Sunday, November 27, 2011

 

Requiem for an ETX


Not my ETX and not all ETXes, muchachos, just the best of the breed, alas. When Meade revamped its website a few weeks back, a couple of sharp-eyed ETXers noticed both of Meade’s Maksutov Cassegrain design ETXes, the 90 and the 125, were gone. All that was left of the ETX tribe was the 80, a wide field achromatic refractor on an ETXish base. That dean of ETXdom, Mike Weasner enquired with the powers that be at Meade, and they responded that this was just an “oversight.” The ETX would live on.

Which was true, as far as it went. What Meade meant by “live on,” apparently, was that the ETX 90 would continue in some form. After a week or so, the 90 reappeared, but she was alone. No ETX 125 to be seen. And the 90 wasn’t exactly the same, either. It was on a redesigned (cheapened?) base and fork not unlike that of the ETX 80. Which is a shame. The ETX 90 as it was was probably the best it has ever been, with most of the hardware and software bugs out (finally).

Things actually haven’t been rosy in ETXdom for a while, with Meade seemingly unsure what they should do with the little Chinese-made telescopes. There was talk of the ETXes being discontinued a couple of years back, and though the small wonders survived, changes were afoot. The fancy and truly useful new features in the latest and greatest ETX incarnation, the PE model (onboard clock, north and level automatic alignment), were abandoned.

What will hurt with the passing of the ETX 125 is that it was the most useful ETX. The 90 is cute, and beginners love it, but there is a limit to what you can do with 3.5-inches of aperture, no matter how fine. The 5-inches of the 125 put it in another ballpark. Not only is it still reasonably portable; you can actually do some fairly serious observing with it. Its superb Gregory-type (aluminized secondary spot on the corrector) optics do not give up much to a C8 on the planets and are surprisingly competitive on the deep sky. Add to that full go-to for an incredible 800 bucks—even less lately.

I thought it would be appropriate this Sunday to recount where we have been with the little MCTs, or at least where I have been with them. I will admit I am a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to the ETX brigade, but I have at least admired Everybody’s Telescope from afar since it hit the streets.

Yep, “Everybody’s Telescope,” the working name for the project Meade embarked on in the mid-1990s. Frankly, they could have called it the “clone the Questar 3.5 project,” since that was what it was. What they decided to call the new telescope as their work neared fruition, though, was “ETX.” I suppose that sounded glitzier and more high-tech than “everybody’s telescope.”

Fifteen years ago, us Boomer Amateurs still ruled the roost, and most of us had got our start in the 1960s, when the inside front cover of every single issue of Sky and Telescope was reserved for a full page ad for the Questar 3.5. It was just so beautiful, so gemlike, that most of us bought into advertising that at least implied the tiny Maksutov could outdo our homemade 6-inch Newtonians. It couldn’t, of course, but most of us never got to find that out, since the Questar went for the equivalent of at least five thousand 2011 dollars.

Nevertheless, lots of us carried a torch for the Questar into the 1990s, and if we couldn’t convince ourselves that one was a sensible buy, even if we could now actually afford one, we still wanted one. Meade solved that problem for us. The ads for the ETX that hit the magazines like an earthquake in 1996 showed a beautiful little telescope that looked a lot like the Questar. Oh, it wasn’t stainless steel and shiny aluminum, but the Meade blue tube and the black fork and base looked scrumptious, anyway. No, there was no beautifully engraved dew shield or Brandon eyepieces, but the ETX 90 went for an amazing $495.00, meaning it very nearly was everybody’s telescope in that almost everybody could afford one.

It appeared the ETX might even have some advantages over its “inspiration.” Yeah, it had a flip mirror on the rear cell, but that was merely to allow you to attach a camera to the rear port. Unlike the real deal, it had a normal finder instead of the weird and dew-prone through-the-main-eyepiece job. Not only that; the ETX 90 was battery powered. The basic Questar 3.5 limped along with an AC synchro clock drive.

As is often the case, reality, bright morning daylight reality, was a little different from what the Meade ads seemed to promise. Yes, the ETX was attractive, but if we hadn’t already suspected it, one look at the scope in person showed the drivebase, the fork, and the rear cell were all plastic. Those cool looking little legs sticking out of the drivebase? They were every bit as useful as the same thing on the Questar: completely useless, in other words. The drive in the drivebase? It was indeed battery powered, but that was the only advantage. Move to a new target and it might take 30-seconds to kick in due to gear slop. The finder was almost as good as the one on my Tasco 11T 4.5-inch reflector—not-so-hotsky, that is.

I certainly hadn’t expected a leather case and a build quality so good and so beautiful that I’d want to display the ETX under a glass dome in my study as I lounged around in a smoking jacket (kaff-kaff). But I did hope the little upstart would at least have good optics. I’ll admit I began to lose hope as those initial “plastic and clunky” reports came in. I was wrong about that. The ETX turned out to have world class optics.

Y’all know I am a pretty easy-going kinda guy. I’m not the sort of writer who normally inspires hate-mail, but I got some over the ETX. I used to write occasionally for a semi-pro astronomy-zine called The Practical Observer. It wasn’t a bad little magazine, and I would probably still be contributing to it if I could at least have gotten copies of the issues I appeared in, much less a paycheck, from the publisher, but that is another story. What’s relevant to this story is the firestorm of angry mail engendered by my article about the ETX.

I had the temerity to say the ETX 90’s optics were close enough in quality to those in the Questar 3.5 as to be for all intents indistinguishable from them. I did not rely on memory of looks through Qs and 90s, either. I was lucky enough to have a buddy with a Questar and a buddy with an ETX. I did a shootout between the two, and, much as I tried, I could not see much—if any—difference in their images. Both were extremely good within the bounds of what a 90mm telescope can do. I did point out that mechanically the Questar was worlds ahead of the Meade, but that did nothing to assuage the hurt feelings of the folks who’d dropped 4 grand on a Q 3.5. Ah, well, I called it as I saw it, and what I saw was that, yes, the ETX was fully competitive with the Questar optically.

We now entered in upon a period in the life of the ETX similar to the days when the Commodore 64 computer was at its height, if on a smaller scale. The ETX was so popular that I’m surprised nobody came out with an astronomy magazine devoted solely to it. Companies like the late, lamented Scopetronix were springing up right and left to cater to 90 owners with accessories and add-ons, and one of the best amateur astronomy web sites there has ever been went on the air to serve the huge demand for ETX info. I am talking, of course, about Mike Weasner’s legendary Mighty ETX site, which is still around and still going strong, if in slightly less frenetic fashion.

Me? Unk? I didn’t rush out and buy an ETX, but I didn’t quite forget about it, either. After my shootout between Q and M, I’d check in on Mike’s site every once in a while to keep an eye on the ETX 90 and her new sisters. When it was clear the ETX was a big hit, Meade added a 105(mm) near-twin and, then, a big sister, the 125, to the lineup. Not only that; they shortly equipped all three with computers, the famed Autostar, which would soon be used on all the company’s go-to rigs, putting the antique looking hand control of the LX200 (classic) in the ground.

Still, I hung back and refused to join the ranks. I’d had some additional experience with an ETX, a 125, and had not been overly impressed. The scope in question was donated to the Possum Swamp Public Schools by Wal-Mart (good on ‘em), and I had the opportunity to give it a shakedown cruise. I loved the optics. They were excellent, just like the 90’s, but in an aperture large enough to allow me to actually see some good stuff. Unfortunately, all Meade did to produce the 125 was scale up the 90. Among other things, the plastic fork was just not good enough. Way too shaky. Ah, well.

Fast forward a few years, to 2005. As Unk truly entered upon middle age, he felt ever more strongly the need for a grab ‘n go scope. But something with a little more oomph and features than his Short Tube 80 and StarBlast. Something with cool optics in the 5-inch range. Something with go-to. I’ll be honest, if the NexStar 5 had been in production at the time, I would have got one, but it was undergoing another of its intermittent hiatuses. So I naturally gravitated to the “improved” ETX 125.

Overnight, the ETX had undergone a fairly radical redesign. Gone was the tiny finder, replaced by a red dot job controlled by the Autostar. The New ETXes, the “PEs,” also incorporated a battery-backed real-time clock. What that meant was that you had GPS without the GPS. Kinda- sorta. Input time, date, and location, and unless you carried the scope to a significantly different site to observe, you didn’t have to re-enter any of that stuff. The time and date were kept current, and the previous location was held in memory. With the PE’s North and Level Automatic Alignment, all you had to do was set the scope in a very simple home position (cranked all the way counterclockwise to the hard stop), turn on the power, and center two star with the red dot finder when Miss ETX finished her northing and leveling dance.

What got my attention even more than the ETX’s new alignment system was the word that the 125’s fork had been significantly strengthened. It still looked like plastic but that was on the outside; inside was metal. To make the little scope look more modern, I suppose, the tube was now silk-screened with an astronomical image—the North America Nebula. It wasn’t all gravy, though; at about this time the first ETX to fall fell. The 105, which had been significantly less popular than her sisters, was suddenly discontinued.

Should I or shouldn’t I? After reading Mike’s website for years, I was well aware of the ills the ETX was heir to: everything from computer hiccups to broken plastic gears. Yeah, I’d rather have had a NexStar 5, but I couldn’t get one, and for my purposes the ETX seemed just about perfect. Gripping my credit card in a sweaty hand, I picked up the phone and dialed Scopetronix.

When the 125 arrived at good, old Chaos Manor South, what were my impressions? First of all, that this little telescope was not so little. It was more portable than a C8, but not as much as I’d imagined. Secondly, the silk-screened tube some of my mates had pronounced “gaudy” looked awful purty to me. Finally, the tripod that was included in the package was hardly overkill. In fact, it seemed cheap and too light.

Thankfully, that tripod was at least good enough. Out in the backyard, it supported the ETX without too much shaking. What I was more interested in at first light, however, was the scope’s go-to accuracy. Verdict? Like the tripod, sufficient. Objects were not always centered in the field, but were almost always somewhere in it. At f/15, the 5-inch optics produced 75x with a cotton-picking 25mm eyepiece, so the Autostar-fueled go-to was actually fairly impressive when I took that into account. Tracking? Good enough for visual. Imaging? Fuhgeddabout it.

Which is not to say the scope was perfect. When slewing at full speed, she sounded like she was ready to strip a gear—several gears. And, while her design was OK, the QA/execution was not. The RA setting circle was firmly stuck to the base and could not be adjusted (not that I would ever use it), the Meade label on the tripod was glued on upside down by the Chinese person who applied it, and, most worryingly, the eyepiece tube was cross-threaded into the rear cell and crooked and bright objects showed wicked-nasty reflections.

I fixed all those things without much trouble, removing the Meade label and gluing it back on right-side-up, unsticking the RA circle, and unscrewing and screwing-in the eyepiece tube till it was right. But combine Meade’s QA missteps with the weird noises the little scope made when slewing, and it seemed possible she would fall to the observing field in a self-pitying heap at any moment. That never happened, but the scope’s slightly neurotic demeanor inspired the name I chose for her, “Charity Hope Valentine,” after Shirley Maclaine’s hapless heroine.

Despite her occasional faux pas, which have mostly involved her insistence on receiving “drive training” every once in a while if she is to put her go-to targets in the eyepiece, mine and Charity’s friendship has mostly been a beautiful one. I’ve had her out on many “iffy” evenings when I wouldn’t have dreamed of dragging out a larger scope, and she’s showed me plenty of beautiful things I wouldn’t have seen if I’d stayed home. The only significant maintenance I’ve done in a long time has been a keyboard repair when the rubber keys on the Autostar became unresponsive—a problem suffered by all Meade’s Autostar scopes, not just the ETX.

Which brings us to this past Saturday night. My club, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, is lucky to have an excellent, secure dark site at a private airstrip. The person who owns this facility is one of the honchos of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary (a little like the Civil Air Patrol, y’all). Each year, a big picnic is held at the site for members, and it has become the PSAS’ custom to set up scopes and show these folks some pretty stuff. They seem to like that, and supporting the event is the least we can do for the people who have been so kind to us. Only problem this time out? The weather, natch.

It looked bad, muchachos. My plan went from “Haul the Atlas out, show the Auxiliary members some bright objects, and start DSLRing” to “Should I even bother?” The answer? It would be a Charity Hope Valentine night. If it weren’t actually raining, I’d head for the dark site with my neurotic girlfriend.

Come three o’clock, I loaded up Charity in her aluminum case (the Meade model I purchased shortly after I bought her), and just a few extra items. On a Charity night, that is usually a small camp table, the eyepiece box, my main accessory case, and that is it. I had another agenda this time. I wanted to try Deep Sky Planner’s go-to features. I’d planned to try it with EQMOD, but that clearly wouldn’t happen. I could still see how DSP’s telescope control worked with the ETX, though. To that end, I brought the larger camp table, the PC shelter, and the netbook. The little Asus will normally go so long on her internal battery that big batteries and inverters are not needed. ‘Course I threw a couple of Monster Energy Drinks in the truck.

The skies didn’t look that good, but they also didn’t look that bad at departure time, 4 p.m. At least it wasn’t completely socked in like it had been a couple of hours before. If I could just show the picnickers Jupiter, it would be “mission accomplished.”

On the way out to the site, for once I didn’t play “what did I forget;” there was so little astro-stuff involved in this expedition that even I would have had a hard time forgetting something important. Instead, I spend the 45-minute drive listening to the Real Jazz channel on XM. Until I got my 4-Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, whose stereo is XM capable, I was skeptical about satellite radio. Not anymore. Now that I have it, I love it. Not only are there plenty of excellent “stations” for any musical taste, audio quality is great and it is a trip to drive to Atlanta or Chiefland and back listening to the same channel the whole time. If you spend much time on the road, get satellite radio; you won’t be sorry, muchachos.

At the site, I got set up, which took all of ten minutes, including the computer, and waited for darkness and clear skies. Sadly, by the time the sun had set, the clouds had come back. Lots of ‘em. There was a breeze blowing, though, and the bad fluffy things were moving with some speed, so I didn’t give up hope.

When the next break/big sucker hole came, I didn’t waste time. I got the ETX aligned as quickly as possible, which wasn’t very quickly this time. I’ve often talked about Charity’s glitches, but this time the glitch was mine. As I mentioned, time and date are held in the scope’s memory from session to session. Meade claims the battery that does that, a button cell, will “last years.” Six-months is more like it. The battery had been failing for a while, but I had not got around to replacing it. On my model of ETX PE, that requires disassembling the north-level red dot finder module and doing a couple of “calibrations” when the new battery is in. Me being me, naturally I put that off.

The ETX PE is fully useable without the backup battery; you just have to enter time and date in the Autostar at the beginning of each session. Which is fine as long as you get the time and date right. I got the time in OK, but not the date, which was evidenced by Charity stopping a long, long way from her alignment stars. She normally lands within a degree or so of ‘em, so I knew something was up, and checked date and time with the Mode key. Whoops. I centered the alignment stars anyway. The clearing was barely holding and enthusiastic Coasties were lining up for a look at Jupiter. Having the wrong date wouldn’t affect slews to deep sky objects. It would mess up go-tos to the planets, but it would be easy enough to aim at Jupiter with the red dot finder.

Which is what I did. Centered up Jove, inserted a 15mm Expanse eyepiece, and let ‘em look. Jupe was pretty good despite the punk weather, with his cloud bands starkly clear, clear enough that even the youngest observer in the crowd was able to see them. Of course, the moons were the big hit.

After Jupe, I sent Charity to M15, which she put in the field without a problem. With a little coaching, “Look away from it, not straight at it,” most of my audience was able to make out that the glob wasn’t just a blob, but made of tiny, tiny stars. As we were looking at M15, I was peppered with lots of questions, several of which concerned “dead stars.” Perfect segue to M57, the Ring Nebula, I thought. Sent Charity Hope Valentine that way, she put the little donut smack in the field center, and I let the folks have a peep. I tried to let ‘em have a peep. Two people got a glimpse of the Ring before the sky closed down again with a thud.

That was disappointing, but at least I’d been able to show my guests something, and they left happy and wanting more, which is always a good way to leave ‘em at a public star party, I reckon. I spent the next hour fiddling with Charity. During the next bout of temporary clearing, I connected to the ETX with DSP. The program was smart enough to know the scope’s date was different from what was in the netbook, and complained about that, so I redid the go-to alignment after correcting that cotton-picking date, which I’d missed by two weeks.

As I’d expected, Deep Sky Planner worked very well with the ETX, and the scope toolbar it throws up was a joy to use. I went to M27, M57, and a couple of others with DSP before the clouds came back to stay. Charity didn’t miss a beat, but that is not to say she was perfectly behaved. I noticed the silly thing had developed an occasional nervous tic. Every once in a while there was a “jump” in her tracking. I am not overly concerned; she has done that before and the cure has always been exercising the azimuth lock and rotating her back and forth in azimuth manually a few times.

And I shouldn’t complain. She did exceptionally well in the clutch. She was easy to set up, showed images good enough to impress the novice observers—hell what she did under these conditions impressed me—and was, most of all, easy to get back in the truck. By 9 p.m. I was again within the comforting walls of Chaos Manor South watching my new Blu-ray DVD of Star Wars.

I just checked Meade’s website and the 125 is still gone, so it does look like the curtain has finally rung down on the ETX 125. Yeah, there’s the similar Lightswitch 6-inch (which was originally counted among the ETXes), but it is an SCT, and much as I love SCTs my choice at the small aperture level is an MCT. Charity’s images are just so astounding. It’s like having a big, long focal length refractor that’s been shrunk in the wash. The ETX 125 may be gone, but I’ve got mine. If you hurry and call around to dealers, you may be able to get yours, too. I think you should.

Next time: It’s been a quiet Thanksgiving holiday at the old manse. All the kids are on their own and most of ‘em are far away, so it was just me and Miss D. We didn’t do our traditional New Orleans trip this year, so I hoped to get out to the dark site with Atlas and Canon. The weather gods thought otherwise. The only observing I got in was a couple of looks at Jupiter with the StarBlast and the 37 year-old telescope (mounted on my Synta AZ-4 mount). Anyhoo, hope all y’all had a good break with plenty of turkey and football, and I will see you on the flip-flop.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

 

My Favorite Star Parties: TNSP 2003


It’s still cloudy, muchachos, and I have a sea trial for the Navy’s newest ship, LPD 22, to ride, so this week it will be another trip down memory lane to one of Unk’s most fondly remembered star parties. This time way up north to Tennessee and lovely Camp Nakanawa.

Some of my favorite star party outings have been to those events like the Deep South Regional Star Gaze and the Chiefland Star Party that I return to year in and year out like a dadgum swallow to Capistrano. Not this time. I had never been to the Tennessee Star Party before the 2003 edition—hell, I probably didn’t even know there was a TNSP—and I haven’t been back since. That doesn’t matter; the good times I had there are still fresh in memory eight years down the road.

The story of me and Miss D’s TNSP trip actually begins at the 2003 ALCON, the 2003 Astronomical League Convention. Unk fulfilled a lifelong dream by not just attending the ALCON, but by being a speaker at that storied event. When I was a young sprout looking at the pictures of those serious ALers in Sky and Telescope, I didn’t dream that one day I’d be among them; not just as an attendee, but as a speaker. Which is a nice story, but not the story for this Sunday.

The 2003 ALCON was hosted by Nashville’s Barnard – Seyfert Astronomical Society, a large and active club. Apparently my presentation impressed these good folks (believe it or no) and they decided to invite me up to their big state star party. While the journey from Possum Swamp would be a not inconsiderable one, sitting under hot, humid, cloudy skies it sounded great; even if we only got to spend a couple of days there. TNSP was a young event, and, like many new star parties, it was initially only a two-dayer, 26 – 27 September in 2003.

The 2003 TNSP’s site, Camp Nakanawa, is on the national historic register as it should be. This privately owned camp has been around since the early years of the last century in mostly unchanged fashion in the east-central part of Tennessee near tiny Crossville. It was founded in 1920 by Colonel L.L. Rice with its express purpose being to help “young ladies” reach their potential. Young ladies have changed a lot in the near century that’s elapsed since then, but the basic mission of Nakanawa hasn’t, and good on ‘em. The pictures we were able to find on the Internet showed us the summer camp’s incredible scenery, but didn’t prepare us for the amazing antique-but-still-alive feel of Nakanawa. Before we could experience that, we had to get there.

The drive from Possum Swamp to Crossville is a long one as I judge such things, and one I probably wouldn’t have made it if I were doing it on my own dime. The condition of Nakanawa’s sky would be a partial unknown, and the knowns didn’t sound any too good. Looking at a map, Crossville was barely 75 miles from Chattanooga, and I doubted that was quite enough distance to completely dispel the huge light dome of that big, spread-out Tennessee city. But what the hey, this was a speaking engagement and if I saw anything at all, that would just be the cherry on top.

Since Miss D. and I would be driving up, this was one time I’d be able to take a telescope with me on a professional engagement. That telescope would be my almost new Celestron NexStar 11, Big Bertha. While I’d only had her a year or so, I was already blown away by her capabilities, and being not-quite-over-the hill at the time, I was taking Bertha with me everywhere. In addition to the scope we packed a few, support items: observing table, gear boxes, etc. We tried to keep the astro-stuff to a minimum. TNSP was only two days, and the prime goal was, as always, to do a good job as speaker, not to go deep sky crazy all night long.

But, yeah, we had to get there first, and Miss Dorothy’s schedule prevented an early start. We got going before afternoon, but just barely, loading up the Camry for what would be a near nine-hour drive. Our late departure impelled us to make the trip up a two-dayer, which was actually kinda fun. It would have been even more fun if the motel Unk picked, just outside Huntsville, hadn’t been situated in a dry county. When I tried to order a beer at the nearby Applebee's, the waitress said, “No way, hon. ‘Round here it is coke or sweet tea.” Oh, well, I had plenty of “supplies” back in the room.

Next day, we did get an early enough start, if not too early, since we were practically in Tennessee already. The last part of the journey wasn’t quite as quick as I thought it would be, though, since it consisted of two hours on two-lane country roads. I was a little P.O.ed at that (“put out;” this is a family-friendly blog, you-all), but it turned out to be the best part of the trip up. Those two hours were filled with beautiful mountain scenery as we climbed to the plateau on which Crossville and Camp Nakanawa are located.

Even in those pre Tom-Tom days, we had no problem finding the star party; the directions provided on the Barnard-Seyfert AS’ excellent website were more than sufficient. We soon found ourselves at registration, which was held under a park-style pavilion near the entrance to the camp. I prefer to be treated like one of the guys, usually, but the way the BSAS folks went out of their way to get us settled was mucho appreciated and reassuring, since we were in unknown territory with (mostly) folks we did not know.

Housing? There were several options available for star party guests, but D. and I were assigned to the oddest and maybe the coolest cabin I’ve ever been in at a star party, a tiny two bed chickie that Miss Dorothy immediately pronounced “adorable.” While it was like a chickie cabin, it was quite different from those you usually encounter at out of the way camps. It was clean, in excellent repair, very comfortable, and had the same historical gravitas of Nakanawa’s other buildings.

Next thing on the agenda was, of course, equipment set-up. I didn’t find much to criticize about the observing field. It was for sure more than big enough, its huge expanse making it way more than sufficient for the 150 or so observers at TNSP 2003. It would have provided plenty of room for future star party growth if TNSP had stayed at Nakanawa over the long run (more on that later). If there was a single down-check, it was that the field had just been cut, and the grass must have been pretty high when it was. The clumps of mown grass covering the field were an irritation if not an impediment to getting tents set up.

Actually, Miss Dorothy and I made do without our usual tent-canopy. The short stay, weather reports that didn’t sound overly astro-friendly, and my intention to focus on my role as speaker led us to downsize on gear more than we had before or have since. But that was OK; at least set up was derned quick. Since my presentation wouldn’t be until the next day, Saturday the 27th, all we had left to do was wait for supper and darkness.

Supper, ah yes. A sign on one of the buildings near Nakanawa’s huge, old, and perfectly preserved dining hall proclaimed “Our food is really good!” And it was as simple as that. Simple, yes—we had spaghetti that night—but prepared with obvious care. Even better than the food, though, was the company. The BSAS folks were all very friendly and eager to make us feel at home. And there were a few familiar faces from across the southeast. Dorothy and I were very happy to be able to have ALPO’s Dr. Richard Schmude, who we’d met at the AL conference that spring, as our dinner companion.

Good food and good people, right on. But let’s be honest, what you and me think and obsess about at a star party is “What is the sky gonna do?” The answer on Friday night was “Hard to say, but don’t look so hot.” Oh, things started off pretty promisingly at sundown, but the humidity was high, real high. As you know, moisture laden air makes any light pollution far worse than it is under dry conditions. There was a fairly prominent light dome from nearby Crossville, and there was noticeable sky-brightening to the south in the direction of Chattanooga, as I’d expected.

Still, that sky had possibilities and I thought it might be impressive under better weather conditions. Frankly, we were lucky to get in any observing at all on Friday night. The haze turned out to be in advance of a fairly violent storm system. Nevertheless, I was able to see some pretty stuff with Bertha, including the Veil Nebula, which was surprisingly prominent, and little NGC 404 near Beta Andromedae. Staring at Mirach’s Ghost, I began to wonder if conditions were as bad as I thought they were and whether they might actually be getting better. Not. I continued on for a while, focusing on the bright favorites of late summer and early fall, but clouds, real clouds, began to cover the sky about midnight.

I wasn’t quite ready for bed, so I covered the scope and wandered over to the big open air pavilion on the west side of the field that served as the vendors’ hall. There I found some old friends, Bill Burgess of Burgess Optical and Ken Dauzat of Ken’s Rings and Things. Bill’s setup included several of the Chinese achromatic refractors he was selling in those days. I was particularly impressed by the view of Mars I got through his 127mm f/8 rig between cloud bands. Mars was just a month or so past its record breaking 2003 opposition and was a welter of detail in Bill’s scope. It was all I could do to resist pulling out the credit card. Wisely, I moved on to Ken’s tables.

Mr. Dauzat was showing a lot of cool accessories, but what really caught my eye was his custom ETX 125 OTAs. These telescopes lacked the normal plastic rear cells and flip mirror assemblies of a standard ETX, being equipped instead with metal cells and 2-inch capable rear ports. The only drawback to these scopes, which were originally designed to be used in an optical communications system, was that the correctors were not coated. You’d never have known that from the images they produced, though.

I spent quite a bit of time admiring the pretty playthings and sucking down the coffee and hot chocolate the TNSP organizers served during the wee hours. I took frequent looks at the sky, but it was clearly getting worse instead of better, and I was finally chased back to our chickie by the sound of thunder. In those benighted days I didn’t travel with a laptop and barely knew what a DVD was, so after a few minutes of listening to the rising wind and booming thunder and drinking Rebel Yell it was off to night-night land.

When I awoke I didn’t have to look outside to know the weather situation had not improved. It wasn’t just thunder I was hearing, but rain. So it goes. It was time to focus on my presentation, “The Care and Feeding of a CAT,” a talk concerning, as you might guess, the maintenance of a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope to include, naturally, collimation.

After a breakfast and a lunch that were worth getting rained on for, Miss Dorothy and I were off to the building where the talks would be held. “The Wigwam” was possibly the most historic structure still standing at Nakanawa, a somewhat strange round construction of braced tree trunks and rough hewn planks decorated with paintings and drawings done by girls during their 1920s summers. I was gobsmacked by how recognizable the camp in their drawings still was. After marveling at these amazing relics, we settled in to listen to presentations on everything from cosmology to planetary observing. All were excellent and well received. I just hoped mine would be.

Big group, including some very prominent amateur astronomers, and Unk was naturally a little nervous. I needn’t have been. My audience was polite and, I was relieved to find, genuinely interested. Let’s face it, SCT collimation is a black art for novices, and even veterans are always anxious to hear about new collimation methods and ideas. I got not just rapt attention during my talk, but dozens of questions after. When these finally slacked off, I was asked to join a panel discussion with the day’s other presenters where we fielded audience questions on everything from String Theory to ETs and flying saucers.

After the talks were done and the rain had passed, I wandered around the camp, videoing all and sundry and marveling at my surroundings. Lake Aloaloa was shrouded in an eerie mist following the storm, and when a breeze brushed by I thought I could hear echoes of the laughter of long-ago little girls in it.

Striking as everything looked after the storm, it was also damp. And slippery. Wouldn’t you know it? I tripped and slipped and went you-know-what over teakettle. Luckily, my pride was more hurt than my bod. Nursing my scrapes, I hoped a front would come through and dry things out. Even if it cleared, the high humidity would mean conditions no better than the previous night.

After supper, another really great supper, it became clear a front would barrel through. The temperature was dropping precipitously and the clouds were fleeing with ever greater speed. It took until about 10 p.m. for the mess to completely blow out, but when it did it was obvious we were in for a treat.

Not only was the sky clear, it was black, velvet black, studded with a million stars. Yes, I could still make out some skyglow from Crossville and Chattanooga, but it was nearly gone. The sky at Camp Nakanawa was now gorgeous. With my speaking job done, it was time for fun. I set to work with a will on this excellent night, or what remained of it. Bertha showed me almost a surfeit of wonders. I’d go-to a target, suck down every photon I could, punch in the next destination, and Bertha would hum and lead me unerringly to yet another marvel.

The deep sky object of the evening? No doubt about what that was. By 2003, I was an old hand when it came to LPR filters: UHCs, OIIIs, hbetas, I used ‘em all. Still, e’en with the aid of a filter, I classified the Eagle Nebula, M16, as a tough object. Oh, the cluster was easy, and I could always see the nebulosity, but details? Hints of the mighty Pillars of Creation? Tough, very tough. Except on this night. The combination of a 2-inch UHC filter, a 35mm Panoptic eyepiece, and my beloved Big Bertha allowed me to see those tantalizing details like I’d never seen them outside CCD images.

I had to admit, though, that as good as the nebula was in my Panoptic, it was far better on the monitor screen of Dennis Williams’ Stellacam. Yeah, I saw hints of the “fingers of god” in my eyepiece, but Dennis’ 10-inch LX200 showed them in detail with the aid of the deep sky video camera. Right then and there I decided the Stellacam was for me. I’d been impressed by what one could do from the parking lot of (very light polluted) Nashville’s Embassy Suites hotel during ALCON, but out here in the dark what the Stellacam revealed was nothing short of astounding. Yeah, today the little black and white video camera has been far surpassed by the Mallincams, but nearly a decade ago the Stellacam was a revelation.

The only bringdown? The long journey back to the Swamp in the morning. We absolutely had to make the drive in one day, and I reluctantly threw the Big Switch shortly before midnight and did a little preliminary packing. Which don't mean I trotted off to bed when I was done. No, I was so enthralled by the images Dennis’ LX200 and video camera were delivering that I stared at and marveled at his monitor for at least another hour. When it became obvious to my fellow observers that Unk had shut down his scope, I quickly got several requests to check SCT collimation, which I was happy to do. When everybody was satisfied with Polaris’ diffraction rings, it was off to the chickie for a little Yell and a little shut-eye.

Whatever happened to the TNSP? I’ve checked the BSAS’ and other Tennessee groups’ web pages every once in a while over the years, but as far as I can tell the TNSP has only been back to Camp Nakanawa once, seven years ago in 2004. In fact, I am not at all sure there is a TNSP anymore. I know there is a TSSP, the Tennessee Spring Star Party, and that it appears to be quite popular, but it is the work of another group, and is held in a different location, a state park near Spencer, Tennessee.

The fact that the TNSP was a onetime good deal for me doesn’t diminish the experience one bit. Maybe it enhances it. Dorothy and I still talk about the wonderful time we had at Nakanawa, and whether there’s still a TNSP or not or whether it ever goes back to that beautiful camp or not, the good folks who put it on should be proud of what they achieved and the good memories they planted.

Next time: If it clears, out goes the Atlas and the Canon, you-all.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

 

Unk’s Deep Sky Plans


Hey, y’all, ain’t it funny how time slips away? Seemed like ‘twas just the other day I first heard about Phyllis Lang’s Deep Sky Planner and resolved to give it a spin. When I stopped and thought about it, though, I realized that was at least a decade back. Giving “DSP” a try was one of those things I kept meaning to do, muchachos, but which for one reason or another kept slipping to the bottom of Unk’s ever growing to-do list.

Oh, I’d had a look at DSP once, sort of. Somebody at a star party somewhere showed me a (crippled) evaluation copy of the software, and I was impressed by what I saw. Then and there I should have called Miss Phyllis and arranged to review her program, maybe with an eye toward including it in the software section of my last book, Choosing and Using a New CAT. But I screwed up. I didn’t do that.

Well, I’ve finally got round to trying Deep Sky Planner, and I sure am glad I did. Phyllis contacted me the other day and asked if I’d like to see a copy of DSP, the new DSP 5. My reaction? “Heck yeah!” Turns out it’s actually a good thing I waited, since DSP v5 is the strongest version of this program, yet.

“Now hold on Unk. What the h-e double L are you talking about? What is Deep Sky Planner, anyhow? I’m guessing it’s a computer program, but what kind of computer program? Is it like, uh, Cartes du Ciel?” Nope. It can work with CdC, but it is not like that famous program at all. If you’ve read many of my software reports here, you know the sort of astronomy program I favor is planners. And that is what DSP is.

What’s a planner? A planner is an astronomy soft that is list-centric. One is designed to help you see lots of stuff by making observing lists, organized lists of objects to view on a given date and time. One can also help you find objects and record your observations when you’ve found them. Some well-known astronomy planning programs are SkyTools, Deepsky, AstroPlanner, and Eye and Telescope. Most planners de-emphasize chart drawing, and some eliminate it all together—Deep Sky Planner has no charting engine. Which doesn’t mean you can’t use charts with it, as we’ll see directly.

Deep Sky Planner is, like a lot of astro-ware these days, available two ways: as a downloadable file from the program website’s store, where it is sold for the very reasonable price of $65.00, or as a CD which will be mailed to you for the also strikingly reasonable sum of $73.95. While I could have downloaded DSP and been using it the very night I exchanged emails with Miss Phyllis, I requested a CD instead. Lots of amateurs, especially older semi-Luddite amateurs like Unk, still prefer a brick and mortar product, and I wanted to go through the whole nine yards of installing from a CD. Oh, if’n I ain’t mentioned it, Deep Sky Planner is Windows only.

After just a couple of days of waiting, the DSP CD came through the mail slot of Chaos Manor South with a clunk, scaring the cats and bringing me on the run. Hot dog! A new astro-soft! Well, sorta. What was on the CD was v5.0, but Phyllis had alerted me that a major update, version 5.1, was in the offing, in just a week or two. I definitely wanted to wait for that before giving the program a serious look. I would install the current version and download the update from the DSP website when it became available.

The first part of the install was pretty much warm milk and cookies. Insert the CD in the optical drive (a USB optical drive I use with my astro-puter, an Asus netbook), click a few OKs and you are done. Like the recently reviewed Eye and Telescope, however, Deep Sky Planner requires online “activation” after installation.

This procedure is clearly explained in the docs that come with the CD, and wouldn’t normally have been a problem. Alas, it was for me. Due to a nasty little bug, the mostly automated activation process didn’t work just right. When it completed, the website warned me that the resulting registration number I would need to enter would not be emailed automatically, and that it might take a short time for it to be sent. Unfortunately, I had the feeling I’d never get the number—I could tell something had hung up somewheres.

I was right. But Phyllis was on the ball, sending me an email right away that advised me to download a program update that would eradicate the nastiness. I did so, re-did the activation business, and shortly had the number entered in the program. Not that it would have been a tragedy if I hadn’t been able to obtain the code number right away. You can use DSP for 30-days before it must be activated. As I mentioned in my initial article on Eye and Telescope, I find the registration/activation process for software annoying, but I do understand the need for it.

Then I left the program alone, waiting for the all important update. When I heard via DSP’s active Yahoogroup that the v5.1 upgrade was available, I downloaded and installed it. Somehow, I resisted the urge to dig in and start playing immediately, figuring I ought to have at least an idea of how much horsepower was under the hood. The extensive Help file (which is in the program’s directory as an Acrobat file, too) is really a well-written and extensive manual. Me being me, I didn’t feel like wading through 295 pages at the moment, but I did scan the program’s specs. To wit:

• Over 1,000,000 objects in the database. Many are cross-referenced.
• Sun, Moon, and planet data can be calculated for any instant or over a range of times.
• Same-same for comet/asteroid data.
• Comprehensive logging facilities which are tightly integrated with the program’s database reports.
• Supports the Sky Quality Meter (the electronic widget that tells you how good your skies are).
• Manages multiple observing projects.
• Selective data backup and restore.
• Export reports in .html and other formats. Compliant with OpenAstronomyLog 2.0 standard.
• Provides telescope control with ASCOM.
• Smart integration with TheSky, Starry Night, RedShift, and Cartes du Ciel.

That all sounded cool. It was clear this was no lightweight of a program, and I resolved to sit down with the manual eventually (as I always advise y’all to do with planning programs), but for now I just wanted to mess around and get a feel for how DSP looked and acted.

Clicking the program’s purty icon caused hard drive activity, and after a not undue waiting period with my somewhat speed-challenged netbook, DSP’s main screen appeared. It’s kinda plain, but that is OK; it’s generally good to start with a clean slate, and I sometimes get put-out with planners that try to cram too much stuff on their “home page.”

What you get with Deep Sky Planner is a fairly standard Windows menu bar. You know, “File,” “Options,” “Window,” and “Help.” Naturally you’ve got some astro-oriented choices too: “Observing Log,” “Telescope Control,” and “Equipment.” Below that is an icon toolbar with small but nicely designed pictographs. Running your mouse pointer over ‘em will reveal help bubbles in case you have trouble puzzling out what the icons do.

Where to start? Every astronomy program wants to know about location and time. I pulled down “Options” for a look see. Sure enough, there was “Location Manager.” It was easy to select my little city from the list that appeared when I clicked “United States” on the tree menu. If my city had not been on the list, or if I had wanted to specify a custom site for my exact observing location, that would have been easy enough to do by pushing the “New Location” button on the Location Manager’s toolbar and entering latitude/longitude, time zone, and the other usual things.

Like most planners, DSP also wants to know about your equipment: telescopes, eyepieces, filters, Barlows, and cameras. This setup is accessed by going to the Equipment menu and selecting “instrument browser,” “eyepiece browser,” etc. as required. One slight downcheck here? Most planners give you access to lists of common equipment and all you have to do is click on your stuff to add it to your inventory. You can download some equipment lists from the DSP “Community” web pages (accessible from within the program with Help/Community Page), but these are just static text files. NOT big deal. Equipment entry is something you don’t have to do often, and the process of adding gear is simple.

After I finished keying-in my gear lineup, I entered myself with “observer browser,” and it was time to get rolling with a Plan. No, I still hadn’t got around to reading the instructions—y’all know my lack of patience with manuals, even well written ones like this one. I did think it would be a good idea to get some guidance in putting together my first Plan, though, and watched a video, a Youtube video, on the subject, which is linked from the DSP web page. Big help. Big, big help. If you have the appropriate TV/Blu-Ray/game system, you can even watch Phyllis’ excellent videos on your big-screen TV while sipping…er… “sarsaparilla,” which is what Unk did.

Turned out all I had to do to start a Plan was click “New” on the File Menu, select New Observing Plan, and—bang—I had an empty Plan Document onscreen. Gotta populate that, with objects, of course. I decided I’d put together a Plan from one of Sue French’s tours from her wonderful new book Deep-sky Wonders. After a little head scratching, I clicked the arrow beside the little galaxy on the icon toolbar, which the bubble-help told me was “Deep Sky Catalog Search Documents,” and then “NGC.” There are mucho filters you can apply, but I wanted to see how the program dealt with great big lists, and just hit Search, which would put the whole fracking NGC in my search document.

Good news: the NGC came up quick like a bunny, and scrolling though it was fast and responsive. I really like the program’s “drag and drop,” paradigm, and all I had to do to add objects was scroll to ‘em, highlight ‘em, and drag ‘em into my Plan (I’d used the Window menu to tile my Plan and the search document horizontally to make dragging and dropping easy). You can use shift-click and ctrl-click to highlight and drag contiguous and non contiguous groups of objects.

Want to find stuff from different catalogs without switching catalogs? Mash the little galaxy icon, not the arrow next to it, and highlight all the catalog choices (about 25) in the list window of the Search Document that appears. Then, enter your object’s catalog designation in the “Common Name” field on the right, hit the Go Button (“Search,” natch) like I did with Stock 2, and you will be rewarded. DSP’s collection of catalogs is not crazy-lavish—the star search document couldn’t find Sue’s somewhat offbeat Stein 368—but in my judgment it is way more than good enough. Since you can easily enter objects manually with the “Edit Plan” button, having every obscure catalog is not a necessity. It was the work of maybe five minutes to produce my small Plan of Seven objects.

Was there anything I found wanting in my finished Plan? Y’all know me. I ain’t never found a perfect piece of software. Naturally, Deep Sky Planner is no exception. I could not find a way to display object details beyond the fairly basic data that’s in the plan spreadsheet. I like, for example, to know a galaxy’s Hubble Type. This is not fatal, however. Since you’ll normally be using DSP in conjunction with a planetarium program, you’ll have that program’s object info resources at your beck and call.

Got a Plan. What next? There might not need to be a next. Carry the PC and scope into the field and observe the suckas, clicking the Observed box as you do. But this program is capable of a lot more cool stuff than that. For example, I like to have pictures of my targets available to help identify the harder stuff. Like most other current planners, DSP downloads object images from the Digitized Sky Survey (the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey, that is).

Somewhat unintuitively for silly ol’ me, you set up images on the “Localize” tab at the top of the Plan, where you assign an image server and specify image size and other parameters. The program will then paste an image LINK to each object in your plan. You must then download each object individually and store it on the local drive if you want to do that. You can tell the program to automatically download an image for objects without a stored picure, but you still have to click on each object to make it do that.

This image-handling method was one of the few things I did not like about DSP. I would like to be able to download batches of object pictures. If I’m gonna hit a hundred Herschels tonight, I want an image for each of them, and I don’t want to have to click on each one to download its pic. Yes, as is mentioned in the documentation, pictures take up a lot of space on the hard drive, but in these days when humble netbooks have 250 GB drives, that is really no longer a factor. If you, like me, often observe from a site without Internet access, you’ll want all the pictures you need on your hard drive before you head for the boonies. Miss Phyllis, please provide a batch download facility.

What else do you need for a night under the stars? You need a chart. Or you may want one, anyway. Even with a go-to rig and an extensive plan, it’s nice to know what else is in the neighborhood of your targets. Like I done said, DSP does not have charts of its own. But you will not miss them. It works seamlessly with the above mentioned planetariums. I prefer Cartes du Ciel, but heavy hitters like TheSky X and Starry Night work, too.

Why are the charts “smart,” as was touted in the program specs? Because Deep Sky Planner does more than just center the object of your desire (right click on a plan object and choose “charts”) on the planetarium. DSP tailors the field-size of the resulting chart to suit you. You can even tell DSP to size the charts based on the size of the target object. Way cool. Only thing that surprised me? Unlike some similar programs, DSP does not start the planetarium program by itself; you have to have it running first. On the other hand, Deep Sky Planner works with considerably more planetariums than similar programs I know about.

Now you’ve got a plan, pictures, and charts. Ready to go? Not so fast. If you’ve got a go-to rig, don’t you want to go-to objects with Deep Sky Planner? I haven’t tried DSP’s go-to abilities in the field—yet. Hell, I haven’t even connected the program to a real telescope inside the house. And yet, I have no doubt it will work well in this regard. Why? Very simple: it uses ASCOM. That universal telescope driver system purty much makes it a no-brainer that your go-to rig will work with the program.

Well, almost any go-to rig that has an ASCOM driver should work with an ASCOM compatible program, anyway. There was the unpleasant matter of AstroPlanner and that very special ASCOM driver, EQMOD. AP worked very well with any driver except EQMOD. That isn’t a huge shock, I reckon. EQMOD is, after all, a very complex driver. It takes the place of the Synta SynScan hand control and must do one hell of a lot. Could DSP handle it? I connected to the EQMOD simulator to see.

Deep Sky Planner worked so well and so smoothly with the simulator that I can’t imagine it not working with the real thing (I promise I will give it a try in the field ASAP). Since DSP does not have onboard charts, there is no way to click on alignment stars on a map; you’ll have to put together a Plan list of alignment stars, but that will be easy. I was just overjoyed that it appeared Phyllis’ wonderful program would work with EQMOD. What was super cool? DSP adds a telescope control icon bar to the screen when a scope is connected. These buttons—park, unpark, track, and more—worked with EQMOD! Whoo-hoo!

When you are done looking at your deep sky wonder, you want to log it, doncha? All I need is a place to state the bare facts: object, date, time, and my comments. Deep Sky Planner’s log works fine for that, but it is capable of doing a heck of a lot more. You can record the current weather conditions in detail, for example. Hell, if you have an Internet connection you can get a weather report via a mini-browser built into the log. I’ll probably never do that, but it sure is groovy.

“What else can this program do, Unk Rod?” Sorry, Skeezix. We are well and truly out of time and space for this Sunday. But rest assured this very efficient piece of code has a feature set competitive with anything on the astro-market. I do intend to write a full review of DSP in the near future, and I will keep you posted on that.

The bottom line? I love Deep Sky Planner. Not only does it have lots of features, it has very good bones. It never crashed. It never did crazy things. It just worked. Is there stuff I’d like to see in it that is not there? Well, sure, there always is with any program. In addition to my comments above concerning object info and pictures, I’d like to see a more robust Import function. Yes, you can import data from programs that support the Open Astronomy Log format, but I could not see a way to import Plans/objects from a plain text file.

That is just quibbles. This is a great soft. I’ve had a lot of fun using it already, and I suspect you will, too. So why doncha? YOU CAN DOWNLOAD AN EVALALUATION COPY. FOR FREE. It is limited to the Messier and Caldwell DSOs, but it is fully functional. In other words, with a few mouse clicks you can be enjoying this wonderful program tonight. Go get it, muchachos.

Next Time: Once the dadgum Moon gets out of the way Unk will do some more DSLRing and we’ll talk some more about my fave imaging program, Nebulosity. Till then? Stop by next Sunday and see, muchachos.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

 

EQMOD Redux


When it comes to astrophotography, your old Uncle Rod is the perennial beginner. I’ve been trying to take long exposure pictures of the deep sky for over 40 years, and while I’ve had some middling success, you will never, ever see my shots in the Gallery section of Sky and Telescope.

Not that that’s all bad. Since I am still a beginner at heart, albeit one with a lot of experience, I have an easy time writing articles on introductory imaging, like the one I did  for Sky and Telescope’s Skywatch annual this year. And despite the fact that I’ve resigned myself to the reality that I will never be a celestial Ansel Adams, I almost always have fun with astrophotography. When the astro-imaging fever is on me, I spend nights and days having a ball taking and processing astrophotos. Our tools have changed from film and darkroom to digital and computer, but the process is still much the same and I still like it.

Why haven’t I joined the ranks of the advanced astrophotographers after so many years? Well, muchachos, there are a couple of reasons. One factor is the Possum Swamp weather. It is not at all unusual to go weeks, especially in the summertime, without having skies good enough for visual observing, much less long exposure deep sky work. After long periods without being able to push the shutter release, your skills atrophy. I ain’t complaining, mind you; just saying.

Another reason for my failure to join the “10-hour exposure through multiple filters” club is that I am the original astro-dilettante. There are many pursuits in our broad avocation I enjoy. Tonight it’s sketching, tomorrow night I’ve got a video camera on the scope, and the night after that I am back to visual work with my wonderful Ethos eyepieces. No, I maybe never get as good at any one of these things as the more single minded, but I think this has kept amateur astronomy eternally fresh for me. There is always something new to try.

As there was on my first DSLR imaging run in a long, long time. What was new was my 50mm Orion guide scope and StarShoot guide camera. The guide scope is genuinely new. I’d heard folks were getting good results with these converted finders, and one seemed like a good solution to me. What could be simpler and more effective than a wide field guider that mounts easily to a C8 in a dovetail finder bracket? A mounting that would probably be more sturdy and less prone to flexure than the el cheapo rings I use with my 80 and 66mm guide scopes. Course, the aperture would be a lot smaller. Would that mean a lack of guide stars, especially when used with my StarShoot guide camera?

Ah, yes, the Orion StarShoot autoguider the lovely Miss Dorothy gave me Christmas before last, and which I’d been able to try briefly exactly once. At least it looked good: nice metal body, ST-4 guide output, and an amazingly large sensor (a ½-inch 1.3 megapixel job). The only bummer is that this chip is a CMOS one like those used in consumer digicams, not a CCD. CMOS chips work well for imaging of all kinds, but they are less light sensitive than CCDs. The single time I’d tried the StarShoot, it seemed to pick up stars OK, but that was with a larger aperture guide scope than the 50mm one I’d be using now.

I also wanted to give EQMOD a workout, even if it ain’t so new. I’ve known about this wonderful program for over four years, ever since I bought my Atlas (EQ-6) mount. What’s it do? It’s a telescope control program that runs on a PC and replaces the mount’s SynScan go-to hand controller. It’s a lot like NexRemote, but for Synta-branded scopes. It adds more features and makes some things easier. It, for example, allows you to use a wireless gamepad instead of a wired HC to move the scope and issue some commands. I much prefer a joystick to four stinking little buttons.

While I’ve not just used but written about EQMOD, that was a long time back, and the program has added significant new features since then, including a polar alignment utility. Above all, if I was going to drag out all the imaging gear, I wanted to give it the best possible chance to perform well. Since I’d gotten good results with EQMOD the first time I ever used my Canon DSLR for astrophotography, it made sense to use EQMOD again after a long layoff from DSLRing.

When you think about long exposure digital imaging, you naturally think “lots of gear,” but, honestly, compared to all the stuff I lug out for a video run, a night with a DSLR is actually relaxing gear wise. I can eliminate the DVD recorder, the portable DVD player I use as a video display, several cables, and the big deep cycle marine battery that powers the recorder. I did bring a small 12vdc battery, a lawn tractor battery, and an inverter with me on this run to ensure the netbook had enough power to get through the evening. The StarShoot guide camera draws current from the computer’s USB port, and I was afraid that would shorten the Asus netbook’s normally amazing internal battery life.

My equipment load was lighter, yeah, but not exactly light. In addition to the C8 OTA, the Atlas mount, the new guide scope, and the StarShoot, there was the Canon Rebel DSLR, the remote shutter control widget (needed for older Canon DSLRs), a box full of cables, a wireless gamepad and receiver for EQMOD, and all the usual stuff I need for any run beyond the most informal. Can’t do without multiple accessory cases, DewBuster controller and heaters, dew shield, chair, table, computer shelter, etc., etc., etc. Since this would be a cold night as we judge such things, low 40s, I made sure I brought my heaviest coat and plenty of (disposable) chemical hand warmer packs from Bass Pro.

Since the Sun would go down shortly after 6 p.m., I needed to leave the Old Manse no later than 4:30 to allow plenty of set up time. As I was driving down Government Street in my new truck, Miss Van Pelt, I, as I always do, started playing the “what did I forget” game. Doh! Left my thermos of hot tea and my Monster Energy Drink sitting on the island in Chaos Manor South’s kitchen. I decided I’d keep going. Traffic was bad, and tea or coffee eventually makes me feel colder rather than warmer, anyway. I did want a Monster, though, and stopped at a filling station not far from our dark site and bought a monster of one.

Out in Tanner - Williams, I was dismayed that turnout was even worse than it had been the previous Saturday. The only other PSAS member who showed was my good buddy George. I reckoned that, once again, the cold temps and the (still-running) Greater Gulf State Fair accounted for the lack of interest in observing on what would be a beautiful evening

Once again, there had been zero doubt the weather would cooperate. We hadn’t had much in the way of rain in quite a while, and the universal forecast was “clear and cold.” Not crisp, though. Humidity was fairly high and appeared to be spiking up as the Sun set. Felt like the air would be just damp enough to make light pollution a problem for imaging. The Milky Way is almost always easily visible from our site once in climbs out of the Possum Swamp light dome in the east, but damp air propagates the glow from that light dome across much of the sky on a humid night.

Some folks complain about the weight of the Atlas GEM head. I’ll admit it ain’t a lightweight, but at about 50-pounds it is not insane, not even for a broken down old hillbilly like me, not when I’m careful. And as I’ve said before, at this price point you’ll have to accept “heavy” if you want “steady.” If you are willing to pay about five times what the Atlas commands, you can get “steady but light” with a mount like the wonderful Astro-Physics Mach 1, but Unk is way too stingy to consider that, given his minimalist needs.

Weren’t any hiccups during set up. I used a good compass to get the mount roughly aligned on Polaris’ position before that distant sun peeped out. Hooked up the computer. Mounted the guide camera. Installed a 1.25-inch diagonal and visual back on the C8. I’d do the go-to alignment with a 12mm crosshair eyepiece and then mount the camera. As is almost always the case, my C8, Celeste, was wearing the Celestron f/6.3 reducer-corrector I bought for her at the 1997 Texas Star Party (from the late, great Pocono Mountain Optics). Done, I kicked back, drank about half the Monster, and waited for dark.

When Polaris finally turned up, it was time to get on the stick. Lit off the netbook, brought up Cartes du Ciel v 3.4, and connected to EQMOD. If you haven’t heard, EQMOD is not really a program; it is an ASCOM telescope driver. It is a very sophisticated ASCOM driver, but it still must work in concert with an ASCOM compatible program like Cartes.

How does this CdC/EQMOD combo talk to the Atlas? Over a standard serial cable connected between the PC’s serial port and the hand control port on the mount. There are a couple of gotchas, here, though. First off, no modern laptops or netbooks (or even desktops) that I know of have serial ports. That means you must provide one, usually via a USB – serial converter cable. Do yourself a favor and get a Keyspan, since they are known to work reliably with EQMOD. That’s not all you need, however. A PC speaks RS-232, but the Atlas only understands TTL. That means you must have a level converter module, an “EQDIR.”

The EQDIR, a little widget that translates between data formats, can be plugged in at either the computer or telescope end of the serial cable. I usually place it at the computer end; I don’t like the EQDIR sticking out of the mount’s DB-9 socket. That’s just asking for me to bump into it and either break it off or unplug it.

Where do you get an EQDIR? There are several sources, but here in the U.S. of A. most people buy from Shoestring Astronomy. Who has another product that’s even easier to use, the “USB2EQ6,” which incorporates a USB converter, an EQDIR, and a serial cable. Plug one end into a USB port on the computer and the other end into the DB-9 hand control port on the mount and you are ready to roll.

Don’t have an EQDIR and want to try EQMOD right away? If you have a SynScan serial cable and a hand controller running version 3.21 of the firmware or higher, you can. Run that cable from a serial port on the computer to the RJ socket on the base of the SynScan hand control, set the HC for “PC Direct” mode, and you are good to go. Most of us prefer to leave the SynScan HC out of the loop, but you can get your feet wet with PC Direct.

The mount’s cabled to the computer and the planetarium is running and connected to EQMOD. What happens next? When the EQMOD window opens, click the tool icon on its top right to expand it to reveal the set up display. There are quite a few settings to make including alignment method, gamepad options, and auto guiding parameters; the EQMOD docs explain exactly what must be done and how. Most importantly, enter the observing site’s latitude and longitude and save it to the hard drive. It is critically important that this lat/lon be exactly the same as what is in the planetarium program. Once EQMOD’s set up is done, it’s polar alignment time.

Since I usually only take two to three minute subframes, about the limit of what my site will stand before sky fog from light pollution becomes too bad, a decent alignment with the polar scope is all I need. I’ve always liked the Atlas’ polar borescope with its nice, wide apparent field of view. Too bad it’s tough to figure out how the R.A. axis of the mount should be rotated to put the little circle where Polaris goes in the right spot. Used to be tough, anyway. Thanks to Chris Shillito and the other gurus continuously developing EQMOD, borescope polar alignment is now a breeze.

How does it work? When Polaris is visible, unscrew the dome-shaped cover on the rear end of the Atlas RA assembly to reveal the borescope eyepiece and also remove the plastic plug from the forward end. At this time, the mount should be in normal “home” position, with the counterweight shaft down and the declination at 90, so the tube of the telescope is parallel to the RA axis of the mount.

On EQMOD, press the park/unpark button to unpark the mount, and uncheck the check box for “mount limits” on the right of the driver window. Ensure Polaris is selected as the pole star in the Site Information area of the display (it should be by default), and click on the Pole Star H.A. button to bring up the Polar Scope window. Back at the scope, use the gamepad to slew the OTA in declination (north/south) until it is perpendicular to the R.A. axis, 90-degrees to the R.A. axis, in order to open up the hole in the counterweight shaft the borescope looks through.

Ain’t got a wireless gamepad? Get one. There are slew buttons on the EQMOD display, but it’s a pain to move the scope with them, especially when you are trying to center alignment stars. The good news is that EQMOD will work with almost any wireless PC game pad, and can even be made to use Wii or Playstation or Xbox controllers. Me? I found a perfectly good wireless pad/joystick in the dadgum Wal-Mart for 10 dollars.

When the polar scope’s view is clear, set the Polaris circle on the reticle to starting position. This position is selectable, but I find “6 o’clock” easiest to use. Center the North Star in the crosshair of the reticle with the mount altitude and azimuth adjusters, and then crank up in altitude until the star is on the big circle (not in the little circle) on the reticle. When it is there, use the gamepad to move the scope in R.A. to place the small circle around Polaris. Push the Set Polar Home button, the one with the plus sign and house icon on it, to record this starting position for future use.

Just about done. Mash the Align Polar Scope button (arrow and yellow star), and the mount will move in right ascension until the Polaris circle is at the proper angle for polar alignment. If you are using a telescope with a tube much longer than that of an SCT, make sure this movement will not result in the tube ramming a tripod leg. It that is a possibility, remove the OTA (and counterweights, natch) before polar aligning. Once the mount stops slewing in R.A., just use the altitude and azimuth adjusters to put Polaris back in the little circle, push the Park button to send Atlas back to Home Position, re-enable mount limits, and you are done.

Subsequent outings will be even easier. Disable mount limits, unpark, bring up the Polar Scope window, click the Move to Polar Scope Home button (arrow and house icon) to go to start position, click Align Polar Scope to slew in R.A., put Polaris in the circle when the mount stops, park the mount, and you are done.

Did all that in about two minutes, unparked the mount again, and was ready to get started with go-to alignment. EQMOD’s alignment method is one of the things that make it different. Different but good. Instead of picking stars from the SynScan’s too-small display window, you click on them on a planetarium program’s screen (I like to use Cartes’ all-sky display), center them up in a crosshair eyepiece with the gamepad, and push the “sync” button on the astro-program.

If that sounds too different for you, EQMOD also has a more “traditional” dialog based alignment system where you click “yes” on a window to accept stars. To enable the dialog system, select “Dialog Based” instead of “Append on Sync” in the Alignment/Sync section of the driver setup display. I used to prefer “Dialog,” since I could accept stars at the telescope with the gamepad, but I changed my mind when I realized I’d have to go back to the computer to select the next star, anyway, and that it was quicker to just to click Cartes’ sync button than to fool with another window. You can assign “sync” to a gamepad button, but I’ve never felt moved to do that.

Which stars do you sync on? I find making a huge, sky-encompassing triangle with three stars works very well. I usually pick a star in the northeast, one in the northwest, and a final one in the southeast. I try to keep them close but not on the horizon, maybe 10 – 15 degrees high. I have never had a problem with go-to accuracy when I have done this, with every object winding up somewhere in the field of a medium power eyepiece.

Need more better gooder? You can add as many alignment stars as you want. At any time. Just go-to a star, center it, and sync. The EQMOD docs go into detail about what’s good and what’s bad and how many are better in this regard. However many you choose, once you’ve synced on your last star, you are done. Minimize the EQMOD window and click on and go-to anything you want on the planetarium screen.

Other than the “new” (to me) polar alignment utility, EQMOD worked just as I remembered. Aligned on three stars, clicked to go-to Vega for focusing, and everything just worked. Vega was centered in a 15mm eyepiece when EQMOD said “Slew complete!” There are quite a few new features, and I refer you to the docs linked above for a complete rundown on them, but the main thing I noticed was that EQMOD now talks. Like NexRemote, it announces “Slewing to target” when you start a go-to, “Slew complete” when you get there, and many other things. As with NR, I find this both cool and useful. I do not like looking at the PC screen any more than I have to.

Mount aligned, next thing next was getting the guide scope focused. After the alignment, I’d plugged in the guide camera cables, brought up PHD Guiding, set exposure to 1-second, and begun looping frames. Vega was a big, fat blob at first, but screwing out the objective end of the guide scope to focus made it appropriately small. I was happy to see that as I approached focus many dimmer stars appeared. The StarShoot is more than sensitive enough. None of the three imaging fields I visited on this night lacked candidate stars. Focused, I snugged-up a knurled ring behind the little scope’s objective cell to lock focus down.

Now it was time to get the imaging camera, the Rebel Xti, mounted and focused. The DSLR screws onto the f/6.3 reducer using a standard SCT prime focus adapter and a T-mount ring that takes the place of the Canon’s lens. I plugged in the camera’s remote shutter release module and USB cable and fired up my control program, Nebulosity.

I know some people don’t use a PC with a DSLR, but I much prefer running the camera with a computer rather than setting exposures with a handbox and storing images on a Compact Flash card. Nebulosity from Craig Stark, the same talented dude who wrote PHD, is great. It delivers a big focus display, stores your images as .fits files on the hard drive, and allows you to set exposures and exposure sequences with drop downs and menu buttons. Nebulosity deserves a blog entry all its own, but for now I will just say that it is so nice to focus easily, set up a sequence of exposures, tell Nebulosity to start work, and walk away.

Although I had not used Nebulosity in a long while, it is so user friendly that I was ready for my first target in just minutes. Slewed over to M13, centered it using Neb’s frame/focus function, and set up a series of 10 two-minute exposures. Didn’t want to go longer since the Big Dog Glob was already a mite too low for comfort. Nebulosity ready, I maximized PHD’s window, selected a guide star (the StarShoot actually showed M13 as a blob in a mere 2-second exposure), and hit the guide button.

Before it can begin guiding, PHD will need to calibrate. That takes a few minutes, but it only has to do this on the first guide star or when you move to the opposite side of the Meridian. During calibration, PHD slews the scope north, south, east, and west, to get an idea of how the mount responds to commands. Since my tiny guide scope has a large field, I was aware I should change guide-steps (pulse durations) so the star would move enough for a good calibration. I clicked the “brain” icon on PHD and changed that parameter to “2000” from the default of 700 or so. In due time, PHD finished its cal successfully and began guiding.

I told Neb to start exposing, waited for the first frame to be displayed, and when it did and I saw its stars were nice and round, I walked over to George’s set up to see what he was looking at, letting scope and computer do their thing on their own.

And so it went for the balance of the evening. After M13, it was the Dumbbell Nebula, M27, and finally, the good, old Ring, M57. Since Nebulosity takes and applies dark frames as well as light frames, twenty minutes of exposure takes something close to an hour from start to finish. I knew that, but when I finished with M27 I could still hardly believe it was getting on to 11 p.m. I also couldn’t believe I wasn’t cold. My heavy coat helped, but mainly I’d been so busy and excited that I forgot to be cold.

Since I wanted to give EQMOD’s go-to accuracy a trial, slewing from horizon to horizon, I decided that would be a good way to end the evening. Stowing the camera and guide camera would put me a little ahead of the game when it was time to pack up, too. Off came the camera and prime focus adapter, on went the 1.25-inch diagonal, and out came my beloved Orion Expanse eyepieces. Maybe I should have brought the Ethoses and the Denkmeier Powerswitch diagonal with me, but this was an imaging run, and I wanted to cut down a little on the gear overhead.

They ain’t Ethoses, but with the reducer-corrector in place, the stars in my 20, 15, 9, and 6mm Expanses were respectably sharp, even at the edges of the fields. What did I look at? Ever’thing from M42, which was barely over the eastern horizon, to M37, which was nice and high in the northeast, to M27 in the west, to M15 up high, to NGC 253 way down South in Sculptor. All looked good, but that was not what I was interested in. I wanted to know how good EQMOD was.

To cut to the chase, EQMOD was impressive. If a go-to system has problems, accuracy will usually fall off somewhere: at the zenith, in the south, on the horizon. Obviously EQMOD did not have any problems, because every single object I looked at was somewhere in the field of the 9mm Expanse eyepiece. I didn’t leave it at the above four targets, either; I went all over the sky, trying to get EQMOD to put something out of the field. Nope. In my opinion, its accuracy is fully the equal of Celestron’s NexStar firmware, which is acknowledged to be the best in the business.

So Unk didn’t make any mistakes or do anything silly? What do you think? It wouldn’t be an Unk Rod night if there weren’t any weirdness. I was set up on the opposite end of the field from George. I did that so the computer’s and cameras’ red LEDs wouldn’t disturb his visual observing. Toward the end of the evening, he hollered, “I’ve got the Veil!” I swear I thought he said “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” I came at a run, needlessly disturbing George’s contemplation of his favorite supernova remnant. Oh, and I spent half an hour searching for the C8’s rear cell cap when I was packing up. Couldn’t find it anywhere despite much scanning of the ground with a flashlight. Naturally, next morning it was right where I put it in the accessory box.

Back within the nurturing walls of Chaos Manor South, I resisted the urge to look at my subframes. Doing that when it’s late and you are tired is a sure recipe for disappointment. Unprocessed frames always look terrible, but even they will look a lot better IN THE MORNING. Instead, I plunked myself down in the den and poured out some Rebel Yell and did a little channel surfing. What I landed on was the EXTREMELY SILLY but entertaining Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. Not that I paid much attention to the show’s…uh… “exaggerated” claims. I was ruminating on how to go about processing the night’s haul into something that would at least please me, if not win any prizes. And that’s what it’s all about, ain’t it, muchachos?

Next Time: Phyllis Lang’s Deep Sky Planner

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