Sunday, April 25, 2010


Cool Stuff at NEAF 2010

I planned to be there this year, I really did. I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting on the sidelines yet again. When I got an email from Chairman Alan Traino wondering if I planned to head on up to Suffern, New York for the latest edition, I was tempted to say HAIL YEAH. I restrained myself, but I got to thinking, and thinking hard, about JUST DOIN’ IT, and was about to click on when we got some real bad news at Chaos Manor South.

What the H-E Double L am I goin’ on about now? I suspect most of the gear heads among you know what “NEAF” is: the North East Astronomy Forum. I actually think the f-word oughta be “fair” or “festival.” Sure, there are oodles of speakers and stuff like that, but, for your ol’ Uncle, the draw would definitely be the chance to ogle all that beautiful ASTRO STUFF. NEAF, held every year at this time at Rockland Community College way up yonder in Yankeeland, is, far as I know, the biggest U.S. amateur astronomy gear/trade show. If you like equipment, it is the place to be: a big hall stuffed to the gills with your favorite vendors and your fellow amateur astronomers.

There was that bad news, though. Out of the blue, my dear wife Miss Dorothy’s yearly mammogram turned up “positive.” We were both still trying to process that information—it just didn’t seem possible—when she went under the knife a couple of weeks back. Next up is a long round of chemotherapy. By the way, I don’t mind telling y’all about it, and Miss Dorothy doesn’t mind me telling you, either. We believe the more awareness there is of the threat of breast cancer, the better.

Naturally, any wild plans I might have had to fly to New York were immediately scotched. It’s been some long, weary days and nights of doctors and hospitals, and it wasn’t until the big show weekend was upon us that I gave NEAF any further thought at all.

The good news is that things are LOOKING UP. Miss Dorothy has a very good chance, an excellent chance, of being right here with us a decade from now. And I even got to experience NEAF 2010, if somewhat vicariously.

I could with good reason have called this article, “Thank you, Tom Trusock and the Cloudy Nights crew!” Because of them, I almost felt as if I were at NEAF. As they have for the last several years, Cloudy Nights and their parent, Astronomics, had a big presence at the hoedown. Just like last year, they streamed plenty of video: talks, shots of the floor, interviews. The star of the show, for me, though, was Tom’s “Walkthrough.”

Tom Trusock, as you’re probably aware, is one of the brightest new stars in the astronomy-writing business. I’m proud to say he got started with my little old newsletter, SkyWatch, but it wasn’t long before he was playing in the big leagues, contributing heavily to Cloudy Nights and writing for the pro-zines. His work has thus far appeared in both The Sky at Night and Astronomy. He’s also one of those lucky few among us who come off really well on camera: relaxed, personable, and professional.

The “Walkthrough” is just what it sounds like. Tom, accompanied by camera and mic, walks through the hall talking to vendors and showing their interesting new (and old) gear. Mr. T., a svelte new Mr. T., had his work cut out for him this year, no doubt about it. Despite the still lingering recession, there were around 130 vendors at the show. It was obviously difficult to even scratch the surface in the Walkthrough’s one-hour time-slot, Nevertheless, Mr. Trusock did his usual fine job of giving us pitiful home-bounds at least the highlights.

If you missed the video, I believe the good folk at CN/Astronomics will archive it on their site as they have previous years’ editions. When they do, please have a look; I suspect you’ll be as engaged and entertained as I was. In fact, I wish Astronomics would sell DVDs of Tom’s yearly outings. It would be great to be able to refer back to them years from now.

Any way you slice it, there were lots of cool new things shown off in the CN video; here are a few of ‘em:


NEAF’s Big News, for—what?—the third year in a row was TV’s announcement of yet another Ethos eyepiece. At least there shouldn’t be as much controversy this time. Yeah, controversy. Not because the Ethoses (I do NOT like “Ethoi;” sounds like them wimpy li’l people from The Time Machine) released last year and the year before weren’t good. Quite the opposite; a sizable portion of the amateur community believes them to be the best oculars ever offered for sale. But that don’t mean all of us have liked them.

For some of our Brethren and Sistren (?) these eyepieces are, as I’ve said afore, too much. Too big, too heavy, too wide, and too expensive. More than a few folks denounce the Ethoses with the fervor or Brother Elmer Gantry preaching against Satan’s housecat. The Ethos seems to run counter to a certain Puritan streak in the American Character—and in more than a few amateur astronomers, apparently. Thankfully for my digestion, I don’t expect near as much fire and brimstone this time.

Not that the new Ethos 3.7mm don’t have some impressive specs beginning with not just 100-degrees of apparent field of view, but 110! Much more and you’ll be seeing the back of your punkin head. It does this magic while retaining at least a respectable degree of eye relief, 15mm, and does it in a somewhat funky-looking package (with a screw-on 2-inch barrel adapter) that weighs in at just over a pound.

According to Uncle Al, this latest nine-days-wonder has its genesis in the work he did on the Apollo LM simulator back in the storied 1960s, providing the optics that gave candidate Moon walkers an impressively realistic simulacrum of the Lunar surface. That, as he told our guy Tom in a one-on-one interview after the Walkthrough, is why he’s calling this new ocular the “SX,” which stands for “Simulator Experience.”

That all sounds pretty revolutionary, but like I done said, I believe this one will be less preached against than the 8, the 13, the 17, and, most of all, the 21mm. That’s because this is a much more specialized eyepiece that’s likely to fly under a lot of amateurs’ radar and stimulate less ire if’n it don’t. I mean, 3.7mm? That’s dang near 350x in my C8 even with a .63 reducer hanging off the rear port. This is an eyepiece that’ll, I think, mostly appeal to owners of small, fast refractors anxious for a way to get their little scopes up to planetary/Lunar powers. The price is gonna be less of a sore thumb, too. It’s still considerable, about $500.00 (when Tom axed, Al said it should be priced similarly to the 10mm E), but that’s quite a step down from the 21.

There was a little frightened scurrying anyway: “110-degrees?! I bet TV is gonna change all the Ethoses to 110-degrees, and my 100s will be WORTHLESS!” Not to worry. According to The Man, the extra-degrees design can’t be scaled “down” to the other eyepieces. Also, he purty much said they don’t currently plan to go any shorter than 3.7mm.

Other TeleVue news? They are introducing a pair of new Paracorrs, which, not overly surprisingly, will be called the “Paracorr Type 2s.” This is a new design optimized for very fast scopes in the f/3 and faster range. In addition to a normal-style Paracorr, there will also be one that’s built into a Feathertouch focuser, and which will be marketed by the focuser’s maker, Starlight Instruments.

And that…was pretty much it for TV. Oh, I understand they sold “blems” again after taking a year off. Wish you were there to scarf a few cosmetically inadequate but perfectly functional TeleVue eyepieces, doncha? I know I do.


Geezus, Pleezus! Orion had a huge booth this time. Huge. How much new stuff have they introduced this year? Tons. Sadly, Tom only had time to take a look at their star, their piece de resistance, the 36-inch “Monster Dobsonian.” There are supposed to be 40 and 50-inchers (yes) in the Monster line, too, but only the little guy showed up at NEAF. He’s, like the other Monsters—that is really what Orion calls ‘em—an f/4 by renowned telescope artist and mirror maker, Normand Fullum, who was on hand to talk to Tom T.

There was no doubt the Orion 36-inch dominated its area of the floor. It was, as a matter of fact, the second largest telescope at NEAF this year. The Orion, which is made of birch wood, aluminum, and carbon-fiber composites, is a towering six-truss job that sports full go-to via a motor system run by an Argo Navis Computer.

The Monster Dobsonians are just the latest releases in a long line of Orion product introductions this year. Products whose quality is obviously high, and which are backed-up by the always top-notch Orion customer support. Course, that comes at a price. In this case, for the littlest Monster, $55,600.00. Damned good thing Unk really don’t lust after a big Dobsonian. I have a policy: “Never pay more for your scope than you paid for your vehicle!” Normand’s comments indicated he thinks his and Orion’s customers will mainly be clubs and schools, but I have no doubt more than a few of the well-heeled among us will seriously consider the 36, at least.

Unsurprisingly, the Monsters have proven to be at least as controversial as the Ethoses at the online amateur watering holes. And for the same reasons: too big, too expensive. Some people get so worked up you’d think they was bein’ forced to pony-up for an Ethos-equipped Monster.

Any obvious downchecks for the 36? I’ve heard some of the people who saw the scope in person opine that they thought the truss tubes looked a wee bit thin, and that that might be a problem. Don’t know about that, but was that a gull-derned Orion EZ-Finder II red-dot bb-gun sight I spied on that pretty upper cage? Gee-whiz, I hope not. Orion could do better for dang near sixty grand I’d a-thought.

Anyhow, ‘twas a shame Tom did not have more time to wander Orion’s big spread and look at some of their other cool stuff. It was time to move on, to the other Dobsonians Normand Fullum makes.

Normand Fullum Telescopes

If you haven’t seen these, go here and prepare to be amazed. I took note of Normand’s scopes last year, when I christened them the “Hobbit Dobs.” That’s just what they look like. They are of beautifully carved and finished wood. The side bearings, for example, are in the shape of the Man in the Moon. Some tubes are festooned with the classical planet symbols. Others sport comets and crescents. You get the picture. They don’t look as if they were made; they look as if they were grown. In the Old Forest. By Tom Bombadil and his Lady Goldberry. I probably said those exact same things last year, but I am still gobsmacked by these scopes. If nuttin’ else, after contemplating the price of Mr. Fullum’s Monster, 9 grand for a 16-inch telescope that’s also a work of art seems like a positive bargain.


Tom stopped briefly at the setup of Takahashi/Texas Nautical Repair and chatted with the ever ebullient Art Ciampi. The buzz there was about the brand-spankin’ Tak CCA 250. This, a replacement for the BRC 250, is, like thatun, designed mainly to be an astrograph, though it can be enjoyed as a visual instrument, too. Art informed us that it’s a corrected Cassegrain design with a parabolic primary and a triplet corrector that yields a near 90mm corrected image circle. The CCA is useable at three different focal lengths when paired with a reducer or extender: f/3.59, f/5 (native), and f/8.

Naturally, the CCA comes with all the fixins, including a 6-inch rotator on the rear cell, a carbon fiber tube, and, like the goobers say on late-night TV, “Much, much more!” As it should for a price Art estimated to be about the same as the BRC—$15,000.00. Sigh. I never can afford a Takahashi, but I sure like to look at ‘em.

Astronomy Technology Today

Tom didn’t stop by the Astronomy Technology Today, “ATT,” booth, but he did mention ‘em, which was cool. I was happy to see good buddy Gary Parkerson had a presence at NEAF with his always fascinating astro-gear-head magazine.

Great Red Spot Astronomy

I’d heard of Tom’s next stop, Great Red Spot Astronomy Products, before, mostly as a vendor of the minimalist Zhumell Chinese Dobsonians and small products like eyepieces and red flashlights. Imagine my surprise, then, to learn the biggest Dob on display at NEAF was theirs.

The 40-inch truss tube Dob monopolizing the floor like the monolith in 2001, is the first entrant in a promised line of telescopes to be called the “Jupiter Series.” According to the Great Red Spot dude Thomas talked to, GRS is not just the seller, but the manufacturer of this big thing. Well, the body, anyhow; the mirrors are to be done by well-known optician Mike Lockwood.

The specs? 40 big inches at f/3.6, considerable aluminum used in its construction, and full go-to via the Argo Navis/ServoCat system. The Big Forty is to be accompanied by smaller sisters with mirrors by the renowned Carl Zambuto in apertures of 16, 20, 24, and 36-inches. The bigun’s primary is monolithic (no honeycombs or stuff like that) and made of Schott’s borosilicate glass. In other words, German Pyrex. The 40-inch Jupiter, as you won’t be surprised to learn, looking at its mammoth mirror box and dual “landing gear” wheels, weighs in at every bit of 610 pounds.

How mucho? $59,000.00. Is this kinda Dob pricing the start of a new trend? Do some of y’all have a lot more money to spend on your scopes than is dreamt of in Unk’s philosophy? Do Orion and Great Red Spot at least think you do?


Our old buddy, Russ Lederman, was back for another round of NEAF. It seems the months since he was last here have rung in a few changes on everybody’s favorite binoviewer maker. Most importantly, I reckon, Russ is no longer going it alone, but has, instead, jined-up with another company, Spectrum Thin Films, an optical/coating company. This is reflected in some new products and new directions for Denk that don’t have much to do with their old beat, which was largely binoviewers and diagonals and similar doo-dads.

I don’t mean the “BIPH,” either. The makers of that light amplification thingie seem to be going their own way these days. What the new products circle around, instead, is Solar observing, and specifically hydrogen alpha Solar observing. What I suspect will be most popular is the Spectrum 60. This is an upgrade of the Meade/Coronado PST 40mm H-alpha scope to an aperture of 60mm. For the introductory price of $599.00, Denk will replace your tube/objective and blocking filter (you have to send ‘em your scope, natch). Seems purty reasonable. While 40mm is fine for casual views, at 60mm you begin to come in range of some seriously good H alpha vistas.

Maybe switching the company’s focus away from “just binoviewers” is smart, too. Now, you bino-fans needn’t worry; it appears Denkmeier’s famous binos will be with us for the long haul. But there is no doubt in my formerly military mind that binoviewing is not quite the growth industry it appeared to be a few annums back. Take a gander at the sad state of the once-vibrant binoviewer Yahoogroup and Astromart forum if’n you don’ know what I’m a-talkin’ about.


Tom didn’t stop, but he did mention my favorite software company, Skyhound, who were showing off my favorite astronomy program, SkyTools 3.


Mr. T. didn’t spend long at the large Celestron set-up, but he did have time to look at an impressive and surprising product, Celestron’s 50th Anniversary Edition of their CPC 800 fork mount SCT. As soon as I laid eyes on it it was clear how it’s different from the standard model: carbon fiber tube. Tom confirmed that and said the CF is only for this edition, which I presume will only be available over the next year.

What did I really want to see? A great big Edge HD C14 on a CGE Pro. I believe we passed one, and I think I saw one in a couple of long shots, but that was it. Dammit.

Astronomy Technologies/Astronomics

Astronomics’ scope brand had a big presence at the company’s big booth. What impressed me most? A honkin’ huge 8-inch f/9 achromat bearing the AT badge. Da woid, according to Tom, was that the folks who’d been able to use the scope (on bright lights and other terrestrial things, I suppose, given the poor Suffern skies) were pleasantly surprised by the thing’s performance. Even more surprising? The price: $2495.00 for the OTA or 6K with the CGE Pro it was mounted on thrown in. Man! I don’t know what the hell I’d do with such a thing, or how colorful anything brighter than a Pal globular would be, but for that price even stingy ol’ me is tempted to find out. Apparently, the scope is a prototype, but I’d guess that if it garners enough interest it might be put into production.

What else did Astronomics have on offer? Lots of stuff, including lots of eyepieces. Of particular interest to me was the Chinese-origin TMB 100-degree AFOV 9 and 16mm eyepieces (a seemingly identical pair is being sold under the Zhumell badge). At less than 300 bucks a pop, I don’t expect the perfection represented by the Ethoses, but I might be willing to put up with something somewhat south of that for a far less painful amount of $$$. Especially if they do a 20mm.

Carina Software

With computer battery power running low, Mr. Trusock told the Carina Software dude he only had a minute or two. That led the poor guy to try to get the company’s iPhone/iPod/iPad software (SkyVoyager) and wi-fi scope interface (SkyFi) up and running on a ‘Pad in that length of time. He almost made it. Be that as she may, I’ve been impressed by SkyVoyager on my iPod. It is, no fooling, a full-featured planetarium running on the tiny gadget (where it shares space with my Allman Brothers and Wet Willie albums). I’m not sure if the SkyVoyger executing on the iPad at NEAF was the forthcoming iPad version or not, but even if it was “just” the pod/phone app, it sure looked purty on that big screen.


Brief detour to the Planewave folks. You know, the makers of the big corrected Dall Kirkhams who was spun off from Celestron a couple of years back. What’s the big news? They are doing a 24-inch. Not so big news? Uncle Rod will not be able to afford one.


This company has made something of a name for themselves with their very portable, very effective camera/small scope tracking mounts. This year, they’ve kicked it up a notch with one that’s set up for autoguiding. That’s all well and good, but I wonder…is maybe The Only Enemy of Good Enough More Better in this case? I’d a-thought the idea of autoguiding one of these mounts tends to get away from the “simple, simple, simple” philosophy that gives the Astrotrac camera trackers their appeal.


Tom’s cameraman pointed over thataway briefly. Questar is an amateur institution (yeah, I know, “BUT WHO WANTS TO LIVE IN AN INSTITUTION?”), and I am happy to see them pushing on. Unless I hallucinated it, the brief glimpse seemed to show a fork-mount Questar 7-inch MCT, which I was under the impression Questar wasn’t making at the moment. Hmmm… Naw. Miss Dorothy would definitely notice that much on the credit card.


Nothing new from old Uncle Roland. But there really didn’t need to be. With his beautiful refractors and German mounts, including the monstrous el Capitan, he didn’t have to introduce anything new to get plenty of attention.


Hotech’s products hadn’t previously excited much interest in moi. I mean…Newtonian laser collimators? What am I a-gonna to with them? Then I heard they was introducing an SCT laser collimator. Not one of the lame and useless SCT lasers other folks have tried to peddle, but an SCT Laser of a New Type. One that really works. One that don’t require you to do a precise collimation the old fashioned way first.

As the nice man, presumably David Ho, showed Tom, the “Advanced CT Laser Collimator” works on an entirely different principle from what we’ve seen heretofore. Laser beams are directed down the tube of the scope, and are reflected back out by a small mirror installed on the rear port. The user adjusts collimation until the return beam spots on the collimator’s large target are in the right places, and, voila!, the scope is, theoretically, in perfect alignment.

Does it work? Craig Stark, whose opinion on these subjects I trust, seems to think it’s finer than split frog hair. What do I think? I think the price, $455.00, is on the way-high side. Still, if it works, a lot of folks could be interested in a gadget that allows you to precisely and easily collimate your scope indoors. Hell, I could be interested.


By the time we made it to Meade’s gigantanormous booth, Tom’s time was just about up. But we were at least able to take a look at the company’s also gigantanormous 20-inch MaxMount scope, a huge SCT on a huge German mount. This is actually the second time at bat for this RCX-style OTA (f/8, focusing secondary) and large GEM. After having been gone for over a year, IT’S BAAAAACK…supposedly with an improved mount and a more reasonable price, $34,999.00 (it had climbed into the 50-grand-plus vicinity for a while). Me? I would rather have this big dog—err… “cat”—than a 36-inch Dobsonian if I had that kinda moola. Which I don’t.


Rocks from the sky were BIG, BIG, BIG this year, no doubt due to the Science Channel’s surprise hit, Meteorite Men. Not only were the Men themselves, Geoff Notkin and Steve Arnold, at NEAF to give a talk, Geoff sat for an interview with our own Tom T., who did his usual brilliant job with that. There were apparently several other space rock vendors in attendance as well, takin’ advantage of the sudden celebrity of shootin’ stars. Who’d a-thought a general TV audience would watch two guys hunt funny looking rocks? Just goes to show YOU NEVER CAN TELL.

And, with that, Tom’s Walkthrough came to an end, ringin’ down the curtain on NEAF 2010—for me, anyhow. Without the efforts of Tom Trusock and the Astronomics and Cloudy Nights folks, there wouldn’t have been a NEAF of any kind at all for me. Thanks again, y’all!

Next year? NEXT YEAR IN SUFFERN, for sure!

Sunday, April 18, 2010


The Herschel Project Night 6: 209 Down, 191 to Go

“Merrily we roll along, roll along, roll along!” Well, maybe not too merrily. It looked for a while as if my plans to get the Herschel Project on the road again might come to naught thanks to them always-fickle Weather Gods. Like I said a couple of weeks back, Haysoos Christmas, what a winter! Seemed like it took forever for spring to return to good ol’ Chaos Manor South here on the border of The Great Possum Swamp. But it had by this past weekend, and well we know that with the coming of spring a young man’s and woman's (and even an old curmudgeon’s) fancy turns to thoughts of GALAXIES!

Sadly, it appeared the bizarre and beautiful forest of island universes that stretches from northernmost Canes Venatici to southernmost Virgo would have to wait. By Saturday morning last, despite—or maybe because of—balmy temperatures, clouds had crept back into the forecast and the sky. I kept an eagle eye on both the Clear Sky Clock (aka, “Clear Sky Charts”) and, and they seemed to be predicting clearing by Sunset. I crossed my fingers and my toes and pre-positioned my usual ton of gear in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor.

The tool for this time would be Old Reliable, my 1995 Celestron Ultima 8 OTA, Celeste, who, you may recall, I removed from her beautiful fork and put on a Celestron CG5 GEM some years ago in the interest of acquiring go-to. Yeah, I coulda chosen a larger scope, but a C8 is so much more pleasant to lug back into the house at 2 or 3am.

If you haven’t glommed onto the fact yet, the truth, the Ground Truth, of the Herschel Project is that, contrary to what you may have been told by Skeezix down to the club, the HII objects really ain’t that tough. Most of ‘em are prominent NGCs. Howsomeever, when you are dealing with less than optimum conditions, as it seemed I would be on this Saturday night, more aperture is better than less, with 10 – 12-inches being a Good Thing. Yet, I still wanted the portability of the C8. The answer? “Stellacam II.”

Yeah, I know the Stellacam II is yesterday’s news. Deep sky-imaging video cameras have come a long ways in the last five years, and there’s now a Stellacam III, not to mention multiple Mallincam models (this is alliteration month, ain’t it?). You can not only integrate for longer than my old-fashioned Stellacam II’s ten seconds, you can even do it in color. Would I mind having a new-fangled rig? No, but I have hardly outgrown the SCII or pushed its capabilities to their limits. I am, in fact, still amazed at what it can do. It will indeed, as you may have heard tell, at least triple your aperture. With 24-inches of virtual telescope at my command, I didn’t reckon even the most timid HII would escape me, even given light pollution, high humidity, and possible clouds/haze.

By five o’clock, the sky didn’t look perfect or even close to it, but it was encouraging enough for me to load Celeste (and the laptop, and the observing table, and four or five gear boxes, and three batteries) into the car. I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t have been smarter just to toss my ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine, into the vee-hickle instead, but, what the heck, I’d give it a go. Much more delay and the H Project would begin to get seriously in arrears.

45-minutes later, I was at the PSAS dark site staring up at the deepening blue of the sky. Yep, blue. Most of the clouds had scudded off, and those that hadn’t were mainly along the horizon and seemed to be moving away. There was a foggy-hazy feel to the air, and I noted there were several aircraft contrails in the sky, and that these seemed to be getting fatter and fatter, never a good sign. But it looked more than good enough. I began setting up Celeste and all her support gear.

Which took a while. In addition to the scope/CG5, the Stellacam, and the laptop I would run the mount with (via NexRemote), there was the DVD recorder, the portable DVD player I use as a display, and the inverter I use to power the AC dependent parts of the rig (laptop and DVD recorder). Speaking of “battery,” I was a little worried about the battery I’d use to power all this gear.

In typical Unk Rod fashion, I had been procrastinating about replacing that 75 amp hour trolling motor (“deep cycle marine”) battery with something with more capacity. Running the computer, recorder, and DVD player off of it might give me four hours at best. Why hadn’t I gone to a bigger battery? Most of my video tends to get done down at the Chiefland Astronomy Village where there is plenty of AC. Tonight? I figgered my power might barely make it to midnight. Given the conditions, I didn’t expect to push on much past then, anyhow. So, What Could Happen?

When the brighter stars winked on, I set about aligning my mount. Nominally, the CG5 requires a two star alignment, but if you want good accuracy you are wise to add four “calibration” stars. I did that, and, when finished, polar aligned the GEM. That last is not necessary for go-to accuracy, but, even with short 10-second exposures, doing so would yield to better images, I reckoned. It’s easy enough to do, anyways.

The polar alignment routine in the older version of the CG5 firmware I’d be using on this run sends the scope to the spot where it thinks Polaris should be given a perfect polar alignment. You then adjust the mount in altitude and azimuth until the North Star is centered in the eyepiece. Yeah, I know all about the new AllStar alignment in the new firmware, but I prefer the old way—I’m lazy and I find it easier.

Since I’d physically moved the mount to polar align it, I had to redo the go-to alignment on six more stars when I was done. I probably could have got by with less than four calibration stars; by star three, the mount was putting them near center in the eyepiece after a slew. I gave it four, anyhow. Aligning ain’t much of a pain when you can use a wireless game pad/joystick as a hand controller, thanks to NexRemote, which also lets me select whichever version of the CG5 firmware, old or new, I want to use.

Next? Mount the Stellacam II and reducer on the rear cell and get focused up. Which was duck soup due to the JMI Motofocus I got fer Christmas. And, even moreso, thanks to the Bahtinov mask I got from Scope City not long ago. Plop the mask over the C8’s aperture, point at a bright star (my last calibration star did yeoman duty in that regard), and focus until the diffraction spikes the mask forms around that star are centered. If acheiving perfect focus could be easier, I don’t know how. Well, maybe it could be easier if I weren’t so dumb. I wound up focusing twice.

Unk, as y’all well know, tends to be a Luddite when it comes to new technology and new ways of doing things. The telescope, once I’d lined up the diffraction pattern, should have been perfectly focused. But I was skeptical. “Self,” says I, “let’s look it at M3 as a check.” Off to M3 we slewed. The cluster wound up well within the borders of the Stellacam frame when the motors stopped their whining, but I thought the glob looked way too dim. The haze and the Possum Swamp light dome, maybe? I upped the exposure. Brighter but fuzzy. So I start twitching the focus buttons to try to improve the sitchy-ation. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: "M3 is dim and fuzzy because the Bahtinov mask is still in front of the corrector—YOU IDIOT!" Sheesh! Back to the focus star I went for a redo.

By the time all the preliminaries were sorted, it was well and truly dark and time to get moving. In addition to recording each object’s video on DVD, I’d also be taking notes with my li’l Sony Pressman tape recorder—which turned out to be a very wise thing to do.

Certainly, the CG5 deserves a few words of approbation before we begin. When I bought the mount five years ago, I didn’t have much hope for it. It just seemed too cheap. Surely its go-to accuracy wouldn’t even come close to equaling that of my NexStar 11. Surprise! From the get-go, the mount has been amazingly good in that regard. At least as accurate as the NS11. And it still is today after who knows how many dark site and public outreach sessions. On this run, it didn’t miss a single DSO. Not one. Every target from horizon to horizon wound up somewhere on the small chip of the Stellacam. If you are thinking you want a GEM you could do one hell of a lot worse than the CG5, which is even cheaper today than it was when I bought mine.


What do you think about when you think about deep sky objects in Boötes? If you are like benighted ol’ Unk, prob’ly the only one that comes to mind is that less than impressive globular star cluster, NGC 5466. Galaxies? Mainly The Great Boötes Void, that odd hole in the sky that lacks galaxies. Nevertheless, there are plenty of spiral nebulae in the constellation—it ain’t far from Virgo and Coma—including NGCs and Herschel IIs.

No, most of ‘em ain’t…err… “impressive,” but it’s good to keep things in perspective when doing the Herschel II. Yes, many of the galaxies you’ll encounter are just cosmic dust bunnies. Most of ‘em are, actually. Even if they don’t put your eyes out, though, remember, these far-away night birds are still the most awesome spectacles in Mother Nature’s bestiary. The appreciation of the night sky’s treasures requires more than just eye and brain, it needs heart, too.

Anyhoo, I started out in Boötes. Why? Dunno. Maybe because it was at the top of the SkyTools 3 spreadsheet I used to send Celeste on her go-tos. In retrospect, I guess it would have been better to begin with something a little higher in the sky.

NGC 5687 (H.II.808) is just a smudge on the monitor, even with the gain turned up. It’s about magnitude 12.6, which normally wouldn’t be tough for the Stellacam/C8 combo, but it is down in the eastern light dome and contrast is a scarce commodity. Small, obviously somewhat elongated, adjacent to two dim field stars. Also nearby is the smaller galaxy MCG 9-24-19 at about mag 14.

NGC 5481 (H.II.693): Brighter of two galaxies in this field in Boötes. This magnitude 13.2 fuzzspot has a condensed core, and that is about all I can see of it. The companion, in contrast, a little multi-arm face-on, seems to show some detail when the seeing steadies down, which it doesn’t do very often tonight.

NGC 5520 (H.III.676): Extremely obvious when the C8 stopped. Magnitude 13.1. Under these rather poor conditions—light pollution and haze—it’s pretty much just a cosmic lint ball about 4’ from two fairly bright stars; one at magnitude 9, one at around 11. A dimmer closer star masquerades as a supernova.

Round NGC 5660 (H.II.695) is more than just a faint fuzzy. Large, at least a couple of minutes across, this Hubble Type SABc shows off some arm detail. Magnitude 12.6, and stands head and shoulders above the Boötes crowd I’ve seen thus far.

NGC 5899 (H.II.650): Well down into the light dome, if not in the worst of it. This is a nice looking magnitude 12.6 Sc. Near-edge-on, maybe 2’ – 2.5’ of which is visible. Stellar-appearing nucleus.

Despite the bright background, mag 12.7 NGC 5529 (H.III.414), another edge-on galaxy, is great. Looks like a miniature NGC 4565. In pictures, it shows-off an equatorial dust lane just like the Flying Saucer Galaxy, but if I am seeing that, it is only just barely. Little MCG 6-31-87 at mag 15.6 is visible about 3.5’ to the south-southeast.

NGC 5533 (H.II.418) is not a bad little galaxy. It is a smudge, but this magnitude 12.7 SAab spiral at least shows that it is elongated.

Near-face-on NGC 5580, a magnitude 13.4 lenticular, ain’t much to look at. The prototypal round fuzzie, but it is set in a fairly rich field. I quickly and easily pick up two more galaxies, including prominent NGC 5579.

NGC 5523 (H.III.134): Another not-bad Boötes resident. Clearly elongated and close to edge-on. A magnitude 11 star lies less than 3’ to the northwest.

There’s not much to say about NGC 5548 (H.II.194). Dim in magnitude at 13.3, but also small in size at just over 1’, it’s quite prominent. Mostly, this Hubble S0 is just a wee fuzzball on my monitor.

NGC 5490 (H.III.32) is obvious. It’s near a couple of IC galaxies, one of which, IC 983 is easy, and the other, IC 982, is harder in the poor, wavering seeing. NGC 5490 itself is nothing more than a slightly elongated spot of light.

A magnitude 13 Sc, NGC 5600 (H.II.177), is not worthy of much comment either. It shows one arm clearly on the POSS plate, but tonight with the C8 and Stellacam, it’s just a round—though easy to see—blob.

NGC 5582 (H.II.754): This mag 12.5 elliptical looks pretty good—it’s higher than most of its Boötes sisters have been. Set in a field rich with stars. Strongly elongated. Stellar appearing center.


Now we are talking. After kicking Boötes, it was on to the Lion, who was now straddling the Meridian…which made for some long go-tos at times. When moving to the west side of the sky from the east, the CG5 invariably took the long ways around, doing a Meridian “flip” before proceeding to the target. It was worth the wait for more than a few of these, howsomeever…

NGC 3067 (H.II.492): Very attractive, elongated galaxy showing some detail. Nearly edge-on SABa of magnitude 12.7.

NGC 3274 (H.II.358) looks good, but there isn’t too much to say about this small fuzzy with a brighter center. Strongly elongated magnitude 13.2 Scd. In a pretty field with numerous dim stars.

Magnitude 13 NGC 3689 (H.II.339) is something of a surprise. Fairly extensive outer envelope. Asymmetrical-appearing with a bright, stellar nucleus.

A small barred spiral that gives the impression of a tiny M86, NGC 3162 (H.II.43) shows off easy-to-see arms.

NGC 3301 (H.II.46) is nice enough. Near-edge-on S0. Small, bright nuclear region. It’s at least 3’ long.

NGC 3177 (H.III.25): Not much to it—stellar core and a small outer envelope. Magnitude 13 Sb.

NGC 3646 (H.III.15) is quite incredible. A weird looking spiral with one fairly loose and very prominent arm.

NGC 3507 (H.IV.7) is a lovely classic SBb spiral. A magnitude 11 star is only 22” northeast of the nucleus. The nice edge on galaxy NGC 3501 is also in the field.

The nextun, NGC 3599 (H.II.49), a magnitude 13 S0, is not very interesting, I’m afraid. A round blob with a brighter middle.

NGC 3605 (H.III.27): Set in a galaxy-rich field in Leo’s hindquarters. In addition to elliptical 3605 and its nearby companion, NGC 3808, I immediately spot two more.

NGC 3659 (H.II.53), also located in the Lion’s rear-end area, is OK. An elongated little sprite of an SB. At times, I seem to glimpse a brighter central region, which appears slightly off-center.

NGC 3681 (H.II.159), is all by itself in the field save for some dimmish stars. Magnitude 12.4, bright, round.

An attractive and large SABc, NGC 3596 (H.II.102) shows spiral detail easily. About 3.5’ in diameter, nearly round, face-on appearing.

Yet more spiral detail on display with NGC 3338 (H.II.77). Small, elongated. Magnitude 9 star 2’43” to the west. Classic-looking SC spiral with nice, open arms.

NGC 3107 (H.II.898) is a small smudge, mildly elongated, which is adjacent to a magnitude 8 star 1’50” to the south-southeast.

An edge-on magnitude 13.1 S0, NGC 3524 (H.II.494) is fairly undistinguished; 1.5’ in length and possessing a bright nucleus.

NGC 3666 (H.I.20): A fairly typical Sab of intermediate orientation to our line of sight. Cool. When seeing settles, I can see hints of dark-lane/arm detail. There is a magnitude 11 star just 12” from the galaxy’s center. A magnitude 6 star is 9’27” to the east.

NGC 3547 (H.II.42), a magnitude 13.2 Sb about a minute and a half long, is a nice if not too detailed near-edge-on with a not very prominent nucleus that pops out once in a while.

NGC 3705 (H.II.13): Nicely detailed SABa with intermediate inclination to us. Wow! Plenty of detail, including a dark lane near the nucleus.

NGC 3611 (H.V.39) finishes Leo. Small and unimpressive, an undistinguished Sa at magnitude 12.8 and about 1.5 x .9’ in size. A slightly off-round dust bunny with a brighter center.

Leo Minor

Did you know there are cool galaxies and even cooler galaxy groups lurking within the borders of Leo’s little brother? I didn’t, or had long ago forgotten there are, so what a nice surprise to hit a couple of real goodies.

NGC 3158 (H.II.639): A fairly undistinguished if bright galaxy in a field cluttered with galaxies. In addition to this magnitude 13 oval elliptical, I immediately notice NGCs 3159, 3161, 3163, 3160, and 3152. NGC 3160 is a very pretty little edge-on.

NGC 3430 (H.I.118) is the king of a beautiful field. The near-edge-on NGC 3424, another Herschel II, is about 6’ to the west and is particularly outstanding. The main galaxy, an intermediate orientation spiral, shows considerable detail including one rather prominent hooked arm.

Leo Minor’s NGC 3254 (H.I.72) is another niceun. Thin, intermediate in orientation, about 2.6 x 1.1’.


Why Corvus? By mid evening a glance over to the south showed he was approaching culmination, and I figgered now would be as good a time as any to run down the Crow’s few targets, which include one real showpiece…

NGC 4024 (H.II.295): What I’d call “unprepossessing.” A round fuzzball with a bright core and only hints of an outer envelope. It’s a magnitude 12.7 elliptical that is very slightly elongated.

NGC 4039 (H.2-4.28) is half of the wondrous (interacting) Antennae Galaxies. 4039 is the large and more prominent of these two connected systems, and NGC 4038 (H.1-4.28) is the smaller more diffuse member. Intricately detailed tonight when the seeing improves.

Coma Berenices

What’s so special about Coma? That it’s second only to Virgo when it comes to the evening’s prey—GALAXIES.

NGC 5056 (H.III.306), a near 14th magnitude Sc, is notable because it is in a fairly crowded field. I detect at least a couple of other fuzzies on the Stellacam II chip with it. Not much in the way of detail visible in the main galaxy, though.

On its POSS plate, NGC 4136 (H.II.321), a medium-size (2.8’) SABc, shows prominent arms. These are only glimpsed tonight on the rare occasions when the seein’ behaves.

NGC 4310 (H.II.378) is another Coma singlet galaxy. Pretty kite-shaped asterism of stars nearby. The galaxy is edge-on, showing a bright center and no other details.

NGC 4169 (H.II.105), a bright magnitude 13.15 S0, is a member of an excellent little group. A pair of edge-ons, NGCs 4173 and 4175, and another S0 galaxy, NGC 4174, are packed into an area a mere 5.5’ across, which makes for a mind-blowing view.

On a night of good seeing, NGC 4185 (H.II.373) would likely give up a lot of features to the C8 and Stellacam II. On this evening of poor seeing, haze, and high cirrus, though, it is only an elongated smudge with a somewhat brighter middle.

NGC 5012 (H.I.85) is a nice catch. It’s an intermediate inclination Sc spiral just under 3’ in size and shows some signs of arms.

NGC 4336 (H.II.406), an SB0 barred lenticular, is interesting in photos, showing odd features near the nucleus. Tonight with the C8 it’s OK, maybe giving up small hints of these details. Bright, but small, just over 1’ size, making it hard to see exactly what is going on with it. A magnitude 9.57 field star lies 3’34” to the south-southeast.

It was nice to end the evening on something other than a dim galaxy, although Coma’s incredibly loose globular, NGC 5053 (H.VI.7), isn’t much to look at, even with the Stellacam. Fair number of tiny stars wink in and out, but it’s clear why, even under good conditions, this often isn’t obvious visually in smaller telescopes.

Why’d I call it quits after the glob? It wasn’t quite midnight, but my inverter had started beeping, which meant, “Unk, the battery is on his last legs!” Tell the truth, the sky was grayer and fuzzier than ever by this time, and, dagnabit, even the seeing, which had sucked most of the evening, was getting worse. You’d think humidity and haze would at least bring steady seeing, wouldn’t you?

I packed-up, turned the Toyota back toward Chaos Manor South, and headed home. After I’d unloaded, I decided to give the evening’s DVD a quick look on the big TV despite the late—or early—hour. I was a little suspicious, you see. As you may know, a DVD doesn't work quite like a VHS tape. When you finish recording, you have to “finalize” the disk before shutting the recorder off. Don’t, and you will be left with a piece of plastic useless as anything but a beer coaster. Why was I suspicious? Because when I’d told the recorder to “finalize,” it had done so really quickly. Much quicker than normal. I should have tried the operation again, but with the inverter beeping, I decided I’d best shut down.

I wasn’t overly surprised, then, when my home DVD player, a Blu Ray job, said my disk was UNREADABLE. I fooled around with it a bit, but no dice. In the past, I’ve been able to recover un-finalized disks with some special image-editing software I own. Warn’t really a big deal, anyhow. I had been smart enough to take the notes above, and, given the poor conditions and no doubt fairly lousy images that would have resulted, I figgered that would be enough.

So, here we are just past the HII halfway mark. What and when is next? “What” is, of course, more island universes. There’s still plenty of Coma to go, and all of Canes Venatici and Virgo await. The plan, such as it is, is to run down to Chiefland next month for the dark of the Moon and keep on truckin’.

How come I missed the big shindig this month at Chiefland, the legendary Spring Picnic? As some of you may have heard or gathered, my dear wife, Miss Dorothy, ran into some unexpected health problems and had to have major surgery. She is doing much better, thanks for asking, but naturally I needed to be and wanted to be by her side as much as possible over the last several weeks. Next month, though, if the Weather Gods allow, it will be absolute dark sky heaven. Maybe I should burn a Dob in effigy to propitiate ‘em beforehand?

Next time: We'll soon get back to "The Trouble with the Magazines," with Astronomy as the victim--err... "subject," but next week will be my annual NEAF report (from afar again, dammit)...

Sunday, April 11, 2010


The Trouble with the Magazines III: Sky and Telescope

Like last week’s post on public outreach, this week’s topic seems have become a yearly ritual for your old Uncle. What has? A “where we are” concernin’ the big glossy astronomy magazines. Why devote so much attention to ‘em? Because, even in this latter-day, post-modern, Internet-crazy age magazines are still a big part of amateur astronomy. No, I ain’t gonna kid you; things like Astromart and Cloudy Nights have made THE MAGAZINES less important to rank and file amateurs. If’n you are like Unk, though, you still place more faith in what the writers in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy tell you than you do in what you hear from some Bubba on the freakin’ WWW.

That ain’t all, neither. Magazines are still just so dadgummed portable and convenient. Most everything I need to get me through a month’s observin’ is there between two covers. Often in four or five pages. Don’t need to worry about no batteries. Perfect for Unk’s morning…uh… “ablutions.” Yeah, I know, computer-like thingies such as the iPad and Kindle are movin’ in the direction of replacing print, but it will be a long while before that happens, I reckon.

How are “our” magazines doing? It don’t take long at the newsstand to see that all print magazines, not just Sky and ‘Scope and Astronomy, are still havin’ a pretty hard time. You know what I am talking about, one of the prime complaints of rank and file amateurs: decreased page counts. Yes, our two are skinny—but so are Time and Newsweek.

The “why” is no mystery. We are in a severe recession. Ad revenue is down. Postal rates have continued to go up. Is it any wonder publishers have had to cut back on editorial content? Sure, there is no doubt the growth of the Internet has had some effect on magazines, too. Especially hobby-type magazines. It seems, to the uncritical eye at least, that all the amateur astronomy information anybody could want is on the Web free for the taking. Why pay for the cow? Once you start actually using these resources, the truth turns out to be a wee bit different, but it takes most of us a while to realize that.

Onward! It would probably have been best to cover all the publications in one go, but I wanted to take an in-depth look at each this time rather than just repeat last year’s bloviating, and that meant TOO LONG. So, this time we’ll do the little ol’ rag from Cambridge M.A.; Part II will deal with the Midwesterners and, if there is room, THE ALIENS.

Sky and Telescope

Let me say right from the get-go that I am not entirely unbiased when it comes to Sky and ‘Scope. I occasionally write for them and their family of magazines. Even if I didn’t, I’d probably still be prejudiced. All those golden and nostalgic teenage summer afternoons spent waiting for the magazine to arrive and all the subsequent afternoons spent devouring it (without understanding half of what I read) assure that. On the other hand, I’ve loved Sky and Telescope so much over the years that I want it to do well and survive, and so am not hesitant to criticize ‘em when I think it is deserved.

Anyhoo, let’s take a stroll through the latest issue and see what’s up. First, though, maybe a few general comments is in order. What can’t I help but notice? S&T is still thinner than I’d like, but at least she ain’t lost ground. In fact, the rag has actually gained a few pages since last year, with the current issue, May 2010, clockin’ in at 86 pages. The pub continues in its “slightly wider, slightly shorter” format. I don’t know if that helps with production or shipping, or whatever other benefits it may bring, but I’ve come to think it’s very attractive and modern looking. Cover price, $5.99, is a buck cheaper than the competition, and you get a break if’n you subscribe, and another break if’n you subscribe with your club as a group.

Let’s dig in. Cover’s first, natch. A lot has changed at Sky and Telescope since I visited their old digs on the fabled Bay State Road a few annums ago, but one thing that hasn’t is the talent of the folks in the art department. This issue’s cover, a night-time cityscape demonstrating the wages of light pollution in grim detail, is striking if scary. Best thing about the covers? The variety: some months, light background, some months, dark background, some months DSOs, some months, planetscapes or Earthly vistas. Only suggestion? For even more variety and interest, howsabout puttin’ a human bein’ on the cover ever’ once in a while, just like in the old days?

The vaunted inside-front-cover advertising position once occupied by Questar has been held by TeleVue for quite a while, as it is this month. Thumbing on, there’s the TOC, table of contents. It’s one page these days, and there’s nothing to complain about. Short blurbs for the features; the other articles/departments have pretty self-descriptive titles.

Next up is “new” Editor Robert Naeye’s monthly soapbox, “Spectrum.” This time, he talks over the issue’s theme, light pollution, and does a nice job of it. I note that over the course of his tenure Bob has stirred up some ire and elicited plenty of comments on the online astro-BBSes. Which tells me his editorials are doing their job. I read ‘em every month, which says something right there.

On we go past the letters section and quite a few ads (good thing) to one of my favorite little features, S&T Editor Emeritus Leif Robinson’s “75, 50, and 25 Years Ago,” which, as you might guess, is about the issues that appeared 75, 50, and 25 years ago this month. The good? They’ve recently added “75 years,” which makes me feel a little less ancient than I was beginnin’ to. The focus is mostly on pro astronomy/space from those old issues, though. I’d like to see the occasional nod to the amateur astronomy of bygone days, too.

And so we come to “News Notes.” I’m still conflicted about this here. Oh, it’s well done enough, I suppose, but I dunno. I still question the need for pro-astronomy/space news in a magazine these days. Three pages of editorial content is a lot to sacrifice for something that’s more effectively done on the Internet, and which Sky and ‘Scope is doing quite adequately on its own website. There are, in fact, blubs in the section referring readers to the website for in-depth coverage and breaking news; maybe that’s enough. Let it go, guys.

The first feature article, Mike Simonsen and Alan MacRobert’s “Amateurs Catch a Crucial Nova,” is a particularly good one, worth the whole price of admission for me. What I really like? That the magazine is not afraid to lead-off the prestigious front of the rag with an “amateur article.”

Following is a “fact” piece, Yaël Nazé’s “The Quest for the Most Massive Star.” There wasn’t anything in here that was news to me, but, nevertheless, I found myself reading every single word over my morning porridge. Yeah, I know what some of my fellow curmudgeons are gonna say, just as I noted last year, “But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod WHERE’S THE MATH?”

I’ll admit the science articles in the modern iteration of the magazine do not have as much mathematics (if any) as the issues from the old Sky and Telescope, the Sky and Telescope of the 50s and 60s. But, you know what? Even then, it wasn’t exactly the gull-derned APJ. I think the “fact” authors do a good job of conveying what we want to know about their subjects without the numbers, which would give general readers the hives, anyway. Fortunately, those of us who do want to do the numbers will find it easy enough to Google our way to mathematical ecstasy on any astronomical subject. It might, howsomeever, be nice to do a little “in-depth” on the website to accompany some of these articles; a page or two with a bit more in the way of the technical details some of us want.

The nextun, “Saving the Night Sky,” gets down to brass tacks with regards to the issue’s focus. I probably don’t have to tell you that Kelly Beatty is one heavy hitter, not just as an editor (he’s even been able to straighten out some of my mess), but as a writer. This is a good, solid explication of the problem and possible solutions. Kelly’s piece, subtitled “Your Light Pollution Guide,” is just that, and will be very informative for both the sprouts among us and their elders. I’ve mulled over the subject a lot, but even I learned something—L.E.D streetlights was news to me. Particularly striking was the graphic of the U.S. at night showing the growth and projected growth of light pollution from the late 50s to 2025.

Are you as much an equipment junkie as Unk? I know you are. And you will be very happy with Tony Flanders’ “Big Binos versus Small Scopes.” I mean, what self-respectin’ gear-head can resist a shootout? I’ve done this very comparo myself, large aperture binocs versus a similar aperture refractor, but I didn’t and probably couldn’t write it up as well as Tony has.

After Mr. Flanders’ opus, we come to Fred Shaaf’s “Northern Hemisphere Sky” column, which marks the beginning of The Middle Section, the current (monthly) sky events part of S&T. Fred is the latest in a long line of distinguished folks who’ve done the text to accompany each issue’s star chart, and he does a very fine job. After this many observing seasons, I know what to expect of the sky dome any given month, but I still enjoyed Fred’s delineation of “The Spica Hour.”

Passing the second Meade full-page ad this ish (that’s gotta be a good sign), we come to the centerfold chart. The preceding page contains a calendar of prominent sky events for the month. The two-page May sky map is followed by the “Planetary Almanac,” which features graphics showin’ the current aspects of the major planets and Pluto, a text ephemeris for ‘em, and a small chart of the ecliptic. All four of these pages are printed on heavier stock than the rest of the issue, mostly in red-light-friendly colors (there are a few “disappearing” items). Maybe I still like the old, simple, single-page black and white chart of Sky’s youth better, but today’s map gets ‘er done in attractive and useful fashion.

“Useful,” huh? How comes Unk thinks the news section belongs online but not the star chart? After all, you can go to or or even and make all the pretty (and customized) planisphere-style charts you want. Because the print chart still works better. More convenient. More portable. It’s way easier to snatch up the magazine and haul it out for spur of the moment naked eye/binocular missions than it is to fool with cotton pickin’ websites and printers. This magazine’s colors won’t run, either. Tote your finely tuned inkjet masterpiece outside, and the dew will soon make a mess of it.

The centerfold section is backed-up by another Schaaf column, “Sun, Moon and Planets.” Not much to say about it. It’s concise and accurate monthly planetary info purty much like what’s been in the magazine decade after decade.

Winding down toward the end is Charles Wood’s “Exploring the Moon” column. As I said last time, if I’ve learned anything about the Moon in the last few years, it’s been from this dude. Not only have I learned a lot, I’ve also realized how much I still don’t know about Luna after admirin’ her for almost 50 years, and how mysterious and interesting she still is.

Reviews? Where are the gear reviews? Paul Deans is up with one next, and, not surprisingly in this electronified age, his “S&T Test Report” is about an astro-program, Lunar Discoverer, which, coincidentally, I’d been thinking about purchasing. I believe Mr. Paul just saved me some money, as the deficiencies he points out have encouraged me to keep my credit card in my pocket for a now.

In addition to “skinniness,” the complaint I hear most about Sky and Telescope is the ol’ canard “they only print favorable reviews.” Paul Deans’ review is just the latest example to put the lie to that. It is even-handed and points out the software’s strengths, but it doesn’t hesitate to take the knickers all the way down and reveal its weaknesses, either.

“New Product Showcase” is what it is: product announcements without editorial comment. I’m happy with it; I like to see new stuff, and there’s a disclaimer at the bottom of the page informing the more innocent among us that “The descriptions are based largely on information supplied by the manufacturers or distributors.”

After Showcase, Alan MacRobert is back with a piece about Saturn’s Moons. Or at least those eight conquerable by us amateurs. Like most of y’all, I’ve only confirmed the five easy ones visually. Maybe I’ll try for more with Alan’s guidance. Only quibble? The Saturn’s Moons graphic that accompanies the article. Oh, it’s nice and clear, but I’d have preferred it be somewhere closer to the centerfold where I can get at it more easily outside.

Sue French’s “Deep Sky Wonders” is, as I’ve said a time or three, one of my favorite elements of the modern Sky and Telescope. She has more than worthily assumed the mantle of that giant of deep sky observers, Walter Scott Houston. I sometimes wonder how long Sue can keep goin’, finding interesting deep sky objects to tell us about month after month after month, but she does. Maybe because she has a talent for making even the pedestrian exciting.

Of late, the magazine has had two deep sky columns, Sue’s and Ken Hewitt-White’s “Going Deep.” As the title suggests, Ken pushes us toward the more challenging, as he does on this month’s observin’ run with a selection of galaxies in, of all places, Bootes. Despite my modest talents as an observer, the author sometimes impels me to follow in his footsteps, which I manage to do with some success—sometimes, anyway—probably due to his clear descriptions and directions.

What would Sky and Telescope be without the sainted “Gleanings for ATMs”—I mean, “Telescope Workshop”? Gary Seronik keeps the tradition goin’, and does a pretty good job of mixing the advanced and the basic. I wish he’d been doing Gleanings when I was a sprout, in fact, since most of the articles back in the 60s went way too far in the direction of “advanced,” and some of which still puzzle Unk to this day.

CCD Astronomy, Skypub’s brave attempt at a standalone magazine for electronic imaging, is long gone, but Skytel continues to print plenty of articles concerning this art and science. May’s contribution by Ken Crawford, which is all about image processing with Adobe Photoshop, looks good. Why jus’ “looks”? For computer ignernt Rod, this is purty much out in the stratosphere. But that is one thing I love about S&T and have always loved about it: it makes me stretch. Even after 45 years.

The end, my friend? “Gallery,” the, well, gallery, of user-contributed images. I sometimes whine that this section is too et-up with images with tag-lines like: “18 hours exposure with a 20-inch Richey-Chrétien.” Oh, them is purty and all, but I like to see a few pictures that are at least theoretically achievable by fumblers and bumblers like yours truly. And that does happen this issue with a nice mix of images that does include, yeah, one that’s 20 hours worth of photons, but also several attractive images done—gasp—without a telescope at all.

At the very end is the “Parting Shot” editorial, “Focal Point.” This is by a different non-staff (and sometimes/often non-pro-writer) each time, and that is the beauty of the thing. This time Constance Walker contributes a piece about kids and light pollution that’s fun to read and appropriate for the issue’s thematic center.

The month’s festivities come to a close with the back-cover advert. Unitron is long gone, of course, but that other “tron,” Celes-tron, has become as much or more of a tradition here than Untron ever was. I guess I will always miss those wondrous Unitron Christmas ads, though.

So…a good an solid issue, not unlike many good and solid issues I’ve seen since the spring of ’65. So what? If that were all there were to today’s Sky and Telescope, I would fear for ‘em, muchachos. While the current economic disaster is no doubt responsible for some of the immediate and drastic decline at the newsstand, it is, again, not responsible for all of it. Magazines, and especially hobby magazines, are relics of a bygone age—whether I like it or no.

Lucky for those of us who have treasured this particular rag, the Sky and ‘Scope folks seem serious about lassoin’ that elusive “new paradigm” that will take magazines into the 21st century. The first sign that S&T was at least trying was the 2010 Skywatch special issue/annual. In addition to the magazine itself, there was an accompanying CD. It wasn’t real fancy, but it did add extra value with more articles and pictures. The CD business seems to be workin’ for UK magazines, and there’s no reason it can’t work and help here. I’d like to see every issue of Sky and ‘Scope come with a disk. Especially if that media were used in truly creative fashion.

What gave me even more hope was that  the magazine began experimenting with an online edition again. They did some o’ this some time back, but appear more serious now, going so far as to email their subscribers informing us we could access a free .pdf of the March 2010 issue, and making that e-issue available to all comers, not just subscribers, for free. The e-zine itself was impressive, being accompanied by a glitzy looking custom reader. You can still checkout the March S&T fer free rat cheer.

Still, even given that S&T was dipping a toe in the online water again, I was kinda suprised to get an email subscription offer for a digital version of the magazine for the very reasonable price of 6 smackers. I took 'em up on it, you betcha, and am pretty pleased with what I got in return. The for-pay copy of the May issue I received looks purty good. Very readable, with that same cool-reader that was previewed with the March ish. Problems? Only a few. You have to download a whole cotton picking computer program to your PC, Adobe Air, if'n you want to read your issues offline. Supposedly, you can also download a plain, ol' .pdf, but I ain't been able to make that work. Anyhoo, it was a blast to be able to read the magazine on my PC, and, even moreso, on my iPod.

Unk being Unk, naturally he wants more. He wants Skytel and their parent, New Track Media, TO KICK IT UP A NOTCH! Offer three subscription types: print, print + electronic, and electronic only. Some of us folks, some curmudgeons like me, will always want print. Some of us will be interested in an electronic copy in addition to a hard copy magazine. And some of the younger amateurs won’t care pea turkey about anything but an electronic version.

How will going at least partially electronic help? In addition to maybe making it possible to offer readers who will opt for electronic-only a lower subscription rate thanks to lower production costs, extra value can be added. We got a little of that in the May online edition, with all URLs being clickable. We want MORE, MORE, MORE, though! Like “bonus” editorial copy in the e-version. If it's cheaper to produce, maybe that can happen. That’s just the beginning, of course. How about videos? Interviews, star party reports, and product reviews would be naturals for that. Howsabout nice big graphics of plans/blueprints to accompany ATM articles? There is mucho cool stuff that could be done with the online magazine or a CD/DVD.

The biggest Sky and Telescope e-news don’t have nuttin’ to do with the future, though, but with the past. An announcement came that many of us feared we never would hear: the entire run of the mag, November 1941 – December 2009, will finally be available on DVDs. It appeared for the longest time that legal considerations would prevent this from happening, but those hurdles seem to have been leapt. I cannot tell you how happy I will be to have this, to be able to browse and search the whole run, including all those issues from the 1960s and 1970s that one ex-wife or another used for puppy trainin’ or birdcage lining. I don’t care how much the collection costs. I will pay it. Gladly.

So it goes with Sky. The competition? My heart belongs to S&T, maybe, but that don’t mean I ain’t enjoyed Astronomy over the years, too. I have some very fond memories of that magazine, especially its Richard Berry Years. How are they fairing? Ah, that, my friends, is a question for another Sunday…

Spurious Book Review

“Spurious” how? In the sense that book reviews are not a regular part of this here blog. Maybe they should be, though, and I promise to give notice to those astronomy—amateur and professional—books I enjoy as we roll along. What I liked this time was a real moldy-oldie, Dr. Henry E. Paul’s Telescopes for Skygazing, which first hit the streets in 1966. What got me thinkin’ about it in these latter days? As I done admitted, I spend one hell of a lot of time on the Internet Astro Bulletin Boards (yeah, that’s what I still call ‘em), where I invariably run across some interesting stuff. Which included, one mornin’ not long ago, a post about this old book on one of Cloudy Nights’ forums.

Reading and re-reading the missive finally caused one of my few still-functioning neurons to fire: “OH, YEAH! THE SCOPE CATALOG BOOK!” That’s what I called Dr. Paul’s work back in the day. It wasn’t really a catalog, but it had so many mouth-watering pictures of the era’s luscious amateur telescopes that it might as well have been. I remembered I’d also learned quite a bit about telescopes from Paul’s text, but what really struck me and stuck with me was, yeah, those cool pics.

After I logged off CN, I got to thinking I might enjoy a trip down memory lane with Telescopes for Skygazing—my copy had long since disappeared, no doubt due to the depredations of them ex-wives. I hopped on over to to see what I could see. That gigantanormous online seller not surprisingly had the old tome available. Perusin’ the list of used copies, I found, “Very good condition with dust jacket, 1 cent.” A frackin’ penny? How could I resist?

Nota Bene: I do not normally buy used books on As an author, I like to get paid for my hard work, and am not about to do anything to deprive my fellow writers of the same. When you buy a used book on Amazon (or anywhere else) the person who wrote it receives nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. I didn’t mind buying used this time, however. This book is out of print and (so far as I can determine) the author is deceased.

OK, preaching mode OFF. I received my 1 cent copy from Amazon (actually about five bucks with the $4.99 postage) in due time. Just in time, actually, since it made the hours I spent in the hospital waiting room during Miss Dorothy’s recent surgery go by a lot faster than they otherwise would have. My opinion after laying eyes on the book for the first time in at least 25 years? In many ways Telescopes for Skygazing is still a remarkable work. Frankly, I was impressed all over again. Not just by those wonderful and now-nostalgic pictures, but also by Dr. Paul's reasoned and spare but elegant prose.

The most amazing thing? The book is still of real value, not just to classics nuts, but to today’s novice astronomers. Paul’s discussions of scope theory and, especially, the forever popular "refractors vs. reflectors" are just as relevant as ever. Henry Paul was an engineer, but his doctorate was in optics (and nutritional biochemistry, go figure), and he does know his stuff when it comes to the telescopes of that bygone era—and the basics of telescopes of ANY era.

This book is over thirty years old, of course—the third and last edition came out in 1976—so it would be awful strange if it weren’t dated in some respects. And it is. For example, few amateurs these days, even wet-behind-the-ears newbies, would agree with Henry that practical scopes top-out at 12-inches of aperture. There is no doubt 12-inches is still a very useful, far-reaching aperture, however, and for many of us it is still the biggest telescope that is practical for us. Me, for instance: for years and years my largest scope has been a 12-inch and I don’t feel a bit deprived, just as Dr. Paul said I wouldn’t.

There are a few mistakes and gaffes (who am I to talk?) in the book, but mainly you find ‘em when (in the 1976 Edition) the author takes up things on the hairy, cuttin’ edge of technology, like them new-fangled SCTs. In one passage, fer example, we are told the Orange Tube C14 focuses with a "dial" that moves a "small secondary mirror." On the other hand, Henry Paul was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Schmidt Cassegrain.

All-in-all, a great book for any amateur...those who lived through the amateur astronomy of the era and are badly nostalgic for it; those who didn’t, but think old scopes are cool; and, yes, those who are new to the game and want a cogent explanation of the basics. Henry Paul does that in spades. Now get on Amazon and get you a copy before the price goes up.

Sunday, April 04, 2010


Cindy Lou Rides Again

Well, campers, spring is finally here—what a winter, even in The Swamp—and with it the return of the public star party. Yeah, you guessed it; this is Unk’s obligatory yearly public outreach spiel. Why “obligatory”? Because I think outreach is important. No, I ain't one o’ them characters who run around like Chicken Little, hollering that amateur astronomy is DEAD, DEAD, DEAD because of a supposed absence of younguns interested in our avocation. Amateur astronomy will never die, because, even in the light pollution, some people, some special people, will always look up and wonder. But we do need to continue to expose all and sundry to our obsession and to the beauty of the sky.

I will acknowledge that public outreach is not everybody’s cup of tea. There are folks who just don’t like kids, our main target, at least not in the context of hundreds of ‘em putting their lollipop-sticky hands all over an expensive and beloved telescope. And some of us get tired of all the silly questions—usually from adults. Like you, I certainly don’t mind “How far away is Jupiter?” but it seems like what I hear more these days is “How much did that there telescope COST?” And you’ve got to trot all your gear out, often on a work night. And trot it all home at the end, without you havin’ seen much of anything of the sky for all your labors.


Yep, I can see how the above and all the other little annoyances inherent in showing off the heavens to Mom-Pop-Bud-Sis might tend to grate on somebody who does a lot of public star parties. Most of us don’t do a lot, though. Most of us get out with the public once or twice a year, and in this old boy's opinion putting up with the irritants every six months or so is more than worth it given the potential returns.

Which are? With the adults, it ain’t what you think it’s gonna be, that you are gonna harvest a BIG CROP of new club members. We’ve gained a member or two in this fashion, but that is rare. Lately, novices seem to find us, yay-ah, by means of the dadgummed Internet. No, the value of working with the public is not in converting them to our passion, but in simply exposing ‘em to the beauty of the night and of science.

Which is a big deal in this time when the layman is increasingly suspicious of science (for reasons that have little to do with the scientific and everything to do with the political). No, Elmer Fudd will probably not decide to buy a scope and attack the Messier list, but at the next city council meeting he might remember your li’l star party, and speak up for sensible lighting.

The main reason for public outreach, as I know you expect I am gonna tell you, and which you are right about, has nothing to do with adults. It’s The Kids. For a couple of reasons. Firstly, while you won’t make many amateur astronomy converts among the adults at a public session, it is quite possible you have planted a seed with a little kid, a seed that will blossom a decade or so down the road. And, God knows, we need young people in our clubs (if only we could learn how to keep ‘em once we’ve got ‘em). Amateur astronomy is not dying, but we can always use fresh blood. I dunno about you, but I get tired of coverin’ the same ol’ ground with my fellow geezers (star geezers?). Fresh blood, and fresh enthusiasm, and fresh ideas are a good thing for any astronomy club.

Perhaps even more importantly—no, no “perhaps” about it—you and your fellow club members are providing a valuable part of your community’s children’s scientific education. In the U.S.A., it was long ago decided to deemphasize astronomy in secondary schools in favor of biology and chemistry. After middle school, most sprouts get little or no exposure to the facts of the Universe they live it. If they are to learn much about practical astronomy—or, really, much about The Great Out There at all—they will learn it from YOU. In earlier and simpler times, it was expected the whole community would contribute to the education of its children, and not just with tax dollars. That is still a good thing, and you and I should be part of it.

There’s another aspect to the “little seed” deal. Exposing a child to the truth and beauty of astronomy may make her or him more sympathetic to the cause of science years down the road and less apt to sign-on to crazy-ass tin-foil-hat foolishness. You know: “Apollo was a hoax; we never landed on no Moon!” “The Universe is only 6,000 years old!” “EVOLUTION IS A SATANIC LIE!” Nuff said?

Hokay, have I convinced y’all to put up with the Lollipop Guild and their sometimes scientifically clueless parents a time or three a year? There still remains the question of how you proceed to do a public star party. I’m a-gonna both tell you and show you; first with some of the basics to plannin’ one, and, then, with a narrative about the one we-uns in the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society (PSAS) just did on a Tuesday night a cupla weeks back.


Once you and your Bubbas and Bubbettes have made up your minds to conduct a public outreach event, you are over the biggest hurdle, but some still remain, starting with the “where?” The place to begin is actually with the where not: not at your dark site. If you insist on trying that, you will cut your audience down to a sliver of what it would otherwise have been. Not many people are gonna want to pack up the kids and motor an hour (or more) into the dark and forbidding countryside for an “educational” peep at the Moon for the rugrats. Your goal is to make the astronomy experience as appealing and friendly and welcoming as possible for your customers, and that means a place in-town or in the suburbs. Don’t worry about light pollution; it don’t mean squat for reasons I’ll outline below.

Where, then? The most obvious candidate is a school. A school is friendly and familiar, and often you will not even have to approach the teachers; they will approach you. Or you may have members who are teachers or administrators in the local school system—few astro-clubs are teacherless. If a school is not an option, another candidate is a natural science museum, especially a child-centered science museum. Libraries are another very good possibility. Use your imagination. For example, some clubs held public star parties in conjunction with the local Saturn automobile dealership (“See Saturn at Saturn!”) back before GM fell on hard times and Saturn (the car) went to hell.

You have a location, but what about an exact location? As in, where do you put the telescopes, exactly, at Shady Grove Elementary? You want a spot at least somewhat shielded from ambient light. If you have to set up in a forest of mercury vapor light poles, your audience won’t be able to see much of even the Moon. If the parkin’ lot lights cannot be turned off, pick another place: a corner of the playground well away from the glare, or maybe a spot in the lee of a building that shields scopes from the worst offenders, whatever. I have never seen a venue where I couldn’t find some place that was at least sufficient to the purpose.

One last thing location-wise: if your star party will coincide with a “sky spectacular” like a comet or an eclipse, make sure your facility is capable of handling large crowds. Durin’ Hale-Bopp we had as many as two thousand attendees at our comet watches. You may get almost as many for a total lunar eclipse. Plenty of parking and adequate bathrooms are mandatory.


Big, important question. Real big. You will be appealing mainly to families with kids; you need to serve their needs. Mom and Pop are probably gonna be too tired from the work week on Friday night. And they probably won’t want to sacrifice their Saturday evening for some nutty deal about telescopes. Sunday? Quite a few young families will be in church on Sunday night depending on your area of the country. Monday? Who wants to drag the kids out some place Monday night (and who wants to set up scopes for ‘em?)? Wednesday is out for places where there is a high percentage of church-going Baptists—they are otherwise occupied on Wedneday nights.

Which leaves Tuesday and Thursday. Either of which is fine. But you need to take the specific as well as the general into consideration. Be aware of what is goin’ on in your community. If Miley Cyrus is appearing on Tuesday, for example, you can forget the tweenagers, many of ‘em, on that Tuesday night. Barney the Purple Dinosaur is havin’ a big show down to the Grange Hall? Few families with little ones will you attract that evening. Fortunately, most of these happenins occur on the weekends, which we have already ruled out.

What’s at least as important as the preceding? Maybe, more important than any of the “when” considerations we’ve discussed thus far? The phase of the Moon. Remember what I said about light pollution not being a factor? That’s because of what your customers will want to see: the Moon, a bright star, and the bright planets (Jupiter and Saturn). Even the adults will not care PEA TURKEY about looking at NGC 7331, even if it is visible in town skies. Schedule your go-date for some time slightly before First Quarter when Selene will be up early and lookin’ her numinous best. If some community organization is soliciting your services and setting the date, make sure they do not, as many lay people will, assume the best time for a star party will be the night of the Full Moon.


The “how” of outreach is pretty simple. You set your scopes up and let kids and adults look through ‘em. But how many scopes? How do you set up? You really can’t have too many telescopes on the field, so encourage as many of your members as possible to come out and pitch-in. As for how you set up, leave sufficient space between scopes, depending on the projected size of the crowd. Each instrument should ideally be on a different target, and telescope operators will be wise to have notes on hand for the objects they are gonna show. Nothin’ is more embarrassing than bein’ baffled by a seven-year-old’s astronomical question, “Mister, how many times bigger than Earth is Jupiter?” Kids—up to and including undergraduates—have a sixth sense when it comes to asking questions that will stump you.

Howsabout keeping order? Jawohl! With a little help from non-observing members (or maybe a few teachers if you are working with a school), a hundred or even two hundred attendees isn’t a problem. If you believe you are gonna draw over two or three-hundred, though, you are well-advised to tell your school or other sponsoring organization they’d better lay-on a few off-duty cops. Don’t worry. Usually, you won’t approach such numbers, even in a big burg, unless some astronomical spectacle has gotten the public’s attention.

Even if your crowd is not large, remind members to NEVER walk away from their scopes while the public is onsite. Do so, and it’s inevitable eager little hands will yank your pride and joy off target, RA and declination locks be damned. Surprisingly, adults are bigger offenders here. They, some of ‘em, are all too prone to walk over to an unattended scope and start playing—possibly in damaging fashion. Don’t ask me how somebody would have the nerve to do that, but they will. Worst thing I’ve ever seen? I found a couple of little boys SPITTING down the tube of a Newtonian while its owner was answering nature’s call! If you have to leave your scope for any reason, get a non-telescope-operator club member or other person to watch it.

There is one last but critical "how," the how of “How do we get the word out?” Nobody will show up for your event if they don’t know about it. Fortunately, letting ‘em know is not hard or even time consuming. Some things we have found effective are handbills/posters in libraries, announcements on the cable TV system public affairs “scroll,” mentions on the public radio station’s events “calendar” feature, and the good, ol’ newspaper. The Internet can be useful, too, but mostly for people who already know about you and/or are already interested in astronomy and who visit your website or are on your e-mailing list.


This is a question a lot of amateurs new to the public stargaze bidness wonder and obsess about, “What’s the best telescope for outreach?” Almost anything will do. Even a 60mm department store refractor’s views of the Moon will delight kids and adults. Even a 40-plus-year-old Newtonian reflector, as we shall see, can do a good job. But, at the risk of soundin’ prejudiced, an SCT is probably the best choice. The eyepiece is at a kid friendly altitude, there’s enough aperture that everything looks cool, and—very much a plus—almost all SCTs have drives, so there’s no need to re-center targets between looks, which will slow things down.

Eyepieces? I’ll understand if’n you don’t want to subject your Ethoses to the depredations of little fingers. Just about any ocular will be fine, but a nice big eye lens, plenty of eye relief, and a low power (your customers will want to see the whole Moon) are desirable. This can be supplemented by a higher power “planetary” eyepiece if Jupe or Saturn is out. What has worked for me on the long end is a 2-inch format 30-mm range import Chinese wide field like those sold by Owl and others. On the short end, I like Orion’s (Synta) 9mm Expanse. The longer focal length Expanses are good if you are confined to using 1.25-inch eyepieces. Were any of these to be incurably defiled by teenage mascara or the leavings of Double Bubble Bubblegum, it would not be a heartbreaking loss.

PSAS Spring 2010 ESC Skywatch

And, so, on with the show. This is how it went for us this year, and I think this is pretty typical for us on any year, and will probably also be the norm for any modest-sized group in a modest-sized city. We try to hold three public events a year: two formal stargazes, one in the spring, one in the fall, and one night of sidewalk astronomy. “Try to,” but it’s often “one” or “none” instead, since our spring skies are notoriously cloudy. The last decade or so, it’s even been a mistake to count on good conditions in the fall. It seemed as if we’d catch half a break this spring, though. International Sidewalk Astronomy Night had been well and truly clouded out the Saturday before, but the consarned weatherman was predicting clear/mostly clear for our Spring ESC Skywatch.

The whosit in a whatsit? We are quite lucky in the Where department. We’ve operated in conjunction with a local public school facility, the Environmental Studies Center, for nearly 25 years. The Environmental Studies Center, the "ESC," is a largish tract of land out in the suburbs, and, as shown in the image below, incorporates a lake, an open field good for observing, and a beautiful classroom/laboratory building where we hold our monthly meetings. In return for the use of this fine facility, we conduct two public star parties on the grounds with the assistance of the ESC staff (who handle publicity).

I said the ESC has a good field for observing, and it does. Or would if not for the light pollution. Over the past two decades, the city has grown up around the Center, and though we actually did use the site for club deep sky observing sessions until a few years ago, it’s been pretty badly compromised for quite a while. That doesn’t harm it as a public outreach site, though; it actually enhances it. It is close and convenient for anyone in the city. It’s a comfortable venue, too. The Center is well known by our county’s residents, with practically every single adult who went through the public schools havin’ been out there at least a time or two. There are bathrooms, water fountains, soft-drink and snack machines, and sufficient staff to help us manage even large crowds.

The weather looked good. Maybe a few periods of thin and scattered clouds, but nothing that would skunk us. I’d just pack up a C8 and—nope! I’d decided to let my RV-6, Cindy Lou, be the star of my show this time. Yes, her eyepiece position is a little difficult for the tiniest tots to reach, but there would be SCTs on the field for them to use. In addition to Cindy’s literally scrumptious optics, her drive works fine, a big advantage when working with kids, and she has another surprisingly important plus: she looks as much like a telescope to the public as any non-refractor can.

I was hoping for a good turn-out by the PSAS membership, but I was also aware the advantage of a weeknight for the public brings with it disadvantages for club members. Some just can’t help out on a work night, or are at work, or are taking or teaching evening classes. Nevertheless, we wound up with four telescopes, which was sufficient, if only barely. We are a small club, and there is only so much you can expect numbers-wise, I reckon. My experience with any club has been that maybe 10% of the rank-and-file will turn-out for any given activity, whether public star parties, or darksite observin’, or what-have-you, so “four” was “OK” if not “great” for us.

As usual, we set up well in advance of dark. Invariably, kids and parents will begin to arrive considerably before the scheduled start time, and if we are there and ready to go, we can keep ‘em occupied with looks at the Moon in the twilight. Some of us can, anyhow. One of the other beauties of Cindy Lou is that she don’t need no alignment stars, because she don’t need a go-to alignment, because she ain’t got no computer. A computer in the year of Cindy’s birth, about 1967, probably wouldn’t have fit in the ESC building.

If all you have is a go-to scope, bring it out, but it sure is helpful if your computer will let you skip alignment and just start sidereal trackin’, or allow you to align on the Moon or other Solar System object. My Celestron C8-SGT (CG5) will, so will some other Celestrons and Meades. Thing is, little folk will be wanting to look at the Moon, clamoring to look at her, well before alignment stars are visible. If you have a manual scope as well as a go-to, leave the cotton-pickin’ go-to home. You won’t need that technology to find the Moon, Saturn, and Sirius.

With cars beginning to fill the ESC’s modest lot, we was just about ready to roll. One thing we did differently this time was the way we managed the “extra credit” business. Yeah, ain’t no secret we and the ESC staff have traditionally greased the skids a bit, arranging with sponsoring teachers to give a few points extra credit to students who attend the Skywatch. In the past, this was done by having scope operators hand out little slips to each “looker” veryifying their attendance. This tended to create somethin’ of a bottleneck, though, so this year we had the kids visit a table over at the buildin’ to sign-in and get their slips. That made the telescope lines move a little quicker.

And believe you me, there were lines. Like Forest Gump said, “Public observing is like a box of chocolates; you never know how many folks will come out to look through the telescopes,” or sumpin’ like that, anyhow. When all was said and done, we showed the sky to maybe 200-250 sprouts and adults (mostly sprouts). That was actually a nice number. There were occasionally long lines, but not distressingly long lines, and I believe that lines at scopes help kick the excitement up a notch with a little of that old “anticipation.”

How did Cindy Lou, do? Right good. This time out, the majority of the youngsters were big enough to reach her eyepiece, even with the Moon near zenith. The little ones? Unfortunately, I’d left home without a stepstool and had to divert the tots over to the SCTs. Till one little bitty girl trotted over with a stool she’d “liberated” from one of my friends’ scopes, “Let’s use this!” Luna was lovely in Cindy in the way she can only be lovely—I’ll admit—in a longer focal length (f/8 6-inch) Newtonian from days of yore. I mostly stayed on the Moon and Mars, though I did waltz over to M42 once at the request a couple of older younguns. The kids just loved the elderly telescope, and were mucho impressed when I told ‘em she was older than most of their Mamas and Daddies. Yay, Cindy Lou!

Two and a half hours later we declared victory over the darkness of scientific ignorance, and rang down the curtain on the Spring 2010 ESC Skywatch. One of the other benefits of medium-small crowds is that after a couple of hours they tend to clear themselves out. During Hale-Bopp, we were sometimes still shooing people away at 11pm. But you know what? Even in those hectic times, I had fun with the kids. I had plenty of fun on this night with our modest crowd, too. I always do. Yeah, it might get old if I did it more than a few times a year. But maybe not. Seein’ the look of wonder on a kid’s—or a parent’s—face when they see Saturn for real for the first time is a heady brew, muchachos. Give it a taste.

C90 Redux

Does the picture at left need a caption? Howsabout, “Is the Only Enemy of Good Enough REALLY More Better?” What was the denouement of the C90 saga that was the subject of last week’s blog? As I recounted then, I’d ordered a hybrid diagonal to allow me to use 1.25-inch eyepieces and accessories in Little Sister’s .965-inch format back. Unfortunately, I wound up in backorder hell. No way to use decent eyepieces in the Small Orange One, and a Moon growing fatter every night.

I did a little poking around on the Internet, searching for an L.A.R., a “Large Accessory Ring,” a widget, an adapter ring, that allows the C90 to use standard SCT format accessories. Once upon a time, in the C90’s heyday, this was a common item. Unfortunately, with the 90 gone, L.A.R.s for the The Wee One have become as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Luckily, the Meade ETX 90 has the same size rear port, and Large Accessory Rings have been made for those Maks, too, though ETX L.A.R.s don’t seem to be as common as they once was, either. I Googled around extensively without success, and had just about given up when I ran across just what—it appeared—I needed at

This small Florida company is apparently part of an outfit called “CNC Parts Supply,” which is apparently related in some way to the long-gone and much-liked Florida astro-vendor and dealer of yore, Scopetronix. CNC’s L.A.R., which the page said would work with both the C90 and the ETX 90, was not exactly cheap at thirty dollars, but I decided to order one anyway, since, in addition to lettin’ antsy old Unk try his C90 NOW, it would, unlike the hybrid diagonal, allow the use of any number of SCT accessories on Little Sister up to and including the 2-inch diagonal seen above.

I don’t know much about CNC, but I do know they are prompt. I ordered on Saturday, and my L.A.R. was on the porch Monday night when I returned home from the hospital (the wonderful Miss D. had to have a little surgery). Granted, they are just one state over, but that is still remarkable service. Tired as I was, I couldn’t resist threading the ring on to the back of the C90 to see if it would indeed work—I’d been a little doubtful as to whether this Meade accessory would really fit my pint-sized Celestron.

Perfect. Threaded onto and over the 90’s rear port as smooth as a baby’s backside. A plain, ol’ Celestron visual back went onto the L.A.R. just as smooth, and I was ready to ROCK. Which I did despite the late hour. I grabbed up a 1.25-inch star diagonal and a 26mm Celestron Plössl, mounted the C90 on a camera tripod, and headed for the front yard where Luna was jus’ peeping above the house next door. Centered her up…and… Nice. Real nice. Good contrast across the Lunar disk. All-in-all, I thought the (near) Full Moon looked considerably better than she does in the Short Tube 80. We was just barely past Full, so one limb was edged with craters that stood out sharply against surprisingly black sky.

The next day, I couldn’t help pullin’ a wild hare out of my hat. Why not, yeah, actually try the 90 with a 2-inch diagonal? My William Optics (SCT style) dielectric threaded onto the L.A.R. no problem. Inserted a 27-mm Panoptic into that, and, while the result looked kinda funny (just north of ridiculous, I reckon), balance was manageable on the Manfrotto tripod. A quick terrestrial look down Selma Street showed that, as I’d expected, there was a small amount of vignetting due to the C90’s tiny baffle tube.

Vignetting, the cutting off of the light cone entering the eyepiece, something which can be caused by various obstructions in the light path, can be annoying. Unlike some amateurs, however, it’s not something that’s ever bothered me too much—hell, I’ve been known to use a 35mm Panoptic in an f/6.3 reducer-equipped C8. Even given my tolerance for vignetting, though, I can testify that the amount I was seeing in the 27mm TeleVue was minimal. Mainly just that the Pan’s field-stop was a little fuzzy rather than razor sharp.

When the waning Moon finally struggled over the horizon, I was glad I’d waited up. The view in the 27mm wide-field eyepiece was FINER THAN SPLIT FROG HAIR. Sharp, contrasty, with plenty of wide-open space around Selene. Frankly, I didn’t notice the vignetting I’d detected terrestrially. Other eyepieces? While waiting for the Moon, I’d tried a 7mm UWAN on Saturn just before the ringed wonder moved into tree limbs. The planet was low, and the seeing poor, but Saturn was nevertheless sharp, and even showed-off a little bit of disk detail.

What’s up next for the 90? Not much for a while, I suppose. Given its excellent performance, I believe it may provide strong competition for my StarBlast in the grab ‘n go arena. But only if I can figure out the mount equation. A camera tripod is absolutely useless for observing the sky with even a small telescope. I plan to check the alternatives as far as small-medium size alt-az mounts go, and will let y’all know whichun I decide on when and if I can convince myself to part with some $$$.

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