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.

I am getting long in the tooth too so I will be purchasing an 8 inch SCT to replace my 10 inch SCT.

That must be one sharp dovetail. I feel your pain after wrestling my Astro Telescopes 152 onto my CG5 (a bit too much for the mount I know, but...). It's OK for visual. It's good to have you back on the blog; I've been missing it.

Just revamped my 10 inch SCT after years of no use. Found your blog, reminded me of the days when I lived in Mobile and the meetings at MAS!
Kent Sauter

Not a comment about this article in particular, but just to say it's great to see you back online and updating the blog. I've been following your articles in print and online for many years and have missed your entertaining and insightful writing. Good to see you return - and I hope your recovery is going well.

It is good to see you back Unk', and a blog once or twice a month would be excellent!

Take care!


8 months ago I bought a C14 because I figured I would never again be as young as I was then. It is kind of heavy and very awkward to put on my mount, but the views have been phenomenal. I suppose that since I don’t have a crew to set up my equipment my motivation to get in better shape has been a good thing. I was looking for a gym that specialized in old guy Crossfit but recent events have stopped that. Now, I just do fitness stuff at home and get out to dark places as much as possible to do my stargazing..
Hey Unk!

Long time no see!

I've been away for ummm a decade or so [no not that "away"] but work, life etc meant the C8 has sat silent for quite a while.

So up to date sitting here, pandemic on the go, no job, no freaking industry left what's a man to do?

Well apart from starting to dig out hole for a pier it was finally time to sign up for CN and dig into cat's and casses.

My favourite topic collimation was hi on agenda when I saw a hyper for Unk Rod's astro blog and I thought NO WAY this guy has to be Chinese [or something] but no it's really you!!

OK joking apart for a moment.

It's great to read your prose again and great to see your getting back into astro after your accident..

So I'm about to go and [re]join QCUIAG on fb and get myself MOTIVATED.

Stay well ol muchacho. ;)

Andy Brown, Perthshire, Scotland.

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