Thursday, December 24, 2015


Christmas Eve 2015 and a New Toy: Universe2Go

Got some Christmas money burning a hole in your pocket? Want a groovy new astronomy toy?  I may have just the thing for you, the Universe2Go from Omegon in Germany (available through in the U.S.). Actually, calling it a “toy” doesn’t quite do it justice, though that word does hint at the fun built into it. The U2G may, however, be more than just fun, it could be the start of something big, the first real personal planetarium. Before we get to that, however, let’s have the trad report on Christmas Eve ‘round these parts.

There’s not really too much to tell, actually. If you’ve glanced at the Weather Channel, you know my part of the country, the Gulf Coast, is being pummeled by intense thunderstorms and rain. Not the sort of weather that encourages you to get out and battle the crazy Christmas Eve traffic even if you can find a restaurant open post lunch. So, ‘twas a quiet evening at home with a glass or two of red wine, A Charlie Brown Christmas on DVD, and Jessica Jones on Netflix (quite a combo, I know). There was not a prayer of getting my traditional Christmas Eve look at M42. The only observing I was able to do, or had been able to do for days, was of the virtual sort.

Virtual observing with the Universe2Go, that is. What is that? It is the logical extension of one of the more popular features of smart phone/tablet astronomy apps, gyro-accelerometer “tracking” of the sky.  You know, go outside under the night sky with your phone or tablet, start SkySafari or one of the many other apps that has this feature, hold the widget up to the night sky, and enable tracking.  If everything is as it should be, the virtual sky will display the stars and constellations of the real sky before you. As you move the phone across the sky, its virtual sky changes to reflect your movements.

Pretty neat, and useful too. Many’s the time that I’ve used this feature of SkySafari to identify a star or planet at dusk. It is the near perfection of the idea developed by Meade and Celestron some years ago with their standalone MySky and SkyScout devices, and it is also the reason those products are no longer with us. The sky-tracking feature of cell phone astro-apps made the hardware “personal planetariums” obsolete.

What if you took this idea one more step, though, combining something like the MySky with the tracking feature of astro-apps? That’s what Universe2Go does. And in a very simple way. What it is at heart is a simple plastic box. Or maybe a better description is a Viewmaster Viewer—if like Unk you are old enough to remember those old kids’ 3D slide viewers.

Instead of a slide, though, you insert your smart phone into this viewer with the Universe2Go app running, and, thanks to the viewer’s beam-splitter arrangement, you see the app’s stars, constellations, and deep sky objects seemingly projected against the real night sky as you scan across it in binocular fashion. Even better, thanks to the fact that you are looking at two images, one projected for each eye, you can view the apps stars and DSOs in 3D if you wish.

The Universe2Go hardware viewer is clever enough but hardly revolutionary. What makes this thing go is the application that comes with it. While it still has a few rough edges—it locked up on me once on my iPhone 6s—it is capable of fairly amazing things, and if the people who make U2G continue to develop it, I believe it will become truly revolutionary, the ultimate personal planetarium.

What can it do now? It can operate in numerous modes, including “beginner,” an introduction to the night sky, “mythology,” which outlines the stories in the sky, and “deep sky,” which highlights deep sky objects. There is literally hours of narration to go along with the visuals, and that is well done by a female narrator who, while evidently not a native  English speaker, almost made me think she was. I enjoyed listening to her tell me all about the bright stars and the planets and the constellation figures, but being a deep sky hound, what I really was anxious to try was the U2G’s Deep Sky Mode.

In the deep sky mode, little thumbnail images of the brighter objects are sprinkled amongst the stars and in their proper positions. Let me tell you, it was quite a trip to scan across the night sky, see the constellation lines projected before me, the stars labeled, and DSOs invisible to my naked eyes appear as small pictures. It got even better though.

Stopping on one of the 150 objects that have images associated with them and selecting it (more on that below) enlarged the little fuzzy to a big, beautiful picture floating before my eyes, and I was then treated to a narration giving the object’s vital statistics. While I ran across a few minor factual errors in that narration, they were relatively few.

You don’t need a clear night to enjoy a deep sky tour with the U2G; this mode (like the others) is almost as much fun to play with in a darkened room—which is what I did most of the time since the moment the U2G arrived so did the clouds (I hope to do more extensive outdoor testing soon).  While only 150 DSOs have images to go with them, the entire Messier and NGC are there as symbols.

Whether I was just scanning across the constellations or homing in on faint fuzzies, I had a ball. I won’t say using the U2G was quite like sitting under a planetarium dome, but it was the next best thing, and maybe the closest thing to it if you don’t have a Zeiss dumbbell projector in your living room.

Is the Universe2Go an unqualified success, then? No, but what is? The down-checks come in two areas, the first of which concerns set up. Before the U2G can do any of its great things, you have to get it going, and doing that is not quite a simple as just opening the hatch in the viewer, popping your phone inside, and closing the plastic door. While not tremendously difficult, installing and aligning my iPhone 6s in the U2G was not exactly a walk in the park either.

The initial challenge you will confront is installation of your phone in the viewer. To begin, you will likely need to remove your phone from its case, since otherwise it will be too thick to allow you to close the door on the viewer, and the phone will not be held firmly in place. How much of a hassle removing your phone from its case before every use of the device is depends on the case. For me, getting my iPhone out of its Otterbox was a pain, but that is not the fault of the U2G.

Next, you have to ensure the phone is held snugly in the viewer. Since the viewer is made to accommodate a fairly wide range of iOS and Android smart phones (excluding big ones like the iPhone 6s Plus and the Galaxy Note), you have to use included die-cut, self adhesive weather-stripping-like foam material to hold your particular smart phone securely in the viewer’s top compartment. The foam material is cut in rectangles and triangles, and at first it looks as if it will be easy to use. Not so. I found getting the foam properly pasted down a pain.

I was able to find a set of foam pieces (one rectangle and two triangular shapes) that did a good job of holding my phone in place and positioning it squarely with regard to the viewer. Unfortunately, getting the pieces correctly permanently positioned wasn’t easy. Oh, they stuck to the plastic well—too well. Touch an adhesive surface to the viewer and it was stuck but good and could not be re-positioned without tearing it. Nevertheless, after some cussing I was able to get the foam arranged, more or less.

How could phone installation be improved? There is a relatively small number of phones people will use with this device, and my suggestion is that Omegon offer the U2G tailored for each particular smart phone, with foam specially designed for a given model already installed.

When you have that darned foam in place, you fire up the application on your phone (you download it from iTunes or Google Play; it’s free with the purchase of the U2G and is activated with a code found in the box with the viewer). You still aren’t ready to start having fun with your personal planetarium, though. Next step is calibration, making sure the images seen in the viewer with your two eyes merge.

That brings us to the U2G’s other major annoyance: the way you move a cursor around onscreen and access and select menus. Your phone is in the viewer and there is no way for you to touch the screen or push a button. Instead, you navigate menus and do the calibration using your phone’s gyro/accelerometer.

A combination of nodding your head up and down and tilting it from side to side moves the cursor and enters selections. In the beginning I found this well-night impossible to do, and didn’t think I’d ever manage to complete the calibration—which involves nodding and tilting your head till two bull’s-eye targets merge. I was just about ready to quit after my fifth attempt when I finally caught on to how to move my head, finished calibration, and was soon flipping through menus and finishing the device’s simple setup with fair ease.

By the time I finished setting up the U2G, I was in something of a snit, but as soon as I began zooming ‘round the night sky indoors and out, all that went away. This thing truly is remarkable, especially if you, like me, have always wanted a home planetarium that’s a little better than a darned old Spitz Junior. It is really rather breathtaking as it is, and, again, if the people at Omegon continue to work on their app I believe “breathtaking” will be too mild a word.

There’s but one final impediment to having a virtual planetarium at your beck and call day and night via the Universe2Go:  the price. The U2G will set you back nearly one-hundred dollars. Is it worth that much? That depends on you. The ground truth is that you can get a far more capable and detailed planetarium program—far more detailed—SkySafari Pro, for half that amount. And how much is that plastic 3D viewer box really worth? You will have to decide that for yourself, but I will say that when you’ve got the U2G working you will be flat out astounded at how cool it is. SkySafari is beautiful, and useful, but U2G is just so much fun.

Friday, December 18, 2015


A Pre Christmas Break...

I intended to post a blog article as usual for this coming Sunday, but, alas, a Christmas vacation got in the way. That was maybe not a bad thing, since it will allow me more time to evaluate a rather interesting product, Universe2Go, which I will present to you next time. Have a great week-before-Christmas and watch out for the crazy drivers. I will see you on Christmas Eve as usual...

Sunday, December 13, 2015


A Revolution in Affordable Video Imaging…

As most of you know, astronomical video imaging, “deep sky video,” is my bag. While I’ve mostly been doing DSLR/CCD astrophotography the last year or so, I’ve never lost my love for video.

A sensitive vid-cam makes it so easy to go incredibly deep. With my humble C11 and CGEM and Mallincam, for example, capturing 17th magnitude and dimmer Quasars was nothing. The only limitation seemed to be me becoming bored with one more insanely distant bluish, star-like object. I haven’t just practiced video, either. I’ve preached about the “video revolution” here, in the pages of Sky & Telescope, and on our observing fields.

So why isn’t every deep sky crazy amateur astronomer using video cameras? There are a couple of reasons. First, some people just like looking through an eyepiece. Video delivers faint objects in such short exposures that it almost seems like you are observing in real time, but for some it still ain’t the same as eye and eyepiece.

The nay-sayers are not necessarily a majority, however. There are plenty of amateurs who would love to see detail in the brighter deep sky objects from the light-polluted backyard, capture dim and challenging DSOs from darker sites, and use video in public outreach. Unfortunately, there’s been one big thing preventing them from doing all that: m-o-n-e-y. For the longest time, one thousand dollars was the video admission price, with close to two-thousand being more realistic  for a capable camera.

Those economics began to change a few years ago with the release of bargain oriented astro-vidcams, first in the 500 dollar range, and, shortly thereafter, in the 100 – 150 bracket. Much of the growth in bargain astro-video can be attributed to one camera, the LN300. This 1/3-inch chip cam from China (natch) is based on a design (probably) developed by Samsung, and after it caught the eye of astro-video experimenters, it was soon being modified and sold for astronomy by several vendors.

So, which LN300 do you choose? Some variants of the basic camera have firmware that makes it easier to achieve color in some modes, but all work very well for astronomy. They are amazingly sensitive and display little of the dreaded “amp glow,” that brightening of the corner of the frame, that plagues some deep sky cameras. The LN300s also offer other features useful in astronomy, including the ability to stack up to 5 image frames internally. That produces smoother and denser images. The maximum exposure of the camera is about 20-seconds, but thanks to stacking, and, most of all, the sensitivity of these little wonders, that is not a handicap.

Which “brand” of LN300, then? Heretofore, my only advice in that regard was “Get one from an astronomy dealer.” The main reason for that was camera control. The stock camera is operated with tiny buttons on its rear. Those allow you to set exposure and other things, but having to go out to the scope to push minuscule buttons in the dark is not the way I like to roll. I prefer to sit under an EZ-Up canopy at a star party or on my deck at home and operate the camera from there. Luckily, astro-merchants supply LN300s with wired remotes and/or software for controlling ting the camera from a laptop. So, I told budding astrovideographers, to just get a camera like that from an astronomy-oriented dealer. Any dealer.

That’s changed, however, because of what I think is an incredibly neat little kit and a great buy being offered by Orange County Telescope, the Revolution Imager. What it is is a case with everything you need to get started shooting astronomy video inside:  an LN300, a battery powered 7-inch LCD monitor, a wired remote for the camera, a focal reducer, an IR block filter, a battery to power camera and monitor, and all required cables. Darned neat, I think. While video, like any other sort of astrophotography, can’t be made “turnkey”—it requires practice and learning—having everything you need and complete instructions for hooking it all up and getting started makes that learning a heck of a lot easier.

Anyhow, when Orange County’s proprietor, Mike Fowler, asked if I’d like to try the Revolution, I naturally said yes. At $299.99, I thought the Revolution could be a major breakthrough. No need to spend about that much on just a focal reducer and a monitor. No scratching your head as to how to make it all work together. The more I ruminated on it, the more I thought this could be the coming of that video astronomy revolution I’d been predicting for a long time.

When the Revolution arrived, I was even more impressed than I’d been just looking at it on the website and reading its specs. You really do get a lot of stuff nearly packed and ready to go. Go where? In my case, the kit went was into the 4Runner for our recent trip to the Deep South Regional Star Gaze where I hoped to give the set a good workout.

In astronomy, you don’t always get what you want. You sometimes get what you need, but you do not always get what you want. While I got the DSLR pictures I needed for a magazine article I was working on, I barely got to try the Revolution. A slow-moving front began to pass through on Thursday evening, which I’d declared was to be “the night of the Revolution.” I was able to set the system up, though, and at least give it a short preliminary test.

Revolution hand control...
Actually, I’d had the good sense to set up the Revolution at home before we left for DSRSG. One thing that is different about the kit is that you’ve got a rather complicated looking wiring harness that connects all the components, camera, monitor, and battery, together. Luckily, the good folks at OCT have posted a set of excellent instructional videos on the Revolution website. I watched those, which soon made clear how everything was supposed to go together. I also printed out the basic camera setting instructions, though I was fairly familiar with how to work an LN300.

My setup, which you see pictured below, is actually a little more complicated that what many of you will deal with. Since, as above, I like to sit under an EZ-Up and operate the scope, I connected a long extension cable between camera and wiring harness. The cable in the kit is long enough to allow you to set up the monitor a few feet from the telescope, but I wanted longer than that and had a combo power/video cable at hand that I use with other cameras. I see that OCT now offers a 25-foot extension cable (and some other cool accessories as well) as an inexpensive option, and that is a good thing.

Some users may be happy having the monitor mounted on the scope, maybe the upper cage of a Dobsonian, however, and will not need an extension cable. The Revolution kit includes a tilt-swivel monitor mount with an adhesive backed base that is perfect for attaching the display to scope tubes or mountings. Instead, I pasted it to a plastic clipboard, which provides a steady, sturdy mounting for the monitor.

In addition to an extension cable, I hooked up my Orion DVR. I like to preserve my deep sky videos, and this tiny digital video recorder works very well for that purpose. I simply ran the output of the camera to an old analog switch box left over from the non-digital cable TV days and used that to select monitor or recorder as desired.

I ran into only two problems on this first night:  clouds and tracking. I had the camera mounted on my “secondary” scope, a C8 and CG5 combo I’d bought along to the star party to sell, and that telescope was only roughly polar aligned. Oh, I knew that for good looking stars even with short video exposures you need decent polar alignment, but the appearance of the skies told me I’d better hurry and I dispensed with the AllStar polar alignment procedure in the interest of getting something before we were socked in. In the end, I had a little over an hour (including some waits for clouds to pass) to see what the Revolution would do.

My impressions? Most of all, that this is such a sensitive little camera. Didn’t matter what I turned the C8 to, the camera snapped it up. The Crescent Nebula, the legendarily dim NGC 6888 in Cygnus? No sweat. Both loops of the Veil? Done. M74? There were the spiral arms right on the monitor. What was really cool was setting the camera to stack images. While I’d used LN300s a couple of times before, that was not a feature I’d played with. It was neat to watch the supposedly dim Crescent slowly develop on the screen like a photographic print in Dektol (now I am dating myself).

How did the system work otherwise? Just fine, thank you. While I wouldn’t call the monitor high resolution, it looked at least as good as the screen of the portable DVD player I used as a display for years and which carried me all the way through the Herschel Project. The only thing I didn’t try was the included focal reducer. I’ve got a Meade f/3.3 reducer for the C8, and while the .5x Revolution reducer would no doubt have been fine, when dealing with an f/10 8-inch, the more focal reduction you can achieve, the better.

The kit’s lithium ion battery, by the way, had no problem powering camera and monitor for an hour and a half, and I suspect would have been fine for several hours. Not having to worry about an AC source or carrying around a big jumpstart battery would be an asset for public outreach, and I believe the cell would easily deliver enough juice for the average public session.

While I didn’t have time to really play with camera settings, I was nevertheless impressed with my results. The picture of NGC 6888 here is, by the way, just a single frame grab from the video. No additional processing was done other than minor level adjustments. Believe me, the object looked even better “live.”

I continued working until the last photons of the Crescent were extinguished by clouds and building ground fog. I was a little disappointed, but since I had a trip to the Chiefland Star Party scheduled for the following week, and hoped to get plenty of hours with the Revolution down Chiefland Way, I didn’t feel too bad.

Crescent from DSRSG..
Alas, once again things didn’t go exactly the way I’d planned. The basic problem at CSP was that, as I reported a couple of weeks ago, I could only get a motel room for one night, which limited me to two days. After driving 350 miles, I was willing to put up with porta-potties and open air showers for one day/night, but no longer. I did give the camera a try in the waning hours of Friday evening, but it had developed an intermittent fault in its power cable and I threw in the towel and went visual, which was fine, if not what I’d hoped for.

One of the benefits of buying the Revolution instead of an off the shelf camera (which will likely have a substandard built-in IR block filter installed)  from eBay or somewheres is SUPPORT. Mike fixed the power cable problem quickly and he and his colleagues took immediate steps to ensure this would not happen to anybody else. No, $300.00 is not an awful lot of money, but it is some money, and it sure is nice to have support from people who know astronomy backwards and forwards if there’s a problem.

Back home, clouds kept me indoors for a few days, and shortly thereafter the Moon was back in the sky. I was anxious to get the new camera outside again; the encouraging results I’d gotten at Deep South had just whetted my appetite. But I also wanted to give it as much of a chance as possible to show what it could do from my backyard, which has a zenith limiting magnitude value of about 5 or so on a good night. I bided my time.Finally there came an evening which, while not perfect due to heavy haze that was amplifying the light pollution, was good enough.

One of the beauties of video is what it can do from the backyard. Video allows you to see so much more from the back-forty than you can visually. At the club dark site, a 12-inch scope will give you at least a dim glimpse of the spiral arms of M74, for example, but in the backyard a 20-inch likely won’t show them. Video will. A good deep sky video camera will, anyway. Would the Revolution, though?

With Sol sinking, I set about getting ready to video. After connecting up the Rev a few times, I was now clear on what plugs into what on the cable harness, but it might be helpful if you taped little labels to the connectors to help in the beginning: “battery,” “camera,” video monitor,” etc. You'll get the idea soon enough, however. Especially if you take the time to watch the aforementioned excellent videos.

I got all the cables connected to the harness and then mounted the camera on the C8’s rear port with the all important f/3.3 reducer. If you are using the included .5 reducer instead, that screws onto the 1.25-inch camera nosepiece, and the whole thing is inserted into the SCT’s visual back. If you are using another style of telescope, a reflector or a refractor perhaps, you will do the same. Screw the included reducer onto the nosepiece and insert the whole thing into your focuser (be aware some Newtonians will have trouble coming to focus with any camera).

Backyard Dumbbell...
What did I do then? Next up was goto alignment. Video cameras have small chips, so a goto mount is pretty much mandatory unless you want to spend all night getting a few objects onto that tiny sensor. When the VX mount was goto aligned, I used the guidance of the instructions that came with the camera (and can also be printed off the website) to set exposure to the equivalent of ½ second, “x33” in LN300 speak. That provided enough oomph to show even badly out of focus alignment stars as big donuts and also enabled me to get focus at least roughly “in.” Remember, the reducer will have changed the focus point of your scope radically from where it probably is with an eyepiece.

How did I get to a menu to adjust exposure? That’s easy with the Revolution thanks to the camera remote. Push the center button, and a row of icons will appear on the video monitor. Select the “Exposure” Icon with the left and right arrow buttons, push the center button again, and following the instructions, set the camera to auto exposure mode (Sense Up) and give it that x32.  Using the remote was a joy. A whole lot better than trying to operate the camera with the wee buttons on its backside.

With the VX mount tracking and focus at least roughly dialed in, I was ready to begin. What was my first target? An astrophotographer friend of mine is wont to say, globular star clusters are God’s gift to imagers. She doesn’t just mean they are photogenic, but that their tiny stars are perfect for refining telescope focus. M15 was pretty much perfectly placed on this night, just beginning to descend into the west, so I typed M-0-1-5 into the NexStar HC and when the motors stopped their whining, had a look at the monitor.

Even in a short exposure, it was obvious we were on target. There was a suspiciously large "star" near the center of the screen. I upped exposure to 128x and refined focus. That was easy to do since I have a JMI motofocus on the C8. Which, like goto, is a huge help. Being able to sit at the monitor and focus with a remote control is just a boon, let me tell you.

M15 on a poor night...
After M15 was good and sharp, displaying a lovely halo of tiny little stars on the monitor (the screen grab here doesn’t do it justice), I began playing with the camera's settings—after running inside and pouring myself a glass of Merlot to keep me warm in the chilly 40s of the evening. I’ve often said learning to use an astronomical video camera is a lot like learning to play a musical instrument. You have to practice with it and try different things before you get good. While I’ve done a lot of astro-video, this camera was more or less new to me and I had a bit to learn—actually I still do—to get the best images out of it that it can produce.

Don’t despair if you are a newbie, though. Just using the recommended settings in the instructions, which give setups for general deep sky objects, lunar and planetary, and dim/large DSOs, will get you going. In general, it’s best to start out with the camera in automatic (Sense Up) mode before experimenting with manual (Lens/AGC) mode. Going manual is pretty much required if you want to capture the dim stuff, though.

What challenges did I face on this first extended run with the camera? It behaved itself very well, and once I’d reacquainted myself with the menus and settings it just got out of the way. The only problem I ran into was the brightness of the sky background. It took a while to figure out which exposures and other settings brought out objects best without washing out the background too much. That is always the way it is with video in the backyard, however.

What helped with sky brightness was screwing an Orion Imaging filter onto the camera nosepiece. This “mild” light pollution filter darkened the sky background appreciably without dimming star clusters and galaxies, which will be badly attenuated by stronger light pollution filters. A similar mild filter like a Lumicon Deep Sky or an Orion Skyglow will work just as well as a filter sold specifically for imaging.

Yes, I’ve got quite a few deep sky video hours under my belt, but I believe the Revolution will be easy enough to set up for anyone capable of following instructions. Mine was soon cranking out pleasing images and I was seeing a heck of a lot more than I’d have seen through the eyepiece of my 10-inch Dobsonian on this semi-punk evening. Like what?

The Deerlick...
M15:  Was very well resolved with tons of tiny stars shining steadily around its intense core. What was sorta amazing was that I had to be careful not to overexpose the core with this very sensitive little cam.

M27: was sinking, but that didn’t prevent the Rev from bringing out some nice reds and greens, the apple-core shape, and the central star.

NGC 7331:  Once I got the exposure just so, I began to see traces of the galaxy’s sweeping spiral arm, which is quite apparent in the live video. So are the little nearby NGC galaxies, the “deer” at the big Deerlick of NGC 7331,

NGC 6888: I wasn’t surprised to pick up the dim loop of the Crescent Nebula from a dark star party field, but it was quite a trip to watch it appear on my monitor in the backyard as the images stacked. Not just as a loop, but as a distinctly red loop.

M74:  While I thought it at least possible that I could have seen a trace of the Crescent visually with my OIII filtered 12.5-inch Dobsonian on a night like this in the backyard, I knew there was no way in hell I would have seen the dim arms of the Phantom Galaxy. The sky was now poor enough that I was not even sure I’d have seen the nucleus. Yet, there were the arms as the images stacked on the screen (I set stacking to 5 frames and left it there when I wasn’t focusing). Amazing.

And so it went till the clouds finally rolled in, preventing me from seeing what the Revolution would do on M42 (or the Horsehead). But that was OK. I’d seen a lot and been impressed. This is an inexpensive camera, but that is the beauty of the thing, since it is also a very capable camera. I’ve been doing video since 2003 and the antique Stellacam II days, but I was admittedly rather taken with this little thing (and plan to get it to the dark site soon). Two big thumbs up, y’all.

Nota Bene:  You can see more pictures of and by the Revolution on my Facebook page...

Sunday, December 06, 2015


Smart Phones + Tablets + Amateur Astronomy: Where we are Now (Part I)

Where are we now with the devices that not only take up a substantial portion of the waking lives of many of us, but even threaten to make laptop computers obsolete for astronomy? Astronomy apps for smart devices are mature, have plenty of features, and those features are highly competitive with similar laptop/PC applications. That is not what has changed most, however. What has really changed is that apps are big now. Astronomy apps are increasingly displayed on devices with screens large enough to make them truly useful.

I’ve been using smart devices and their predecessors, the PDAs (Palm Pilots, that is), for over fifteen years, but it has taken this transition to larger displays to make them really important to me for use in our avocation. Sure, it was fun beaming Palm Pilot observing lists back and forth with my friend Tom Wideman on the 2001 Texas Star Party observing field, but PDA astronomy was really just fun. A Palm was not indispensible to me as a laptop had become.

That didn’t change till just the other day. It began while I was packing for the Peach State Star Gaze. I was finishing loading Miss Van Pelt, my Toyota 4Runner, when my iPhone 4s rang. I fished it out of my pocket to answer while juggling an equipment case in my other hand, fumbled, and dropped the phone to the concrete floor of the carport. Uh-oh.

Double uh-oh, actually, since the phone was not in a case. I’d always kept it in an Otterbox, but when that case wore out a year ago, I hadn’t been able to find a replacement one for my “obsolete” phone locally. In hindsight I should have ordered one off the Internet, but you know what they say about that. I picked up the phone expecting to see a cracked screen, but didn’t. “Huh. Guess the little sucker is tougher than I thought.”

Cut to the Deerlick Astronomy Village a day or two later. Phone service was spotty, but I was able to get wi-fi, and thought I’d have a look at the weather predictions for Friday night. Reached in my pocket and grabbed the phone. Felt kinda funny. Pulled it out and examined it. Yes, the screen was fine, but the phone’s back was a mass of cracks. It’s made of a glass-like composite of some sort similar to the screen, and looked like it would soon be falling to pieces and cutting a hole in my leg if I put it back in my pocket.

It was clear I needed a new phone. The question was which? I’ve been impressed by the Android Phones, particularly the Samsung Galaxy, but my inclination was to stick with the iPhone, which I’ve been using for years. I was keeping an open mind, though; I’d look at the Galaxy in the store, the ATT store, and maybe some others—LGs in particular. Heck, I’d even consider a Galaxy Note.

A Galaxy Note? That enormous mashup of smart phone and tablet? Yep. I knew the reason why I wasn’t using my smart phone more for astronomy: the screen. Wasn’t just my aging eyes, either. The minuscule display of the 4s wasn’t large enough to make star charting apps very practical for use at the scope even for somebody with 20-20 peepers. I wanted big, and I believed that meant the iPhone 6s Plus or the slightly larger Galaxy Note.

That’s what I thought until I walked into the store, marched up to the counter, and told the nice and helpful AT&T guys (alas, that cute Lily from the TV commercials was nowhere in sight) I was thinking about was the 6s Plus. They said they could do that, but that if I, like most dudes, carried my phone in a pocket of my jeans, I really ought to try pocketing a 6s Plus before settling on one. I picked one up and tried to stick it in my pocket experimentally. No way; just much too big to carry that way. I don’t like belt cases and am too old-fashioned to start carrying a men’s’ shoulder bag, so the Plus and the Note were clearly out.

I was disappointed, and the AT&T salespeople could see that. They said they had a way to assuage my disappointment, though. They offered me a good compromise. An excellent deal on an iPhone 6s (no Plus) with 64 gigs AND an Asus 7-inch tablet with Wi-Fi plus cell-tower capability. The 6s is not as big as a plus, but was much bigger than my 4s, and the tablet was even bigger than the 6s Plus. I was sold.

Denouement? The phone is great. It is large enough that I can do many things, including many astronomy things, on it happily. But it is the tablet that has rung my chimes. The Android operating system’s way of doing things was not that difficult for me to learn. It’s different from iOS, but not that different, and I was soon looking at FaceBook and downloading my first Android app from the Google Play Store, SkySafari Plus.

There is no doubt SkySafari is and will likely remain the premier planetarium program for smart devices for the foreseeable future. It was out of the gate early, and its developers have continued to improve it steadily. Newcomers like the Bisques’ TheSky for iOS (specifically designed for the iPad) may gain ground as they mature, but for now SkySafari is it. I just didn’t realize how it it is till I used the program on the 7-inch Tablet.

In the past. I’d used the basic version of the app on my 4s and my old iPod Touch occasionally. Usually as an aid to identifying stars in the gloaming. But use it to find objects or run a telescope? Nope. As above, just too small. That was obviously going to be different on the tablet. That in mind, I downloaded the middle version of the app, SkySafari 4 Plus. Its extremely reasonable price, $14.99, meant that if I didn’t use it that much, even on the tablet, I wouldn’t be out that much moola. With 2.6-million deep sky objects and 31,000 deep sky objects, it was at least obvious Plus would be way more powerful than the basic edition.

As you know if you are a faithful reader, when I’ve done visual observing lately my tendency has been “simplify, simplify, simplify,” beginning with my switch to a 10-inch Zhumell Dobsonian, Zelda, from my truss scope, Old Betsy. I even took it further for a short while, going back to printed star atlases for a night or two. Which just reminded me how much I hate print star atlases. Hard for me to read under a dim red light, hard to find stuff, and wonderful for collecting dew. Still, I didn’t want to drag a freaking 17-inch Alienware laptop out for a half hour jaunt across the backyard sky. Maybe there was a middleground now…

I had that tablet loaded up with what was an attractive and legible and detailed planetarium program. Would it work for my visual observing? Yes it would. One night with the 10-inch and the star clusters of Cassiopeia showed that.

What was it like using the tablet and SkySafari? It was sorta like using my old print fave, Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. But better. Mucho better. I could zoom in as much as I needed. Search for objects easily. Get information about what I was searching for with a touch and a swipe. Finding DSOs with the scope? The fact that I could put a Telrad display on the screen made that duck soup. How was the display dark adaptation-wise? In night vision red it was just right for the backyard. I might want a red film filter over the screen at a dark site, though. We’ll see.

Will I be ditching my laptop anytime soon, though? Probably not. Oh, I might if I could but I can’t yet, and likely neither will you. Unless you opt for a Windows capable tablet you are stuck for a couple of reasons. There is no way to control a DSLR or CCD with a tablet or phone without having a laptop in the mix, not yet, not that I am aware of. I have little doubt that will happen, but not yet. Also, as you know, I am a big fan user of planning programs for astronomy. While there are a couple of rudimentary apps of this type for smart devices, there’s no Deep Sky Planner or SkyTools, not yet. I’m sure there eventually will be, however, and am frankly astonished that a powerful one hasn’t appeared yet.

To put it mildly, I was sold on the efficacy of the new larger screen devices for actual field use in astronomy, and began installing old and new apps on both the 6s and the tablet. What do I have installed and what am I using most? Here’s the first batch…

SkyWeek Plus

As above, SkySafari is on the top of the heap when it comes to planetarium programs for phones and tablets. It even has some (fairly rudimentary) list making tools. It is beautiful and it is detailed. If you don’t want to settle for the couple of million stars and thirty thousand DSOs of Plus, you can up the ante with the Pro version ($39.95), which boasts 27 million stars and over a million faint fuzzies. Believe me, this thing gives up nothing to PC planetariums.

One thing that gave me pause when I was preparing to buy the Android version was that I’d heard its performance is not quite as good on that platform as on iOS. It is even stated on the maker’s (Curriculum Simulations) website that the app may run slower on Android devices than on iOS ones. That may be, but the program runs incredibly well on my humble Asus tablet; I don’t notice any performance difference between Plus on my Android widget and the basic version on the iPhone.

One other concern some may have regarding the Android version is that you cannot utilize Sky-Fi, the Wi-Fi system sold by Curriculum Simulations for wireless control of scopes with SkySafari. Unless you “root” (jail-break) your phone, you are out of luck. Android devices do not normally support ad-hoc Wi-Fi networks. The only other out is carrying a Wi-Fi router to the observing field with you, and who wants to do that?

Luckily there is a non-Wi-Fi alternative for wireless scope control, the company’s new SkyBT, which allows you to wirelessly control the scope via Bluetooth widget. Not only does it, I understand, work well and reliably, it is slightly cheaper than the SkyFi system at $99.95 versus $109.95. I haven’t thought much about doing this yet, since I am going through an astrophotography phase and need a laptop in the field, but I might someday.


Everybody needs to keep up on what’s going on with the sky week-in, week-out. You can do that with various websites, but why not make it easy on yourself? This little app from Sky & Telescope is updated weekly and keeps you apprised of and alerted to sky happenings (the Plus version can sync with your device’s calendar). Not only do you get a listing of interesting events, clicking on them will bring up a little built-in planetarium app (based on SkySafari). Yes, if you are a SkySafari user the basic version of SkyWeek is built-in to that app, but I find it handy to have the standalone version, too. It’s certainly cheap enough to allow even stingy me to do that. The basic SkyWeek is free and the Plus variant is a mere $2.99 (iOS or Android).

Accuweather Astronomy

Accuweather page
Even before I got my large-screen smart thingies, I did use my devices in astronomy rather frequently for one thing, checking the weather, the weather as it pertains to observing. Will it be cloudy or clear? How about the transparency? Seeing? Normally I use the apps below for that, but I’ve recently found a rather nice webpage on the Accuweather site, “Accuweather Astronomy.” It provide stuff like Moon phase and rise/set info, but also, most interestingly, boils down the weather forecast for your current location into “poor/fair/good/very good/excellent for stargazing.” I find its predictions to be quite accurate much of the time.

Scope Nights

A step up from Accuweather is a nice app that also condenses the forecast into “good/bad for observing,” but in a somewhat easier to use fashion. No messing with your browser, just click an icon. I like ScopeNights and have been  using it since someone turned me onto it at a star party a couple of years ago. Only thing I don’t like about it? It is iOS only. How accurate is it? As accurate as anything else. Like every other weather app, whether for astronomy or not, there are misses as well as hits.

Clear Sky Droid and MyCSC

These apps display the famous astronomy conditions predictor Clear Sky Charts (nee Clear Sky Clock). Both are much the same in that you can save your favorite sites and get the CSC graphic display of predicted conditions for them for the night. MyCSC is a little prettier than Clear Sky Droid, but in the end they do exactly the same thing, display that CSC bar graph. I prefer Clear Sky Droid, but only because of the larger display of my tablet. Is CSC more accurate for astronomy than other weather sources? Sometimes  yes, sometimes no. Like ScopeNights and Accuweather, there are times when it is on the money and other times when it is dismally wrong, but that is the nature of weather prognostication.

There is one other weather app (for Android) that I like and which seems to have a lot of promise, Astro Panel, which uses the 7Timer service for weather data and tailors that to astronomy. When it works. Which is seldom. I usually only get “Sorry, problem connecting to 7timer service.” I’m hoping this one will get fixed out one of these days.

What else? I have some more interesting apps lined up for you, including one that, if I get it working might be very, very interesting, Universe2Go. Let us leave all that for next week or possibly the week after, though. Right now, I hope to get out and do something I haven’t done in months, actually observe the deep sky from my club dark site and report on that.

Addendum:  Saying Goodbye to Betsy…

If you are a Facebook friend of mine, this won't surprise you because you probably noticed I recently posted that I was selling my time-honored 12-inch truss tube Dobsonian, Old Betsy. Why in the name of all that is holy would I do something like that? If there’s any telescope that I’ve been identified with over the years other than C8s, it has been that stalwart old Newtonian.

The basic reason was simple. She just wasn’t being used. The last time the scope cruised the night sky was at the 2014 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and after my acquisition of a 10-inch solid tube Dob, Zelda, the chances of me getting Bets under the stars anytime soon seemed remote.  The 10-inch has a good mirror and is much quicker and easier to get going in the backyard. Another reason for saying “sayonara” was that I am at a time in my life when I don’t want to feel encumbered, tied down by things, big things, I don’t need and don’t use.

So Betsy had to find a new home. While I did mention the telescope’s availability on the FB Newsfeed, I really wanted to sell her locally and never got as far as posting an ad on AstroMart. Frankly, I let her go for a very modest sum, but that made sense. I would not have dared to try to ship her. She’d have to be “pickup only,” or I might, I thought, deliver her within a reasonable 300 – 350-mile radius. While I probably could have gotten some bites on that, I would have had to spend gas money on a delivery, and at the extreme end of that range I’d probably have wanted to stay the night in a motel before returning home.

So, I let her go for less than I maybe should have, but I believe she has gone to someone who will use and respect her, and I certainly got my money out of her over two decades of use and fun. I am so glad that the last time I used her was to revisit and complete the observing list I used with Betsy on her first star party outing in ‘94. I think that will provide a little closure for me.

Was it easy to let go? No. I set her up in the backyard to demonstrate for the buyers, a young couple, and while waiting for them to arrive I turned Betsy to M15. The image in my 8mm Ethos was crazy-good and all the memories of all the nights Bets and I spent under the stars together came flooding back. I began to doubt whether I could let her leave. In the end, good sense prevailed. I have my memories, and Bets is better off being used and cared for.

That is not the end of my selling either. If you know anyone who wants a high-toned standard C8, an RV-6, or a StarBlast, send them my way. For the reasons above, these scopes simply must go to new homes as well. But don’t be afraid. I am not shutting down my observing—not hardly. While a bunch of scopes will go before I am done, Betsy at least has been replaced by a new one that I think I will use a lot. What is that? All shall be revealed over the next couple of Sundays, friends.

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