Baylor University Clear Sky Clock:

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Observing: TV85 at Whiskey Hill

Imagine fancying yourself a music lover who has been listening to Mozart, Coltrane and Deep Purple for years on a cheap monophonic cassette player. Then one day, you find yourself with a top-notch stereo and a whole new world unfolds. That's how I feel after spending an hour or so tonight under some unbelievably dark skies out at Linda's folks' place.

We pulled in just after dusk and it was already dark enough to see the Milky Way straight overhead. I waited an hour or so for it to get seriously dark then John and I set up the TV85 in John's stone house (which is without a roof, thankfully). After we turned off a few lights out by the livestock and covered a window with a sheet of plywood to block the light from the house we got down to some observing.

The dark lanes through Cygnus were not just visible, but actually dark. Incredible. My first target was the Double Cluster in Perseus. Simply beautiful - two clumps of diamonds amid a background of stars that I couldn't even imagine seeing back home. M13 was next, and even with the TV85 I was able to resolve some of the outer stars of the cluster. Ditto M15. The Andromeda galaxy (M31) was still just a smudge, but it was a bigger smudge than I've become accustomed to seeing with the small scope under brighter skies. Albireo split into it's bright blue and yellow pair with the LVW 13mm. Dead batteries in the Starbeam finder kept me from picking off more objects, as it took a bit of effort to put the easy stuff into the FOV.

Unfortunately it was short lived - the Milky Way quickly began to fade, the dark lanes disappeared, and the sky brightened as the Moon rose in the East. How cruel the gods are. We didn't stay out much longer, but I wasn't planning on an all-night session - I just wanted to get my feet wet, so to speak, to get an idea what it's like out at Whiskey Hill. I'll be watching the weather forecasts for next weekend which will be right around New Moon (+/- a couple of days).

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Observing: Imaging the Moon & Jupiter with DSI

Checked the 40D + MaxView DSLR rig on the Antares 127mm again, this time with the TV32mm Plossl just to see if my focusing problem is caused by the Celestron eyepiece. It isn't - the same deal. I'm wondering if it isn't as simple as a field-flatness issue with the Antares that might be corrected with a add-on field flattener. Next time: TV85.

I packed in the 40D and broke out the DSI for the first time since I bought it. I just tested it with the new version of Nebulosity (2.0) in the living room yesterday to get comfortable with it, though I still need to read and absorb the Nebulosity manual.

First target: The Moon. With no idea what I was doing I captured a few shots of the area around Tycho and the southern highlands. These were single exposures, not stacks, and I used the Tele Vue 2.5x Powermate to bump up the magnification. I think I'm going to like this DSI thingy...:

On to Jupiter, now getting low in the west. Had a bit of a time focusing, so need to play with the DSI/Nebulosity combo a bit more to make sure I'm using it correctly. This was the best of the 6 attempts. I shot 100 frames, used Nebulosity to demosaic, normalize and convert to TIFF, then stacked the best frames in Lynkeos. Finally brought the image into Photoshop for some level adjustments and a tiny bit of sharpening. Still not what I want, but an improvment over previous attempts...

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Observing: Moon & Jupiter

First time out with the Antares 127mm since I upgraded the focuser to the GSO Crayford. A 9-day old waxing gibbous Moon was the target, and the scope did a fine job with the Minus-V filter in place. So nice, in fact, that I decided to grab the camera and see whether the new focuser helped with the focusing problem I had last time I tried to do some imaging. Alas, it did not - once again every shot was out of focus at the edge of the frame while the center was in focus. This occurs using with the MaxView DLSR adapter and a 40mm Plossl eyepiece mounted to the diagonal, which I think is the same combination I used previously. Next time out I will try it without the diagonal, but I don't think it will make any difference. Oddly, I don't notice any focusing issues when observing visually. I should also try it with the TV85 just to see whether it can be narrowed down to the scope or the imaging chain. But not tonight, I'm tired and don't want to stay out late screwing around in the dark with expensive toys.

Cropping away all the out-of-focus stuff, and I got a pretty good shot of Copernicus, Eratosthenes, and just between them, the faint outline of Stadius - a "heavily flooded crater with incomplete low walls" (Rukl).

I was going to pack it in and started dismounting the camera when I saw Jupiter begging for attention. Slewed the scope over and snapped a few shots, none of which really can be confused with Christopher Go's work, but hey... I tried. Here's the best of the bunch, with a little post processing in Aperture and Fireworks:

OK, so if you squint it looks a little like Jupiter...

Lessons learned:
  • The new Crayford makes it much easier to focus, but I really need to get a grip on the two tension adjustment screws.
  • The 40D's live view makes focusing a snap, especially being able to see a 10x live preview.
  • Something is terribly wrong with my imaging chain. Need to sort that out before it gets cold.
  • Aligned the Sirius on Arcturus, Nunki and Alpheratz, all three pretty far from each other. Very good GoTo, at least near 0 deg declination. Had to hunt around a bit to find M13, though. Is this a leveling issue?
  • I want a C8.
Oh, I almost forgot - the EZ Finder Deluxe is the nuts! It took longer to find the Allen key needed to align it than it did to do the actual alignment. I wonder if ScopeStuff or somebody makes an adapter that will let me mount it on the TV85, so I can 86 that infernal Starbeam finder once and for all.

Update 10/9: I squeezed some semi-usefulness out of another out-of-focus image:

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Way to go, Orion!

Just after I purchased the Sirius mount, Orion upgraded the SynScan hand controller. Among other things, the new HC allows firmware updates via the net, and has improved tracking and fine-tuning of Go-To objects. Sounds like a worthwhile upgrade, so I emailed Orion customer service a few days ago to find out what the upgrade path is for an existing Sirius owner. Their response: There is no upgrade path, other than buying a new hand controller at full price of $395.00.

Frankly, this downright sucks. I'm not your typical the bitching-and-moaning type of consumer - for example, I spent $1,200 for a defective Sirius mount, then had it replaced by what was clearly a repacked unit complete with scratches and chips, and didn't complain about it. Nor do I expect something for nothing - I had to pay Celestron a nominal fee for a similar hand controller upgrade back when I had my N8GPS, and did so gladly. But full price?!?!? Wrong answer!

I've got a better idea: I never buy another Orion product again, and they can kiss my ass.

Thanks for listening. That is all.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Observing: Sirius & TV85

Time to see how the Sirius does now that I can actually see Polaris to do a proper polar alignment. Been a while since I used this mount but it went pretty easily without me having to dig out the manual - good thing, too, because I have no idea where that is.

At around 9pm it was just dark enough to see Polaris through the polar alignment scope. As we've learned, this must be done with the power off because the illuminating LED is worse than useless. Without leveling the tripod, I just dialed in the mount and fired it up. Picking alignment stars was a snap; Alpheratz, Fomalhaut and Vega worked for me. Then it put every object I tried into the FOV of the LVW 13mm. Life is good.

Not a serious observing session, just wanted to get used to the EQ mount again before I break out the 5-inch and the cameras and see if I have better luck with imaging than I've had so far with visual here in Waco. Had a look at Jupiter, M15, M22, M27, M57 - none very exciting in the small scope. Open clusters fared better; the Double Cluster (with LVW 42mm) and Pleiades (with LVW 22mm) were nice, while M29 was... small. The batter pack started running dry around 11:30 so I packed it in.

Things to do:
  • Generate some new observing lists in Astroplanner.
  • Upgrade to new version of Nebulosity and get the DSI going.
  • Talk to neighbors, assure them that I'm not a weirdo who stands around in the backyard at night waiting for the mother ship to return and take me back to my home planet.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

About The New Location

Robinson, TX is located south of the Waco border in Central Texas, about halfway between Dallas/Ft. Worth to the north and Austin to the south. My house is in a fairly new development of duplexes and town houses (so new that in Google Maps, it's shown as an empty field).

According to the Light Pollution Map, we're a solid 5 on the Bortle Scale:
"Milkyway washed out at zenith and invisible at horizon. Many light domes. Clouds are brighter than sky. M31 easily visible. Limiting magnitude about 5.6 to 5.9. "
That's fairly generous, 'cause we had a new moon this week and I was barely able to see M31.

Click to enlarge

But good news abounds. Linda's folks live northeast of the city (Whiskey Hill Rd. on map, a 4 on the Bortle scale) and I know from casual naked-eye observing there that it's significantly darker - to the point where I can easily see the Milky Way down past Perseus and the Cygnus rift with eyes barely dark adapted and house lights on. This is encouraging. Also, the Central Texas Astronomical Society has some dark sites, including the Paul and Jane Meyer Observatory maybe an hour west of Waco, right on the edge of Bortle-3 territory. Further west is darker still (Bortle-2, mag. 7.5!). I think I'm going to love living in Texas.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Observing: First Light in Texas

After a month in Texas I got around to unpacking some of the astro gear and decided to have a quick peek from the backyard. The new abode is just south of Waco and barely 1/2-mile off I-35 so the sky is fairly soupy. Still, at zenith it is just a bit worse than Lake Wallkill - I can see Milky Way through Cygnus and M31 is faint naked-eye. The big trade-off is the trees: there ain't none here! So the southern sky which was hidden from me for 6 years is now visible, albeit over my roof, and a clean shot to the north means my polar alignment scope on the Sirius mount is no longer a vestigal organ.

But for tonight, it was the QRP rig - TV85 on the Porta mount. Went out around 9pm CST while Jupiter, hovering above the teapot in Sagittarius, was still high above the rooftops. Looked good with the LVW 8mm (75x), better (as always) with the LVW 13mm + 2.5x Powermate (115x). Soon turned my attention to globulars in Sag, objects that I've never seen (at least not since I've been keeping track of what I observe). M22 was faint, with almost no resolution of stars in the cluster. M28 was even worse, just a round fuzzy spot. I didn't stay out long, was in before 10:30

So we're not much better off than Northern NJ as far as dark skies is concerned, but at least I can see something below 50 degrees elevation now. The good news is, Linda's parents are far enough out in the country that I can see the Cygnus rift in the Milky Way without even letting my eyes dark-adapt, and I plan to tote the TV85 along with me when we visit.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Nov. 2007 - Oct. 2008: The Lost Year

Wow, has it really been a year since my last post?

Lost time is a popular topic in science fiction and UFOlogy, but my lost year is much easier to explain: damn near all of my free time for the past year (longer, actually) was spent renovating a house in Closter, NJ that, in the end, I never moved into. After all our work, Linda and I ended up moving to the great Republic of Texas, where the skies are dark and the first two Constitutional Amendments are still in effect.

Lock and load!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Holmes Sweet Holmes

Well, I'll be damned! There it was: Comet Holmes, bright and big in the binoculars last night. With naked eye, it looks like a star with no fuzzy coma - at least not to my eyes. Will keep an eye (or two) on this one over the next few weeks...

Friday, September 07, 2007

Meade DSI

Took a drive up to High Point Scientific today and came home with a DSI - at the $99 blowout price I couldn't pass it up. Stark Labs has Mac OS X software that will work with the DSI - Nebulosity for imaging, and PHD for guiding - so this should prove interesting. PHD will work with the NexImage as well, I think.

Also picked up a pair of slo-mo extension knobs for the Porta because I'm tired of reaching blindly for the Az adjuster and grabbing the focuser instead.

Had a look at the Celestron C6, I think this is the perfect SCT to supplement my two refractors. I just don't know whether to buy the OTA by itself, or get the SE package and have the NexStar mount as a grab-n-go-to platform to use with the TV85. I was hoping to check out a LightBridge dob but there were none on display.

Incredibly, I managed to leave the store down only $142.00. But I shall return...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Observing: Full Moon

An unseasonably clear night afforded me an opportunity to observe the full moon with the TV85, LVW13 and Powermate 2.5 (with lunar filter, o'course) for 115x magnification.

Once again I was awed by the TV85; not a hint of color at the edge where the bright moon met black space. There was little turbulence and the scope just snapped into focus, even at 115x with all the touchy-shakies. The scope is a champ, best damned astro-thing I ever bought!

As for the Moon, I was drawn to the western limb near Oceanus Procellarum: Balboa's rim was prominent against the black of space (Rukl chart 17). Further south, Schuller marked the start of the long mountain range Montes Cordillera (Rukl 39), running south, bowing eastward and offering a glimpse of Montes Rook (Rukl 50) at the very edge of the lunar limb. Both of these ranges encircle Mare Orientale (which is just out of view) as part of a large impact basin shown in this Lunar Orbiter photo taken in 1967. Great stuff!

Up north, the area above Plato (Rukl 3) was interesting - several craters near the limb - Carpenter, Anaximenes, Philolaus, Poncelet - and along the edge Pascal/Brianchon. Clouds moved in around 10:40.

A lunar eclipse starts at 4am, and the moon will set in totality just before 6am - no way I'll be up that early.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Orion EZ Finder Deluxe

This thing's been sitting around for months. Finally, I broke out the drill...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Observing: Sirius Shakedown

Sirius Mount + TV85 tonight. Tried something different this time: I chose 3-star alignment, then tweaked the mount's RA & dec to center on the first star (Altair), then completed alignment with Vega and Arcturus. Not perfect, but it it puts M29, M27 and M57 in the FOV of my LVW13! Beats the hell out of the so-called polar alignment scope which is a joke. I think this is the first time I've ever gotten decent alignment with the Sirius without multiple attempts (and associated hair-pulling and colorful language).

The Sirius/TV85 combo is really great. Even on the deck, I see hardly any shake while focusing or moving around. With tripod legs fully extended, the eyepiece is a little to high for comfortable seating on my trusty kitchen stepladder, but I think it would be perfect if I had real observing chair, so that's item #2 on my wish list, just after the camera adapter and accessories needed to properly connect the DSLR to the TV85.

GOTO'd through the usual suspects. Found that the farther west, the worse the GOTO accuracy. M13 and M92 completely out of the field of the LVW13, but easily found by slewing a bit. Left the rig pointed at M57; returned a half-hour later to find gone from the FOV. There's clearly work still to be done. Before breaking down for the night I turned off the power and tried to spot Polaris through the alignment scope. Not a chance through the tree.

Miscellaneous: Temp at 10pm: 70 deg F, 53% humidity, winds calm from the South. Orion 2" diagonal works like a champ. Whining noise from mount that was very noticeable during indoor tests isn't heard at all outside. Marked the position of the tripod vibration pads on the deck for future setup.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Observing: Back in the Saddle...

First night out with a scope since last September, using the TV85 + Porta for a brief viewing session. I'm happy to report that M29 is still there. I didn't stay out long, conditions weren't that great and humidity was getting bad.

I had all of the gear in storage at the Closter house, brought it all back to Lake Wallkill today with the intention of finally equipping the Antares 127 with the reticle finder and giving the 'new' Sirius mount a full shakedown, as I only had it outside once shortly after receiving the replacement unit from Orion.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

M3 Blinky-Blinky

This is amazing.
From Joel Hartman (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics): "RR Lyrae often have amplitudes of variation as high as 1 magnitude in V, and even higher in B. The RRab stars (fundamental mode pulsators) are the most numerous and have periods of roughly half a day. The RRc stars (first overtone pulsators) have periods of roughly a third of a day. What's more, because they are among the brightest stars in a globular cluster, they're actually very conspicous. If you were to watch them over the course of a night you would see quite a beautiful show, with the RR Lyrae blinking "on" and "off" like Christmas lights." (h/t APOD)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sun Pillar

Sun Pillar - (meteorology) A luminous streak of light, white or slightly reddened, extending above and below the sun, most frequently observed near sunrise or sunset; it may extend to about 20° above the sun, and generally ends in a point. A visual phenomenon created by the reflection of light from ice crystals with near horizontal parallel planar surfaces.
I photographed this sun pillar this evening from Pine Island, NY, as the sun set behind Mt. Pochuck. No photo can do it justice - it was much more visible and brilliant to the naked eye, like a searchlight.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Antares 127mm Project: New Stuff

The holidays came and went, and despite relatively mild weather I've pretty much wussed out when it comes to observing with the hardware. However I have been stepping outside for short bursts to gaze upon the winter constellations (Orion, Auriga, Gemini) naked-eye from the deck. Model trains have been a distraction from astronomy lately, as I have built up a small collection of N-scale locomotives and rolling stock in anticipation of our move back to Closter and with it the opportunity to build a small layout in the garage there. But I've not forsaken astronomy, and along with the trains I've acquired a few little things from Orion for my Antares refractor.

  • 2" Dielectric Mirror Diagonal - The Tele Vue Everbrite diagonal from my TV85 has been working fine, but I would rather not have to move it back and forth between scopes. This new diagonal was recently introduced, it appears to be the same Chinese OEM sold by other brands (Astronomy Technologies).

  • V-Block Minus Violet Filter - Haven't really found fringing to be much or an issue with the Antares; the long (f9.4) focal ratio seems to alleviate most of it. But last time out I did notice a bit of a purple halo around brighter stars. I've been meaning to get one of these filters for a while - I blew my chance when Astronomics was clearing out their William Optics filters (I waited a few hours too long) - so when I saw the Orion filters on sale I jumped at it. From reviews on CN and elsewhere, the Orion V-Block is stronger than other filters at removing fringe (caused by chromatic aberration of achromatic lenses), but at the expense of introducing a yellowish tint. I purchased the 2" version, which will stay more or less permanently attached to the diagonal.

  • EZ Finder Deluxe - Lord knows I love my Telrad, but the dang thing is just so goofy looking! This new finder has 4 selectable reticles, and looks like it's about 1/3 the size of the Telrad. Since the mounting foot is different than the stock Antares finder mount I had to order the optional mounting block; this will require drilling two holes in the OTA.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Moon Ring Over Lake Wallkill

Saw one of these in early November, and again tonight. Moon rings are caused by moonlight being refracted by ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. Photo taken handheld, Canon Digital Rebel (300D), ISO 1600, 1/2-sec exposure, 18-55mm EFS lens (@ 18mm, barely wide enough to capture the entire ring!). Had to Photoshop the hell out of the image in order to bring out the ring, thus the grainy, overexposed look.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Antares Crayford & Sirius Mount Tests

It's been a good month since my defective Sirius mount was swapped out for a replacement, and it wasn't until tonight that I finally got a chance to use it. I'm not too pleased, frankly. There are paint chips all over it and a good sized gash on one of the panels; it looks as though it is a repacked factory second unit. And the polar alignment scope is so over-illuminated that it is impossible to see through it - all I see is a washed out red light. Plus, there is a high-pitched oscillating whistle emanating from the mount head which was not present in the original mount.

Not sure what can be done at this point, it's been a month since the swap (and two since the original purchase). I removed the polar scope and can see that the red LED is dead center in the optical path; maybe it needs to be repositioned. This is what I get for trying to save money, I suppose - I should have saved a little longer and bought the Vixen Sphinx. As my brother always says, "You buy shit, you get shit."

On a happier note, the new Crayford works very well. It has just enough back travel to focus all of my Vixen LVW eyepieces. I didn't try the Powermate or either camera (EOS & Neximage), but I primarily intend to use the 127mm as a visual instrument anyway. Worst case, I will need to buy an extender. I already need to buy one for my TV85, so it is moot.

Did the go-to alignment song and dance again with the Sirius. Tried 1-Star and 3-Star, neither worked very well. I need to get that Telrad mounted, and soon, because the straight finder scope is danger of going in the lake. Another week or two and I'll be able to see Polaris, so that should help with alignment. Until then, my hair is thinning rapidly. I wasn't planning on doing any real observing since it is a work night, but did get a few nice peeks at M31, M29 and M57 before packing it in.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Antares 127mm Crayford Upgrade

The biggest shortcoming of the stock Antares refractor is the rack and pinion focuser - very stiff, an unacceptable amount of play in the drawtube, and a visual back which uses metal set screws instead of a compression ring. To remedy this weak link, I ordered a new FRM2 dual-speed Crayford focuser from ScopeStuff for $149.00; mounting it to the Antares required the FRC7 5" adapter ring, an additional $44.00. The focuser is produced by GSO, though there are no markings on either piece.

For under $200, I believe I have transformed this scope dramatically from a visual-only instrument to something I might actually be able to use for imaging. I say "believe" because, along with the focuser, the mailman also delivered clouds and likely thunderstorms for the weekend, so field tests will have to wait. But my initial impressions are positive - very smooth feel, fairly nice construction. Surely not as nice as a Moonlite or FeatherTouch, but I just couldn't bring myself to spend $500-$600 on a focuser for a $300 OTA.

I'm a little concerned about back focus, the drawtube is not nearly as long as the stock R&P focuser. Whether this will allow enough range to work without an extension tube remains to be seen. I'm fairly certain that I will need some sort of extension for imaging with the DSLR, but it might be OK for visual use. We shall see...

Installation was not too difficult: I removed the three mounting screws and gently worked the stock focuser off the OTA. There was a strip of tape around the edge of the tube which had to be removed before the new 5" mounting ring would fit. The ring was supplied with three screws, washers, and nuts; I managed to secure them without dropping anything into the tube. Finally, the focuser mounted to the ring using the three screws from the original focuser - I would have preferred new screws because the original ones are the countersunk type.

In my haste to install the FRM2, I forgot to weigh it to compare with the stock focuser. I'm going to say it is slightly heavier, but I can't be sure. There are two tension screws on the underside between the knobs: One adjusts the tension of the drawtube - by loosening it completely, the drawtube can be completely disengaged and moved in and out by hand. The second screw locks the focuser and prevents the focus knobs from moving the drawtube. This works far better than the single tension screw system I've been accustomed to.

Other notes on GSO focusers:

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Observing: Clusters & Galaxies in And, Tri, Per & Cas

New moon Thursday night, cool and clear. It's TV85 time, because I don't feel like doing the big-scope setup and breakdown thing on a weeknight. It was dark already by 8:30pm, temp 51 deg, humidity 91% with dewpoint at 48 deg, so I thought it prudent to break out the dew zapper for the objective - I never got the heating element for eypieces but it seems to be OK as long as I keep the lens capped when I'm not looking through it. By midnight the temp dropped to 45 deg, humidity 97%, and dewpoint 44 deg - things started getting wet!

Despite the moon-free night the skies were still washed out from neighborhood lights and the Vernon light soup in the southeast. The lights next door finally went out around 10:30. I managed to get a peek at a few objects in the Andromeda-Triangulum-Perseus-Cassiopeia area of the sky:
  • M33: So faint I had a hard time finding it.
  • M31: Easy, with M110 visible above it.
  • NGC-752: Open cluster, easily spotted though not very exciting.
  • NGC-869/NGC-884 Double Cluster: Cleared the trees around 12:30am - simply stunning in the LVW42 and LVW22 Vixens!
  • Stock 2: Just to the NW of the Double Cluster, very large.
  • NGC-663: A little further MW, located about halfway between Epsilon and Delta Cassiopea (the two easternmost stars in the "W".
  • M45 Pleiades: Another object that comes alive in the Vixen LVWs.
I bounced back and forth between these objects for a while. Just after 1am I packed it in for the night.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Starry Night Pro Plus 6

I received my Version 6 upgrade to Starry Night this week - spent the extra dough to move up from Pro to Pro Plus, which includes the AllSky images. Installation took up about 11gb of hard drive. First run showed that it did not save any of my preferecences such as rquipment, log entries, favorites, location. I managed to find some of the files in my user library prefs folder, but was only able to recover the equipment details. All of my favorites and log entries are gone. No big deal, I guess, but it would have been nice.

First impressions are somewhat favorable, but not mind-blowingly so. I like the AllSky CCD Mosaic, even though the resolution suffers at high magnifications. Speed seems a little sluggish compared to SNP5 on my 1GHz Powerbook G4. There are new star chart print features, which let you print a three-pane chart (one main chart, plus two finder charts); this could be useful. I like the Markers and Outlines feature which identify lunar and planetary features like craters, mare, and other surface details; however, even though multiple features can be selected, only one name shows at a time. I'm pretty sure this is not the way it's supposed to be. In any case, the high resolution lunar surface images are very good, and should make identification of craters in my lunar photographs easier in the future.

Eratosthenes & Montes Apenninus in Starry Night Pro Plus 6

A big problem was discovered while testing the remote control of the Sirius mount. I gave it an indoor test run on Friday night and found some serious problems, not the least of which is the software's inability to point the scope to whatever is at screen center - it either points somewhere else, or gives me a "Below Horizon" error message. Other little things like loss of connection between Mac and Sirius, disappearing cursor during scope control, andz inability to change default horizon graphics, were also noted. Reported all of this to SN Tech Support, they are handing it off to the scope interface guru. Hope to have an answer next week after the holiday. I don't remember having all of these problems with SNP5, but I never really used it much for remote control, either. Still, I'm fairly certain that, at the very least, SNP5 was able to slew to screen center...

Better graphics aside, I'm not sure the upgrade was worth the $120 it cost. A full list of all upgrade features can be found here.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Leo Fender, Astronomer

No, not really. But if Leo Fender ever did design a case just for binoculars, it would have looked just like this!

It's actually a case for harmonicas which had been kicking around the store for a while. I asked Joe what the deal was, he told me that it was locked and no key could open it, and that if I could open it I could have it. Five minutes and one bent paper clip later, it was mine. Wasn't sure what to use it for - eyepieces was my first thought, but I already have two cases for those. Then I realized it might be perfect for my Orion 10x50 binocs, and sure enough they fit like a glove. The tray on the right lifts out to give me additional storage for stuff like a red flashlight, pens, etc. The S&T Pocket Sky Atlas fits, too; might stitch a mesh pocket into the top lid to hold it snug.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Unplanetization of Pluto

The vote is in, and I demand a recount:
Capping years of intense debate, astronomers resolved today to demote Pluto in a wholesale redefinition of planethood that is being billed as a victory of scientific reasoning over historic and cultural influences. But already the decision is being hotly debated.

Officially, Pluto is no longer a planet.
I fart in their general direction.

Here's my take on it: The IAU's resolution, voted on by a stark minority of professional astronomers, defines a planet as "a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around a star or stellar remnants; (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape; (c) is not massive enough to initiate thermonuclear fusion of deuterium in its core; and, (d) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit." Pluto apparently meets the first three criteria, but not the fourth.

A faction of scientists have had a hard-on for Pluto since the day Clyde discovered it, and it seems they've finally gotten their cookie. While there are plenty of pro astronomers that do not agree with Pluto's demotion, it is largely the public and amateur astronomers who are most perturbed at this turn of events - not because the decision is necessarily wrong, but because it is unneccessary. The IAU could have expanded the definition to include Pluto, or made an exception to it on Pluto's behalf - a grandfather clause, if you will, or a Roger Maris-style asterisk. I honestly believe the reason they chose not to is as much a case of the "pros" thumbing their collective noses at the lowly masses as it is a matter of science. The new definition is completely arbitrary; it could easily, and just as arbitrarily, have been worded to remove Uranus from the list by simply adding , "(e) has an axial tilt of 45 degress or less." Apparently, the only reason the IAU would need to do that is "Just Because".

I freely admit that my reaction is mostly emotional. There may be plenty of valid scientific reasons for demoting Pluto. I simply don't care. Pluto has been a member of the planet club since 1930. This is, as stated in the above quote, a matter of culture and history, which (it may surprise the propeller-heads to learn) are just as important to mankind as science; it should have been left well enough alone. Instead, Pluto is now in a newly created class of Solar-orbiting objects called a dwarf planet. I'm confused already - if it's not a planet, why call it a dwarf planet? Either it's a planet, or it's not. The distinction reeks of Clintonesque word parsing ("It's not sex, it's oral sex!"). You'd figure that these geniuses would be clever enough to come up with a more distinctive name for their newly invented class. How about "Pla-not"?

David Levy makes a great point:
"The Earth has much more in common with Pluto than with, say, Jupiter," Levy said. "You can walk on Pluto, there are three moons in its sky. Land on Jupiter, you'd just fall right in. Jupiter and the Earth have almost nothing in common, yet they're both called planets without any debate."
What he said. In this spirit I hereby propose that we further divide the remaining eight so-called "celestial bodies" that orbit our Sun into two groups: "Planets" (which would include Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) and "Big Balls of Gas" (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune). When do I get to vote?

More on this:

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sirius Swap (or: Why I Support the Local Guys)

As mentioned previously, my Sirius mount exhibited a significant amount of play in the RA axis, enough to cause objects centered in my LVW13 eyepiece to shift 2/3 of the way to the edge whenever I touched the focuser. I reported this problem to Orion who agreed that this was not normal. They said, "Return it to us for repair, or bring it back to High Point Scientific for exchange." Hmm. Tough choice.

I forwarded Orion's email to Dave at HPS; less than an hour later, he emailed me back to say a new mount was on the way, and that he would call me when it arrived so we could do the swap. It came in about 2.5 weeks later. In the meantime, I was able to use the original mount for two consecutive weekends of decent weather - nights that I would have lost, or at least would have been relegated to the TV85 + Porta, if I had to return the mount to Orion. Instead, I got to enjoy some nice observing time with the Antares 5" while waiting for the replacement mount. This vindicates my decision to buy locally, even though I probably could have had it faster and cheaper (no sales tax) by ordering directly from Orion. The moral of the story, boys and girls, is: Whenever possible, support the home team!

As for the new mount, not a hint of the play that troubled the first mount. Also the movement in both RA and Dec feels a lot less constricted by the infamous "Synta glue" lubrication. Since the weather has reverted to the New Jersey standard (clear on worknights, clouds on weekends) I set the mount up in the living room for a shakedown with Astroplanner, and found everything to be working OK. The polar scope is again not aligned with the hole when the Dec axis is set to 90 deg. This time I'm just going to leave it alone.

While at High Point, I ordered another 11 lb. counterweight which will be drop-shipped from Orion. This should improve the balance of the 5" scope, and give me some headroom for adding things like cameras, large eyepieces, and piggybacked scopes, not to mention the C8 I plan to acquire soon.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Of Globulars and HST

I'm not the only one looking at globular clusters of late. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have imaged the dimmest red and white dwarfs in NGC-6397, a globular cluster in the souther constellation of Ara. The press release:

17-Aug-2006: The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered what astronomers are reporting as the dimmest stars ever seen in any globular star cluster.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered what astronomers are reporting as the dimmest stars ever seen in any globular star cluster. Globular clusters are spherical concentrations of hundreds-of-thousands of stars.

These clusters formed early in the 13.7-billion-year-old universe. The cluster NGC 6397 is one of the closest globular star clusters to Earth. Seeing the whole range of stars in this area will yield insights into the age, origin, and evolution of the cluster.

Although astronomers have conducted similar observations since Hubble was launched, a team led by Harvey Richer of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, is reporting that they have at last unequivocally reached the faintest stars. Richer's team announced their findings today at the 2006 International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Prague, Czech Republic, and in the August 18 edition of Science.

"We have run out of hydrogen-burning stars in this cluster. There are no fainter such stars waiting to be discovered. We have discovered the lowest-mass stars capable of supporting stable nuclear reactions in this cluster. Any less massive ones faded early in the cluster's history and by now are too faint to be observed," said Richer.

Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys completed a census of two distinct stellar populations in NGC 6397. Hubble surveyed the faintest red dwarf stars which fuse hydrogen in their cores like our sun, and the dimmest white dwarfs, which are the burned-out relics of normal stars.

The light from these faint stars is as dim as the light produced by a birthday candle on the Moon seen from Earth. NGC 6397 is 8,500 light-years away from Earth. Analyzing the burned-out remnants of stars that died long ago, Hubble showed that the dimmest white dwarfs have such low temperatures that they are undergoing a chemical change in their atmospheres that makes them appear bluer rather than redder as they cool. This phenomenon had been predicted, but never observed.

These white dwarfs are the relics of stars, up to eight times as massive as the sun, which have exhausted the fuel capable of supporting nuclear reactions in their cores. Stars that were initially even more massive died as supernovae very early in the cluster's life, leaving behind neutron stars, black holes, or no debris at all.

Astronomers have used white dwarfs in globular clusters as a measure of the universe's age. The universe must be at least as old as the oldest stars. White dwarfs cool down at a predictable rate - the older the dwarf, the cooler it is, making it a perfect "clock" that has been ticking for almost as long as the universe has existed. Richer and his team are using the same age-dating technique to calculate the cluster's age. NGC 6397 is currently estimated to be nearly 12 billion years old.

A globular cluster's dimmest stars have eluded astronomers because their light is too feeble. Richer's team used Hubble's Advanced Camera to probe deep within the cluster for nearly five days to capture the faint stars. The camera's resolution is so sharp that it is capable of isolating cluster stars in this crowded cluster field, enabling cluster members to be distinguished from foreground and background stars. The cluster stars move together as the cluster orbits the Milky Way Galaxy, and Hubble was able to pinpoint which stars were moving with the cluster. The Hubble team used this technique together with archival Hubble images taken as much as a decade earlier to make sure they had a pure sample of cluster stars.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Burnham Remembered

Some amateur astronomers are working to create a memorial to the great Robert Burnham, Jr., author of the famed Burnham's Celestial Handbook. His tragic story was told by Tony Ortega in an article for the Phoenix New Times in 1997. I wish them luck in their endeavour.

My father had purchased the original 3-volume Dover hardcover set many years ago; they remain a valuable part of my library. Burnham's Celestial Handbook was instrumental in fueling my interest in astronomy at an early age - I read those books years before I ever looked through a telescope - and I am not surprised that so many people share my admiration of these books and the author.

Friday, August 18, 2006


I don't think I've ever registered a piece of shareware. That's because most shareware I've come across generally sucks, and even that which does not suck usually gets installed, run once or twice, then quickly forgotten. Not so Astroplanner; this program is amazing.

I first tried Astroplanner about two years ago (v.1.3.x) but didn't really use it. It was fairly sluggish on the Mac, as I recall, and just didn't grab me at the time. Yesterday, I decided to revisit the app, and after downloading the latest version (v.1.5.2) I was blown away at the amount of work the author, Paul Rodman, has been putting into this program (as the release notes will attest). So I sent my $25 registration fee and downloaded a bunch of the object catalogs - NGC and IC catalogs, Herschell 400, Burnham Double Stars, Caldwell objects - and have been playing around with it.

Perhaps the reason the earlier version didn't impress me is that I just didn't have a use for it at the time - I was fairly new to the NexStar 8 GPS and perfectly content finding and selecting targets from its built-in lists, plus I was only chasing Messier objects and a few NGC's from the Night Sky Observer's Guide and S&T articles. After a couple of years of looking at the same, limited number of objects, I've graduated to more challenging targets and spending a lot more time planning my sessions around specific types of objects. For example, I might spend an entire night observing only open clusters, or globulars, or planetary nebulae, or whatever. Astroplanner makes it easy to generate a list based on numerous criteria (i.e., all Planetary Nebulae from the NGC Catalog located in Lyra, Cygnus, Vulpecula, Saggita, Delphinus and Aquilia, 10th magnitude or brighter, with declination greater than +10 deg). Click, click, done - I have a nice list of targets for the night, and with the telescope connected, another click puts the target in my eyepiece (well, some of the time...).

A nice feature is the ability to download images from the Digital Sky Survey (DSS), cache them to disk, and display them along with the other data. This can be very helpful if you're not sure if what you're looking at is actually the desired object - just check the image and compare!

Once your target list is complete, Astroplanner can print various forms, including a nifty Observation Form which places various data at top, DSS images below that, and an observation log section with sketching circles and blank fields for notes and details.

Control of the Sirius mount is very straightforward; perform the initial alignment process as usual, then just plug in the cable, set the mount to RS232C control, and it's done. Nothing fancy, just a convenient way to point your scope at an object with one click of the mouse, rather than having to scroll through menus and nested tables with the hand controller, looking for an object that might not even be in the list.

I'll add more notes once I get the chance to use Astroplanner in the field (or on the deck, as the case may be).

Monday, August 14, 2006

Observing: Chi Cygni

Sky & Telescope reports:
The red, Mira-type variable star Chi Cygni is having a very unusual maximum right now. It's one of the brightest such variables to begin with (typically peaking at about magnitude 5.2), but now it's about magnitude 3.8, according to many reports to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) in the last two weeks. Writes John Bortle: "This would make the current maximum the brightest in 148 years.
I haven't pointed a scope at this one yet but I've been observing it naked eye for the past week or so.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Observing: Planetaries & Globulars in Cyg, Del & Aql, and the Moon

Alignment worked well tonight, pointed toward Vega and Altair in the correct direction. Didn't do anything differently this time. Go figure. Tested on M57 (center of field), M27 (toward edge), and M29 (out of field in TV Zoom @ 24mm). Best I can hope for without accurate polar alignment, I guess.

For tonight's target list, I picked a bunch of planetary nebulae and globular clusters in Cygnus, Delphinus and Aquila with help from the S&T PSA and NSOG:
  • NGC 6826: The Blinking Planetary, very bright. Damned thing actually blinks!
  • NGC 6905: Revisited this planetary after seeing it last time out. It's still there...
  • M56: GC, good view with LVW13
  • M71: GC, also good with LVW13
  • NGC 6760: GC, dim but visible
  • NGC 6934: GC, brighter but small
  • NGC 7006: GC, also dim
Several other objects on my list were not seen (NGCs 6842, 6894, 7008 and 7048); NGC 6891 was already in the tree by the time I attempted it.

By 10:30PM, moon glow washed out the sky. I set the Sirius for lunar tracking and waited for the big guy to rise from the trees in the east to try some DSLR imaging with the Digital Rebel and Celestron 40mm Plossl. After 11:30 I took a bunch of shots of the eastern limb around Mare Crisium; three came out OK (click any image to see larger version with craters labeled):

One big problem: All images grow out of focus radially from the center of the field, as if they were put through a Radial Blur filter in Photoshop. This is most evident in shots in which I placed the limb near the center of the field, thus offsetting the moon to one side:

I'm hoping that something in the imaging chain was not seated properly, perhaps the eyepiece in the Maxview DSLR adapter. Or maybe the combined weight of diagonal, Maxview, eyepiece and camera body was too much for the drawtube (which I probably did not have fully locked down) and caused it to shift out of line slightly. Whatever, I need to figure this out next time.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Antares 127mm Third Light

A clear, cloudless night, 66 deg at 10pm, relative humidity 48% early on but rising to above 80% by the time I packed it in, with the full moon rising just as it gets dark. In Glass-Half-Full mode, I embrace this opportunity to see how well the 5" achro performs on the brightest object in the night sky.

Short answer: Not too bad! Maybe my color blindness has finally found a practical use, as I saw very little purple fringing on the lunar limb. The scope delivered very sharp views with the TV 32mm and 20mm Plossls; the 20mm at 61x and 50 deg AFOV fit the entire lunar disc perfectly. I tried the LVWs but thought they were a little soft in contrast. I noticed that my lunar filter didn't want to screw into the barrel of the LVW13; need to check to make sure the threads are OK.

I performed a two-star alignment on Arcturus and Altair, but it still couldn't place anything in the FOV, even with the LVW42 - it's gotta be off in altitude, because it should be close enough to north in azimuth to give it an adequate rough polar alignment. Damn trees!

Still trying to figure out the logic by which the Sirius chooses alignment stars - when I chose Altair first, Arcturus didn't even come up as an option for second alignment star; but when I chose Arcturus first, Altair did. How odd...

I didn't stay out long since it's a work night, and the full moon gets old fast. Saw a few moonbats (real ones, not the left-wing Bush-hating variety). After trying different eyepieces for an hour or so I packed it in.

SIde note: I exchanged a couple of emails with Orion tech support about the excessive play in the mount's RA axis; they seem to think it is a defective and suggested I either send it in for repair or exchange through the dealer, so I emailed Dave at High Point who agreed to swap it out with another mount head. Orion is sending one out, it should be here in about a week. Great service from both Orion and High Point!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Antares 127mm Second Light

Just a quick session to check a few things that were nagging me since last night's session...

All of the initial settings are OK, the Sirius definitely points west when Vega is east of meridian. Does UTC offset need to be -4 hours, even when daylight savings time is selected? Is one hour difference enough to explain that large an error?

Did 2-star alignment on Vega and Altair, and was able to find M13 and M92 this time with the LVW42. After centering and switching eyepieces, they both looked nice with their outer stars resolving and their cores bright. I want to compare the views between the Antares and TV85 at similar magnification next time out just to see what the extra 1.5" or so buys.

After the Hercules globs, I entered M27 and the Sirius but in dam near in the center of the field. But after a while (20 min maybe?) it drifted out of the field. Selected it again, and it went right back to the middle of the field! OK... so if the mount knows where the object is, why can't it keep it centered while tracking?

Polar scope definitely does not illuminate, and straight-thru finder scope is most definitely the must useless piece of shit I've ever had the privilege of owning.

Clouds rolled in quickly a little before 10pm.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Antares 127mm First Light

Dang, she's pretty! With the tripod legs fully extended and the scope pointing north she stands a few inches taller than me, so I'm guessing 6'4" or so. For tonight I've got a short list of targets in and around the Summer Triangle - some old favorites, some I've never looked at before - compiled from Sue French's column in the September S&T plus a few I picked out of the S&T Pocket Atlas: Messiers 13, 15, 27, 29, 39, 56, 57, 71, 92, and NGCs 6793, 6800, 6802, 6819, 6882/85, 6883, 6905 and 7006.

Nice weather, finally - temp was 77 deg when I set up around 9pm, but dropped to 69 deg by 11 pm. Forgot to check relative humidity, but it was less sticky at 11 than at 9. Unfortunately it is Regatta Weekend at Lake Dipshit, so the air was thick with gunpowder smoke from the fireworks, and the mandatory "Turn Your Fucking Lights On" law is in effect. Waxing gibbous Moon turned the sky into a pale gray, not the best conditions for seeking DSO's.

Not being able to see Polaris is a major setback, and rough alignment is touchy. I tried 3-star alignment first (Vega, Altair and Arcturus) but the go-to was off most of the time. Realigned using 2-star method (Vega and Altair) and it was an improvement, at least around those two stars in the triangle; go-to placed M13 and M92 in Hercules so out of field I gave up trying to find them.

After the first alignment, my official first light target was Albireo; with low power (LVW42 at 29x) showed the colors of the yellow and blue pair beautifully! Then I went through my target list. Mostly used the LVW13 (94x) as conditions did not favor the LVW8 (152.5x). Of the globulars, M15 was the only one that even remotely showed any resolution into stars; M56, M71 and NGC 7006 were just fuzz, looking more like galactic cores than globs. Open clusters looked very nice, especially M29, M39 and the pair of NGC 6882 & NGC 6885. I punched in planetary nebula NGC 6905 for the hell of it and was suprised that it was visible under these bright sky conditions - pretty faint, but I clearly could see it as a faint disc using averted vision; it tended to disappear when looking directly at it.

So this session was not great as far as observing goes, but it was a good first-light shakedown of both mount and scope to give me an idea what they can do under fairly miserable observing conditions. Good things I noticed:
  • Optics seem very good; quick star test showed well centered concentric circles inside focus, though poor seeing turned the disc to mush outside of focus. Definitely not an apo, the center turned bright violet-blue on brighter stars.
  • Mount is fairly simple to set up and disassemble.
  • Slewing and tracking are both quiet.
  • The edge of field astigmatism I noticed when using the wider LVWs (42, 22 and 17 mm) with the TV85 seem to be completely alleviated with the longer focal length Antares.
Not-so-good things I noticed:
  • Polar alignment scope does not illuminate
  • Keypad buttons are virtually unreadable in twilight
  • Play in mount is as bad as the mirror shift in my N8GPS!
  • Focuser is stiffer than morning wood.
  • Finder scope is utterly useless. Need 45 deg finder with illuminated reticle.
  • Can't update alignment like I could with Nexstar.
  • When choosing Vega as alignment star, scope slewed in opposite direction (west of meridian as opposed to east). Same thing with Altair. WTF??? Clock, date, UTC offset, lat/lon all correct. Could I possibly be that far off from Polaris? Need to check into this.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Antares 127mm Arrives

Woohoo! A quick visual check, everything seems OK. Brad (the seller) did a great job packing it up for the trip from Washington. I mounted it on the Sirius to get an idea how easy setup is going to be in six or eight months when the weather becomes conducive to astronomical observation.

She's a big 'un for sure, not sure the total weight with diagonal, eyepiece, rings, dovetail, and finder scope mounted - probably up over 22 lbs, so it should be well under the published 30 lb. limit of the mount. Initial impressions:

  • It barely balances in RA with the one counterweight all the way at the end of the shaft. The 2" TV diagonal is very tight in the visual back but I think it's OK.

  • The rack & pinion focuser has a lot of really goopy grease on it, might want to look into cleaning it up a bit, but it appers to be smooth.

  • There is a small amount of play in the declination axis - not sure if that is normal, or if it will affect use.

  • I'm going to have to extend the tripod legs quite a bit if I want to observe near zenith without kneeling on the ground; maybe a pier extension will be better, I really like to keep the legs as short as possible.
Linda is going to freak when she sees this thing in the living room...

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sirius Update

I posted a question on Cloudy Nights about the polar scope alignment problem and got a fast response telling me how to correct it - thanks Charlie! Now it's good to go as soon as the weather cooperates.

While at Mom's yesterday I picked up the battery power pack so I could give the Sirius a milk run this (Sunday) afternoon. Everything seems to be working, I did the initial settings thing (date, time, lat, lon, UTC offset, daylight savings...), and accepted the first three alignment stars it picked. Then I slewed to a few objects as if it were middle of the winter just to get an idea how the thing works and moves around. Quite nicely and quietly, as it turns out. The hand controller is fairly similar to the Nexstar HC, same basic key layout and feel.

As I type this I'm just letting it track for a while to see how long it will take to run the power pack down; it charged a little more than half way on the LED scale, despite being charged overnight. If it can't run the scope for more than a couple of hours I will have to find another way of powering the mount.

More good news: UPS online tracking shows my Antares scheduled for delivery on Tuesday (Aug 1). Woohoo!!!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Orion Sirius EQ-G Arrives

Picked up my Sirius mount today from High Point Scientific and set it up in the kitchen to get a feel for how it works. Despite being my first-ever German equatorial mount, the assembly was very intuitive and it all went together fairly smoothly.

One small issue so far - the polar alignment scope looks through a hole in the dec shaft, and the two are supposed to line up when the dec is set to 90 deg, according to the manual. I have to turn the dec axis 35 deg counter-clockwise before I can see through the hole. I've emailed HPS about this, waiting to hear what they have to say. I really hope I don't have to send this thing back.

I tossed the TV85 on and balanced it easily. Haven't powered it up yet since I need to dig up a 12VDC 2A supply from the shack. She's a pretty thing, tho' the TV85 looks a bit wee on it. I won't be trying the mount out for real anytime soon - rain is forecast all weekend, naturally.

Now I'm just waiting for the Antares 5" to show up; got an email from the seller, it was sent on Tuesday; been tracking it online but UPS hasn't given me much info other than that it departed Redmond, WA on July 26...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Clear at last!

Despite forecasts of clouds the skies are clear, so we'll give it a shot with the TV85. Temp at 9PM is 66 deg, humidity 81%, but it doesn't feel so bad outside. Skeeters were buzzing a bit but I sprayed myself down and put on some sleeves. Lights from next door and across the street, but hopefully these people will go to bed soon. This is my last shot at observing while Linda is in Texas; she's coming back tomorrow.

Setup: The Starbeam pointer is killing me - I struggle to get it aligned, and the flip mirror is useless. I'm ready to shit-can the thing once and for all if I can only figure out a way to mount the Telrad on the TV85 without having to resort to duct tape.

Did a quick star test with the 8mm LVW; nice circles inside and outside of focus. When I do it with the Powermate in-line the inside circles turn violet. Hmm... Also see a spot which I think is that ding in the diagonal - the idiot I bought it from must have dropped a 1.25" ep in without the adapter in place. I guess a new 99% 2" diagonal is in my future.

Back inside at 9:30pm waiting for things to darken a bit.

10PM: Lights out. Not the darkest skies but the Milky Way was visible overhead in Cygnus. With the S&T Pocket Atlas at hand I hopped to some old favorites: M57 (Ring), M56 (glob), M27 (Dumbell). The LVW13 was the champ again; the LVW8 didn't deliver any more detail, and the dimmer stars in the 8mm made the views less pleasing.

Put the UHC filter on the 42mm LVW and gazed around Cygnus. Open cluster M29 stood out from the crowd, looking like a miniature Hercules keystone asterism. Turned the scope around to Hercules and it's two globulars, M92 and M13. Then packed it in around 11:30. Temp dropped down to 61 deg at 11pm, while humidity rose to 93%. Still, it looks like I lucked out with cloud cover and transparency:

Notes: I confirmed the distortion issues with the LVW42 - focused stars grow comet tails near the edge; out of focus stars turn into little curved lines. This suggests asttigmatism, as noted by Pensack: "At night, it causes the stars at the edge of the field to appear as short radial lines on one side of focus, and short circumferential lines on the other. In focus, the star images may appear slightly blurry or appear like seagulls or bats." Yeah... what he said!

Still, I really like this eyepiece. I'm eager to try it on the Antares, to see if it improves in a scope with a longer focal length. The NebuStar UHC filter did a nice job of darkening the background, though I didn't notice any nebulosity around Sadr. Without the filter, the views around the star clouds of Cygnus looked fairly washed out in the LVW42; with the filter, the stars just seemed to pop out of a near-black background. A UHC filter is certainly not designed to be used on star clusters (unless there is surrounding nebulosity, for example the Pleaides); they will attenuate the light. However in this case, with a low magnification, wide-field eyepiece, I found the trade-off to be positive as the views were much nicer than without the filter.

So while I saw nothing new tonight, I was happy enough just to get back out under the stars. Let's face it, as long as I live where I can only observe at the zenith in the summer, I'm always going to be looking at M57, M27, M13, etc. when using the TV85 - it just ain't cut out for going any deeper. I used to be able to pull out the Night Sky Observer's Guide and view some of the more dificult NGC objects when I had the C8, but 85mm is simply not enough aperture for DSO's under my conditions. Maybe the 5" achro will work better. If not, I think the next scope will have to be a 10" or 12" dob.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

More of the same...

Oh, for Christ's sake...

It's got to end sometime, right?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

See ya, C8...

The New Scope: Antares 127mm f/9.6 Achromatic

So the Nexstar is history, an Orion Sirius EQ-G mount is on order at High Point Scientific, and an Antares 127mm (5") f/9.6 achromatic refractor will be on it's way next week.

Just when I was set to keep the C8, I got an email response to my Astromart ad which I forgot to delete. Much haggling ensued, and I finally accepted $1,200 for it with the JMI focuser, Astrozap dew shield, and Losmandy counterweight. I kept the Thousand Oaks solar filter ('cause I will own another C8 someday...) and Celestron 40mm Plossl eyepiece.

I was minutes away from heading over to High Point to buy a C6R-GT when one of the voices in my head told me to check Astromart, where I found the Antares 127mm OTA for $300. I've only heard great things about these scopes, and while I would have prefered the 152mm (8") model I couldn't resist this scope at this price. Contacted the owner, sealed the deal, and then headed to HPS to buy a mount.

The CG-5A, upon first sight, was immediately ruled out. It would be perfect for the TV85, but I wouldn't put any SCT larger than the C6 on it. So I opted for the Sirius EQ-G after talking it over with Grant at HPS. They didn't have it in stock, but I pre-paid for it (to beat the sales tax hike deadline, as NJ seems intent on becoming the first government in history to tax itself into prosperity). Should be able to pick it up late next week.

While at HPS I had a long look at the Orion long-tube 120mm, which sells new for $300. Nice looking scope but I decided the Antares is the way to go. Also tested some of the Burgess/TMB planetary eyepieces on a little AT66ED (which is one cool little scope!). I was pleased to see that they have a large eye lens, I wasn't sure because you can't tell from any of the photos I've seen. I tried the 4, 5 & 7 mm pieces and liked 'em a lot. There's a special now - buy two, get one free - which is not too bad of a deal. Might even be worth getting 3 pairs for $400.00 and a binoviewer for $139.00. What to sell, what to sell???

So now we wait...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

On Eyepieces

The weather at Lake Wallkill continues to be uncooperative, leaving me much time to ponder things such as the astronomer's obsession with glass. Let me preface all of the below with a disclaimer: my knowledge of optics is limited, I only know what I've learned from reading stuff on the internet, in magazines such as Sky & Telescope and Astronomy, and books like Telescope Optics : Complete Manual for Amateur Astronomers by Rutten and Van Venrooij. These are just my observations and opinions, which I offer for free with the guarantee that they are worth every cent. If anyone disagrees with any or all of what I have to say, please feel free to write me off as a crank and ignore me; trust me, I won't mind.

Eyepiece Forums
On the Cloudy Nights forum on eyepieces, and elsewhere, one can sit back and watch people pontificate for days in threads such as "Televue 15mm Plossl or Edmund's RKE?", "Pentax 40mm XW versus Tele Vue 35mm Panoptic", " W.O. UWAN 16 vs. Nagler 17 T4 comparo?". This is not really unusual or in any way particular to the eyepiece groups; topics in other groups wander down similar roads ("SCT vs. Mak: Which is better?", "Which Diagonal for AT66ED?", or "G-11 versus CGE" ). Nor is it limited to astronomy - I still bear scars from the "NRD-535D vs. Drake R8" battles long ago on the old GEnie shortwave receiver forums.

I strive to avoid these conversations, in part because I usually have little to offer, but mainly because they are for the most part pointless. It may be social interaction at it's finest, or worst, but I also believe it is simply a manifestation of boredom. On the rare occasions that I allow myself to get sucked in, I always regret it.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy these threads. If you pay attention long enought you soon realize who among the myriad posters actually knows what they are talking about, and once you filter out the nonsense you can learn quite a bit. It's just that I grow weary at times.

I have but a modest collection of glass in my eyepiece case. Some are fairly expensive, some are cheapos. And I'm happy with all of them. Eyepiece snobs might argue that I'm happy because I don't know better, and they may be correct. I''ve no doubt that a Nagler will deliver a finer view than a Chinese mass-market Plossl of similar focal length. My point is, when people start splitting hairs about the pros and cons of different high-quality, high-priced eyepieces, any of which are as good as any other, that's when I tune out. It's no different than arguing about microscopic differences in third-order intercept points of high-end HF receivers, and whether anyone will notice a difference in normal use. It's an argument no one can win.

Trust me, I do not begrudge people their right to buy and compare as many different mega-bucks eyepieces as they like. God bless 'em. I just think it's an unfortunate and largely unnecessary distraction from what is ostensibly the reason we all got into these telescope thingies to begin with - to observe the heavens.

My Glass
First, there is my Tele Vue 32 mm Plossl. This was my first "good" eyepiece, purchased back in the early '90s when I first started using my dad's Super C8+. at the time I only had the stock 26 mm and 7 mm Plossls that came with the scope. The 26 m was OK, the 7 mm was virtually unusable for me because of the tiny eye lens. So I bought the TV 32 mm along with a TV 1.8x Barlow, which gave me magnifications of 62.5x and 112.5x. These two pieces have served me well; I still have and use the TV32P, though I've since moved to a 2.5x Powermate to take the place of the 1.8x Barlow. (No reason; just because. I swear, I did not wring my hands and pontificate over the decision to go from 1.8x to 2.5x on any online forums, I just bought the Powermate on a whim. I've never even compared the two in A/B tests.)

My TV85, which I purchased used on eBay, came with a TV 20 mm Plossl and a TV 8-24 mm click-zoom. I don't know if I would have bought them otherwise, but since I got them, I use them. The zoom works well with the C8 to give me a wide range with only two eyepieces, the zoom and the 32 mm.

The rest of my eyepieces are some Celestron Plossls (4, 6, 9, 15 and 32 mm, all Chinese cheapies) that were part of a $99 accessory kit purchased at the same time as my Nexstar 8 GPS; and the Nexstar 40 mm Plossl that came with the scope. The 4 mm and 6 mm are the only ones I use, they are the shortest in my collection and will make do until I replace them with something better.

In 2004 I indulged myself with a set of Vixen LVW Lanthanum wide-angle eyepieces (42, 22, 17, 13 & 8 mm focal lengths). Like the Powermate, I bought these without hand-wringing and head-scratching. I don't know why I chose them over Tele Vue (well, it may have had something to do with the price, because I'm a cheap bastard). They just seemed like a good fit for my particular likes: wide field of view, long eye relief, and large eye lens. I knew Vixen had a good rep, I liked the specs, so out came the plastic.

Since the LVWs arrived I have not spent much time, as many seem to do, looking at them to find out whether they have angular magnification distortion, field curvature, off-axis astigmatism, or whatever other aberrations. No, I prefer to spend what little time I can muster at the telescope looking through the eyepieces at cool stuff like star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae - much more interesting than looking for flaws in the glass.

The LVWs perform extremely well, and apart from some funkiness that I believe is astigmatism at the edges of the wider pieces (which I only notice when I look for it), I wouldn't trade them for anything. My three most often used LVWs are the 17, 13, and 8 mm. These yield the following magnifications in my two scopes:

Nexstar 8 GPS (2000 mm f.l.)
17 mm: 117.65x
13 mm: 153.85x
8 mm: 250x

TV85 (600 mm f.l.)
17 mm: 35.29x
13 mm: 46.15x
8 mm: 75x

Adding a Tele Vue 2.5x Powermate increases magnification to:

Nexstar 8 GPS (5000 mm effective f.l.)
17 mm: 294.12x
13 mm: 384.62x
8 mm: 625x

TV85 (1500 mm effective f.l.)
17 mm: 88.24x
13 mm: 115.38x
8 mm: 187.5x

Admittedly, I have not used the LVWs much with the C8. For one thing, I haven't used the C8 very often since I got the LVWs; my TV85 is the workhorse in my stable. Also, I only have the stock 1.25" diagonal on the Celestron which (a) doesn't work very well with the LVWs, the tension screw rubs against the upper body of the eyepieces; and (b) it doesn't use a compression ring to secure the eyepiece, it has two screws which will mar the chrome barrel, and also appears to skew the eyepiece rather than hold it straight; this can't be good for viewing quality. I've tried using the Tele Vue Everbrite 2" diagonal with the C8 but since I have the Crayford focuser, the whole rear assembly extends so far off the back of the scope it prevents me from looking up near the zenith - and that's about the only place I can look because of the trees at my home. So until I get a new 2" SCT diagonal, it's pretty much Plossl-only for the C8.

I don't use the LVW 42 mm or 22 mm very often with the TV85, but I do love them for cruising the Milky Way in Cygnus on clear, dark nights during the summer. I think I've had about three of them since buying the TV85 in 2004. Otherwise, they are a bit too low power for the stuff I like to look at.

The Tele Vue 2.5x Powermate may be the most valuable accessory in my eyepiece case. It provides a nice range of magnification with a limited number of eyepieces. I especially like the fact that it maintains the eye relief of the longer focal length eyepieces as well as the larger eye lenses - I have a hard time looking through those little pin holes in shorter Plossls. In the course of observing a particular object, I can start with the 32 mm Plossl for a wide view, move down to the LVW 22 mm, then work through the 17/13/8 mm set, before repeating with those three plus the Powermate.

What I Need
Just because I'm happy with what I've got doesn't mean I'm through purchasing glass. There's a big gap between my 42 mm and 22 mm LVWs presently filled by only only the Tele Vue 32 mm Plossl. To fill in this range, I am considering a number of eyepieces:

Orion Stratus: 35 mm ($199.95) & 30 mm ($179.95). These are LVW clones from what I gather, maybe the most obvious choice to complete my LVW wide-angle set.

Vixen LV: 30 mm ($199.95) 2" barrel, 60 deg FOV. But this may be a little too close to my TV32P.

Tele Vue Panoptic: 27 mm ($345.00) and 35 mm ($380.00). Both 2", with long eye relief (the 35 mm has an amazing 28 mm e.r.) But you pay for it.

William Optics UWAN: 28 mm ($398.00). Expensive, but people are raving about these UWANs. 2" barrel, 82 deg FOV!

To replace the Celestron 4 and 6 mm cheapo Plossls at the short end, I am really hot for the Burgess/TMB Planetary Series - only $99 each, available in 2.5, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9 mm focal lengths; they are getting high praise for their contrast on planets. On the other hand, the Tele Vue Nagler 3-6 mm Zoom might be the better option, at least for the shorter end of the range; that, plus a B/TMB 9 mm might cover it perfectly for planetary observing. I'm just worried about the small eye lenses these eyepieces appear to have. I like picture windows, not peepholes!


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Fourth!

Is it July already? Damn. Two months of shit weather, so I've been hitting the books.

Chasing Hubble's Shadows by Jeff Kanipe: Just finished this one last night, a good update on where we presently stand in our quest to look back in time to the beginning of it all. Good overview of accelerated universal expansion, dark matter and dark energy, cosmic microwave background observations, reionization, and several other matters which are not covered in books even a few years older. Not a heavy read, but it requires one to pay attention. Since my attention is perpetually challenged, I will probably re-read it sometime in the near future.

Archives of the Universe by Marcia Bartusiak: Compiles in a single volume the actual scientific writings of all of the greats. It's not just another book about my heroes; it is a collection of their actual published works, mostly excerpted. As the author says at the opening of her Preface, "Often missing from astronomy textbooks are the voices of the scientists themselves... This book was compiled and written to reacquaint us with these words of discovery. Within these pages are excerpts from the seminal reports that first introduced both scientists and the public to a wondrous variety of celestial phenomena and in the process moved our understanding of the cosmos forward." Starting with the Venus Tables with which the Mayans first recorded their observations of the second planet (ca. 200AD) and ending with discovery at the end of the 20th Century that the universe's rate of expansion is accelerating, I am hard pressed to find any major advance in astronomy and physics that has been left out. Each chapter begins with Bartusiak's own notes on the topic covered, followed by the original work of the principal discoverer; her narrative style, which I'm familiar with from other books she's written, is excellent; this book can be read cover-to-cover, although I will most likely use it more as a reference.

Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku: Another book on superstring theory, branes, extra dimensions, time travel, and all sorts of cool shit that sounds perfectly good in theory but cannot be tested, therefore must be filed under "philosophy" rather than "science", at least until we develop the instruments capable of doing the experiments that produce real, falsifiable data. Interesting read nonetheless.

On another note, shuttle mission STS-121 is scheduled for launch this afternoon after two previous launch attempts were scrubbed on Saturday and Sunday. The Shuttle is suuposed to dock with the ISS, which coincidently is scheduled to pass nearly straight overhead tonight, moving from NW to SE, passing the handle of the Ursa Major and rising to about 10° of zenith at around 9:38pm. It will be cloudy, I am sure; why should my luck change now? Anyway, I am pleased to note that HDNet has been covering the launch countdowns in high definition and 5.1 surround.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Buy My Telescope. Please.

I want a bigger refractor and an equatorial mount, so the N8GPS is on the block. I'm sure I shall revisit the SCT someday, but it will be something bigger than an 8" (and possibly smaller, since I really dig that new C6!), so all of the C8 accessories are going with it - solar filter, Wayne's piggyback rail, dew shield, etc. Complete list, descriptions and price here. I'm keeping the f6.3 reducer/corrector for now, may sell it separately or just hold it in case I get an itch for an C6 OTA, which is not too expensive ($479.00).

My eye is on an Celestron Advanced Series refractor - either the 4" ED Apochromatic or the 6" Achromatic. I am leaning towards the 6" because I've read good things about it (like this review), it's pretty inexpensive ($1,069.00), and I really think the CG-5 mount will suit me just fine for my purposes (i.e., one mount, many scopes).

Update 7/4: Never mind. Best offer I received for the Nexstar was $1500, and I'm not even sure if that was genuine. I lowered the price from $2000 to $1750, but no interest on either Astromart or Cloudy Nights. So it stays. Besides, I can't decide whether to buy a C6R or C6S ASGT system, I'm not certain I will be happy with either one, or if I should blow the load on an EQ6 mount... but then I'd only have a TV85 on an overkill mount, and no money in the foreseeable future to buy a larger OTA. Thought about selling just the SCT without all the goodies and sticking with a C8 system (C8S-GT) but High Point says my N8GPS is only worth $600 on trade because it's a non-XLT model. I will keep the Nexstar, add a wedge and be happy with it. It's a fine scope, the only thing wrong with it is the owner.

Update 7/14: Never mind (pt. 2) - It's gone. Sold the scope along with JMI focuser, Astrozap dew shield, and Losmandy counterweight. Kept the solar filter, 40mm Plossl, and Wayne's rail. I've ordered an Orion Sirius EQ-G mount, so the odds of getting another C8 are pretty good.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Messiers in UMa, Io Crosses Jupiter

Two clear, dark nights in a row, though tonight the Clear Sky Clock says it's a little less transparent. I dunno, looks about the same as last night to me. Temp 44°F, humidity 64%, winds calm - a cool breeze every now and then to remind me it's not summer just yet...

Again with the TV85 on Porta, but tonight all Vixen LVW eyepieces, starting with 22mm. Found M51 easily, right where I left it. I notice some blur at the edge of field of the 22mm. Swapped out with the 17mm LVW, still some edge blur but darker background helps bring out the fuzz around the two galactic cores.

Moved on to M81 & M82 before they dipped behind the house. I could clearly make out the different shapes between these two - M81 the soft oval of a not-quite face-on spiral, M82 almost rectangular. Swapped out the 17mm (35x) for the 13mm (45x); background darkened greatly again with the increased magnification, and virtually no edge-of-field distortion. The 13mm LVW is a keeper, for sure.

On to the bowl and the Messier pair M97 (Owl Nebula) and M108 (spiral galaxy almost edge on. Found the Owl first, then noted it's position on the chart near a triangle of stars which stand out at mags 6, 7 and 8. M97 makes a squat triangle with one pair, M108 a right triangle with the other. Back and forth betweem the 13mm and 17mm, definitely better views with the former.

Interestingly, while looking at M81 & M82, a satellite passed between the two. Shortly thereafter the same thing happened while viewing M97 & M108. Astronomical odds, I suppose.

Jupiter in the 13mm showed good contrast during brief and far-between moments of settled seeing. I watched Io emerge from Jupiter's disc at around 12:43 (0443 UTC); I did not see Io or it's shadow on the disc in the hour or so prior. Very good detail with 8mm LVW (75x), even better with 13mm + 2.5x Powermate lens (115x) - probably the best views of Jupiter I've ever had with the TV85.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Jupiter Quickie

Took the TV85 out for an hour or so to take a peek at Jupiter which is now rising out of the muck around 11pm (0300 UTC). Io and Callisto were stacked just to the side of the planet resembling a colon. Conditions were OK: 40°F and calm, 73% humidity. I stuck with the Tele Vue 8-24 click zoom eyepiece this time.

Approx. view with TV85 + 8mm (75x)

I was hoping to chase some of the Messiers in UMa, but my neck and shoulders are sore as all hell and I just didn't feel like doing the requisite zenith contortions with the Porta mount. I did catch a glimpse of M13 as Hercules rose above the trees; particularly nice widefield 35x views with the 17mm Vixen LVW!

Monday, April 24, 2006

MicroObservatory: M81

I recently happened upon the Harvard University MicroObservatory web site which features a system of remote-controlled 6" Maksutov telescopes with CCD imagers. Visitors are allowed to pick targets from a list of various objects; the request is then scheduled and imaged. An email is sent to notify you that your image is ready for download.

I chose spiral galaxy M81 (NGC-3031) since it's on my list of April Messier objects in Ursa Major on the evening of 21 Apr 2006. The next day I found the notification email with a link to my image. The unadjusted GIF image was OK, showing little more than the bright nucleus of the galaxy:

A bit of Photoshop tweaking and I was able to draw out the bar and spiral arms. I didn't have much luck reducing the grain, but the result is better than I expected when I first saw the raw image:


Friday, April 21, 2006

Chandra & Eddington

A while back I started to read Arthur I. Miller's Empire of the Stars, an excellent account of S. Chandrasekhar's life and work on stellar life and death, as well as his relationship with his nemisis, the renowned British astronomer Arthur Eddington. I made it about halfway through but never got to finish the book as it had to be returned to the library.

I just borrowed the book again (with my last bookmark still in it! I guess I'm the only one in Sussex County with an interest in astrophysics...) and am now perusing the previously read chapters to refresh my ever failing memory. The first time around, the physics, while presented in layman's English, was still a bit above my level of understanding. My self-studies in stellar evolution have clearly paid off, however, because I am understanding things a lot better this time around - I no longer get glassy-eyed when the conversation turns to neutron degeneracy pressure. Thank you, Professor Pogge!

Chandrasekhar's pioneering work on supernovae and black holes won him a Nobel Prize in 1980, bitersweet vindication after Eddington nearly destroyed Chandra's reputation and career. This book is truly superb.

Update 6/5: Found EOTS at the Barnes & Noble Used Book Annex for $6.00! It's now part of my library.

Feynman Immortalized In Stamp

I can't believe I missed this one, seeing how I'm in the Post Office about a hundred times a week. Issued 04 May 2005, still available on, including first day covers. Tuva or Bust!

Found on the web:
Richard P. Feynman to Sandra Chester, date unknown

Dear Sandra,

I was delighted too when I heard about the Nobel Prize, thinking as you did that my bongo playing was at last recognized. Imagine my chagrin when I realized that there had been some mistake - they cited some marks I made on paper some 15 years ago - and not one word about percussion technique.

I know you share in my disappointment.

Thank you,
Richard P. Feynman

For fellow Feynmanphiles:

Monday, April 03, 2006

Sun and Stars

The Sky & Telescope web site has coverage of last Wednesday's total solar eclipse. This particular photo was taken by Jay Pasachoff, co-author of Nearest Star, an excellent overview of solar astronomy which is currently near the top of the night table book pile.

The May issue of S&T has a great cover story on Population III stars, ultra-massive bodies which theoretically predate the dark period following the initial inflation of the universe. These stars are believed by some to be the first source of heavier elements which have been detected in Population II stars, which until now were thought to be the first stars to form after the Big Bang and which (according to that theory) should contain only the lightest elements like hydrogen, helium and deuterium. A Population III star has never been observed, but as with the CMB it may be simply a matter of waiting for the technology to catch up with the theory before instruments capable of detecting these oldest and farthest stellar bodies are developed.

My recent fixation with star formation and stellar populations was triggered while listening (for the 5th or 6th time) to Timothy Ferris' The Red Limit audiobook. Then I stumbled upon downloadable podcasts of Ohio State University's Astronomy 162: Introduction to Stars, Galaxies & the Universe lectures by Prof. Richard Pogge, along with lecture notes for the course. I always thought it would be cool to sit in on astronomy classes; this is the next best thing. Not much math involved (thankfully), and so far - I've listened up to lecture 10 - I'm able to grok the material fairly well. A lot of it is a refresher of stuff I've already read and learned, and then some of it really has advanced my understanding of things like spectrocopy, star classification, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, measuring the mass of distant bodies, etc.

Knowing shit like this really makes observing stars a lot more interesting; in fact, I always thought stars were pretty boring before I understood them. I suppose that's normal, because newcomers always seem to get into astronomy to look at deep sky stuff. I certainly focused on DSO's for years, and only started paying attention to stars once I accepted the fact that I wasn't going to see much in the way of galaxies with a 8" SCT under suburban skies. I've also learned that if one is really going to embrace this hobby and squeeze the most out of it, then most of one's hobbying will be done in a chair with a book (or increasingly for me, in a Jeep with an iPod).

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

M51 & Lulu

Clear dark skies were forecast for Monday night, though it didn't look very promising early on as the sky was thinly overcast. At 10pm, after 24, I took another look out the back door and saw Jupiter. Locked up the cats, dimmed the lights and grabbed the binocs.

With my Messier target list fresh in my head, I set out for the first object that came to mind - M51 - by scanning between Alkaid and Cor Caroli (alpha Canes Venatici). After a few passes I was able to see a faint glow near a triangle of 7th mag stars. Checking Sky Atlas 2000 and Starry Night Pro confirmed the position, thus I am pleased to report that M51 is still where it's supposed to be.

Now, M51 isn't much to look at through hand-held 10x50 binoculars, but the fact that I could find the bitch without too much trouble is a good indication that my starhopping skills are improving, despite my being spoiled by Go-To mounts and digital setting circles.

Unrelated to deep sky observing, Miss Lulu came by to see me; it looks like she made it through the winter OK. I brought her some food and water, but she was more interested in getting some lovin' than eating. I went back in to look at the charts, and she was gone when I went back out.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Messier Targets in Ursa Major & Canes Venatici

As April returns to Lake Wallkill, so too does Ursa Major. Although mostly circumpolar at 41°N latitude, it's lost to the trees by mid summer; but by the end of April UMa rides high overhead just north of zenith, little affected by the lights from Rt. 23 or the infernal Mountain Creek.

A good number of Messier objects are located around the Big Dipper asterism and it's companion, Canes Venatici - mostly galaxies, with a globular cluster, a double star, and a planetary nebula thrown in (links go to entries on the superb SEDS web site):
  • M3: Globular Cluster (NGC 5272), class VI, in Canes Venatici
  • M40: Double Star (WNC 4) in Ursa Major - Winnecke 4
  • M51: Spiral Galaxy (NGC 5194), type Sc, in Canes Venatici - Whirlpool Galaxy
  • M63: Spiral Galaxy (NGC 5055), type Sb, in Canes Venatici - Sunflower Galaxy
  • M81: Spiral Galaxy (NGC 3031), type Sb, in Ursa Major - Bode's Galaxy
  • M82: Irregular Galaxy (NGC 3034), type Ir-II, in Ursa Major - Cigar Galaxy
  • M94: Spiral Galaxy (NGC 4736), type Sb, in Canes Venatici
  • M97: Planetary Nebula (NGC 3587), type 3a, in Ursa Major
  • M101: Spiral Galaxy (NGC 5457), type Sc, in Ursa Major - Pinwheel Galaxy
  • M106: Spiral Galaxy (NGC 4258), type Sbp, in Canes Venatici
  • M108: Spiral Galaxy (NGC 3556), type Sc, in Ursa Major
  • M109: Spiral Galaxy (NGC 3992), type SBc, in Ursa Major
A New Moon on April 27 makes the last week of the month an ideal time to observe these objects. The upcoming (March 28) New Moon looks to be a washout.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Of Skypods & Refractors

Here's an interesting scope/mount I just stumbled upon in the Vixen-Scopes group:

It looks like a GOTO version of the Porta with a "lite" version of the Sphynx SkyBook controller. The mount is rated for a 5kg (11 lb) load, adequate to carry that 4" refractor that I hear calling me lately.

No mention of the Skypod anywhere on the Vixen North America site (or the Vixen Japan site, either) but it is listed by Orion Optics in the UK at £699.00 (a bit over $1,200.00 in Yank money). That price includes a 110mm (f9.4) modified Cassegrain, which might not be too bad for a second small scope to complement the TV85 (assuming I don't sell one or the other, or both, to help pay for a 4".) No word yet whether the mount is available as a stand-alone; I'd rather see the Skypod mount packaged with a nice wood tripod than with the scope.

On the refractor front, I have been doing some window shopping and find myself very impressed with three somewhat affordable 4" apo refractors: Vixen ED103SWT, William Optics ZenithStar 105 [since replaced by the ZenithStar 110], and Tele Vue TV-102. The Vixen and WO scopes include mounting rings (and a 2" diagonal, in the case of the latter); the TV-102 is OTA-only. At this point, the WO is looking like like the best value.

A couple of good reviews of the ED103SWT and ZS105ED on AstroMart.
Counting the days until NEAF...

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Horrendous Space Kablooie Update

Another nail in the coffin of the Steady State theory has been hammered into place by the WMAP mission.


Scientists peering back to the oldest light in the universe have new evidence for what happened within its first trillionth of a second, when the universe suddenly grew from submicroscopic to astronomical size in far less than a wink of the eye.

Using new data from a NASA satellite, scientists have the best evidence yet to support this scenario, known as "inflation." The evidence, from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite, was gathered during three years of continuous observations of remnant afterglow light -- cosmic background radiation that lingers, much cooled, from the universe's energetic beginnings 13.7 billion years ago.

In 2003, NASA announced that the WMAP satellite had produced a detailed picture of the infant universe by measuring fluctuations in temperature of the afterglow -- answering many longstanding questions about the universe's age, composition and development. The WMAP team has built upon those results with a new measurement of the faint glare from the afterglow to obtain clues about the universe's first moments, when the seeds were sown for the formation of the first stars 400 million years later.

"It amazes me that we can say anything about what transpired within the first trillionth of a second of the universe, but we can," said Charles L. Bennett, WMAP principal investigator and a professor in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University. "We have never before been able to understand the infant universe with such precision. It appears that the infant universe had the kind of growth spurt that would alarm any mom or dad."

WMAP results have been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal and are posted online at

The newly detected pattern, or polarization signal, in the glare of the afterglow is the weakest cosmological signal ever detected -- less than a hundredth of the strength of the temperature signal reported three years ago.

"This is brand new territory," said Princeton University physicist Lyman Page, a WMAP team member. "We are quantifying the cosmos in a different way to open up a new window for understanding the universe in its earliest times.

Comparing the brightness of broad features to compact features in the afterglow light (like comparing the heights of short-distance ripples versus long-distance waves on a lake) helps tell the story of the infant universe. One long-held prediction was that the brightness would be the same for features of all sizes. In contrast, the simplest versions of inflation predict that the relative brightness decreases as the features get smaller. WMAP data are new evidence for the inflation prediction.

The new WMAP data, combined with other cosmology data, also support established theories on what has happened to matter and energy over the past 13.7 billion years since its inflation, according to the WMAP researchers. The result is a tightly constrained and consistent picture of how our universe grew from microscopic quantum fluctuations to enable the formation of stars, planets and life.

According to this picture, researchers say that only 4 percent of the universe is ordinary familiar atoms; another 22 percent is an as-yet unidentified dark matter, and 74 percent is a mysterious dark energy. That dark energy is now causing another growth spurt for the universe, fortunately, they say, more gentle than the one 13.7 billion years ago.

WMAP was launched on June 30, 2001 and is now a million miles from Earth in the direction opposite the Sun. It is able to track temperature fluctuations at levels finer than a millionth of a degree.

The WMAP team includes researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; The Johns Hopkins University; Princeton University; the Canadian Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto; the University of Texas at Austin; Cornell University; the University of Chicago; Brown University in Providence, R.I.; the University of British Columbia; the University of Pennsylvania; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

For images and more information:
The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), a cornerstone of the Big Bang theory, was predicted in 1948 by Gamow, Alpher and Hermann. If the Big Bang really occurred, the first photons released after the initial cooling of the universe should be detectable in all directions, red-shifted to microwave frequencies by the expansion of the universe.

The CMB was first detected in 1965 by Penzias and Wilson as what they first thought to be interference. Unable to pinpoint it's location, it soon became evident that the source of the "interference" was the creation of the universe 14 billion years or so ago. Cosmologists have been measuring and studying the CMB ever since with both ground- and space-based instruments, WMAP being presently the biggest and baddest.

(Chapter 6 of Timothy Ferris' "The Red Limit" is an excellent account of the initial prediction of the CMB by Gamow, Alpher and Hermann, and it's accidental discovery by Penzias and Wilson.)

These latest findings from the WMAP team add new evidence for the inflationary model of cosmic expansion, and lend further understanding to the nature of dark matter and dark energy - predicted by theory but unobservable with current technology.

Other coverage and resources:

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Penumbral Lunar Eclipse

I was tipped off to this event by Sky & Telescope's "This Week's Sky at a Glance" online column. After I left DiBella's around 6pm I caught the full moon rising in the East. Despite some clouds, a slight darkening of the eastern lunar limb was evident and remaind so most of the drive home. Not a great example of a lunar eclipse, but it was better than nothing.

Later, around 11pm, I noticed Jupiter rising in the southeast. Summer is near!

Don't forget the sunblock.

Bad news for ham radio operators:
For almost the entire month of February 2006 the sun was utterly blank. If Galileo had looked at the sun on his 442nd birthday, he would have been disappointed - no sunspots, no spin, no discovery. What's going on? NASA solar physicist David Hathaway explains: "Solar minimum has arrived."
Good news for ham radio operators:
Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, have declared a breakthough in understanding our Sun's 11-year activity cycle. And they are using their new model to make predictions: that the next solar cycle will be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the one now ending, and that it will begin 6 to 12 months late.
Other coverage and resources:

Monday, February 20, 2006

Astronomiæ Instauratæ Mechanica

I've grown increasingly interested in the history of astronomy in recent years, and I have a particular admiration for Tycho Brahe, the father of modern observational astronomy (from whom I unceremoniously lifted the name for this blog). Thus, I was pleased to discover this excellent site dedicated to the instruments I've read so much about in books and articles. The site features a full digital facsimile of Astronomiæ Instauratæ Mechanica, Tycho's own descriptions (with English translations) of the numerous quadrants, sextants and other pre-telescopic instruments he used to chart the heavens.
The aim of this project is to exhibit the astronomical inventions of Tycho Brahe, especially the instruments through which the stars and planets could be observed and by which distances and ascensions could be measured.

There are three types of instruments: 1. quadrants and sextants used for determining altitudes and azimuths; 2. armillary instruments for measuring right ascensions and declinations, or longitudes and latitudes with respect to the ecliptic; and 3. instruments designed for the determination of angular distances between celestial bodies (sextants and the bipartite arc).

The instruments of Tycho Brahe represent a major achievement in astronomical science, because they provided much more accurate readings than previously possible, and on the basis of Tycho Brahe's observations Kepler determined the laws of planetary motions and from these laws Newton discovered the law of gravity. Not until the invention of the telescope some years after Tycho Brahe's death was it possible to get more accurate readings.
In Astronomiæ Instauratæ Mechanica, Tycho also wrote in detail about his Uraniborg observatory, as well as the topography of the island of Hven on which it was located.

Kitty Ferguson's "Tycho & Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership That Forever Changed Our Understanding Of The Heavens" is an excellent account of the lives of the two most important figures in astronomy in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, how the crossing of their paths led to the first true scientific validation of the heliocentric system and changed forever the way man would look at the universe.

Other Tycho Resources:

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Long Pause

Five months to the day since my last night out with the scopes. Sigh.

Mars opposition has come and gone. Ditto Saturn. Missed 'em both. Orion rises high soon after sunset. I don't care, it's cold outside! I've played ham radio a bit to fill the hobby void but the basement is almost as cold as the backyard, so that got old fast. So we wait for spring. The winter skies will have to wait until a) I can afford a permanent, remote-controlled observatory; or b) we retire to Arizona.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Peg's Big Escape, Mars, and Halos...

Labor Day weekend's beautiful weather continues, and out comes the C8. Setup was done in intervals, while watching (and pausing, and watching, and pausing, and watching, and pausing) 'Sahara'. During one of the pauses, while I ran out to align and Linda came out to tell me to hurry, Peg managed to open the door (which we both assumed was closed all the way) and disappeared into the night. Knowing that this was the last time we'd ever see her, the finger pointing and yelling ensued. I was in little mood after this to do any observing, but I decided to leave the scope out to give me something to do while looking for Peg - or rather, listening for Peg, since it's futile to try to see a black cat at night regardless of how dark-adapted one's eyes might be.

I GOTO'd a few of my favorite Late Summer objects (M31, M33, M39, M27, Albireo), but my heart wasn't just in it. Mars was rising around 0500, I looked at it for a bit with the 8mm LVW + 2.5x Powermate (625x) but I was tired and depressed, so I decided to lay down for an hour or so. I awoke at 4am (0800), by which time Mars had disappeared into the south oak (this tree must die) so I brought in the gear and went to bed.

Once again I was plagued by halo around bright objects. For example, Vega looks something like this:

Over time I have deduced that this occurs with both the C8 and TV85, at medium to high magnifications regardless of eyepiece. If it cannot be attributed to any flaws in the optical systems, then it must be either my eyes or the fact that Lake Wallkill has some serious seeing issues. Whatever it is, it's frustrating as hell.

I've also observed that my eyes have more difficulty focusing as they become more dark adapted. Perhaps this is a normal symptom of Night Myopia???

UPDATE 050904: Peg is back! I saw her just sitting on the deck late Monday morning. I put out some food for her and left the door open. Eventually she wandered back into the house to our great relief.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Venus-Jupiter Conjunction, Porta Mount Shakedown, Mars

I caught the Venus-Jupiter conjunction on the drive home. I saw Venus first while heading west on the Thruway above the Ramapo mountains, Jupiter a bit later while driving on the back roads into Greenwood Lake. The pair was framed beautifully over Long Pond, another missed photo op.

Linda and I stopped at the entrance of Wawayanda State Park just before Venus dipped below the mountain.

[ Memo to self: Next time there's an astronomical event, DON'T FORGET THE FUCKING BINOCS. ]

The following graphic was clipped from Starry Night Pro 5 (82.5 au from Sun).

Sky & Telescope article: Venus and Jupiter Kiss in Twilight

Once home, after the Yankees lost to Seattle, I put the Porta out back with the TV85. It's super easy to mount the scope, and the tripod seems pretty stable. I struggled once again with Starbeam alignment. Someone on the TeleVue Yahoo Group asked for my opinion of the thing, and I think I talked him out of it. Maybe it's because I'm going blind but I can't use the flip mirror on any but the brightest objects. And I really don't like the complex alignment procedure - the screws used to adjust the unit's pitch are in the path of the red-dot beam, so when I'm turning it I can't see the dot. Very tricky. If it was a set-and-forget thing like the Telrad it would be OK, but realignment needs to be done every time I use it - it seems to get knocked out of whack whenever I put the scope in the case. I finally got the job done by aligning on a light from a house across the lake. It's damn near impossible to do at higher power with a non-tracking mount.

First light for the mount (if a mount can have a first light) was Albireo, for no other reason than it was bright and placed well enough to let me find it with the Starbeam without doing a Monica.

Using the fork arm to move in azimuth, it is a little tight but smooth. Movements in altitude must be done by grabbing the scope tube or getting a grip on the dovetail block and twisting. Some sort of fixed pointing handle a la Tele Pod might be useful. The scope needs to be balanced fairly well to keep the tail from dipping. The fine motion controls are awesome, at least down to 8mm (75x).

I swept around the star clouds near Deneb with the 42mm LVW. Everything in the outer third of the FOV looked distorted. Tried it again later on M31 and it wasn't so bad. I think my eyes are fucked. The 42mm LVW may end up on eBay while I look for a TV 35mm or 41mm Panoptic.

Mars rises past the trees a bit after 1am. This is my first look at Mars with glass this time around. Not much to see at 75x; at 150x, I could see that the disc was waxing gibbous, but no surface detail. Angular size is now 14 arcsecs.; it will continue to grow and reach 20 arcsecs. for almost an entire month from Oct. 16 to Nov. 12. Mars will be at its closest to Earth on Oct. 30.

Mars drifts pretty fast at 150x, but kept in the FOV by easily twisting the fine controls. Focusing was difficult, deck shake severe. This must end - I need to clean out the corner by the bedroom window and start setting up on solid ground. I packed it in at 0145

The Porta gets a big thumbs-up first time out. I really like this mount! The Tele Pod was such a bear to maneuver - couldn't move it in alt when unless the tension screws were loose, couldn't take your hands off unless the tension screws were tight, couldn't tighten the tension screws without moving the scope -so even at low power, keeping objects centered over time required way more work than anyone should do without getting paid. Porta, on the other hand, is so easy to point and track it makes me giddy. Considering the very small price difference between the two mounts, I can't imagine why anyone would opt for the Tele Pod.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Vixen Porta Alt/Az Mount

I have decided to replace the Tele Pod mount with a Vixen Porta alt/az. I am frustrated with the Tele Pod, it's very twitchy and difficult to keep objects centered at high magnification, and it's incapable of pointing at the zenith with the handle attached.

I liked that the Porta has fine adjustment controls, it looked very solid, and I read that it could reach the zenith, so I decided to give it a try. It arrived on Friday Aug. 26 at DiBella's courtesy of FedEx, who delivered it with the bottom flap of the carton ripped half open with parts falling out. Everything was eventually accounted for, the mounting hardware baggy turning up in the parking lot.

The first impression is good, my only concern being with the center bracing on the tripod - all plastic, even the hinges, all very... Chinese. Everything else seems well built.

Here's the rub: In order to attach the Tele Vue dovetail adapter plate I had to remove the two long studs Wayne put in the clamshell. This obviously throws a wrench in our elegant C8 mounting rail design. The solution I have in mind is to mount the same dovetail block that's on the Porta to the C8 rail. I positioned the block loosely on the rail just to eyeball whether it would work with the existing holes; it won't - some additional holes will definitely be needed on the rail. I just need to decide whether I want to buy a second dovetail block or just use the one block and move it back and forth between the Porta and C8; I definitely prefer the first option but the availability and price of the extra block will be big factors in my decision.

My review, originally posted on the Yahoo! Televue Group, is here, with better photos.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Open Clusters in Cygnus

Grab n' Go night with the TV85. Started with the TV 8-24 Zoom, quick peeks at the Ring and Dumbell Nebulae and Albireo, then dropped in the 42mm LVW (14x) and began sweeping around in Cygnus. Came across NGC 6819 which looked like a faint fuzzy southeast of Delta Cygni. Bumped up magnification with the 13mm LVW (46x) and resolved it into faint stars. NGC 6811 was located easily by hopping from Delta Cygni. Much larger and brighter than NGC 6819. M29 did not show as many stars as I remember seeing with the C8. NGC 6910 was tricky, I found it very close to Delta Cygni and at first was unsure if this was really it, but checking against SNP5 chart confirmed it. Very tight grouping of mag 9 and 10 starts with a couple of mag 7 components.

Cygnus Open Clusters

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Ol' Sol

1600 UTC: High noon, beautiful (though hot) Saturday afternoon, some fluffy clouds but skies otherwise bright blue, temp 76°F @ 1725 UTC, humidity 48%. Linda's off with the Ya Ya Sisterhood, just me, the scopes and the kitties...

C8 + TV85 set up on NE corner of deck. After north & level Quick Align I set out to align the TV rail once and for all. None of the hex wrenches in my possession are the correct size for the rear radius block bolts, but I suspect further tightening will help little. Finally got the sun centered in both scopes by extending front adjustment screws almost to their limit and using the washer under the front of the clamshell. I have no way of measuring the total of the gap + washer, but it is certainly more than could possibly be reached by tightening down the rear block - there just ain't that much space between the block and the C8 casting. But we're aligned, and I'm happy for now. I'm thinking a spacer to go between the front of the rail and the front block will be the most practical solution.

Several sunspot regions visible on the SOHO MDI @ 1600 UTC:

1930 UTC: Broke out the Neximage and took some shots of the sun with both scopes. Most of the TV85 shots were out of focus, C8 shots were even worse. The best shot shown here:

Sunspot region 0783 (left of center) + others
03 July 2005, 1930 UTC
TV85 + ScopeTronix Solar Filter + Celestron NexImage

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Saturn, Venus and Mercury

0030: Ventured down behind the barn just outside the Lake Wallkill entrance, on the edge of the Wallkill River Nat. Wildlife Reserve looking W/NW across the valley. Mosquitoes very bad, so I stayed in the Jeep much of the time as I waited for twilight. Venus appeared naked-eye just before 9pm (EST Friday). My 10x50 binoculars showed all three planets in the FOV. Jupiter was bright and high in the South. I'd love to set the scope(s) up here some night (after mosquito season); I should probably look into getting permission from the Feds. The actual view is not much different from Starry Night's grass horizon image (see below). I just need to add the High Point Monument.

S&T Article: Three Planets Bunch Up in Twilight

Saturn, Venus and Mercury (l to r)
Castor & Pollux at upper right

25 June 2005 • 0045 UTC

Naked eye view looking W/NW

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Globs and such...

Set up the C8/TV85 stack just as the sun set with the hope of catching another glimpse of Jupiter in the evening daylight, but it was already well behind the trees. Thin, wispy clouds started rolling in as the light waned. I had to run to the A&P to by cat food, and by the time I returned it was semi-dark, and the clouds appeared to be held at bay. Alignment was difficult because most of the GPS Align stars were not visible (behind trees, house, etc.). Finally managed a halfway decent alignment on Polaris and Arcturus which put target objects in the FOV of the C8 with the TV Zoom wide open at 24mm.

After further tightening down the rear radius block on Wayne's rail, I used the adjustment screws to raise the front of the rail a small amount, then mounted the TV85 (with the thin washer) to find the alignment much better between C8 and TV85. Still have to fine-align it, but that is best done in the daylight. But at least a small object such as a globular cluster is in the same field of view of both scopes using medium magnification.

The TV Zoom was used with the C8 for the entire observing session, since the Vixen LVW's cannot sit flush in the crappy Celestron diagonal without contacting the two thumbscrews; the Vixen LVWs at this point are exclusively used with the TV85. I used this session to compare the C8 and TV under similar magnification levels - i.e., TV85 + 13mm Vixen LVW + TV Powermate 2.5x (5.2mm effective fl at 115x) versus C8 + TV Zoom set to 16mm (125x). When viewing globular clusters such as M13, M92, and M3, the C8 consistently resolved far more stars that the TV85, a true testament to aperture.

After midnight finds Lyra well past the treetops. The Ring Nebula (M57) looked less spectacular than in the past because of the poor transparency conditions. The TV85 with 13mm Vixen LVW (46x), on the other hand, yielded a much more pleasing view of the Dumbell Nebula (M27).

After breakdown I sat on the deck for a while and saw the Milky Way, dimly, south of Cygnus, which by 2:30 or so was fully visible. Summer is here.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Back home again... with NexImage!

The NexImage webcam system finally arrived the day before we returned home. I really wanted this for the Cedar Key trip. (Thanks, Astronomics...)

With little idea how to use the capture software, I set up the C8 with TV85 piggybacked, slapped the camera on the C8, hooked up the Dell laptop, ran the capture software, and... got an error. Fuck it, I grabbed the Mac and used BTVPro to capture some clips of the Moon and Jupiter. Spending the next few days figuring out Registax on the Dell downstairs, I managed to produce the following stacked and processed images:

Not great, but not bad for "first light". I've done some homework, so next time it will be "first clue" and the results should be better. The Jupiter clip may or may not be a basket case, I have had trouble getting it into Registax.

UPDATE: This image from 050521 was processed in Lynkeos on the Mac on 050605:

Before doing any imaging, I observed Jupiter just after sunset when the sky was still bright blue. I was shocked at the amount of detail I saw! Also tried using a washer under the TV at the front bolt; this helped bring objects much closer to center of field in the TV when the same object is centered in the C8. Now it should be close enough to be fine-tuned with the adjustment screws.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Cedar Key, FL

Our visit to see Oli and Doreen allowed but a couple of hours for stargazing. After our BBQ on Tuesday night (UTC Wed.), Oli and I took the TV85 out to the Shell Mound, a dark site also used during the Cedar Key Star Party. There was a good amount of haze, with thunder storms flashing to the north, but the sky near the zenith was a bit darker than I'm used to at Lake Wallkill. Upon our arrival we got to see the setting of the 3-day old thin crescent moon in the west. By the time I got the scope set up, it was gone. Checked out Saturn before it descended too far. Wind from the north picked up, shaking the scope, so we moved to the other side of the Jeep to block the wind. Jupiter was great, very sharp detail of the equatorial belts and northern and southern zones. Omega Centauri was not visible due to muck, nor were any other interesting deep sky objects other than a faint-and-fuzzy near zenith - unidentified, but probably a Messier galaxy. So we mostly stood around looking up, Oli having no idea what he was looking for or at, and me trying unsuccessfully to locate M13 in Hercules. Truth is, I was pretty lost without the GOTO mount, and I was also pretty high. Springtime skies are pretty much unknown to me anyway, so I felt kind of dumb.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A-Rod and M13

A memorable night in which Alex Rodriguez became a Yankee for real, hitting a 3-run homer in his first at bat against the Anaheim... uh, I mean Los Angeles Angels; then a 3-run homer in his 2nd at bat; then a grand slam into the black in his 3rd - all off of Colon, all while I was listening instead to Timothy Ferris reading "The Red Limit" on my iPod as I drove home. An RBI single capped off a 10 RBI night for A-Rod. That, and I saw M13 in Hercules just clearing the northeast tree with the binocs. I should miss more Yankee games.

M13 is back!!!
27 April 2005, 0245 UTC
10x50 Binocular view (West at left)

I was tempted to haul the TV-85 out for a quick session, since this is the first clear night in over a week. But alas, an early day awaits me tomorrow. I am anxious to get back to working out the alignment kinks with the rail - Wayne suggested that I try adding a washer to the lead clamshell bolt in order to bring the front of the TV up enough to center objects in both scopes.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Jupiter, Saturn, The Moon & Wayne's Rail

Linda's in Baltimore for the weekend watching the Yankees lose, I am alone with the scopes and the bibbies. The piggyback rail that Wayne Gondella built for me is at the post office, I will pick it up on the way to NEAF tomorrow. The N8GPS has been screaming for attention, so out we go for a quickie...

Friday night (UTC Saturday): The First Quarter Moon is cradled nicely by the grouping of Castor, Pollux and Saturn. Viewed just after dusk after GPS Align, seeing was not great but a hint of color and Cassini division visible @150x (13mm Vixen LVW).:

The Moon with Castor, Pollux and Saturn
(counterclockwise from top right)

16 April 2005, 0200 UTC
Naked eye view (West at right)

On to Jupiter, now well above the mountains in the early evenings. I watched Europa disappear behind Jupiter. Best views with 13mm (150x), very nice views of equatorial bands; 8mm (250x) a little too ambitious.

Saturday morning: My first time at the North East Astronomy Forum held annually at Rockland Community College. It was much smaller than I expected (I'm used to the Dayton HamVention) but there was a lot to look at. The new Meade RCX-400 was cool, the Celestron CPC was kept away from the crowds at the back of their booth. Tons of big refractors and dobs. Nice ATM displays by the Springfield people. The Williams Optics SCT focuser and 2" diagonal were awesome. About 30 or 40 scopes set up outside with solar filters (many of which were Coronado H-Alpha). I got away easy and spent only $150 on a book (King's "The History Of The Telescope"), a Lens Pen, and a Class A screw-on solar filter for the TV-85. And I joined the Rockland Astronomy Club. I didn't stay long, not knowing anyone nor having much cash to spend on eyepieces or focusers.

Saturday afternoon: Back home, time to check out Wayne's rail. Beautifully machined, everything assembled easily. Set up the scopes outside and did my best to align the TV with the C8 using the afternoon moon; it aligned laterally (left-right) just fine, but the Moon was high in the FOV and couldn't be centered even with the front adjustment screws cranked all the way. Nevertheless, it's not so far out of whack that it is unusable, especially for wide field use which was my original intent.

Saturday night (UTC Sunday): Revisited Jupiter and Saturn, now comparing the TV-85 to the C8. Of course with the initial state of the rail alignment, there was a lot of slewing when going between the two. Using as close parity in magnification as I could - TV -85 @ 75x (8mm) and C8 @ 90x (22mm) - the views were similar, but the dark equatorial bands were crisper in the refractor (no surprise). Bumping the TV up to 185x with the TV Powermate 2.5 made the disc bigger but not much more detail was apparent due to poor seeing, while the 13mm on the C8 (150x) delivered comparable views. Tried using Light Blue and Orange filters in various combinations which gave a little more definition to the equatorial bands.

Sunday, February 06, 2005


0600 UTC: Returning from Linda's belated birthday dinner, noticed Jupiter rising in Virgo as we entered the lake. Grab n' go! TV-85 + 8mm LVW, fair seeing, 25°F, 87% humidity at 0145 EST. With advice from the S& article on observing Jupiter I added a Light Blue #82A to enhance the dark bands, and this did offer some improvement. Vibration pads help but even they cannot fully compensate for a shaky wood deck and a shivering amateur astronomer. But moments of stillness, both deck and atmospheric, delivered clear details of equatorial bands. Io rapidly approaches transit (at around 0415 UTC according to Starry Night Pro). Other 3 Galilean moons crisp in the refractor. Saturn was in the trees to the southwest; didn't even bother. Packed it up a little before 0800 UTC (3am),

Jupiter and moons, 06 Feb 2005, 0700 UTC
TV-85 view (West at left)

Approximate view with Vixen 8mm LVW

Etc.: This is why I got the TV-85 - setup and breakdown in 5 min, quick cool down. And I finally found the Starbeam pointer to be of some use once properly aligned - it's flip mirror a big asset, at least on a bright object like Jupiter. All in all, I like the Telrad better as a pointer but it is such a kludge of a device.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Saturn and Comet Macholz

2200 UTC (050204 5pm ): N8GPS set out to cool. Swapped the Celestron 1.25" diagonal with the TV Everbrite 2" from the TV-85 to give it a try with the big scope. Plan for tonight is to observe Saturn to compare views with those last time (with the TV-85); to view M42 with the TV UHC filter; and see what else looks interesting. There are many Mesier objects along the Galactic Equator in the SE, mostly open clusters; many at low declinations but some near zenith. Crab Nebula may be worth a try. Here's the sky at 0000 UTC:

0000 UTC: Inside now waiting for the sky to darken. After much hassle aligning finder scope, I performed GPS Align, and on to Saturn. Had a quick look at M42 sans UHC filter. Very nicely framed in the 17mm LVW (74x). Back to Saturn, switch to 8mm LVW (157.5x). Can make out the Cassini division at moments of settled seeing. Will wait a bit, conditions may improve in a few hours.

0300 UTC: Comet Macholz at last! No sign of tail but the "fuzzy snowball" easily seen over the house. Couldn't see naked eye so I input RA & Dec. Gotta love go-to! Sadly I think Macholz is well past it's prime...

Put UHC filter on diagonal and gave M42 a look. Trapezium seemed better at lower magnification (22 mm and 17mm, 57x and 74x respectively); with 13mm (97x), Trapezium 1D all but disappears. The UHC filter didn't seem to bring out any more detail, but it was too cold (26° F) to sit out and swap filters. I'll leave the conclusive testing for the Spring.

0345 UTC: One last look at Saturn - not much improvement even at high elevation near meridian. Poor seeing probably due to the 85% humidity. Titan and Rhea easily viewed, Tethys and Dione less easily seen, Enceladus not visible at all. Packed it up around 0415.

Saturn and moons, 05 Feb 2005, 0000 UTC N8GPS view (West at left)

  • Much discussion of late with Wayne Gondella about the fabrication of a custom bracket for piggybacking the TV-85 on the NexStar. Taking many measurements and considering different mounting configurations. The mount will be a rail with proper holes for the TV clamshell mount, sitting on two radius blocks approx. 2" tall to allow room for the hand knobs.

  • Did inventory of astro gear - quite a bit of stuff has gravitated my way of the years. Need to sell some of the less used stuff, maybe put towards an I-Turret or a new Everbrite diagonal.

  • I'm not at all certain this scope is well - the JMI Crayford focuser is not at all smooth, even with tension screw backed off all the way it feels like it is binding. This is the LAST piece of used equipment I am likely to ever buy. There seems to be a haze around bright objects, possible because of those damn fingerprints on the corrector. I don't think I get as crisp focus as I did with the old Super C8+. Can't touch the primary focus knob because the shift is severe. I should take it to High Point Scientific and have them check it out. Bitch, bitch, bitch.

Sunday, January 02, 2005


0200 UTC: Happy New Year! Clear and not-so-cold at dusk, a perfect night to do what I've been putting off for months - observe Saturn.

Last Sunday, the night after Christmas (Dec. 27 UTC), the Moon, Gemini and Saturn were closely grouped. At the store Harry Musc mentioned that he saw "three planets and the Moon lined up the other night." So I corrected him (not three planets, just one, plus Castor and Pollux), and showed him what he saw with Starry Night Pro:

Castor, Pollux, Moon & Saturn
27 Dec 2005 , 0200 UTC

Naked eye view (West at right)

Flash forward to tonight, New Year's Day. Around 9pm (local) I set up the TV85 on a freshly cleared deck. Orion rises in over the hills, Saturn is moving ahead (west) of Gemini, while the Moon has long since left the stage, not to appear above horizon for another 4 hours or so. Should be perfect.

Not. I go back inside for a few minutes, and when I return to the scope... clouds. I bitch and moan, but wait it out. Eventually it clears enough to give a try, first with the 13mm Vixen LVW @ 46x (small, but ring very apparent) then with the 8mm LVW @ 75x (Titan jumps out, rings very defined). Adding the 2.5x TV Barlow bumped magnification up to 187.5x, but poor seeing conditions made aiming difficult and focusing damn near impossible.

Saturn and moons, 02 Jan 2005, 0200 UTC
TV-85 view (West at left)
Approximate view with Vixen 8mm LVW

Saturn and moons, 02 Jan 2005, 0200 UTC
TV-85 view (West at left)

The cloud break didn't last long. Eventually a thin veil moved in from the northwest, and I broke down for the night. But it was nice to see my old friend after so many years - last written observation of Saturn dated Dec 26, 1994 (ten years and a week). Seeing Titan and knowing that the Huygens probe is on it's way made it kind of special, in the same way that I felt seeing Jupiter rise above the wall at Mom's during the summer of 1994, knowing that Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was about to smash into it. Doesn't really look any different, but it kind of makes it special nonetheless.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Lunar Eclipse 28-Oct-2004

The whole drive home the skies were clear and blue. Saw moon rising large over Ochs Orchards, and it followed me home through Edenville and Pine Island.

I took out the TV-85 around 2330 (7:30 EDT) and after a few aborted attempts with the Vixen LVW eyepieces, I settled on the MaxView 40. I had trouble achieving sharp focus, probably due to wrong diopter setting on EOS, and the clouds descended before I could dial it in. Got off a few shots early in eclipse after 0115 (9:15 EDT) through light cloud cover. Only two pics worth sharing:

As totality approached, the skies became heavily overcast. At totality (0226) there was no sign of moon.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Cygnus, Lyra, and Andromeda with the TV-85 (2nd Session)

Setup and ready to go a little before 0300 (11 pm local). A little more humid, things not quite as crisp as last night, more neighborhood lights than last night until around midnight local, but Milky Way still bright, M31 still visible naked-eye.

Started out with some double stars, 61 Lyr split with ease, but Epsilon Lyr (Double-Double) not as easy - it took the 1.8x TV Barlow and TV Zoom set at 8mm (135x) in order to just make out the individual pairs. But there they were, positioned as per Burnham's. Biggest challenge was keeping things centered in the FOV at high magnifications.

Looked around Deneb for nebulae again. Despite nice "spacewalk" views with the Celestron 40mm NexStar TV 32mm Plössls, no real glimpse of nebulosity anywhere. I may add a UHC filter to my wish list, see if that helps. Next time out I want to compare these two eyepieces more closely to which one delivers the better wide-field views.

Open cluster M29 was fabulous at all magnifications. Super-crisp at lower magnifications (32mm = 18.75x, 24mm = 25x) right down (up?) to 12mm (50x) with the zoom. 8mm seemed to cause a loss of detail, as predicted my O'Meara in the Messier book. Ring Nebula (M27) not as sharp as last night.

The Starbeam finder definitely needs some dew prevention! And probably eyepiece as well. More $$$.... sigh.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Cygnus, Lyra, and Andromeda with the TV-85 (1st Session)

After torrential thundershowers all night Friday and into Saturday afternoon (and miserable hot and humid weather in general most of the week), a cool front moved in this evening. Waywayanda Clear Sky Clock showed some promise so I took the '85 out back. No cloud cover, seeing average but still best it's been all month. Although very humid, the dew heater worked like a charm, letting me stay out until after 0530 (1:30 am local). Waxing Crescent Moon already low and not a factor, Milky Way in Cygnus bright and very apparent, first time in a while I've seen that. M31 also visible naked-eye later in the session.

Got to try out some new gear:

Thousand Oaks Digital Dew Heater - How did I live without this for so long? Bought the control box and heating bands for both the '85 and N8GPS (and also an Astrozap Dew Shield for the 8, not used yet).

Tele Vue StarBeam - Actually had this for a week, tried it out a couple of nights between thunder showers. Getting the hang of it, although it can be difficult to see target object. Best method I've found is to find the dot below target, then keep it in peripheral view while locating target, then slowly move the dot to target. Probably needs a dew band.

...and the new tackle box I bought at Wal-Mart this afternoon, which is nearly perfect - one removable tray fits all my optics except the MaxView 40 and TV barlow, another tray for the dew heater and tools, and a nice upper compartment for bigger stuff like power supply for N8GPS, vibration pads, Telrad, MaxView, etc. The box was supposed to come with one large (tall) tray and two small (short) ones, but I shamelessly swapped the two small trays for a second large one from another box on the shelf. Good thing, because I doubt anything but my color filters would have fit in the short ones. Sorry, Wal-Mart, but I have my needs...

Setup complete around 0200 (10pm local). Linda went to bed so all house lights were off early, and only one neighbor felt it necessary to leave the flood lights on. Stuck with the 8-24 TV zoom and the MaxView 40. Ring Nebula was small but crisp donut at 8mm, but barely distinguishable from a star at 24mm.

Albireo was very sharp @ 8mm. Beta Lyre easily split, stumbled upon while looking for M27. Forgot to try to split the Double-Double in Lyra. Doh!

Could not see any nebulosity around Deneb (N. American, Pelican), even with eyes fully dark adapted.

After midnight local Great Square of Pegasus was in full view with Andromeda and M31 just poking clear of trees. TV Zoom at 24mm and MaxView 40mm both showed good amount of central bulge and neighboring galaxy (unsure which one, probably M32, need to check the charts).

Tried the TV 32mm Plössl at the end of the session, think I like it better than the MaxView. Maybe I will eBay the MaxView and pick up a 55mm wide field ep from Orion. Already have the entire Vixen Super Wide collection in my Astronomics wish list, just waiting for finances to straighten out before pulling the trigger on those and also some Losmandy dovetail and counterweight gear for piggybacking the '85 on the N8GPS.

After breakdown, I went back out for another look naked-eye. Cassiopeia was rising above north tree, and Pleiades moving into view down in the northeast.

All told, an enjoyable night alone with the stars.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

TV-85 First Light

My TV-85 was delivered to Mom's house today, so I drove 3-hours to Closter and back to get the scope, returned around 7:30 local with enough light to test on the hills and trees. Very sharp focus, the 8-24mm zoom looks like it will be useful.

After dark I tested the TV-85 on some bright stars (Vega, Altair, Arcturus) to see if the haze surrounding bright stars on the N8GPS was present. It was. Apparently it is an atmospheric effect.

As it got darker, I tried to find some Messiers. Very difficult to point the scope without a finder, but I was able to find M13 in Hercules fairly easily, probably just luck. Zoom at 8mm showed it as a soft fuzzy blob, but the Celestron 6mm Plössl resolved many of the cluster's outer stars with a bright core. Could not achieve sharp focus with the Celestron 4mm plössl. TV 32mm Plössl and Zoom @ 24mm delivered nice wide-field views, very sharp across entire field.

I purchased a Tele Vue Starbeam pointer from a guy on Astromart for $165; sending m.o. on Tuesday. Meanwhile, it's point-and-pray...

Monday, August 09, 2004

Hercules DSO Hunting

After dinner...: Two clear nights in a row? Could it be possible? Setup scope, went back inside for 10 minutes, returned to find complete overcast. After requisite fit-pitching, the skies cleared and let me be for about 2.5 hours...

No camera tonight. Align on Arcturus and Altair, checked conditions on Vega and Albireo. While on doubles, tried 61 Cyg - nice pair at 15mm.

Hercules sits just over the house, and can see all the way down to Corona Borealis, with Draco off to the left (North). With Night Sky Observer's Guide Vol.2 and red light in hand I proceeded to go down the list of deep sky objects in Hercules, trying only those with entries for 8/10" Scopes with 9mm eyepiece (222x) and 15mm (133x): NGC 6058 (planetary nebula), 6181 (galaxy), 6207 (galaxy), 6210 (galaxy) all faint. NGC 6229 (glob) a little easier, though not many resolved stars. M13 & M92 steal the show, globs which easily resolve into many stars even at 15mm.

Shortly after 0315 (11:15 local) the clouds returned and I packed it up. Hope to return to Hercules a few more times before it disappears for the winter.

Mounted binoculars to the top of the N8GPS just for kicks. Interesting to see a broad expanse of sky in the binocs yet no sign of what is clearly visible in the eyepiece.

Tried running Astroplanner outside on the Dell but was getting errors with each attempt to connect to the scope. Night vision mode sucks, can't read anything on the screen, can't see keyboard to type, glare is horrible, light is overpowering even with brightness set at lowest level. I'm beginning to firmly believe that computers are best left indoors.