Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Chiefland Redux Redux

I could just as easily have called this one “Night of the C8.” Or “C8s Forever!” That wasn’t what I’d planned, though. When I go down to Chiefland, which I seem to do more and more frequently of late, I like to take a fairly Big Gun as I judge such things: the NexStar 11. My 12-inch Dob. Something that will really take advantage of the still-dark skies of the Chiefland Astronomy Village.

What’s a "Chiefland Astronomy Village," you ask? If you’ve been reading this here blog long, you know all about CAV, as you’ve seen enough enthusiastic articles about it here. If not, well, I’ll tell ya: it’s a housing development for amateur astronomers under the relatively unspoiled skies of Chiefland, Florida (if you’ve read Pat Frank’s classic novel of thermonuclear Armageddon, Alas Babylon, just think “Fort Repose”) in the central part of the state, not far from the west coast.

What I like to do is take a Thursday off from work, pack up the car with the biggest telescope and as much gear as I can cram into a Toyota Camry, make the six-and-a-half hour drive south to CAV, and spend the next several days in deep sky heaven. On any given New Moon weekend, you’ll find a dozen to a couple dozen of us Chiefland Astronomy Club members on the field enjoying the skies and each-other’s company in very relaxed fashion. Except on the twice-yearly occasions when large organized star parties are held at the site, there is plenty of elbow room, and there are also plenty of amenities: a warm-room (the “clubhouse”) with real bathrooms, microwave, and fridge; showers; electricity for the field; and wi-fi Internet. Don’t tell Tom Clark, Tom Crowley, and the rest of the CAV honchos I said so, but I’d gladly pay two or three times the annual CAC dues for the privilege of using such a wonderful site.

OK, so the Chiefland Astronomy Village is nice. What the hail has that got to do with cotton-picking C8s? It all started with my visit to the doc’s. I know a lot of you bubbas out there don’t like to go to the sawbones; I don’t either, but after I hit 40 I came to realize that had to change if I wanted to spend a few retirement years observing rather than sitting on the couch (or six feet under). As you might expect, I didn’t come up with this resolution entirely on my own. One of my fellow local amateurs is a physician, and he helped your silly Uncle see the light in this regard. Thus began a regular regimen of office visits to various MDs and plenty of lab work to go with that. All continued well year after year until the day a few weeks back when one of Unk’s physicians mentioned the dreaded “C” word. Yep, “cancer,” but luckily with a small “c.” Not unlike a lot of folks on our sunny coast, it seemed I’d developed skin cancer. No doubt attributable to all those long afternoons spent fishing on sunny creek-sides as a sprout.

The good news was that, while something had to be done about the situation, this particular cancer was not life threatening—though damaging if allowed to progress. The “something” was an out-patient procedure that involved slicing and dicing your ol’ Uncle six ways to Sunday and, finally, stitching him back together. I felt a bit like Doc Frankenstein’s creation once Miss Dorothy and I got back to the comforting halls of Chaos Manor South, but I nevertheless had no intention of canceling my Chiefland expedition that was set to begin the following day. Naturally, Miss D. was a little concerned about that, imagining me pulling stitches out and falling apart like a ten-cent ragdoll as I loaded or unloaded a big scope. Out in the middle of (semi) nowhere.

Tell the truth, after a day at the doctor’s, I wasn’t too hip to doing much along those lines meself. What then? Well, there was always my C8 rig—a 1995 Ultima 8 OTA riding on a CG5 mount (“Celestron ASGT”). While I was a bit miffed about falling back to a C8 for a serious deep sky observing endeavor, I figured that, if nothing else, it would at least give me the opportunity try out some new software I had for the CG5. I was also curious to see how my beloved 8 and 13-mm Ethos eyepieces would work with the 8; especially with my omnipresent f/6.3 reducer/corrector on the rear cell. Still, I was skeptical as to how much hardcore deep sky stuff I’d wind up seeing with Just a C8.

The 375 miles between Possum Swamp and Chiefland went by in uneventful fashion. My slicings and dicings weren’t bothering me, and the audio book I’d loaded onto the iPod, Stephen King’s new one, Duma Key, made the trip as enjoyable as any long solo journey can be. In fact, didn’t seem like much time at all had passed before I was checking into the Chiefland Holiday Inn Express and heading out to the site for gear-setup. I’ll admit the drive and the long previous day of playing dissection specimen had left me a little wearier than I usually am at journey’s end, but the obvious prospect of dead clear skies kept me going.

When I got to work, it became abundantly clear the C8 had indeed been a wise choice as my companion for this trip. One just ain’t that labor intensive to set up. Plop tripod down. Place mount head on tripod and add counterweights. Perch the C8 on that, and you are done—none of which will come even close to causing most folks to bust a gut. I didn’t strain anything or say any cuss words. Up went the EZ-up tent-canopy; under that went the camp table and laptop enclosure.

One extra thing I had put in the car, mostly on a whim, was my little 66mm William Optics “Patriot SD” ED refractor. I hadn’t used her in a while, so I figgered I’d give the little one her due share of photons riding piggyback on the Ultima C8. I pulled a few more errant equipment cases and the eyepiece box out of the car, placed ‘em on or under the table, and I was done. I did set up near the CAV clubhouse in case I started feeling icky and needed to sit down in a (relatively) warm place for a while.

Astro Stuff ready to go, I made my customary quick run into town for a few supplies, mainly Monster Energy Drinks (the best “astronomy accessory” I’ve discovered in a long time), and a couple of bags o’ Jack Links for field snacking. In the depth of winter, sunset comes on before you know it, so I had to hustle. Dropped off the six-pack of Colorado kool-aid I'd picked up for post observing relaxing back at the room, grabbed my warmest coat (the one that allowed me to survive Bath, Maine one February), and headed back to the field.

The first item on Thursday night's agenda was checking out my “new” NexStar hand control. New? In what way? In the way of new firmware. Celestron released an updated version of its GEM hand controller code simultaneously with its new CGEM German mount. It wasn’t long after that that the good folks in Califor-nye-a made the software available for Celestron CG5 and CGE users too, both as a downloadable file for updating the HC, and as a new version of the NexRemote software. While I usually use NexRemote, I wanted to make sure my upgraded non-virtual HC worked, too, so I decided to give that a go on Night One.

I was also curious about the new features the GEM 4.15 build boasts. The most interesting of which is “All Star.” Previously, the Celestron software included a simple but effective polar alignment facility: do a go-to alignment, select “polar align” in the Utility menu, and the mount would slew to where it thought Polaris should be given a perfect polar alignment. Center the star in the eyepiece using the mount’s altitude and azimuth adjusters, and the result was a polar alignment more than good enough for high-power visual observing and all but the most hardcore imaging. How could that be improved upon? All Star brings the capability to use any (well, almost any) star in the sky as the alignment “tool,” not just Polaris. Another plus? Following the completion of the original polar alignment procedure users were instructed to do a new go-to alignment—the mount had been physically moved. All Star reputedly made doing a new star alignment unnecessary.

How well did this newfangled alignment routine work? Purty good. Is it better than the old one? I’m still not sure. Once you find the All Star instructions in one of Celestron’s new manuals (I used the CGEM instructions; I don’t believe the CG5 manual has been updated yet), doing an All Star is mostly easy. Finish your normal go-to setup—I did a two-star plus four calibration stars—and decide which star to use for polar alignment. The hand control will caution you not to use a star near the eastern or western horizons, but provides no more guidance than that. I’ve heard it’s best to choose a sparkler near where the Local Meridian and the Celestial Equator intersect, so I tried to do just that. Unfortunately, early in the evening at this time of year there are no prominent stars in that area that are included in the NexStar HC’s “named star” list. So I just picked good, ol’ Beetle Juice.

Step one is to slew to the star you want to use. You can use any star in the hand control, but it’s much easier to, as above, choose a member of the “named” list. Once there, you push the align button on the HC, and scroll down to “polar align.” The rest is easy. The scope will re-slew to the same star and onscreen prompts will have you center it with the hand control buttons and press Align. Finally, the mount will initiate one last slew to where it thinks the star should be given a perfect polar alignment. When that’s done, you’ll be instructed to center up using the alt-az screws/controls (not hand control buttons). That’s all there is to it.

How did it work for me? I had no problem performing the basic procedure; it worked just as outlined in the manual. But how good were the results? I didn’t intend to do any long exposure imaging on this expedition, but I did do some unguided 30-second snapshots using my (original) Meade LPI. The results were at least as good as what I customarily obtained with the older alignment method. Oh, yeah, there’s a utility in the hand control to tell you how good your polar alignment is. It said I was only arc-seconds away from the Celestial Pole. But I don’t know if’n I believe that or not. I hope to do some further testing as the skies permit.

Anything I didn’t like or was put out about? That claim about not having to do a new go-to alignment. Oh, it’s sorta true. But you will swiftly find that if you had to move the alt-az adjusters an appreciable amount, your go-tos will be considerably off. You cain’t just do nuttin’ honey. The manual offers a procedure that involves un-syncing the polar alignment star and “replacing” the two go-to alignment stars with themselves. This may work very well, and I will try it soon, but I was tired and the wording in the instructions left me baffled given my somewhat muddled condition. Instead, I just hit the big (or, actually, little) switch to power down, and redid my go-to alignment, which worked fine.

What about the HC’s other features? The other major addition is a “tandem” setting. Many imagers don’t like to piggyback scope and guidescope, and instead put the two side-by-side on a “tandem” dovetail bar. I sometimes do that myself. However, the CG5 expects you to start out with the declination (and RA) axes set on marks so it has an idea where it is starting from. Unfortunately, turning the declination axis so the marks line up puts tandem-mounted scopes facing east or west instead of north as they must be.

The Tandem routine allows you to tell the mount the scopes are pointing 90 degrees east or west from the “normal” position and it will take that into account during the alignment. I didn’t try this procedure, but it sounds somewhat—if not overly—helpful. All the mount really cares about is that you start from the same place every time, not where the marks are physically placed. You can start the mount in any position as long as you always start it from there and the scope is pointing north. This procedure’s sole benefit is that it will allow you to use the factory installed declination marks rather than new ones you make yourself for a tandem set up.

Anything else? Other than some bug fixes, the only other major change is that the mount now uses the current Epoch instead of Epoch 2000 (Jnow vice J2000). What does this mean to you? The mount now takes precession into account when calculating object positions. What does that mean without sending you to a freaking freshman astronomy textbook? Not much. Mainly that where the scope is pointed and where a planetarium program running on a laptop you’ve got connected to the mount says it is pointed will agree more closely. Did any of the bug fixes make any difference to moi? Not that I could tell. The mount put anything I requested in the field of the C8 from horizon to horizon, but it has always done that.

I’ve been gushing about my 13-mm and 8-mm Ethos eyepieces for months now. They have just kicked butt in my 12-inch f/5 Dob. But how would they work in my C8? Especially with the f/6.3 reducer/corrector I customarily use? I had not had a chance to find out; we’ve had one of the cloudiest winters in memory. Following my trip to the Deep South Regional Star Gaze last October, I had literally seen nothin’—well, maybe a glimpse or two of the Moon with the StarBlast.

So how did the Ethoses do under the dark skies of CAV with a reduced C8? They did spectacularly well. All the strengths they display in my Dob are there with the C8 too: wide fields (really wide fields at f/6.3 with an 8-inch), pinpoint stars way out toward the field stop, dead sharp images—I’ve looked at M42 a million times, natch, but I do not believe I have ever seen more of it in an 8-inch scope than I did on this evening. Particularly notable was the well-defined shape of M43; it was a stark little comma criss-crossed with dark lanes. Were there any reducer/corrector problems? Not really. Actually, not any peculiar to using it with the Ethoses. Put a bright star in certain places in the field and you are apt to get reflections, but that can happen with any eyepiece.

Suffice to say that I used nothing but the 13 and 8 the entire time I was Down Chiefland Way, and the 6.3 r/c never came off the rear cell. My only regret? I left my Denkmeier PowerSwitch at home. The William Optics Dielectric diagonal I used was great, but I want to see how the Es do with the PowerSwitch’s reducer and Barlow. Next Time.

All-in-all Thursday night was one for the books. The Chiefland skies were every bit as good as I’ve ever seen ‘em. The Orion/Monceros/Canis Major part of the sky just blazed away. Only bringdown? It was cold. Some of the coldest weather to hit this part of the state in quite a spell. I missed the worst of it, but Thursday night the dial thermometer under my EZ-up was nevertheless quickly sinking below the “32” mark as the night grew older.

The cold and my weariness—the result of my medical trials and the drive down—had by midnight conspired to make me admit I was ready for motel room/heater/cable TV/Rebel Yell. Finding nothing on but infomercials by the time I got back to the Holiday Inn Express, I hooked up the DVD and watched one of my fave star party films, The Devil's Rejects. Why is that a star party film? Because that's just the way Unk felt at the end of the notorious '97 Texas Star Party, which was held in Leakey, Texas instead of wonderful Prude Ranch. But that, muchachos, is a story for another Sunday.

The weather reports had been “mixed” for Friday, but when I finally crawled outa bed and peeped out the door, it was clear we would have another good, if not quite perfect, night--little haze, a few scudding clouds. I still had all day to kill, but that was OK; I needed to take it easy, and that is just what I did. Some browsing of Cloudy Nights in the room, some breakfast consisting of the motel's deadly little cinnamon rolls, biscuits and gravy, and tiny but tasty omelets, and I felt good. A little more surfing of the net, a run on WallyWorld for a couple of items I'd forgot, and the sun was getting low again. I was well and rested and raring to go.

Night Two turned out to be everything I'd hoped for. There were some lingering cloud banks at Sundown Friday, but they drifted off—for a while at least—and I set to work with a will. My goal in addition to checking out the new version of NexRemote (v1.6.24) was to continue running the Herschel 400.

NexRemote’s GEM 4.15 worked just as well as that of the “real” hand controller. No reason it shouldn’t have—it is the real hand controller; just executing on a laptop PC. If you're a fan of this blog, you know how much I like NR. If you haven’t tried NexRemote yet, all I can say is the things it brings to Celestron mounts and scopes make it well worth dragging a laptop into the field. Its ability to make use of a wireless gamepad/joystick as your hand control is probably my favorite perk. I’ve long wanted a wireless HC, and I much prefer a joystick to HC buttons.

That ain’t all the good stuff of NR, though. It will, for example, allow you to use any NMEA capable GPS receiver (like the 20 dollar one I scored at a local hamfest) as your mount’s GPS receiver. It also provides a tour-building program that will allow you to generate lists of objects and slew to them with a couple of gamepad button mashes. There’s a lot more to NexRemote than just these things, and if you are interested, as you should be, take a stroll through the archives of this here blog for an entry that’s all-about-NexRemote.

Yeah, NR was kickin’. But what was really kickin’, and what I had forgotten could be kickin’ was the C8. In these latter days an 8-inch SCT is often looked upon as a small and rather plebian scope (oh, how attitudes have changed over the last 30 years). Everybody has a C11 or a C14 or a big Meade or an even bigger Dob. Why? Because we can. Yeah, aperture is good. Aperture Always Wins. All things being equal. But all things ain’t always equal, as in my case here, where a C8 was all I could handle. The question, then, is, “Can you see much with an 8-inch SCT?” Yeah, we would have laughed at this one 30 years ago, when a C8 was, we thought, a DEEP SKY POWERHOUSE, but today it is a question I hear asked frequently by novices.

Friday night at Chiefland reacquainted me with what a “lowly” C8 can do with good skies (and, of course, good eyepieces). I was amazed. Truth be known, the Herschel 400 is not that hard. Most if not all its objects are supposedly in range of a 6-inch--or smaller--telescope under good skies and operated by an experienced observer. And yet…we do tend to think of these small galaxies, obscure open clusters, and dim planetary nebulae as somewhat tough, and I guess many of them really are. The C8 laughed. With the help of SkyTools (2) running on the laptop alongside NexRemote, I clicked my way from one H400 deep sky sprite to the next. Wee dim galaxies in Cancer? No problem. Open clusters best described as “not well detached”? Easy. Mag 13 planetaries in weird places like Camelopardalis? BAM! Many showed considerable detail, for god’s sake.

My favorite object Friday night, though, was one of the few showpieces I allowed myself after my Herschel work was done, M37. This gorgeous open cluster in Auriga was just indescribable. At times it looked almost like the south’s great globular cluster, Omega Centauri, in the 13 Ethos. At other times, it assumed weird shape and substance. One time I found myself seeing the central triangular area of the cluster as the head of a raging bull. M37’s red “central star” forming its baleful eye; the whole thing a miniature Taurus. I used to laugh at Steve O’Meara’s fanciful and poetic descriptions of open clusters. No more.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how well my even smaller scope, the WO 66SD, did. As ED refractor prices have come down to levels even the cheapskates among us—like Unk—can embrace, I’ve finally made friends with refractors. But mostly for imaging, not visual work, and rarely from dark sites. I’d piggybacked the 66 on the C8 mainly as an aid to spotting some of the H400’s large and undistinguished clusters, and it did yeoman duty there. But it did more. When I had M37 in the C8, and had gawked at it for quite a while, I finally thought to see how it looked in the little feller. In a 16mm Uwan, the huge field was amazing. The multitudinous stars were a glittering hailstorm, and the cluster really did look like a loose globular. M42? Not only was I seeing all the good stuff up and down the sword, the Great Nebula wasn’t just the fuzzy spot I’d expected, but had all the form and substance you expect in a larger scope. Frankly, y’all, I found myself looking through the refractor almost as often as the C8.

Whatever I looked through, I just kept on looking and looking, sucking down another energy drink and firing up another handwarmer pack when the flesh became weak. In the end, it was Ma Nature, not my middle aged bod, that called it quits. Around 1am ground fog began to roll-in and the dew just got heavier and heavier. This is not uncommon for the area this time of year, and I dealt with the dew by cranking my Dewbuster to “10” (degrees above ambient) early in the evening. Not much you can do about fog though, leastways unless you have an X-ray telescope. I took a break and moseyed around the field annoying my fellow club members for a while till it became evident things would not get appreciably better. Thence to the Camry out on the access road for a quick trip back to town after a truly illuminating night.

The dénouement? The weather dudes had been promising clouds for a couple of days, and they finally got their way on Saturday. By mid-afternoon them suckers were rolling in. I passed some hours working on the blog and answering my always copious email while waiting to see what the weather would do. Didn’t want to be too hasty. I headed out to the CAV about 5pm, just as it began to drizzle in town. Onsite, I was still unsure. Pack up or not? Yeah, mostly gray, but not even sprinkles, and there was some blue to the west. “Wait. Was that a drop of rain?” I finally conceded there was little chance of doing any observing Saturday night. And there didn’t seem much point in waiting till morning to load up. That just meant I’d be wrestling wet gear. Y-u-c-k.

To the amazement of my friend Tom Clark and another onlooker, I had scope and astro-junk back in the Camry and was ready to roll in less than 30-minutes. One of the joys of a C8 is that not only does it save your back, it takes up little room in the vehicle (my OTA and CG5 head travel in one large Rubbermaid-style container), and is quick to get on or off the field when the weather gods change their minds. All done, I considered pointing the Toyota toward I-10 and home, but it was past 6pm already, and after consulting with Miss Dorothy via cell I decided it would be best to spend one last night in the motel and get a good night’s sleep (preceded by ample portions of Cable TV and the dadgum Rebel Yell, natch) and an early start.

I was a little P.O.ed I didn’t get my trifecta, but two nights had at least partially satisfied this old boy’s deep sky hunger. A final stroll around the field, a little shooting of the breeze with my buddies, and it was time to go. Another Chiefland Tear (as Miss D. calls my deep sky safaris) was over. I ruled it a success. 40 more Herschels in the bag, a good check-ride with the new Celestron software, and, most of all, renewed respect for the telescope I’ve loved more than any other over the last three and a half decades. The wonderful—and powerful—C8.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


My Classics

I expect to get a fair amount of perturbed and maybe even pissed-off emails about this one: “You dumb ol’ hillbilly, how can you publish a list of classic amateur astronomy books, and not include Joe Shmoe’s Astronomy with a 55mm Tasco?” No doubt this list will not reflect ever’body’s favorites; it’s not intended to. These are my faves: those books that have affected my life as an amateur and beyond in a major way, those I return to time and again. The following are mostly very good books, but not always the very best books. Just because a book is not included here does not mean I don’t think it’s good, a “classic” (whatever the hell that means), worthy of bein’ read. Just that it has not had the impact on me these have.

Come to think of it, there is probably one book I should have included but didn’t, Walter Scott Houston’s Deep Sky Wonders. I didn’t put it here because it’s a horse of a different color, a compendium of Scotty’s numinous Sky and Telescope columns that was assembled posthumously. If you don’t have stacks of old Sky and Scopes, have at it. For me, while I own the book, I prefer to pick up a well-thumbed magazine and enjoy Scotty’s work in its proper context. Be that as it may be, these here are the astronomy books, the amateur astronomy books, that have moved me over the last half-century.

All About Telescopes

If you’ve been in the amateur astronomy bidness as long as Your Old Uncle Rod has, there is no way you can’t have some familiarity with the work of Sam Brown. This author-illustrator’s drawings graced the pages of many an Edmund Scientific catalog back in amateur astronomy’s (first) Golden Age. Most of these drawings were culled from his All About, a book that was, yep, all about telescopes. AAT (slightly updated) is still in print to this day and for good reason: not only are Sam’s drawings wonderfully evocative of an amateur astronomy and a time we will never see again, they are wonderfully descriptive. The same goes for his text; it is unadorned prose, but possessed of an unfailing ability to make you get it. Not just then, but now. When my friend Pat Rochford embarked on a mirror making crusade late in life, he found Sam’s spare words and antique pictures as helpful—or more so—than many more modern and “detailed” references. Sam belongs on your shelf for you to refer to anytime you need to know anything about telescopes whether you want to push glass or not.

A Complete Manual of Amateur Astronomy

Anybody who has looked through a Meade telescope prob’ly knows somethin’ about “Doc” Clay Sherrod. He’s been helping SCT wielding amateur astronomers day-in-and-day-out for years. Fewer folks know about this book he did with Thomas Koed back in ‘81. Doc covers a lot of ground here, everything from setting up a telescope to astrophotography, but the true value of the thing is in the section of the book that deals with observing and studying the planets, major and minor. If you are serious about the Solar System, or would like to be, you want this. When I need to know something as simple as which filters work best with Mars, or something as esoteric as how you measure the height of Lunar mountains this is where I go. Yeah, there has been a lot of water under the bridge since the book was first published nearly 30 annums ago, but most of this one is still as valuable as ever (it was put back in print a few years back, but I do not think it was revised). In spades.

Astrophotography for the Amateur

Michael Covington’s introductory imaging book is what got me back into celestial photography in the early 90s after laying off for most of the previous decade while doing serious visual deep sky observing with a passion. Like all good beginner’s amateur astronomy books, this one effortlessly takes you from square one to a point where you feel at least halfway competent and are ready to go onto more advanced endeavors. Certainly the imaging game has changed a lot in the 15 years since my edition was printed—ain’t much need for the drive corrector plans Mr. Mike included back then—but this seminal work has been fully revised to reflect the realities of the digital astro-imaging age. I haven’t read the new version yet, though I’d probably be better at CCDing today if I would, but I have no doubt that given the author’s talent the new one is every bit and good and helpful as the original.

Build Your Own Telescope

I’d no more leave Richard Berry off this list than I would David Levy or Phil Harrington. Reading their work taught me the trade of amateur astronomy writin’ as it should be done (some folks will probably say I should have read all their books two or three times). This little assemblage of telescope construction projects from about two decades ago gets pulled down off my shelf frequently because, like all good amateur-astro books, it is more than it appears to be. In the course of describing the construction of a brace of utilitarian scopes, Richard teaches you much of what you will ever need to know about scopes, and a little bit about the art of amateur astronomy besides.

Burnham’s Celestial Handbook

I get the idea that today’s class of new amateurs is not as familiar with this true, true, true classic as they ort-ta be. Maybe because the old Astronomy Book Club, gone these many years, ain’t offering the three volumes of Burnham’s for a dollar no more. I don’t care what you have to pay for this compendium of Robert Burnham’s deep sky knowledge, though, just pay it. No, this book does not contain DSOs in the numbers found in some more recent deep sky observing guides, but it has one thing they do not, Burnham’s thoughtful, poetic, ruminations on the Universe.

You may hear this book described as “outdated,” but it really is not. The only part that seems antique is the introductory matter outlinin’ the basic facts of our Universe—knowledge about the cosmos has increased exponentially in the near five decades since the author began assembin’ his magnum opus. So what? The meat of the book, the constellation-by-constellation parade of DSOs, is as useful as ever. Yes, the coordinates are for Epoch 1950.0, but with near-bout ever’body usin’ DSCs and go-to rigs, I don’t reckon that is a problem much. This is a “just buy it” book.

Celestron: The Early Years

As I point out in my first SCT book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope, despite being the most popular store-bought amateur scope since forever, surprisingly little has been written about SCTs. I think I rectified that in part with Choosing and Using, but we are talking about books I’ve loved, not books I sweated over. If I had to name a favorite volume amongst the few that are primarily or partially concerned with Schmidt CAT’s it would have to be Bob Piekiel’s self-published e-book, Celestron: The Early Years.

Despite the title, this book is full of information about SCTs in general, not just the early Celestron “Blue and Whites” or just Celestrons. Particularly noteworthy are the interviews with key Celestron figures, including founder Tom Johnson. Bob was wise enough to conduct detailed interviews while that was still possible. While the prose in Early Years is not as polished as that in Mssr. Piekiel’s recent Testing and Evaluating the Optics of Schmidt Cassegrain Telescopes, it has been much improved for the current revised edition of Early Years.

How to Make and Use a Telescope

This 1956 book by Sir Patrick Moore and Percy Wilkins is probably not the best Moore book for novices—or anybody else. Never revised or reprinted as far as I know, it is dated in a way only a British amateur astronomy book from the 1950s can be. That also spells c-h-a-r-m-i-n-g, of course, but times have changed almost indescribably amateur astronomy-wise since Patrick warned us away from pillar and claw scope mounts. It is included here because I am, agin, writin’ about my classics, not the classics. The classic Patrick Moore is probably The Amateur Astronomer (see below).

This one is in my pantheon of astro-books because it was the first amateur astronomy book I ever encountered. One sunny spring afternoon (must have been), I was browsing the stacks in my elementary school’s library, probably hunting for something like the book I’d just finished, Rocketship Galileo, which I’d been coerced into readin’ by my 4th grade teacher, Miss Dixon. I’d devoured it in two afternoons and a long evening under the covers with my trusty Hopalong Cassidy flashlight. I didn’t find any more Robert Heinlein in Kate Shepherd Elementary’s library, but I did find Patrick Moore, and, like the Heinlein book, this one opened up a whole new universe for Little Rod.


Subtitled “A Practical Guide to Observing the Universe” this is just that. If there is a better introduction to amateur astronomy for beginners, I do not know what it is. Since 1983, Canadian amateur astronomer/writer/educator Terrance Dickinson has been doin’ a fine job of initiating the newbies with this generous-size trade paperback. While I wasn’t a beginner back in the early 90s when my sister-in-law, Miss Pam, bought me a copy as a gift, I enjoyed it nevertheless, and have found myself referring to it on a regular basis over the intervening years. Is it perfect? No. I’m not sure the charts are detailed enough for use with even a beginner’s scope. On the other hand, the book is spiral bound, so it will lay flat on the observin’ table, meaning the maps may be more useful than some more poorly bound if more star-filled charts.

Norton’s Star Atlas

Yeah, I know I semi-panned Arthur Norton’s great work a few blogs back. And I stand by my criticisms: there are too few stars to make this a tool for productive deep sky delving, the earlier editions identify many objects with their cryptic Herschel designations instead of NGC numbers, and the charts are on the way-too-small size. Nevertheless, Norton’s has its strengths, especially for the binocular/grab ‘n go scope crowd. If small, the charts are insanely legible, all the showpieces are there, and, wonder of wonders, the book opens flat (the original, not the recent redo by Ian Ridpath).

Most of all, though, this is one of my classics because it fostered my first steps out into The Great Out There. Yeah, it wasn’t too long before I was saving nickels and dimes for Skalnate Pleso, but it was Arthur Norton who put me on the road to a lifetime’s enjoyment. Guess what else? The text/reference material that makes up the bulk of Norton’s pages is not only a fun read for its antiquarian appeal; some of it is still genuinely useful. Much of it, as a matter of fact. Add to that one of the better quick- reference Moon maps around and, while I will not insist you get ahold of an old edition, I will say you will find uses for one if one comes your way.

Observing Handbook and Catalog of Deep Sky Objects

Before there was a Night Sky Observer’s Guide, there was this single volume by Brian Skiff and Christian Luginbuhl. I don’t know much about Mr. L.—though I believe I’ve learned how to spell his name correctly—but I do know something about his co-author. Brian Skiff is a most knowledgeable “professional-amateur” (he works at Lowell Observatory). If you want to know something about a deep sky object, Brian can likely tell you, often off the top of his head. This book, where he does just that, was out of print for a while, but is, thankfully, now back (in paper only, unfortunately). While not as fancy as the Night Sky Observer’s Guide (illustrations are few), it more than makes up for that in its accuracy and erudition. I’ve been recommending this one for years, and recently have begun building object-lists based on the book for use with the Deepsky observing planner software.


Herbert Zim’s humble little Golden Guide (from Golden Books, a subsidiary of St. Martin’s Press these days) did at least as much as Patrick Moore’s books to feed the amateur astronomy fire in my belly when I was the greenest of green sprouts. Like the similar Golden Sky Observer’s Guide, Zim’s little paperback is profusely illustrated (by James Irving), and, like all successful books that are at least partially aimed at younguns, the author does not talk down to his readers, but just communicates—very successfully—the beauty and mystery of the Universe. I still like to browse through Stars nearly 50 years after I received a copy as a gift at a church Christmas party Mama coerced me into attending. Unlike many similarly beloved books of my lost youth, this one seems as good and helpful as ever. Luckily, it is still in print and mostly unchanged.

A Field Guide to Stars and Planets

Jay Pasachoff’s entry in Peterson’s Field Guide series is a perennial with me. I don’t always buy the periodic new editions, but I buy ‘em often enough. Why is they-at? Stars and Planets is like Zim’s Stars, but for adult amateurs. That means “deliciously good.” Everything you need to find out in a hurry, whether you are inside or outside, is in here, from Moon maps to a Messier list and everything in between. One of the book’s major draws has always been its set of charts done by the inimitable Wil Tirion. Despite their small size (Stars and Planets is a thick paperback), they are still very usable and legible and lovely to look at. Well, they are legible for you younguns, I reckon. I found I could no longer decipher them under a dim red light after I hit 40. Anyhoo, despite being a professional, Dr. Pasachoff must have the heart of an amateur—he sure knows how to put together a great amateur astronomy book.

Star Ware

If I’ve had a role model in the book writing biz, it has been Phil Harrington. Not that I aspire to copy Phil’s style (though any writer could do worse); it’s more that Phil’s books and, in particular his equipment guide/opus, Star Ware, show exactly what an amateur astronomy book should be. Like the rest of his work, SW is clearly written, all inclusive, and, thanks to the author’s persistence and dedication, continually updated (it’s now in its 4th Edition). I have all the editions of this in-depth reference to commercial scopes and accessories on my shelf right next to Sam Brown. Much as I love Sam, I probably use Star Ware more.

Starlight Nights

Unlike David Levy, I don’t reread Starlight Nights every year. But when I do I not only enjoy it, but am freshly inspired. This is not a gearhead book; instead it is the sometimes moving story of comet hunter and variable star observer Leslie Peltier’s life and his love for the night sky and nature in general. If you have not read thisun (which, like most of good astro-books, is still in print), I insist you do so. I am not one to say who is and who is not an amateur astronomer, but a little voice deep down inside tells me you cannot claim to be a true amateur watcher of the skies without havin’ at least a noddin’ acquaintance with Leslie Peltier.

The Amateur Astronomer

What? Two Patrick Moore books? Hail yeah. Not only am I a long-time fan and admirer, if it weren’t for this man I probably wouldn’t have become an amateur at all. I could easily have listed ten Moore books here. Along with Nightwatch, Sir Patrick Moore’s The Amateur Astronomer is what I recommend more than anything else to novices. While it is a bit denser and more aimed at adult beginners than the Dickinson book, any teenager will love it. Hell, I know I did (it was first published way back yonder in 1957). It’s still in print after 12 editions, and a quick browse shows why: The Amateur Astronomer is written in Patrick’s signature breezy but information-packed style and is both a joy to read and a real help for beginners. While the book has been revised of late, I expect the new one, like the 1990 edition on my library shelf, is still, like Patrick himself, oriented more toward the Solar System and other “traditional” amateur pursuits than it is toward hardcore deep sky. But that’s OK. And how.

The Amateur Astronomer’s Catalog of 500 Deep Sky Objects

Ron Morales’ 1986 book seems to be an obscure one, but I don’t know why. Its list of 500 “best of the best” objects for amateur observation is in my opinion better than most of the more famous works of this type. Why? Not just because of the author’s wise deep sky object choices, but because of the notes that go with the objects. Rarely have I found DSO descriptions that are, well, more descriptive (and succinct) than these. While the list is the main attraction here, there is other good stuff too, like observing logbook page templates that are so excellent I am still using the ones I patterned after Ron’s dang near twenty years ago (made ‘em on a newfangled Mac Plus computer). My copy of “500” is getting’ awful dog-eared, so it’s a Good Thing it is still in print.

The Dobsonian Telescope

You know about Dave Kriege’s telescopes, the Obsessions, I reckon. But did you know he’s written a book? With Richard Berry? Well, he did, back in 1997. That a book about the fairly esoteric subject of building large Dobsonian telescopes is still available should tell you something about how good it is. Don’t want to build a scope? Want to be more like Uncle Rod, an amateur telescope BUYER (I do occasionally help my ATM buddy Pat in a very minor way)? This is still a wonderful book to have on your shelf if you have any interest at all in Dobs. In its 475 pages is the accumulated wisdom of two of the world’s premier authorities on the loveable alt-azimuth scopes.

The New CCD Astronomy

You’ve absorbed everything Michael Covington has to teach you? You’re getting right serious? This is where you go next. Ron Wodaski is maybe the guru of astronomical CCD cameras (though DSLR fans will find a lot of what he says more than valuable as well). Hell, Ron has got me to the point where even I can take recognizable images with an SBIG. One thing I like? The book is available as a series of downloadable .pdfs. That is right handy when I want to browse the pages at work. It also enables me to print out relevant pages, stick ‘em in my observin’ notebook, and take them into the field with me to put me back on the strait and narrow when I get The Stupids at 2am.

The Night Sky Observer’s Guide

There will never be another Burnham’s, but George Kepple and Glen Sanner’s three-volume “NSOG” comes as close to that as we are likely to get. Yeah, the book lacks the philosophical musings, but who really needs that on the observin’ field at 3am? Burnham’s is a book you sit with by a roaring fire on a winter’s eve, bottle of whiskey at your side, as you assemble deep sky “want lists” while waiting for the sky to clear; Kepple-Sanner is a book for the observing table. It may not have the pretty prose of Burnham’s, but the NSOG makes up for that with many, many more objects. What we down here call “a slew.” It also includes finder charts and images for many of its multitudinous DSOs. I used to pine for a New Burnham’s. Since the coming of NSOG, I don’t do that anymore. Well, not much.

The Observer’s Handbook

This "yearbook," published annually in December by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, ain’t something you read cover-to-cover (not unless you are as et up with this stuff as Unk, anyhow), but a book you refer to. Regularly. Everything about the sky is here, clearly set forth and easy to find. Sunrises, Sunsets, Moon phases, occultations, planetary satellites, even handy lists of deep sky objects. Yeah, I know TheSky or Cartes du Ciel or Google will tell you these things, but you know what? Maybe it’s just ol’ Luddite me, but I find that flipping through The Handbook is quicker and always more fun.

The Sky a User’s Guide

Sure there’s gonna be a David Levy book here. How could there not be? I admire David as an amateur, a teacher, and a man, but most of all as a writer. I could have inserted any one of his (30+ at last count) books, but I’ve always liked this one from the last decade. Ostensibly it is a beginner’s guide to the night sky and the sights therein, but I pull it down often—it’s got plenty of easily located and valuable information presented in David’s unfailingly friendly and lucid prose. Think of this as David’s The Amateur Astronomer, but with more of a slant toward the deep sky than Sir Patrick’s famous book. I’m not sure whether it is technically still in print, but it is readily available from Amazon at prices that are way too low to be reflective of its value.

Personal Note:

Last week a rumor began spreading on a couple of Internet groups that Your Old Uncle had suffered a serious and debilitating stroke. Thankfully, that is not the case. I ain’t even sick. Well, I ain’t ill, anyhow. The docs are of the opinion that I am beginning to fall apart, but not completely—at least not yet. My current health is as good as my way-too-wild youth allows it to be.

Sunday, January 11, 2009



I hadn’t planned to write about GEMs this time. I was all prepped to deliver y’all an epistle on the joys of using the StarBlast mini-Dob, but recent events at Celestron changed my mind. GEMs? Yeah, you know, German Equatorial Mounts. For the many amateurs who’ve grown up on SCTs and Dobs since the 1980s, the German Equatorial Mount is something of a mystery, I know. For some of us, our only exposure to these telescope mounts has been—maybe—a brief fling with the way too small GEM that came with a department store scope. After that it was one of the fork mounts sold in such great numbers by Celestron and Meade for their SCTs or a Dobsonian alt-az. Unless you decided you were an astrophotographer, that is. In that case you may have abandoned the fork. The GEM offers some substantial advantages if’n you are into the picture takin’ side of astronomical life.

What is a German mount? What makes it German? Its invention is credited to one of several folks, including Joseph von Fraunhofer, all of whom were Germans. I suppose the GEM could have been called a "FEM," a Fraunhofer Equatorial Mount, but “GEM” has a nicer ring in this ol’ boy’s estimation. The question of exactly who invented it lingers, but the Ground Truth is that this mounting is such a simple machine that it could have been thunk up by anybody any time since Galileo first put eye to eyepiece back in the 17th century. This simplicity is obvious in the image (below) of Rod’s handy-dandy EQ1. It is composed of two perpendicular axes, a right ascension axis (east/west movement), which can be tilted up to point at the celestial pole and which forms a “T” with the declination axis (north/south movement). Place a scope on one end of the dec axis, put a counterweight on the other end to balance the rig, and you will find you can track the stars with single movement in right ascension rather than havin’ to resort to the up-across stair-stepping of an alt-azimuth mount. Attach a motor that will turn the RA axis once every 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds to this RA axis and the GEM will automatically track the stars, making picture taking practical.

The GEM ain’t the only type of mount that can be aligned on the Celestial Pole in equatorial fashion to follow the stars. Tilt a fork mount scope’s base at an angle that points the fork arms at the north celestial pole, and you accomplish the same thing. Since the 1960s, SCT-toting amateurs have been using a gadget called a “wedge” to do that very thing, to polar align their telescopes. In fact, Meade and Celestron owners, mainly those who want to take pictures with their Schmidt Cassegrains, are still doing that--though most of the fork-mount SCTs you see on an observing field today are setup in alt-azimuth mode. The computers contained in go-to forks can easily figure out how to accurately stair step their way across the sky to track stars for visual use.

Normally, an alt-azimuth mount, even one driven by a computer, ain’t very good for taking pictures. The result of the stair step bidness is “field rotation.” Ever notice how ol’ Orion starts out lying on his right side when he’s on the eastern horizon, stands straight up when he’s on the Meridian, and flops over on his left side when he sets in the west? An equatorially aligned mount will automatically “follow” this changing attitude of Orion (and ever’thing in the sky), but an alt az cannot, and stars will soon “trail” in a non-equatorial image no matter how carefully it is guided.

There is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of excellent astrophotos have been taken by fork-mount scopes since they went big-time in 1970. And more continue to be taken. There is also no denying, however, that many “advanced” imagers—whatever the hell that means—eschew forks even if they are shooting through SCTs. That is certainly not the case with all imagers; many prominent workers do use forks—Jason Ware comes to mind—but enough talented picture takers are employing GEMs to make it clear these mounts must have some desirable features for astrophotographers. All astrophotographers. I sure ain’t no Jason Ware. As I’ve said many a time before, I am an “Instamatic Astrophotographer,” just being satisfied with “OK” little snapshots that document my travels across the deep sky. Nevertheless, e’en I have purty much given up forks for GEMs when it comes time to shoot the sky. My imaging gear is hardly top drawer—a CG5 and an Atlas/EQ6. Yet, I prefer these bargain basement mounts over my hefty Ultima 8 fork or my even more sizeable NexStar 11 GPS’s double-tine mount. Why?

Probably one of the main reasons I’m using German mounts these days is the ease with which they can be balanced. To balance ‘em in RA, you slide the counterweights up and down the counterweight shaft. Declination? Merely move the scope back and forth in its cradle. In contrast, balancing a fork mount Schmidt CAT usually requires not just the addition to the OTA of a weight and a dovetail for it to slide in, but usually also a number of Rube Goldbergish fishin’ sinker type weights and Velcro all over the tube and fork. Even then it ain’t uncommon for it to be very difficult to balance some scopes in both declination and RA. Why is balance important enough to make this a major plus for German mounts? If, like me, you can’t afford or don’t want to afford the biggest and most expensive mounting, having the scope properly balanced (usually slightly east-heavy) goes a long way toward improving tracking.

What else? I also find GEMs easier to polar align in a hurry. Most GEMs either include or offer as an option a "polar borescope." Place Polaris in the proper spot on this little refractor’s reticle (usually the polar scope is installed in the mount’s hollow RA axis), and it is then sufficiently aligned for many—if not most—tasks. In the past, some fork-mount SCTs have featured finderscopes with polar alignment reticles, but in my experience, for a variety of reasons, these don’t often yield alignments as good as those done with a GEM’s borescope.

Finally, one of the greatest things about a GEM is that it does not limit you to a single OTA. Celestron’s NexStar SE series fork scopes do allow the tube to be easily removed and replaced with another OTA via a dovetail arrangement, but this is the exception, especially amongst go-to forkers. In contrast, almost all GEMs attach OTA to mount via one of two “standard” and common dovetail systems: Vixen or Losmandy. Want to image M33 tonight? Slap the 80mm ED on the puppy. NGC 7331 tomorrow? On goes a C8. The ability to change OTAs easily and quickly means it’s easier to justify the cost of even a top-of-the-line mount like an AstroPhysics or a Takahashi. If one mount will serve for all your scopes, it’s not quite as painful to pay the big bucks required for a Real Goodun (well, maybe for you, anyway, but not for your Old Uncle, who is, yes, a frugal sort).

As I’ve documented in this here blog in the not too distant past, my conversion to GEMs after not having used ‘em much in 30 years was brought on by my desire to add go-to to my Ultima C8. Yeah, I could just have got me a set o’ digital setting circles, sure, but after getting spoiled by the comfortable alt-az setup of the NexStar 11 I was looking to be shed of wedge-mounted forks altogether. As an experiment, I purchased Celestron’s inexpensive computerized CG5, a Vixen “clone” equipped with a NexStar hand controller. I was blown away by the accuracy of the little mount’s go-to and by the overall quality of the CG5 considering its relatively modest price. Purt soon I was even taking astrophotos again, and it just seemed easier with the GEM. From there, my love affair with the German mount blossomed, and Chaos Manor South’s dining room was soon inhabited by an Orion/Synta Atlas (Miss Dorothy is awful understanding, and storing the mount in the dining room means I don’t have to lug the 40 pound EQ head up and down the stairs). I am so et up with GEMs now that I’m considering something even bigger and heavier than the Atlas.

So what’s a good GEM, then? What should the prospective buyer look for? What does a CAT owner need? An astrophotographer? A GEM buyer’s guide, even an abbreviated one, is a subject for a whole blog entry, and that will come, Kats ‘n Kittens, that will come. Before signing off, this week, though, I do want to update y’all about recent events at everybody’s favorite li’l ol’ scope company from Torrance (well sorta these days), Celestron. They seem to have gone slap GEM crazy, currently bein’ in the process of releasing not one but two new mounts. What’s especially good? They are definitely priced to appeal to the cheapskates among us—like moi. They are not in the AP – MI – Tak league, maybe, but I believe both will be fine performers for somewhat-less-than-deadly-serious imagers like Unk.


Seeing as how Celestron is owned by Taiwan’s Synta, I kept wondering when a “Celestron version” of the company’s venerable EQ6/Atlas might come along. After all, Much of what Celestron sells these days is rebadged Synta gear rather than stuff thunk up in Cally-for-nye-a. The CG5, for example, is nearly identical to the go-to GEMs Synta sells under its Skywatcher, Orion, and other badges. But why would I be so interested in them releasing an EQ6 that says “Celestron” on it? One word: hand controller. Well, actually that is two words, but you get the idea where my interest lay. Despite being pleased with my Atlas, I still wished for a better hand control. The SynScan controller used on the EQ6 go-to models is OK. Perfectly workable. But it is just not anywhere near the NexStar rig in terms of features and capabilities.

Not only does the NexStar controller sport things like a built-in and accurate polar alignment routine that the SynScan HC lacks; in my experience it’s easier to get accurate go-tos with the NexStar hand controller. Just align on the stars it offers and you are good to go. In contrast, using the Atlas/EQ6 SynScan computer means being careful about which stars you align on. Just because the HC offers a particular star first, that does not mean it’s the best choice or that you should accept it. Getting accurate go-tos with SynScan depends on you, not the computer, picking three stars that are well-spaced and properly positioned and sufficiently high off’n the horizon.

A NexStar computer would be a great partner for the EQ6, but I knew Celestron couldn’t just throw a NexStar HC in the box with the Atlas and be done with it. The SynScan system uses stepper motors while the NexStar system uses servos (which some folks believe are “better”—maybe smoother). Obviously, a fair amount of redesigning would be required to convert the Atlas to the NexStar computer system. And I wasn’t sure Celestron/Synta would be interested in doing that. They seemed to be having a pretty easy time selling all the Atlas/EQ6es they could produce. Luckily I was wrong.

When Celestron published the details of what they were calling their “CGEM” (“CGE Medium,” I reckon, or maybe just “Celestron GEM”), it was both what I expected and a considerable amount more. In addition to replacing the Atlas’ hand controller and motors with a NexStar HC and a pair of servos, they did two other important things Atlas owners have asked for for a long time (and have been doin’ themselves with the aid of 3rd party add-ons); they replaced the Vixen dovetail saddle with a Losmandy “D” compatible one and lengthened and strengthened the counterweight shaft. The Vixen saddle has been quite an irritant for those folks who’ve wanted to push the EQ6 to the limits of its payload capacity. While the GEM head itself is quite hefty, and the tripod pretty much sufficient, the small Vixen dovetail proved to be a weak point. The noticeably larger Losmandy bracket provides a considerably more stable way to attach OTA to GEM.

The counterweight bar was the other sore spot. Not only was it not really long enough to permit OTAs at the top of the mount’s weight capacity to balance without nearly filling the thing with Synta’s ubiquitous 11-pound pancake weights, it was too skinny for comfort. The Atlas counterweight bar is actually smaller in diameter than the one on the dadblamed CG5 in order to allow the Atlas’ bar to be retracted into the mount. Nice feature, but most of us would have preferred more strength. The CGEM goes at least a little ways to correcting counterweight shaft deficiencies.

There’s even more—surprisingly, considering the fact that the CGEM sells for slightly less than the Atlas. Another embarrassment for the EQ6 is the skinny bolts that are used to adjust it in altitude and azimuth. Oh, they work, but, being the same size as those on the CG5, they are rather difficult to turn when even a C8 is mounted on this heavy EQ head—some folks have actually bent the altitude bolt while trying to turn it. On the CGEM, the adjusters have been strengthened and repositioned.

Still more? I love the NexStar software as furnished with the CGE and CG5, but Celestron has refined it even further for the new mount, if in a smallish way. I had thought (and hoped) we might see SkyAlign for equatorial mounts implemented in the new build, but nope. The only real change is the All Star computerized polar alignment procedure. This allows any star to be used for polar alignment instead of just Polaris (as with the CGE and CG5). Otherwise, it works the same as before: the scope slews to where it thinks a star should be given a perfect polar alignment, and the user then centers that star in the scope using the altitude and aziumuth adjusters to complete the alignment. In addition to its ability to use any star, the new routine is also reputedly more accurate than before. Finally, Celestron has modernized the look of the mount, although some folks find the addition of mucho orange plastic makes the “new EQ6” look gaudy rather than futuristic.

Would I buy one? If I didn’t already own an Atlas, yeppers, no doubt about it. But I do own an Atlas. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the CGEM is a great mount that will be very popular and useful and make lotsa little ridge-runners awful happy. It’s just that the Atlas/EQ6 was already a great mount beloved by many folks. The CGEM is an improvement, but an incremental one. Also, the Atlas is now so ubiquitous that just about every aftermarket add-on imaginable is already available for it, including replacement Losmandy format dovetail cradles and upgraded counterweight shafts. The software? I love the NexStar hand controller and NexRemote, but EQMOD for the Atlas (it won’t work on the CGEM, by the way) is fully their equal or even their better in my opinion.


I don’t claim to be psychic. But the udder day, I was talking to Good Ol’ Boy Pat and mentioned that I’d noticed Celestron had been underplaying their venerable G11-like mount, the CGE, in their advertising of late. “You know, Patrick,” says I, “I’ll bet them suckers are gonna replace the CGE with something cheaper to build, maybe something made in China. Maybe even something with more payload capacity. Like an…uh… 'EQ7.'” ‘Twarn’t a month later that we started hearing about something a lot like my prophesied EQ7, the CGE Pro. Howsomeever, not only do I not claim to be psychic, it ain’t even clear I was entirely correct. It ain’t for sure yet that Celestron will indeed discontinue the much-loved CGE, though I wouldn’t be surprised. Or that the Pro is made in China, though I assume so. What is clear is that they are kickin’ it up a notch gem-wise in a couple of ways.

Yay-ah, the CGE Pro is something new alright, and not just because it’s the company’s first monster GEM (if you discount the prototype and even bigger original “CGE Pro” Celestron planned for the huge Dall-Kirkham now being sold by Planewave). What’s really special about the CGE Pro is that it’s in a heretofore neglected price class. Until now, the BIGDOG bunch started at 7 grand with Losmandy’s Titan and climbed into five-figure-land with the APs and the Bisque and Meade’s Max (assuming that is still around). There has been quite a gap between the CGE – G11 class at 3k and these heavyweights. But what about those of us who want a mount really sufficient for a C14 or an M14 (which I don’t consider the CGE/G11 to be, not for imaging)? Those of us who don’t fancy doin’ our own Hubble Deep Field exposures, and who, above all, don’t have the deep pockets required for a mount that can do that?

Somebody finally listened. The CGE Pro is one big mutha. It weighs in at 154-pounds and can heft 90 pounds of payload. While it probably won’t impress the Paramount owners with its PE spec of 9-arc seconds, the rest of us will be pretty doggoned happy. Frankly, it’s likely autoguiding or even just a good PEMPro run will make this mount every bit a competitor with AP and Bisque when it comes to the raw ability to take good pictures. One other lovely thing? This is a big mount, yeah, but it is not too big. 154-pounds is enough to make this broken down ol’ hillbilly squeal, but the mount can be disassembled into semi-manageable components the younger and more fit amongst y’all need not fear. It gets even better. The Pro uses the tried and true NexStar HC, and can operate with the time-tested (and wonderful) NexRemote as well. But if you’re like Unk, what’s the main thing you want to hear? The fare. The Bottom Line. The damage. While not exactly inconsequential, the $4999.00 price of the CGE Pro is for me at least imaginable as a dream rig.

There is more that I could say about the Pro, I reckon, but I’d just be quoting Celestron’s advertising copy. I’m a-gonna wait until I (or somebody I know, leastways) gets their hands on the mount. As y’all know, I am not usually one to play the all-too-typical Internet astronomy forum game of either praising to the high heavens or condemning to perdition a piece of gear that nobody but beta testers has seen except as a picture on a gull-derned website.

If I wouldn’t likely trade my Atlas for a CGEM, could I be tempted by a CGE Pro? Perhaps. Assuming it lives up to its advertising hype, this is a mount I would consider. Not for portable use, though. Not even to lug to star parties a couple of times a year. That’s just me, y’all understand. Hell, I have a hard time convincing myself to drag the Atlas out when I think the CG5 will do. I would and will think about this as the foundation of a home observatory for my retirement years—if I ever get there—when Miss D. and I have said goodbye to Chaos Manor South and repaired to the sticks. I’ve often thought about a big GEM in this role, an AstroPhysics or a Paramount maybe, but, money aside (HA!), I have never, ever been able to convince myself I really need such a thing given my decidedly lacking talents as an imager and my modest goals in that regard.

What is this best thing about this GEM trend at Celestron, though, whether I ever get my hands on either of their new mounts myself? We have more choices. Kudos to the Orange Boys and Girls for that. Meade? Hey, if y’all make it over the current rough patch, at least think about doing up a MiniMax GEM, OK?

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Rod’s Resolutions

New Year’s Day and Oh My Achin’ Head Time. Again. Your Old Uncle Rod was fairly sensible this year; at least he didn’t run amok or say anything acutely embarrassing to anybody. I think, or at least hope, them years is over. Hell, it’s all I can do at my advanced age to stay awake long enough on New Years Eve to see the derned ball drop on Eastern Standard Time. I was quite well behaved, if I do say so myself. There was but one teeny-weeny misstep: mixing Margaritas and chimichangas from my favorite Mexican restaurant, El Giro’s down at The Loop, with Rebel Yell a little later in the evening, and a few glasses of bubbly much later. Don’ tell me I’m getting too old for that kinda foolishness; believe me y’all, this morning my body assures me of the veracity of that fact!

A hurting head and thoughts of “I’ll never do that again” (till next time, of course), just naturally lead to thoughts of clean slates and RESOLUTIONS, New Year’s resolutions. Me? Like most folks, I find it’s easy to make ‘em and equally easy to break ‘em. Especially if I never go back and review what I swore so vehemently to uphold by the light of a January First Sun (I don’t think there’s an astronomical reason for it, but, nevertheless, today’s Sun seems mucho brighter than normal—or is it jus’ me?). Sometimes it is good to go back and take stock of “how I did.” Not necessarily in the realm of “I’m a-gonna lose 20 pounds” or “I am never, ever gonna touch Taaka vodka again”—who’s gonna keep promises like that?—but in the realm of astronomical resolutions. Astronomical resolutions? In addition to to resolving to be more attentive to pore ol’ Aunt Lulu, don’t you also find yourself in the habit of making pronouncements about where you will be going in our beloved avocation in the coming twelve months?

Last few days, I started thanking about the astro-resolutions I made last (like every) year—and was foolish enough to commit to paper. How’d I do this time? Any better than that short-lived decision to quit the Taaka? “Lucky” me, I have a blog where these resolutions of mine are unwisely preserved, so it was simple to pull up that damned list and bounce ‘em against reality.

I Resolve to spend more time lookin'gthrough telescopes than talking about ‘em.

Well that is a good idea. These days with the Interwebs and all them online scope merchants and equipment discussion groups, it is all too easy to begin to fall into the role of telescope (or eyepiece or whatever) collector rather than user, and do everything with yer gear BUT turn it loose on the sky. That can not only be counterproductive, but can most certainly lead the unwary into dangerous territory. Like the folks who get into the unfortunate habit of cleaning the dadblamed primary or objective or corrector ever’time the stinking flashlight test reveals a minute speck of dust. Or those poor souls who decide the idea of “flocking” the inside of their SCT’s tube and baffle, something they have heard so much about on the Cloudy Nights or Astromart Forums, is a right good idea—and wind up with contact paper stuck to the surface of one or both mirrors.

The way you avoid such frustrating and foolish fixations is to point your telescope at the sky every chance you get. Do that, and it becomes more a tool than an objet d’art. A scratch on an OTA or a setscrew blemish on a Nagler barrel is no longer a disaster, but a memory: “That? Got that little knick when a dust-devil chunked a rock at ol’ Orange Tube at the 1999 Texas Star Party.” Back when I was making part of my living off photography, I didn’t care pea-turkey if my SLR looked like hell—brassed to the max, as they say—as long as it worked and worked well. Oh, I still liked cameras, mind you, I just became able to consider them as tools—valuable tools, but tools—rather than as the objects of my affections. A healthy and productive mindset for most amateur astronomers, too, if’n you ask me.

Whatever. Let’s cut to the chase. Did I spend more time this year than last year observing? I confess I spent more time than I would have liked sitting on my butt in front of the computer or the TV set. But I plead innocence in part. This year started off just ducky weather-wise. I even got a crack or three at the Realm of the Galaxies before the Spring Storms rolled in. But by April the Great God Thor shore was swinging his hammer. No, we didn’t get hit by a major Gulf Storm this season, but there were enough brushes and near misses to ensure I spent most evenins looking at the undersides of clouds.

I probably coulda taken a little better advantage of the clear skies we had, but I am pretty satisfied at what I did accomplish. This past October, for instance, I spent a week down in Chiefland doing visual work with Dobbie (I’m going through the Herschel 400 again), followed the next week by more of the same at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze. I also headed to our Club Darksite every clear, or even just “OK,” dark of the Moon. And I took my university astronomy students out with their scopes each pretty class meeting night. If there is a place I need to clean up my act in this regard, it’s the backyard. Yeah, I’ve too often been guilty of using this hoary ol’ excuse: “Hell, cain’t seen nothing back there with all the lights and trees.” Me. Mr. Urban Astronomer’s Guide. Bull-puckey. There is still plenty to be seen despite trees, clouds, and sodium streetlights. I’ve got a StarBlast, and she is strategically positioned next to the backdoor. I Resolve to get out that door with her more often in 2009.

I Resolve that if there’s a Moon in the sky, I will give her the attention she so richly deserves.

Lovely Luna has always been a favorite target for my eye and camera, but I admit I neglected her this year. Y’all don’t have to tell me what I’ve been missing, either. I know good and well that even after almost 45 years of admiring her glowing countenance I still see something new every time I take the time to point a telescope at her. The good news? I began turning this one around as 2008 began to wane. One thing I did to renew my interest? I love Rukl’s Atlas of the Moon, but after usin’ that tool for—what? 20 years now?—I decided it was time to dig a little deeper. I did that, as you might expect these days, with a dadgummed computer.

What has done more to expand my Lunar horizons than anything else is a wonderful piece of freeware by Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand, Virtual Moon Atlas. Not only is the program’s beautiful and interactive Moon much more detailed than a print-atlas on the scale of the Rukl work can be, it is supplemented by images from such professional (and formerly hard for amateur LUNAtics to obtain) sources as The Lunar Aeronautical Charts. VMA ain’t the only resource for computerized Moonwatchers, neither. Not only are many of the formerly forbidden resources now a click away on the Internet, quite a few pro atlases are also available on CD for next to nothing. Two I use the most are the Digital Lunar Orbiter Photographic Atlas and the Consolidated Lunar Atlas. One particularly wonderful thing about using a computer for Lunar mapping duties? I can finally easily orient the image to match the Moon’s appearance in my SCTs. Even if you don’t care to tote a laptop into the field for “mere” Moongazing, it’s pretty easy to print a properly oriented chart. I’m not exaggerating when I say VMA and these other modern marvels have almost made Hecate into a new Moon for me, so this here is not a Resolution I think I am gonna have a problem keepin’.

I Resolve to be more understanding when it comes to novice amateurs and my astronomy students. I will not use the words “you dunderhead” anywhere in my answers to their questions.

I tried, I really tried. I think I was reasonably understanding with my students, even those who explained away an absence or three with the sad news that their poor grandmother just passed on. Their fourth grandmother this semester. Shortly after the spring break it always seems the grannies start dropping like flies. Novice club members? I think I did pretty well in that regard, too. Not only did I not get annoyed with the usual questions (“Uncle Rod, I’m sure nobody’s ever asked this before, but WHICH IS BETTER, THE CELESTRON OR THE MEADE?”), I believe I’ve finally learned when to help and when to leave ‘em alone and let ‘em help themselves (just as important).

Where did I not do so well? With a woodenhead down to the club. Luckily, none of the regular members fits that description. Unfortunately, though, we do have one quasi-member who does. The person in question was a fairly regular fixture at Possum Swamp Astronomical Society meetings a decade and a half ago or so. This worthy, whose name and gender shall remain anonymous, did stick in my mind, however, by virtue of being one of those folks at the club (every club has one or more) who fit into what I call the “gimme” profile. These people are never, ever willing to do anything at all for their club or their fellow members; their sole interest is the takeaway. “What are y’all gonna do for me?” Not only was this character in that group, but was often quite impatient and indignant when we didn’t come across with the goods—advice, loaner scopes, observing opportunities, interesting programs at club meetings—quickly enough.

Just my luck, but who should show up at one of this past year’s darksite hoedowns but You-Know-Who, who shall henceforth be known as Goober Pea, “GP.” Despite not having been a paid-up member in who knows how long, GP waltzed onto the observing field for our Members Only Star Party without so much as a Howdoyedo. I don’t enjoy being a hardass in situations like this—never have. I figured Goober would behave, and I don’t mind an occasional “guest” at the site. You never know…maybe this one had turned over a new leaf, was genuinely interested, and would soon be a valued member of the PSAS. Maybe I’d been mistaken all along. Ha!

Daughter Lizbeth and I set about preparing for a long night of long exposure imaging. It was a little chilly, but the skies were, for once, joyously clear, the SBIG camera was cooled, and Lizbeth was soon showing that she didn’t inherit her ol’ man’s lack of computer skills. Just as we were winding up the last 10-minute subframe of our first target around about 8pm, it seemed Goober Pea had had enough. Not only did this pea-brain fire up parking lights, headlights, and backup lights in quick succession, but also became confused as to which way was “out” and soon had a hulking pile of Detroit Iron pointed directly at me and Lizbeth. Our shot was ruined, and GP missed our scope (and us) by no more than 6-feet—that was the way it looked to us, anyhow—on the way to a ditch near the tree line. Not overly surprisingly, GP was just right put out when I waved my arms frantically and yelled in order to stop the jalopy’s further progress toward a large oak, and, in no uncertain terms ordered the vehicle turned around and slowly driven off the field. “I’m just trying to get out of here!” Sheesh.

I was at first a little embarrassed I’d resorted to colorful language and yelling. But not for long. I do Resolve, however, to continue to treat all my students and fellow observers with kindness and consideration. Long as they don’t try to turn me into a road-kill armadillo, that is.

I Resolve to spend more time enjoying the company of my friends at star parties rather than ignoring them in a quest for the ultimate deep sky image.

Alright! Here’s one where Unk can unreservedly say He Done Good. How did I accomplish this feat? Largely by leaving the cameras and computers at home. If you ask me, a star party really ain’t a good venue for that kind of thing, anywho. All it accomplishes is that it makes you into a bear—somebody shows too bright a red light and your blow your top—and impels you to ignore your friends and loved ones, who, as I’ve said before, are one of the main reasons you go to a cotton-pickin’ star party. Don’t you actually want to say at least a few words to the buddies you only get to see once a year at the Yellowhammer Gulch SP?

When did I turn over a new leaf? The day after a major star party when the wonderful Miss Dorothy intoned, “You know, Rod, you really weren’t much fun to be around.” Ouch. Thinking about it, my best star partying memories are not of taking one more shot of NGC Umptysquat, but of the good times I’ve spent in the company of my wife, my best friend Pat, and the other folks near and dear to Your Old Uncle. OH, I still do do some purty serious visual work at some star parties, but I save that for the wee hours. What really helps me keep this one? I have a decent darksite where I can hunt take pix twice a month if I want to.

I Resolve to do some good presentations for my club’s monthly meetings rather than complaining about the lack of ‘em.

I think I did my share here. And I think we have the presentation thing purty well licked down at the PSAS. Like most clubs, we used to struggle to come up with ideas for programs and then find folks to do ‘em. Till we hit on the idea of Monthly Constellations. This is the core of our program each meeting, and was thunk-up by one of our most active (and knowledgeable) members, now gone from this plane, unfortunately for us. What he did was come up with the idea that every single meeting somebody would do a presentation on a constellation currently well-placed for observing. This talk could consist of a discussion of the star-pattern’s mythological background, its visual features, the deep sky objects within its boundaries, or all of the above. To this end, he presented the club with a star-emblazoned report cover folder (from the Possum Swamp Wal-Mart) containing a sign-up sheet of his devising with blanks for names, dates, and constellations.

Every meeting following the Monthly Constellation, the folder is handed off to a volunteer. This person enters their name and the name of the constellation they will “do” at the next meeting. We preach the near-sacred significance of this modest looking cardboard folder to newbies. They are told in no uncertain terms that once it is accepted it must be returned at the next meeting and they must give the presentation they’ve signed up for. This obligation can only be escaped in the case of direst emergency. Even then, if at all possible, arrangements must be made to hand the Monthly Constellation Folder off to someone else before the meeting in time for that person to prepare a presentation.

Does this sound a mite draconian? It’s really not; it’s actually fun. And it has worked for us when nothing else would—for years, now. Not only are folks doing some pretty fancy-dan PowerPoints, they are expanding-out to pontificate on things like astrophotography and astrometry of “their” constellation’s objects. Doing programs down to the club has become familiar and natural. We now often have members volunteering to give other talks at meetings—without prompting. In the bad old days, “Who’ll do the program next time?” was invariably met with cold and stony silence.

I Resolve to continue to support our great nation’s bourbon whiskey distillers.

Again, I done my duty. Only slight flies in the ointment? First, the local greenfront stores ain’t been getting Rebel Yell in with every shipment. Often I’ve had to go to my fallback, Jim Beam. Dang. Despite what you may think, Unk is not just a fan of the—uhhh—“bargain brands,” either. He also has some appreciation of what some folks call the Good Stuff. He was initiated by the gift (from some fans of one of my books) of a bottle of Knob Creek. Had to admit it: good stuff. Smooth…I mean SMOOTH—though I usually prefer a bourbon that you know you drank when you drink it (with Yell that comes in the form of a metaphorical kick upside the head). Still, like I said, fine whiskey. I soon developed an image of Knob Creek Distillery in my mind. Way up yonder in the mountains. Two or three short-tempered and exacting hillbillies running the place. Barrels shipped out on mules. Imagine, then, my disappointment when I was informed, via a History Channel program on bourbon, that Knob Creek is just Jim Beam’s premium brand (!). It is still good whiskey, maybe even great whiskey, but it just ain’t the same for me.

I Resolve to support the flagging amateur astronomy industry (folks, it has not been a good year for the amateur astronomy biz) by buying gear like a madman.

Again, no slacker was Unk. To the tune of a pair of Ethoses (I do not like the precious plural some folks are using, “Ehtoi;” that sounds like some character out of a fancy-pants ballet). I plan to do more this year, god willin’. There is now the 17 and will soon be a 6. Scopes? I don’t reckon I need any scopes at this time…but two that have recently piqued my interest are Meade’s upcoming ETX-LS 6-inch SCT and Obsession’s 18-inch Ultra Compact. Must Not Remove Credit Card from Wallet!

I Resolve to try my best to get the quarterly issues of Skywatch on the street at least at some point during the season for which they are dated.

Didn’t do too well there. My excuse? Mainly that I had a book, Choosing and Using a New CAT, to put to bed. That done, I did get a new issue of the little ol’ newsletter from Chaos Manor South on the streets late last month. And you know what? It was fun. For the first time in a long time doing Skywatch was fun. Maybe I just needed a break. Anyways, I’ll indeed try to do four this year. Course that depends a lot on y’all. If you contribute lotsa good articles and pictures, that will make doing Skywatch as easy as falling off a mule-drawn Knob Creek wagon.

I Resolve not worry about taking down the Christmas Tree in Chaos Manor South’s livin’groom till at least Twelfth Night.

Done. I ain’t worrying about it. Funny thing, y’all. I always have lots of volunteers to decorate the (big) tree ‘round here. For the Undecorating? Not so much.

All in all, I think I did right well this past year. Next year? Same Bat Time, same Bat Channel and we will find out. Till then (or really just till the next edition of this here ‘Blog on Sunday the 11th), have a good one, eat plenty of blackeyed peas, nurse them hangovers, and when you feel human again, at least think about getting them scopes into the backyard.

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