Tuesday, August 29, 2023
Issue 595: A New Way to Autostar Part II
Bluetooth module for the Meade Autostar. Secondly, I have resolved not to let a single month go by without an update to this here old blog, so I had to do something so I could write about something.
So it was on one recent passable, though far from good, evening I got my ETX125PE, Miss Charity Hope Valentine, out into the backyard. No, the sky wasn’t good at all. A gibbous Moon was shining bravely in the east, but one look at her and I knew there was a layer of haze encompassing at least that part of the sky. And despite Sweet Charity not being much of a handful to set up, I was sweatin’ by the time I was done getting her on her tripod. I quickly retired to the den to cool off and await darkness.
As those of y’all who’ve observed with me know, however, when there is observing on the menu your old Unk tends to get Go Fever. I fidgeted on the couch for a while, tried to watch the boob tube (Ahsoka), then went back outside to Charity to see how things was a-goin’.
They were going just a mite slow. Yes, here at the tail-end of August it is getting dark a little—a little—earlier, but we won’t see much improvement on that score till dadgum Daylight Savings Time ends. So, I fiddled around, repositioning the eyepiece case, opening it up and looking inside to make sure my fave 1.25-inch ocular was still in there (a Konig I’ve had for almost 30 years), and taking an occasional gander at the sky. I didn’t like the way it looked, but reckoned it was better than nuthin’. I did precious little observing last month, and August has been even worse in that regard. One good thing: It has been strangely dry the last few weeks and there were no skeeters buzzing.
Maybe it was thinking about that Konig that somehow led me to ruminating on my long-ago Chaos Manor South nights. Those who haven’t been with this here blog for long might not know what “Chaos Manor South” is (or was). Well, it was the old Victorian Manse where Unk lived with Miss Dorothy from the time of our marriage till about a decade ago, when Unk retired and he and D. decided they no longer needed the space the stately manor offered, nor wanted to do the upkeep it required.
here, not only had the lovely Miss Dorothy recently come into my life, so had Old Betsy, a 12-inch Meade StarFinder Dobsonian. She was the largest telescope I’d ever owned, and I was amazed at what and how much I could see with her from downtown Possum Swamp.
An evening of observing would begin with me dodging cats. Chaos Manor South’s resident Siamese cat (and queen, she thought), Miss Sue Lynn would watch as I began to gather the things I needed for an observing run and would resolutely insist I needed her help. I had a horror of her wandering off in the dark. And being downtown, there was enough traffic to make that a real hazard for her. So, I’d bribe her with a can of Fancy Feast and somehow try to get that enormous old OTA outside before she wised up (in those days, Betsy was still in her original Sonotube body, and it was like wrestling with a water heater).
With Old Betsy in our small urban backyard, what else did I need? The observing table (a TV tray) held the very same old black plastic Orion eyepiece box full of 1.25-inchers I had outside with Charity on this evening. Inside it? Some treasured Plössls from Orion and Vixen, the utterly horrible “Modified Achromats” that shipped from Meade with Bets (why I didn’t just toss them in the trash I don’t know—that bad), and of course, that lovely 17mm Konig I bought at the 1993 Deep South Regional Star Gaze.
This was long before I began using a laptop computer in the field with a telescope. At the time, a laptop was still an expensive thing. It gave me the heebie-jeebies to think about subjecting one to Possum Swamp’s dew-laden night air. I was using a computer (a genu-wine IBM 486) for amateur astronomy though. I’d print out charts from two of the greatest astro-programs there ever were: David Chandler’s Deep Space 3D, and Emil Bonanno’s Megastar. Both are more or less forgotten relics of the amateur astronomy past (DS3D never even made the transition from DOS to Windows), but both could produce very beautiful, very detailed, very deep printed charts.
You might think it funny I’d need detailed charts for a light-polluted urban sky. But in those days, they were actually more valuable to me there than they were under dark skies. As you know, higher magnification tends to spread out light pollution, revealing objects that might be invisible at lower powers. Often, I’d star-hop in an area like the Virgo Cluster with the main scope. I would, as I called it, eyepiece hop with my treasured 12mm Nagler Type II and those DS3D or Megastar printouts.Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition is a close second).
What else was out there with me as a slight chill descended on a mid-autumn urban evening? If I was being serious, I had some blank observing forms and a sketchpad, pencils, and pens to record what I saw of the urban sky. Not so serious? Just my Orion astronomer’s flashlight (the yellow one with—gasp—an incandescent flashlight bulb powered by two D-cells). Those were the simple days, weren’t they? Of late, at least when it comes to backyard astronomy, I seem to be pining for them.
And then… I’d just pick a constellation in the clear from the huge old oaks that blocked much of it and see how deep I could drill down. A typical project (I’ve always liked observing projects)? Observe every single open cluster Betsy and me could see in Cassiopeia (there are a few). Whatever I looked at, it was wonderful.
Said ruminations came to a halt when I realized it was finally getting good and dark, and no matter how much I missed The Old Way, it was time to concentrate on new-fangled stuff like Bluetooth…
Well, alrighty then. As I mentioned in Part I, the Digital Optica Bluetooth Module is impressive. It snaps onto the bottom of the Autostar hand paddle and honestly looks like it came out of the same factory that produced Charity. Module plugged into the Autostar, and hand control cable plugged into it and into Charity, it was time to get aligned.
The ETX PE provides a semi-automatic goto alignment routine that makes it a joy to use. Put the tube in home position (level and rotated counterclockwise to the hard azimuth stop), turn the girl on, and she does a little dance, finding north and level. That done, she heads for two alignment stars, bright stars. You center them with the red-dot finder and in the main eyepiece (I use an ancient Kellner equipped with crosshairs) and you are done. Charity’s gotos were good all night, as I expected them to be, since she’d stopped close to both alignment stars.
Next up, I went inside to fetch the laptop I’ve used for astronomy the last several years. A nice Lenovo with a solid-state hard drive. On said drive being more astro-ware than humans should be allowed to have. What I intended to use on this summer night would be my favorite in my current “simpler” days, Stellarium. It is really a capable program now, containing many thousands of deep sky objects. It certainly does everything this old boy can even dream of needing to do.
With it successfully paired, the rest is duck soup if you’ve ever used Stellarium with a telescope. In Stellarium’s scope-set up menu, establish an Autostar connection; you will see there is a com port (like “com 3”) now associated with ScopeAccess. Choose that, click “connect,” and you should be, well, connected. The Stellarium software is savvy enough to establish a serial connection over Bluetooth for you; you don’t have to know anything about any of that—thankfully. Once you are connected, the scope is controlled exactly the same as if you had a serial cable between scope and computer—no difference.
What is the bottom line on Digital Optica Bluetooth device? It works. It just works. It never dropped out on me or did anything funny. There were no delays when I’d choose an object in Stellarium and issue a goto command. If you didn’t know the scope and computer were connected by radio, you’d think you had a serial cable plugged in. I think that is the most praise I can give any observing tool—it worked well, and it worked simply and transparently. Note that the module does not require you to use Stellarium. Any program you can connect to a telescope over a serial port should work just fine. I just like Stellarium. It’s pretty and it is cheap.
“But what did you look at, Unk? What did you look at, huh?” I looked at quite a few things. Beginning with M3 and M13 and M53. Which almost ended my evening. One gaze at the Great Globular in Hercules and I near about threw the Big Switch, “Hell, it don’t look worth a flip tonight.” But then I thought back to those ancient nights at Chaos Manor South. What would I have done then?
I knew the answer very well. I’d tell myself, “Wait. Concentrate. Look some more. Spend plenty of time with the object. Increase the magnification. Try a different eyepiece. You will only see if you look.” Indeed, following those old strictures I began to see. "Dang! There are some stars in M3! Wonder if I can pick up some in M13 with a 5-inch on a punk night? Yep, takes 200x, but I’m seeing ‘em. M92? Stars, yay!” And so it went till the night grew old (it did not grow cold, alas), and I had finally had enough of the deep sky. Well, enough for one late August’s eve.
As for the Digital Optica Bluetooth widget (well, “module,” or “transceiver” if you prefer). It works. End of story. Game over. Zip up your fly. If you think you’d prefer connecting wirelessly to the scope rather than having a cord you will inevitably trip over for your Autostar equipped Meade, just to get you one. The price sure is right.