Sunday, November 25, 2012

 

Those Crazy Computers! Part I: Choosing an Astro-puter


Happy Thanksgiving, y'all! Hope you and yours had a great one full of turkey, football, Black Friday madness, and whatever else floats your boat. Me and Miss D? We did did a change-up this time. We've spent many a wonderful Tnxgiving at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, but decided it was time for something new for 2012. Long and short? Unk had his Thanksgiving dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings. You'll hear all about that week after next. For now, it's them crazy and sometimes maddening computers...

Crazy Computers? Yeah, you know, “astro-puters,” computers used in amateur astronomy. Unk was a young man during the microcomputer revolution, and is more than old enough to remember a time before everybody had a PC on their observing table. I will admit small computers have improved amateur astronomy immeasurably, but that don’t mean I always like ‘em, muchachos.

Despite the fact that computers (specifically Unix computers) are a big part of Unk’s day job with the U.S. Navy, don’t get the idea he necessarily gets along with ‘em all the time. As his colleagues will attest, it is not at all unusual for Unk to start saying real bad words in the direction of a formerly friendly Sun Workstation.

I suspect most of you are about the same. And not just those of y’all with a few gray hairs. Unix and Linux and even Windows and OSX can be confusing for anybody, even when all you want to do is write an email to your Aunt Lulu, and downright infuriating when you are trying to use the dang things to send your telescope on go-tos. So, this morning let’s talk about how to navigate the rocks and shoals of computerized amateur astronomy.

If you’re gonna have a computer at the telescope, you gotta have a computer, right? It’ll probably be a laptop or laptop-like machine since you’ll want to run it on battery power, but that still leaves a lot of choices. Operating system? Traditional laptop or a netbook or ultrabook? How about a tablet? How big a screen? How big a hard drive, if any? How you gonna power the dadgum thing into the wee hours? What kinda software you gonna run on it? We will answer at least the first couple of these questions, “Which operating system?” and “Which computer?” right now, friends.

The starkest choice before you is “Windows or Apple?” There are other OSes, including the aforementioned Linux (like Unix), but astro-ware is pretty paltry once you stray from the big two, so even if you still love and use CP/M for all your other computing needs, you will likely want Windows 7 or Apple’s OSX on the telescope field.

Hokay, which then? I used to be very hesitant about recommending a Macintosh for use with a scope. Not because the Apple’s performance or reliability wasn’t what it oughta be, but because of the lack of astronomy software for the Mac. There were a couple of planetarium programs, mainly Voyager and TheSky, and there was a planning program, Astroplanner, and that was about it. Oh, there was also a CCD/imaging program or three, but imaging is not our subject this time. All we want today is a computer that will send the go-to scope to sky objects.

There didn’t used to be much astro-ware for Mac. That’s changed. Over the last couple of years, the Macintosh has made tremendous strides in astronomy and everything else. The first breakthrough was when Apple changed from the Power PC processor to good old Intel chips, just like in PCs. That meant it was a much simpler proposition to run Windows programs on a Macintosh if necessary.

The biggest change has been in the number of Apples sold over the last decade. Lots of folks are turning to The Other Guys these days, maybe because they’ve got comfortable with Apple after using iPhones and iPods and iPads. There is now a big enough user base to impel developers to write more astronomy software for the Apple Corps.

Almost all (but not all) major astronomy programs are now available in Mac flavor: Cartes du Ciel, Stellarium, TheSky, Starry Night, not to mention that huge iOS hit SkySafari, which has been ported to the Macintosh. This is not only good in that it gives Apple troops a wider choice, but because it makes the transition from Windows to Mac a lot easier for former Win users. You can boot up friendly CdC or Stellarium on your new toy, and, despite a few changes to embrace, begin using your software productively from the get-go.

Despite the pluses of the Mac, there’s little doubt most of us will still choose a Windows machine. Not only because the number of astro-softs available for Win is still by far larger, but because some of y’all are, like your old Uncle, cheap. Yes, comparably equipped Macintoshes and PCs cost about the same, but you can find perfectly useable Windows computers for as little as three hundred dollars, a lot less than what you will shell out for any Mac.

So, you’ll probably get a Windows machine. Which Windows O/S version will you run on it? You’ll probably run Windows 7.  Windows 8 is out, but not too many folks are that impressed, and most of us probably won’t try it until we buy a new machine with 8 installed. Yes, some of the worthies down to the club will advise you to get a copy of Win XP and get rid of 7, but there’s no reason to do that anymore. The only point of using the older O/S in preference to 7 or its predecessor, Vista, used to be that there were problems running older applications under the new OSes.

It was usually not that (fairly recent) software wouldn’t run on Vista and after—I only found one program, Starry Night Pro Plus, that absolutely wouldn’t boot up on Vista (it runs fine on Win 7)—it was drivers. Lots of drivers for various gear had a real hard time with the 64 bit versions of Vista and Win 7, especially. In other words, most of the problems came when you tried to hook up a CCD camera.

Today, the driver conundrum is over, and even when it wasn’t, what we’re trying to do this Sunday, just hook a telescope to the PC and send it to objects, mostly worked fine. Windows 8? Who knows what that will bring, but your (up-to-date) planetarium program will probably work fine with it.

“Up-to-date” is the key to avoiding a lot of grief when changing OSes. Download fixes/updates as your publisher issues them, and always at least consider upgrades to newer editions of the program you’re trying to run, even if you have to shell out some $$$ to do so. A recent version will almost always have a better chance of working under a new operating system than a program that was last updated during the time of Windows fracking 98.

Once you have decided on the operating system of choice that still leaves a huge decision. What sort of Win PC or Mac? The choices are fairly simple with Macintosh. You can get a MacBook Pro, which is a standard sort of laptop with a hard drive, a nice big screen, and other hardware features like you’ll find in Windows laptops. OR you can get a MacBook Air.

The Air is much like the new Windows ultrabooks. It is a very thin and light computer with a screen smaller than that of the Pro and a flash (solid state) disk drive rather than a hard disk. It is really that last that is the sticking point. Do you want and can you live with a solid state drive or not?

The top Air has 256 GB of solid state disk drive (SSDD). The SSDD is good in that it is fast and uses less power than a hard disk drive. It’s bad in that 256 GB ain’t a lot these days. It will probably be enough for astronomy use, but many folks who pay this much for a computer, about 1600 dollars for a top o’ the line Air, want to use it for all their needs. If you’re one of those people, make sure 256 GB is enough space.
In addition to the Air itself, you’ll also need to purchase an external DVD player, since one is not included. If you don’t want to play DVDs or load up software from CDs and DVDs, you could do without one, I guess, but do yourself a favor and get the outboard DVD.  A DVD drive may also come in handy as a place to stash files if the SSDD begins to get cramped.

All told, you will be paying almost four times what Unk paid for his astro-netbook, which has a smaller screen, but has a 256 GB hard (disk) drive. But there is no question the Air is a pretty little thing with a screen large enough to be useful, good battery life for astronomy—as much as seven hours—a speedy processor, and plenty of memory (4gb) for the top Air.

The more normal Mac laptop, the Pro? It’s even higher in price, in the range of the top Win machines. The one I’d choose for astronomy, the mid-range Pro model with a 15.4-inch display and a 500 GB drive, will set you back 1800 simoleons. The most expensive Pro, which sports a 17-inch monitor and a 750gb hard drive? 2500, give or take. Battery life is good on the 15-incher, up to seven hours.

All the Pros are gorgeous and perform very well. B-U-T… At those prices I begin to get nervous about throwing a computer in the back of the truck for a run to Chiefland where I’ll subject it to nightly dew baths on the Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field. Still, yeah, gorgeous, stylish, computer astronomy with élan.

Choices in Win-land are more complicated in that you have oodles of manufacturers and three types of astronomy-suitable machines to choose among. In addition to laptops and the Air-like Windows ultrabooks, there are still plenty of netbooks around. PC pundits and city-slickers keep pronouncing the humble Win 7 netbook dead, but people keep buying them in more numbers than they do the way more trendy tablets—though that seems to be changing, even down here in The Swamp.

What the heck is a netbook? They started out as small laptops, usually with small amounts of solid state memory instead of hard disks, no DVD drives, small screens, a little RAM memory, and slow processors. They were mainly intended, as their name suggests, for browsing the ‘net and emailing and not much else. Twarn’t long, however, before their manufacturers began competing fiercely with each other and upgrading their netbooks to get a leg up, adding more memory, faster 1ghz range processors, and hard drives in the 250 GB range.

I scoffed at netbooks for astronomy when I first saw ‘em. That tiny screen? How in the hell was I gonna do anything with the computer out in the dark if I had to squint at the (typical) 10.1-inch postage stamp size display? And that pokey processor? And no DVD drive. Huh!

But then my much-loved (and powerful) Toshiba Satellite laptop died. I needed a new computer immediately; I had a Chiefland Astronomy Village expedition in the offing. Another Toshiba? Jump ship to Apple? Something else? What if I at least looked at netbooks? The prices sure were right, and one might do till I could figure out what kind of REAL laptop to get.

To make a long story short, I wound up with a cute little red Asus. It, an external DVD drive, and a case set me back all of 500 bucks (and you can do way better than that today). The screen? I found out it was reasonably useable. I’d had to wear reading glasses to decipher the Toshiba’s, too; so what if I had to go up one magnification factor for the Asus?

One thing that had worried me? Screen resolution. As delivered, the resolution on most of netbooks tops out at 1024x600, which means the windows some programs display may be cut off at the bottom. Thankfully, I found most of these machines can be kicked up one notch in resolution, sometimes with a utility program, or, as in my case, sometimes by changing a line or two of code in the Registry. At the higher resolution setting, circles on my Asus’ screen are somewhat egg-shaped, but that ain’t no big deal. No windows or buttons get lopped off.

How about the processor? The Pine Trail CPU ain’t no speed demon, but most astroware don’t need a speed demon. I have not yet found a planetarium that will not run well enough, including that trio of purty ones, Starry Night Pro Plus, Stellarium, and TheSky (6). It’s not the subject for this time, but I have also been able to run imaging software like Nebulosity entirely satisfactorily.

The biggest draw of a Netbook for me? Battery life. I was oh-so-tired of powering my Satellite with a trolling motor (marine) battery. The Toshiba’s internal battery MIGHT get me an hour and a half (the Satellite was made just before the advent of “mobile” processors). Miss Dorothy and I checked the specs of every netbook in BestBuy, and found one that claimed to achieve 11-hours of battery life. It may not go quite that long, but I have never exhausted the Asus’ battery over the course of an “all-nighter” (though I gotta admit that at my age “all nighter” is “till 3 a.m. if’n I can make it”).

The Asus worked fairly well for me for a couple of years, but there was no denying the screen was a little small and low in resolution and the processor was a little on the poky side. It’s now possible to improve on that without going to the size of a standard laptop. Ultrabooks are similar to Apple’s Air: thin, light computers with solid state drives and larger-than-netbook (but smaller than laptop) displays.

Is an ultrabook right for your observing table? I dunno. One might be. There are some models, whose specs are comparable to the eminently useable Air. Some ultras now come with 14-inch class displays and 256 GB SSDDs for prices around 1500 dollars. I’ve not yet seen a Win Ultrabook with a 15-inch screen like the one on the Apple, though. And par for the ultrabook course at the moment is a 13.3-inch display, a 1.7 GHz processor, and 128 GB of solid state drive. These are yours for from a number of brands including Asus and Samsung for as little at 800 greenbacks.

How well will they work for astronomy? Their processors are good enough, no doubt about that. Battery life? 6 – 9 hours, which should be fine for just about any run. Couple of USB ports, sometimes even one USB 3.0. Every ultrabook display I’ve seen has resolution high enough that there are no worries in that regard. Finally, most weigh in at 2 – 3 pounds so they are a joy to tote around. The single caveat? That solid state drive.

Most Win ultrabooks still max out at 128 GB. Is that enough? For astronomy? Probably. Hell, my wonderful Toshiba, which I used up until two years ago, had an 80gb drive. If all you do is load up with astroware, maybe a couple of planetariums, planner, perhaps an imaging soft or two, and otherwise use the computer for a little word processing and net-surfing/emailing, you will be OK. When might you not be OK? If you have a large chip CCD camera and are saving many images, or you have a high-speed/large chip planetary cam and are producing big .avi files.

Even if you are doing mucho imaging and saving large files, an ultrabook with a 128 SSDD might serve. As with the Air, you will need to buy a USB DVD drive for the thing so you can load up software that’s on discs, and that would make it possible to burn image files to a DVD as you go along, freeing up the SSDD. Bit of a pain, but workable, I reckon.

My gut feeling about ultrabooks? WAIT. I expect prices to fall and drive sizes to go up. No, I don’t think they will soon be as inexpensive as netbooks, which are now down in the sub-300 buck territory, but cheaper than they are now, anyway. I also expect most to soon sport 256 GB drives, and at least some to get 14 – 15-inch displays. I don’t think this will take long, and that is a good thing. Given their good battery life, processor power, and larger than netbook displays, I believe ultrabooks will soon be the astro-puter of choice. Plus, they are pretty; some of ‘em are damned near as pretty as a Macbook Air.

Now we come to the traditional astro-puter, the Windows laptop. No real surprises here. They are pretty much like they have been over the last five years: 15 – 17-inch screens, “normal” hard drives, built in DVDs, decent keyboards, couple of USB ports. The change is that you get more of everything for your money now.
Even bypassing the lowest of the low HPs (shudder), you can get an amazingly powerful lappy for few dollars. Like a Toshiba 15-incher with a 500gb hard drive, 4gb of memory, and a 2.3ghz processor for—get this—three-hundred-odd freaking George Washingtons. What’s not to like? Not much. The battery life is a little shorter than that of the ultrabooks at around 5 and-a-half hours, but if you need longer than that a jumpstart battery and a small inverter will run a machine in this class for as long as you’ll want to go (remember, if it's cold at the observing site your battery life will be about halved).

All in all, it’s hard not to say a Windows laptop in this size/price range is the perfect astro-puter. For the less high tech among us—like your old Uncle—anyways. Yes, I loved my Asus netbook, but when I ran across a Toshiba with a 17.3-inch screen for less than 350 clams, I jumped.

Of course, there is always that elusive More Better Gooder when it comes to computers, and there always has been. Some folks will tell you all of these machines, even the Macs, are yesterday’s news and need to be put out on the curb like yesterday’s papers. What you want is a tablet. An iPad or one of them Android thingies.

Do you? Maybe. iPad versus Android is kinda like a replay of the Windows – Mac battles, and it is far from clear which is “better” or which will be better in the long run, anyhow. One thing to consider before choosing either is that both the iOS operating system and Android O/S are still fairly new and not compatible with anything. Capable software, especially capable astronomy software, is just now beginning to appear.

What astro-ware is there? Most of all, there is SkySafari. There are a few other decent softs for iOS and ‘Droid, but SkySafari Pro is the first planetarium for the tablets comparable to what you can get for a PC or Macintosh, sporting 15-million stars and 740,000 deep sky objects. Go-to? For the Apple iOS version it is easy and proven, via either a wi-fi or wired setup. Android? Some ‘Droid phones and tablets can manage wi-fi control of a scope, some can’t.

Would I choose a tablet as my astro-puter? I probably wouldn’t, not yet. I want a couple of apps that either haven’t appeared for ‘em yet, or are just appearing. I need a good planner, and I need a DSLR/CCD imaging program. On the other hand, if all I was interested in was a planetarium for sending my scope on go-tos, I could do very well with an iPad. Believe me, SkySafari running on the latest ‘Pads, even the new Mini, is sweet, real sweet, even sweeter than it is on my iPhone. The iPad is fast and responsive for astronomy and has an incredibly beautiful display.

Caveats? While you should be able to get as much as 10 hours of battery life with the iPad, that and the screen’s performance will be degraded if the iPad is used in temperatures approaching freezing, something the Yanks among us are likely to do. You also have to get used to the thing. You may find the paradigm of holding a tablet and swiping a screen perfectly to your liking. Or you may not. You can get keyboards that work with the iPad and holders that prop it up like a laptop screen…but if you are gonna do that, why not just get a laptop in the first place?

How about an Android? The main inducement for buying one instead of an iPad is price. Most of ‘em are “almost as good” at anything as the iPad, but not quite as good. The main problem, however, is that not all Androids are created equal. As above, some can, for example, set up a wi-fi network to enable you to send your scope on go-tos, but some cannot. Like PCs, they are made in a wide variety of models from a wide variety of manufacturers. SkySafari Pro is now available for Android, and on the right Android machine, is very nice. But it has to be the right Android tablet. Apple is still the safest bet.

So, you’ve got a shiny new astro-puter set up next to your shiny new Meade LX80 (or whatever). What now? How do you get the cotton picking things talking together, much less working together? That, muchachos, is the subject of Part II, which I hope to present to you Real Soon Now.

Next Time:  Unk's Messier Album III

Sunday, November 18, 2012

 

After the SCT


There is no “after” for your old Uncle, muchachos. I am still Mr. SCT and still use Schmidt Cassegrains more than any other design of telescope. Still, those of y’all who are long-time readers of the little old blog from Chaos Manor South know I do use other telescope types—MCTs, Newtonians, even refractors—from time to time. But I reckon I am identified strongly enough with CATs that the sight of Unk using a Dob at the thirtieth annual Deep South Regional Star Gaze impelled one of my DSRSG buddies to ask concernedly whether my next book would be titled After the SCT

It is SCTs forever for Unk, but, as above, I do use other designs when appropriate. And I figgered the 2012 DSRSG would be one of those appropriates. This is our home star party, Miss Dorothy’s favorite, and a strong contender for that title with me. I’ve come to look forward to the event as a way to relax in friendly surroundings with relaxed observing.

The principal observing for the Herschel Project is done, but there is still some re-observing and re-imaging to do before the project is completely put to bed. The Project actually got started at DSRSG, but I was really not in the mood to work Herschels there this year or begin my next observing project—more on that some Sunday soon. I would hang out with my mates and look at some cool stuff. That agenda just naturally spells “Old Betsy.”

Or maybe I should call the 12-inch Dobbie I’ve owned since 1994 “new Betsy.” I’m not talking about the upgrades I did a few annums back, adding Sky Commander digital setting circles, a high-falutin’ high reflectivity primary coating, and a downsized secondary mirror, howsomeever. I am talking about the just completed mods done by my friend and ATM extraordinaire, Pat Rochford.

A couple of months back I confessed to him that while I wanted to take Old Betsy to DSRSG, I wasn’t sure I could. The Dob’s truss tube body was built along the lines of the older design truss tube scopes. Think “Sky Designs.”  Big, solid, heavy mirror box and rocker box. That was cool. The scope we—mostly Pat, natch—made out of my Meade StarFinder has served me well since 1998. Problem was I reckon I was considerably stronger those 14 years ago. I still loved Betsy, who has an outstanding mirror, but I wouldn’t use her. It was too tough to get that mirror box down the front steps and into the truck. Pat swore he would find a way to remedy that.

You can see the results at left. Innovative and attractive in my book. In addition to making cutouts in the mirror and rocker boxes, Mr. Pat shaved a little weight off the upper cage assembly as well. Not only can I now tote the mirror box to the 4Runner with ease, I can leave it in the rocker and carry both at the same time without too much moaning and groaning. The weight reduction really made a difference as did the strategically placed handles Pat cut in both mirror and rocker boxes. I could hardly wait to try the old/new Betsy.

I would get that chance at the thirtieth edition of the Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Our local star party isn’t the biggest—we generally max out somewhere around 150 attendees—but it is one of the friendliest, and our facilities, the Feliciana Retreat Center, provide an infrastructure right up there with the best star parties in America. I missed the 2011 edition due to dadgum work, so I was doubly anxious to hit the road for Clinton, Louisiana with Miss D.

Which is just what we did early Wednesday morning, 7 November. Since the site is only three and-a-half hours away, we didn’t have to scurry like we do for a Chiefland trip, but we wanted to be there in time for the first prize drawing at 3 o’clock that afternoon. Just as for our CAV expeditions, I’d packed the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt, the night before. I can’t begin to express how wonderful it is not to be faced with loading up the ton of gear we pack for any star party on departure morning.

Dorothy and I hit the road just after 8. We intended to stop at our neighborhood Mickey D’s, but it was crowded, and Dorothy had star party fever: “Rod, let’s get on the Interstate and find somewhere for breakfast where we can get in and out in a hurry. Don’t want to be late for DSRSG!” We got off I-10 at the Grand Bay exit, had a bite at the MacDonald’s there (fried chicken biscuit for old Unk, natcherly), and were back on the road to Louisiana again tout suite.

I suppose I am so used to making the drive to Chiefland that getting to Clinton seemed like nothing. Almost before I knew it we were turning off for the Retreat Center and driving onto the normally spacious observing field. “Normally,” because it was already beginning to fill up on Wednesday. Not surprising since not only was this to be the historic XXX edition of one of America’s longest running star parties, the weather reports were as favorable as they have ever been: at least three nights, and maybe four of deep sky heaven in cool, but not downright cold conditions.

As always, our first task was field setup. With “just” a Dob, it really ain’t that tough: plunk down rocker, insert mirror box, bolt on the truss poles, attach the upper cage and the scope is done. ‘Course, as always, we had our normal huge array of support gear. There was the (Coleman) EZ-Up canopy onto which we tie-wrapped blue-tarp sides to keep it a little warmer in the predicted upper thirties-low forties weather, observing table, laptop computer, battery for laptop, couple of camp chairs, ice chest, eyepiece boxes, yadda-yadda-yadda.

Oh, and one other thing. One other Telescope. Unk was sporting not one but two Dobsonians. One and a half, anyway. Number two was Yoda, my beloved Orion StarBlast f/4 Newtonian. He was half a Dob not because of his size, but because I had temporarily removed him from his mini-Dob mount and put him on my Synta AZ-4 alt-az rig. The little Dob mount works fine for grab and go at home, but I think the AZ-4 is a little steadier and easier to use at a star party.

Why had I brought Yoda along? In one way he would be the star of my observing show. I was not planning on doing any major observing projects, no, but I did have a goal. I reckon I’ve seen most of the “hard” visual targets over the years, either in my own scopes or somebody else’s. I’d seen the Horsehead, Barnard’s Galaxy, Pluto, and all the rest of eye-burner gang. But I had never seen the California Nebula in anybody’s scope. Oh, I imagined I glimpsed it in my 66mm SD refractor at DSRSG 2010, but I wasn’t sure. I had been without my h-beta filter that year (it was hiding in one of my many equipment boxes), and Cali-for-nye-ay really needs that filter. I figgered that it would be hard to find a better scope to tackle that huge and dim nebula than Yoda. Well, we’d see.

With Betsy and Yoda and everything else ready to go, it was time to check out our accommodations. As I’ve written before, Feliciana’s lodge’s small motel type rooms ain’t up to even the standards of the Chiefland Day’s Inn, but they are far better than drafty chickies. They are clean with nice, small bathrooms and showers and beds with bearable mattresses. There’s air conditioning and heat and even wi-fi (sometimes).

Settled in, it was time to get back to the field for the first door-prize drawing of the event. As y’all know, Unk rarely wins a blessed thing, and he did not surprise this time. DSRSG Managing Director Barry Simon gave away a couple of cool items and promised there’s be plenty more over the next several days, so I was able to keep my hopes alive. Door prizes handed out, supper was beckoning, so it was back to the lodge.

The little motel rooms are nice, but Feliciana’s real draw is its lovely dining area and food that is almost always exemplary. I gave a slight down-check to supper Wednesday evening; I got a dry piece of baked chicken and mushy broccoli, but everybody else was very happy, and this was the only meal I found to be below average. And even if it was not exactly to my liking, there was an excellent salad bar (yes, a salad bar at a star party) so I was fine.

I reckon old man winter is creeping up on me. I lollygagged around the room for a while following supper, and was shocked to walk outside and find the Sun already gone. You can bet I hotfooted it the quarter mile or so down the gravel road (which became a raging river in 2009) to the field. Yeah, not much setting up to do with Betsy, but I hate being rushed as darkness falls.

Alrighty then. Pull the Astrosystems cover off the scope, open up the eyepiece box, fire up the laptop running SkyTools 3, find the dadgum reticle eyepiece, and get the Sky Commanders aligned. I’ve said it before, but I will say it again campers, I have never used a digital setting circle rig as good as—or even close to as good—as the Sky Commanders. They simply do not miss. Even better for lazy old Unk, they are incredibly easy to align compared to Tangent-based systems. No leveling of the tube or warp factors or any foolishness like that. You align on two stars (I used Polaris and Fomalhaut on this night) and you are slap good to go.

Once Fomalhaut had been centered and accepted, I selected the Messier catalog, used the cursor keys to set in “13,” and moved Betsy until the altitude and azimuth readouts reached 0. Took a peep and, yep, there was the big glob shining in the gloaming. Just about smack in the center of the eyepiece, despite the fact that that eyepiece was my narrow-field 12mm Meade illuminated reticle job. Before trotting over to the EZ-Up to retrieve a more fitting ocular, I figgered I’d better do something about the dew.

Despite the fact that the Sun was barely down, Yoda’s steel tube already had a light film of moisture. If you live and observe down here, you are naturally prepared to deal with the wet stuff, and I did so by connecting a 9-volt battery to Betsy’s Astrosystems secondary heater. This is turned up to the max, and one battery will barely last the whole night, but without the heater running full blast there will be run-ending dew on the secondary mirror before midnight. I suppose I could rig a 12-volt power supply for the heater, but one of the joys of using Betsy is not having to worry about big batteries. I don’t mind expending one 9-volter per run for the heater, and the 9-volt cell that powers the Sky Commander will last for a bunch of nights.

Hokay, all set, time for a better eyepiece. Somewhat better, anyway. I was interested to see how my el cheapo Zhumell 16-mm 100 degree ocular would work. I’d done a little playing with it at the club dark site back in The Swamp, but not enough to give it a fair trial. Still on M13, I inserted it in the focuser and had a look: “Not that bad, really not that bad at all.” In f/4.8 Betsy, the field was pretty good fairly far out to the edge. Yes, the stars in the last 25% grew to look progressively more like comets, but I spend my time staring at what’s centered, not what’s on the edge. Focused on the King of the Northern Globs, I really didn’t notice the less than perfect edge-stars. I just saw a crisp contrasty image surrounded by an incredibly expansive field circle.

As real dark came on, I was reacquainted with just how well a good 12-inch Dob will do under dark skies. While there was a humidity-enhanced light dome from the little town of Clinton and a less perceptible one from Baton Rouge, the skies were considerably better than magnitude 6 at the zenith, and M13 really strutted its stuff. At astronomical twilight, the cluster became that cliché of deep sky observers, “diamond dust on velvet,” and the nearly little galaxy, NGC 6207, began to take on real form and substance.

Yeah, the dew was heavy and just got heavier, but I did not let that stop me. I began the evening looking at my “best of the best” of the Herschel list, starting with M31 and M110 and M32. The monster galaxy and its companions were amazing, if not quite as amazing as they were one special night down Chiefland way a few annums back. Two dark lanes were easily on view, the big spiral’s nucleus was a tiny burning pinpoint, satellite M110 was huge, and the cluster of giant stars in one of M31’s arms, NGC 206, was not the challenge it usually is for me. I reckon I stared at Andromeda for at least half an hour. And that was what this star party was all about for me, leisurely contemplation of wonders, not a race to get as many hard ones as I could.

Not that I didn’t do any Herschel work. I set aside a block of time Wednesday night to do some H-400 sketching. In addition to NGC 206/M31 shown here, I essayed drawings of M76 (Little Dumbell), NGC 7009 (Saturn Nebula), and NGC 6826 (Blinking Planetary). Even if I hadn’t wanted to do some deep sky drawings for The Herschel Project Phase II, I would have done some sketching anyway. I find I enjoy visual observing much more if I know I will have something to take home at the end of the run. Not having a video or CCD image to admire afterwards had made me almost stop observing visually, but sketching has brought my eyeballs back to the eyepiece.

Round about midnight I took a deep breath, downed a Monster, gobbled a Jack Links Beef Stick, and considered the “what next?” How about the California Nebula? I got Yoda cranking with the h-beta filter and a 20mm Orion Expanse. I looked and looked and looked, but nary a trace of the big red cloud did I see. Oh, I sorta convinced myself I spied a hint of the nebula, but that was not what this quest was about. Unless I saw it starkly in my eyepiece, I was not going to put it in the “seen” column.

I played around with Yoda for a little while after that and had a great time. Double Cluster? Magnificent. M37? Astounding. M42? Ain’t nothing like seeing the whole sword in a richest field telescope. By the time Orion was high enough to allow me to see that sword, I was amazed to find my watch creeping on toward two in the cotton-picking a.m. And suddenly weariness set in. I could have grabbed another Monster, but I decided it was best to get a little rest so I’d be fresh for Thursday evening. The combination of getting up early for the drive and not getting to bed early enough because I got caught up in the pea-picking Presidential election coverage meant I was ready to pull that accursed Big Switch.

Sky Commander and secondary heater off and Betsy covered, I put the laptop in its case and trotted back to the lodge. What a joy to have a nice warm room within walking distance. Hooked up the laptop, inserted a DVD of Apollo 13, poured out a portion of the sainted Yell, and was soon relaxing in grand fashion. For a little while. It was not long before Unk’s peepers began to close and he knew nothing more till well after dawn Thursday.

Since your poor old Uncle normally rises at 4:30 every freaking a.m., it’s hard for him to sleep late, even on a star party holiday. Guess I must have been tireder than I thought, though, ‘cause I was just barely able to get myself out of bed in time for me and Miss D. to make breakfast at 9:30. If supper Wednesday was a dud, breakfast Thursday was an uptick. It wasn’t fancy—eggs, grits, sausage, biscuits—but it was a real good southern breakfast. Afterwards I felt raring to go for a day at the star party and the night that would follow.

Walking down to the field to uncover Betsy and let her dry out in the sun after the incredibly heavy dew the night before, I was in heaven. The sky was an uber clear, crisp blue with a hint of not just fall but winter in the air. There was little doubt the night would be a good one.

How did I fill the hours till supper? Strolled around the rapidly filling observing field getting reacquainted with fellow amateurs I hadn’t seen in a couple of years and admiring their gear. No real big guns this time, but several large dobs were on the field nevertheless. Was there a telescope trend in evidence? Couldn’t see one. The field’s telescopes seemed evenly divided among SCTs—including a couple of big ones—fancy-dan refractors, and Dobbies. There were even a few nicely preserved moldie oldies including a Meade DS-10 and a 6-inch RV-6 that had been converted into a Dob (which had had its tube painted Celestron orange).

After a few turns around the field and an hour or so sitting under the tailgating canopy with D. I went back to the lodge for a nap before the raffle at 3 o’clock. Again, I didn’t win a consarned thing even though my good luck charm, Miss Dorothy, was the ticket puller.

Supper done, it was time for the curtain to go up on the great sky show. I aligned Betsy’s Sky Commanders, but she got something of the short shrift on this evening. I devoted most of my time to watching my former student and current Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Vice President, Jon Ellard, take some excellent images with his beautiful William Optics ED refractor and DSLR, and scanning the deep black skies with Yoda.

What was the most amazing thing I saw with the little feller? Probably the Veil Nebula in Cygnus. With a 20mm Expanse or 16mm Uwan, the StarBlast’s field is just barely big enough to cram in both the east and west loops of nebula. It was cool to see both parts of the nebula in the eyepiece at once. What was more amazing, maybe, was seeing the dimmer patch in the middle, Pickering’s Triangle, not just visible but looking like something more than just a dim smudge. Yeah, I used an OIII filter, but that is still purty good for a cheap little 4-inch Newt.

The object for the night, however, the target for the night, would be The California Nebula, NGC 1499. At 2.5-degrees in length, this thing is way too big for even Yoda’s generous field of view, but I figured he’d take in the whole width of the thing, about .5-degrees, and put enough dark space in the field for me to make it out. Filter? I figgered the h-beta would be de rigueur.  The California, which shines strongly in the dim red light of hydrogen, is one of the few objects other than the Horsehead that filter works on.

Hokay. Position Yoda in the general area, right there alongside Menkib, Xi Persei, and start scanning. I looked for a while and didn’t see nuttin’ honey. I wasn’t ready to give up though. Walked over to the EZ-Up for the dark cloth I drape over my head when chasing the dimmest of the dim. Once your eyes are fully dark adapted, you’ll find there is a surprising amount of ambient light on the average star party field. It is essential to keep this light from entering the eye lens end of your eyepiece, hitting the h-beta, and flooding the ocular with dim light.

Took a deep breath, did one more north-south pan—the AZ-4 made it incredibly easy to slew around. And there it was. Once I spotted the nebula, it wasn’t even that hard, a nice broad stripe of gray running across my field. I slewed off and back on a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t fooling myself, and then I celebrated with a Monster. Finally bagging The California after all these years put a smile on your Uncle’s face that lasted the rest of the night, you betcha. That left only one more big challenge.

While I’ve spotted the Horsehead in my C11 (barely) and convincingly in other folks’ instruments (including a very nice Discovery 15-inch truss tuber on the field next to me on this evening), I wanted a good look at it with Betsy, but I didn’t think this would be the night for it. I didn’t feel up to straining for yet another killer. Given the weather reports I figured Horsey would wait till Friday.

I switched over to Betsy for the last hour or three. I didn’t go after the super-dim with her, but neither did I lollygag on the Messiers. What I did was run through some of the Kepple-Sanner picks from their Night Sky Observer's Guide. No, Unk did not have this prized and wonderful book (our copy was autographed by the authors at the 2001 Texas Star Party) out in the heavy dew of the DSRSG field. I just used SkyTools 3. The NSOG objects have been made into ST3 lists, constellation by constellation. While you don’t have Kepple and Sanner’s wonderful notes and descriptions, that’s a small price to pay for not winding up with damp and soggy pages.

I toured the wonders of the northern sky in Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Perseus, seeing not just copious and beautiful open clusters and galaxies (there are plenty even in the starry reaches of the north), but some fascinating nebulae I hadn’t seen in a long, long time. Including good, old Pac Man, NGC 281, who was amazingly bold and detailed in the 16mm Zhumell aided by my 2-inch Thousand Oaks OIII.

A glance at SkyTools’ display showed the time was, almost unbelievably, creeping on to 3 a.m. The question then became, “To Monster or Not to Monster?” In the end, I decided it was near about Big Switch time. I’d seen plenty, achieved my major goal for the star party, and was beginning to feel chilled in the dew-heavy darkness. Also, Betsy’s dew-heater battery had finally given up the ghost, and I didn’t feel like hunting up another one. To top it all off, a few clouds had begun flowing in from the south. It was back to the lodge for a little Yell, a little snacking, and some TV courtesy of a DVD (a very silly UFO documentary I scored in WallyWorld).

A look at the sky after breakfast Friday morning revealed patchy though not threatening clouds sailing across the still mostly blue skies. Looked like Friday might be “unsettled,” but I still figgered we would get plenty of viewing in before all was said and done. After lunch, it was to the field to await the arrival of Pat, who was bringing his very special 16-inch Dobbie with him.

What Pat did when he designed this scope was take a cue from the Obsession Ultralights. The Dob Pat wound up with, which is equipped with an amazingly good Meade primary from an old StarFinder, will easily ride in the trunk of his Saturn Ion (!). And it is very pretty, too, looking more like a piece of modern sculpture than a telescope. The Obsession Ultralights are cool, but if you ask me, Pat has improved on the original to a substantial degree.

After Mr. Rochford got his scope set up and had done a little fine tuning of Betsy’s azimuth motion (it was just a wee bit too hard for my tastes), it was door prize time. Given what had transpired the previous two afternoons and my usual “luck,” you could have knocked me over with a feather when Barry called out “ROD MOLLISE”! What I got was a nice pair of Celestron 10x50s. I can always use another set of these ubiquitous astro-glasses, and I was very pleased to find Celestron has substantially improved both the optics and mechanics of their binocs in the dozen years or so since Miss Dorothy won our last pair of Celestron 10x50s at Deep South.

After the excitement of the drawing, Pat and I took a stroll around the field, and soon ran across Jack Huerkamp and his LX-80. Most of us have heard various stories about Meade’s new iOptron-like alt-az/equatorial mount, with many of the posts on the Cloudy Nights indicating the thing is a disaster. I generally take most of what I read on the Internets with a grain of salt, but was afraid the smoke might mean fire this time. So I was anxious to see what was what when Jack, who many of you know in his role as U.S. seller of the Mallincam, got the mount going.

Frankly, both Pat and I were a little taken aback at the fairly large amount of play in the LX-80’s azimuth axis. Push on Jack’s C9.25’s rear cell with a finger and the mount moved easily in azimuth. Only a test under the stars would condemn or vindicate the thing, though. I was impressed by the appearance of the mount, which is pretty and robust-looking. I was not impressed, however, that Jack had had to have a new tripod head fabricated (by a machinist). Several users have had Meade’s poorly designed and cast head break where the tripod legs are attached, resulting in disaster or near disaster for their telescopes. The custom head was sturdy and attractive, but, dadgummit, you shouldn’t have to do that with a brand new mount.

What's a star party without stuff to buy? While I miss having Rex and Rex's Astrostuff with us in these latter days, we were not vendorless; Astrogizmos was there. While this outfit focuses on, yep, "gizmos"red lights, batteries, scope covers, stuff like thatin some ways if there is only one dealer on site at a star party I am happy to see it is them. After all, it ain't that likely I'm gonna buy a new Ethos on the spur of the moment, but I probably will need some batteries or a red light. Miss D. and I enjoyed browsing the wares and wound up with a scope cover for Yoda, some red film for Unk's iPhone, and a set of constellation playing cards Dorothy fancied.

Friday night we were occasionally troubled by clouds, but not too bad. I divided my time equally between Betsy and Yoda, but took plenty looks through Pat’s baby. In addition to wanting to give the big scope a try, I wanted to determine whether Unk should think about upgrading to a 16-inch someday. The answer, I think, is “no.” The Veil Nebula, for example, was beautiful in the 16-inch. But it looked almost as bright and every bit as detailed in Betsy. And Betsy and I have such a long history together over nearly twenty years that I don’t think I could bear to sell her or stop using her. Following Pat’s mods, I can carry Bets around easily enough again, so I think me and the old gal are just gonna keep on trucking.

Best object of the evening? Had to be that Veil. The eastern half, NGC 6992, The Bridal Veil, stretched on forever with its filigreed swirls, and the Western half, NGC 6960, the Witch’s Broom was as good as I’d ever seen it. Not just the “handle” crossing 52 Cygni, but the “straw” end, too.

After viewing that giant supernova remnant for a good long time, I thought I’d see how Mr. Huerkamp and his LX-80 were doing. Verdict? In alt-azimuth mode, the C9.25 was more than steady enough for visual use. No, it was not the Rock of Gibraltar, but neither was it much, if any, worse than what I would expect from any mount in this size range. Go-to was accurate and the Audiostar was kinda cool. Basically I liked both the looks and function of the mount. B-U-T…

A couple of caveats: Meade’s assertion that this mount will handle from 40 to 70 pounds depending on configuration is laughably optimistic. The C9.25 was fine visually in either alt-az or polar mode, but the mount would have been happier with a C8. I put its payload capacity as similar to a CG5. Also, I am unwilling to give the 80 a clean bill of health even for these payloads without testing one with the stock tripod head. I was also not overly impressed with polar mode. Jack set the mount up GEM style the following evening, and, while OK for visual, it was definitely shakier. I am not at all sanguine about its ability to do imaging, either, even relatively short exposures with a Mallincam. Jack will be testing the mount with one of his cameras shortly, and I will be interested to hear his results.

The big deal for me on this night was The Nasty Nag, the Horsehead Nebula, B33. I figgered it would be tonight or not at all for it, since weather would move in Saturday, looked like. When Orion was finally up and at least approaching the Meridian, I went after the Monstrous Mare with Betsy and a 22mm Panoptic and the h-beta filter. I knew from years of sometimes bitter experience exactly where to look and I knew to cover my head with a black cloth and to sit and relax and stare for a long time.

Which is just what I did, and at first saw exactly zero, zip, zilch. But, as the old hunter crept higher, I began to make out the Horse’s bright background, IC 434, till it eventually became almost easy. Another half hour or so, and B33 itself began to wink in and out, eventually getting to the point where it was easy enough to hold steady, at least with averted vision. As I continued to look it got darker and darker, and, finally, just before my poor eyeball began to bleed, started to hint at details beyond a mere dark kidney-bean shaped intrusion into IC434. WHEEW!

I don’t know how long Pat and Jon and I kept on keeping on Friday, night, but it was a goodly while, and by the time Orion rose and we’d had some good looks at it, our fellow observers had mostly deserted the field. Pat headed off to his quarters in the group cabins, and I moved on down the road to the lodge for the usual ration of Yell and DVDs. I even did a little cruising of the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards before turning in. I reckon I was the only person on the Internet in the wee hours, and Feliciana’s pitiful bandwidth was good enough to let me do a bit of surfing.

Saturday’s dawn brought the last day of DSRSG XXX and, dang, more clouds. What little I could glean from the Internet when I could get on, or from my iPhone when I could get a connection, indicated the clouds were in advance of a front that would bring rain to the Gulf area Sunday-Monday. But it also looked like we might get a few hours on this night, till nine or shortly after. The Plan, then? Hang out on the field with buddies, most of whom I wouldn’t see again for another year, and look at Messiers and other purties.

The big event of Saturday afternoon was, again, the final prize giveaway, and this would be the BIG giveaway. Oh how I wished my name would be pulled for the lovely Explore Scientific 127 refractor—ES was VERY generous with prize donations…THANKS, SCOTT! Naturally I didn’t win it. Neither did Dorothy or Jon or Pat. Pat did get a nice little camera tripod, and another of our longtime PSAS buddies, Greg Thompson, won a cool Orion auto-guiding outfit.

Following the best meal of the Gaze, which featured two of Unk’s favo-right items, brisket and pecan pie, it was time to wrap up another DSRSG with whatever observing we could get in. Actually, it went well at first. No, the sky was not as transparent as it had been Friday, but at times it was right good.

What wasn’t so good was the constant hollering by a few attendees, who I reckon had been lapping up the sauce a little too heavily. The loud fake laughter and screaming and other foolishness wasn’t very funny after the first two minutes or so, but went on all fracking night long. Hey, y’all know me, I am all for a nip or three. But not on the observing field, not if you are going to spoil the evening for your fellow observers. I have no doubt Mr. Simon will nip this in the bud right quick and that it will not recur next year.

As I’d resolved, I didn’t strain for faint fuzzies, just visited faves from DSRSGs past. Like M33, which had put on such a show for Miss Dorothy’s first Deep South in ’94, and good old M74—who didn’t look half bad despite his moniker “The Phantom Galaxy.” Surprisingly, the Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888, which can occasionally give even a 12-inch fits, was almost as prominent as it was one special night in 2009. Not only was its skinny nebulous loop bold in the 16mm – OIII combo, I began to catch hints of the haze between the crescent’s horns.

Until around ten, the sky was actually better than I’d thought it would be, and a fellow DSRSGer with a sky quality meter pronounced it almost as good as it had been Friday—when the clouds and haze would temporarily move off, anyway. Not unexpectedly, though, as midnight approached those times became fewer. As long as we stayed on the field, we were never completely socked in, but by the time M42 was high enough to bother with, it was close. Pat and I took our traditional look at the Great Cloud, which looked just super in the 16, and called it, walking down the road to our accommodations under winter stars just as we’d done at so many DSRSGs back in the 1990s.

All that was left was DVD watching, Yell dranking, and packing in the a.m. I hate departure morning at the end of a star party, but this time it wasn’t so bad. Partially because I knew I only faced a three hour drive home to The Swamp instead of the six hours from Chiefland. I also never feel quite as wistful leaving DSRSG as I do leaving CAV. Maybe because we’ve been doing Deep South so long that it is part of me and Dorothy’s life, and we just normally assume will continue on forever. I sure hope it does. I’ve been to most of the big ones, muchachos, but I will say rat-cheer there is not a star party I love better—or as much as—good ol’ Deep South.

Next Time: Those Crazy Computers I…

Sunday, November 11, 2012

 

Deep, Deep South


The bad? Uncle Rod and Miss Dorothy were on the road this week to yet another star party. So…NO BLOG FOR YOU! The good? We had a great time at the 2012 Deep South Regional Star Gaze and ol' Unk has lots to tell you about. That, alas, will be next week. This week all there is is a few pix to tide you over and set the scene, muchachos. I will say this was an excellent star party for multiple reasons, and I cannot wait to give you the straight skinny on DSRSG XXX...

Next Time:  After the SCT...









Sunday, November 04, 2012

 

Requiem for the Personal Planetarium


“What in the H-E-Double hockey sticks is a ‘personal planetarium,’ Unk?” One of those recent wonders of modern technology that are amazing at first, but turn out to be amazingly short lived. I am not talking about something like a Spitz Junior Planetarium—I said “recent,” old timers. Nor am I talking about one of those snazzy new Sega planetariums. I am not talking about a planetarium projector of any kind, muchachos.

A “personal planetarium” in the language of Meade and Celestron was what I would actually call a “star finder.” Not a low tech paper planisphere like little Unk used to help him find stars and constellations back in the 1960s, though, but an electronic device, a gadget shaped like a camcorder or, in Meade’s case, a pistol, which could automatically identify and find objects in the sky.

Celestron’s SkyScout was first out the gate seven years ago. When it hit the streets, somewhat tech-baffled old Unk was gobsmacked. It was a little like a Telrad, a zero/unit power sight you held in your hands. You sighted stars or planets, mashed a button when you had your target centered in the LED-illuminated sight, and whatever you were pointed at would be identified with text on an LCD screen. It got better. Many objects had audio descriptions. Mash another button and you would hear Stardate veteran Sandy Wood tell you all about it (via earbuds).

Like they say on the dadgum WTBS late at night, “that ain’t all.” Even more amazingly, the widget could guide you to any of the objects in its database. Select said target on the LCD screen via a cursor/scroll button and The ‘Scout would lead you right to it, flashing LEDs in the sighting window to show you which way to move.

How did this camcorder sized gadget do these things? In addition to an onboard GPS receiver, it possessed a built-in electronic compass and accelerometers. In other words, basically the same technology that went into the ground-breaking NexStar GPS telescopes at the turn of the century, and which could now go into a (fairly) small and (somewhat) popularly priced hand-held device.

This SkyScout sounded fascinating, and if, as Celestron suggested, it would be possible to hook the thing to a telescope, it might go beyond fascinating into “way-cool,” but Luddite old Unk was not convinced. He could not see what this toy would do for the average amateur astronomer, and given its price, $399.00, it would be hard to convince most parents to buy one on a whim for little Bud or Sis. I concluded my dismissal of the SkyScout in t his 2006 article by saying “At $199.00 this would be an incredible buy for anybody; just for the built-in GPS receiver.” Not that I expected the price of the SkyScout to come down that level anytime soon, if ever.

While waiting for Celestron to back off the 400 simoleons fare, Unk was amused, bemused, and somewhat intrigued, if not surprised, that longtime Celestron rival Meade was advertising a competing product, the MySky, about a year after the release of the SkyScout. I was impressed. By Meade’s ebullient advertising copy, at least.

In appearance, the vaguely pistol-shaped MySky seemed a little clunky, really more like a cordless electric drill with a rechargeable battery pack attached to the grip than a Glock. But it had one thing the SkyScout did not: a full color video screen, albeit a small low resolution 480x234 one. It was still a video screen, howsomeever, and showed little movies about some of the objects. Most of all, it gave you a computer-planetarium like display that blew the SkyScout’s text only black and white LCD out of the water.

The MySky didn’t just sound more high tech, it sounded more intuitively useable and useful.  Instead of peering through a Telrad style peephole as on the SkyScout, you did rough aiming by watching a display of constellations and objects on the screen, and lined up precisely using the illuminated pistol sights.

That was the “more intuitive” part. The more useful part? Meade didn’t just make noises about you being able to connect the MySky to a telescope “soon,” like Celestron did; it was ready to go for that right out of the box. No interface device required, just a simple cable. Plug the dang thing into your Autostar scope and (we were told), you could point the MySky at any object in the sky, pull its trigger, and your telescope would go there. In order to make that practical, the MySky was equipped with an onboard library of 30,000 objects, which dwarfed the SkyScout’s paltry 6,000 (mostly stars). It got even better. No GPS on your Meade scope? The MySky would give it GPS!

If only the MySky had worked out. It didn’t, but not for the reason a few amateurs feared. Some of the denizens of our beloved Cloudy Nights bulletin board worried the MySky looked too much like a weapon, and that the country would soon be inundated with headlines like, “SWAT Team Kills Amateur Astronomers. ‘Looked like they had guns,’ says Clancy the cop.” The MySky didn’t really look much like a weapon, and it wasn’t around long enough in great enough numbers for that to become even a possibility, anyway. The real problem with the MySky was it didn’t work right or reliably.

A few people had good luck with their MySkys initially. But they were in the minority. Numerous new owners found the GPS receivers in their toys did not work. Yeah, you could select a site manually, but what fun was there in that? Meade attempted to remedy the situation by releasing firmware updates, but the process of loading new software onto the MySky’s memory card all too often resulted in the device being reduced to the functionality of a brick.

Those who did have good luck with the thing? Most did not have good luck for long. When Meade, who was experiencing serious financial difficulties at the time, had the MySky built for ‘em in China, they must have specified AS CHEAP AS POSSIBLE as their number one requirement. All too many folks found the groovy trigger switch lasted only a few outings, and lots more discovered that you didn’t have to drop your MySky from a height to destroy it. Setting it up on its handle and having it tip over was the end for numerous MySkys.

Meade went about damage control in the pitiful way they sometimes have. They soon released the MySky Plus. Which has got to be the most laughable product update, ever. The “plus” was that the GPS receiver was rendered non-functional (!) in the new model.  Instead, you selected your site from a list. Nothing at all was done to improve the build quality of the device, either. In other words, Meade’s upgrade was actually a downgrade.

Disabling the GPS was not really a big deal, since it really wasn’t a GPS to begin with. At least it did not output coordinates the MySky used to update its position. All the receiver did was help the MySky select the nearest city to the GPS fix position from a list, which was exactly what you did manually with the Plus. What was bad was that in changing the software Meade must have broken something—bad—since the Pluses tend to be less accurate by far than the original MySkys. The "accuracy" of some of the newer ones was measured in tens of degrees.

I saw a (non-Plus) MySky in action one year at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and was somewhat impressed. BUT mainly I was disappointed. Not only did the (faux) GPS receiver take an awful long time to acquire a fix, the owner discovered he had to lay the MySky down on its side and leave it alone or it would never get one. Also, the color video screen that seemed a little small in the pictures, was positively tiny (and fuzzy) in person.

And that, it appeared, was that. I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with a SkyScout, and the MySky turned out to not ready for prime time, to be kind. Maybe the whole personal planetarium idea wasn’t ready for prime time.

So I thought, till one night at the PSAS dark site. As I was setting up Celeste, I looked over at my (late) friend George Byron and noticed he’d pulled out a little case. Looked like the bag for a point and shoot camera, but I noticed the word “Celestron” emblazoned on its side. George said he’d bought this SkyScout on a whim, but was finding some uses for it. Would I like to try it? “Sure, Georgie, why not?”

First impression? It was more solidly built, large, and heavy than I’d imagined, considerably moreso than the poor MySky. Heavier, but not too heavy to manage comfortably in adult hands. I swung around, pointed at Polaris, and mashed the “identify” button as George instructed. With little hesitation I got a screen of text about the North Star. Best of all, or at least the most fun thing? Retrieving a set of earbuds from my pocket, I listened to Ms. Wood’s wonderful spiel about Polaris.

I was downright enchanted. Every pea-picking star I selected was properly identified, with the brighter ones having audio to go with them. Twasn’t perfect, however. I found the widget’s accuracy to be around 1-degree or so at best and several degrees at worst. Trying to identify fairly close bright stars like Castor and Pollux sometimes gave it trouble. On the other hand, the “Locate” (“go-to”) mode worked pretty flawlessly, seeming more accurate than Identify.

I liked George’s SkyScout so much that I began wracking my brain for possible uses for one. A common problem for antsy observers like Unk? I like to get my scopes aligned just as soon as the brighter stars begin to peep out. As a result, I’ve often done polar alignments on Kocab instead of Polaris. The SkyScout would keep me straight. And I believed it would doubtless pique the interest of my astronomy students. Anything that keeps the sprouts interested is worth some fairly serious money. That last was the kicker, fairly serious. In stingy Unk’s opinion, “400” is out of the range of “fairly,” but Celestron had recently reduced the SkyScout’s price to more palatable 200 bucks.

When I got my own ‘Scout from Astronomics a little later, I was mostly pleased. No, as with George’s unit, the accuracy was not up there with DSCs or go-to, but was more than sufficient for naked eye use. I was pleased with the package. In addition to the SkyScout, who I immediately named “Scout,” visualizing a faithful old sensitive-nosed hound, the box from Celestron included a nice looking case, batteries, and the USB cord used to update the SkyScout’s firmware.

Updating the firmware of a new piece of gear is a little scary, but I reckoned I ought to do so anyway. I’d heard that the upgrade not only squashed some bugs, but would increase Scout’s database from a puny 6,000 objects to a robust 40 freaking thousand. The upgrade was easy, it turned out.  When I loaded up the software that came on an accompanying CD on my old Toshiba laptop, I was presented with a program very similar to the one used to update Celestron telescope HCs. Connected Scout to the computer via the USB cable, the program squirted the new firmware over, and I was done.

It now had 40,000 objects. Most of ‘em would be invisible through Scout’s zero-power finder, though, so “Why?” I figured the bigger database would be a Good Thing if I wanted to link the SkyScout to a telescope with the new SkyScout Connect module and send your SCT on go-tos to more than just the brightest and best. 99 dollars for the Connect was a pretty reasonable price, but I never did get around to buying one. Once again I was stymied by the puzzle of “What for?” Why would I want to swing Scout around the sky, mashing its button for go-tos when I could just key the object into the NexStar hand control?

I had a lovely time using Scout for several years. He did save my bacon regarding alignment stars a couple of time, and my freshmen/sophomore astronomy students just loved the little thing. I won’t say I used the SkyScout every clear night, but for the longest time he got taken out once a month at least.

Scout wasn’t perfect, natch. In addition to middling accuracy—which I discovered could be improved somewhat if you held the SkyScout up to your eye just so—there were some ergonomics issues. The display screen was illuminated a subdued night vision red, which was good. What was bad was that I had to wear my readers to make out the small, dim text when selecting objects. And take them off again to look through the sight. And put them on again to read what Scout told me about the target.  Yadda-yadda-yadda.

More seriously, the SkyScout was rendered almost useless by the presence of large metal objects nearby. Anywhere nearby. One night at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, Scout tried to tell me Polaris was up in the east—because of the row of cars parked along the field edge. At least the widget displayed a little magnet icon when it was experiencing interference problems, but it displayed that icon far too often if’n you ask me.

And there was one truly aggravating “feature” of ol' Scout. To conserve battery power, the SkyScout shuts off after a few minutes of disuse. That’s OK, but when you turn it back on it must go through the process of getting a GPS fix all over again. While Scout’s GPS was fairly “hot”—about as sensitive of most older hand held receivers—getting a fix did take two-three minutes, a real pain in the butt when you’d been through that several times in one night.

These irritations are not what finally killed Scout for me, though. That happened last year when I was outside under the stars with my students. This was our first Outdoor Lab of the semester, and I’d brought Scout along. I pulled him out of his case and announced, “Let’s identify that bright red star (Aldebaran).” Before Scout could get a fix, three or four kids whipped out cell phones, ran various astro-apps, and had identified Alpha Tauri.

The cells worked in SkyScout/MySky like fashion using their onboard GPSes and compasses and accelerometers. Hold the phone up and the sky in front of it appeared the screen. Pan around and the sky followed on the display. Yeah, they worked like the SkyScout and MySky, but with big and detailed high resolution color displays. Well, not just that. The phones’ GPS receivers were way faster to get a fix and their compasses much less prone to magnetic interference. Without saying another word, I turned old Scout off and put him back in his case.

Last year, there was an explosion of astronomy software for both iOS (Apple) phones, pods, and pads, and for the same types of gadgets using the Android O/S. I’d already played around with what was becoming the numero uno phone astronomy application, SkySafari, running the earliest release of it on my iPod. But I didn’t get to try its personal planetarium-like features till I upgraded to an iPhone—the iPod does not have a compass or GPS. When I did get my iPhone 4s, I was mucho impressed by SkySafari.

SkySafari is an amazing program. The latest version, SkySafari Pro, features tens of thousands of objects and millions of stars, and gives no ground to conventional PC programs whether you are running it on a phone or a tablet. I love it, and it was one of the first apps I loaded on my new iPhone. I had lots of fun scanning around, watching the pretty color sky track onscreen. It was even useful, allowing me to find a couple of alignment stars for my Sky Commander DSCs in the gloaming the first night I had the iPhone.

Yeah, SkySafari was great. Great enough that Scout stayed in his case, coming out only for me to change his batteries once in a while lest they leak. The app on the iPhone was not quite like having a personal planetarium—you didn’t get to hear any cool audio files, for example—but it was close, and did the same things for me the Scout used to do. I pronounced Celestron’s personal planetarium dead. It turned out I was wrong.

For a little while, I thought Celestron might come out with a “SkyScout II,” a new model with a big color video screen, add-on tours, and more. They never did. The fading of the competition was probably the main reason for that. They did release a couple of memory cards for the Scout with sky tours on ‘em, but only a couple before the SkyScout’s development ceased (you can still buy a SkyScout if’n you want). But that did not mean Celestron was done with the personal planetarium idea. Just last year they released a new and better one.

I don’t often allow manufacturers to send me unsolicited email, but I make an exception in the case of Celestron. I’ve followed the company’s ups and downs since almost the beginning, and even in this latter day when the Celestron we knew is gone, replaced by a wholly owned subsidiary of a Chinese company, I am still interested to know what they’ve got going on. One afternoon Outlook blooped it bloop that means “new mail,” which turned out to be from the Big C. Seemed as they had entered the iPhone app area with something called “SkyQ.”

At first, it appeared that was not much more than yet another planetarium for iOS, one with the Celestron moniker slapped on it. While I was more than happy with SkySafari, the idea of having an app on my phone that included the word “Celestron” in its title proved irresistible. Irresistible at the program’s minute $4.99 price, anyhow.

I downloaded SkyQ from the app store that very night. What did I think? It was slightly buggy, not surprising for a v1.0, but it mostly worked pretty well. Nice selection of NGC objects (bumped up to all the NGC in the next release), the sky chart was purty, showing clouds and atmospheric effects during the day just like Stellarium, and it tracked smoothly as I moved the iPhone around the real sky. Not that it was perfect, of course.

The first thing I didn’t like, or at least didn’t like very much, was that the program was presented in “landscape,” horizontal, format all the time. Most iOS apps will switch back and forth between vertical and horizontal when you rotate the phone from vertical to horizontal—not this one. That was not a big deal, and certainly OK when using the charts, but I found it awkward when accessing the program’s non-chart-based features.

What I really didn’t like was the difficulty of swiping to move the sky. If you are using the thing indoors, or at least are not tracking the sky with it, you hold the phone still and move the sky around. You do that by swiping. Unfortunately, it was hard to do with the initial release. Swiping might move the sky, or it might just activate the “identify” function for some object. I eventually got a little bit better at navigating SkyQ, but that was by means of practice and experimentation, not by reading the manual. There really wasn’t a manual or much in the way of help of any kind.

Problems associated with moving around the sky have been much reduced in the current release, and I can say that it now works almost as well as SkySafari in that regard. If SkyQ were only almost as good as SkySafari, though, I’d long since have expunged it from my phone and moved on. Why is it still there? Why am I using it a lot?

One reason is the extras. When you boot the app, you can swipe the main screen (which gives you date, time, Julian date, and Local Sidereal time) and slide to useful utilities:  Sun rise and set with a nice day/night line graphic, Moon phase with rise and set times, illuminated percentage, and an accompanying graphic, a display of Saturn’s Moons, same-same for Jupiter (very nice), and rise and set times for the major planets (NO PLUTO FOR YOU!).

There’s still more. Push “Extras” on the opening screen and you get a nice graph of planet visibility, searchable access to the program’s object databases, a monthly Moon phase calendar, a pretty if not overly detailed Lunar map nice for casual Moon gazing, an ISS pass predictor which can display a map showing the station’s current position, and a “tonight’s sky” summary of current events (planets, meteor showers, satellite passes, etc.). There’s also a clickable link to Celestron’s “Sky News” website. All these apps work well and would probably have kept me playing with SkyQ, if not as delighted with it as I became when I stumbled across one more extra.

I was outside one night with the kids touring around with SkyQ when one of ‘em asked me how far away Fomalhaut is, a fact I did not have squirreled away in the old cranium. “Hmm,” said Unk, “We can get an information window, I’ll betcha.” Sure enough, mashing the star on the screen brought up an information window that gave us the star’s distance. It was then that I noticed something else: “Audio Guide.” Might that be like...like…

It was just like using Old Scout. Want to know about an object and don’t want to read tiny text? Click “Audio” for many objects (there is four hours worth squeezed into the app) and you get a very interesting talk about Messier Umptysquat or whatever. Only complaint? Too bad they didn’t get Miss Sandy to record the talks again. The dude who reads the info has a nice voice, but not as nice as hers.

The students and I spent the next half hour cruising around the sky, listening to audio tracks; it was indeed just like using Scout—only better. All things considered, SkyQ, like SkySafari, was at least as accurate as the hardware personal planetariums (accuracy is harder to judge when you are looking at a screen rather than through a peep sight), and there was that, yes, beautiful Apple color screen.

All that was missing from my was a way to connect SkyQ to a telescope. It didn’t stay that way long. Celestron released a wireless interface for SkyQ for use with NexStar telescopes, “SkyQ Link.” It is a little device just a bit bigger than an older USB flash drive, and plugs into a Celestron telescope’s hand control port.

Will I get one? Same old bugaboo: why would it be better to click on objects on a small iPhone screen (you can use SkyQ with the iPad, too) than just punch them into the hand control? Turns out there is one big reason. I’ve learned you do not need to have the hand control plugged into the scope when you use SkyQ Link. You can/must do scope go-to alignment with SkyQ (with a screen that appears when you connect to the scope, apparently). Also, I've been told you can use SkyQ Link with a laptop computer to connect NexRemote to the telescope wirelessly. If that works (I haven't heard of anybody doing it yet) I WILL get the Link.

Even if NexRemote don't work with this widget, being able to align and use my NexStars without the hand control and with no wires has a lot of appeal—especially for public outreach. Not having cables around the scope for kids to trip over and disconnect would be heaven. 

Yes, poor Scout sits upstairs alone in Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault, muchachos. Maybe I’ll find a use for him someday. Maybe I won’t. Even if I don’t, I had a lot of fun and use out of him for years. But there is no denying the iPhone (and Android) apps are better. The SkyScout is dead! Long live “SkyScout II” a.k.a. SkyQ and SkySafari!

 Next Time:  Deep South Nights...

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