Sunday, June 09, 2013


Another Night with Mrs. Peel...

Technically, muchachos, it should have been a Charity Hope Valentine night. The weather forecasts were uniformly dismal, with both TWC and Wunderground predicting at least 60% cloud cover and high humidity.  It sounded like the perfect Saturday night to spend with my very portable ETX girlfriend. The Clear Sky Clock, however, was showing at least a few semi-blue squares for mid evening, so the C8 it would be, and not just any C8, but my new Edge 800 C8, Mrs. Emma Peel, and her VX mount. I had an agenda, you see...

I’d given Mrs. Peel a good shakedown at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, and I’d at least been able to get the VX aligned at the dark site week before last. But I had not been able to test Emma’s visual capabilities under even semi-dark skies. Most of all, I had not been able to try the VX’s AllStar polar alignment procedure.

The original Celestron hand control polar alignment routine, which has been with us since the debut of the go-to CG5, was simple and fairly effective. Do a normal 2+4 star go-to alignment and choose “Polar Align” in the utility menu. The mount would then point to where it supposed Polaris would be given a perfect polar alignment. Then, all you had to do was adjust the mount in altitude and azimuth (not in R.A. and declination) till Polaris was centered in a crosshair eyepiece.

Celestron’s automated polar alignment was good enough that I could do 30-second unguided prime focus shots, and even 5 – 10-minute guided ones without star trailing due to field rotation caused by poor polar alignment. The original routine was not perfect, of course. Naturally, you had to be able to see the Pole Star to use the utility. More annoyingly, once you’d completed the polar alignment you had to power off the mount and do another go-to alignment. Yep, six more stars for a total of twelve. I put up with that for years because it worked and I was used to it and it produced polar alignments more than good enough for my Stellacam and Mallincam deep sky video cameras.

TIME MARCHES ON… Say what you will about Celestron and their Chinese owners, Synta, they continue to improve their products, including their firmware and software. So, I was not overly surprised to hear in late 2008 that they were upgrading the CG5’s hand control firmware with a version near identical to what was in their new step-up mount, the CGEM. Among other things, the new firmware would include a successor to the old polar align utility, something the company was calling “AllStar.”

As the name made obvious, the new procedure allowed the mount to be polar aligned with the aid of any star, not just Polaris (or Sigma Octantis). Not only that, it was a little more accurate, and you might not have to redo the 2+4 go-to alignment after using it. That sounded right nice to me, so I re-flashed the CG5’s new hand control, which I’d bought to replace its original non-upgradeable model, with the new software, v4.15, downloaded the new version of NexRemote that contained the same code, and made tracks for the Chiefland Astronomy Village in January of 2009.

You can read the whole story of that expedition here, but the upshot was that I had a great time, as always, but it was awful cold for Florida and I was not overly impressed with AllStar. The routine seemed to work once I glommed onto the fact that you couldn’t really use any star. If you didn’t choose a star positioned roughly to the south and not much higher than 30 – 40 degrees, you were going to have one heck of a time centering it with the alt and azimuth adjusters. Technically, yes, you could use any star as a polar alignment helper (except Polaris, apparently, which Celestron advises against), but, practically, you were limited to those not too far from the intersection of the Celestial Equator and Local Meridian—if you didn’t want to start cussing.

I thought having to be choosy about helper stars would be OK if the alignments were better, but the results didn’t appear much different from those I got with the Polaris procedure—I checked by firing off some 30-second shots with my Meade DSI camera. The cautious language in the CGEM manual (the CG5 manual never was updated with AllStar instructions) that you might not need to do a follow-on go-to alignment? From what I could determine, that was a lotta hot air. I had to move the star I chose for AllStar alignment (Betelgeuse) a fair distance in altitude and azimuth, and my go-tos sucked till I did a repeat 2+4.

So, it seemed to Unk that using Polaris was just as effective and was substantially easier than having to figure out what might be a good star choice for AllStar. I knew where Polaris was afterall. I downgraded the firmware in the HC back to v4.12, which I’d used for so long, always selected 4.12 when using NexRemote, and kept on trucking.

For the next three and a half years, I didn’t do more than occasionally, very occasionally, play with AllStar, usually with mixed results, which I believe were mixed because I just monkeyed around with it with the hand control without re-familiarizing myself with the instructions. Nothing changed till I heard the routine was coming to the Atlas EQ-6.

I’ve loved and had good luck with the Atlas mount since I got it back in ought-seven, but one thing it doesn’t have that I’ve always missed is a hand control polar alignment method. Yes, it has a good polar borescope, and the borescope helper routine in EQMOD works well, but I hate peering up through that consarned thing. So I was some kinda happy to hear that Celestron’s parent company, Synta, was porting the AllStar routine to their SynScan hand controls. Last year, I loaded the beta firmware into my Atlas’ HC and me and Miss Dorothy split for Chiefland for an expedition much like the one in 2009.

There, I gave the SynScan version of AllStar a good tryout and was impressed by the results. Yes, as with the NexStar version, you are really limited to stars south of your position (north if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, natch), so it’s not really ALL stars, but this time that didn’t seem like such a big deal. Not when the alternative was squinting through that pea-picking borescope.

Despite the success with the Atlas, I stuck with the old firmware for the CG5. 4.12 still worked just fine for me, thank you. That was, in fact, what I used with the CG5 at the Spring Scrimmage. The outing did get me to thinking.  There were plenty of scudding clouds early on our first decent night, and, wouldn’t you know it, they inevitably drifted right across Polaris, preventing me from doing a polar alignment for quite a spell. “Hell, maybe there is something to that AllStar business.” Also, I had heard AllStar had been improved in accuracy, and that re-doing the 4+2 go-to alignment was no longer necessary. Hmmm…

In the end, the question, “To AllStar or not to AllStar?” was decided for me by the new VX mount. I like to have a spare hardware hand control with me just in case, so one evening, I plugged the CG5’s HC into the VX. What happened? Nuttin’ honey. It would not finish booting up. I knew the old style HCs ought to work as well with the VX mount as the new Plus hand controls, so I figgered it had to be the firmware. I updated the CG5’s HC to the latest and greatest, v4.21, plugged the HC back into the VX, powered up, and it worked like a champ.

It appeared to me that running the VX with the old firmware, whether on a hardware HC or on NexRemote, was gonna be a non-starter. I’d planned to continue using 4.12 and the old polar routine with the new mount, but that was obviously not gonna happen. I’d just have to bite the bullet and get friendly with that dagnabbed AllStar. Which was my number one goal at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s dark site this past Saturday.

Yeah, the weather forecasts were putrid, but the closer I got to oh-dark-thirty, the better the sky looked, with plenty of blue if also with occasional and rather heavy haze. At 6:15 p.m., I judged it “good enough” to load up the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt, with the gear. Which was minimal:  Mrs. Peel, VX, eyepiece case, laptop, and a couple of accessory boxes. I thought about taking my new planetary camera, a ZWO, out for a test drive, but I didn’t think the seeing was good enough or that the clouds would hold off long enough to make that worthwhile.

When I hit the field, I was a little surprised to be playing Lone Astronomer once again, but some folks will choose to sit in front of the cotton-picking boob tube if the weather forecast ain’t perfect. Hell, I’ve been known to do that myself, but the problem is that we don’t get many “perfects” in the summer down in The Swamp, so you have to take what you can get if you want to see anything. I am back to my old mantra:  “If it ain’t raining, head to the dark site.”

As I mentioned Sunday before last, it sure is nice to have a new telescope and mount that are enough like your old telescope and mount to make setup a no-brainer. I got Mrs. Peel on the VX, affixed the Rigel Quckfinder to her, leaving her 50mm finder in the case, and waited for Polaris to put in an appearance.
When he did, I centered the star in the empty bore of the VX’s R.A. housing where a polar scope would go if I were to install one, which I won’t. Celestron’s polar alignment routines in the hand controls will get you on the pole, but you are well advised to start our reasonably close to it.

When there were enough alignment star candidates twinkling through the not too terrible haze, I began a two-star alignment and immediately ran into trouble. The mount chose Procyon as Star One. That was good; it was bright in the west, but not too low. I centered it up in the Quickfinder when the slew stopped, put my eye to the 12mm reticle eyepiece, and saw—absolutely nothing. Removed 12mm Meade crosshair and replaced it with the 100-degree 16mm Zhumell ocular. Same result. No Procyon and slewing around didn’t help.

There was plenty of old-fashioned Uncle Rod fumbling and bumbling, y’all:  realigned the Quickfinder on Venus (who was close to her little pal Mercury in the west), but was still not being able to find Procyon.  Realized I hadn’t snapped the Quickfinder all the way down into its bracket.  Realigned the finder again, but was still not able to locate Procyon because I’d loosened the Quickfinder’s adjustment screws too much and the reticle was flopping around.  Mounted the optical finder, aligned it, fixed the Quickfinder’s problem, and finally, at full dark, Procyon was in the field of the Meade 12mm.

After that comedy of errors, things went as they should. Second alignment star was on the edge of the Quickfinder’s inner ring and the last three Calibration stars were in the field at 160x (there is still no Celestron reducer for the Edge 800, so I am still at f/10). DANG! What a night this was turning out to be. Not only had the alignment been a pain, the skeeters were so fierce I had to both deploy the Thermacell and douse myself with Deep Woods Off. And everything was already covered by thick dew an hour after sunset. I didn’t like the way the sky was looking, either, with the haze seeming bent on morphing into a cloud layer. If I was gonna do an AllStar, it better be now.

The first task would be choosing a star, and for once I’d had the good sense to scope out the sitchy-ation before leaving home. I identified a couple of candidates with the aid of TheSkyX First Light. Delta Corvi, Algorab, looked to me to be the best of the bunch. It would be almost due south at dark, and while, at 40-degrees, it was a little higher than the “30-degrees or so” I’ve heard some AllStar users recommend, I thought it would be OK.

The other Good Thing I’d done before leaving Chaos Manor South was print out an excellent set of AllStar instructions (if a little dated regarding the need to do a new go-to alignment after the polar alignment). No trying to figure it out from the HC prompts this time. That was wise, since it appeared I might have been screwing up in the past. Step one in an AllStar alignment is sending the mount to the “helper” star of choice. I chose “Algorab” from the named star list, and the VX went there. The natural thing to do, then, would have been to center the star up with the HC buttons. The instructions, however, said that was not necessary. I now have a sneaking suspicion that centering the star as I had before might actually throw off the procedure. I left it alone.

Next up is running the AllStar routine, which is found under the Align button instead of in the Utility menu. Mash that button, scroll up or down to Polar Align, select that, and follow the instructions. When you mash Enter, the mount will slew. You then use the hand control buttons to center the star in the finder and eyepiece, pressing Enter and Align as instructed. Just like in a go-to alignment, always do final star centering with the “up” and “right” keys only.

When the star is centered (I strongly advise using a crosshair eyepiece) with the hand control, mash Enter again, and the mount will slew one last time. The HC will then tell you to re-center the star in the eyepiece, this time using only the altitude and azimuth adjusters on the mount. I did that, and it was easy. The VX’s motions are decidedly smoother than those on the CG5. When the star is in the crosshairs, lock down the tripod bolt and alt-az bolts as required and you are done.

The HC’s align button menu will display resulting polar alignment accuracy. I tried it, and according to the hand control I was about 30” from the Celestial Pole. Was that accurate? Who knows? As you all do know, my motto is “Trust but Verify,” but I had no easy way to do that on this night. I could have watched a star for declination drift, but given conditions that were going from “OK” to “P-U,” that would have been all I’d have seen. Uh-uh. I would be able to see how the go-to accuracy following an AllStar was, though.

Alrighty then. “M13.” I still don’t like having to drill down one menu level with the Plus HC to get to the Ms, but I reckon I am getting used to it. The VX made its noises, which, as I reported week before last, are considerably quieter than the CG5’s, and stopped. Put my eye to the 16mm Zhumell that had replaced the Meade reticle job in the 2-inch William Optics dielectric diagonal, and there was…

The Big Boy. Looking awful good despite being in the light pollution and substantial haze. That was the east. How about the west? Tried to go to M35, but it was too low. M105, then. That galaxy and his two companions were well centered. “High up” can be a problem for go-to, so off to M3 we went. In the eyepiece, no problem. Remember, y’all, this is at f/10. I concluded that it was indeed no longer necessary to redo the go-to alignment following AllStar. That sure will speed things up when I’m doing a Mallincam run, lemme tell you.

The sky was going, but slowly. It was beginning to fade out in the west due to thickening haze, and there were some clouds approaching from the east. I still had time for a few more good ones. With go-to accuracy not a problem, I replaced the 16mm Zhumell with my beloved 13mm Ethos. Man alive, M13 looked good. So sharp across his face, which was a mass of tiny stars. I hate to say it again, but, yes, the view across the whole field was “refractor like.” If that refractor were an 8-inch APO with a very flat field, that is. Folks, if’n you’re going to buy an SCT, you owe it to yourself to at least consider The Edge.

While conditions held, I bopped across the sky from one horizon to the other. One particular treat was M82, which showed off a surprising amount of dark detail in an 8-inch under putrid skies. I for sure gotta mention M5, the huge globular star cluster in Serpens Caput, which by 10 p.m. was high enough to bother with. Is it as good as M13? Yes. Do I think it’s actually better than M13? Yes. Don’t believe me? Get out and see it for yourself this summer.

After M5? I’d intended to visit M10 and M12, but decided it was time to throw the accursed Big Switch. Did I get spooked? Not really, y’all, though it was a little eerie out on the deserted airstrip, especially when the whippoorwills began to call at sunset, bringing to Unk’s mind H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” What got to me to packing was not my paranormal buddies, but the fading sky, the unrelenting bugs, the heat, the high humidity, and the heavy dew. Welcome to summer in Possum Swamp. Soon enough, the gear was back in Miss Van Pelt, I was bidding farewell to Mothman, and the 4Runner’s blasting air conditioner was feeling oh-so-good.

Back at The Old Manse, it was cable TV and Rebel Yell, time. Actually, I’d missed my favorite Saturday night cable program, Svengoolie. And what a shame. He was showing Abbot and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a fave of mine because of my fond memories of the time Mama and I saw it at the Roxy. I couldn’t have been much older than four, and still remember how proud I was that I hadn’t had to hide my eyes a single time. No A&C tonight, but I did have a DVD of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original 1956 version, natch) I’d been meaning to watch for a while.

As I semi-watched and semi-dozed in my chair in Chaos Manor South’s cozy den, I couldn’t help being as proud of myself as I’d been on that long ago night at the Abbot and Costello picture show. I’d finally mastered AllStar; I’d no longer have to answer novices’ questions about it with a lame “I hear it is pretty good.” I believe it will even make a good if incremental improvement to my observing. Can’t ask more than that from a semi-punk Saturday night, now can you, muchachos?

Next Time:  More My Favorite Star Parties… 

FTA: "When the star is in the crosshairs, lock down the tripod bolt and alt-az bolts as required and you are done."

I'm not sure what you mean here by 'lock down the tripod bolt'. In my reading of the AllStar Align procedure, it's only the alt/az adjustment bolts/screws that need adjustment here. Have I misunderstood the instructions. If so what is the 'tripod bolt' that needs to be locked down?

HI Don:

When you are doing a polar alignment, it's a good idea to leave the central bolt on the tripod, the one that attaches the head to the tripod, loose to ensure easy azimuth motion. When you are done, tighten it down so the head doesn't accidentally move in azimuth. Likewise, when your altitude adjusting is done, snug up the forward bolt on the head to prevent accidental movement.
I must thank you for your blog. Aside from its entertainment value, your blog posts do far more for me in the often-discouraging process of learning my way around the subject of equipment adjustment. Your detailed descriptions of polar alignment and all-star alignment do more for me than any equipment manual. Thank you so much.
Thanks for the comment about heading out even if it isn't perfect; reading that yesterday morning kicked my butt so I headed out last night, even though it was a full moon in suburbia right after the summer solstice. And you know what? I had a great time, and was even able to see M94 thanks to your article in "Sky and Telescope" from a few months back. I definitely owe you a beer. :-)
I'm always up for a free beer. :-)
Hi Rod,

thanks for your blog, always entertaining. I remember reading your posts on various forums about a regular C8 with 6.3 reducer/corrector to be visually very close to a Edge 800. Have you changed your mind about that?
Yes and no...

The field edge _is_ slightly better than the Standard plus f/ is nice to be able to get that at f/10, too. ;-)
The help button is currently a shortcut to the Messier catalog (subject to change in future firmware versions).
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