Saturday, July 26, 2014


Down Chiefland Way

“OK, Unk, what did you and Miss Dorothy do down there? How was the weather? What did you see at the Chiefland Astronomy Village? How were the skies?” Well, Skeezix, all shall be revealed—in time. Alas, at the moment your old Uncle is tuckered from the drive back north up Highway 19 and back west on freaking I-10 to the New Manse. As per usual, howsomeever, here are a few pictures from our latest adventure to tide you over. See you rat-cheer in seven pea-picking days for the complete low down on what I am not hesitant to say was a Real Good One, muchachos.

Next Time:  A Chiefland Odyssey with the Mallincam Micro and AstroLive

Sunday, July 20, 2014


Destination Moon Night 6: 64 Down, 236 to Go

As I said the other day on the freaking Facebook, muchachos, you’d think that with all the heat and haze we’re getting on the Gulf Coast, we’d have some good seeing to go with it as a consolation prize. Nope. Despite evening skies that look like milk, the air has not been overly steady. Not steady enough to make me want to attempt Solar System imaging, not normally.

Several things conspired to get me out in the backyard with C8 and ZWO camera, howsomeever. One was that I’ve got accustomed to doing a lot more observing than I used to. Especially compared to when I was a cotton picking wage slave. I kicked my observing hours up a notch when I retired in 2013, and have already kicked ‘em up a couple more notches now that I have a backyard where I can do some observing.

Another reason to hit the backyard despite the punk seeing was that I was seriously in arrears with my Destination Moon observing project. I thought moving to Pine Needle Drive would allow me finally to make real progress in imaging my chosen 300 lunar features, but ‘tain’t been so. Weather and other projects have conspired to keep “DM” in the doldrums.

Finally, while I’d been using my fave lunar software, Virtual Moon Atlas, for years and years (hard as it is to believe it’s been around that long), there was one of its many features I had never tried. That bugged me.

What’s that Skeezix? What’s a Virtual Moon Atlas? Back when it first came out, I liked to call the software “Megastar for Moon watchers.” Today, maybe that should be “SkyTools 3 or TheSkyX for lunar observers.” It is what I hoped for from the beginning of the computerized amateur astronomy revolution, a lunar charting program that would free me from paper Moon maps like like SkyTools freed me from printed star atlases.

The need for a computer charting application for the Moon was even direr than it was for the deep sky. While TheSkyX will go far deeper than even the Millennium Star Atlas, Millennium will still get most amateurs as far out into deep space as they need to go.

Not so with the Moon. The primary tool for most “Lunatics”? Antonin Rukl’s time-honored Atlas of the Moon. It is a wonderful book by a wonderful man. I treasure my autographed copy, and am proud to say I had the honor of showing Mr. Tony the Moon through my C8, Celeste, one autumn night. While his atlas is still beautiful and still useful, it leaves something to be desired data-wise. The number of features it shows and labels make it about as useful for the advanced lunar observer as Sky Atlas 2000 is for advanced deep sky observer. That is, “good,” but plenty of gaps.

Beyond the higher level of detail Unk supposed a computerized lunar atlas could offer, there was another way one would be much more useful at the scope than a print atlas. The fact that your scope inverts or reverses images doesn't mean much for deep sky work, but it can make the jumbled lunar highlands almost impossible to navigate. With a computer Moon atlas, you could flip or rotate Luna easily.

A computerized atlas seemed like a natural, but there wasn’t one. Unk waited and wished all through the 1990s—in vain. There was no Moon Megastar despite the explosion in astronomical computing. Then, finally, in 2002, it happened. Astronomy software guru Patrick Chevalley (Cartes du Ciel) and Moon guru and passionate lunar observer Christian Legrand released version 1.0 of their freeware Virtual Moon Atlas.

The rest, like the bright boys say, is history. While there was a commercial lunar atlas program competing with Virtual Moon Atlas for a while, it soon became evident that Patrick and Christian’s “VMA” was everything lunar observers had hoped for, and the pay-to-play program faded away.

What’s VMA do? That is the subject for a full blog entry like this one, but suffice to say the program puts an incredibly detailed (and beautiful) Moon on your desktop. It also brings a host of lunar resources to the amateur. In bad old days, the only way you could hope to get a look at “professional” lunar atlases like the Lunar Orbiter Photographic Atlas of the Moon (LOPAM) was if you had a big university and its library nearby. VMA puts stuff like that at your disposal for the price of a download.

Much as I loved VMA—it reawakened my long dormant obsession with the Moon--there was, as above, one feature of it I had never tried: goto. I know what you are thinking, “Shoot, Unk, why would you need goto for the fraking Moon?” If all you do is look at a few prominent objects—Tycho, Copernicus, Plato—you don’t need goto for the Moon anymore than someone who only looks at M13, M42, and M27 needs goto for deep sky observing.

If, however, you are after more subtle lunar features or, especially, you are imaging lunar features, prominent or not, with a Solar System camera, goto can be a Good Thing. If you are after high-resolution pictures, you image the Moon at high focal ratios—f/20 and above. At the high “magnification” that imparts, small-chip cameras like the ZWOs have small fields of view. It can be a real task to get even good, old Copper-Nick-Us (as silly little Rod called Copernicus when he was knee-high to a toad-frog) in the frame of a planet-cam.

How had I been working so far? Pick out a crater or other feature on VMA. Walk out to the scope. Flip down the flip mirror to send images to a reticle eyepiece. Locate the target using the hand control. Flip the mirror back up to send the images to the camera again. Back to the computer to do the exposure.

That wasn’t a productive way to work. If I were going to get a move on with Destination Moon, I’d have to do better. I’d have to find a way to do everything at the computer, like when I was doing The Herschel Project with my Mallincams. I knew VMA included a goto system, and since I also knew it used the ASCOM telescope drivers, I figgered it wouldn’t be too hard to get going. Hell, I probably didn’t even need to read the consarned instructions (VMA’s help file).

Anyhoo, set up the good, old Ultima 8 on the good, old CG5 in the good, old backyard and hoped for the best. At least I’d be comfortable no matter what the pea-picking sky and scope did. Miss D. and I had purchased new furniture for the deck that very day, and I was seated in a comfortable chair at a nice table with a big umbrella that served to keep at least some of the heavy dew off Unk’s pore old noggin.

With the pretty, gibbous Moon finally free of the trees and the North Star peeping out, it was time for your old Uncle to get started. “Getting started” this time was more complicated than on my last lunar run. No easy Solar System Alignment tonight. I’d need the goto to be as good as it could be, I reckoned, so I did a full-blown 2+4 alignment, followed by a (Polaris) polar alignment, followed by yet another 2+4 to tweak the goto back in after moving the mount to get on the NCP.

Alignment-polar alignment-alignment finished without incident to speak of, I mashed “Moon” on the HC's Solar System menu, the CG5 made her famous weasels with tuberculosis noise, and, when the mount stopped, Luna was centered in the eyepiece of the flip mirror.

Cool. Next step was to light off Virtual Moon Atlas and choose the “Tools” tab from the menu on the right side of the screen. I selected ASCOM’s  Celestron driver, specified the CG5 and—I thought—I was done. Where to first? How about Copernicus? That would be immediately identifiable, you betcha. I typed C-o-p-e-r-n-i-c-u-s in the search field in the “Information” tab, went back to Tools, and mouse-clicked the “Goto Selected” button. The mount slewed a short distance and Celeste’s NexRemote voice intoned “Target acquired.”

But was it? I fired up my camera control program—a really great camera control program—Firecapture, and had a look see. While the program indicated all was well with the camera, the only thing that greeted your silly old Uncle’s peepers was a black expanse of screen. Increasing exposure had absolutely no effect. Unk was lost in circumlunar space, it seemed.

Maybe, just maybe, Unk should read them dadburned instructions after all. Doing so indicated what my problem was:  “Begin [by] centering a well known formation in the eyepiece field and select it on the map. Push the ‘Sync selection’ button for initializing telescope coordinates on this position.” Well, there you had it. Unk centered Copernicus as per usual with the gamepad I use as NexRemote’s hand control, mashed “Sync selected” (in the Tools menu), selected Plato on the chart, and tried another goto. Bam! There was everybody’s favorite dark-floored crater near the center of the screen.

So what is the verdict on VMA’s goto function? It works well and is hardly a frill. It allowed me to cover ground much, much more quickly than I would have if I’d had to go out to the scope with the hand control and hunt and center features manually for each exposure. How accurate was it? More than accurate enough. Reliably centering lunar features at f/20 on a small chip is a demanding task for a goto system, but the old CG5 came through with flying colors. I did have to re-sync one time, but that was it and was hardly a problem.

Having lunar goto allowed me to image 14 objects in the time it normally takes to image 5. It would actually have been 15, but I kept spelling “Parry” P-E-r-r-y, and, naturally, VMA couldn’t find a crater with that name in its database. Not only did goto make the run go quicker, it took some of the stress away. I could tell conditions were degrading, but being able to click my way to targets in a hurry meant I wasn’t sweating.

How about them conditions? From my first look at Copernicus, I could tell they were not gonna be as good as I’d hoped. Not horrible, but only fair. Good enough to continue Destination Moon, but not good enough for me to get excellent shots.

Destination Moon Night 6

Beginning in the lunar highlands, my first stop was Blancanus, which is freaking amazing. This steep-sloped 106 km diameter crater features terraced walls and a flat, detailed floor with a nice central peak. So why don’t you hear more about it? There’s not a word about Blancanus in Patrick Moore’s A Survey of the Moon, and it’s barely mentioned in Westfall’s Atlas of the Lunar Terminator, to mention the first two lunar resources I grabbed off Chaos Manor South’s bookshelf. Maybe because Blancanus’, perched on the southwest slope of the great crater Clavius, is overshadowed by its more impressive neighbor.
Moretus is in the same general area of the Moon, 378km to the southeast of Clavius Base. It’s a lot like Blancanus—impressive, that is—with sharp, terraced walls 114 km in diameter and a flat, lava-surfaced floor that hosts numerous craterlets. There’s also a 2.7 km high central peak. Not too shabby, y’all.

That horse of a different color, the one you’ve heard tell about, is Pitatus, which is 875 km south-southeast of Clavius. Pitatus is, as Ernest Cherrington calls it in his classic Exploring the Moon through Binoculars and Small Telescopes, “The remains of what once must have been a major lunar formation.” This 98 km crater is nevertheless immediately obvious when the sun angle is reasonably low, and consists of soft-looking walls and a floor of lava that flooded in from nearby Mare Nubium.

In addition to craterlets and a weathered looking central peak, the main interest inside the crater is a network of rilles, Rimae Pitatus.  The rilles that run around the crater’s circumference inside the walls are particularly impressive. Those crossing the center are more subtle, and didn't show up well for me under poor seeing. To the west is the odd little crater Hesiodus A, which is composed of two concentric “rings.”

Southwest of Pitiatus is 88 km diameter Wurzelbauer a badly damaged formation, that is even less “there” than Pitatus. It consists of eroded, low walls surrounding a floor of ancient lava. The western half of the floor is rough, while the eastern portion is relatively smooth. A network of rilles crosses the eastern part of the floor.

Gauricus, just east of Wurzelbauer, is like the two previous craters, badly damaged. It looks a little fresher than Wurzelbauer, but not much. At 80 km diameter, it is slightly smaller than its neighbor is, and features a flat lava floor dusted with small craters. The most interesting thing about Gauricus is the ghost crater, Gauricus F, situated in the northern area of the crater’s floor.

East of the preceding three craters is Hell. The formation is named for an 18th Century Hungarian astronomer, Maximilian Hell, not religious mythology’s land of the dead, and doesn't look like Hell at all.  It looks great, a steep-sloped 33 km crater with a rough, “tormented,” floor. While not the sharpest picture I’ve ever taken, my image picked up the basic details with the exception of the pretty little craterlet near Hell’s center. I can make it out if I hold my mouth just right, but just barely.

Southeast of Hell is Lexell—or what is left of it. This 63 km formation is just shy of being a ghost crater. While the southwest walls are still there, if eroded looking, the crater rim to the northeast has almost completely disappeared under lava. The rough floor is scattered with craterlets of varying sizes.

Kies lies to the west-southwest of Lexell out in Mare Nubium. Like Lexell, but even moreso, 45 km diameter Kies is close to being ghosted, with there being a sizable gap in the walls to the west. There’s an odd protrusion to south and some other barely visible details that hint at how magnificent this crater must have been before the lavas of Mare Nubium consumed it. 157 km north of Kies is the wonderful terraced crater, Bullialdus.

Mercator, southwest of Kies, is, as you prob’ly guessed, named for the famous 16th Century mathematician and map-maker. “His” crater, which is paired with the similar and similarly impressive Companus, is 48 km across and features steep walls and a flat, craterlet littered lava floor.

Adjoining Mercator on the west is Campanus, also 48 km in diameter. The walls of the two formations are separated by a rille that was just barely visible in my image. There’s also a rille on the floor of Campanus, but I just couldn’t pull it out on this night. I did pick up a couple of craterlets and a small central peak, however.

Lubiniezky, northwest of Bullialdus, is another crater that has suffered from intrusion by Mare Nubium’s lava. While the crater’s walls still form a nearly complete 45 km circle, the rim to the southeast is badly damaged and is completely missing along one stretch.

There is nothing damaged looking about Eratosthenes, which lies on the shores of Mare Imbrium 300 km south of the center of Copernicus. This 93 km formation has steep, terraced walls, and a complex central peak composed of three separate mountains.  A hallmark of this crater is the “tail” of mountains stretching away to the southwest.

441 km northwest of Copernicus is the isolated crater Lambert set in the “waters” of Mare Imbrium. 30 km in extent, it has steep slopes, a rough floor, and a rounded looking central peak. The impressive “mountain,” Dorsa Stille, actually a wrinkle ridge, is 70 km east and stands out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Timocharis is a dang nice one to end on, a pretty and well-defined terraced-walled crater north-northeast of Lambert. While not large at 35 km, its bright, steep walls, terraced interior, and cratered central peak make it a standout.

And that was that, muchachos. The seeing, never good, reached a crescendo of suckiness just as I finished Timocharis. Suddenly, there were clouds, too. I tucked Celeste in with her Desert Storm cover—one of the beauties of the secure New Manse is that I am not afraid to leave the scope out overnight—and retired to the den for a tetch of Yell and a couple of hours watching Survivorman eat bugs. If nothing else, I’d got my lunar goto go-toing and moved destination Moon ahead a smidge. Not bad for a hazy and hot July night in Possum Swamp.

Nota Bene:  You can see all my lunar images from Night 6 on my Facebook Page, y'all...

Next Time: Down Chiefland Way… 

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Wired Betsy

Ah, yes, the lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer. With an emphasis on “hazy,” muchachos. My intent for a while—well, for two solid months—has been to get the cute little Mallincam EX out and see what it will do. I have almost done that a time or three, but the cloudy, milky skies of Gulf Coast midsummer nights have dissuaded me.

Based on my limited experience with the camera at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, I believe Rock Mallin’s amazingly cheap deep sky video cam has real possibilities. B-U-T…I want to give it a fair chance to show what it can do under clear if not necessarily dark skies.

A couple of recent evenings were supposed to be clear if not overly transparent, but those forecasts did not prove correct in the least. Even if late afternoon thunderstorms didn't move in, clouds and mucho haze did. Conditions have simply not been good enough for deep sky imaging of any sort.

But I wanted to get outside and play telescopes anyway, and what I saw out at the dark site last week gave me an idea. As you’ll recall, my mission on the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society observing field last week was to get my good, old Denkmeier Standard binoviewers going with the Edge 800 C8 and my VX mount. The binoviewer had nothing to do with Unk’s latest brainstorm (if you want to call it that), however.

Most of my time last Saturday was taken up by getting the C8’s, Mrs. Emma Peel’s, VX mount goto aligned when it was hard to see alignment stars due to passing clouds—or maybe that oughta be “passing sucker holes.” When I finally got the mount going, I focused on making the binoviewer work with the new scope and my old eyes. Nevertheless, I was somewhat aware one of my fellow club members, Taras, who’d set up his 15-inch homebrew Dobbie next to me, was trying something new with his Sky Commanders.

He, like many of us latter day Dobsonian users—yes, your SCT-happy old Uncle wields a Dobbie regularly—uses digital setting circles with his telescope. You know, “push to.” Digital setting circles have been with amateur astronomy for over a quarter century. In the beginning, that is all they were, digital setting circles, readouts that showed the right ascension and declination of your telescope.

The first wave digital setting circles weren't much more accurate—if any more accurate—than the analog setting circles on an orange tube C8. All they did was give you a readout in nice, big L.E.D.s that freed you from squinting at analog circles with a red light and a magnifying glass.

Then, as the 1980s ran out, “DSCs,” as us acronym-happy amateur astronomers began to call ‘em, started to change, to advance. In the hands of folks like a little California company called “Tangent Instruments,” who were making a name for themselves in telescope electronics (for companies like Celestron, Jim’s Mobile, and others) DSCs were becoming real computers.

The first benefit of the transition from readouts to computers was that the need for polar alignment became less exacting. The first DSCs were, again, just digital readouts, so, like analog circles, their accuracy was highly dependent on how closely the telescope mount was aligned to the celestial pole. The next generation of digital setting circles made that far less critical. By having the user “align” on one or two stars, the computer could figure out a polar alignment offset and yield decent push-to accuracy without a freaking drift alignment.

“What the hail is this ‘push-to’ you keep going on about, Unk?” If you are a newbie, you may be confused about the difference between goto and DSCs. Both goto mounts and DSCs require you to align on one or two stars, to center those stars in an eyepiece. It’s when you are aligned that things get different.

With a goto mount, you punch the number of the object you want to view into the hand control, push a button, and motors move the scope to that location. You enter your desired object into a DSC in similar fashion. There are (usually) no motors involved with digital setting circles, however. Instead, the DSC computer will indicate which way the scope needs to move in RA/Dec or altitude/azimuth to reach the target. You then PUSH the scope TO the object, watching the numbers on the DSC display decrease to zero as you approach it.

Did you notice the “alt-azimuth” above? That was the next big step up for DSCs after the polar alignment conundrum was solved. When DSCs were first catching on in a big way, in the late 80s, Dobsonian telescopes were also big (in popularity as well as aperture). Maybe as popular as they ever would be. Naturally, Dob owners, some of ‘em, wanted DSCs too, and it wasn’t long before all the names in the business, JMI, Lumicon, Roger Tuthill, and more (most of whom used Tangent’s electronic guts) were offering rigs that worked as well with alt-azimuth Dobsonian Mounts as they did with equatorials.

Just one more piece and the DSC puzzle would be complete. Even after adding computer horsepower, DSCs were awkward to use. First, you had to look up the coordinates of your object in a fraking book. Then you had to move the scope until the R.A. and declination numbers on the display matched those of your target. Sounds easy, but ‘tain’t always so.  As you move to the northern (or southern) area of the sky, them numbers begin changing awful fast on the readout, making it difficult to home in on ground zero.

Afore long, DSCs had object libraries. Want to look at M51? Punch up M51 on the computer and the DSCs would indicate the direction and distance you needed to push your scope to get to the target. DSC object libraries started out with a measly 110 (Messier) objects, but as the 90s came in and computer chips got cheaper, the top of the line rigs were soon sporting the entire NGC and IC catalogs.

So, DSC owners lived happily ever after? Not quite. As goto scopes, the Compustars and the LX200s, and, soon, the NexStars and LX200 GPSes, hit the street, push-to users began to feel a mite left out. Not only did the top tier goto rigs have hand controllers that contained many more objects than any digital setting circles computer, it was far easier to enter those objects into a goto HC.

Whether you own an ancient Tuthill rig or the latest Argo Navis or Sky Commander, one thing has remained constant: DSC computers make do with just a few buttons to perform many tasks. Almost all goto hand controllers have numeric keypads, but, as far as I know, no DSC computer does, not even the powerful Argo Navis. You wanna enter an NGC number? You do that with up and down and left and right cursor button pushes or, at best, by twirling a dial.

It would also be nice if DSC libraries contained more objects. While the mighty Argo Navis has 29,000 DSOs in its library, that number pales in comparison to the 145,000 the Meade Autostar II hand control boasts. The other players? Most are still stuck at the NGC/IC-and-a-few-more-catalogs level. Hell, if I want to look at PGC 15435, I wanna look at PGC 15435.

Luckily, there is a relatively easy way to make digital setting circle computers easier to use and more full-featured. Almost from the beginning, DSCs have featured RS-232 serial ports that allow them to be interfaced to a PC. Why would you want to do that? Connected to a computer, you could select objects by clicking on them with a mouse, and you’d have the huge object library of the average PC (or Mac) astronomy program available for your DSCs.

Alas, the first time I saw a DSC hooked to a laptop, at the 1997 Texas Star Party, your old Uncle was not impressed. I had the good fortune to be set up next to a friendly dude with a 30-inch scope. Well, it would have been fortunate if we’d had much in the way of clear skies. We did get a few so-so nights during the week-long star party, however, and I was able to see how my new friend’s push-to rig, a JMI NGC Max and a laptop running TheSky planetarium software, worked.

In a way, it did fulfill some of the promise Unk thought inherent in the combination. When Mr. Man wanted to go to an object, he clicked on it on TheSky’s screen. That object could be any one of the many deep sky wonders in the program’s large library. That was the good. The bad was the way you had to push to your object. What you did was move the scope while watching a crosshair cursor on the program’s sky display.

There was a problem inherent in that. You had to have the computer close enough to the scope so you could watch the display as you pushed. If you were moving the scope to a radically different position in the sky, you’d probably have to move the computer, too. For best results, you really needed to mount the computer on the scope somehow.

That was something that didn’t seem overly practical to Unk. Oh, maybe if you were running a 30-inch Dob it might be OK, but my old Toshiba Satellite, which weighed dern near 20-pounds, would have thrown my Dobbie of choice, Old Betsy, a 12-incher, seriously off balance, to put it mildly. I decided DSC + PC was an idea that wasn’t quite ready for prime time and thought no more about it for a long time. I wasn’t alone. While I saw lots of amateurs using digital setting circles on star party observing fields, even the folks that had laptop computers with them rarely had their computers interfaced to the DSCs.

It didn’t much matter anyway, since it took a long time for Unk to convince himself Betsy needed DSCs at all, whether computer interfaced or not. Betsy and I were perfectly happy running down objects using Sky Atlas 2000, Herald-Bobroff, a Telrad, and a 50mm finder.

We were, that is, until Unk got his first goto SCT not long after the turn of the century. It was at that time I decided I was more interested in seeing objects than hunting objects. I wasn’t getting any younger, and I wanted to see as much of the Great Out There as I could in the years of observing left to me. In other words, goto had spoiled me, and I knew that if I were to continue using Betsy I’d at least have to equip her with DSCs.

“Which DSCs?” Was purty easy to figure out. I crossed the Tangent-based units off my list. They were, in my opinion, more difficult to align accurately than they should be, and their accuracy seemed to suffer in comparison to goto scopes. That left the Argo Navis, which had the advantage of numerous features and a high-powered processor, and the Sky Commander, which offered simplicity (and a lower price, which always gets Unk’s attention). Both were easy to align— point at two stars, you were done—and both offered goto accuracy comparable to my NexStar 11 GPS. I settled on the Sky Commanders, though I can see myself driving (sailing?) an Argo someday.

The Sky Commanders have worked great for me for over seven years. In fact, their accuracy and Betsy’s still amazing reach at the 2009 Deep South Regional Star Gaze were what impelled me to undertake The Herschel Project. The Commanders just worked. They weren't feature laden, but the features they had were usable and useful. Well, ever’thing except the RS-232 serial port. I had no idea how well that worked and didn't feel moved to find out.

Oh, I knew what it was for, mind you. It had two purposes, upgrading the firmware and interfacing the DSCs to an astronomy program running on a PC. I didn't need to do the former and had little interest in the latter. Remembering the long ago night where I’d watched that cursor crawl across the display of TheSky, I thought I’d give it a pass.

Which returns us to last Saturday night on the PSAS observing field. When I finally got the mount squared away and had proved to myself that the binoviewer and StarSweeper focal reducer would work with the Edge 800, and that my old eyes could still more or less handle a binoviewer, I got curious as to what Taras was up to with SkyTools 3 and his Dobbie.

What prompted my curiosity was him hollering, “IT WORKS! IT REALLY WORKS!” Unk strode over and enquired, “Calm down, son, what works?” Taras informed me this was the first time he’d connected his laptop running SkyTools 3 (which purchase was my suggestion) to his Sky Commander (which purchase was also my suggestion). Looking at his laptop, I noted the screen was pointing away from the scope. “How the hell do you see where to move the scope if you can’t see the screen?”

Taras informed your benighted old Uncle that he’d discovered you didn't have to see the SkyTools display to know how to push your scope to a DSO (or any other object). Click on an object in the ST3 observing list, mash the on-screen “push-to” button, and the object was sent to the Sky Commander computer, which showed you how to move the scope as per usual.

He also enthused about some kind of position indicator bars, and, further, said some English lady was a-telling him when he had his selected objects in the eyepiece. Some English lady, huh? Unk moved away slowly, back to his C8, Mrs. Emma Peel, and commenced messing with the binoviewer again. I was intrigued, however. Making all one million SkyTools objects available to the Sky Commander computer sounded like something Unk might be interested in. Dang tootin'.

Next morning, but not early the next morning, I took stock. If I wanted to hook my Toshiba laptop to the Sky Commanders, I would have to have a cable. A check of the pea-picking Internet turned up a couple of astronomy dealers who would sell me a Sky Commander computer control cable for 30 bucks. Call Unk a cheapskate, but 30 smackers for a roll of wire and a little plastic DB-9 connector seemed high. So, I had a look at the computer cable that came with the Sky Commanders.

This cable, with an RJ plug on one end for the Sky Commander computer and a DB-9 adapter on the other to plug into a PC serial port, would obviously not work for controlling the Commanders with a computer. The Sky Commander end of the cable had a jumper across two pins, no doubt to put the computer in programming mode. It was also way too short to be practical for use with a scope. Would Unk have to shell out 30 bucks? He was not yet ready to resign himself to that awful fate.

Grabbed my trusty multimeter and the (decent) Sky Commander manual, and I soon determined all I should need was a telephone extension cable—a phone extension that plugs into the wall, not a handset extension. Plug one end into the Sky Commander and the other into the RJ – DB9 adapter that came with the programming cable, and I would be ready to roll.

Me and Miss D. needed to stop at the Home Depot for supplies as we continue cleaning up and clearing out the old Chaos Manor South, and I seemed to recall the home improvement bigbox sold telephone accessories. They did indeed, a few, anyway, sandwiched between cell phone geegaws. I found a 25-foot phone cord I thought would serve. Cost all of five fraking bucks, which was a dern site better than 30—if'n it worked, of course.

Last Tuesday night, we finally got some semi-clearing, and Unk decided to give the DSC-computer trope a go. Old Betsy, my time-honored 12-incher, was in fine fettle—I’d spent the day cleaning both her primary mirror and her Dob body, since she’d been exposed to a fair amount of dust in my initial clean-up of the shop. The only bad was the sky, which in typical midsummer fashion had gone from looking acceptable at sunset to nearly closed-down at dark.

Hokay, what would be would be, as Doris Day used to say. Lit a citronella candle to keep the skeeters away—I hate to use up the somewhat expensive Thermacell cartridges and pads for an informal backyard run. Set up the laptop, connected one end of my new cable to the USB serial adapter and t’other into and to the Sky Commanders’ RS-232 port. Didn't start SkyTools just yet, though. As with a goto scope, before you can use the computer, you have to do a normal alignment. If I could do a normal alignment

I always use Polaris as my number one DSC alignment star. This time of year, I’d probably pick Regulus as number two. Problem was, both were behind consarned clouds. I waited, as I did last week, hoping for the North Star to peep out, but it soon became evident that all that was going to happen was that the sky was going to get progressively worse.

Vega was in sight, so that would have to be star one. Spica, almost due south, was also (intermittently) visible and would be my number two. I turned on the Sky Commander, entered the date (no time or location required), and centered the two stars in succession. Alrighty, then, computer time.

I launched SkyTools and selected the “RealTime” tab, which is where you do your scope interfacing and gotoing (or pushtoing). Next, I found “select/configure telescope” on the telescope control menu. All I had to do was choose “Sky Commander” and specify the baud rate I wanted to use for communications. Since, as I’d read in the Sky Commanders manual, the default in the DSCs is 9600bps, I told SkyTools “9600.”

Taras had mentioned something about SkyTools talking to him in DSC mode, so I’d enabled voice in the program preferences. Still, I dang near jumped out of my pea-picking skin when a sexy-sounding Englishwoman declared, “TELESCOPE CONNECTED!” when I clicked the “connect to telescope” choice in the scope control menu.

Before I actually tried to do anything with the Sky Commanders, I thought I’d better have a look at the “configure push-to indicators” menu I’d discovered. The only thing I did there was change mount type from EQ to alt-az. Time for the rubber meets the road thing, I reckoned.

I brought up the Messier list in RealTime, selected “M13,” and mashed the “push to” button. I was not as startled this time when “Audrey” told me to “Push telescope to target!” (SkyTools refers to its audio guide as Audrey, but I will probably just think of her as “Betsy”). At the scope, I had to mash the down cursor button to bring up the push-to indicators this first time, but that was all. I maneuvered the scope to M13 watching the Commanders’ numbers count down just as always. When Bertha/Audrey intoned “Telescope on target,” I inserted the Happy Hand Grenade, my 16mm Zhumell 100-degree eyepiece, into the JMI NGF focuser and had a peep. Nuttin’ honey.

A look up showed why: Hercules was now a mass of clouds—I couldn’t make out a single one of the constellation’s stars. The scope did seem to be pointing in the proper direction, but I wanted to be sure. What was available? The Big Dipper was shining bravely, if barely, through the thickening haze to the northwest. I loaded my SynScan alignment star observing list and selected Mizar, which is not only bright but distinctive.

Pushed “push-to” again, Bertha told me to get out to the telescope and start pushing, and that is what I did. When the indicators on The Sky Commander was zeroed out, I peered into the Zhumell. There was Mizar centered in the field. Yeehaw! My five-buck cable damn sure worked. I tried a few more bright stars—Arcturus, Spica, and one or two others—and all were in the center of the field, convincing me all was well.

Since even the bright stars were now disappearing, I pulled the Big Switch, carried Bertha back inside the shop, and went in the house to give Miss Dorothy the good news—I hadn’t let the smoke out of my DSCs. The cable and software worked perfectly; the Sky Commanders now had access to SkyTools huge database (including, importantly, asteroids and comets). And it was so much easier to click on objects on the ST3 display than to cursor to them with the Commanders’ freaking little membrane keys.

Actually, the ST3-Sky Commander goodness doesn't end there. In addition to sending objects to the Commander so you can use the normal DSC readout to push the scope to target, SkyTools displays two large, red push-to indicators; one for altitude and azimuth. Push the scope till these red bands/graphs dwindle away to nothing, and you will be on your object. You can also tell SkyTools Interactive Atlas to display a reticle showing scope position on the map, but as with my buddy’s long ago TSP rig, I am not sure I will want to/need to do that.

Unk was one happy little camper as he sat with a draught of the Rebel Yell watching a late-night replay of Braves vs. Mets. Normally, I’d be right put out to be skunked this bad. I had not seen a single DSO after spending considerable time setting up the scope in the hot stickiness of a Possum Swamp summer’s night (heat index hit 101 in the afternoon). But not this time. Not only did I now understand how good the combination of PC and DSCs can be, I may have given my much -loved twenty year old telescope a whole new lease on life, muchachos, and that cannot be a bad thing.

Next Time: Destination Moon Night 6...

Sunday, July 06, 2014


Revenge of the Return of the Denkmeier

How was the sky looking last Saturday afternoon, muchachos? Not so hot, if not as bad as it did the Saturday before. One of my favorite observing weather predicting tools, Scope Nights, had gone from showing the first part of the evening as “good,” to indicating the whole pea-picking night would be only “fair.” Fair was better than “poor,” howsomeever, so on your cockeyed optimist of an Uncle pushed.

It wasn’t like I planned to lug a ton of gear out for a Mallincam run. As you learned last week if’n you were paying attention, I wanted to get my old Denkmeier Standard binoviewer out of mothballs and give it a spin at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site. While I found my plans growing a little more ambitious than that as I sat around the New Manse Saturday afternoon and ruminated (“Maybe I’ll do a few dozen Herschel IIs visually. Might even sketch ‘em!”), I intended to keep the gear load-out as modest as possible.

At 1830, I began packing up the Toyota 4Runner. First in was Mrs. Emma Peel, the Edge 800—a major reason for the expedition was to see how the binoviewer and, especially, its StarSweeper f/6 reducer, would function with the Edge. I had some hopes the answer would be “purty good.”

The StarSweeper is a plain vanilla focal reducer. It doesn't flatten the field or reduce coma. It just speeds up the optical system. I didn't expect the field edge to look great with the ‘Sweeper, but I thought it would work OK in concert with the Edge’s built in flattening and coma reducing elements. If it didn't, well, hell, I’d have the genu-wine Edge f/7 reducer with me in the big Plano tackle box that contains Unk’s observing accessories.

What else? Mrs. Peel’s VX mount, of course, but I would run that mount in minimalist fashion. No NexRemote. Not even a serial cable attached to the laptop. Stock hand control all the way. Almost stock, anyhow. The HC cable on Celestron’s Plus hand controls is absurdly short. I’d got tired of that soon after I started using the new mount, and tried to use an HC extension cable I bought many a Moon ago when the CG5 was new.

That worked just fine—till I began getting dadgum “No Response” errors. Clearly, the old extension was ready for the trash heap of history. I ordered a nice coiled-cord replacement from Mr. Scopestuff, Jim Henson, and it has worked great. If you are going to use the Plus HC comfortably, one of Jim’s cables really is a must.

While I didn't intend to hook the Toshiba laptop to the mount, I brought the Satellite along anyhow. I am not going into the field without a SkyTools or Deep Sky Planner list at my disposal, Cuz. For a brief moment, I thought about just printing out a list, but then the good little angel sitting on my shoulder intoned, “Are you fraking nuts, Unk? This is the dagnabbed 21st Century.” Into the truck went the PC.

Scope, mount, tackle box, and PC was almost it. Big Rubbermaid container with the DewBuster, the inverter, and various assorted astro-junk went in too. So did the Denks, natch. Added my observing chair to the pile, and that was all I carried out yonder other than my little Fuji superzoom camera so I could take a few snaps of the field for y’all. I did NOT throw the “good” eyepiece case in the vee-hickle. As on the long ago Chiefland Star Party night I recounted last week, I declared the SCT a “single-eyepiece-free-zone.” The pairs of GTO Plössls in the case with the Denkmeier would be all I’d need.

Well, that and clear skies, and it looked as if the weather would once again be the monkey wrench in Unk’s plans. That said, while it wasn’t clear it wasn’t that cloudy, either. The Clear Sky Clock was showing generally poor transparency, but it was mostly darker blue squares in the row assigned to “cloud cover.” And not only was I intent on sticking to my usual vow that I’d head to the site if it wasn’t actually raining, my old observing  buddy, Max, had called Friday. I’d promised him I’d be at the dark site if the wet stuff were indeed not falling.

So, skeptical as your old hillbilly Uncle might have been, as sundown came on, he turned the 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, west for the dark site. The drive wasn’t unpleasant at all—being about 30-minutes closer to the private airfield we use for our observing sure don’t hurt. Especially since our new location means I don’t have to traverse the crazy traffic around the shopping mall on my way out of town.

Seemed like ‘twarn’t long at all before I was pulling onto the well-loved field where, I was pleased to see, Max was already getting his scope ready to go aided by the big yellow tomcat who makes the aerodrome his home. I did note Max and Mr. Kitty were setting up a 4-inch scope, not one of Max’s big guns. Who could blame them? At sunset, the sky wasn’t completely overcast, but it was the next closest thing to it.

“Hokay, I ain’t gonna be a stick in the mud with everybody else setting up scopes but me.” Our fellow PSAS member, Taras, had arrived bearing his big 15-inch Dobsonian, and if he was willing to put together that big gun, the least I could do was get a C8 on a mount. Let’s get ‘er done…

Getting her done should have been smooth. Scope on mount, DewBuster heaters on scope, diagonal in rear port, reticle eyepiece in diagonal, hook up battery and hand control. But it is never easy or simple with your old Uncle Rod. Plugged the mount into the jump-start battery, reached over and mashed the power switch, and waited for the hand control’s sign on message. And waited. And waited. What the hell was wrong now?

Checked my battery connection, and that was OK. Made sure the telescope end of the power cable was firmly plugged in and screwed in place with its threaded collar. Nuttin’ honey. “Well, I’ll be freaking doggoned, what do I do now?” What I did was grab a flashlight, since I’d been doing all this partially by touch in the gloaming.

Shined my light at the mount control panel and what did I see? The power switch was in the o-f-f position. I must have accidentally turned it on when I was setting up, and had actually turned it off when I thought I was turning it on. Oh, well, switched it on and the HC came right up after its usual interval (takes a little longer for it to boot than the old NexStar hand control did). That was not the end of Unk’s troubles, however.

Next step in the get-er-done game would be doing a rough polar alignment, just sighting Polaris through the hollow polar bore of the VX. That’s what I would have done if the northern sky hadn’t been covered in a thick layer of clouds. I waited, but little happened. “Shoot, I know about where Polaris is at this site, and I believe I’m seein’ it wink in once in a while.” I pointed the VX’s RA axis at that spot.

Started the two-star goto alignment, being reasonably careful with the time and other data entries. Star One was Arcturus, but when the mount stopped, it was far from that star. Too far. I often tell goto newbies not to worry too much about how far the initial slew stops from an alignment star. Just center the sucker. But Arcturus was easily twenty degrees from the Quikfinder’s bullseye. That's different. Standing there pondering the sitchy-ation, I happened to glance over my shoulder. “Dadgummit, there’s Polaris!” It was only about, yep, 20-degrees from where I thought it was.

I shut down, re-polar aligned and started the goto alignment over. Star One was still a considerable ways out, maybe because of bum data in the hand control from my previous alignment attempt, but star two, Spica, was, as per normal, just outside the Rigel Quickfinder’s red rings. Calibration Stars three and four were in the field of the 12mm Meade reticle eyepiece in the main scope at 160x when the slews stopped…which spells, “Align Success.” So, my alignment was done if, not in as elegant or quick a fashion as it should have been. As always, what’s an Unk Rod observing run without his silly hijinks and foulups?

Now to the heart of the matter. I removed the reticle eyepiece from the 2-inch William Optics diagonal riding on Emma’s rear port (ahem), I also removed the diagonal’s 2-inch – 1.25-inch adapter and screwed the Denkmeier StarSweeper onto it. Finally, for the first time in years, I inserted the Denk Standard into the 1.25-inch adapter (the Denkmeier Standard binoviewer has a 1.25-inch barrel).

First (new) light? There wasn’t a whole lot to choose from. M13 would obviously have been a natural, but Hercules was cloud city. Slightly lower down on the eastern horizon, little Lyra was almost in the clear, so I mashed the buttons for M57 and away we went.

When the VX’s motors stopped their (fairly) subdued whining, in went my pair of GTO 25mm Plössls and Unk had a look through a binoviewer for the first time in a long, long time. The little oval smoke ring was near the center of the field, hardly surprising for the VX at the modest power of 60x or so. But that was good, anyhow. What was real good, though? Focused up the scope and suddenly that little ring wasn’t just there, it was floating in front of the star field. Sweet.

As I mentioned last time, the faux 3D effect of a binoviewer—the tiny baseline between your eyes isn't enough to show distant sky optics in real 3D—is one of the big draws of these devices. It never fails to impress and amuse me. Sometimes, it’s a little weird, with a galaxy seeming to be in front of field stars, but this view was just right, with M57 sitting in front of those distant suns.

Where to next? Other than a sizeable sucker hole to the southeast, we was almost socked in, now. At least the Ophiuchus and Serpens area, one of my favorite summertime hangouts, was a little more cloud free than the rest of the sky. When Taras hollered something about M5 looking pretty good, I decided that was the nextun.

M5 is one of my fave globular star clusters. I maybe even like it better than I do M13, so I was happy to give it a look-see. Alas, it was but a pale shadow of its normal beautiful self. Despite that, the Denks were doing a pretty good job with it. Decent resolution despite the messy skies. The cluster showed the same 3D effect as M57, if not as strongly. While on the cluster, I tried to get the interpupillary spacing set just right on the Denkmeier, since our next target would tax Unk’s image-merging capabilities.

When the VX stopped, not only was Saturn in the field, there were two Saturns there. Switching out the 25mm GTOs for the 9mm pair, which gave maybe 150x with my optical configuration, just made things worse. I knew not to panic. There was nothing wrong with the Denkmeier, just as there was nothing wrong with my great, big Tachyon 25x100 binoculars when I last used them seriously on the deep sky down in Chiefland a couple of years ago.

I know, KNOW, friends, that for some objects there is nothing like viewing with two eyes. On the above mentioned CAV trip, the big binoculars on their homebrew (kit) mount showed Uncle Rod the summer Milky Way like I had never, ever seen it in five decades of observing. I had to pay my dues to get those views, howsomeever.

Just as with the Denk on Saturn, the Tachyons initially showed me two images, especially of brighter stars. To get past that I had to do what I’d learned to do years back when I first tried my friend Pat Rochford’s old TeleVue binoviewer. First off, I have to adjust the spacing between the two eyepieces, their interpupillary spacing, carefully. Has to be dead right. Then, I have to focus carefully for both eyes. With a binoviewer, I usually focus the left eye with the main scope focus, and slide the right eyepiece in and out till it is sharp, too (the Tachyons have individual focus for each eyepiece).

That is usually not enough, however. I also have to get comfortable (I’d brought my beloved Buyastrostuff observing chair with me on this run for that reason), I have to kinda semi-relax my eyes, I have to hold my head just right, and sometimes it seems like I even have to hold my tongue just right. The combination of all those things invariably leads to success, and on this night I was soon seeing one Saturn instead of two.

How did it look? Right good given the conditions. Initially, the seeing hadn’t been bad, but as more clouds started drifting through and a strong breeze blew up, it became less good. The ringed wonder was sharp, with Cassini’s like a knife-edge, but I didn't really get a look at the Crepe Ring, and detail on Saturn’s disk was barely there.

After Saturn, I went back to M5 to see how it would be at 150x, but at that power it was just too dim given the layer of haze, and I soon decamped for M80. The little globular in Scorpius was more in the clear than anything else at the time. How was it? Good and bad.

I was surprised the Denk was showing a little resolution in this small, tight globular at low power (I’d gone back to the 25mm eyepieces), and that was cool. The glob looked as good, frankly, as it usually does under far better conditions with an 8-inch scope. And yet…and yet…  The field of M80 is fairly rich, and I couldn’t say I was that happy with the way the stars looked out on the edge. Oh, they was OK, but they weren't perfect. I guess I’ve just got spoiled by the perfect stars in the barefoot Edge 800 or the Edge 800 and Edge f/7 reducer combo. If I use the Denk with the C8 next time, I might see if it will come to focus with the f/7 rig.

“If?”  Yep. I am going to say rat-cheer that the Denk is much more pleasant to use in my NexStar 11. It isn’t because of that scope’s greater light gathering power, either. It is because I habitually run Big Bertha in alt-azimuth mode.

When I was slewing back t M5, the tube “rotated” as a tube will do as an equatorial mount moves across the sky. The problem was that I hadn’t cranked down the William Optics SCT-style diagonal quite firmly enough. As I watched, the diagonal with that big binoviewer in it flopped down. I was there to grab it, and the Denk didn't threaten to come out of the diagonal and hit the ground, but Unk’s withered little heart did skip a beat or two, nevertheless. In an alt-az mode SCT, the binoviewer doesn't rotate and tend to twist loose.

I took a look at Mars after I calmed down, but it wasn’t much, even in the 9mm GTOs. It is well on its way to being tiny again, the seeing now sucked, and Unk’s poor eyes—which his eye doctor has informed him will need cataract surgery in a year or two—just ain’t up to the task of prising detail out of an uber small angry red planet no more.

I had a look at M4, the loose globular cluster over in Scorpius, and it was purty nice. Back to Saturn for a minute. One last look at M5, and I thought it might be Big Switch Time—because of the sky and nothing else. At this time of year, I would normally have been miserably damp with dew and bitten to hell and back by skeeters, but not tonight. The steady breeze kept the dew light, and maybe also put the kibosh on the bugs, though I suspect my Thermacell, which I’d lit off the second I hit the field, had more to do with that. It was only 10 in the p.m., but the sky was getting worse by the minute, and Max and Taras agreed with me we might as well give in to the inevitable.

By 10:20 I was on the road home, and shortly before 11 p.m. I was tucking Miss Van Pelt in in the carport of the New Manse. Svengoolie was over, dernit—he'd showed another of Unk’s faves, Brides of Dracula—but all was not lost. I opened a Kolorado Kool-aid, and, after a little cable surfing, found a replay of the evening’s Braves vs. Phillies game. Watching the Braves put a hurtin’ on the Phillies almost made up for Unk’s semi-skunking on the observing field.

When will I get the Denks out again? Soon, I hope, but there is a lot on my plate right now, including checking out the Mallincam Micro. I also want to get back to work on my Messier Album Project. There is a CAV run for me and D. in the offing. I am planning to do considerable sketching of the brighter Herschel 400 II objects. I need to get Old Betsy, my 12-inch Dob, cleaned up and operational after our move. I also want to (finally) figure out how to interface Bets’ Sky Commander DSCs to SkyTools 3…and—well, what I want to know, muchachos, is how in the hell did I find the time to do astronomy before I retired?

Next Time:  Wired Betsy...

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