Sunday, May 17, 2020


#560: The New Herschel Project, the Preparation

365 days. 400 objects. One astronomer and a less than perfect suburban backyard sky.

How far will it go? We can only wait. And wait. And wait... 

The New Herschel Project. Coming soon to a computer terminal near you!

Putting the Losmandy GM811 back in service had been remarkably trouble-free—especially considering my increasingly fumble-fingered and forgetful nature—so, I was on to the next step, Muchachos, getting a laptop computer connected to the mount. While the New Project's 400 objects wouldn't require the organization the Big Enchilada's 2500 demanded, even 400 meant I'd want a planning program running in the field. "What have I seen? What do I still  need to see? What can I see tonight?"

While there was a fat, waxing Moon in the sky, she wouldn’t prevent me from testing the GM811/PC Ethernet connection--indoors, at least. Since I’d set the mount up for Ethernet before, that wouldn’t be a problem to get going, I thought. That’s what I get for thinking.

I am—as usual—getting ahead of myself. What about night two with the Losmandy I alluded to last time? I did get out the next evening following the replacement of the Gemini 2 computer’s battery (hardest part was getting the darned thing open so I could swap out the little button cell). Result? The new battery was fine; clock time was right on the money.

As I also mentioned I might do, I swapped out the refractor for my Edge 800, Emma Peel. Every goto was bang on, with me just leaving the 8mm Ethos eyepiece in the SCT for the duration; even at 175x everything was somewhere in the field. Well, what I could see was in the field. Luna was really interfering now. I did a few more slews, shut down, quitted the backyard for the den and TV, and the next morning tore down mount and scope.

Next up: wringing out the mount’s LAN connection. Why Ethernet in the first place? Well, no darned old USB - serial adapters to fiddle with. No restrictions on cable length. Most of all, in my experience from when I first began using the mount, Ethernet just works with the Gemini 2.

The object goto page of the web interface.
First thing was to download the instructions for setting up the interface from Gemini, instructions that largely concern assigning a static IP address to the computer’s Ethernet port. I remembered these directions fairly well from following them with my old Toshiba laptop: Easy enough. Quite detailed. Really too detailed. Yep, too detailed. The author doesn’t just explain the “how” of the setup, he explains the why for each step. Something this cat doesn’t really give a fig about.

After puzzling over pages of small type for more than a few minutes, I recalled that after I’d first received the GM811, I’d written up a simplified set of Ethernet instructions and posted them on the Cloudy Nights bulletin board in case some other new Gemini 2 user was as bumfuzzled by the instructions as Unk was. A search of the Cloudy Nights turned them up, I printed them out, and was ready to roll—or so your benighted old Uncle thought, anyhow.

Sat down to the nice, new Lenovo laptop in the dining room where it had been stationed during the weeks when I’d been teaching my university courses online. First thing was to open the Network and Sharing Center, go to “change adapter settings,” and right click on the LAN/Ethernet icon. Welp… There wasn’t no Ethernet icon. There was one for Wi-Fi and one for Bluetooth, and that was it. What the—?!  As I wrote last time, a sneaking suspicion gripped your correspondent. I started examining the connectors on the lappie. USB 3? Yep, three of them. HDMI? Uh-huh. Ethernet? Nope.

A visit to Amazon revealed there was, as I’d speculated, such a thing as a USB3 to Ethernet adapter. As a matter of fact, that seemed to be a rather common item. I picked a mid-priced example, ordered it via Prime, and it was soon in my hands. I’m still bemused, though. Why no Ethernet port? Surely PC makers don’t think Ethernet is going the way of RS-232. Or do they?

Mallincam Junior, hand control, and receiver.
Whatever. Plugged the adapter into the Lenovo, and that blasted LAN icon showed right up. Connected my CAT cable between PC and mount, turned on Gemini, and went to work. Using my instructions, it was a matter of 10 short and easy steps and I was done. If you’ve got a Gemini 2 and are wrestling with the website instructions, shoot me an email at and I will send you a copy of my simpleminded guide to Gemini 2 Ethernet configuration.

I was done, but was I done successfully? There are a couple of ways to connect to the mount with Ethernet. You can use the Gemini 2 ASCOM driver, which is much like the serial ASCOM drivers you are used to. That will work with any ASCOM compatible astronomy program—which is almost any astro-ware these days. Or you can use the Gemini 2 computer’s built-in web page. That allows you to connect to the mount using a web browser.

Since it was daytime and me and the GM811 were sitting in the sunroom instead of out under the stars, I didn’t think it was necessary to mess with planetarium programs and ASCOM. The web interface would show if all was well in a hurry. It did—well, as soon as I went to the Gemini 2 website and looked up what the user name/password the browser was asking me for should be (“admin,” no password).

Typing http://Gemini into Microsoft Edge (or whatever you use) allows you to do lots of stuff including slew to objects. All I wanted to do, however, was see that I was connected to the mount. I pushed the virtual HC slew buttons on one of the pages, the mount moved, and I was done. I’d get the ASCOM driver set up as soon as the old Moon got herself out of the way…

And as soon as a package of batteries including a CR2 cell arrived from Amazon. I told y’all the other day that the New H-Project will, like the Big Enchilada, include both visual and video observations. I further said that in the cheap-simple-easy spirit of the New Project (while I’ll use the somewhat upscale Losmandy mount, a Celestron AVX or a Meade LX85 would no doubt work just as well), I’ll probably limit the cameras to the Revolution imager and the Mallincam Junior Pro.

A check of Junior showed he needed batteries for both his hand control (AAA) and hand control receiver (CR2)–Junior, you see,  uses a little HC to set and initiate long exposures. A survey of the junkque drawer in the kitchen showed that there were no AAAs on hand, much less the CR2 required for the receiver. I might coulda got one of those CR2s at WallyWorld, but I’ve gone from trying to avoid the place pre-Covid to staying out of there period. Amazon, then. The batteries would arrive about the time Moon began to seriously wane, so I decided I’d start the Project with the Mallincam Junior in hopes of giving him a clean bill of health after the battery replacement.

While I call my little camera "Junior," as was kindly pointed out to me my Mallincam extraordinaire, Jack Huerkamp, he is actually a Junior Pro. The plain Junior is an entirely different camera. Anyhow, I holed the little cam to my new laptop upon which I’d installed the Mallicam Junior Pro control software (which allows you to set everything except long exposures). I wouldn’t be able to test the long exposure hand control, no, but I'd be able to see that the camera still functioned, and that the program was set up correctly. Fired everything up, started the software, selected the correct com port, and enabled the crosshair overlay, which appeared on the screen of my good old DVD player/monitor. So did the color bars when I enabled them. Looked like Junior was just fine despite not having been used in—get this—SIX YEARS!

Well, darn. The CR2 batteries finally arrived from Amazon on Thursday. Do you wanna guess what else arrived? Yep, clouds. Every night between Thursday and Tuesday showed up a disgusting red or yellow in my fave astro-weather-app, Scope Nights. Adding insult to injury? I discovered Publix sells CR2 batteries, so I coulda had one a week ago. Ah, well, such is the fate of this oft-bumbling astronomer.

I told y’all not to expect a new blog entry every Sunday, but it looks like you might get just that for a little while, anyhow. But don’t get used to it. As I mumbled the not long ago, I am thinking in these latter days “twice a month” sounds about right. However, twice a month it will be, no foolin’, and when I have the material to bring you an article every Sunday for a while, every Sunday you shall have.

Plugeroo Department:  If you are an imager and aren’t reading Amateur Astrophotography Magazine, why not? It’s evolved to the point where I can say it’s the best thing done on the subject in a long time—maybe ever. I should have mentioned it more often, but with the near-demise of this here blog over the last three years, I never got around to it.  Well, the blog is back and I’m telling y'all to get to this magazine's website and get your hands on it. I am proud to say some of old Unk’s simpleminded articles on the subject have even appeared in this fine publication in the past (don’t let that stop you from reading it!)…

Plugeroo Part Deux

You asked for it! Nay, you demanded it! Well, one or two people may have mentioned something about it. I am talking about the forthcoming 2nd Edition of Unk’s vaunted SCT book, Choosing and Using a New CAT. I recently recounted some of my work on it during my recovery from my accident last year--it was tough going due to your old Uncle's really dilapidated condition. But it all worked out. Overall, I am pleased indeed. It’s not often you get to go back and fix those nagging issues that have bothered you for the better part of a decade (like some of my prose, and those lousy black and white photos in the First Edition).

I can say without reservation this is a much better book than the First Edition, and if you like that, you should really, really like this one. What’s changed? Naturally, the buyer’s guide chapter was almost completely rewritten thanks to a decade of changes in the telescope market. Same with the imaging chapter. And a lot of my MESS has been cleaned up elsewhere in the book. Did the publisher do some things I don’t like? Sure. That’s the way the game is played. But, I’m happy with the results, no ifs, ands or buts.

“When,” you ask? Amazon got “mid-May” from the publisher, but here is the thing, y'all:  Up until about two weeks ago I was still working with the production department making corrections. And there’s the Covid virus. So…I am doubtful about May. All I can say is "When I know, you will."

Sunday, May 03, 2020


#559: Return of the Losmandy

“Return? Where did your Losmandy GM811G go, Unk?” It didn’t go nowhere muchachosincluding onto an observing field or even into the backyard for almost two years.

I received the mount in the latter part of 2017, was able to use it one night and part of another at the somewhat misbegotten 2017 Deep South Star Gaze, and employed it to help me with my Sky & Telescope Test Report on Meade’s 115mm APO (June 2018). That was pretty much it other than a few casual observing runs in the backyard that winter of 2017-18. Over most of 2018, truly lousy weather and the return of some lingering back problems discouraged me from using anything heavier than my Advanced VX, and often not even that. Then, in January of 2019, I was involved in the accident that sidelined me from observing with anything—even an 80mm refractor on an AZ-4 mount—for the better part of a year.

In the natural order of things, cursed 2019 finally marched off and 2020 took, its place. The new year has found my physical (and mental) condition improved, though I’m certainly not completely back to my old self. However, I’m improved enough to do a little observing from the backyard if not yet at star parties or other dark sites.

As we talked about last time, I recently got my Advanced VX and C8 into the backyard for a little video work, and in the course of doing so discovered the mount’s real time clock battery was dead as the proverbial doornail. Which got me to thinking the RTC battery in the GM811’s Gemini 2 computer was probably dead too. I decided the next clear stretch we got I would get the Losmandy outside and see if she needed a new battery.

What would I put on the Losmandy, though, campers? I was thinking that might be my beloved 6-inch refractor, Big Ethel. I had been planning on using her to do some Herschel 400 observing, and figgered it was high time I got started on that.

Anyhow, I began rounding up the pieces and parts of the Losmandy last Wednesday afternoon. The tripod, the excellent LW tripod that even broken down old me can carry around with ease, was in the sunroom closet. Also lurking there was the mount head itself in a big, plastic Tupperware-style container. And I knew the HC and some accessories were in an aluminum case labeled “Losmandy,” natch. The counterweight was sitting on the floor of said closet. “OK got everything, right? Wait…where is the Gemini 2 computer? And the cables to connect it to the mount?”

The Gemini 2 Computer.
I’ll admit I panicked for a minute—until one of my few remaining braincells fired and I recalled the Gemini 2 computer and associated cables were in a plastic pistol case I got from Academy. There wasn’t room in the aluminum tool attaché for the Gemini 2 as well as the hand control and power supply. A little hunting around and I finally laid my hands on it. First thing I did was get my label-maker and emblazon that case in big letters with “LOSMANDY GEMINI 2 COMPUTER.” After another spell of panic when opening that case didn’t reveal the mount’s dec and RA cables—they were under the foam of the lid of the case—I was all set for when the clouds were predicted to roll out on Thursday.

Yep, all was cool. Until I realized I no longer had the foggiest notion how to do a goto alignment with the Gemini. I went to the Gemini 2 Internet site and downloaded and printed a bunch of the documentation there. Biggest help of all, though, believe it or not, was your old Unk himself. I printed out the pages of this blog entry wherein I led y’all through the GM811 setup step by step. Sometimes my longwinded nature comes in handy, I reckon.

When Thursday afternoon began to die under a clear blue sky, I got the mount into the backyard starting with the LW (lightweight) tripod. As I remembered, it was light enough not to be a pain, not even in my somewhat pitiful current condition. Frankly, it’s easier to handle than a run-of-the-mill Chinese 2-inch steel legged tripod. Bolted the Gemini 2 computer onto that, and it was time for the only (somewhat) painful part of the process.

Next, natch, was the GM811 mount head. I won’t lie, it’s a bit of a handful. It’s lighter than a G11 head, since it utilizes the GM8 dec assembly (hence its name, GM811), but still heavier than the AVX to put it mildly. Still, it’s lots easier to handle than my old and long-sold Atlas and CGEM mounts and is capable of a 50-pound payload, including for imaging, something those old Synta mounts could not approach. I carried the head into the back 40 and up to the tripod in its container (which has nice handles) and got it onto the tripod with only a little whining and complaining.

The mount was assembled and pointing roughly north with the Gemini computer in place, the hand control connected, and the counterweight installed. Now to mount the six-inch refractor. I failed in doing that, friends

Pretty Hermione.
In the course of trying to get Ethel into the G11’s saddle, I nearly dropped her, cut myself on her dovetail, bled all over the tube, and gave it up as a bad business. In these latter days, I’ve learned one important thing:  If you don’t think you can do something or are uncomfortable about doing it, STOP.  It was obvious I was not going to get the big refractor on the mount, not on this day, so I dropped back a bit in aperture to my smaller and lighter refractor, the SkyWatcher 120mm APO, Hermione.

Pretty Hermione went on the mount without a hitch, and I had her well-balanced in just a couple of minutes. While I was doing that, I ruminated on my defeat at the hands of Ethel, and recalled I had developed a system for mounting her safely. A system I had ignored on this afternoon because I had forgotten it. I was actually pleased that in the somewhat befuddled mental state I still occasionally fall into, I had pulled that info out. While I was pretty sure I knew how to get Ethel in place, now, I decided to leave well enough alone and stick with Hermione for the GM811’s re-commissioning run.

After checking into a new 10-meter net we have going down here, the Lockdown Fun Net (28.420 on Thursdays at 23:59 UTC) and sharing a few yuks with the fellers, it was time to see what was up with the Losmandy. Would the battery be dead or near dead and cause problems? Would she work as well as she had in 2018? Would she work at all?

OK, rubber meets road time. I plugged in the Losmandy AC power supply, flipped the switch on the Gemini 2, and waited for the HC’s color touch screen to come to life. It did, which was reassuring, displaying “initializing.” That took a little bit, but I recalled that to be normal. Soon I was presented with the good, old opening menu. I chose “Cold Start,” and shortly was beginning my alignment. As you’ll know if you read the above-linked blog entry on the mount, my procedure is to line up on three – four stars west of the Meridian (at home I have my best view to the west), and one on the east side. I touched the align button and was presented with my first choice, Denebola. Wait. What? That part of Leo was still on the east side of the Local Meridian…could it be?

Yep, I backed out of the alignment and checked system time. It was off by nearly an hour. After almost three years the little button cell in the computer was still trying to keep time, but having a hard time of it. That was OK. I’d ordered batteries for both the Losmandy and Celestron RTCs (naturally the two mounts use different batteries), and those would arrive from Amazon on the morrow. For tonight, I’d just set the clock to the proper time and hope for the best.

Align screen on the hand control.
Time corrected, the HC’s alignment star choices became reasonable. I chose Pollux, Capella, Procyon, and Alkaid in the west, and Arcturus in the east and I was done. The first star needed a little slewing, but the rest fell into the field of my reticle eyepiece and only required minor adjustment. As I mention in the aforementioned article, I don’t do separate sky models in the east and west, just a western model with one eastern star added to it (I know that sounds odd; it did to me at first as well). That provides me with excellent goto accuracy in the hemisphere I’m working in, and acceptable accuracy in the opposite one in case I jaunt over to there.

Oh, by the way, I’d performed a precise polar alignment with Sharpcap before beginning. While there is a polar alignment helper in the Gemini 2 HC (a’ la AllStar), I have never tried it. Anyway, I doubt it would approach the accuracy of a Sharpcap alignment, which quickly gets you to within a few arc-seconds of the pole and is very easy to do. How sensitive is the Gemini 2 system to polar mis-alignment? Don’t ask me. I just do a Sharpcap alignment, even on visual nights.

“Hokay, let’s give her the acid test with a goto.” I was reasonably sure I’d be OK given the way the alignment stars had fallen into the field of the eyepiece, but you never know. “Hmm…let’s see; how about Messier 37?” I touched “goto” on the screen (I’d now had the sense to switch the color screen to night vision red), the motors whirred and purred—no weasels with tuberculosis sounds with this mount—and stopped. There was the beautiful open cluster centered in the 13mm Ethos. “Alrighty then; how about ‘harder’? M3 is still well on the east side of the Meridian.” The big spring glob was not quite centered, but almost. Swapped the 13mm eyepiece for the 8mm Ethos, and Hermione busted the thing into many tiny stars.

And so it went: M37, M3, M35, M36, M38, M51, M82, and, finally, just to remind myself how good Hermione is, Venus, who presented a color free little crescent. Almost all were pretty despite the presence of a fattening Moon riding high and considerable haze. Well, with the exception of M51. I could pick out the Whirlpool Galaxy with averted vision, but just barely.

As I was wrapping up, I began to believe it might be a good idea to revise my somewhat sanguine take on what I am calling “The New Herschel Project.” My original aim was to essay the 400 with Big Ethel, the 6-inch. Five years ago, that would have been more than possible from my backyard. Now? I’m not so sure.

Mrs. Emma Peel.
It’s not that light pollution is worse. There are few streetlights in our subdivision, Hickory Ridge, and the general sky brightness is, I’d say, no worse than it was when we moved out here. Most of the area’s growth is now on the other side of Mobile Bay, in Baldwin County. No, the problem is the weather. Weather patterns have definitely changed no matter what personal beliefs you might hold about climate change. Clear nights are fewer and hazier. And, strangely, on still, hazy nights seeing, which used to be outstanding down here on evenings like that, just ain’t as good as it once was.

So, here’s the plan: The New Herschel Project, which will, like the Big Enchilada, be visual plus video, will at least begin with an 8-inch, Mrs. Emma Peel, my Celestron Edge 800. If she starts knocking them off with ease visually, I will drop down to Big Ethel, perhaps. Video cameras? In tune with the kinder/gentler – simpler nature of the New Project, I intend to stick with the Revolution Imager, the Mallincam Micro, and, if either has trouble, the Mallincam Junior.

The plan for the Friday morning following the mount’s successful revival was to get my laptop squared away. The mount is most versatile and most pleasant to operate from a PC when you utilize the Gemini 2’s Ethernet connection (it will also do serial or USB). Unfortunately, the laptop I was using when I bought the Losmandy has long since gone to its reward. I’d have to spend some time configurating the new one, a nice Lenovo.

First thing, I downloaded Stellarium, Stellarium Scope, Sky Tools 3, the ASCOM platform, and the Gemini 2 Ascom driver. Installed all of  that stuff. Next up was configuring the Ethernet connection—which I recalled was not a horrible experience, if not exactly fun. I’d been successful before, though, so I wasn’t skeered.

Okey-dokey…first step is assigning a static IP address to the Ethernet port on the laptop. I opened the network center in Win 10, went to the adapters window and… What? In the window was an icon for Wi-Fi, and an icon for Bluetooth. Where was the icon for “local area network”? I had a sinking feeling and began eyeballing the laptop’s connectors. HDMI? Sure. Several USB 3 receptacles? Yep. Ethernet? No. Nope. Nada.

What would I do, what would I do? First thought was just to set up for USB. But I recalled how darned good Ethernet worked. I wouldn’t give up without a struggle. Could there be such a thing as a USB – Ethernet adapter? A trip to Amazon showed that indeed there was, and I got one on its way to me for less than 20 bucks.

Tonight, Friday night, I will be back in the backyard again at least briefly to check that the battery replacement for the Gemini 2 worked OK—the little button cells arrived right on schedule Friday morning. I’ll probably look at a few purty ones as well, and I will, I guess, switch out Hermione for Mrs. Peel. But next step on the road to the New Project is getting the computer squared away. We are expecting maybe four more clear nights, but the moon is waxing, and I expect it will be week after next before there's much chance of getting any Herschels in the can. You will learn about my success with that—or lack thereof—in the next installment.

Speaking of installments, how often will the blog be updated now that it is, no foolin’, back? I don’t think you should expect “every Sunday” as in days of yore, but “a couple of times a month” sounds reasonable—though that will depend on the weather. It’s not like, given the Covid Lockdown and my still somewhat frail condition, that there will be any trips to big (or even small) star parties for me to report on anytime soon. I think we will be able to have some fun in the good, old backyard, however.

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