Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An Awesome Birthday Present

I forgot to write about this.

The weekend that I got my telescope, when my dad and my cousin brought it to me, I got another present from my cousin and his lady friend. It is a book.

Normally, my heart sinks at the idea of getting a book for a present. In actuality I frankly love books, I'm an avid collector of miscellaneous books and series, but when I get a book for a present, I'm a little disappointed. I'm like a kid. I want a toy. Book? Blah!

But this one is a bit different. It's quite up my alley, considering how I'm now getting more into astronomy. And it comes with an additional cool factor attached.

The book is titled, The Very First Light: The True Inside Story of the Scientific Journey Back to the Dawn of the Universe. It is written by John C. Mather, and John Boslough.

The coolness factor lies in the fact that John Mather is the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics.

And he signed my copy!

How. Awesome. Is. That!

(I will try to review the book at some point later on, stay tuned).

Class in Descriptive Astronomy

For the last 3 weeks I've been going to a class given by the AAA, or Amateur Astronomer's Association of NY. The fee of $75 covered the class for non-members, and threw in membership as well.

I have taken 2 astronomy classes in college, and enjoyed them to a large degree. Though I don't relish the thought of having to do any math, the basic equations back then were not really hard at all, if you could remember back to high school physics class.

But the AAA class is a descriptive class, meaning that you don't have to do any math. It's really a bit like the Discovery channel science programs. So generally it is non-technical, though obviously it is a science class.

One thing that I do feel needs improvement is the pace of the class, and certainly more detail would be appreciated by yours truly. But time is generally short, and even an hour-and-half class is pushing the limits of some people's attention, mine included.

But if you get a chance, and your local astronomy club gives lectures or a class on topics you'd like to learn more about, please take the opportunity to learn more about our solar system and the galactic neighborhood in which we live.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

First Light Report on 8-inch Meade SCT ACF

If you have read my previous entries, or seen my posts on CN, then you know that I ordered an LXD75 8-inch Schmidt-Cass, supposedly coma free.

Well, my telescope came on Oct 2nd.

But because my personal life is in upheaval right now, I was not available to open it up right away. Instead, it was 16 days later on October 18th, when my dad and my cousin brought it over from my house to my parents', that I was able to get my grubby little hands on it.

Because I'm living temporarily in my parents house just a couple of blocks down the road from my own house, their home has become littered with my paperwork, and all sorts of equipment, from the work laptop and monitor, to astronomy books, to my camera equipment, to the tripod holding my binoculars; and now this behemoth of a telescope.

I had read on posts at Cloudy Nights that the LXD75 mount was not sturdy enough for astrophotography. I'm not convinced that that is the case if you keep the weight down to acceptable limits but I have yet to do anything close to photography with the setup. That'll have to wait till some time later after I get the hand controller and I've had some experience with using the scope properly.

Of course, the old curse was upon me as well. The day it arrived, in fact most of the whole week of its arrival, it was cloudy and rainy. I laughed, thinking it was ok, because I simply couldn't get to it anyway. But when I finally did put it together, I was struck again. (Drats!) Oh well.

So let's get to the report.


When I dragged in the two boxes, it was obvious which was the mount and which was the OTA. Both the mount and the OTA were boxed for shipping, with a second box inside for the actual enclosure of the equipment, the actual package of the telescope.

The OTA was well padded with the foam inserts both above and below, and contained smaller boxes for the diagonal, 26mm Series 4000 Super Plossl, the visual back connector, 8x50 finder and finder mount with screws.

The tripod legs and mount in the other box were much larger than I expected, and with a little tinkering (trying to read the manual in my excitement made the process harder) I was able to put the whole thing together in an hour. The mount itself was not only larger than in photos, but heavier than I expected. And the legs were larger in diameter than expected too.

There were 2 manuals packed into the box. One was an older version, and the other newer version said this was the one for the 8-inch SCT ACF. So I used the newer one to follow instructions to put it all together.

And then the disappointment. No, it wasn't the clouds, though that was kind of expected. It was raining days before and after I opened the boxes.

No, the disappointment was deeper. There was no hand controller for the GOTO mount in the box the mount came in. At first I thought I'd been duped, believing that I must have missed the fine print, and there was actually not supposed to be any controller, that you'd have to buy it separately. So I scoured the manual, and the order list; I went through every piece of foam and packaging, and looked under the couch, and on the table; and finally, I decided that Meade had indeed forgotten to pack a controller for the electronic mount. Grrrr!

A couple of days later, I called Meade to ask about getting a controller, and after presenting proof of purchase, they told me I must wait a month as they get in a new batch of them. They were clean out, which explains why there was no controller in the package in the first place.

First Light ... Sorta (10-20-09)

When the telescope first had gotten to my house via UPS, my kids had told my wife that they wanted to wait until I was home to put it together with me. But as that would not happen for some time, I decided that my kids should get the thrill of discovering first light with me. A few days after I put it together, they came to visit and I dragged the whole kit and kaboodle out to the front sidewalk, and swung the scope toward Jupiter clumsily using the finder to home in on it. Next came the confusion of a first attempt at using an EQ mount. Oy! But I finally got it in the scope. I then focused as best as I could on Jupiter, and let my kids look. My 7 year old is a great fan of Jupiter having done a project on it in school, so she was thrilled to say, "I can almost see the stripes!"

It was true, you could almost see the stripes. It was blurred, and non-descript, but there was certainly a band of something running across the disk, and the moons were lined up perfectly on either side. My 4-year old then took a look, and reported, "I see a dot! Cool!" Of course, she has no idea what she saw, and neither do I. Next my dad look through, and after another look myself, I put the scope back inside, in deference to spending time with my kids rather than the scope. The kids had already lost interest and the night air was very cool, so nothing was really lost. We had a great first look through the scope.

Back at that moment of looking through the eyepiece and "almost" seeing the central dark band, I began to crave the free Series 4000 Plossl set from Meade that was to come once I mailed in the coupon, because I wanted immediately to use some of the higher power eyepieces. I have been waiting all this week, as last week a rep from Meade called to let me know it was being shipped this last Monday, but nothing has come as of yet (boo hoo).

A Better Look and More Thorough Examination

It wasn't until a few days after that first use--almost a week actually-- that I could really put the scope through its paces. Of course, I still didn't have use of the electronics, and the GOTO feature is DOA without the controller. So I began to use EQ mount manually to get used to locking and unlocking the axes and swinging the OTA into the right positions to view stars in different locations around the sky. The seeing has been average at best, to downright awful at times because of a constant thin layer of scattered clouds and high fog.

After that first light with Jupiter and my kids, I've taken my scope out about 3 times, and saw Jupiter multiple times, and additionally M31 (Andromeda) (straight overhead...ouch my neck!), the Moon, the cluster in Perseus near Mirphak, and the Pleiades. I also saw the star paired closely with Polaris.

I am starting to understand the reasoning behind not overamping the maginification, after seeing the Pleiades. I find the view much more beautiful through my binoculars than with the 26mm eyepiece, because the binocs shows them as bright diamonds in one clustered view, rather than a few brilliant stars separated by black space; so again, I'm wishing for that set of eyepieces so I can get wider views too.

The Finder

One important thing I'll mention now is that I need to get a RACI finder. This 8x50 straight through finder is an incredible strain on the neck especially when poining toward the zenith, and I have to crouch down on my knees and contort my body in very uncomfortable positions to use it. It's actually easier to use if the tripod legs are extended only slightly; full extension wreaks havoc on my back. And when you can't find your quarry in the finder immediately, the strain becomes unbearable.

Moreover, the upside down and reversed image is a deterrent. I'm used to upside down and backward--actually, it's rotated 180 degrees, because that's the sum of "upside down and backwards"--because I've grown used to the ground glass of my 4x5 Wisner, a bellows-toting, large format camera. But there is a huge difference between upside down and backwards when seeing a nice bright view through the groundglass standing in a relatively upright position, as opposed to trying to locate dim stars in a constricted view while contorting yourself like Chinese acrobat.

Speaking of finder scopes, I tried using the polar alignment scope one day and was very disappointed that I could barely make out any stars at all, and was actually not able to find Polaris through it. The view is dim, and it is near impossible. Perhaps if I'm missing some crucial "ah-ha" moment of truth, someone more experienced can guide me by leaving a comment.

Star Test & Collimation

I realized quickly after my first viewing that it was important to match the finder view closely to the scope's view, so I set about going through that exercise. The first time I set the finder scope, it jutted out too far back from the scope itself, so I had to readjust it till the finder's eyepiece sat just beyond the back of the OTA, which helps but only a little with the neck strain.

I've seen so many articles and posts about doing a star test that I thought I'd try it and see how well this unit stood up to it. The only thing I can tell you right now is that when a bright star is out of focus, it's not a PERFECT donut. When considerably out of focus, one side seems to be ever so slightly thinner and flatter than the other, and when just barely outside of focus, the flare of the star's dot "leans" ever so slightly to one side.

So that brings the question of collimation. Meade says that they collimate all units before they leave the factory, but shipping may have introduced enough vibration to have decollimated the OTA. Unfortunately I haven't gotten my confidence up enough to try collimating, but I plan to soon. I'm not sure I know what I'm doing with it just yet, but the scope's instruction manual has a fairly detailed procedure, and I've found other articles about collimation on the Net. I have a feeling that if I collimate properly (and the higher magnification eyepieces that are coming soon will certainly help to collimate better than just the 26mm alone), then I should be able to get a better feel for doing a star test.

Fit and Finish

The last thing I have to report on is the fit and finish. Overall, not bad, but I think it could be better. The metal ID plate that is attached to the OTA is already peeling off. The finder scope has some bits of paint chips or dimples. The counterweight itself just lost a bit of paint (don't know how, but I suspect I might have bumped it when bringing it into the house). Anyhow, I can't really ask for much more for the money I spent.

Still, I'm willing to accept these minor finishing shortfalls if the optics and other important criteria hold up.

Well, I think that's it for now. When I get the hand controller unit, I'll report on that, as well as the Series 4000 Super Plossl kit.

Thanks for reading, and here's wishing you clear skies!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Postings Lagging, First Light Report Coming Soon

Hi everyone that's been following and reading my posts (thank you, BTW).

It's been a while since my last post about the purchase of my scope. Since then about a month has gone by, and unfortunately because of my living situation, family problems, and other things I'm struggling with, the reports have not been as frequent as I'd like.

But stick around, sometime soon I will be posting pictures of my new scope, and a first light report. Well, let's say a second or third light report. First light was kind of uneventful.

I'll also post some observations while putting the scope together and using it the first time as a piece of gear, not just the optics.

Stay tuned!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ordered my Scope!

Dang it! I almost forgot the biggest news to date!

Those who have been following my blog know that I've been using a Celestron SkyMaster 15x70 Binoculars to do my star gazing.

Well, after 3 months of deliberation, self-doubt, research, nail-biting, posting on Cloudy Nights, and reversing myself a dozen times, I pulled the trigger.

I have finally ordered my scope. It's a Meade 8-inch SCT ACF ("advanced coma free") on the LXD75 mount. Here's a picture of the thing, and a link to the site where I purchased it, OPT:

Also, you can see my thinking, and the thread that helped me get to my decision on this thread at Cloudy Nights: "Did my research, but still need help choosing"


Hey, I almost forgot, I wanted to post about 3 books that I got really cheap. They may not be the greatest in the world, but I found them at a bookstore that I hardly visit, and they were on sale.

The bookstore was Border's Books at the "Shops at Atlas Park" Mall in Glendale, a quick ride down the street on Metropolitan Avenue, across Woodhaven Boulevard, and down Cooper Avenue. See, I had just left my bike at the bicycle repair shop for a tune up and clean up (the gears had gotten finicky). Having no transportation back, I wasn't too eager to hoof it back home, about a mile, so I stopped into the bookstore to just see what they had.

I found:
  • Atlas of the Constellations: Discover the Secrets of the Night Sky, by Giles Sparrow a hardcover book, with dust jacket for $2.99. 112 pages.
  • The Stargazer's Handbook, an Atlas of the Night Sky, a large-format, full-color softcover with beautiful pictures and good narrative in short spurts, again by Giles Sparrow, for $9.99. 272 pages.
  • The Illustrated Atlas of the Universe, by Mark A. Garlick, with star maps by Wil Tirion. This, too, is a large-format, full-color, softcover book, and it was also on sale for $9.99. 304 pages.
All told, I was getting 3 illustrated, really nice books for the bargain price of about $25.

But then came the clincher. I'm on line getting ready to pay for these books, and wondering how hard it will be to get these back to my house using Sneakernet ("hoofing it"), when a young lady behind me asked me if I'd like to have a 20%-off coupon, she had printed 2 on the computer and didn't need one. I said I'd love to have it, thanks, and gave it to the cashier.

At the time I thought it was 20% off the total price, but looking over the receipt now, I realize it was only 20% off of one book. Still, I'm really happy when I get a break, I need all the breaks I can get.

Pleiades, Great Orion Nebula, and 3 Star Clusters

A few nights ago, I went out to quickly do a little upward viewing. It was really cold for a late summer night, but I had to take advantage of the clear sky.

This session was started at about 3am, I had been up surfing the Net and decided that I should take a peek before bed. I'm glad I did! Orion was up in the sky. Using the planisphere that I purchased from Barnes and Noble, I quickly identified some objects to view and set after them.

The first was again the Pleiades, just because it grabs my attention being faintly visible to the naked eye, even in my light polluted neighborhood of Forest Hills, NY.

Soon after I saw that, there was a spot just below Orion's belt that needed investigating (M42), being the brightest nebula in the sky. What a beautiful sight!

I then headed to the 3 star clusters M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga, right under Capella. (Using the planisphere, I determined that I could get to Capella by making a bee line from Rigel in Orion, through its sister star Bellatrix, also in Orion.) The faint fuzzies were fuzzier than ever, but I did see them.

After that night I was really starting to feel like I could definitely get the hang of this, and that I just needed to take it easy and go step by step.

M2, M15, M27, M29

Sometime last week I decided to try to bag some M's. I sat at the computer going through Stellarium to see which Messier objects I could get to at that time, which must have been about 11:00pm or so, I can't remember exactly (I slacked on the blog, yes). Having taken my MacBook Pro outside, with my binoculars on the tripod, I went through a repeated manual search of Messier objects in Stellarium, one by one, starting with M1.

What I found was that M2 was available to me, near Jupiter, as well as M27, M29, and back to M15 at the end. So I started hunting for M2. this was possibly the hardest one, because what I was seeing on Sellarium was getting hard to match up in the live night sky. But after about 20 minutes of going from my computer screen, to my binoculars, and trying to match up asterisms, I was finally able to bag M2. Yes!

So I went onto M27 and M29, because I was looking at the summer triangle and happened to turn on a feature in Stellarium where the labeling for nebulas and globular clusters were turned on, and I saw that M27 and M29 were very near to Deneb. Using the asterisms starting from Deneb and its closest stars I starhopped myself to these two Messier objects in no time at all. The faint fuzzies in my binocs were able to be seen, but of course not as clearly as M31 that first night. I had to use averted vision to make sure that I was seeing the right objects and not imagining things.

After these two I realized that M15 was available to me as well, and swiftly went after that and spied it too.

By the time I was done, I had realized that it was about 12:45 and that I really needed to get to bed. So I packed it all up, with a big feeling of satisfaction and had a good night's sleep.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pleiades and Andromeda M31

Three nights ago I tried to find the great nebula in Andromeda (M 31). I used Stellarium to try to identify the stars and hop from place to place. Unfortunately, I had a grouping of star patterns that I saw in the sky and couldn't quickly identify in Stellarium because of the difference in seeing and what Stellarium was trying to show me. I dialed the light pollution up to a 9, and then I found the grouping after some magnification, but quickly lost it again.

Last night, the seeing was exceptionally good. I started with the Pleiades, and was surprised to see how many stars were in the grouping just with my binocs. It certainly is a beautiful sight. At that point I decided to try to find the nebula in Andromeda again. It took some doing, but I finally got to see it after about a half hour of trying last night and spotted it at 1:30am!

Using Cassiopeia as a starting point, I used the three brightest stars to help me point to Mirach (or Merak) (β Andromeda). From Mirach, I went due North, to a grouping of stars which made a triangle, followed that grouping to ɥ Andromeda, to ʋ Andromeda, and finally to the nebula. Here's a graphic to show the hop:

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3

Step 4

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Learning the Lingo

One of the reasons I want to get into Astronomy and sky-gazing is that the power of photography has done serious damage to my will. If you know me as a photographer, and you know the kinds of things I shoot, you know I like sharpness, and color, and contrast.

Every astrophotograph I see, that's well done, has pinpoint sharpness, beautiful color, and high contrast. It's what pulls us in.

Well, in an effort to begin learning what I need to for astrophotography, I have been researching. The first bit of research, as you probably know, is my quest to a telescope. I am currently fighting my child-like instinct to get the best I can afford, even when I don't know what I can do with it. The problem is that I get near the price range of affordability, and then find out how much more I actually need. And that serves as a wake up call to reduce expectations and start off small with a visual scope, and non-EQ mount.

But then I see the photographs again, and I'm back at square one.

Well, I have to figure it out soon, otherwise I'll never get started. But as I said, while the scope search goes on, I must learn all I can. I feel like I'm at the beginning of my photography learning phase again. Everything is exciting, and I'm curious about all aspects.

So when I Google things, and find threads and go off on trails, I don't expect to stay long on a site. Well, I found an exception. A great site, a blog on Blogger. The pictures will amaze you. The equipment amazed me. His attitude amazed me. The pictures... oh I said that already. They really are cool.

Here's the site: Andy's Astrophotography

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Choosing A Telescope Isn't Easy

I've been hunting for a telescope. Price is certainly a consideration, but I don't want to be cheap either. I don't want to spend bad money on a trashy scope.

So the good folks at CloudyNights forum have been helping me by answering my questions.

I started out thinking I wanted a large SCT. That's a Schmidt Cassegrain design for the uninitiated. This is what one looks like:

Then there were refractors. These are the kind that we normally think of as a telescope -- that long tapered tube.

Lastly, are Dobsonians, which are basically Newtonians on a mount made popular by John Dobson. This one is from Orion:

Now there are lots of other variations, based on the same basic Newtonian or short-tube SCT design, but I'm primarily looking at these, and I think the SkyWatcher Dob may be my first scope, even though I really wanted a nice large Refractor.

The problem is that for astrophotography, a refractor -- or any scope -- must be mounted on an equatorial mount, like the one in the first picture. The mount, the tripod, and the scope are all different pieces, which can be mixed and matched, but many companies sell kits all together. Then there's the other accessories like the eyepieces, which can run anywhere from $60 to hundreds of dollars depending on quality and brand.

This is not a cheap hobby. But I'm quickly tiring of my binoculars, even though they work so well. The stars are dim where I live. And I'd like to see more than I'm seeing now.

Next, I'm such a tinkering designer, that I'm thinking of building a small geodesic dome on my flat-roof garage so I can have a nice observatory. More to come on that later.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Summer Triangle

September 3, 2009 [ Thursday ]

Long day at work. Didn't actually get to go outside and look till 11pm. Very short session, but very useful.

Altair, Deneb, and Vega form the summer triangle. Each one is part of a different constellation.

Deneb is almost directly overhead at this time, and is part of Cygnus the Swan, or Summer Cross. It looks like a Christian cross in the sky, though in some light polluted areas, you can't see the bottom of the cross.

Vega is part of the constellation Lyra. There are two less bright stars very close together right next to Vega, and I found them in Stellarium.

Altair is part of Aquila. Nothing special to report about this one yet.

Also found Capella peeking just above the roof of the neighbor's garage. Closer inspection found the stars next to them and matched them up in Stellarium.

Interesting to note that Vega is noted in Stellarium as mag 0.00, and Capella as 0.05. Those who know astronomy a bit, understand that when the magnitude scale for brightness was created, the brightest star was noted as zero magnitude. Less bright stars get larger magnitude numbers. Later as brighter stars were found, they were given negative numbers. Therefore, if you want to know what a star of magnitude zero looks like, just look at Vega.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Inwood Astronomy Project

September 2, 2009 [ Wednesday ]

Picked up Manny, a friend and client, and drove to Inwood to meet Jason Kendall who is running The Inwood Astronomy Project to bring 100 nights of astronomy to the folks of New York City. I admire this guy very much to give his time and energy to making astronomy approachable for people.

We set up my binocs on the tripod I brought, and let people look at the moon and Jupiter.

We lined up to see Jupiter and its moons in Jason's SCT. We also got to see the star cluster (in Pegasus?). Heard Jason talk some about the size of Jupiter, how many moons it has (far more than what we learned in grade school or even college), and other things about the night sky. He also showed a globular cluster, which I didn't see.

We left after about an hour which passed very quickly. There were too many people waiting to look through the scope.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Second Night

September 1, 2009 [ Tuesday ]
I went out with the binoculars again at about 9pm. This time Jupiter had 4 moon visible.

Looked at Stellarium to figure some things out, and finally figured out which one was Polaris. The light pollution is about a 9 so you can't see all the stars to figure out the constellations.

Spent about 2 hours.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Adventure Begins

In all reality the adventure began many years ago. I don' t know the exact time or place, but like many others, I am drawn to see the Earth, moon, sun, planets, stars, galaxies and other celestial objects and wonder at them.

The very first order of business is to re-learn the night sky.

August 31, 2009 [ Monday ]
I went to Adorama in Manhattan to pick up the Celestron 15x70 SkyMaster binoculars that were recommended in the book "The Backyard Astronomer's Guide." I brought them home, ripped open the packaging and quickly set it on my tripod and went out to the backyard.

The moon was as beautiful as I expected, and very bright; I couldn't believe how bright it was.

I saw Jupiter and 3 of its moons for the very first time with my own eyes! 2 moons on the left of it, one on the right. Showed my kids and the neighbors.

Also saw a satellite speed by, one small shooting star, and countless other stars that I didn't know you could see here in light polluted Queens.

Altogether about 3 hours worth of stargazing.