FtU #03 – My astronomy hobby – Here’s looking at you, universe!
So my current depressive episode was finally triggered by an astronomy setback when a bunch of my eyepieces were stolen. And there are two ways to look at that event if I was searching for meaning. First, I could wallow, and take it as the latest in a string of negative experiences the universe had thrown my way to discourage me from sticking with the hobby (which I did for a while). Or, second, do a more micro examination for a time that it happened just after my best seeing ever (AstroLog 2019.002.1 Best. Viewing. Night. Ever.) and therefore I had a huge “high” just before to help me get through the low. Neither are particularly insightful views of the events — frequently shit just happens — but it did put astronomy in my cross-hairs for review during my depression. I have already outlined some of that history previously, so I won’t repeat it here. I’ve moved on. Instead, I chose hope, with some inspiration from an internet friend named Loren who is doing amazing things with his iPhone and small scope.
Soooo, as part of my FtU approach for June, I made some proactive decisions and steps on my hobby.
Solving my eyepiece problem
I discovered somewhat happily that I didn’t, in fact, lose all of my eyepieces. I had forgotten that I had added one awhile ago to my collection, a Baader Planetarium Hyperion-Aspheric 36mm eyepiece that is supposedly well-suited to use with my phone to take pics at the scope. It’s a bit on the large size to have as my only eyepiece i.e. it only has a magnification factor in my scope of about 56x, which is about the same as basic intro-level astro binoculars. It shows a HUGE chunk of sky, but not much detail. Certainly not very good for planets. And about half the power of my usual “go-to” eyepiece of a Delos 17.3mm. But the point is that it didn’t fit in my case with all the other EPs, so I didn’t lose it when they were stolen. I still have an EP to use.
There is also a small ironic/dark “silver lining” in the clouds…for the sake of explaining, let’s assume there are five levels of eyepieces with fives being top of the line and ones being cheap but usable glass. When I bought my scope, I was using inheritance money and so I splurged a bit on a couple of really good eyepieces. They’re a series called Delos made by Televue. A pretty good field of view, adjustable eye relief and rotations for dioptrics, with eight strengths in the series from 17.3mm (about 117x magnification in my scope) all the way down to the high-powered ones of 3.5mm (a magnification factor of 580x for my scope, but nothing I could ever actually achieve). I bought the 17.3 and the 10, yet I rarely go below 17.3mm for the conditions I’m observing in for Ottawa, and I had given thought to selling my 10mm. The two lenses together cost about the same as all the other lenses combined, and I would rate them at the 4/5 level for quality.
I had a couple more that were 3/5 for average quality — a nice 2″ 42mm widefield that I bought used, even the 25mm that came with the scope was probably in the same quality. And another 15mm Plossl, maybe something in the sub-8mm range (an X-Cel eyepiece). And then a small number of 2/5 level quality. Mostly I used them to help me focus when jumping from a big size to a smaller more powerful size, not actively viewing through them. I’ve never been to a truly dark sky site, so anything below 10mm was always quick “what if” viewing, and I would usually back out of it pretty fast.
So the silver lining, albeit a bit dark humour as I said, is that I’m now replacing my EPs knowing already exactly how I use my scope, what powers I am interested in, and what features are most important, so I can choose a smaller number of lenses of higher quality, which is always a good idea in astronomy anyway. The fact that I’m starting over just makes it easier.
Although it looked a bit at first like I was going down a small rabbit-hole. One of the guys at the local astronomy store, Nathan, is very particular about his eyepieces, and I lucked out that he was working the day I went in to pick their brains. I spent about an hour with him going over what I liked and then trying out a few high-end lenses. And I was really surprised. A few of the truly high-end ones that are 5/5 on the quality scale were ones I didn’t like at all in the sub-25mm range. Not enough eye-relief for me, particularly as I like the flexibility of being able to use the EPs with and without my glasses (both for me and others at star parties). I also had figured out at my good viewing night that my exit pupil is somewhere in the 4-5mm range, which means I don’t want anything much higher in size / lower in power than a 42mm lens. So, where does that leave me?
At the top level, I was a bit surprised to find out I really liked the feel of the Panoptics. They look so different from the Delos that I love, I wasn’t expecting to like them so much. But, don’t get me wrong, the EPs are awesome and depending on who you ask, they would be either 4s or 5s for quality, so lots of people DO love them. They are also 2″ eyepieces, and the 41mm (about 50x magnification) shows a huge chunk of sky. Great for wide-field views. Plus, I still have a couple of nice filters that also weren’t in the stolen box that fit a 2″ EP. Sweet. Since that is the top-end for my exit pupils (the size my eyes dilate to for my present age), I figured that was a good upper cap. I don’t need it immediately, and at $700 new, I’ll look for a used one over the next year and see if I get lucky.
Under that gets a bit tricky. They have five more in that style — 41, 35, 27, 24, 19mm. The top 3 sizes are all 2″, but the bottom two are 1.5″ and when they get to that size, I don’t like the eye-relief as much, so the 24mm and 19mm are out. So I won’t buy only Panoptics. The 41 is chosen above, which leaves 35 or 27. Honestly, I’d love them both, but I already have a Hyperion 36mm 2″ option, so the focus is on 27mm. I found one online used, saved about $140 that way, and it is in transit. Fingers crossed.
Continuing downward for size and upward for power, my scope is designed originally for centring and alignment using a 25mm lens (i.e., at about an 80x magnification) so I replaced the default Plossl with another one, picking it up used. Call it a 3/5 for quality. It is a quick option when I don’t want to break out the big 27mm Panoptic. Plus it should work well enough with my smartphone.
The Delos 17.3mm was my favourite EP previously, and it was a no-brainer to get another one for 180x power. I bought it new, even though the price has gone up by $100 since I bought it 7 years ago. Call it a 4/5 for quality. and I fully expect it will remain my go-to EP of choice. I just love it.
A guy in the local astronomy group heard about my EP problem, and as he is selling off some astro equipment (including a couple of nice scopes, sigh), I got a decent deal on a 15mm Plossl that I can also use with my smartphone.
And, one of the benefits of seeing the expert at the astronomy store, I learned about Televue Powermate. You can buy these small things called barlows that serve as small tubes that add a magnification factor to your existing eyepieces. So, for example, if I had a 40mm eyepiece, that would give me about 80x magnification. If I put the EP in a 2x barlow, it is like I turn my 40mm EP into a 20mm EP, and I get 160x magnification. In effect, if you have a barlow, you virtually double the number of EPs you have to choose from. Sounds perfect, right? Except barlows add some distortion to the viewing.
However, as I said, my viewing conditions are far from optimal, so if I get much above 250x magnification, I get a lot of movement in the image from distortion in the atmosphere anyway. Therefore I didn’t want anything that ADDED distortion. I had a 2x barlow previously, but since I had lots of small increment EPs in a series (even of lower quality), I frequently just swapped those in and out rather than using the barlow. For example, I could have used the 25mm Plossl with the 2x to get to 12.5mm power (160x) or just use a 12mm Plossl. Or the 10mm Delos that I didn’t enjoy as much as the 17.3 Delos.
So I was thinking no barlow. There are lots of models out there — 2x, 3x, 5x, adjustable 2-5x, etc. And I assumed they all caused the same distortions. Except apparently Powermates don’t. A lot bulkier, different design, but they minimize the distortion factor. But whereas a barlow can run you anywhere from $50 to $200, Powermates are $400+ new. Yikes. But I lucked out, I found one online used for $140 off, similar to the Panoptic I found (different sellers). In the end, this means I will have six lenses (although 2 mainly for smartphone attachments) plus a Powermate that will give me 12 different magnifications.
|Pan-optic 41mm||—||50x||2″||4-5 / 5|
|Hyperion 36mm||—||56x||2″ / 1.25″||3-4 / 5|
|Pan-optic 27mm||—||75x||2″||4-5 / 5|
|Plossl 25mm||—||80x||1.25″||3 / 5|
|Virtual 20.5mm||Panoptic 41mm + Powermate 2x||100x||2″||4 / 5|
|Virtual 18mm||Hyperion 36mm + Powermate 2x||113x||2″ / 1.25″||3 / 5|
|Delos 17.3mm||—||117x||1.25″||4 / 5|
|Plossl 15mm||—||135x||1.25″||3 / 5|
|Virtual 13.5mm||Panoptic 27 + Powermate 2x||150x||2″||4 / 5|
|Virtual 12.5mm||Plossl 25 + Powermate 2x||160x||1.25″||2 / 5|
|Virtual 8.65mm||Delos 17.3mm + Powermate 2x||235x||1.25″||3 / 5|
|Virtual 7.5mm||Plossl 15mm + Powermate 2x||270x||1.25″||2 / 5|
So my main EPs will give me 50x to 117x, and the Powermate will fill in gaps between 80x and 117x and give me options above 135x (i.e. 150x-270x). But I don’t have the 41mm yet, hopefully sometime in the next year. Just have to be patient. 🙂
While I was reeling from the loss of my eyepieces, I completely blanked on another small aspect of the loss. They also took my case that the EPs were in. I had ordered it through Amazon, an Orion-branded case, and it came with pluck foam so I could carve out niches for my EPs and keep them safe from physical harm. I put some time and energy into the layout and this was the outcome back in the day:
A place for everything and everything in its place. I was pretty happy with it. But, as with the EPs themselves, starting over gives me a chance to revisit exactly how I organize my stuff. I have an adapter for my smartphone, filters, a filter wheel, etc., a few other little things that didn’t fit in the above case, and so was separate. What do I do now?
Well, oddly enough, that case wasn’t quite perfect, just good enough. Price was okay, the size was okay, sure, but the locking mechanism always gave me a bit of a nervous edge when carrying it.
However, I was at Canadian Tire a week or so ago, and I found these really awesome cases. And they were on sale. The problem? I don’t know what size I need, and wouldn’t know until I figured out the EP issues above. How much room do Panoptics take? What about the Powermate barlow? How many lenses would I get? How tall are they? What about the other equipment, do I want them in a case?
I cheated. There’s a 90-day return policy, so I bought a small, two mediums and a large case. I figure I’ll likely want two in the end, one for EPs, one for other stuff, I just don’t know which sizes. So this way, I’m covered. And I’ll just return the ones I don’t need. In the meantime, I’m using a small case with little padding but gets the job done for now.
I’d love to say I’ve made huge outings and re-engaged. Instead, the weather has not cooperated. We had to cancel two star party dates in a row (3 if you include International Astronomy Day back at the start of May when we cancelled night-time viewing). I did try to set up one night and the clouds were supposed to improve all night. Instead, it was slightly cloudy at 9:00 when I set up and totally socked-in when I came back at 11:00 to actually view.
I used my solar filter one evening awhile ago and found a small pinhole in that I’ve covered with duct-tape…a bit overkill (you don’t need to probably fix it at all given it is just adding more light to the tube, not directly into your eye), but what the heck. It doesn’t hurt to be overly cautious and affects nothing for performance.
Logging and blogging
Back in 2017, I did up my own customized astronomy log (Draft Astronomy Observing Log). I crowd-sourced some input, pulled some versions off other people’s blogs and various astronomy websites, compiled them all into something that looks great for me, boiled it down to 2 pages, set it up with some other inputs and BAM! I had my own custom astronomy log. Except I hate trying to write in it in the dark. I really wanted something electronic too so that I wouldn’t have to write by hand and then transcribe later. Plus I never did find a good way to hold a red light flashlight while writing. Of course, since I haven’t had much luck with observing, that’s not the biggest issue either.
I have a copy of Sky Safari on my tablet, and it comes with a built-in astronomy log. But even if I customize the heck out of it, there are still some pieces missing for my setup that I would want to record. It’s decent, not awesome. Similarly for several other near tools.
The really GOOD idea is that I could just code an app myself that would have all the bells and whistles I want, customized exactly how I want it. There’s only one problem. I don’t know how to code an app. 🙂
Okay, that seems like a major block, but not an insurmountable one. I’ve always wanted to learn, and I did do coding in high school and university, plus programmed a few small utility apps on my own back in the dark days of DOS. But this is a different kind of beast. Maybe a longer-term solution.
If you step back a second, and look at what I want to do, I basically want to collect data on a tablet with or without a wireless connection, and lots of people have to do this for actual business solutions, right? So I went hunting for solutions. Most of which had monthly subscription fee options, or were good for enterprise solutions, not much decent in the free category.
I shifted sideways and looked for survey and form apps. Same problem.
If I’m completely honest with myself, what I really need is a simple MS Access database (or something very similar). Which would be GREAT if I was just doing it on my desktop, not trying to run it on a tablet in the field (sometimes literally). Google Forms would be AWESOME, except there’s no app version of it that would work without a wireless connection.
But there’s also another “filter” (small pun) at play — I have to be able to use it at night, in the dark, without bright white displays killing my night vision. I found a few tools that were close, but no way to modify the interface, and they often had permanent menus showing, white backgrounds, etc. Not great for an astronomy app. There are apps that will override everything and make it dim, but it’s still not the right colour scheme.
Astronomy apps know this and include a specific type of night mode — black backgrounds, and all lettering is in red font. Hard to replicate in an off-the-shelf app designed mostly for people filling out surveys or forms in malls.
I couldn’t use MS Access as MS doesn’t create an Android version of their database. Nor iOS either. Meh. However, I played with Excel and Word enough to realize that I could colour either the cells all black and change the cell contents to red (in Excel) or change the page background to black and use a red font (Word). In both cases, the app wants to include spaces around the pages, menus, toolbars, etc., all in the wrong colour.
But if I turn off toolbars in Word, eliminate the menus, and set margins to zero all the way around, I end up with a screen that I can say “show page-width” that looks like a black wordprocessor with red lettering. If I minimize the logo line all the way to the minimum and drop the brightness level down to minimum settings, it works. Interesting.
I can do almost the same in Excel, more or less, so what I really wanted to know was what “other” features could I add? Since the dbase option was basically a simple flat-file format, why not do it in Excel, right? Do up some drop-down lists, set a few broad categories, maybe even do short look-ups to allow multiple entries per drop-down (like if I was indicating I was using multiple eyepieces in one viewing session). I could even set some macros that would allow me more sophisticated “profiling” to, for example, allow me to set some pre-defined defaults if I was viewing the moon vs. the sun vs. planets, or if I was using certain filters.
Played with it a bit in Excel and Word, tried doing some simple formatting tricks with macros and VB plugins in the developer menu. I got a couple of things working, mostly just free-designing, not going in with a full-on plan of everything I wanted, just trying some stuff out. I saved the files, kicked them to my tablet, opened them up in the apps, all looked great.
Except for another “small” problem. Most of the functionality didn’t work. The app version, as opposed to the desktop 365 version, doesn’t support macros. Or VB coding. Half the time, it doesn’t even like control inputs (like full drop-downs). Some of it worked, some didn’t. I started playing with checkboxes, thinking “Fine, I’ll just code all the options” and use a checkbox for each of them. Again, some worked perfectly, others didn’t, and I couldn’t modify the data very easily.
Soooo, I went back to basics. A very simple Word document is what I ended up with when I printed the original design two years ago, so why not do the same for the digital note-taker? I ditched tables, most of the checkboxes, left in my instructions for setups, and divided elements between those that are common for the night (i.e. for a session) vs. those that change for each object (i.e. for a target). I then told the computer it was a legal size file and kicked it over to the tablet. After I saved it, removed all the menus and minimized the header area, it actually works. I tried it quickly outside the other night, and visually and tablet-wise, it worked. Now I just need to give it a real-life trial.
Here is the file, if anyone wants to see what I’m using. [ddownload id=”15318″]
In the end
I’ve got my EPs locked and loaded, even if I don’t have the final case setup yet. One more EP in the future, mostly ready to go now. I have cases, just need to decide which ones. I desperately need some clouds to get the heck out of my universe, I feel like I’m hoarding them of late. And I’ve got my astrolog ready to go. I’ve even consolidated some of my astro materials/tools so that I can be down to two small boxes right now. I’m good to go. Imaging is on my list for the future, but not urgent.
In the meantime, I’ll be looking at you, universe!