad.

How do you do that? Out of the box (real or virtual), NR is setup to use Logitech’s Wireless Wingman game pads/controllers. It is possible to edit the configuration file in the program to accommodate other controllers, but since Wingman pads are high in quality and fairly easy to get on eBay for not much money, stick with Logitech. Either the Wireless Wingman or the Wireless Wingman II will work fine.

Once you’ve got the software drivers that came with the gamepad installed, the wireless receiver plugged into a USB port, and a handful of AA batteries installed in the Wingman, all you have to do is right-click on NexRemote’s setup screen, select “Enable Joystick,” and go to town. You can set NexRemote to either respond to only N/S – E/W pushes on the right joystick (the left stick is not used) or enable the joystick for all positions—push the joystick to the upper-right “northwest” position and your scope will move northwest. What works best for me is the N/S – E/W only mode.

How about all those buttons on the hardware HC? The vital ones are mapped to the gamepad’s buttons. You’ve got Align, Enter, Undo, Info, Up, Down, and several others. About all you cannot do from the gamepad is enter object numbers for go-tos, and there is a good workaround for that, as I will describe shortly.

What if you forget which gamepad button does what? You can look at the NexRemote instructions, of course. While NR doesn’t come with a manual, it has a help file that is virtually a manual and which can be printed out. I have mine in a loose-leaf binder. Alas, given my notoriously poor middle-aged memory, I found myself having to refer to the manual all the time. My solution to that annoyance was to write abbreviations for button functions on the gamepad with a permanent marker.

Yes, the gamepad is great. After using the Wingman’s high quality joystick I will never go back to those stinking hand-paddle buttons. But for the gamepad to be truly useful, you’ve gotta kick it up a notch and enable voice output.

NexRemote, as mentioned above, uses Microsoft’s Mike and Mary voice synthesis program. With that installed and enabled (from the setup screen right-click menu), your “telescope” will talk to you. Mary’s (whose voice I prefer) pronunciations are a little odd sometimes (Betelgeuse is a trip), but are easily understandable. What makes the voice option more than just a novelty is that it allows you to align the scope without walking over to the computer. Mary (or Mike) will say the name of the star(s) chosen for alignment, and will instruct you to center them and press Enter/Align as appropriate.

Sometimes, if I want a laugh, I’ll press the Info button and let Mary tell me all about the object in the eyepiece, odd pronunciations and all. Normally, though, I keep the computer audio turned down low so as not offend anybody around me on the observing field. But Mary (actually I now consider the voice to be “Celeste,” my C8’s name) isn’t overly offensive, with most of her comments being confined to things like “Slewing to target…slew complete!”

How does a session go with NexRemote? It goes like this: I set up the scope and the computer, plug the Programming Cable into the PC port—either the real one on my NexStar 11 or the one provided by the Aux Port Expander on the CG5—fire up the mount, and boot the computer. When the computer is up, I hit the NexRemote icon, and a near duplicate of the NexStar HC is soon displayed. Why “near”? There is a set up screen that allows you to select serial ports, real and virtual (more on that last below) and other things.

Mary-Celeste intones, “Select settings and press OK,” and that is what I do. You do need to enable the joystick for each session, but if you are using the program with the same telescope from the same site as last time, that’s all you should have to do. If you are at a different site, select the site you are at from the right-click menu’s “select site” option, assuming you’ve set a site up with NexGPS (otherwise you’ll enter the site just like you do with the hardware HC). Check to see that the correct serial ports are selected, and like the lady says, press "OK."

If a different telescope than last time’s is being used, you will need to select the telescope firmware version NexRemote should use. This is one of the beauties of NexRemote. With my NexStar 11 GPS I can, for example, select the firmware with the old North and Level alignment routine, my fave, or the more modern software builds that incorporates SkyAlign. For the GEM, I can choose an older version with the Polaris polar alignment routine I favor, or one with the new AllStar system.

After pressing OK, the settings screen is replaced with a simulacrum of the real HC, with the only difference being an indicator at the bottom that shows virtual port activity. From here, the set up procedure is mostly identical to that of the non-virtual HC: select an alignment method and the scope will begin slewing to the first star. How about time/date entry? That’s one difference and another cool thing about NR; the program takes that information from the PC so you do not have to worry about inputting time/date/time zone ever again.

Once Mary mispronounces the name of the first alignment star and tells me to center it in the finder, I go to the telescope Wingman in hand, and use the joystick to center the star, press Enter, center it in the main eyepiece, and press Align. Mary-Celeste then tries to say the name of the next star, and away we go, with her chirping “alignment successful” at the end if all has gone well. During alignment you can use the button mapped to Undo to choose alternate alignment stars if necessary, just as with the hardware HC.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention entering latitude and longitude; that’s because, thanks to one of the two add-on programs that ship with NexRemote, I don’t have to. Fire up NexGPS, attach any serial-NMEA compatible GPS via the manufacturer’s cable, enable the receiver, and GPS fix data will begin flowing. When the program indicates a good fix, hit “pause” and save the lat/lon data under one of four named slots. The program can also update the PC’s clock with GPS time if you tell it to.

When I set up the scope next time, I don’t have to hook up the receiver again. Unless I set up a good number of miles from Tanner - Williams, I just keep reusing the saved data. If I move to a significantly different observing site, I hook up the GPS and “record” its location in NexGPS if I haven’t done so before. Works great with my formerly GPS-less CG5. While NexGPS will only store four sites, I find that is more than enough.

So how do you observe with NexRemote? Mostly, it’s just like operating with a normal hand control. If I want to go to M42, I push the Messier button, key in "0042" (using the mouse at the PC), hit Enter, and I am on my way. The other functions and features of the NexStar HC are where they should be in the Utilities, Setup, and other menus.

What if I don’t want to go over to the PC to key in object numbers? I can load a Tour via NexRemote’s right-click menu. If I don’t like the canned tours that ship with NR, I can easily make my own. The excellent program Astroplanner will output observing lists in a format that can be read by NexRemote. Don’t own Astroplanner or want something a little simpler? Get going with NexTour.

NexTour is the other add-on that comes with NR. It is like a little planning program, and is equipped with tools to help filter and select objects from its onboard catalogs, the whole NGC and IC and a few others. When a list is composed, save it and it will appear in the right-click menu as a Tour. Once the tour is selected, you can go from one object to the next using only the Wingman gamepad, skipping objects you don’t want to visit. Tours can be selected using the gamepad, but that’s a little more awkward than just going from object to object within a tour.

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, that’s cool, but I want to send the scope on go-tos with Cartes du Ciel (or TheSky or Starry Night Pro or whatever) just like I do with the non-virtual NexStar hand control.”

No problem, muchacho (at least theoretically). If you want to run with an astronomy program handling the go-tos, select a virtual port from the virtual port pull down on the settings screen. Which port number do you choose? Doesn’t matter; just pick a virtual com port number different from the number of the real one you are using to connect NexRemote to the telescope. You do NOT run another serial cable to the telescope.

When NexRemote is aligned, start up Cartes du Ciel (for example), go to the ASCOM setup window, and select your telescope and com port as per usual. Except: enter the VIRTUAL PORT number you assigned instead of the real serial port number. Your program will then connect to the scope as per normal. Data from Cartes du Ciel (or any other program) will run along the same cable NexRemote is using, whether that’s a serial or Programming cable.

Do you guide your scope during imaging through the serial port? How does that work with NexRemote? You connect your guide program (PHD or whatever you like) to the mount using the virtual port. Need to connect two or more different programs to the scope when using NexRemote? The program’s authors have another application that will allow just that, NexHub, which is available for purchase separately.

Is NexRemote perfect? No, but it is close to it. This is some of the most bulletproof code I have encountered. It’s not been that unusual for me to be using an astronomy program with the real HC, have the netbook go to sleep, and that result in the program’s communications getting all screwed up. NexRemote? Should the PC snooze, when I wake it up NR is still there working its little heart out without complaint.

But, no, nothing is perfect. One of the problems with NR is the serial port conundrum. You must have a good USB – Serial cable if you don’t have access to a hardware serial port. And I’ve discovered that even if you do have a USB - serial that works well with NR, asking it to work with the Virtual Port feature may be too much. That’s what I assume, anyhow, since I have not yet been able to get that working reliably with USB - serial setup on the netbook.

How good is NexRemote? Well, I’ll tell y’all: It is so good that the only time I’ve used a real HC in years has been when I’ve been worried about people tripping over and unplugging the Programming Cable—like at star parties where there’re a lot folks wandering about in the dark like confused zombies. When I have used the non-virtual controller, I’ve pined for NR with its extra features. Most of all, NexRemote it allows me to operate my scopes remotely without fuss or bother. I can stay warm and dry under my tent-canopy and do video observing all night long with the aid of this wonderful program. Thanks Ray and Andre and Celestron. You done good.

Next time: Depends on the weather, y'all...

Sunday, March 06, 2011


Curing Charity

Charity Hope Valentine and I have had a beautiful relationship since she came to live with me at Chaos Manor South six years ago. Which doesn’t mean we haven’t had our ups and downs. What romance hasn’t? Now, before y’all run off to Miss Dorothy to tattle on Uncle Rod for his indiscretions, remember, Sweet Charity is my ETX 125PE.

What’s Unk doing with an ETX, anyhow? This time of year one comes in awful handy, muchachos. In the spring I can awake on Saturday morning to beautiful blue skies, the weather reports can insist “clear tonight,” and by Sundown be chased off the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s observing field by vicious thunderstorms. I need a scope that, if not exactly qualifying as a “grab ‘n go,” can at least can be disassembled and back in the car in a hurry.

Maybe even more importantly, one portable enough to encourage me to give the dark site a try when it doesn’t look like there’ll be much chance of seeing anything. Some of my best runs, in fact, have been on nights that initially looked hopeless. A scope with decent performance, but which is not a pain to set up and tear down is a must.

Many, many telescopes fill the above bill; everything from the Orion StarBlast to an 8-inch Dobbie. I’m rather picky when it comes to my uber-portable scope requirements, though. I want a telescope with a drive. I want a telescope with computerized go-to. I want good optics. And I want to be able to sit comfortably to observe.

When I began my quest for a quick-look springtime scope, the one that seemed to best satisfy my needs was the NexStar 5. 5-inches is enough aperture to show lots and lots of stuff while remaining portable, if not always one-hand portable, and the C5 in all its incarnations has had a great reputation. Alas, at the time the C5 was on one of its periodic hiatuses and out of production. Second choice? That was easy: the ETX 125.

While an ETX wasn’t my first choice, it was undeniable the scope had her charms. Above all, the ETX is famous for world-class optics. Despite a large baffle around the aluminized secondary mirror “spot” on the corrector’s interior surface—the ETXes use the Gregory Maksutov design—that increases the size of the central obstruction, the little scopes, and especially the 125, exhibit outstanding contrast. I’ve pitted Charity against a C5 on several occasions, and the MCT has always pulled ahead of the SCT at least slightly on all objects, delivering superior image sharpness and contrast and better looking stars at the edge of the field.

Tain’t no such thing as a free lunch they say, and you pay for the ETX’s advantages in several ways. First, while, yes, the images are slightly better than those in a comparable SCT, you give up field. The ETX has the slow focal ratio of f/15, meaning a 25mm eyepiece yields 75x, about what it would in an 8-inch f/10 SCT. Wide field eyepieces help open up the 125’s view, but it will never be a telescope for expansive cosmic vistas. How about a focal reducer? One might help a little, but the 125’s small diameter baffle tube causes vignetting with eyepieces longer in focal length than about 25mm when used with one of the ubiquitous .5x reducers.

There’s also the ETX’s mount. The initial 5-incher’s fork was, to put it mildly, insufficient. When Meade designed the 125 all they did was scale up the ETX-90’s mount. Alas, the plastic fork arms that were OK with a 3.5-inch resulted in a wobbly telescope at 5-inches of aperture, and at f/15 the last thing you want is the wobbles. Thankfully, Meade, for once, rectified their mistake and redesigned the fork. It still looks like plastic, but is metal inside where it counts. Still, the ETX’s build quality, both mount and tube, is heavy on the plastic and at least looks flimsy and not ready for the long haul.

All in all, though? Acceptable. The ETX 125’s drive is OK, but is prone to backlash and is certainly not what you’d want for long exposure imaging. On the other hand, who wants to take long exposure images at f/15? Tracking is fine for visual use. Its go-to accuracy is also more than good enough. In addition to comparing the optics of the ETX and the C5 (a NexStar 5i), I compared their go-to capabilities. When carefully aligned, both scopes usually placed a target object somewhere in the field of a 25mm eyepiece, but the ETX did so a little bit more frequently than the NexStar, which seemed to get lost in some areas of the sky despite its shorter focal length.

Not that the ETX exactly inspires confidence when you send it on a go-to. When the telescope is slewing at full speed on both axes, the sound resembles, as I’ve said more than once, “weasels with tuberculosis.” Charity gets to her targets, but the noises she makes make you wonder whether she will. Sometimes I expect springs, bolts, and smoke to fly out like in an old cartoon.

Back to the story of Rod and Sweet Charity. When she arrived, just ahead of the financial crash of the Florida scope dealer I bought her from, Scopetronix, I was impressed. Fresh out of the box, she was a pretty little thing. I had opted for the ETX 125 PE, the no longer produced “Premier Edition,” and she sported some cosmetic and functional changes and improvements compared to earlier 125s.

Most noticeable was her tube. Rather than the subdued blue of earlier ETXes, the PEs had their tubes silkscreened with color astro-images. In the case of 125s like Charity, the North America Nebula with its profound pinks and reds. I’ve been told she’s “gaudy” and “tarted up,” but I think she is beautiful. Heck, the renowned Questar 3.5’s tube is emblazoned with a Moon map which looks just as cheesy/gaudy to me.

More important—all telescopes, like all cats, are black in the dark—were Charity’s functional improvements. ETXes, all of them, the 90, the (now discontinued) 105, and the 125, were originally equipped with near-useless tiny finder scopes. With the PE edition, Meade changed to a much more practical zero-magnification red dot finder. But the red dot finder on Charity was more than just a finder. This was Meade’s once-trumpeted LNT (Level - North Technology) finder.

Charity’s LNT housing incorporated an electronic level and compass in addition to the finder itself. What for? Given the correct time and location, the compass and level allow the PE telescopes to align themselves, not unlike Meade’s LX200 GPS SCTs. As long as the scope is used close to the latitude/longitude set in the Autostar (within 60 miles), all the user has to do to get going is place the telescope in a simple “home position,” turn on the power, and center two stars when told to by the Autostar 497 hand control. The LNT unit also houses a button cell battery to keep date and time current.

First light with Charity in the backyard, I plunked scope and tripod down, roughly leveled her, and flipped the o-n/o-f-f to o-n (I had previously set the time and entered my geographic coordinates). Miss Valentine did a little dance, finding north, tilt, and level and headed for the first of two alignment stars. I centered the stars as requested, and the little scope claimed she was aligned. Huh! We’d see about that.

Surprise! Every object I asked for on that first night, horizon to horizon, was somewhere in the field of the 26mm Meade Plössl I found in the box with the scope (also in the box was a cute Meade-blue tripod bag that immediately commenced to coming apart at the seams). I was impressed, yeah. Well sort of.

As you-all know, I name my telescopes. The C8 is “Celeste,” the NexStar 11 GPS is “Big Bertha,” the 12-inch Dobsonian is “Old Betsy,” and so on. So why did I name my ETX 125 after Broadway’s hapless heroine, Sweet Charity, Charity Hope Valentine?

After a little use I realized the telescope was on the neurotic side. Some nights, Charity would behave herself beautifully, navigating to dozens of objects and showing them off as well as any 5-inch telescope possibly could. Then there were nights when she couldn’t find pea-turkey till I’d run through the “Drive Training” routine in the Autostar (which helps the computer deal with the mount’s backlash). And strange nights when her go-tos became progressively farther and farther off as the evening wore on. Or her Autostar didn’t want to boot up at all, freezing until I cycled power.

Thankfully, the above symptoms were fairly rare, with me putting a generous amount of hazy springtime-night viewing hours in with my new telescope. Even when she was at her best, though, the weird sounds she’d make when going to her go-tos would get me to wondering if she were about to collapse in a self-pitying heap like her namesake. To sum up, Charity was and is a telescope that inspires love but not always confidence.

This feeling was not helped by Meade’s assembly faux pas. When I bought Charity, Meade had recently moved their ETX production to China, and apparently all the bugs assembly and QA wise were not even close to being exterminated.

Two of the three faults Charity exhibited out of the box were cosmetic in nature and nothing more. One of the Meade labels pasted to the tripod was on upside down. I guess the folks at the plant in China had trouble with Roman letters. I pried it off and flipped it 180 degrees. Also, the RA setting circle was misapplied and stuck to the base so it could not be adjusted. I knew I’d never use the dang thing, but I fixed it anyhow.

The third fault was a serious one. In my initial uses of the telescope, I noticed some odd reflections in the field when I was pointed at a bright planet or the Moon—especially the Moon. Not being overly experienced with Gregory-design MCTs, I wondered if the donut-shaped glow I was seeing was an artifact of the design or whether Meade’s implementation of it had problems.

Turned out to be neither. One day I was shooting pictures of Charity for my book, Choosing and Using a New CAT. Looking at my girl’s (ahem) rear end through the camera viewfinder gave me a new perspective: “MEADE, YOU DAMNED SUCKERS!” It was now obvious Charity’s eyepiece tube had been screwed into the rear cell crooked.

Was I in a snit? You bet. I assumed they’d likely have either ruined the threads by cross-threading or would have glued as well as screwed the eyepiece tube into place. Sending Charity to Meade service department Hell was not something I looked forward to, but what else could I do. Unless…

Rummaging around, I located a strap wrench, a small one. I fastened that around Charity’s eyepiece holder and turned gently in counterclockwise and then clockwise directions. Almost before I knew what had happened, the tube had snapped into place and was now perfect. Pointing Charity at the fat Moon hanging in the sky showed the weird reflection had been banished. Whew!

So, Uncle Rod and Sweet Charity lived happily ever after? Not exactly. Well, almost. She has provided me plenty of viewing pleasure over the years, but she can still be a pill. For example, the LNT works great till its battery dies. Meade claims it will last for years, but two years is the longest I’ve ever got out of one. When time comes to change this button cell, you are in for some real fun disassembling the LNT finder-module.

And yet…and yet… Despite her foibles, I will not hesitate to say Sweet Charity has done a good job since I fixed her factory-inflicted defects and learned her quirks. It seemed that way, anyhow, till her Autostar hand controller began to go south.

Like most go-to telescope hand controls, Charity’s Autostar is equipped with a rubber membrane keyboard. In this design, rubber keys have disks of conductive material on their reverses that impinge on contacts on a circuit board when keys are pressed. This can work fine, but it does not work fine with the Autostar. Not for long. Apparently, Meade uses the most inexpensive keyboard of this type it is humanly possible to produce.

The practical effect of Meade’s stinginess is that the keyboard is not overly responsive when the Autostar is new and gets progressively worse. This doesn’t just affect the ETXes, but all Autostar and Autostar II telescopes. The last time I had Charity out to the dark site, her Autostar had become nearly useless. Oh, all the keys still worked, but I had to mash them as hard as hell to get them to register. Including the direction keys, which made drive training, which—wouldn’t you know it?—Charity demanded once again, near impossible.

What were the alternatives? I reckoned I could either buy a new Autostar (about 150 greenbacks) or put Charity out to pasture and buy a NexStar 5se. That latter idea had some appeal. I have always admired the C5, though I’ve never owned one, and the current orange-tube NexStar 5se has good optics, a build quality superior to the ETX, and improved go-to accuracy. But sometimes a telescope is more than the sum of its parts. Charity had become my friend and it hurt my heart to think of relegating her to the dusty depths of Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault.

I decided to think things over for a while and do some research. Googling “ETX” and “Autostar” and “Keyboard” gave me a third alternative. I learned that rubber computer keyboards are repairable, and that Numero Uno scope gadget salesman, Jim Henson of, had a kit designed to restore Autostar responsiveness.

I’d normally be skeptical of something like this, even though Jim is one of the most honest and dependable vendors in the business. I’ve been burned too many times by “miracle cures.” A little more research, however, led me to believe this was one time the snake-oil might work.

The kit from ScopeStuff was not designed by some fly-by-night telescope maniac in a dusty garage; it was a common item sold by electronics vendors for repair of all rubber membrane keyboards (mostly in TV remote controls these days). The price, whether from Jim or electronic giants like Jameco, seemed a little high, just over 25 bucks, but that was sure less than the price of a new Autostar. I got out my credit card.

Thoughtfully, Jim had posted links to instructions for repairing the ETX keyboard using the kit, so I was able to study and prepare myself. The procedure looked simple. Take the Autostar apart, remove the keyboard, and clean the little black disks on its reverse with denatured alcohol and Q-tips. Do the same to the contacts on the printed circuit board beneath the keyboard. When everything is squeaky, mix the two epoxy-like components that constitute the kit, paint the keyboard disks with the semi-liquid goop, let set for 24-hours, reassemble the Autostar and—supposedly—voila!

In usual ScopeStuff fashion, the keyboard repair kit arrived sooner than I thought it would. I set it aside until Friday afternoon, when I’d do the deed in preparation for the Saturday night New Moon run at the PSAS dark site.

When I got home Friday, I got to work. Step one, disassembling the Autostar, is easy for those of y’all with a little electronics repair experience. Opening it up doesn’t take experience, just a small screwdriver, but getting the insides disassembled does.

After you unscrew the four small Phillips screws that hold the Autostar together and separate its two halves, one of the first things you’ll notice is a funny-looking rectangular piece of white plastic, a light diffuser, inserted behind the display. Remove this diffuser and set it aside. The Autostar’s LED display is attached to the circuit board with a thin ribbon cable. Unless this cable is disconnected, it’s a little difficult to get the keyboard out. This is where experience comes in. If you’ve done some work along these lines, there is nothing to fear.

The cable goes into a socket on the back side of the Autostar’s “motherboard” and is held in place with a plastic clip. Gently disengage the ends of this clip and the ribbon cable will slip out of its socket. You can then remove the board from the front half of the Autostar enclosure. Set the circuit board aside and remove the keyboard. There is nothing to that. The membrane keyboard is held in place by the circuit board, and with that out of the way, the keyboard just slips out.

Does the ribbon cable look scary? If so, leave it connected. Gently move the circuit board up and out of the way and slide the keyboard out without disconnecting the cable. Just be careful not to stress this flimsy ribbon.

Keyboard in hand, begin the repair. Start with the denatured alcohol. This should be 91% strength stuff, not 70% rubbing alcohol. The stronger solution is readily available in drugstores like Walgreens and Rite-Aid. Dampen a q-tip and swab each of the black disks on the back side of the keyboard. The q-tip will come away dirty. Trash it, wet another with alcohol, and continue until a q-tip comes up mostly clean. I initially thought this black substance was oxidation, but I now believe it to be some sort of stuff Meade applies to the disks to improve contact/conductivity. If that is the case, it didn't work. It is also very hard to remove; just get as much as you can off the disks. I went through half a box of q-tips before one came up halfway clean.

When you are satisfied with the keyboard’s disks, move on to the printed circuit board. The side of the circuit board that faces the keyboard is studded with numerous silver-looking contacts, one for each keyboard key/disk. Dampen a fresh q-tip and swab the contacts. Don’t bear down and don’t drown them in alcohol. A quick wipe with a moist q-tip is all they need. When all cleaning is complete, it might not be a bad idea to dust off both circuit board and keyboard with canned air. Hold the can upright and about a foot away to avoid spraying propellant into the Autostar’s guts.

Everything up till now was preparation for the real job, coating the keys with the liquid that came in the kit. If you haven’t opened the kit, do so now. Inside are one small bottle, one larger container, a small brush, and a mixing stick. Pour the contents of the little bottle into the larger container and mix vigorously for one minute.

After this epoxy-like gunk is mixed, you have, according to its makers, 72 hours to use it before it sets. My advice? Do not mix it until you are ready to apply it. 24-hours later, what I had left over was mighty thick. There doesn't seem to be much of this stuff even when the two components are mixed, but so little is needed to repair the Autostar that one batch will easily do four or five HCs—at least. If you have buddies with cranky Autostars, share the wealth and do several at once, maybe splitting the 25 buck cost among you.

Hokay: time for rubber to meet road. Paint the mixed goop on each black disk’s face in a thin layer. Do not glop it on and avoid getting the stuff between the keys or anywhere else. I found it easy to do a neat job with the small included brush, but I amuse myself on cloudy evenings by assembling and painting plastic scale-model spacecraft. If you are inexperienced with painting small objects, don’t worry. Any of the gunk that gets in places where it shouldn’t be is easily scraped off with a toothpick—after it dries. In case you are wondering, NO, YOU DO NOT PAINT THE CIRCUIT BOARD CONTACTS! THE GOOP ONLY GOES ON THE CONTACT SURFACES OF THE KEYBOARD’S BLACK DISKS.

Now the hard part, waiting 24 hours for the fix-stuff to cure. Don’t even think of reassembling the Autostar or fooling with the keyboard in any shape, form, or fashion until an entire day has elapsed.

When the long hours have passed, reassemble the Autostar, beginning by slipping the keyboard back in place. If you detached the ribbon cable from its connector, gently reinsert it and snap the retaining clip in. Seat the circuit board over the keyboard and replace the white plastic light-diffuser over the LED display panel (the curved side faces up). Snap-on the back of the Autostar, screw-in the screws, and that is it.

Moment of truth. Fetch the telescope, plug in the Autostar and the battery, and power her up. If the display lights and shows its usual verbiage, you can be assured you haven’t, screwed up that pea-picking ribbon cable. But how well did the repair work?

I won’t say my hands were trembling as I turned on the ETX, but I was a little apprehensive. This snake-oil treatment seemed too easy. OK. One of my prime offenders had been the “Mode” key. As soon as the Autostar booted up and read “Press Align to align, press Mode for menu,” I mashed “Mode.” But I didn’t mash it like I’ve had to lately, with every bit of what little strength I still retain. A gentle push and…the key responded just like it is supposed to. I experimented with the other keys and every one of them, including the direction keys, thank God, worked just as well as they had on day one. In fact, I was of the opinion that all the keys were considerably more responsive than they had been out of the box.

Naturally, I was anxious to try Charity on the observing field. Unfortunately, Saturday was one of those days that tease. Clouds at times, blue skies at times. The cotton-picking Weather Underground had started out predicting “mostly cloudy tonight,” but by mid-afternoon was saying “mostly clear.” Yay! Not that I was completely convinced I’d actually see anything, but I figgered it was at least worth a shot. If the clouds rolled in, I could have Charity back in the Toyota and be headed for home in ten minutes.

As Sunset approached, I became more and more optimistic; it did seem to be clearing. SUCKA! When I hit the road for the dark site, I couldn’t help noticing a band of clouds hugging the western horizon. Rut-roh. Most weather fronts here travel from west to east. Oh, well, I kept a stiff upper lip and kept going. Twenty-five miles later, I wasn’t just seeing clouds in the west; they were everywhere. By the time Charity was unpacked, we were completely socked-in. At least I could do the dadgum Drive Training and see what was what after that.

Drive Training is critical for the ETX’s go-to performance, but is easy enough to do. Sight a terrestrial object (which seem to yield better training than celestial ones) and select “Drive Training” from the Autostar’s “Telescope” menu. The reason I’d waited until I could get to the dark site to do this training is that there are perfect targets there, the illuminated runway lights of the air-strip next to our observing field.

Centered a distant light, hit the “go” button, and Charity slewed to the left. I used the appropriate key to re-center my target. Miss then slewed to the right, and I again placed the light back in the middle of the crosshairs. Altitude training was next, with Charity slewing up and down and me re-centering when she stopped. One thing I noticed right away: how much easier it is to precisely center the target when the direction keys work like they should.

Looking up from the scope, I saw that post-sunset the clouds had got thicker rather than thinner (I’d convinced myself that these must be the sort of clouds that always disperse at sunset). I played around with the Autostar a little, running through its various menus, getting information on objects I couldn’t see and assuring myself the key problem was banished.

I was curious and still am about how long the keyboard improvement will last, but what I’ve read and heard indicates “forever.” The kit’s documentation says repaired keys have been tested for thousands of keystrokes, and I have not heard anyone who’s done the repair say their keys have gone south again.

Done playing with the Autostar, I waited on the field with my friend George, my only fellow club member who’d been optimistic enough to join me, to see if we were well and truly skunked. By 7:30 p.m., we threw in the towel. There’d been a sucker hole once in a while, but not enough of one to allow me to get Charity aligned. Thems the breaks, breaks you are used to or soon will be if you are a member of that hardy band who call themselves “amateur astronomers.”

Next Time: If it was clear this past Saturday, Charity ran the Messier Marathon. Yeah, I know it’s a mite early for that, but so what? It ain’t like Unk will be able to stay awake till dawn to do the whole big thing, anyway, now is it? If it was cloudy? Well, who knows? I will think of something. I always do. What can happen?

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