Monday, November 12, 2018

'Scope Dope

The Holidays are nearly here...and the telescopes are appearing in shops and box stores across the country! This is the time of year that I begin to hear daily the refrain "I want to buy a telescope for XXXXX; what should I get?". I don't intend to answer that question here--just toss out a few thoughts to keep in mind while shopping for an "optik tube" for the budding astronomer in YOUR life.


Essentially, I'd like to bore you with my three Tenets of Telescope Buying...if your new telescope doesn't meet these basic criteria then it is likely to be a great disappointment and either end up cluttering-up the den or serving as a centerpiece at your next yard-sale.


1) The Optics. This is the heart of the matter; if the mirrors or lenses in your new instrument aren't adequate to the task you are buying a giant paperweight/dust magnet instead of a means of exploring the Universe. While many inexpensive 'scopes have decent optics, you have to be careful.


2) The Mounting/Tripod. Nearly--but not quite--as important as the optics, the mounting and tripod support the optical system and include any drive motors (to compensate for Earth's rotation and keep the object being observed within the field of the eyepiece), computer systems (many scopes being produced these days have quite capable "go-to" systems...I posted recently on this category of telescope and the reasons why I don't think they are right for beginning amateurs) and a variety of other peripherals. The most important function of this assembly, however, is stability. If your telescope refuses to settle down, with the result that Jupiter jiggles and yaws chronically, you won't be satisfied long with the view.


3) User-Friendliness. I used to call this one "portability", but expanded the category to bracket the many reasons why you might not bother carrying your telescope out to the back yard or driving to a dark site. These include complicated mountings or control systems, too-heavy components such as counterweights, or simply that the darn thing is too big to tote outside. This is especially critical when dealing with kids, but even lumberjacks can be challenged by the sheer bulk of some telescopes and their associated paraphernalia! Also, keep in mind that getting it out to the observing site in the early evening is only half the battle--once the observing session is done you face the task of taking-down your equipment and hauling it all back inside--many of us pine for an observatory in the backyard for this reason...


Okay, dull lecture over! Any questions?

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Amateur Astronomy: Back To Basics

I've come to a decision, one I would like to share with you.  For a long time I've labored to learn a set of star-gazing skills and techniques strange to me in hopes that their mastery would improve my ability to successfully utilize a sub-set of my telescope collection and thus enhance my enjoyment of the night skies.  Over nearly two decades I've spent a considerable sum of money and many, many hours of precious observing time struggling with recalcitrant equipment and the arcane technological spells that promise to make astronomy easier but seem instead to simply complicate and render my observing opportunities both tedious and frustrating.


So now I've come to the end.  I give up. Perhaps it's a simple case of prolonged operator error, or even a subconscious desire to rebel against a trend in amateur astronomy with which I've never been entirely comfortable, but as of today I'm calling a halt.  No more. No. More.

GO-TO, you are now dead to me.  Begone!


For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Go-To technology appeared on the amateur front over twenty years ago; it consists of telescope mountings and in some cases entire telescopes that incorporate sophisticated computers and software that actually control the instument.  It's impressive stuff, really, requiring only a few simple inputs from the observer to allow the mount to orient ("align") itself to the sky; after this point the astronomer need only press the appropriate buttons to begin an automatic tour of the heavens (in some cases, complete with "narration"!).

In principle, I have long had reservations on the subject of these systems.


Firstly, any telescope you buy with a computer system incorporates naturally the price of the go-to into the cost of the scope--and this means that less of its expense is for quality optics. With big scopes this is less of a problem; the computer represents a small fraction of the $$ paid for the telescope. Less pricey go-to scopes seem to be more about the technology and less about the optics--to the point that you are probably paying less than half of the sticker price for the actual telescope.


My first reservation is just that--a matter of economics and getting the most optical “bang” for your buck—but my second is purely subjective. In my metaphorical heart-of-hearts I believe that exploring the night sky is a learning experience; that an amateur astronomer misses out on part of the grand adventure of stargazing if he doesn't take the time to learn his way around the neighborhood and get to know the neighborhood and neighbors therein. Go-to telescopes skip several steps; a beginning amateur doesn't NEED to learn the constellations, or how the ecliptic serves as the highway for Sun, planets and Moon, or even how to find the Northern Star, in order to observe galaxies and quasars. Those "baby steps" just aren't required in this newly computerized hobby.


In my experience this is a real problem in amateur astronomy these days; I can recall a gentleman coming to one of my group's Star Parties, setting-up an impressive PAIR of 11-inch reflectors linked to a state-of-the-art control and a powerful imaging system (all of which probably cost him more than my car when new), and commencing to take digital photos of a galaxy in Canes Venatici. I was quite impressed--at least until he turned to me and asked which star was Vega. At that point I was just embarrassed for him. He had an observing setup which any professional observatory of forty years ago would have been proud, but had never troubled himself to invest any time in actually LOOKING at the starry sky or learning its fascinating "geography". Think for a moment...imagine all the wonders he'd missed out on!


I’ve long believed that these telescopes are having a deleterious effect on the avocation of amateur astronomy as a whole, and on the introduction of new observers to the fold in particular. For the past twenty years, newcomers to the hobby have been bombarded with GOTO telescopes from most of the major producers and importers, promised extraordinary telescopic views and rousing observing experiences without the apparent down-side of actually having to LEARN anything about the sky, such as how to locate stars, constellations, planets, and deep-sky objects.


Over the years I’ve watched as new astronomers have purchased these telescope packages, used them a few times, and then put them up for sale. I’ve not only seen but actually experienced myself the anguish of having a recalcitrant computer refuse to operate as advertised, which leads sometimes to entire wasted observing sessions while I argue with a machine.


And that is the straw that has broken this particular camel’s back; I simply don’t get enough opportunities to get out, under the heavens. My work and travel keep me away from the eyepiece for much of the year, and I simply refuse to allow balky electronics to limit further my “quality” observing time. This ends now. I plan to spend the rest of my observing life using basic telescopes with a minimum of gadgetry and cabling. Call me old-fashioned, call me over-the-hill, but when you see me at the next star party I’ll be the guy with the plain, simple observing rig—and  I’ll spend a LOT more time at the eyepiece,  which is after all the point of the exercise!


Anyone want to buy a very slightly-used GO-TO scope?

Monday, October 29, 2018

f-stop: Enter The 'Dragon'

Ship's Motto: "We Yield But To St George"

HMS Dragon (D35) on the approach...

Bow-Art: a rare sight at sea

Royal Navy "Wildcat" helo on deck

'Dragon', back on patrol

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Stars Over The Gulf III

The 3rd 'Laramie' Star Party was held last night on the flight deck with the ship moored in the lovely port of Muscat, Oman. I decided to keep things simple and user-friendly as I am in the process of recovering from a nasty ankle sprain two days ago, and so only set-up the Astroscan for a little Moon-gazing.

A half-dozen Shipmates came out to observe Luna, including Captain Donnelly, Chief Mate Lawson, ship's medical maven Nicole "Doc" Shounder and budding astronomer Africa Foster (pictured meeting the Astroscan).
Along with the first-quarter Moon, the International Space Station put in a dazzling appearance. The ISS passed almost directly overhead, Venus-bright--its track neatly bisecting the twilit sky from northwest to southeast. Beautiful!

Good friends, a bright moon, and a Visitor From Space; a pleasant way to spend a warm pierside evening before we head back to sea. I'm glad I started these little ship-board gatherings last month--I do so enjoy spreading the word about the stars and what you can see and experience if only you...

"Watch the skies. Keep watching the skies!"

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Astronomical Book Review: 'Objects in the Heavens' by Peter Birren

When it comes to observing equipment and resources, my watchword has always been portability. Most of my star-gazing, after all, is done either aboard ship using a rich-field telescope or ashore with a grab-and-go Mak. I try to extend this ethos as well to the paraphernalia of observing; when I tote the Astroscan on deck or the 90mm into my backyard I don't care to be burdened-down by large, un-wieldy Star Atlases or heavy reference books.

What I've needed, and sought, for nearly fifty years was an inclusive, powerful guide-book to the northern-hemisphere sky; a single, portable volume that combines the features of a lightweight atlas and descriptive guide to the planets, stars, constellations and deep-sky objects to be observed from my home and from most of the ports I am likely to visit in the course of my long deployments.

It's been a long, hard slog through the years, as I've purchased, tried, and then abandoned many examples of astronomical writing and even software. Either the resource in question was too bulky, too tech-ie, or insufficiently versatile to meet my standard. After all, the book or program in question had to be able to support my observing activities for up to a year, far, far away from my home astronomical library. Essentially, it had to become that library during frequent long sea voyages.

'Objects in the Heavens', referred to hereafter as OITH, is in my opinion that portable, user-friendly resource.

OITH is the product of Peter Birren, a graphic designer based in Illinois. A dedicated amateur astronomer, he started building the database that would become OITH 'way back in the mid-1990s.

He put a lot of thought into the content and layout of this little volume, and it shows.

The book is 8.5" by 5.5", spiral-bound and 132 pages--just the right size for a knapsack pocket or eyepiece case--and printed on tough, water-resistant paper (my copy has survived the worst of Virginia's dewiest nights, requiring only a drying-out and pressing between a pair of heavier volumes to restore it to "almost new" condition).

As for what lies between the covers...

The constellation and object maps are the centerpiece of the effort, and display their subjects clearly and concisely. As in many such books I have tried over the years, they feature facing pages with the map to the right and details on the objects displayed to the left. Larger or "busier" constellations tend to occupy two pages while smaller or "less interesting" members of the sky bestiary are given the "thumbnail" treatment.

The amount of information is pretty impressive, and fine-tuned to the binocular or small-to-medium-sized telescope. As noted previously the maps cover constellations and celestial gems down to -45 degrees Declination, and objects to magnitude ten.

But there is much more to be found in this little book. Sections include introductions to star- and constellation-hopping, celestial coordinate systems, Moon information and "thumbnail" daily lunar highlights for a full lunation (above), seasonal constellation maps, information on major meteor showers, a fairly exhaustive listing of website resources, and a handy summary of solar system information (below).

As noted above, I find this book to be pretty-darn perfect for use in my own "minimalist" approach to observing; I've owned a copy of Edition 5 for two years and now have Ed. 6--and every time I go out under the stars I appreciate Mr. Birren's labors that much more. The back-cover "blurb" that OITH is "Informative for the beginner" and "Detailed for the advanced" observer says it all, I think.

OITH is a field book for use at the eyepiece, and I strongly recommend it for anyone who wants to go out under the stars and explore those "Objects in the Heavens".

Keep looking up!

• 132 pages, lay-flat spiral-binding, soft cover,
 digest size: 5.5" x 8.5"
• 739 objects to magnitude 10
• 259 non-Messier or NGC objects, 28 of which are binocular-class
• 191 "city" objects to magnitude 7 are specially highlighted
• 171 double stars and multiple stars
• 215 binocular-class objects with separate symbol
• 125 visual associate connections
•   90 objects from mag 10.1 to 10.5
•   80 single and red/carbon stars
•   75 maps: constellational, seasonal, insets and groupings
•   61 observable northern constellations, arranged alphabetically
•   38 astronomy catalogs are referenced
•   24 photographs by Naoyuki Kurita
• Grouping stories present larger chunks of the sky to learn more constellations
• 7 pages featuring the Lunar 100 (and then some) with photos and locations showing when and where to look
• Encyclopedic data on planets, stars, meteors
• Common names list
• Modern Messier list of 110 objects with Marathon constellation order
• Complete object number cross-reference and mapping
• Cross referenced to page numbers in PSA and SA2K

Birren Design's website:


f-stop: New Kid On The Gulf

ITS Federico Martinengo makes ready to come alongside

Connection complete. Commence pumping!

A shiny-new frigate...