Friday, June 28, 2024


Issue 605: What Do I Use Now?


Muchachos, I make no secret of the fact I miss the go-go days of Baby Boomer astronomy. Which was at its height from the 1980s through the oughts or a little past that, maybe almost to the time of the plague. Like many of you then, I was almost as interested and obsessed about THE GEAR as I was about actually using it on the sky.

There were times in the decades I lived downtown at the original and storied Chaos Manor South that collecting and dreaming about new Astrostuff was almost my sole focus in the hobby. It was often all I could do night-by-night. I was lucky to get out to a dark site once a month, and what I could see from my oak-enshrouded backyard was limited to say the least.

How things have changed. It seems I am back to observing with telescopes rather than collecting them. And that is observing in a relaxed fashion. When you have a decent—if not perfect—suburban backyard as I do at the new Chaos Manor South, you don’t feel as pressured to go pedal-to-the metal every time you are out under the night sky.

But that’s not the only reason. Post pandemic, it’s no secret there’s less of that astrostuff to buy (Taken a stroll through the astromag ad pages lately?) and what there is is more expensive and often backordered. There have been some interesting advances over the last few years, nevertheless, like the rise of the smartscope and black boxes like ZWO’s ASIAIR, both of which make astro-imaging into a new ballgame. But we no longer wait breathlessly for the next ginormous Meade technicolor catalog extravaganza. That sort of amateur astronomy appears to be in the rearview mirror.

There’s also the ME factor. As in, I am a different me than I was when I retired in 2013. When we left ol’ Chaos Manor South, all, it seemed, would go on as it had the past two decades. I’d just transfer the contents of the Massive Equipment Vault to the new manse. Then, shockingly, your Old Uncle began to realize he was tired. Tired of ALL THE STUFF. Now that I could use telescopes, it seemed I was more interested in doing that than worrying about what, if anything, might come next. And, so, I began to thin the telescope herd…

Tanya the Rescue Scope
Those of y’all who know me or who are regular readers, are aware the waters ran a lot deeper than that. That the changes retirement brought to my outlook were much more profound. But, nevertheless, the result was I wanted less stuff, sold much, and don’t use half of what I retain. “But what do ya still use Unk, what you do ya use, huh?

That’s a good question, Skeeter. I could go on about the lovely APOs I still have, and the beautiful Losmandy mount, yadda, yadda, yadda. That would be whistling past the graveyard, though. The only time any of that gets pulled out is when I need it for a Sky & Telescope assignment. I don’t choose to use it because I want to use it.

What do I use first and foremost? A pair of 15x70 binoculars I bought from the late (that is hard to believe) Bill Burgess twenty-one years ago. If there’s a more versatile pair of glasses than 15x70s (or so), I don’t know what it is. They offer good aperture, but also enough magnification to keep compromised suburban skies on the dark side. Also, they are still handholdable—if a slight pain for extended use. I have numerous pairs of binoculars, from exquisite 35mms all the way up to 100mm giants. None get used other than the 15x70s. The Burgess binoculars are what I will and do use.

When I want or need to use a telescope? If I’m lazy and/or need wide fields, the scope I grab ‘n go with is one I would have laughed at 20 years ago. I am talking about Tanya, the Rescue Telescope. She is a 4.5-inch Celestron Newtonian with a focal ratio of f/5.2 and a spherical mirror. She is perched on an alt-az fork on a spindly extruded aluminum tripod, the kind I used to preach against those decades ago. Why would your Old Uncle use a Department Store telescope? Why would I allow one in my presence?

That is simple. When I want to see something, whether a planet, or a deep sky object, or the latest comet, or whatever I use Tanya because she works. The way I want a scope to work. She sits in my radio shack/workshop of the telescopes, the Batcave, near the door and is ready to go at a moment’s notice. Oh, she takes a little while to acclimate, but by the time I’ve rounded-up a box of 1.25-inch eyepieces she is ready to run. When I am done, or if the sky clouds over, or hour grows late (that is now 10pm) I can pick her up in one hand, tripod and all, and waltz her back inside.

“But Unk, ain’t the images pitiful?” No, they ain’t. Yes, there is a limit to the resolution of a 4.5-inch spherical mirror. At f/5.2 one approaches ½ wave of error. But guess what, campers? At 100x and lower her images are just fine. The Moon is beautiful and sharp, I can see the Great Red Spot, and Saturn is the detailed wonder he always has been. She will even go beyond, a little beyond, 100x without complaint. More than that and the trouble is more with her little mount than her mirror.

Miss Valentine
All that’s just OK; the sort of looking I do now…admiring and wondering over the Double or ET clusters or just the Pleiads...doesn’t require more magnification or a big mirror or a fine pedigree. Anyhoo, the ground truth is the same as with the Burgesses, she is what I will use and, so, is what I do use.

Of course, there are times when I want more. Specifically, a goto telescope so I don’t have to spend my night squinting up at the hazy suburban sky with a red dot finder when I am hunting subtler prey (which for me now is DSOs like M82, not some dadgum PGC).  And one with a little more focal length to make achieving higher magnification easier. As with the Burgess binocs, more magnification makes the field darker and improves contrast. What spells relief? 5-inches at f/15 on a goto mount. That of course is my old girlfriend, the one you’ve so often read about in these pages, Miss Charity Hope Valentine, an ETX-125PE.

I used to make fun of Charity’s sometimes varying goto accuracy. Now? I don’t care if she puts something on the edge of the field instead of smack in the middle (which she often does anyway).  I am no longer obsessed by such things. Her optics are sharp, dead sharp, and she has enough aperture to make most of the deep sky objects I visit, the bright and prominent ones, “acceptable.” Which is enough for me now, it seems. At any rate, as with the binoculars and Tanya, when I want more telescope, Charity is what I will use.

Are “telescope years” like dog years or more like human years? I ain’t sure. One thing I am sure of is that Charity is almost 20 years old now. There is the chance she will let out the Magic Smoke some night. I’ve taken care of her and done any repairs she’s needed. But it could happen. If it did, her replacement would be a six-inch f/5 SkyWatcher Newtonian on a goto mount. The optics are good, the goto is accurate, and it is controlled from a smartphone, something I find handy in my old age as I get lazier and lazier. Right now, the SkyWatcher gets out under the stars when I need goto, but a little more field than what the f/15 Miss Valentine can offer. 

How about eyepieces? Oh, I haven't got rid of any of them. No need to; they don't take up much room and most do get into a focuser occasionally. The same old crew is still here, ranging from time-honored Vixen Plössls to high-toned Televue Ethoses. If I needed more, I wouldn't hesitate to still buy oculars, but I seem to have what I need. Since the telescopes I use are 1.25-inch only, naturally the 2-inchers don't get pulled out often. Luckily, the Ethoses and Explore Scientific eyepieces I own are all 1.25-inch capable. "Come on, Unk. Which ones do ya use?" OK, I'll fess up. That's most often the 1.25-inchers in the old Orion eyepiece box. Those Vixen Plössls, some Expanse Wide Fields, and that wonderful König I bought at a long-ago star party.

Dang! Almost back where I started!
Imaging? I have probably said enough about how I do that recently to make you tired of hearing about it. What I use is my ZWO S50 SeeStar. She takes pictures that please me and allows me to image the deep sky frequently—if I had to drag out the Losmandy mount, a laptop, an SBIG CCD cam, and all the rest of the yadda-yadda-yadda, it’s likely I might do astrophotography once or twice a year, which is pretty much what my recent output had been. Since I got the SeeStar, Suzie, however, astrophotos have been pouring out of my iPhone.  But, again with that much sought after ground truth:  She is what I will use and, so, is what I do use. 

Staying on the topic of what I will use, but switching gears a mite to astro-software, there have been changes aplenty there as well, muchachos. Yes, sometimes I just grab the Sky & Telescope Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas and use that to plot my journey. But I find I see more if I generate an observing list with software. And my aging eyes do find it easier to decipher a chart on a smartphone or laptop screen than on dew-laden paper. So, yeah, I still use an observing planner, if not the sophisticated sort I once did.

Back in the glorious Day, when I was decidedly more ambitious than I am now, I’d use huge and powerful planning programs like SkyTools or Deep Sky Planner to generate my object lists. Those are two wonderful pieces of software and I recommend them highly if you are more hardcore than latter-day Unk.  Now? The lists I can generate with the SkySafari app on my iPhone are more than good enough. Click “observe,” create a new list, and start populating it with objects, all with a few touches of the iPhone screen. No, it ain’t got the power of DSP or SkyTools, but—soundin’ like that proverbial broken record—it is what I will to use and is mostly all I do use.

I don’t just use SkySafari for list-making, either. I use it for almost everything astronomical ‘round here. As y’all may know, I’ve at least tried just about every piece of astronomy software from Sky Travel (Commodore 64) onward that has come down the ol’ pike. All the biggies. And I’ve loved many of them and found many of them indispensable for our pursuit. Now, though, SkySafari does what I need, does it well, and is beautiful.

I do love me some SkySafari!
Of course, there are times when I don’t want to squint at a phone. I want the more expansive screen real estate of a laptop/desktop. When that’s been the case for moi, I’ve mostly used the shareware (do they still call it that?) program Stellarium. It isn’t quite SkySafari, but close. I do still use Cartes du Ciel with my astronomy students, since it does some things in ways I prefer for the classroom. Honestly, though?  What I’ve really wanted is SkySafari on a laptop.

When I finally got tired of dumb old Winders and got myself a MacBook Air M2, I thought, “Well, dang, now I can get the Mac version of SkySafari!” Alas, the Mac page at the maker’s, Simulation Curriculum’s, site was gone. The program was still apparently available in the app store but had not been updated in years. What the—?  I temporarily gave up the idea of SkySafari on a laptop and loaded up the Mac flavor of Stellarium.

Then, recently, I decided to do some research about SkySafari on the Mac. The gist of it? Seemed as how the old Mac SkySafari was dead. As dead as the Intel Macintoshes. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t have SkySafari for my Mac, it ‘peared. Many iOS apps now run jus’ fine on the new Macs, the Silicon Macs (machines with an Apple M1 processor or better). Was it possible I could run SkySafari Pro on my Apple Computer, my M2? ‘Deed it was.

For less than 20 bucks I could download SkySafari Pro from the Mac app store. Which I did. After it installed? SHAZAM! There was my favorite astroware on a big(ger) screen and looking pretty—awful pretty! I haven’t had a lot of time to play with it yet but suffice it to say it seems to work great on the Mac, looks beautiful, and, not surprisingly, seems to have every feature of the iPhone app (which is what it really is, after all).

Anyhoo, there you have it. That short list is the astronomy tools I use, binoculars, a couple of smallish telescopes, my iPhone, and a laptop once in a while. But I’m keeping on trucking, onward and upward as they say, whoever “they” are.

And what’s onward from here? This installment was supposed to cover my reobservation of the objects in Coma from my book, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. The “Tresses of Berenice” chapter, that is. Urania had other ideas, keeping her sky veiled down here in the Swamp night after night. Coma is sinking now, and I hope I get a shot at it before the Gulf storms begin spinning up. Yay or nay, though, I’ll be back here next month with more of my down-home astro-foolishness...



At similar age (I am 67) the eyesight gradually diminishes. I cannot fathom using a cell phone to run astronomy apps because, well the screens are too darn small! I as for astro gear, I plan to sell off my 16 inch truss tube dob, and to downsize to an 8 inch SCT, specifically a Celestron CPC Deluxe HD. That should be sufficient for all of my needs.

As for software, I exclusively use TheSkyX Pro. I know it is more difficult to use than more popular PC apps. However, I had invested in large amount of time to learn it to do my job at Mount Wilson Observatory, I find that it is a powerful tool indeed.
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