Sunday, March 27, 2016


Issue #486: The Last Gasp of the Go-to Wars...

Rod as a Junior OP...
Yeah, I know this was supposed to be another installment in my refractors series, but I got to thinking about something else, and ‘round here thinking about something inevitably leads to writing about it. 

Perhaps in part because of the lousy weather we’ve had of late, I’ve been practicing my other passion, ham radio, a lot more than I have in recent times. That led to me thinking about the Morse Code War that nearly ended amateur radio in the 1980s-1990s. That started me ruminating on how similar amateur astronomy’s go-to war is and how potentially damaging to my other avocation.

Let me tell you a story… Daddy, an engineer and a real old timer of a ham radio operator, an “OT” in our parlance, W4SLJ (now a Silent Key), was adamantly  in favor of the code requirement for licensing. He made sure I was a good CW (code, that is) op, too, pushing me to go for the gold of the Amateur Extra Class license in the days when it took quite a bit of effort and study, and, most of all, code proficiency to earn that "ticket."

Back when I got my Extra, you had to be able to copy 20 words per minute, a not inconsequential speed at which to “read the mail.” Especially if you had to copy it with a pencil and paper under the steely-eyed gaze of the FCC Radio Examiner. 20 w.p.m is about the point where you have to stop hearing letters and begin hearing words.

Luckily, I had no problem with that 20 w.p.m. hurdle,since I apparently had a built-in affinity for the code—sometimes I think talent for Morse code is akin to a talent for music. Some folks have got it and some folks ain’t. Anyhow, while I liked CW a lot and kept using it after I got the Extra ticket, it took me a long time to figure out why my dad and other older hams—many of them the the most prominent in the hobby—were so fixated on Morse code.

After all, as an important communications mode Morse wasn’t just dying by the late 1960s, it was nearly dead except as a means of communicating reliably with ships at sea. Even that was going. Teletype, and, soon, satellite and digital modes, were coming in and would shortly make CW laughably irrelevant as anything other than a backup/emergency mode or maybe a  backup of a backup.

I did finally figure out to my satisfaction why so many Old Timers, especially, were so insistent about testing new hams’ ability to copy Morse code despite its lack of relevance in modern communications. For many hams, CW was a "gate keeper" for the hobby. It kept the riff-raff out or kept 'em confined to the ranks (and minimal band space) of the Technician Class license (which only required 5 words per minute of code proficiency). 

The sad thing about that was that many Tech-class hams were competent technically and would have made good additions to the general amateur ranks. Unfortunately, more than a few of them of them could never get past the 13 w.p.m. requirement that was the entry to“real” ham radio with the General Class License.

My first major go-to rig...
Large numbers of these folks eventually tired of the restrictions imposed by the Technician license and dropped out of the hobby, not a few of them switching to CB radio when that craze hit in the 70s.  Hams, me included, noticed the popularity of CB. Boy did we.

And not in a good way. We, almost to a man and woman, most assuredly did not see the Chicken Banders as a potential resource. Rather than trying to bring CBers into ham radio, what did we do? We (to include our national organization) did everything we could to keep them out. Tens of thousands of good potential amateur radio recruits were lost as the seventies ran out and computers soon began to attract technology crazy youngsters more than radio.

Ham radio became a troubled pursuit with a graying profile that still affects it today. Luckily, though, hams led by a strong national organization, the American Radio Relay League (I wish amateur astronomy had a national organization a little more willing to assert itself), finally came to realize the day of the code was over, and that if we were to bring in new blood the Morse code requirement had to go and go quickly. And it was by now obvious that if we didn't get a transfusion of that new blood, we were done. The FCC agreed, the Morse code requirement for licensing was dropped, and amateur radio began to recover.

Post-code, amateur radio went from being a graying hobby on its deathbed, to one that shortly regained a surprising degree of vitality. Ham numbers are now higher than they’ve ever been, and the youngsters are beginning to trickle back in. The amateur radio population is undoubtedly much higher than the amateur astronomer population, though, since you don’t need a license to practice amateur astronomy, it’s more difficult to determine how many astronomers there are. 

Anyhow, what fixed ham radio was us hams waking up to the frightening fact that amateur radio was going away. It also took the leadership of the ARRL to do something about it with the government (though ironically the ARRL had for many years been going in the opposite direction). But we are good now. We in amateur radio are good, anyway.

“Well, Rod, that’s a nice story and all, and I’m glad it had a happy ending for you and your ham buddies, but what does it have to do with us amateur astronomers?” A lot, rather unfortunately. Yes, we’ve got our own Morse code dust-up in progress due to those go-to wars. I’d thought this was a dead issue, since it’s clear that rank and file amateurs have embraced the technology, but lately it seems to to be coming up again and again. Not just in the online places amateurs gather like Cloudy Nights, but at local clubs. Hearing this stuff again, especially considering the fact that our ranks are at least as gray as ham radio’s were in its darkest days, has me worried.

When did this all get started? The go-to wars have been with us almost since the day computerized telescope technology was released in practical, affordable form. Since about 1992, that is, when Meade’s amazing LX-200 hit the streets. While it didn't look much different from Meade's previous SCTs, the LX-5 and LX-6, the LX-200 was, Meade claimed, "revolutionary."

This was one time when hyperbole-happy Meade was right. There really was an LX-200 revolution. When most amateurs got a look at what the scope could do, they were mucho impressed. Not that Meade was there first with a commercial telescope that pointed automatically at objects. That was Celestron. Unfortunately, Celestron’s go-to SCTs, the Compustars, were expensive and finicky. Meade improved the workability of the idea and got prices down to what serious amateurs could afford.

Like to hunt? Grab your water heater and hunt!
Me? I was skeptical in the beginning. Not just because I thought learning/knowing the sky was essential and central to amateur astronomy, but because I was skeptical about the accuracy and reliability of this new technology. Any concerns I had about the efficacy of go-to were pretty much put to rest in late ’92, however. A fellow club member had invested his entire IRS refund in a 10-inch LX-200, and brought it out to the club dark site one evening when I was out there cruising along with my 6-inch Dobbie. “Ha,” thought I. "Danged thing will never work. Get a horse!”

How wrong I was. My pal invited me to give his new scope a spin. Punched in M13. There it was looking beautiful in the eyepiece. M5? Yep. M8, M20, M92, and all the rest of the summer wonders fell to the LX-200 as quickly as I could mash the hand control buttons. The reliability? I was soon reassured about that as well. The original LX200 was not perfect in that regard, but, still, it was pretty darned solid.

The left only the question of whether real amateur astronomers use go-to. That, I wasn't so sure about. And I must admit that early on, when the subject came up at club meetings (not much Internet astronomy in the early 1990s), I tended to side with the curmudgeons who were condemning those damned “coffee grinder” scopes to perdition even as they were springing up like weeds on our observing fields. You had to know the sky to be an amateur astronomer. Period.

That’s what I thought till I stopped and really thought about it. While I believed, and still believe, that knowing the sky is good for a number of reasons—and especially because of the feeling of accomplishment it brings—I don’t think it is what makes you an amateur astronomer. Knowing something about the objects you observe and knowing how to observe them is probably more important than knowing how to find them with a finder and star chart. Most of all, for me, what makes you an amateur astronomer is a love of the night sky, no matter how you show that love.

What really won me over to go-to, though, was two things. First, plenty of people enter astronomy, are enthusiastic about astronomy for a while, and then drop out of astronomy. Why? Once they get past the Moon, bright planets, and a bright deep sky object or two, they run out of interesting things to view. Go-to changes all that. It’s all well and good to say they should just learn to use a star chart and that soon they’ll be seeing plenty of good stuff if they do, but it’s not always that simple.

Most people want a little more return on their investment of time and money than being told, “Well, stick with it for a couple of years and you’ll eventually be able to see something.” Remember, too, that even for veteran star hoppers light pollution can be a killer. There is actually plenty to be seen from the average light-polluted suburban yard, but finding it can be very difficult. There just are not enough “guide stars” to make star hopping to dimmer objects practical. And in the beginning it is vital new astronomers get into the backyard and observe as often as possible to keep their enthusiasm up.

Yes, knowing the stars and constellations can be a good thing, but guess what? If someone stays with the hobby, they will learn the sky, go-to scope or no. It just comes naturally after you’ve been in our avocation for a while. The beautiful thing about go-to is that Joe and Jane Novice get to see cool stuff while they are learning.

I even deforked my Ultima 8 and put it on a go-to GEM!
One other thing I hear from the curmudgeon crowd?  “What they gonna do when that fancy go-to breaks down, huh?” That is really not much of a reason not to go go-to. Like any new technology, go-to technology has gotten simpler electronics-wise as the years have passed. That is good for the manufacturers since it makes the scopes cheaper to produce, and it is good for us since it tends to make them more reliable. Anything can break down, of course, but that’s not a reason to forego it. Your TV is just as likely to malfunction as today’s go-to mounts and telescopes, so what are you gonna do? Give up TV? You think you’re gonna go back to listening to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio?

The other thing that convinced me go-to is a good thing was the way the blasé faces of the teenagers at public outreach sessions lit up at the sight of those computerized hand controls. And really lit up at a telescope hooked to a laptop running Stellarium. And really, really lit up at one of our members sending her scope to targets wirelessly with a cell phone. Kids like computers and phones, and if that is a hook to get them into astronomy, where they will find that computers are just the tip of the iceberg coolness-wise, so be it.

Should I worry that these younguns are not being exposed to the real amateur astronomy? The amateur astronomy of Arthur Norton and Patrick Moore? No. The amateur astronomy of go-to and computers is the real amateur astronomy now. Astronomy has changed, just as the amateur radio of Hiram Percy Maxim has changed. The important thing is that there is still an amateur astronomy and an amateur radio. They are still around only because they have been able to change with the culture. Maybe grudgingly, but they have changed.

Yes, even staid old amateur astronomy has changed. I don’t know why I’m worried about the last sputtering debate about go-to. The go-to wars are really over. Amateurs have voted with the their wallets. Go-to is here to stay. Don’t like it? Don’t use it. But don’t necessarily condemn it till you do some thinking about it.  If you like hunting, by all means hunt. But let’s stay focused on product, the enjoyment of the sky, rather than process, the type of tool you use to reach night sky nirvana.

It's rare that I agree with 100% of any blog on any subject. But in this case I have to say, Uncle Rod, you've nailed it. Completely agree 100%.

-stan in Brooklyn
Very thought provoking and very much on target! Thanks
Nice comparison, Rod.

There is always something for the older heads in a hobby to rally around. Back in the late 70's when I first joined an astronomy club (the KAO), the fight was between the cat users (including me with my new orange C8) and the older reflector/refractor crowd - they truly thought that the cats were ruining the hobby. It's always something, I suppose.

Well, I still have my cat scopes (now with a goto mount), and also have my general ham license - I never could learn the code as a boy, so dropped that hobby (except for being a SWL) until they finally dropped the code requirement. Now that the pressure is off, I am finally starting to learn CW, and I think you are right that the goto newbees will finally learn star hopping - for fun, not necessity!

QSL? 73! de K0NGO

I got to know the sky as a teenager, and observed (with more or less grief) comets, variable stars, asteroids, and every other non-stationary astronomical object you can think of. Messiers and NGCs are sitting ducks, but stuff that moves or looks like an ordinary star are just PITAs. Go-to scopes (or those old-time setting circles) mean you can "do astronomy" productively instead of wasting dark hours and photon-collecting time. For imaging, go-to means you can locate faint dark nebulae and other not-visible-in-an-eyepiece objects with speed and certainty. Real astronomers want to spend time observing, not hunting for stuff.
I'm an artist, not an astronomer, I like to look. I like go to especially since from my back yard about 45 miles north of Atlanta, it's difficult to find a constellation like Cancer naked eyed. It just makes my back yard a viable observing site.
PS, UGA is launching a cubesat and is looking for HAMs to talk to it, combines your two favorite things.

Thanks again for another fine read this Sunday afternoon. I'll admit that I was one of those go-to skeptics for years. In fact, I still don't own a go-to scope. However, it's because I really do enjoy the challenge of finding DSOs, and I also enjoy what I find along the way. I entered the hobby 40 years ago, and I had no choice but to learn to star hop. Can I honestly say I'd do it all over? As much as I'd like to say 'yes', I can only say 'maybe'. I've also seen the value of the time people can now focus on the actual targets, and that has value too.

The battleground now seems to be between imagers and visual observers. As for me, I'm purely visual, but I do admit that the imagers see more than I do. That's ok. There's room for both of us.

Happy Easter!
John O'Hara
Oil City, PA

Excellent blog.

I think that there is one more element to the discussion that you hit upon with Ham Radio but ignored for astronomy. You mentioned that some folks simply don't have the talent for 13 wpm code. I think that this is true. I remember some guys in the Navy radioman's school I once attended who washed out with the code. It seems that 12wpm was a wall they could never cross(at that time code was still used to some extent in the Navy).

I also think that the same is true for star hopping. There are people who simply don't have the spatial vision needed to relate to objects in space. To expect them to star hop to objects in space is simply something that they cannot do.

The insistance of getting a Dob and star hopping drives these folks away from our hobby. That is why I always tell beginners to get a pair of binoculars and a copy of turn left at orion and give it a good try.

If after several months they can find their way around the sky and like finding stuff then recommend a big DOB, if they are fustrated and ready to quit or simply hate star hopping, a 5/6SE, 127/130 SLT, etc. are good starting scopes.

BTW, before the goto wars there was the setting circle conflict... Burnham even mentions his disdain of folks using setting circles in his handbook.
I used to have a 12.5" Portaball, and I could star hop to hundreds of interesting targets. Once I moved to Southern California, I got out of the hobby. It seemed pointless.

Now, with the availability of cost effective roboscopes and video astronomy, I can start to enjoy observing again. And isn't that the point?
Good article, new technology will generally bring resistance. It seems to be a human nature reaction, probably a fear reaction akin to moving - "new" brings insecurity or maybe jealosy, "if I had to work hard everyone else should". Goto mounts have brought me back to a hobby started in 1964 with a 3" tasco, which I still have. Astronomy was always a start and stop hobby taking a backseat to work, family, and the various sirien songs of photography, travel, sking, hiking, and the inexplicable urge to sleep.
Love your blog and thank you for your service to the hobby and vocation of Astronomy.

Best Regards,
Ed in El Paso.
Yep, right on city. I use goto exclusively, but every time out I learn a little bit more of the sky, and I can pick out dozens of stars and constellations. Now, on to the next battle in amateur astronomy: real-time video vs. the eyepiece. Probably being waged by the same people who fought against the "fuddy duddy" starhoppers, and now they're on the side of "real amateurs don't use video".
I think every amateur astronomer, old or ne, should read this, to understand the (recent) history of our hobby and what the different points of view are.

I was against go-to for a while, but reading this now, after having had a go-to for 6 years and enjoying the sky more though not always knowing where to point it, I understand the why of that last point… I wasn’t observing often enough (as it was hard to find things) so I never actually learned the sky, and I have to learn it now—after 30+ years in the hobby! Eek!

Pierre in Montréal
Well said.

I am one of the go-to young'uns (well, not that young anymore). Without go-to I would not have stayed in the hobby. Also, the prettiest objects for me I would be unable to see without a really big scope (that I cannot afford). So my only chance is to let my go-to take happy snaps of them.

In fact, for many years, I was only an amateur astronomer because I could keep reading your blogs. Does it matter how I got hooked, or why I am still here - no. What matters are that I am still here.

I Have a CPC-1100, plenty go to there! But i think ill hang on to my telrads, since they work real well on my Dobs! A S&T pocket sky atlas and a telrad will get you there every time! Why its so hard for some to imagine that 4 degree circle in the sky is beyond me!
It's not hard to imagine, Mike, it can just be hard to do wheen that 4-degree circle is against the typical suburban sky and contains precious few stars. :-)
Although I think GOTO is essential on 24-inch and larger telescopes (for visual use), I’ve never owned a telescope that had either GOTO or tracking. I absolutely love star hopping, it’s at least 50% of the pleasure I derive from visual astronomy, and I am proud of this skill I acquired through many nights of patience and perseverance. As I age I find that the pattern and brightness recognition skills required to read a chart and then compare to its telescopic appearance is terrific exercise for my brain - much like other people might do crosswords. I would encourage newcomers to at least give star hopping a fair chance. The sights you see on the way to what you are searching for! If you don’t like it, there’s always GOTO.

Mark Bratton
Rod, I'm up there and somewhat beyond you in age and so was tickled by your inclusion of listening to "Fibber Mcgee and Molly". I, too, struggled with simple star charts and those practically useless setting circles on my "Palomar Junior" scope (I believe that the pointers were actually the pointed ends of nails!). Great article. Thanks.
Thanks Rod,
Reminds me of the saying in the backpacking community: Hike your own hike. Don't get caught up in the styles and preferences of other people. If you want to hike 20 miles a day with a 10 pound pack, then do that. If you want to meander along and take pictures with your DSLR, do that. There is no right or wrong way to do it, and if you try to argue over the "right" way, or worse still, try to hike someone else's way that you dislike, you have made a grave mistake.
Well said, sir! You nailed it!

I have been looking through telescopes of my making for 45 years (40 with several 6" reflectors) and counting. While I'm as old school as they get about 4 years ago I finished a 12.5" reflector and 2 years after that a 17.5"(both Dobs). I never had any electronic aid, star hopping was the highway of choice to deep sky objects. Not that I didn't admire some of the great equipment with all the bells a whistles but I was content to star hop to my destinations. The problems began with the 17.5. After I got done drooling over the looks of all the show objects I began to go much deeper to very dim and distant objects. Sometimes I found them easily, sometime with difficulty and sometimes not at all. On some nights I was spending more time looking for objects that observing them. DSC's had been on my "someday list" for a while but nothing really excited me until I found the Nexus DSC, it had a real keypad, something my old school, no smartphone brain could handle. In short order I had one install on my 17.5 and have never looked back, I still have to "push to" but it works great. Some nights I don't turn it on but when I want to go deep and distant it's on and used. I have begun my 7th decade on this rock, the nights seem colder and my patience thinner, skipping the star hop has allowed me to see many more of the thousands that the 17.5 can reach. I have never enjoyed observing any more than I do right now.

Jim-Central Wisconsin
This argument is why I dropped out of my local club. I am only interested in AP but there is a vocal contingency in the club who deride and chide anyone who isn't a hard core visual type. This is also why I avoid star parties and generally just go solo.
John, that's really too bad. I remember the first trip to my club's dark sky site. I setup my 10" Meade Cat next to the owner of a push to Dob. I had never met this fellow club member. My first interaction with him was to ask if he knew where a certain star was in the sky for goto alignment (I didn't know where it was, knew he was experienced, and figured he could help). His exact response was, "Nope, I don't have to know star names to use my scope." The guy set-up next to him started to laugh out loud.

I then was told my telescope had a nickname, did I know it? I said, "No" and was told it was an ashtray, because you could set it on the ground, point it straight up, lock it in declination, and flick cigarette and cigar ash all over the corrector lens because "that's all it's good for." More snickering from the other guy.

Wow, I thought... These are my fellow club members? I mean, I didn't even know these guys and was just seeking some help as a newbie. Made for an uncomfortable observing session and left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn't talk to the 2 members for many months and avoided them at club meetings and events.

I, too, withdrew quite a bit and found 2 guys who accepted me for who I was (someone who loves the night sky) and who loves to observe with the scope I picked out and own.

I hope you get to some star parties some day - I know there are plenty of people (as evidenced by this comments section and this blog) who'd love to spend some time with you, see what you're interested in, see your setup, and share your love of the night sky.

Just wanted to add to the chorus of appreciative fans of this column. It was well-said and needed to be said. Thanks.
Without Go-to's, urban/suburban observing would be dead.
With video astronomy, urban/suburban "observing" will see a rebound

But.... this skysense stuff just seems like cheating to me.

Until I come up with enough scratch...

great piece
Great write up. I also grew up with a father that was a ham - now a silent key. He taught me the importance of DIY and making things with what you have on hand. He also nurtured my interest in astronomy when I wanted that 3 inch reflector back in the sixties. I have to ask - that radio in the pic of you as a kid - it looks like a BC-348?

Good eye, Carl...those were the days of surplus...and those days even lasted into my early days as a ham.
BC348...good lord, and here i was embarassed by the old National NC183 in my garage that type they used on the Kon Tiki Expedition.

Nevertheless, all sensitivity and selectivity aside, heck of a good job describing the pursuit of amateur radio and astronomy.

All those nights hanging back over the static a signal would peep in and magic would happen. Staring up through my little refractor in times of a darker universe a sense of awe and wonder would fill me.

No different than the young of today. How they go about it is irrelevant. Sharing the same space and time and knowing we are lucky to be there together in our appreciation of it is the end game.

Their children will have their own way of getting there too.

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