Sunday, February 28, 2016


Issue #482: Pensacon 2016: When is a Con a Comic Con?

Not often these days, not often at all. An example is a nice local event in Biloxi, Mississippi that I've attended for  years and used to think of as a comic-con, “CoastCon.” Last year when Dorothy and I were there, I found exactly seven comics for sale in the dealer room. I don’t mean seven long-boxes of comics, I mean seven freaking comics. Panels on comics? None. Comics creators among the guests? Zero.

I know that this is in part due to the consolidation that’s been going on for quite a long time now, at least twenty years. There used to be comic cons, and SF cons, and gaming cons, and Trek cons. Now there are just cons, which supposedly integrate all those things and more. In truth however, today cons tend to mostly concentrate on what the organizers think is the current big interest, be it gaming or steam-punk, or anime. Cons are often big business now. Even the original comic con, San Diego, has somewhat pushed comics to the side in favor of the money-powered glitz of movies and TV.

And I am OK with those things. I am good with attending a Doctor Who or Star Wars panel. I might even buy a new set of Spock ears in the dealer room. But the focus of my genre interests is still comics. Has been since I started collecting seriously in 1966. So is it so wrong for me to want a little comics representation at the cons I attend?

Since comics are still the Big Thing for me, I’ve begun to be selective in my con attendance. Visiting the CoastCon website recently, I noted the March event this year will, much as last year, give the short shrift to comics. No dealers. No comics oriented guests. Oh, well, 'bout what I expected. Bopped over to the Mobicon (Mobile) website. Looked better. Couple of dealers at least. But that event won’t take place till May. What about this new one over in Pensacola, Florida I’d been hearing about, Pensacon?

Though it’s only in its third year, I’d been told Pensacon was beginning to eclipse our other two local events and might even be gaining on the New Orleans Con. At least one of my local shops, 99-issues, planned to be on the dealer floor, and the folks there had nothing but good to say about the event. So, I checked out the con’s website. Dang. At least six comics dealers and, maybe even better, substantial industry presence on the guest roster. Several people I wanted to see, culminating in Neal Adams on Saturday. Well, if Neal was going to be there, so was I. I bought tickets online and began making strategic plans about who/what to see and what to buy.

Actually, the fun began for me on the Wednesday prior to the start of Pensacon. Not only was Wednesday, as it always is, New Comics Day, it was to be a special New Comics Day. A living legend, artist Neal Adams, would be visiting 99 Issues to give a talk, hang out, and do some signing. If you know anything about comics, you know Mr. Adams has been a giant since the 1960s. Among his many accomplishments is the revival of Batman in the early 1970s. Neal and writer Denny O’Neil took the character, which had been languishing after the campy 1966 TV series ended,  and returned him to being the Dark Knight of legend.

Mr. Adams was supposed to appear at 4 p.m., but as me and my buddies and the staff of 99 Issues waited in the front of the store in an agony of anticipation with the appointed hour approaching, we didn’t see how he’d make it on time through all the after school traffic. Nevertheless, he did, somehow, and right on the dot of the appointed hour, there was Neal and his wife to the accompaniment of numerous relieved exclamations, “THEY’RE HERE!” I like to think of myself as an educated fan who appreciates comics in a reasoned manner. But I must admit the appearance of one of my heroes pretty much reduced me to fanboy status.

What’s Neal like these days? As energetic, friendly, funny, and opinionated as ever. He is 76, but you’d darned sure never know it. He’s just finished doing a big series of covers, 28 to be exact, for DC, covers that pay homage to his earlier work. He’s also embarked on writing and penciling a major new mini-series, The Coming of the Supermen, the first issue of which came out this month. In other words, he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Along with Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko, Neal Adams is in my triumvirate of all time great artists. And while I bow to no one in my love for King Kirby’s work, he’s been gone from us for a long time.  Steranko? He did some groundbreaking comics, but left the field a long, long time ago. Neal is still around and working hard, so his body of work is ever growing. Except for one hiatus after the comics depression of the 1990s, Neal has been there with us all along across the Silver, Bronze, and Modern (Copper) Ages.

Not only was the man there, given the small crowd (most folks were still at work), he was quite accessible and I was able to spend some time shooting the breeze with him. Oh, and getting him to sign some of his work for me. I picked up a (tremendous) print of a pencil Neal did of Katie Cassidy as Black Canary from Arrow as well as an inked/colored print of his Detective Comics 49 cover, and a pencil-only version of that. I was a happy little camper when I left. Perfect way to start Con Week.

While Pensacon would run Friday – Sunday, we decided that since this was our first visit we’d just do Saturday. That would be the day Neal was speaking, and if the Con turned out not to be so hot we wouldn’t have spent overmuch money on it. If it were a good one, a really good one? Next year we might do two or three days and maybe even stay in a hotel. We’d see.

The trip east to Pensacola was uneventful and not painful at all—other than getting on the road at 8:30 a.m. While I was familiar with Pensacola’s Bay Front Center, their municipal auditorium, which would be the main Pensacon venue, and would have no trouble finding it, we wanted to get an early case the event, which was being heavily covered on Pensacola and Mobile TV stations was crowded.

At the Center, it turned out to have been a good decision to get on the road at the crack of dawn—yes, these days 8:30 is just that for me. Hordes of people in a line wrapping all the way around the parking lot. Cars everywhere. Adjacent parking lots beginning to fill up well before 9:30. We found a good lot for a reasonable price and were lucky to get it, being the next to the last car admitted before the “Sorry, full up” sign went out.

Despite having purchased tickets online, we still had to stand in line to pick up the wrist bands that would allow us entry and re-entry. The weather was pleasantly cool, though, and it wasn’t bad. We spent our time on-line observing the many cosplayers walking around. Deadpool was big, big, big for guys. For women Harley Quinn led the pack. At times I didn’t think anybody was cosplaying anybody but Wade Wilson and Dr. Harlene Quinzell. Also notable were the many food kiosks set up in the auditorium parking lot. Some pretty good ones, too. Barbeque, upscale burgers, even chimichangas for the Deadpools.  

Eventually, after about 20-minutes, we made our way to the front of the line and were on our way inside. When we walked out into the arena and were looking down at the auditorium floor, I must admit I was gobsmacked. Yeah, it had already been obvious there were a lot of people here, but that still didn’t prepare me for the hordes of dealers and all the people crowded onto that floor. OMG! Like our own DragonCon!

We initially intended to take a quick tour of the dealer floor and then scope out the other Con venues, which included the hotel across the street and two downtown movie theatres. We changed that plan when we realized that if we left the floor we might have a hard time getting back on it. In order to keep the Fire Marshall happy, the (friendly and helpful) Pensacon staffers had begun limiting access. People were not being allowed into the dealer area till other people left. We decided to stay and do detailed reconnaissance and buying till lunchtime.

What did I get? Nothing that fancy. The two items I had my eye out for, action figures of Zatanna and Scarlet Witch, were not to be found. Oh, there were tons of figures, but neither of my two somewhat esoteric picks were in anybody’s booth. I did get a bunch of comics. The highlight being an issue of Rip Hunter Time Master. It is so cool that Silver Age hero Rip has a TV show now (Legends of Tomorrow), and I intend to pick up as many of his books as I can. I almost bought a decent condition copy of Neal Adams’ Green Arrow 85 for a great price, but got cold feet.

Now it was lunch time, and we reluctantly left the floor. Our original intention was to visit the vendors in the parking lot, but in addition to lines at every one of them, there wasn’t anywhere to sit and eat that wasn’t in the now overly bright and warm Sun. We went back inside and did one of the standard auditorium food concessions. Dorothy got a burger and I got an order of nachos, and that was sufficient and not too over-priced as such things go.

We sat and ate in the seats overlooking the floor, and when we were done I thought I’d take a tour of the artists’ area, which was located on the auditorium’s upper deck overlooking the seats. There were no tremendously big names there, but some nice and talented folks. I was thrilled to meet and talk briefly with Jen Broomall, a talented young woman who is shortly going to be doing covers for Boundless Comics’ Lady Death, one of the few independent books I still read.

Back on the dealer floor, I went in search of Hal Jordan. I’d sorta changed my mind about Green Lantern 85, you see, but, alas, it was too late. Another collector had snapped it up. Guess that will learn me. I assuaged my pain by picking up a couple of issues of the Alan Moore/Stephen Bissette run of Swamp Thing, issues I lost some years ago when a leaking air conditioner upstairs in the attic of old Chaos Manor South, destroyed a large part of my collection while we were on vacation.

How were the events, the panels? Not quite what we had expected/hoped for. Oh, they had some great people scheduled, but there were more than a few cancellations, including just about every last Star Wars-related guest (one of whom was Peter Mayhew). Rumor hath it that their talents were needed elsewhere for some special hush-hush Star Wars project. Cancellations are inevitable at any con, but we were still disappointed—couldn’t help it. There were still plenty of good guests and photo ops with some pretty impressive media figures, but I was here for comics, and the main representative of that was Mr. Adams.

Despite manning his tables, signing books and prints for days, Neal was as full of energy as ever. If he’d had the power level set to 10 when he was at 99 issues, late Saturday afternoon when he walked into the venue at the hotel across the street from the Bay Front Center, he has kicked it up to 11. It was great to hear more of those stories about Neal and the legendary Neal’s Luck, but maybe even better were his answers to the numerous questions from us, the audience. The man obviously has tremendous insight into every facet of the comics industry.

Only slight bring-down? Pensacon was purportedly, at least in part, a COMIC con. Even so, the room was not close to full for Neal’s talk. Fifty or sixty people? Maybe. I thought that was freaking crazy, but, as above, I know these cons are not really comic cons anymore. And, frankly, comics were better represented at Pensacon than at many events I’ve been to lately. Still, nice as Pensacon was, there was still that “comics are the red-headed step child” attitude that is all too common of late.

During lunch, Dorothy and I sat in our seats and listened, halfway anyway, to the announcements over the P.A. system. Some were just practical things, “So and so will begin at thus and such a time.” Others were funny, “Paging Dr. Quinzel! Paging Dr. Quinzel!” But one pissed us off: “There are six comics dealers on the floor folks, but if you need MORE SUBSTANTIAL READING MATTER, see the bookseller at blah-blah-blah.” If comics fans can’t get respect at a con, where can we get it?

Still, despite that minor annoyance and a couple of others—the Star Wars and other guest cancellations—Pensacon was a good one. I loved it and will be back next year if there is a next year. I was sorry to hear the group is having trouble with the corporation that manages the Bay Front Center. Apparently they’ve been locked out of their chosen dates for next year, with the company booking some sort of ice follies stuff instead. Pensacon is obviously very popular, however, popular enough that I think the organizers will figure something out. I hope so; it would be a shame to see the area’s most promising con died aborning.

What’s up next here? I had a tremendous outpouring of support and many kind words regarding the Messier article, and, since you demand it, I will continue with the next batch of Ms next time. Excelsior!

Nota Bene:  You can find many more pix from Pensacon on my Facebook Page...

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Issue #481: The List Part I

Birders, bird watchers, have what they call a “life list.”  That is a list of the birds they’ve seen/hope to see. We amateur astronomers have something similar, the Messier list. That’s the catalog of 110 (more or less) deep sky objects, galaxies, nebulae, and clusters, compiled by 18th Century comet hound Charles Messier from his observations of fuzzy things in his telescope’s eyepiece that he thought might masquerade as comets.

Warning comet hunters off these puzzling non-comet things was Chuck's initial goal in composing his list, anyway, but it contains some DSOs that you wouldn’t think could be mistaken for comets under any circumstances, things like M45, the Pleiades, the famous Seven Sistes. And in addition to his observations, the M-list contains some objects known historically and others found by his friends and contemporaries. Observers who came after Messier added a few more and modified a few, and what we have today is a catalog of bright and spectacular objects every amateur wants to see and should see.

I’ve written on quite a few of the Messiers here, usually in my “My Favorite Fuzzies” series, but I thought it was time to take on the whole list, to give my impression of all these objects and my advice on viewing all of them successfully. While this is sorta newbie-oriented I suppose, I know I for one have never tired of both observing and reading about these wonders. I intend to cover the entire catalog in a reasonably short time, though we are starting off in modest fashion. Here’s the first (small) batch.

M1 (The Crab)

M1 sketch with 10-inch...
When I was a wee sprout just learning to use a telescope and preparing to embark on the Messiers, I supposed the first one, the Crab Nebula, must be special. Especially bright, maybe, or at least especially good. Otherwise why would it be first on the list? You can imagine my dismay when I finally ran it down with my 4.25-inch Palomar Junior reflector from my suburban backyard. It was not overly easy for novice me to find even though there’s a good signpost to it—it’s about a degree northwest of the bright star Eta Tauri. When I had it in the eyepiece, though, and it took a while for me to convince myself I did, I was not a happy camper. M1 sure didn’t look anything like a crab, and certainly nothing like the Mount Palomar image of it I’d long admired. In fact, it was barely there at all. It was a small, smoky-gray oval of light just on the edge of perception.

Of course, as the years went on I got better telescopes and better views of Old Crabby, but this supernova remnant, what's left of a star that blew its top in 1054, is not as easy an object to see as you'd think given its Messier status. Its specs don’t look too punishing, magnitude 8.4 and 8.0’ across, but believe me in a 4-inch telescope in the backyard it can be a very dim little oval. In a six inch it is better, perhaps, but still really just a slightly brighter dim oval.

In my 10-inch Dobsonian, however, even in the backyard, things begin to change. On a good night with M1 riding high, it begins to look more like a lightning bolt or an “S” shape than just an oval. A UHC type light pollution reduction filter helps make the lightning bolt shape more obvious, but the difference with and without a filter is not overwhelming. On the best nights, I can make out that the nebula's edges are irregular and that there are darker and brighter patches scattered across its surface.

But how about those tendrils of gas, the feature that made the Earl of Rosse think M1 somewhat resembled a crab in his big scope? Forget them without dark skies and/or plenty of aperture. To have a prayer of seeing them, you will need an OIII filter. Unfortunately, that tends to dim the “body” of the crab, and you still don't get an overall effect that looks anything like the photos of this object. Under good conditions from a suburban-country transition site, I have been able to see the brightest tendril with a 24-inch Dobsonian. I was also able to see portions of it with my old 12.5-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, but only from a somewhat darker location. So, no, not easy. These days I tend to give the Crab quick looks from my backyard, and reserve serious observing for star party nights. Or I use my Mallincam Xtreme on it, which gives a better view than any amateur scope will visually.


M2 with a 5-inch MCT...
If M1 is subtle in telescopes big and small, M2 is spectacular in them. Even in a 4-inch, this big magnitude 6.6, 16’ across globular star cluster can show considerable resolution under good conditions. On the other hand, locating it can be somewhat of a pain for novice observers without goto mounts thanks to its location amid the stars of the relatively dim autumn constellation Aquarius. The best way to track down this glob is to move 4-degrees 45’ almost due north of reasonably prominent Beta Aquarii. A medium-low power eyepiece should reveal M2 without much trouble, since it is not too far down in the south, being located almost smack on the Celestial Equator.

If you are using a 4-inch or even a 6-inch scope, this star cluster might not be overly impressive at first from your backyard. Not at low power, anyway. Increase magnification, starting at about 150x, and you will eventually hit on a combination of power and field that shows the object’s potential.

In my backyard, 250x  does a good job with my 10-inch Dobsonian, but you don't need that much aperture for a good look at this one from even slightly better skies. Out at my club's (semi) dark site, M2 looks considerably better in my 5-inch refractor at 200x than it does back home with the 10 at 250 or even 300x. What’s it like? Intense core and string after string of tiny stars emanating from that. One of the most memorable things about it, however, is its (to me) blue tint.


If M13 is the king of the summer globulars in the opinion of some folks, M3 rules the spring objects. M53 over in neighboring Coma Berenices is not really much of a spectacle for backyard-bound telescopes unless you can pour on a lot of aperture. And if you are able to do that, M3 still wins the globular star cluster race handily.

What will you find in your eyepiece when you get to Messier 3? First you have to get to it, to the correct field, if you are going “manual,” which I’ve always had trouble doing with M3 for some reason. In fact, I used to refer to this object as one of my “finding demons.” Even today, if I try to approach it the way I used to, making a big equilateral triangle out of Arcturus, Rho Bootes, and M3 I am usually stymied for quite a while. You’d think it would be impossible to miss such a relatively big and brilliant thing (magnitude 6.3, 18.0' across) even in the backyard. And yet I can do just that. I’ll set and reset the scope on what I think is the proper area (you can’t depend on it being obvious in a finder from the backyard), all the while saying bad words and seeing no globular star cluster at all.

A better plan? A more reliable way to land on M3 quickly is to extend a line for about 6 degrees 45-minutes east and just slightly north of Beta Comae. One other huge tip? If your backyard sky is badly compromised, forget a Telrad or Rigel Quick Finder for anything but roughly positioning your telescope. In the average suburban back-forty, magnitude 4.26 Beta may be invisible or nearly so naked eye. It will show up easily in a 50mm finder, though.

M3 from years ago. One of my first CCD images...
What I use to good effect for finding with my non-goto 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, is the combination of a Quick Finder and a 50mm right-angle-correct-image optical finder. The QF makes it easy to get in the general vicinity of a target (I can have a hard time doing that with any finder that uses a 90-degree diagonal), and I can then look in the 50mm finder and immediately pick-out the stars shown on my atlas or on SkySafari’s display. Once I get in the proper area, I do love the comfort of the RACI finder’s diagonal.

So you are finally on M3, have bumped the magnification up to 150x or so, and are taking a good long look. What will you see? Here’s what turned up in my old NexStar 11 GPS one long ago night at the Georgia Sky View Star Party: 

In the TeleVue 22mm Panoptic at 127x, M3 is about as perfect as it ever gets. Outlying stars extend across the whole eyepiece field. All the stars are exceedingly tiny, and it appears resolved to the core. The core itself looks rather strange tonight, appearing as almost triangular. 

Sure, the skies at the GSV were darker than my backyard—if hardly perfect, the site being only 60-miles from Atlanta—but I can see the cluster almost as well on a good evening from home using the 10-inch Zhumell.

M4 (Cat’s Eye)

This big globular in Scorpius has one thing going for it and two things against it. In its favor, it is bright. Magnitude 5.9 puts it just behind M13, which shines at magnitude 5.8. Not so fast, though. M4 is also big, 36’ across, and low at a declination of -26-degrees 31’. Even from my Gulf Coast digs it is fairly far down in the southern sky at culmination. It’s also loose. This is no M13. While it’s easier to resolve stars in M4 than it is in M13 with a 4-incher, the overall impression this cluster gives is "loose." Out in the dark, you get dimmer fill-in stars that make it look better, but the general impression is “weak,” and this wouldn’t be a very good one if it weren’t for its cat’s eye aspect, which it showed off to me at the same star party where I did M3:
M4 is perfectly framed at 103x. Resolved to the core, it shows off its loose structure well. There’s a somewhat bizarre double line of stars across its center that looks a little like the iris of a cat’s eye, and is the reason for its nickname, the Cat's Eye cluster.  

M5 in another very early CCD image attempt...
I don’t believe Messier 5 has a nickname. Never heard one used for it, anyway. If it were to be given one, though, that ought to be “The King.” M5, not M13, is the best glob for Northern Hemisphere observers in my opinion. I’ve thought that for a long time. Even said so to the outrage of a few folks in an article I did long ago for the old Amateur Astronomy Magazine when it was in the hands of its creator, Tom Clark.

Why do I think this? M5 is slightly brighter than M13 at magnitude 5.7, but it is also slightly larger at 23’ in diameter. Doesn’t matter. To me it just looks much better in any telescope. For one thing, despite being given the same Shapley-Sawyer concentration class as M13, V (intermediate rich concentration), M5 always seems a bit easier for me to resolve with smaller instruments than its rival.

Anyhow, I know it looked just wonderful on the same evening I logged M5 and M3 from the heart of Georgia:

This really is the most beautiful globular in the northern sky in my opinion. Displays an obvious overall blue hue. The shape of the cluster is defined by arcing lines of stars. Core resolved, extends across the field of the TeleVue 22mm Panoptic at 127x.

So what’s next for me? This was not an amateur astronomy weekend, though the event I attended did feature a couple of talks about our sport. Dorothy and I were at our area’s biggest nerd-fest, Pensacon 2016, this past Saturday. This comics-SF-anime-gaming-Trek-scifi movie con will be the subject of the next installment here, and is why this article was a mite short. After that I will be back to the telescope game, however, and if you liked this initial batch of Ms, let me know, and I will continue the series. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016


In Starland with a 4-inch Refractor

With apologies to William Tyler Olcott, whose In Starland with a Three-inch Telescope, first published in 1909, is one of the few antique observing guides that are both charming indoors and still fun to use in the field. but our topic for today, muchachos, is not Olcott’s book (though it deserves an article) or three-inch refractors, but instead four-inch refractors, and actually one specific four-inch that has been making waves of late, the Explore Scientific AR-102 f/6.5 achromat.

I’ve written about this telescope, which we’ve had here since 2013, several times, so why revisit it? Simply because it is one of the best deals in amateur astronomy at the moment. Explore Scientific is now selling this JOC made scope for a freaking amazing $299.00. I thought this refractor was a steal when it was $500.00, but now it is just crazy. If you have even an inkling you might have a use for a telescope like this, don’t hesitate. Order one. Now. Who knows how long this nuttiness will last?

Exactly what is “a telescope like this,” though? What sort of a telescope do we have here? It is a 102mm aperture achromatic refractor with a focal length of 663mm due to its f/6.5 focal ratio. That makes it fast, especially for an achro. And indeed its prime attraction is probably its richest-field-telescope nature. That’s what I used it for at first. With a 2-inch focuser, a fairly flat field, and its unobstructed nature, this little wonder put my old RFT, an Orion StarBlast mini-Dob, to shame. I don’t hesitate to say the view of the North American Nebula, NGC 7000, I had with the AR102 at the 2013 Deep South Regional Star Gaze was one of the two best looks at that nebula I’ve ever had.

So, it’s a good RFT. But for an RFT’s low-magnification/wide-field nature to shine, you really need dark skies. Compromised skies make the eyepiece background bright at low power and you don’t see too much. Despite being a great deal, is this telescope usable from the average suburban backyard? That’s one reason we are talking about it again, to get an answer to that question. I also wanted to go into the AR’s mechanical characteristics in a little more depth.

First, let’s address the general, beginning with what’s in the box. What is in there is an amazing amount of stuff. I was impressed even when the scope was at its old higher price. In addition to the OTA, there’s a decent Vixen compatible dovetail on a set of sturdy, hinged tube rings. In addition to the Vixen dovetail on the bottom, there’s a handle-like bracket on top that makes it easy to carry and mount the refractor. This handle is slotted, so you can mount things on it. Maybe a red dot finder, maybe a piggyback scope—whatever.

Digging down, you’ll also find a rather nice 8x50 finder. It isn’t much different in quality from what we’re seeing on many import scopes today, which is to say “pretty good and a darn-sight better than the 6x30s that used to come on inexpensive rigs.” The finder optics are reasonably sharp, even with my eyes. The finder rings are the two-screws-and-a-spring-mount type, and hold adjustment OK if not spectacularly well. The base-mounting shoe is of the “Meade” type where the ring mount goes over the base instead of sliding into it. Only criticism I have of the finder is that since it is not illuminated, the rather skinny crosshairs tend to disappear.

There’s also, almost unbelievably, a nice 2-inch compression-ring style star diagonal lurking in the box. It really is nice, with carbon fiber composition sides. I wouldn’t normally expect much of a diagonal thrown into the box with a scope, but testing reveals this 99% reflectivity dielectric job is as good as any of the other 2-inch diagonals I’ve got around here, which includes some pretty pricey ones.

Also included is an aperture cap (I like its molded-in handle), an end cap for the telescope’s focuser, a cap for the scope end of the diagonal, and a 2-inch/1.25-inch adapter (a good one) for said diagonal. And that is it. There are no eyepieces, but, hey, waddayawant for your 300 dollars? You don’t get a telescope case for this price either, but the cardboard (double) box the OTA and stuff ship in is sturdy and will likely last a while.

Instructions? Well, there’s a warranty and a warranty card, but there are no instructions in the box. They really aren’t much needed. What is there to say about a rather simple OTA? The sole exception might be collimation directions, but most users will never need to collimate the scope. If you should need to collimate, or just want a set of instructions, the AR scopes are covered in Explore’s all-in-one instruction pamphlet, which can be downloaded from their website.

Let’s face it; the first thing you are going to notice when you have the AR102 out of that box is her ENORMOUS DEWSHIELD. It’s much like those JOC put on the refractors Meade shipped with their LXD55 and LXD75 telescopes some years ago. Why so large in diameter? Who knows? Aesthetically it’s not overly pleasing, but at least it doesn’t seem to impact the dew shield’s dew fighting abilities. My friend Jon had a hard time getting over the AR102’s looks despite my assertions on Cloudy Nights that “all scopes, like all cats, are gray in the dark,” but eventually the fantastic price suckered even him in. I suspect the same will be true of you. Me? I haven’t quite got to the pointing of thinking the scope looks pretty, but I at least now consider her “distinctive” rather than downright ugly.

Otherwise, the AR102 looks good, with a beautifully finished gleaming white tube set off by black trim and a black focuser, finder mount, and rings. It’s more than just good looking, however; the whole thing spells “quality.” This is a long ways from the minimalist short tube 80s, 90s, and 100s that graced the first years of the Chinese scope revolution.

Let’s examine the specifics of that quality starting at the objective end. Inside that humongous dew shield you’ll find the objective in its cell. It is well coated, and as is common these days the coating has a strong greenish tint. The lens is well coated enough to tend to disappear in normal light. The objective is held in a metal cell that is equipped with three sets of push-pull collimation screws. The objective is secured in this cell by a plastic retaining ring not unlike the corrector retaining ring on an SCT. Peering down the tube of our example doesn’t reveal any baffles, but the tube is decently blackened (similar to my C8) and apparently doesn’t need baffles since contrast is good even under my bright skies.

Swapping around to the other end, the focuser end, will leave you even more impressed. To put it simply, this is the best focuser I have ever seen on a refractor in this price range. It is a two-speed Crayford type, and reminds me a lot of the surprisingly excellent focuser on my 10-inch GSO Dobsonian, Zelda. It is smooth and even buttery in action, and I didn’t have to do any adjusting to enable it to work with my heavy TeleVue eyepieces without slipping. The knobs are aluminum, with the fine focus knob being incorporated into the right focuser knob. The only down-check is that the focuser is not rotatable, but you really only need that for imaging, and this being an achromat, only a masochist would do much picture taking with it. This focuser is a jewel.

About all that’s left to talk about on the OTA is the finder’s shoe mount. The only problem with it is its location. Due to the short length of the tube, the telescope’s tube ring assembly will prevent you from mounting the finder unless you slide the scope all the way back in the rings. That’s an annoyance, but not much of one, and won’t even be an annoyance if you leave the finder mounted all the time.

The AR102 package is cool, but it is just an OTA package. You will have to provide a mount. Luckily, the short tube and light weight (about 10-pounds) of this refractor mean you can get away with a fairly minimalist mounting. That doesn’t just save dollars; it turns the scope into a powerful grab ‘n go performer. The first time I used the AR102, it was on my VX, and it performed beautifully in that configuration, but I soon decided I wanted it on something lighter and simpler. Something easy to get into the backyard at a moment’s notice.

What sort of light and simple mounting should you seek? One of Celestron’s CG4 German equatorials would do. I’m not sure you need a German equatorial or motorized tracking, though. The wide-field nature of the AR102 means you can do without motors and polar alignments, and that whispers “point-and-shoot alt-az mount” to me. Sure, tracking is nice, but it is really only vital for high power lunar and planetary work, and this is not the scope for that anyway.

There are plenty of manual alt-az rigs on the market at the moment in every price range. Luckily I already had one I suspected would serve, SkyWatcher’s AZ-4. Slapped the scope on the mount, unscrewed and stowed the enormous pan handle that comes with the AZ-4 in the interests of good balance, and we were off to the races. My particular model of AZ-4, whose tripod is saddled with extruded aluminum legs, is not quite the Rock of Gibraltar with the AR102 onboard, but it is more than good enough and is a pleasure to carry out the door.

So you should get an AZ-4 to go with your AR102? That would be fine, but, unfortunately, SkyWatcher doesn’t seem to be selling that mount in the U.S. anymore. You can, however, get exactly the same (if more expensive) thing wearing an Orion badge in the form of their Versago II Orion used to sell an upscale configuration of the mount with tubular steel legs instead of extruded aluminum ones, but they don’t seem to offer that anymore. All in all, the Versago II is a perfectly reasonable choice.

I think there may be a better and cheaper alternative, however. Explore Scientific sells an alt-az mount for less than 200 dollars, the Twilight I, which not only has tubular steel legs on its tripod, but slow motions on the mount head, both things the Synta made AZ-4/Versago lacks. Its payload capacity is also rated slightly higher than that of the AZ-4, 18-pounds versus 15-pounds, though I’d guess they are probably nearly identical in performance. It gets better. If you buy the Twilight I as a package deal with the OTA it you’ll be paying a mere 150 for the mount.

Naturally, spending more for a top-of-the line alt-azimuth mounting will make the experience of using the 102 even better, but I believe either of these two inexpensive mounts are more than sufficient and are well-suited to the OTA. I’ve never been annoyed with the telescope on the AZ-4 and suspect I’d like the Twilight I even better.

So you’ve got the AR102 and a suitable mounting for it; what can you expect from this bargain rig of a refractor? As above, I was thrilled by its performance under dark skies. Not just looking at specific objects, but merely scanning along the summer Milky Way with a 35mm Panoptic in the diagonal. You can imagine. The question on my mind, however, given the hordes of you snapping up the AR102 at its reduced price, was how the scope would do for the average suburbanite in the backyard. While I did a little backyard sky-surfing with the telescope last year, I thought I’d best double check its efficacy under light polluted skies.

That's a big dew shield, Paw-Paw...
On our last go-round with the AR102, I’d already discovered some things about the refractor and the deep sky from my backyard. First of all, that a pedigree isn’t everything. The AR102 bested my expensive 80mm APO on DSOs, and particularly globular clusters. Just as you’d expect, the AR102’s extra inch of aperture was an insurmountable advantage. M13 and M92 looked better and showed more resolution in the 102 than in my Megrez II fluorite APO.

Perhaps more surprising? I expected my other 4-inch achromat, an f/9.8 C102 to do better on the deep sky than the AR102. Nope. Despite it throwing up an essentially perfect star test, the images of the summer deep sky objects were really no better at all in the C102 at comparable magnifications than in the AR102, which star tests well, if not as well as the longer scope.

The truth is that what makes the most difference—assuming your optics aren’t really punk—on the deep sky in the backyard is magnification. If you can get your power up enough to spread out the background sky-glow a bit and increase contrast, most DSOs will look better. So, I believed my goal this time would be to see how the scope took power—with the understanding that this time of the year with the jet stream roaring overhead there’s only so much you can expect from any instrument.

Before pumping up the power, I wanted to reacquaint myself with the facts of the matter concerning the AR102’s color. And what better way to do that than with Sirius? The star is nearly as punishing as Venus for achromatic refractors. I inserted a wide-field 16mm eyepiece and headed to the Dog Star.

How bad was it? Oh, there was no lack of the color purple, which formed a halo around the crazy-bright star, but you know what? It wasn’t as bad as I expected. In the house, looking at the specs of the scope and trying to imagine how much chromatic aberration it would show led me to exaggerate its failings in that regard. I’d be nuts to say the color around Sirius wasn’t prominent. It was, but what I saw in the eyepiece was not an ugly view at all. If the seeing had been better, it would actually have been a rather pretty view. And remember, poor seeing tends to make chromatic aberration look worse.

Onward to crescent Luna. It would have been an even more telling test if the Moon had been a little closer to first quarter and brighter, but it was bright enough. What did I see? A sharp terminator with plenty of detail at 150x. It was not quite as sharp at 200x, but I believe that was more due to the seeing than the optics. I’ve used this telescope at a few public outreach events, and there a considerably fatter and brighter Moon still looked surprisingly good.

How much color, though? I’ll be straight-up about it:  the color looks more prominent in this 4-inch f/6.5 in my opinion—somewhat anyway—than it does in my 6-inch f/8 achromat. That is not to say it is debilitating or ruins the Moon. It doesn’t. There’s purple along the limb, and as the sky darkens, the shadows along the terminator become purple-hued, but it is still pretty and detailed. Keeping your eye positioned on the optical axis reduces the purple as much as possible.

So, the Moon looks good enough. Certainly the scope is sufficient for casual lunar exploration, particularly at lower powers. I will tell you right here and now that Luna at least looks better—worlds better—in this telescope than it ever did in my old Short Tube 80mm f/5 achromat, and I had plenty of fun taking plenty of grab ‘n go peeps at the Moon with that humble instrument.

Now it was time to push the magnification. The target? First off, Rigel. While a double star is not necessarily the best test of a telescope’s optical quality, an unequal one like Beta Orionis will show how your scope takes magnification. Under good seeing, Rigel’s magnitude 6.7 companion is doable with a 3-inch. The seeing wasn’t exactly good, however, so I wasn’t quite sure I’d spot that little spark, which is some 500 times dimmer than the primary. There it was, though, easy at 150x. I raised the power to 200x just to see how the image looked—it still looked good—but I really needn’t have.

OK, now for something slightly tougher, but not crazy tough given the wavering atmosphere. How about Polaris? While Polaris is dimmer and not as overwhelming as Rigel, its companion, Polaris B, is also dimmer, about 9th magnitude. I find it tough with a 3-inch more often than not and occasionally hard with a 4-inch. Not tonight. I had to squint a little at first, but there it was at 150x in the gloaming, easy-peasy. If I haven’t mentioned it, in times of good seeing, stars looked like perfect little airy disks surrounded by rings (concentric rings; our AR102’s collimation is dead-on).

iPhone Moon with AR102
How about a little DSO action? My experiences with the deep sky on this night were similar to what I had in the summer. Objects looked just like I’d expect them to look in a 4-inch refractor. In the backyard, the sky was bright enough to prevent the scope from doing its RFT thing to good effect—the whole sword of Orion was visible at lower power, but looked awful washed out. Zooming in on M42 at 150x and 200x made the Great Nebula look easily as good as it does in my C102, and, given the light pollution, not much worse than it does in my 5-inch ED refractor. The seeing was not good enough to reveal any “extra” stars in the Trapezium, but the nebula looked fine, and I noted that M43 was almost threatening to assume its comma shape as the constellation climbed higher.

Just time enough for one more. M35 showed off its pretty cloud of stars on this less than perfect night. And not only that. By concentrating and using a 4.7 mm wide-field eyepiece, I was able to pick up at least a trace of its much dimmer and more distant companion cluster, NGC 2158 (magnitude 8.6).  I won’t say it was as easy to see as with the 5-inch or 6-inch refractors, but nevertheless it was there, if barely.

Are you on the fence? Again, if you think there’s even a remote chance of you having a use for the AR102, get off that fence and get one. It is an incredible buy and the legitimate heir to the much-loved Short Tube 80. I won’t hesitate to say this may be all the telescope some people ever need. It’s a powerful instrument for exploring the deep sky under dark skies. It’s OK for casual observation of the Moon and planets. Best of all, perhaps, it can surprise on galaxies, clusters, and nebulae from the suburban backyard. A true classic.

Sunday, February 07, 2016


Do You Like Jumbo Shrimp?

You'll need a big pocket...
Ain’t that one of them oxymorons, muchachos? Jumbo shrimp? “Shrimp” means inherently small, and small is often good. Well, it is sometimes good. But not always. I come from the Gulf Coast where peeling and eating and frying shrimp is a way of life, and you can give me the big ones, the JUMBO SHRIMP, anytime, oxymoron or not.

Yes, sometimes small can be beautiful. Take for example Roger W. Sinnott’s Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. It is small, yeah, but it’s beautiful both in execution and concept. I have or have access to almost any mainline print star atlas produced over the last fifty years, all the way from Becvar’s Skalnate Pleso to the recent (and humongous) Millennium Star Atlas,  but what do I use? When I use a print atlas these days, I use Pocket. Period. It’s small and handy and I find it satisfies my requirements well.

Like many of you who grew up in the amateur astronomy of the 1960s, my star atlas story begins with Norton’s Star Atlas. Today, looking at that old dog-eared, note-encrusted, loved to death volume, I wonder how I ever found anything with it. It only went down to magnitude 6, and while it did show the Messier objects, which was really enough for me in the beginning, it was not easy to find even them with it. Get into DSO-rich areas where there weren’t a lot of stars shown, like the Realm of the Nebulae between the “arms” of Virgo, and you were freaking lost. Not only were there few stars plotted, the scale was also small, way too small.

My humble 4.25-inch Newtonian kept turning up little fuzzballs in this area (and in Coma, too), which I presumed were galaxies, but I didn’t have a prayer of figuring out which galaxies they were with the aid of my atlas. Oh, and did I mention the Norton’s I mowed ten lawns to get one summer, the 15th Edition, still used antique Herschel designations for many of the beyond-the-Messier deep sky objects? Not that I was chasing non-Messiers in 1966, mind you.

I actually found my share of M-objects with the help of Mr. Norton, but eventually I was ready to push beyond the bounds of the Ms, and his book, much as I loved it, was outgrown. A magnitude 6 star atlas doesn't go deep enough to give it staying power with even 4-inch telescopes, which is why I discourage novices from buying the new Norton's or other mag sixers today. What would my next atlas be, then?  If you were an amateur in those seemingly benighted times, the answer was simple, Antonín Bečvář’s Skalnate Pleso Atlas of the Heavens (1948).

If I were to dig out my Skalnate Pleso (SP) and show it to you, Jane and Joe Modern Amateur, you’d find it familiar and friendly and you’d opine, “Looks a lot like Sky Atlas 2000.” It does and, like SA2000, even today it’s pretty good. Stars down to magnitude 7.75, well over a thousand DSOs, and large format 23” x 15” pages. During its life it was available in several editions including loose pages (like the SA2000 Desk/Field Editions), and a bound color version. Naturally, I chose the cheapest one and as soon as I had the pennies saved I became the proud owner of the loose-leaf white-stars-on-black-sky Skalnate Pleso.

I used SP for years, and really could have used it longer than I did save for one thing. Yes, it was plotted for Epoch 1950.0, but for someone navigating with finder scope and Telrad that didn’t make much difference. Sure, the comets I plotted with Epoch 2000 coordinates would be “off,” but I’d be searching for them at low power or with binoculars anyway, so, again, no biggie. What finally put me off Skalnate Pleso? Its black sky.

One evening in 1989, I was out with my telescope in the driveway of my then home looking for—whatever. Some fuzzy I hoped would be visible from my near-downtown digs. As I went from eyepiece to atlas, I began to realize something was wrong. I was having an awful hard time reading Skalnate Pleso. Ran inside and got Norton’s:  much better. The problem, I determined, was the black sky – white stars format. The white sky and black stars of Norton’s was easier to read with eyes that were—no doubt about it—going south slightly in advance of middle-age.

That was what prompted me to buy the atlas I still use on occasion, Wil Tirion’s Sky Atlas 2000. There’s more to SA2000 than just its year 2000 epoch. While it looks a lot like Skalnate Pleso at first glance, it’s the work of master celestial cartographer Wil Tirion and brings several improvements. Its stars go down to magnitude 8.5, and it has almost twice the deep sky objects as old SP. Best of all for my fading eyes, the SA2000 "Desk" Edition's white sky made its charts much easier to decipher. While its pages were a little smaller than those of SP, they were still large enough, 18" x 13", to make them wonderfully legible. Even with young, sharp eyes, bigger is better when trying to make out tiny DSO symbols under dim red light. 

I pressed on with SA2000 from 1989 until near the end of the 1990s. The first change I made as the 1990s ran out was a simple upgrade. My unbound Desk Edition was getting awfully ratty. The pages weren’t very dew resistant and one of the cats had sharpened his claws on several of the charts while they were damp. Finally, the binder clips I used to hold the pages together had rusted and stained some of the maps. So, I upgraded to the Deluxe Edition, which was and is not only bound, but features color pages that are a little larger and go slightly deeper.

Even as I made that change, though, time was running out for me and printed charts. I messed around with the "premium" atlases that were popular during amateur astronomy's modest boom of the 1990s. Uranometria. Herald-Bobroff. Millennium. I liked them all, but mainly as collectors' items, not for use at the telescope. For that, I had come to prefer computer charting programs running on a PC--Megastar and Deep Space 3D and, later, TheSky and Cartes du Ciel.

So, I was done with print atlases, or thought I was, until I ran across a new and seemingly modest one, Mr. Sinnott’s Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. What was that? It was a small if not really pocket-sized book, 6” x 9”, containing 80 charts which recorded nearly 30,000 stars down to magnitude 7.6 and 1500 deep sky objects. It was, in fact, a lot like my old Skalnate Pleso in depth, just squeezed down into this small spiral-bound volume. Would I use such a thing? I doubted it, but it was just so darned cute I bought a copy anyway.

Big difference...
Surprise! I found Pocket amazingly useful. Like on those sub-par nights when I had the yen to haul a telescope out to the club dark site but didn’t want to mess with a computer for a mere half-hour of sucker hole cruising. Or those after-work evenings in the backyard when I wanted to keep it simple with a Dobsonian and no computers or batteries, but still wanted to see a lot.

Pocket Sky Atlas allowed me to see a lot. The pages were extremely legible given their small size, the paper was heavy enough to resist even my dew, and it was spiral bound so it lay flat (an atlas that doesn’t lie flat, the modern Norton’s for example, belongs in the trash can). Its selection of objects was excellent. I’d guess many of us could go a lifetime without running out of fuzzies to ogle with the help of Pocket.

Was there anything I didn’t like about Pocket Sky Atlas? Not really. At first the chart layout, in strips of right ascension rather than declination, seemed strange to me, but I got used to that and even came to like it. Yes, the pages were small, but not disastrously so, and there were close-ups of the congested areas like the Realm of the Nebulae that were a help. Even though I had to squint my eyes once in a while, the atlas’ smallness brought a big benefit. While it wouldn’t go in my pocket, Pocket would go in the tackle box that served as my accessory case. I put it in there, assuring that I’d always have a capable star atlas with me even in the face of hard drive crashes.

In its own way, Pocket Sky Atlas was perfection, so I was somewhat nonplussed to hear S&T was preparing to release a new and different Pocket in a larger 8” x 11” format. Beyond the Jumbo Shrimp promised by its title, Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition, what would change? Would it be like the New and Different Marvel comics? Utterly different re-workings of the familiar to the tune of a female God of Thunder? Or would it be SLIGHTLY new and different? "The latter" it seemed from what I was told, though according to Mr. Sinnott (on the S&T webpage for “Jumbo”) there would be at least one major advance beyond resizing and fine-tuning:

For this new edition, we welcomed the chance to add more close-up charts of high-interest star fields. Along with the original four (Pleiades, Orion's Sword, Virgo Galaxy Cluster, and Large Magellanic Cloud), we now depict attractive regions in Monoceros, Cygnus, Sagittarius, and Scorpius, plus galaxy-rich fields in Ursa Major and Leo. These charts, a new preface, and a slightly reorganized text give the new book 136 pages, compared to the original 124.

While other than those new close-up charts and its larger size, there is a lot about Jumbo that is the same as in the original, it is a new book with a new look, and I was frankly surprised at just how different it looked when it arrived on my doorstep the other day. First thing was the cover. In addition to a different color scheme, it was not a (heavy cardstock) paperback like the old one; it was now a hardcover with a glossy (dew repelling) finish. That was cool, I thought, but it would not be cool if the book did not lie flat. Looking at the front, it was not clear whether it was still spiral bound, but flipping it over revealed it was, thank God.

Beautiful downtown Virgo...
Thumbing through the new Pocket, what impressed me most was not the larger size of its maps per se, but their look. How good they looked. Yes, what was on the pages was mostly the same as before but blowing it up to 8” x 11” just made the maps look better, prettier, more impressive.

How about Jumbo’s paper stock? It was the same as far as I could tell. Glossy enough to repel dew, but not so glossy as to make it difficult to write notes on pages. I write in my star atlases? You’re darned tootin’ I do. That is one of the benefits of print charts, and especially those with a white sky like Pocket and Jumbo. Not only is it convenient to be able to write notes next to objects (“darned good galaxy”) and plot things like comet orbits, the pages become your astronomical diary. When I pull out my old Norton’s these days it’s to walk down memory lane with my old notations—like the path of Comet Ikeya-Seki.

While Jumbo’s standard charts are essentially the same as before, there are those new close-up maps for packed areas. As above, these include the area of the Cone and Rosette Nebulae, the Bowl of the Big Dipper (bowlful of galaxies), Leo’s butt (or tail-area if you prefer), the rich Milky Way region around Deneb in Cygnus, the spout of Sagittarius’ teapot, and the Stinger of Scorpius.  With the larger format of Jumbo, zoomed charts are not quite as vital as they were with the original, but as the years go by and my eyeglass prescription gets ever stronger, I suspect I’ll be happy to have them.

So how is it? Under the stars? Like a telescope, the only true test of an atlas is out in the dark with a scope. The short and sweet is that if you liked the original, you will like this one. Better, actually. It’s simply easier to read, which is, naturally, its major benefit. I haven’t racked up a lot of hours with it yet, but I can tell you that its improvement in legibility is reason enough to buy Jumbo.

Annoyances? Only two. First, like the original, the galaxies in Jumbo are printed in red. Under a red light, the color almost completely disappears. Galaxies are outlined in black, however, so that really doesn’t hurt anything. Also as with the original, I wish the all-sky chart showing which constellation goes with which chart number was on the inside front cover instead of the inside back cover.

Lot of info on these pages...
Those are minor quibbles. The truth is this is an attractive and useful tool. Will it replace my computer programs? Not hardly. Not all the time, anyway, but sometimes it will. Lately I’ve been using the Android app SkySafari on my tablet. I love it. The charts it produces are beautiful and easy to read. I was amazed, however, to find that I somewhat preferred Jumbo.

Jumbo’s charts were as easy for me to decipher as the illuminated maps of SkySafari, even though I obviously couldn’t zoom in the book. The only huge advantage the Android app had, really, was its search engine. It was way easier to find an object with the app if I didn’t know its general location. On the other hand, Jumbo does not require batteries, and does not go to sleep and turn itself off.

You could call my casual shootout it a wash save for one thing. SkySarfari and other computer programs can convey a tremendous amount of detail. More detail than any book can present. But you access that detail by zooming and clicking and pinching and unpinching. At a glance, Jumbo’s charts usually conveyed more information.

How often will I use Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition? Only time will tell, but I will tell you what I think. Even though it will not fit in my accessory box, I suspect Jumbo will be going with me to every single star party and dark site rumble from here on out and that is high praise, True Believers. 

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