Saturday, December 24, 2016


Issue #523: Happy Christmas 2016...

Merry Christmas, y’all! This is gonna be a short one tonight. You see, I screwed up. Bad. I thought I had everything ready for Christmas: a nice turkey, the ingredients for my (justly) famous giblet gravy, sufficient side items, bread pudding, and the components for my insane bourbon sauce. Yes, I was feeling good. Not stressed out at all.

Until yesterday afternoon: “Oh, my God. I forgot to move the turkey from the freezer to the refrigerator!” The bird would take four days to defrost in the fridge and I only had two left. What would I do? What WOULD I do? The answer was, “You’ll get up a 2:30 in the morning and defrost it in cold water.” So that is what is gonna happen tonight, campers.

Of course, I knew there was no point in trying to go to bed early. I used to to do that in my engineer days. When I’d go on a sea trial for a cruiser, or a destroyer, or a landing ship, I’d need to get up a 2:30 or 3:00. So, I’d go to bed at 6:00 p.m. And if I did that, I’d toss and turn for hours. So, I didn’t plan on retiring till 9 or 10 or 11 or so.

But that still wouldn’t leave me much time to compose the traditional Christmas Eve blog. You won’t get a long remembrance of Christmases past (which, given my current mind-set, may be a good thing). I thought it would, however, leave me time for my traditional Christmas Eve look at the greatest Christmas ornament of all, M42.

After a couple of years of being skunked badly, tonight looked to be reasonably clear. Given my early wakeup call, I didn’t want to fuss with a big telescope, so it was my beloved SkyWatcher 3-inch f/11 refractor that got stationed in the backyard as I waited for the Hunter to get up off the horizon. Yes, early on the sky just looked great; it was a lovely blue at sundown. Surely, I’d spend the late hours of this most wonderful of nights admiring the winter jewels with my little telescope. 

Alas, ‘twas not to be. While waiting for Orion to get nice an high, I spent about half an hour in my shop, the vaunted Batcave, talking to a friend of mine on the phone. When I came out around 10:00, not only was the refractor sopping wet with dew, fog, dense fog, had moved in, and the sky was like cotton batting.

I hope you were able to see more than I was on this most numinous of evenings, but don’t worry about me. Despite being skunked astronomy-wise for the third year in a row, hope springs eternal in my heart. Someway, somehow, it will be a great Christmas and a great year despite everything. A year when your and my hopes will somehow be realized.

Son of Rumours

As I sat in the den half drowsing after I got up at 2:30 a.m. to begin defrosting that darned bird, I recalled a few things I’ve been meaning to mention to y’all…

This is sorta like a return of the old “Rumours” column in my ancient newsletter, Skywatch (you can read over ten years of back issues here if you are interested). Maybe I will do this every once in a while, when I have little items to share that don’t fit anywhere else (like the long, long-running “Strays” in QST magazine).

The first of these things is that, as I mentioned last time, Steve Tuma is discontinuing sales and support of his Deepsky software. That has turned out to be happening a little quicker than I imagined it would, with the program’s website already off the air. Steve has mentioned in his Yahoogroup that he does have a few DVD sets remaining. He also says he’s open to the idea of allowing someone to post the program’s zipped files on a server. Contact him at

Another new Celestron mount? It appears so, the CGX-L. This is apparently a replacement for the CGEM DX. It is the CGX (which replaced the CGEM) mount with a CGE Pro tripod, a heftier counterweight shaft, and an extra Aux port. I say “apparently” because as soon as someone noticed a webpage on Celestron’s site announcing the new GEM and spread the word on Cloudy Nights, the webpage and all other Celestron mentions of the L vanished from their site. CN also soon deleted all the threads about the CGX-L.

Is this going to be the replacement for the CGE Pro as well as the CGEM DX? I’m not sure. I’ve long thought Celestron would get rid of the Pro. Why should Synta continue to produce two mounts with similar capabilities, the CGE Pro and the EQ-8? I was thinking the “new” Pro would be an EQ-8 with servo motors and a NexStar hand control, but you never know.

UPDATE:  Somebody archived the CN thread and Celestron's web page about the new mount and made this video, which is rather illuminating. Given what's here, I am rather convinced that the CGX-L is the new CGE Pro. Why Celestron removed the page, and why CN deleted the threads, I haven't a clue.  

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Issue #522: Almost There, Almost There…

After last week’s slightly controversial topic, we’re back on calmer ground with the next to the last installment of my Messier series. The end of these articles will not be the end of my writing on the Ms, however. I have another series planned and hope to start it in the new year. Why? After many years of ignoring Chuck’s list in my quest for the dimmest of the dim, I find I have been drawn back to these beautiful—well, with a couple of ringers—deep sky objects.

This week we are heavy on galaxies. In fact, all but one of this week's crew are galaxies, the exception being a single open cluster. That cluster is also the only one of this bunch that is readily visible now. Take heart, though; before you know it the Lion and the Virgin will be back and with them these wonderful (and sometimes challenging) island universes. Prepare now to take on the Virgo challenge, touring all of the maiden’s and Coma's M-galaxies when spring comes again to the Northern Hemisphere.


Messier 99, the Pinwheel Nebula (galaxy), is, in pictures anyway, a beautiful near face-on Sc spiral galaxy located on the western end of the great Virgo cloud. A look at its specs, magnitude 9.87 and a size of 5’44” x 4’22” don’t make M99 sound overly difficult. That’s what I thought reading them when I was a youngun before trying to run this beast down from my parents’ suburban backyard. I mean, my 4-inch Palomar Junior reflector would easily show a 10th magnitude star, so why shouldn’t it show this brighter than 10 galaxy even more easily?

Reality was a bit different as I found as soon as I began hunting the Pinwheel. There are plenty of galaxies in this area, and I thought I'd found M99 a time or two, but no. The star field around the galaxy is fairly distinctive, and the tools I had at hand, Becvar’s Skalnate Pleso atlas (I knew better than to try to navigate Virgo-Coma with Norton’s) and the wonderful “A Messier Album” column in Sky & Telescope said “nope.” In fact, I don’t think I saw M99 with the Pal Junior until the 1980s, though I had of course seen it with other scopes by then.

The problem for me was that while this galaxy is somewhat bright, it’s also somewhat large, and, worse, it is a face-on spiral, the most challenging species of galaxy for backyard observers. Couple that with small aperture and primitive 1960s eyepieces (war surplus optics), and M99 was way difficult. Luckily for you, today you're likely armed with more knowledge, better finding tools, good oculars, and larger aperture than I had way back when. It is now more than possible to find M99 from the back forty on a good night, even without goto.

As a young observer, it was a point of honor with me to learn to navigate the Realm of the Galaxies. I remember that being challenging (in a good way) but also frustrating. It still is both those things today, though we have deeper print atlases to help, atlases like Uranometria 2000 (a good choice for Virgo) and far, far deeper computer atlases like TheSky and SkyTools. Still, if you are more interested in seeing that hunting, at least in this crowded area, you’ll be much happier with go-to or digital setting circles.

If you want to or have to do things the old-fashioned way, this is one that is not too terribly difficult. You’ll find the Pinwheel, which is not actually in Virgo but over the border in Coma Berenices, lurking a mere 49’ southeast of a decently bright guide star, magnitude 5.05 6 Comae. In the field of the target object is a distinctive magnitude 7 range star, the brightest in the immediate area.

Forget the sweeping arms that give this galaxy its name. What you will see in the backyard, even with some fairly large aperture scopes, will be a slightly elongated lint-ball with a brighter center and, on especially good evenings, a tiny core. From a dark site, however, a 10 - 12-inch telescope will begin to show hints of spiral structure in the haze surrounding the galaxy’s small nucleus.


You wanna know how hard M100 is to observe? It’s like M99, only worse (for the backyard bound). Yes, at magnitude 9.35, it is slightly brighter than M99, but at a size of 7’24” x 6’18” it is considerably larger, which is a bad thing, especially with face-on spirals whose light is badly spread out by their orientation to begin with. Still, it’s on our list, so let’s go get this rascal, which is sometimes nicknamed “the Blow Dryer Galaxy” (don’t ask me why).

The easiest way to find M100 without electronic aid is by finding M99 first. Then, move 1-degree 44’ to the northeast and you should be on the proper field. There are no bright stars in the area, so move slowly and carefully and use a detailed computer charting program to help you.

Actually, there is another way to find this one or any other deep sky object: with analog setting circles. Yes, those old fashioned “dials” can work. IF. The biggest problem with analog circles on amateur mounts is their size, or lack thereof. Those on many GEM mounts are too little to be anything more than useless decoration. Those on the average SCT are better. Yes, the declination circles are still small, but the RA circles are large enough to work well. Both also have verniers (instructions for using them are here).

The main requirement for using setting circles successfully is that you be well polar aligned. The closer you are to the pole, the more accurate they will be. Oh, and you will have to calibrate the RA circle every time you use the scope (with the drive turned off, the RA circle, like a clock, loses “time”). Best bet is to go to a star as close to your object as possible and set the circle to the star’s correct RA. The declination circle on SCTs is set at the factory and shouldn’t have to be messed with often, but if you need to calibrate in declination do just like you did for RA.

When everything is ready, what kind of accuracy can you expect? I used the analog circles on my Celestron Ultima 8 SCT, Celeste, to navigate Virgo successfully one year at the (old spring) Peach State Star Gaze. No, everything I went for was not always in the field even at low power, but most of the time objects were close, and I only had to do a little hunting around. At the very least, "manual" circles will get you in the neighborhood, and a 50mm finder will allow you to quickly refine your aim. You can also use analog circles on a Dob, and perhaps we’ll talk about that next installment. Can analog circles be good as digital setting circles? No, not even close, but better than just using a finder/Telrad in bright skies? Yes.

Anyhow, when you are on M100, what you will see from the average suburban backyard is, unfortunately, “Not much, amigo.”  Under good conditions you will see a large round fuzz spot that gets brighter toward its middle. You may also be able to make out its star-like nucleus. That is normally all. At the dark site? With larger apertures, some details, dust lanes and mottling, are apparent, but don’t expect slap-you-in-the-face spiral structure. You may also glimpse a small 14th magnitude companion galaxy, NGC 4322, 5.0’ to the southwest.


You thought M99 and M100 were tough? Hoo-boy! M101, the Catherine Wheel Galaxy, is, with M74, the toughest of the tough in the Messiers. Why? Like the previous two, it’s a face-on Sc spiral. But it is worse. Way worse. The reason is that it’s also huge, 28’48” x 26’54”. Yes, M101’s visual magnitude is 7.8, but, remember, that means it is the same brightness as a magnitude 7.8 star thrown out of focus till it occupies nearly half a degree of field. Not only is its light badly spread out, it is difficult to frame it so as to provide some contrast. You want some dark sky around this big galaxy to furnish that contrast, but you’ll have to use a low power eyepiece to do it. In the suburbs, the sky background is bright at low power, so you get no contrast gain.

The good part? Finding this galaxy’s location is easy. It forms a near equilateral triangle with the two end stars of the Big Dipper, Alkaid and Mizar. Insert a medium power eyepiece that gives somewhat over half a degree of true field in your telescope—before the advent of 100-degree AFOV eyepieces, I liked 12 and 16mm 82 degree oculars depending on the scope I was using—and start staring.

I don’t want to give you the idea that this galaxy is impossible from the suburbs; it is not. When I was writing The Urban Astronomer’s Guide I saw it frequently with my C11  (albeit sometimes with difficulty) or, on superior nights, with the 8-inch f/5 Newtonian I was using for some of the book’s observing. It wasn’t easy, though, not even with the C11. And I certainly could not see details:

M101 is one of the real challenges from the suburbs, and I didn't expect much on this relatively poor night. Try as I might, I couldn't see any hint of its outer nebulosity much less the spiral arms. After examining the field for a while with the 12mm Nagler at 220x, I did catch sight of with appeared to be its central area, a faint spot about 10' across, but this was not easy in the C11.

At a dark site, of course, it is a much different story. I’ve seen the galaxy easily with 10 x 50 binoculars from the very dark Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia, and reveled in its spiral arms with the C8 at f/6.3 on good evenings from less superior locations, like French Camp, Mississippi, home of the Mid South Star Gaze. On the very best nights, an LPR filter reveals the arms are peppered with HII regions, M101’s nebulae.


Take a break, Jake. There is no M102. NGC 5866 has often been suggested as M102, but it is clear to me that 102 was nothing more than a re-observation of 101. If you can’t bring yourself to accept that, by all means take a gander at NGC 5866; it’s not a bad object. I’ll wait right here.


Let’s take another break, from dim and difficult galaxies at least. M103 in Cassiopeia is a bright (magnitude 7.3) and small (6.0’) open star cluster. It’s a beauty, though it would be even more beautiful if it weren’t set in such a rich star field. As it is, it is sometimes slightly difficult to distinguish the actual cluster from the background in wide-field telescopes from dark locations.

There is nothing to finding 103. It lies 1-degree northeast of bright Ruchbah, a magnitude 2.65 sun that is one of the stars of Cassiopeia’s “W.”  When you’re on the proper spot, have a look through your finder (scope). The cluster should be visible as a short line of three or four brighter stars.

When you are on Messier 103 with the main scope with a medium power eyepiece, especially a medium power wide-field eyepiece (such oculars are surprisingly inexpensive now), you are gonna like what you see, yes indeed. My impression is that this looks much like Cygnus’ M39, a small triangle of brighter stars with plenty of dimmer ones both within and just outside that triangle. The view is made even prettier by the presence of a red-orange central star at the heart of the cluster. And the whole thing is set in that crowded star field, which really looks super from my club dark site.


Gosh-a-mighty, how I loved the Hale Reflector photographs of M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, when I was a kid. This is one of the relatively few objects that didn’t disappoint me too much when I first saw it with my 4-inch. Oh, the view through my 1-inch Kellner eyepiece couldn’t compare to 200-inch plates, but, still, the basic features were there and I was thrilled to see the renowned Sombrero with my own eyes.

How to locate? This magnitude 8.0, 8’42” x 3’30” near-edge-on lies in Virgo, but I always find it easier to star hop to from Corvus. Begin at magnitude 2.90 Algorab. About 2-degrees 45’ north of the star you will notice (in the finder scope) a Y-shaped asterism of magnitude 6.0 range stars. Trace this asterism as shown in the picture, and you will find M104 just 25’ to the east of the last Y star.

When there, your first impression may be, as was mine as a 12-year-old, that the Sombrero is smaller than you thought it would be. Pump up the power to at least 150x, though, and you will begin to see those legendary details, the “hat brim” and the “crown,” at least. A 6-inch refractor or an 8-inch reflector will show the famous equatorial dust lane readily on a good night. Yes, it is doable with smaller apertures, but you’ll have to find a magnification that makes the galaxy big enough so you can see much of anything, but which also doesn’t make it too dim.


We’ll end this installment with another easy, pretty view. While Leo’s M105 is relatively dim as far as its magnitude value, 9.79, goes, it is a medium sized (5’24”), almost round elliptical with a bright center that makes it pretty easy, even in a 4-inch. Normally, E galaxies aren’t that attractive, but this one has a couple of aces up its sleeve, two companion galaxies, magnitude 10.0, 3’49” NGC 3384 7’19” to the northeast, and magnitude 12.83, 2’49” NGC 3389 9’29” to the southeast. The three together make for a superb view.

Locating M105 by manual means can be hard or easy depending on how dark your skies are and how high the lion is in them. The best way to get to the group is to star-hop 1-degree 38’ south from Kappa Leonis. While that star is often invisible or nearly so in the average suburban yard thanks to its magnitude of 5.45, it will how up readily in a finder scope.

After you get done admiring Messier 105 itself, see if you can pick out the two companions that form a triangle with the Messier galaxy. The dimmest member, NGC 3389’s, 12.83 magnitude figure sounds daunting, but I could regularly see it from the heavily light polluted backyard of Chaos Manor South with my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, thanks to its small size. Not only do you get a pretty triangle of galaxies here, M95 and M96, that pair of galaxies we visited just a while ago, is only a degree to the southwest if you want to go on a side trip.

One more and we will be done with the Ms, but that won’t come for a while yet. Christmas, if nothing else, is going to intervene. As is usual, the next blog will arrive on Christmas Eve rather than Sunday, and will likely be shorter and perhaps more sentimental than usual.

Nota Bene:  I’ve received word that for a variety of reasons the author of Deepsky Astronomy Software, Steve Tuma, is discontinuing sales and support of his program. While there are other more modern planning programs available today, DAS was one of the first and still has some great features. Features like copious log notes for many objects from accomplished observers—something I find often comes in handy. If I were you, I’d contact Steve and see if you can still get a copy...

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Issue #521: So, What’s Gonna Happen to Us?

I promise we will get back to the Messiers next week, OK? This week, however, what’s on my mind is a question that is evidently on your minds, too. Certainly, I get asked it often enough at my star party and club appearances: “Uncle Rod, what’s gonna happen to amateur astronomy? All the folks at my club are Baby Boomers or older (as in the picture at left of Unk's own club, the PSAS). Is amateur astronomy doomed?” What is to become of our beloved avocation as we Baby Boomers exit stage left over the next 10 – 30 years?

If we are to figure out where amateur astronomy is going, it’s a good idea to examine where it came from. Technically, Galileo was an amateur astronomer—there were really no professional astronomers as we understand the vocation then (though there were physicists) until almost the 19th Century. 

Even that giant of 18th Century astronomy, Sir William Herschel, was an amateur astronomer. There were some pros in his time, but he wasn’t one. He was a fairly well-educated man and a gifted musician, but he was not an academic. He had a pension from the King, but that was in recognition of his discovery of the seventh planet and his astronomy “outreach” activities at court; it was not a salary like that the Astronomer Royal received.

Well into the 19th Century, the line between amateur and pro was still blurry. It wasn’t until the latter part of the Victorian era that "professional astronomer" came to be defined as an academic, a professional scientist working at or in concert with a university and usually possessed of an advanced degree. It was at this time the amateur astronomy we know began to develop.

Slowly, as the 20th Century came in, amateur astronomers began to change. We went from being like Herschel and the semi-pro amateurs who followed him, people like Carrington, scientists on the cutting edge of discovery, to being more casual sky watchers. We, most of us, went from being geographers to tourists, from ornithologists to bird watchers.

That didn’t happen overnight. The transition took nearly half the 20th Century to complete but happen it did. There is still a place for the amateur in the science of astronomy, but not like in the 18th and 19th Centuries. By the time of George Ellery Hale, the local Universe had been mapped and its objects cataloged, and the easier questions had been answered. The next level of inquiry required lots of telescopic horsepower, rigorous training, and money.

The change in amateur astronomy was sped up by the amateur telescope making movement in the United States in the early decades of the last century. Thanks to ATMing, some rather eccentric souls—so their fellows thought, anyway—were discovering stargazing was fun. You didn’t have to have a lot of money or be able to do calculus to enjoy astronomy—heck, you didn’t even have to be able to add 2+2. If you could cobble together a telescope and turn it on the sky you were one of us. Sure, people like Leslie Peltier still contributed to the science of astronomy, but it would be ridiculous to assert they were on the level of Hubble and Shapley.

If you ask me, however, the real amateur astronomy, the amateur astronomy we know and love, wasn’t fully aborning until the 1950s. What was also aborning in the 50s? Kids, lots and lots of postwar kids, the Baby Boom Generation. And here is the key:  As those kids were beginning, so was the Space Age. By the end of the decade, Sputnik was flying, NACA had become NASA, and space was on the minds of just about everybody. Especially on the minds of starry-eyed kids. Many of these space-crazy kids (and adults) wanted a telescope, but they didn’t want to make a telescope like Uncle Albert (Ingalls) did, they wanted to buy one ready-made.

Want to know how much things changed for us in a mere ten years? Page through the January 1950 issue of Sky & Telescope (If you don't have a print copy, I hope you were prescient enough to get The Complete Sky & Telescope DVDs while you could). Much will be familiar to today’s readers, like the Sky Gazer’s Almanac (if in plainer form), but one thing will be different: The ads. Or lack therof. No inside front or back cover full-pagers. Not even a back cover ad. There are a few small interior advertisements aimed at amateurs rather than astronomy educators, etc., but not many. The closest thing to what’s in today’s magazine is a small advertisement for a small Tinsley refractor (yes).

Now, let’s go to December 1959. This is much more like the amateur astronomy we know and love. There are plenty of ads directed at amateurs, if nothing like today. There’s a beautiful Criterion “Custom” Newtonian, and the back cover is occupied by a much drooled over Unitron refractor. By 1959, everybody had, by prewar standards anyway, plenty of money to spend and suddenly there was a small market for telescopes.

Oh, there were still plenty of amateur telescope makers, since larger aperture telescopes like that 6-inch Criterion, were too expensive for most kids (and adults). But the amateur astronomy of Unk Albert’s day, the one where almost everybody used small store-bought refractors or ATMed 6-inch Newtonian reflectors to observe the Moon, planets, and double and variable stars, was passing. It was disappearing just as the amateur astronomy of the semi-pros that came before it had disappeared.

All through the 70s, the above continued. Many of the folks still making their own telescopes weren't doing that by choice.  Like me. If I’d been able to afford an RV-6 or Edmund 6-inch Newtonian reflector in 1970, much less a Unitron 4-inch refractor, I’d never have even thought about making a 6-inch reflector. But I couldn’t afford one. I knew the only way to progress in astronomy, for me at least, was to take it to the next aperture level, and the only way to do that was by building. I didn’t want to. I wasn’t overly interested in grinding mirrors and lapping the threads of pipe mounts, but that was the only way.

As the 1980s came in, ATMing became a still less important part of our avocation and no longer defined us. That was despite the popularity of simple, relatively easy to build Dobsonian telescopes with their cardboard tubes and plywood mounts. While Dob building caused an uptick in scope making in the 80s, that didn’t last. As soon as commercial Dobsonians became widely available, observers flocked to them. Commercial Dobs were part of the equipment boom in amateur astronomy that began in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. It was caused by two things:  Baby Boomers had money now, and there were (slightly) more of us in astronomy.

By the 90s most of us Boomers had appreciable disposable incomes. In that decade, we were entering in upon our peak earning years, and many of us didn’t think twice about dropping a measly two grand on a C8, for example, something that would have seemed impossible for most in 1970.

Our ranks also grew somewhat (after shrinking following the very temporary influx caused by Halley’s Comet). While retirement was still a distant speck on the horizon, some Boomers had begun casting about for something to do as their careers wound down and remembered how much they used to love the stars and how much they’d dreamed of a big telescope in the 60s and 70s. They realized they could now have that big telescope, went for it, and dived back into amateur astronomy as if all those intervening years had been but a dream.

The commercial astronomy market wasn’t just growing in the 1990s; it was changing. For one big reason, of course: C-H-I-N-A. It began with a somewhat silly little telescope, the Short Tube 80. Orion, the original Orion, Tim Giesler’s Orion, had noticed these short f/5 80mm achromats, which were being made by this Mainland China firm, Synta, and decided to give them a chance in their catalog (badged “Orion,” natch).  The rest is history. Soon everybody and his or her brother or sister and their cat wanted one. Tons of amateurs, novice and advanced, enjoyed these simple and refreshingly different wide-field refractors.

The 80 f/5, humble as it was, represented a quantum leap for the Chinese scope industry, which before the Short Tube 80 had been pretty sad and invariably ridiculed by U.S. amateurs (remember the pitiful "Simmons" 4-inch Newtonians?). What is remarkable is Synta went from the ST 80 to the SkyWatcher Esprit APO refractors in less than two decades, other Chinese firms were not far behind, and PRC telescopes went from being laughed at to being respected by us. Sometimes grudgingly, but respected nevertheless.

The entry of China, who naturally undercut the prices of U.S. telescope makers easily, had two major effects. The amount, the crazy amount, of astro gear available to us exploded. And the mainstream, middle-of-the-road U.S. telescope industry imploded. While top of the line telescope makers like Astro-Physics were secure in their niches, old-line mid-price firms like Celestron and even once top-dog Meade failed and are now wholly owned by Chinese companies (perhaps the same Chinese company, as you may decide if you venture to unravel the convoluted interrelationships of Chinese industries).

So, we found ourselves in the second decade of a new century:  sitting fat, dumb, and happy with more powerful astronomy gear than we ever dreamed of possessing. Many of us even had time to use it now. Only one thing began to bother us. When we’d look around at club meetings, it was obvious we were a graying bunch. Oh, a few younger people would occasionally wander into the avocation, but many of them were only young in comparison to us Boomers, and for most clubs and star parties, new young folks were few and far between. How long has it been since you heard of a club with a thriving Junior Section?

Why no kids? I, like many of you, had palliative excuses. “The youngsters are there. They just don’t join astronomy clubs. They go to online astronomy forums when they want to hang out with their fellow amateurs. They are busy with school. Plenty of twenty-somethings would love to be in astronomy but just don’t have time with careers and kids.”

Those are the things I used to tell myself, but after years of paying close attention to our demographic, not just at clubs and star parties, but online, and teaching undergraduates at a university, I came to the conclusion that my excuses were wrong. There really are fewer youngsters who are interested in astronomy. This has been going on for at least thirty years, if not forty years, and is accelerating.

It’s human to want to pin the blame for something bad happening. And that is just what I did next. Why aren’t the kids interested in astronomy? “It’s the darned video games. Or the cell phones. Or maybe today’s kids lead such structured lives thanks to their Gen X and Millennial parents that they don’t have time for astronomy.”

While all the above things share part of the blame for the lack of youngsters in our hobby, they do not constitute the whole problem, and aren’t the root cause of the scarcity of young amateur astronomers. I suspect that if there were fewer “distractions,” there would be more kids in astronomy, but maybe not quite as many as you would think.

An epiphany came to me late one sleepless night. It cut me like a knife and at first, I didn’t want to believe it, but by morning’s light it began to look more and more like that sometimes-sought after and oft' feared Ground Truth:

The amateur astronomy of the last fifty years was an aberration. It was brought on by a special and unlikely-to-be-recreated time in our history, the long-past Space Age.

Short Tube 80
More than anything else, the race to the moon, the fascination for the Great Out There made palpable by Project Apollo and which extended even into the early Shuttle years (though with much diminished intensity), was what initially attracted many of us. Could something like that come again? Perhaps, perhaps if there were a pedal-to-the-metal push to land on and settle Mars it could. Unfortunately, while I’d love to be proven wrong, I don’t see that happening. Not in my lifetime for sure, and I am skeptical it will happen during the lifetimes of my children.

So…what? So, amateur astronomy is doomed? Yes, it is. Well, not really. Amateur astronomy as we’ve known it over the last fifty years is doomed, I believe. It can’t help but be. As the leading edge of our generation begins to exit state left--which is happening now--our ranks will begin to shrink.  And as they shrink, the ad pages in the magazines (possibly virtual pages before long) displaying the tons of products that have defined our astronomy will also shrink in number. This may be accompanied by a large increase in Chinese telescope prices, both because of (recent) political forces and because of rising wages in the East. So, amateur astronomy is gone? Bye-bye? I didn’t say that.

A different amateur astronomy will go on at a reduced level. Heck, anyone who looks up at the stars in wonder is an amateur astronomer. Assuming you can see those stars; light pollution will suppress our numbers, though not as much by far as the departure of the Boomers. Again, amateur astronomy’s decline will be the natural result of the Space Age receding into the past and becoming a subject only for the history books and the (boring) reminiscences of grandpa and grandma.

What will the next amateur astronomy, say the amateur astronomy of the 2060s, be like?  Unless we wind up, to quote Kim Stanley Robinson, “On Mars, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars!” and everybody is suddenly gaga over space again, I suspect much like the amateur astronomy of the 1920s - 1940s. A minor pursuit followed by a small number of special people. Many of whom will be making their own telescopes (probably printing them out on a 3D printer).

“Tell me, spirit, are these the shadows of things that must be, or the shadows of things that MIGHT be?” What can we do to prevent the end of amateur astronomy as we know it? Not a darned thing, I suspect. If you were to lend Elon Musk 100-billion bucks or so, that might prime the space/astronomy pump again. Frankly, I’m not even sure that would do it, though.

There's also those distractions I mentioned, which are a factor, though, as above, maybe not the big one. Yes, the coming of the Space Age coincided with amazing (even by today’s standards) technological advancement, but few of those marvels had yet filtered down to us little people... 

Not only were there no home computers in the mid-1960s, most of us didn’t even have color televisions yet. For us kids, it was (maybe) three black and white TV channels, the books in the library, or get up a game outside with your friends. Maybe you could listen to a record on the stereo if you didn’t play Paul Revere loud enough to annoy your parents. The phone was hardwired into the wall, and Mum and Dad yelled at you to GET OFF if you were on too long with your boyfriend or girlfriend. You are not gonna get that lack of distractions again, campers, unless something truly bad happens, and I suspect that astronomy will be the least of your concerns if it does.

Am I sad about all this? I’m not sure. I know I would miss much of today’s astronomy: the never-ending club meetings on Cloudy Nights (.com) and Astromart, the pages and pages of Sky & Telescope “Hot Products,” and going crazy deep into the Universe (heck, I got tired of seeing PGC galaxies). On the other hand, a slower, simpler sort of amateur astronomy, an amateur astronomy concerned with what you can see with simple scopes does have its appeal.

At any rate, I don’t have to worry about it. I won’t live to see how this plays out. By definition, me and my fellow Boomers won’t be around for the New Amateur Astronomy, be it good or ill. All I can do is wish it well and meditate on all the Space Age Fun we had!

Postscript 2022

Am I as pessimistic about the prospects of amateur astronomy now as I was seven years ago? Yes, though it's not all doom and gloom. If there's any good news, it's that Meade is nominally an American company again (albeit one that will no doubt continue to sell nothing but imported mass-produced telescopes). Oh, and both Sky & Telescope and Astronomy are still hanging in there with print issues--though with the fewer pages and fewer ads I prophesied. 

I do realize some of the above was influenced by my personal condition at the time. I was still wrestling with retirement and trying to come to terms with the final stage of life. I was also beginning to feel physical changes that made me less able to even think about observing till dawn on a cold field. Finally, for reasons there is no need to go into here, I'd said adieu to my local astronomy club and that made me less than optimistic about the club scene here--and elsewhere, too, I guess.

Now? I feel a lot better most days. I suspect if I hadn't suffered a near-fatal accident in 2019 I'd be back on the star party trail (well, there's covid, too, of course). And I do get out with a telescope far more often than I did from 2016 - 2019.  

Of course, then I start worrying about things like light pollution and that idiot Musk's nasty little satellites. And I get all gloomy again. When it comes to my predicted shrinking of the astronomy-gear market, with less available at ever higher prices, covid merely accelerated what was already happening.

All things considered, though...all I can say is--like Charlie Duke did on one long-ago Apollo morning--WHAT A RIDE! WHAT A RIDE! And it was...

Sunday, December 04, 2016


Issue #520: After the SCT Redux

Four years ago, an article appeared here with the title “After the SCT.” In truth, it really didn’t have a darned thing to do with Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes. What it was was a report on the 2012 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. That year, the telescope I took to the event was my hallowed 12-inch truss tube Dobsonian, Old Betsy. The fact that I had her on the field instead of a Schmidt Cassegrain impelled one of my (shocked) fellow star partiers to ask me worriedly whether my next book would be called After the SCT. I replied, “There ain’t no ‘after’ for [me]. I am still Mr. SCT and I still use Schmidt Cassegrains more than any other design of telescope.”

Yes, despite leaving the CATs at home with the cats in 2012, it was true I still loved SCTs best. Well, maybe that was true, or maybe I was whistling past the graveyard. Those words were written just after I completed the observing project of a lifetime, The Herschel Project, my quest to view all 2500 Herschel deep sky objects. Chasing down more than two thousand galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters over the course of a mere three years, especially given our weather and my work schedule at the time, ensured I was sorta wrung out and ready for a change.

Oh, I continued on for the next two years much as I had, using my SCTs to slowly, ever so slowly, tie the ribbon on the H-project. Using my C11, Big Bertha, and my C8, Celeste, to clean up a few objects here and there. Some that I wasn’t 100% sure I’d identified correctly, and some that I wanted to re-image with my new color Mallincam. That’s what I told myself I was doing anyway, but the truth, I think, was really that I had no idea what—if anything—came next for me in (amateur) astronomy.

I did try to get various new observing projects off the ground. I started in on the ARPs, for example, observing them in much the same way I had the Herschels. Some visual observing with the C11 and the 12-inch Dob and lots of video observing with the C8 and C11. It, like every other project I tried, however, fell flat. With a resounding thud. I was worried. Had finishing the Herschel Project also finished amateur astronomy for me?

There it remained until early 2015. That’s when things began to change. No, I didn’t suddenly think up a new approach to amateur astronomy. That happened, but it was the result of other changes. Mostly me entering in upon a time in life when I began considering larger questions than just “Hmm, I wonder how a C14 would do on a CGEM DX?” The big questions, questions like, “How did I get here?” and “What is it all about?” and “What (if anything) comes after this story is done?”

“Began to change”? Not hardly. The astounding thing was that I went to bed one night in early 2015 (after imaging that winter’s cool little comet) feeling much the same as always, and awakened feeling entirely different. What concerned me now was no longer observing projects, but the questions above and many more like them, which suddenly seemed more significant than Arp galaxies. I also began to look with dismay at all the astro-junk I’d accumulated over the last 25 years of my near 50 years as an amateur astronomer and began to thin the herd.

Big Eye of my 6-inch...
I won’t bore you with the answers to some (not all) of those questions I’ve come up with so far. Every person has to wrestle with these things for themselves and the answers you arrive at may be starkly different from those I’ve arrived at. We’re talking astronomy here, anyway, and the point is that being preoccupied with deeper thoughts meant I didn’t want to worry about, struggle with, or obsess over telescopes anymore. I did still want to observe, though.

I just didn’t want to be bothered by my telescope when it was time to watch the skies. The C11 was out. So was the C8. I didn’t want to spend 30-minutes setting up a scope. Heck, I didn’t want to spend 2-minutes. In the months immediately following that 2015 winter’s night with the comet, the yen to look at the stars often came on the spur of the moment, and our AR102 4-inch achromat or my C102 4-inch achromat on a light SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount didn’t bother me. I’d put one of the refractors on the mount and carry it into the backyard in a single piece. No drives, no batteries, no computers, no aggravation, just me contemplating the cosmos.

Yes, I will admit I missed the light gathering power of the SCTs at first. My solution was to buy an inexpensive and ultra-simple 10-inch solid tube Newtonian, a GSO Dobsonian, Zelda. She is almost as quick and painless to set up as the refractors. Do I use her a lot? I did when I first got her, but of late not quite so often despite her simplicity. This past year, my refractors have been in the backyard more often than the big 10-inch. 

What changed? I began concentrating on what I could see with my "small" refractors rather than what I couldn't. When I learned to do that, it was as if the deep sky became new to me again after all these years. I won’t tell you I was seeing more details in my favorite objects, but I was seeing a different, a new—or at least forgotten—aspect of them and I welcomed that.

It wasn’t just my new mindset that impelled me begin a more relaxed sort of visual observing. It was my body. No, age didn’t suddenly catch up with me, or at least that was only part of it. I was washing down the front porch of good, old Chaos Manor South just after we moved out. Stupidly, I was wearing flip-flops, slipped on the soapy front steps, and crunched my back—but good.

I was in pain for a while, but it seemed as if I’d dodged a bullet and just gotten bruised up and that would be the end of it. Guess again, Skeezix. Last summer, it became obvious that was not the case. I did something that aggravated that back injury. I don’t know what it was, but I was in real pain for weeks. Carrying a C8 into the yard would have been laughable. 3-inch and 4-inch refractors became my lifelines to astronomy. And I had so much fun with them that when my back pain suddenly subsided—almost overnight—my inclination was to stick with them.

The C102...
Sure, I could have gotten a similarly light and portable CAT, a C5 or a C6 SCT, or a 4 or 5-inch MCT, and used it in similar grab ‘n go fashion, but the refractors, and especially the AR102, had the additional benefit of giving me wide-field views at my dark site. That's something I seem to favor these days. Maybe just because I am weary of examining tiny bites of the sky, looking at PGC smudges, after the years of the Herschel Project. Or, maybe, thanks to my new philosophical bent, I have come to want to see the big picture. I'd also be lying if I told you I haven’t begun to appreciate a certain refractor je ne sais quois.
What is that special something refractors are supposedly imbued with? There is one overriding advantage to them:  they are unobstructed systems. There is no secondary mirror getting in the way of the of the objective lens. That has several benefits.

First, the light gathering power of the scope is not compromised by the blockage of the secondary. You get the full effect of the aperture you’re paying for; it’s not “4-inches minus the secondary mirror.” That helps some, but not really a lot, since the light gathering power of the telescope is dependent on the area, not the diameter of the mirror or objective. Still, more light is always better than less.

A refractor will deliver more light than a reflector of the same aperture not just because of the absence of the light blocking central obstruction, but because a higher percentage of light is transmitted through a lens than can be reflected by a mirror. As the coating of a mirror ages, its reflectivity decreases and a refractor continues to pull ahead, often to the tune of 1 or 2-percent a year.

Somewhat better light gathering power aperture for aperture is not the largest advantage of a lens-scope, though. What is more important is the better contrast offered by them. The lack of that central obstruction results in sharper, higher contrast images. Not only does that help with details on Solar System objects, stars often look better in lens-scopes.

You often hear refractor-philes say stars are “smaller” in a refractor than in a reflector. That is due in part to refractors often being smaller aperture, shorter focal length instruments than the average reflector. But that is not the whole story.

As you probably know, stars are not perfect pinpoints in any telescope. The merciless laws of physics make that impossible. What we see is an “Airy disk” surrounded by diffraction rings. Here’s the thing:  thanks to the missing secondary mirror, refractors distribute less energy into the diffraction rings and more into the Airy disk than obstructed telescopes. Stars tend to look “smaller.” If you’re trying to split double stars at the limit of the telescope’s resolution, the less prominent rings in a refractor may make the difference between success and failure.

Finally, one of the most important advantages of a refractor for me these days is one’s thermal stability. Despite their closed tubes, refractors require considerably less time to cool down than reflecting telescopes. The lens is less affected by changes in/changing temperature than a mirror and is ready to deliver good images more quickly when moved from a warm house to a cold yard. Despite our relatively mild climate, I find my 6-inch refractor is ready to go much sooner than my 5-inch Maksutov Cassegrain.

None of the above is to say reflectors don’t have advantages; they do, of course. They are cheaper per inch of aperture, available in (far) larger apertures, and are more portable in larger sizes. These things are true, all things being equal, but all things are rarely equal.

A 6-inch achromatic refractor is still considerably more expensive than a 6-inch (or 8-inch) reflector, but 6-inch achromats are much more affordable than they have ever been. If you just have to have 12—or 20—inches, you don’t want a refractor, true, but many of us, especially those of us focused on imaging, find we don’t need more than 6-inches of aperture to be happy. Portability? A 6-inch Newtonian is nothing; a 6-inch refractor is something of a beast. Nevertheless, I find setting up my 6-inch on a GEM to be easier than setting up my fork mounted Ultima 8 was in the old days.

There’s also the color question. “False” color, the purple fringing around bright objects in some refractors. This chromatic aberration is not necessarily a deal breaker. APO/ED refractors that show virtually no false color are, like achromats, cheaper than ever. Also, some people are more disturbed by color than others (as we baby-boomers age and our corneas yellow a little, we become ever more happy with “just” achromats). Finally, most of us don’t spend much time observing that bane of achromats, Venus; usually we are viewing deep sky objects that show little or no false color.

The ground truth for me is that the refractor advantages, sharp images, the portability of smaller aperture refractors, and their relative immunity to cool-down issues, have made these telescopes more practical for me for visual use now. Most of the time. There are still times when I just have to drag out my trusty 10-inch Dobsonian. BUT—and I hope I am not turning into a refractor snob—when I look through that Newtonian, something, that ineffable refractor something, is missing.

While I have not done a lot of video imaging since the end of the Herschel Project, that doesn’t mean I haven’t done any astrophotography. Admittedly, I laid off for a while following that night of the comet, but when I eventually picked it up again and began doing some simple, informal deep sky imaging with my DSLRs, I actually found it relaxing. Since I was using refractors for visual work, it seemed a natural to continue with them for photography. And was I ever glad I did.

The best thing about refractors, for me anyway, is their imaging capability. Affordable apochromats may be the best thing to hit amateur astrophotography since the death of film. Let me say here that I have recently been experimenting with imaging with inexpensive achromats, and I’ve been amazed at what they can do, but if you want to do astrophotography, you want an ED scope.

One of the things I'd known for a while, but had filed away in a little drawer in the back of my mind, and only recently taken out (along with some non-astronomy related things) and examined in detail is that deep sky imaging is just easier with a refractor. As you know, I've taken many a shot with SCTs over the years, but my results were never, frankly, quite as good or easy to get as what I can achieve with my 5-inch APO refractor given my modest skills. Sure, if I could afford an AP or Bisque or 10Micron mount I might still be slapping a big CAT on the GEM, but I can't afford a ten-thousand dollar mount these days. Refractors are more usable for imaging on my Ford and Chevy mounts. 

OK, so what makes a refractor better for imaging? Three things, I’ve found, speed, focusing, and weight. By “speed,” I am referring to the telescope’s focal ratio. As you may be aware, what matters when determining how bright an extended object (a galaxy or nebula) will be to your camera and how long your exposure will need to be to adequately record it is the telescope’s f-ratio. F-ratio for f-ratio, the only thing more aperture gets you on extended objects is larger image scale. The typical SCT is at f/10, and that requires punishingly long exposures to properly expose dimmer objects. The average apochromatic refractor, in contrast, comes in at f/5 – f/7. Getting these smaller focal ratios with an SCT will require a focal reducer, which can cause illumination problems, vignetting, among other things.

AR102 + AVX...
The average f/10 8-inch or larger SCT has another liability thanks to it aperture and higher focal ratio:  long focal length, as in 2000mm and longer. If you’ve tried deep sky astrophotography, you know with every increase in focal length, tracking becomes more critical. Your mount will have to offer excellent tracking, and you may have to guide it even during shorter exposures if your pictures are to have round stars. Alas, the mounts most of us can afford are challenged by long focal lengths, and it’s difficult to get untrailed stars even with guiding.

Focusing as done in SCTs, with the usual moving mirror arrangement, is also a problem for imagers. I don’t just mean focus shift, the subject moving in the field as you focus, but, worse, mirror flop. As the scope tracks, changes in attitude can cause an SCT’s mirror to move slightly, producing trailed stars if you are using a guide scope for photographic guiding as most of us do. Some modern SCTs have mirror locks, and some of Meade’s newer scopes have improved focusing systems, but almost all SCTs are still saddled with the old mechanics and resulting flop.

Finally, mounts always track better with lighter payloads. The GEMs most of us turn to, which tend to be in the Atlas/CGEM class and below, may track very well during imaging with an 80 or 100mm refractor onboard, but can have real problems with 8-inch and larger long focal length SCTs.

Certainly you can take good pictures with SCTs; I’ve taken my share over the years. It’s just easier to do, much easier, with a short, fast refractor. If nothing else, astrophotography is less stressful—it can even be fun—with a refractor. I don’t ever remember a time when I was doing long exposure imaging with an SCT that I wasn’t at least slightly stressed out by something.

And there you have it. More than a few of you have stared in open-mouthed amazement at the news your old Uncle has become a refractor man. Believe you me, nobody is more surprised than moi. That’s just another example—in a rather long series—of how wrong I was a few years ago when I just assumed this stage of life would be without surprises.

Don’t be too sad about this if you’re an SCT enthusiast. I haven’t completely deserted your camp. I still have my Edge 800 and my C11 (though I keep telling myself I will sell Bertha, the 11). None of this says all that much about the basic worth of SCTs. They are still the most versatile scopes, period, and I will always love them (I even have plans for a Solar System imaging project for my Edge C8). No, what my current transition to refractors speaks volumes about is me. 

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

stats counter Website Hit Counters