James Paulson's roll off roof observatory at the Sunridge Observatory site, taken in the summer of 1986, housing a 10 inch f/5 Cave Astrola Newtonian reflector telescope

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Pause in Time

If my entry seems off topic, I apologize. A lot has happened in life in the past 3 weeks, I've been making some big changes so I can enjoy the things I love the most. I am a part time amateur astronomer who also enjoys playing guitar, watching live music, cooking, and just getting out. I left an abusive relationship with a beautiful woman and it all seems to stack one on top of the next - the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill. I have impacted my finances a bit, but those are just temporary things. I may not have everything I want but I have got everything I need.

If you're like me, times like these are made for getting out and going for a walk under the stars. Being out with my old friends in the quiet of the night, we begin to appreciate and treasure our own existence, and we reconnect with life itself. We begin to seek our deeper role in the cosmos, and our hobby becomes less a hobby and more of an experience to us. I can use the stars to navigate, I know that sky like the back of my hand. I feel insignificant, and suddenly all of my problems just no longer matter anymore.

I just wanted to share that. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Memory of My Uncle - Walter Frey

It is with great sadness that I got a phone call today informing me that my Uncle Walter Frey had passed away, at the age of 73 from a brain annurism. For people who read this website I have made mention of him in previous entrys.

Walter was a special man and I feel very sad for his wife Myrna and kids and grandkids today at having to cope with the loss of his incredible presence in their family. We will all miss him. Nobody could ever take his place.

He was so typical of many of the people in this hobby in the 1970's, very intelligent with an innate ability to grasp things almost instantly. He excelled in all elements of his life, and even in his rerirement remained very fervent about enjoying a good life. He could enjoy a good drink or a good book alike. I remember when we visited together and he came out to see my observatory. He had a profound influence on my life, we would exchange letters, and he was my mentor into this hobby and other elements of my life. In reflecting on it today, I am amazed at his influence on so many of us. Because of our geographical seperation we didn't see each other often enough but what we lacked was made up for by the quality of the time that we did get to know each other. I will never spend a lonely evening under the stars again without thinking about him.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Choosing a First Telescope – Part 3

I’ve been showing you all some of my favorite instruments that I think would make fine scopes for a first time purchase and provide some longevity of use. All of the scopes I’ve shown are complete, meaning that they include the mount as well, and fall in the under $1000 price range. There are several optical tube assemblies (OTA’s) that one can purchase in this range, but a telescope without a mount is not really a telescope that can be used as is. I consider the mount to be equally important if not more important than the scope itself. Because of this limitation on selection, some very fine refractors will not make the price point, but are still very nice instruments. With that in mind here are a couple of more contenders.

4. Orion XT8i
An 8 inch telescope is a very nice sized instrument and is surprisingly affordable in the right configuration and mount design. This Newtonian reflector comes on a Dobsonian base and includes the Orion intelliscope computerized object locator system allowing you to quickly pinpoint objects from its database. It is fairly easy to setup and use. As an f/6 configuration it is a bit more tricky to collimate than its baby brother XT6, but is still capable of delivering good pinpoint star images. It is a very affordable $529 and can carry you forward in the hobby for many years.

5. Celestron C6-NGT
When you want a telescope that gives you some aperture, and an equatorial style mount with GoTo capability, the Celestron C6-NGT is worthy of a close examination. I really like this little f/5 Newtonian reflector because it gives one the ability to move into the area of beginner astrophotography on down the road. The Celestron handset and stepper motors guide you around the sky with ease, and because the OTA is small and lightweight it’s not really a burden on the mount. A GoTo equatorial mount always performs better when it is underweight, and this fits that bill nicely. And because it is a Celestron there are always upgrade options open to grow with this scope. You may experience a bit of coma with this scope, but there are ways to counter this if it’s really important to you. A bit pricey but well worth the $799 price tag in my opinion.

6. Meade ETX-125 AT
This selection wouldn’t be complete without including at least one Maksutov telescope configuration to choose from. This 5 inch f/15 GoTo telescope is capable of delivering incredible views of the planets in a good portable scope. Because it is a Cassegrain design, eyepiece location is good on it allowing one to view reasonably comfortably. At f/15 it is a bit slow for DSO viewing but will work. It is priced right in line at $699

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Choosing a First Telescope – Part 2

In my last article, I established some guidelines for the instruments that I am selecting as my favorite picks for a good first telescope. I am picking these instruments as good first time instruments because I feel that they are worthy of owning both in the beginning and long term. I want to pick equipment that I think will give the greatest rewards both today and on down the line. There is no particular order of ranking of these telescopes, these are just instruments that I feel comfortable recommending to others. Once people begin to grow in this hobby, their interests and needs change, and they may find other instruments suit their purposes better. This is normal and a natural part of growing in the hobby.

2. The Orion XT6
For many years the standard amateur telescope that many used was the old 6” f/8 Newtonian reflector. This old fashioned choice never goes out of style but what has evolved over the years is the mount that carries it. Years ago the German Equatorial Mount was the standard and it has been replaced with a modified alt-azimuth mount made famous by John Dobson in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This mount is very stable and surprisingly smooth and easy to use. This telescope is not large and unwieldy, it’s actually quite transportable and fairly rugged, and dare I say, simple. It’s f/8 focal ratio allows for easy collimation and it is very forgiving with eyepiece choices. The 48 inch focal length allows for plenty of magnification for viewing the moon and planets, and it will fit inside many small cars to transport to darker sites. It will deliver years of viewing experiences. This is a good budget happy entry into serious observing. It’s a real steal of a deal at only $279

3. The Celestron NexStar 6SE
Here is a nice compact telescope with plenty of aperture to keep a person happy for years in a design known as a Schmidt-Cassegrain, or SCT. It is an f/10 instrument that sits on a computer controlled GoTo alt-azimuth mount. The Celestron brand has been around for years and as such has a lot of support and accessories to enhance the ownership experience. Aligning the telescope is as simple as centering a couple of brighter stars and it can direct you through its large database of objects via the hand controller. Because the eyepiece is in the back, viewing heights and angles are suited for seating or standing without a lot of neck craning, so it is a very comfortable telescope to use and enjoy. It is a bit pricier than other models, but it holds it value well, and should you decide you want a larger telescope down the road, it makes a very nice portable scope to own. It is presently selling for $799

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Choosing a First Telescope – Part 1

Recently I did some Google searching on this topic to see what kinds of articles a newcomer would read if they went out in search of some useful information to help guide them in the right direction. What I found instead was the usual advertisements for cheaper instruments, intermixed with some advice to newcomers on how to proceed into the hobby of amateur astronomy. What I found lacking were some real nice objective persuasive arguments for or against particular instruments, so I have decided to stick my neck out and offer up some perspectives on some equipment that I think would serve a newcomer well, both in the beginning and long term of this hobby. I feel qualified to do this after a number of years in this hobby and a whole lot of outreach and training with others in the field.
I want to offer the kind of advice that I think would always serve an amateur well, something that is not too heavy on the wallet, something that would hold it’s value well and re-sell quickly should they decide the hobby is not for them, and something that I think they will find easy to use, and most of all, enhances their experience, rather than frustrates them. To define some guidelines, I am going to limit the initial purchase to not more than $1000. By no means does one have to spend this much, but this defines some direction, as there is a whole lot of gear in this range, and not all of it really delivers for the money spent.

1. The Orion (Synta) ST-80
I was first introduced to this scope some time in the mid 1980’s when a friend of mine brought it along on an observing expedition. A variety of companies make variation of this scope and they are priced similarly, the general reference to it refers to it as the ST-80, made by Orion. This telescope is a true gem of an instrument. Although it is an achromatic refractor as opposed to a more expensive apochromatic unit, the views through it are still very nice. It is an 80mm f/5 refractor, and as such it gives very nice low power wide field views of the sky. The finder on it is a bit weak, but because it is so short of a focal length, it’s really not needed as the scope is it’s own finder. This unit will find it’s way into your equipment collection for years to come as it is small, lightweight and multi-purpose. It comes as an OTA only or you can get it on an equatorial mount for a bit more. It can be tripod mounted and used as a terrestrial spotting scope, or it can be piggybacked and makes a fantastic guidescope when you decide to venture into astrophotography. It holds its value well and many amateurs have one of these in their collection. While it is by no means a planet killing telescope, one look at the milky way, or M31 through one of these will show you why it is such a nice little instrument to own. You will never go wrong buying one of these, and even if you sell it, down the road you will find your way back to it. This scope on the EQ mount retails for $299.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Developing Your Observing Skills

One of the things that all astronomers learn to develop is their ability to observe objects properly at the telescope. This takes time to develop. In the beginning, it’s a matter of knowing how to view into the eyepiece, how to properly focus an object, how to observe square on to the object, how to block external lights and maintain well adapted eyes. In time, you develop the ability to discern details in objects because the atmosphere may be slightly turbulent as well. You will learn about the importance of good eye relief as well.
If you wear glasses, leave them on if you are nearsighted. If you are farsighted, you can remove them, the key is to be able to get close enough to the eyepiece to have as full of a field of view as possible without actually banging the eyepiece.
Another developed skill is the ability to align your expectations with your instrument. I think that it pays to look through large telescopes, and a wide variety of instruments, at least in the beginning to align your expectations with your wallet. You have to balance the cost and convenience of your equipment with that you are viewing, and you will find with time that you will know exactly what to expect from whatever you have.
A familiarity with the sky is important. Feeling comfortable under the stars comes with time, and while initially you may look up and not know one star from the next, with the use of charts, planispheres, software, etc, you will begin to mentally picture the asterisms you are viewing, and begin to see exactly where you want to point your telescope to find your target. In a later article I will discuss the art of sky sweeping, and how to use it to your advantage if you are a non-GoTo user. Clear skies.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Thank You

I want to take a moment to thank all the readers of this blog for your excellent feedback, and to tell you what a humbling experience it is for me to be able to do the things I love: astronomy and writing, and to share them with you all.
This past week I discovered a website that rates blogs, and I am deeply humbled to see that blogged.com has rated my site a 7.8 very good rating. I am not much of a writer, and even after 40 years I would consider myself not much more than a beginner in this wonderful hobby. Everything I write and all the passion I share about astronomy comes straight from the heart, this truly is my lifetime hobby, and it will be until the day I die, in one form or another. I have always felt more connected to the heavens than the planet I live upon, always felt small in this immense universe, always felt a greater significance to that out there than all of this down here. And while, as a child I used to recite numbers to describe a lot of it, today it holds even more significance because I can appreciate how large those numbers are, how time works, and even our greater role in what it all means in the long run.
But most especially, Thank You all for giving me this space to share with you the thing I love above all else.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Autoguiding an LXD75 Mount

When I first purchased my LXD75 mount I was told that you cannot autoguide this mount. Fortunately, through the use of the software program PHD and the ASCOM platform, it is possible to use this mount with ease. Getting it there however will require some effort.

I am going to use the Meade DSI in this example. It is an excellent little camera as it is sensitive enough to be useful and it is low cost. While it is no longer available new, it can be found often used. I am going to couple this to an ORION ST-80, which is an 80mm f/5 refractor that is also low cost and widely available used. You will need a computer, but you don't need a whole lot to do this as the computer will only be used for guiding. A Pentium III with 384 megs of RAM running Windows XP will suffice. Before you proceed, I suggest you update this operating system with all the latest updates and install the DOT NET framework, Version 3.5 as well, since Envisage needs it to operate. Proceed as follows.

1. Download the latest version of Autostar Suite (Version 5.5)
2. Download ASCOM version 5 and do the 5.5 update
3. Download the Meade drivers for the Autostar 497 hand controller
4. Download PHD Guiding software and install it

When you install the DSI for the first time, pick a USB port that you will use it on, and then install the driver by selecting the path C:/Program Files/Meade/Autostar Suite/Envisage/2K-XP

Plug the Serial to RS-232 adapter into your serial port (Com1), and use the RS-232 cable included with the DSI to connect to the 497 hand controller's port. Start PHD and select your camera (DSI), your mount via ASCOM and your set to calibrate.

That's all there is to it. Fairly simple.

Friday, September 17, 2010

An Unglorius Ending

How many times have you walked past a man who appeared practically homeless and aged and never thought twice about it? Yet behind every face is a story, and such was the case with one of the most famous amateur astronomers of the past century, a man whose works still are revered by many as the finest volumes on deep sky objects. I am speaking about Robert Burnham Jr, a man who discovered 6 comets, wrote the three volume set called "Burnham's Celestial Handbook" and spent 20 years of his life working on the same telescope that Clyde Tombaugh used to discover Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. And yet in his final days, he wound up selling paintings of cats in Balboa Park in San Diego just to stay alive. I wish this wasn't a true life story, but Tony Ortega does an excellent job documenting his life story in the article called Sky Writer.

I greatly admire the man for what he did and what he stood for, both professionally and in his life. Yet it is a tragic ending to what may well be one of the greatest men in his field as well, to see him withering away in poverty with such famous works and so much social injustice. Robert Burnham held a perspective much higher than our own earthbound existence, and his work will live on famously. Like so many, I was one of those who assumed he was the man who worked at Astronomy magazine all those years, and I remember the Astronomy Book Club discounting his works.

Only recently was he recognized for his efforts, and for that we should all be grateful.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The View From "Over There"

This photo is a picture of a nearby galaxy that we have named M33, located in the "constellation" that we call Triangulum. It is part of our nearby group, located roughly 3 million light years distant. It is an average sized galaxy in our universe, slightly smaller than our own milky way and a nearby neighbor M31.

What strikes me so much about M33 is the large amount of Ha visible in it's photographs. I can't help but imagine being in orbit around a star over there on a good "moonless evening" staring out into what they know as "space" with a "telescope" viewing and photographing some of the many DSO's visible. Devoid from their sky would be a few that we enjoy, such as NGC7000 (North America Nebula), M42(the Orion Nebula), M45 (Pleiades) and M13 (great globular cluster in Hercules). The view from over there would however contain many interesting objects, ones that we have named things like NGC 588, 592, 595, and NGC 603, as well as ICs 131, 132, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137, 139-40, 142, and 143. All of these objects would assume patterns and names of their own, some of which might be huge and luminescent depending on their proximity to our new location. All of the asterisms in the sky that we call constellations would be non-existent, replaced by a new set of asterisms and identifiable stars. The Earth and likely our own Sun would be invisible, just a mere "blur" in the image they are capturing of our own galaxy on that dark moonless night.

Kind of gives one a whole new meaning to what we enjoy doing doesn't it?

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Cool New Tool for Astrophotography

The AstroTrac TT320X-AG has got to be one of the coolest new tools for the astrophotographer, and is something I would really love to add to my collection. The basis of this unit is that it is easy to polar align and has exceptional tracking abilities that allow you to track the stars, moon and sun with it's variable rates. The latest release even allows for the addition of an autoguider but judging from the images that I have seen taken with it, it's really not required. It can hold an incredible load (large camera lenses) without flexure and still maintain excellent tracking. The images above demonstrate how the Astrotrac fixes to a tripod and how the camera mounts on it. The key is good polar alignment and for this it is essential to purchase the optional polar alignment scope

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Versatile Equipment Collection

I am very proud of the gear that I have, as simple as it all is. I've been stabbing away at this hobby for a good many years now and I have a pretty good feel for what works and what won't. I've seen a lot of people come and go and a lot of gear trade hands based on usage. My setup is very basic. I have an Orion Paragon HDF2 tripod and an LXD 75 mount at the core. I have 5 optical configurations to ride on these base units, the Meade SN6, an Orion ST-80, the Garret Optical 15x70's on the FarSight binocular mount, a Canon XS DSLR, and a Meade LPI. How many different ways can this be configured?

1. Mount the ST-80 on the tripod shoe, use as an Alt-Az grab and go
2. Mount the ST-80 on the Vixen dovetail/EQ2 plate, place on LXD75 for a nice equitorial refractor
3. Mount the camera on the tripod shoe, use for widefield stationary ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY
4. Mount the camera on the Vixen dovetail/EQ2 plate, place on LXD75 for unguided with tracking - ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY
5. Mount the ST-80 and camera on Vixen dovetail plate, install LPI into ST-80 for autoguiding with setup number 4
6. Mount SN6 on LXD75, piggyback DSLR on accessory bracket - guided or unguided ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY
7. Mount SN6 on LXD75, install ST-80 tube rings to accessory bracket, use ST-80 with LPI to autoguide the Canon XS/SN6 at prime focus - ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY
8. Mount the binoculars on the tripod shoe, use as an Alt-Az grab and go
9. Mount binoculars on Vixen Dovetail/EQ2 plate, place on LXD75 for an equitorial GoTo binocular
10 SN6-LXD75 for visual, ST-80/Paragon HDF2 for visual, handhold binoculars

All of these combinations allow for at least two full setups with equipment not utilized in the primary setup. I realize this is not the "ultimate" setup, but I can't help but appreciate what a diverse, flexible and mobile combination it gives me, for doing everything from viewing and photographing lunar eclipses, constellations, planets, DSO's, aurora, sunsets, etc. It's always smart to keep these things in mind when acquiring equipment because if there is one thing I have learned it is to be diverse, you never know what you might be getting into or wanting to get into. Be armed, you will need it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

It's Here

Back on November 13, 2009 I wrote of an accessory that I felt needed to be added to our collection of machined items. I was referring to an accessory that would allow one to mount a red dot finder onto a camera hot shoe to facilitate precision pointing because it is nearly impossible to see through the viewfinder on a DSLR and the Live View feature will only pick up the brightest stars, and then only if they are in the field of view.

This item will be shipping in mid-August for those who would like one.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

God's View

From the title of this you would think I am entering into the realm of religion.

I come from a time in science when we believed in it to describe and build our world. We knew that things measurable were important. We tapped these things to build ideas. I was around when IC chips came about, and they published diagrams and voltages in books. You knew how the insides worked. You built things with them. Some had fancy names, like Schmidt triggers. Duck.

Astronomy today is a new world filled with electronic toys and disconnected amateurs, plastic gears, mass produced glass, and the same sky. I love the fact that the sky remains the same in a world gone mad with TM's, IM's DMK's, QHY's, DSLR's, LXD's, UWO's and CGEMS.

Corporations can keep the acronyms, I will keep the sky, the heavens, god's handiwork, the celestial sphere, telescope making, digging in the references, red flashlights, optics companies, home lathes, smaller companies making larger parts, etc.

Now toss this in. Every newbie to this hobby reminds me of me 25 years ago. We see the same sky. Really what has changed?

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I've been very busy the past while taking care of other business and as a result have not had much time to post. I've spent no time with my telescope in months, but I am hoping to change that soon.

I now have a buyer for my Cave. I think someone is picking up a very fine instrument. I'm honestly glad I won't have the heartbreak of physically seeing it leave because I doubt I could part with it. But this is life. I'm losing an old friend. When I look on Cloudy Nights and see all the classic Cave restorations it just breaks my heart but at the same time it really shows me the love people have of these observatory quality instruments.

Half of the solar star road machine is departing as well in a few days. I've sold the slide in camper to pay some bills and I had to get some better transportation to replace my aging 85 Dodge with a 440 in it, so I chose a new car, a Kia Forte Koup. My scope will fit in it just fine so I can really get out and take in some star parties at 36 mpg. It has all the 12 volt plugs I need, and a moonroof to pass out cords to the scope, a place to hook up my laptop, things like that. I can sleep in it if I have to. Pack a tent, etc.

Change is entropic and natural in this universe. We may not witness it all, but it is constant, dynamic, entropic, measurable and imaginable.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

LXD75 Camera Mount - Part 1

I ordered a couple of pieces of equipment as a preliminary step to using my LXD75 mount with my camera alone. I purchased an Astro Tech 7 inch Vixen style dovetail from Astronomics and the Orion EQ1 1/4-20 adapter for the EQ1. The two pieces couple together very well, and will allow me to place either my camera or my ST-80 on the LXD75 mount for a nifty and simple grab and go usage. I plan on supplementing this piece with a tandem bar, and mounting the EQ1 adapter on one side and the tube rings for the ST-80 on the other side so I can use them both at the same time. The mount will handle this configuration just fine, and will allow me to use the ST-80 with an autoguider and the camera with a longer focal length prime lens or something like a 66ED refractor/field flattener combo for some easy to do astrophotography.

What amazes me is how deep you have to dig to find parts to assemble to make something this simple, and how much they actually wind up costing in the end. There is certainly room for improvement in this marketplace.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Plagued By Glitches

On Saturday April 10th, I took my star machine on the road to a dark sky site, namely Barren Fork Campground. I had intentions of shooting images to make a short video and doing some visual astronomy.

My camper is a 130 watt solar panel equipped portable observatory designed to allow for overnight outings with plenty of amenities including adequite electricity and the convenience of a place to warm up during sessions. It's dual deep cycles batteries and power inverter allows me to run a number of accessories in remote locations.

At the start of the season, I had a dead battery, which apparently was caused by a shorted cell. After replacing it, I discovered that the radio/CD player has been breached with moisture and damaged as well. My water pump had somehow packed it in over the winter too. After replacing these parts, me and my girlfriend Lisa hit the road with mount, optics and cameras.

After setting up, in a matter of minutes I discovered that the SD card in my camera also had issues so no images were taken, but we did manage to get some viewing in before the evening was a complete waste. Better luck next time.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Change in Quantum Leaps

As a young amateur back in the mid 70's, I could never imagine a time when telescopes would be available to us on an individual level that has not been seen since the times of the Herschel's. To even imagine using a telescope of 4 foot diameter could not be contemplated. In those days, a 12 inch mirror was considered a monster, and the mounts to hold them were not considered portable in any way.

Orion Telescopes has changed all of that recently with the introduction of their monster line of Dobsonian mounted telescopes, with aperture's up to 50 inches available. I can only imagine the views through a mirror that is roughly 4 feet in diameter, which on a scale of comparison will deliver 16 times more light gathering power than the largest amateur instruments of those days. That is serious equipment.

As if one release isn't enough, Orion has also released a new line of telescopes that will really change the complexion of the telescope world, their GoTo line of Dobsonian mounted telescopes. The electronics revolution has changed the hobby greatly over the years, and this technology in particular will lead a great many away from possibly purchasing that SCT and jumping up to a larger Newtonian configuration for the same money. I remember when the SCT was the king of telescopes but I think with Orion's 1-2 punch those days may be coming to a close.

It's a great time to be an amateur, we are living in the best of times without doubt.