Thursday, March 31, 2011

doesn't move

I found a note a few days ago that recommended warming the StellaCam3 when done using it. In other words, they said to turn off the cooling. And this could be done by pressing the red LED.

Tried that, in the light of day, but the red LED (while marked ON OFF) did not move...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

1080p for ST3

SkyTools3 is freakin' awesome on a 1920 by 1080 monitor!

a whole week?

Were we going to get a full week of clear nights? Unheard of, this time of year... But, nooooo. Tonight it is clouding over. Damn.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

SMS support

Grace sent me a text message out of the blue. Asked me if all stars would turn into black holes.


A bit difficult to explain in 140 characters...

Monday, March 28, 2011

astronomy at the farm

After visiting the Bobos at their farm north of the Holland Marsh and chatting about how it would be a great spot to enjoy the telescope in dark skies, I started eyeballing upcoming weekends near the first quarter Moon.

Sent Marion a note on Facebook to see if the April 9-10 weekend would work for them.

five eves

Wow. Another clear evening is on deck. In fact, it meshes into the first possible night for the RASC Toronto Centre Dark Sky Observing Session.

Alas, it looks like I won't be able to take advantage this time: I'm going to a RASC TC Carr Astronomical Observatory (CAO) committee meeting.

M82 raw (Toronto)

Pulled this image from the video camera.

StellaCam3. 30 seconds, manual timing. Gain 50%. Unguided.


Wikipedia link: Messier 82.

video astronomy night (Toronto)

I wanted to make a video record of an occultation (even though I was not in the shadow). And I wanted to try a long exposure of a deep sky object with the StellaCam3.
Intrument: Celestron 8-inch SCT
Mount: Vixen Super Polaris
Method: star hopping
4:29 PM, 27 Mar 2011. The telescope, mount, and tripod were outside. It put the 'scope down on the deck floor, out of the Sun, to cool. I put the tripod a little bit closer to house to afford a bit more room around the south end of the porch. Remembered, for a change, to put a portable weather station outside. Put the poles for the light blind outside. I had an observing list ready. I had other accessories ready.

7:31 PM. I finally figured out StellaCam integration settings! Damn! At long last. I learned that each frame represents 1/30th of a second. I had thought it 1/60th. That explained a lot. It confirmed that the integration setting 9, of 256 frames, was 8.5 seconds. It meant that settings 1 through 3 were about 1/30th, 1/15th, and 1/7th of a second. Fine enough, fast enough, for many occultations. It was all suddenly clear now. What a relief.

8:19. I now had the OTA and mount on the tripod. I had the power cord through the window.

8:25. It was cold. Environment Canada said it was -4.3°C but it felt way colder than that.

I had the mount motor running. The dew heaters were running (including the coffee cup heater on the finder scope). The SCT adapter was reinstalled to the visual back. The WO 2" mirror was installed.

8:36. I finished aligning on the NCP. Polaris just at edge of roof, from the new tripod position. I left the 'scope on Sirius to gauge the tracking. Did some periodic checks over the next 20 minutes and the alignment seemed OK. Not perfect but OK for a video record. I know I'd need a better alignment for long exposures. I could do drift alignment analyses.

9:00. I began the long star hop. I paused at δ1 (delta) CMi. There were a lot of tree branches in the way. I put up the light shield, a bit higher this time. It was great!

9:18. Continuing the star hop, I landed on star HD 57902. There was a big branch in the way now. I'd have to wait a bit for the star to clear. I could start setting up occultation gear. Well, except for the camera.

9:24. I had the rig outside. The GPS sensor was ready. I had the StellaCam3 installed in Vixen flip mirror, at the proper depth (to be parfocal) and set it aside. Still had the Williams Optics mirror attached to the SCT. I checked the time. It was less than 1 hour to go.

9:37. I continued the star hop. I knew that I was less than a degree from the target. But I found the tree in the way again.

9:49. At last, I found and centred on the target star. I bumped to the 26mm eyepiece. I was ready to put the flip mirror in. I powered the rig. Oops. Knew I'd forget something. I connected control pad (on the fly)! I centred on the star and flipped the mirror. I had it! Went inside to get the camcorder. Started recording.

10:09. Everything was ready. I double-checked everything. Just when the tape ran out! Ha ha. I had actually briefly wondered where I was on the tape. Now I knew. Considered for a moment drumming up another tape but I wasn't exactly sure where I had put them. So, I rewound to beginning and resumed recording.

The drift error was fairly pronounced so I rotated the flip mirror about 90 deg to take advantage of field width.

I noted this time that I get the microphone feedback when camcorder display open. It immediately stopped when I closed the little LCD.

Double-checked everything once again. And same, for the second time, I had a GPS error. I simply reinitialised the Kiwi and it started up fine.

This is it...

I didn't see anything blink out at 22:16:16. I recorded for another 2 minutes.

10:21. While I monitored the star on the Oslon LCD, I did not see it blink out. So I unofficially called it an observed miss. As I expected.

I would still have to examine the video record of course...

I was a little perturbed by the polar alignment being off. I wanted to check it via ST3 again. I tried redoing it but I saw, on the screen, I was still drifting. It was actually very interesting having a live video feed. With the 8 second integration, I dialled out the drift.

I removed power from the Kiwi to clean up the display.

I star hopped, classic style, to M81 and M82 using the Pocket Sky Atlas. I was confused for a moment until I remembered that the new finder scope didn't rotate the field of view.

12:23 AM, 28 Mar 2011. I just finished imaging M82, with the gain at 50%. I did manual exposures at 15, 20, 30, and 60 sec. I was pleased that there was very little trailing.

12:41 AM. Tried a 90 second shot but there was lots of trailing.

I inspected the Oregon Scientific weather station: -5.7°C, 43% humidity, the pressure was rising.

I did a rapid tear down. I tried pressing LED on CCD camera to turn off the cooling but it didn't move.

1:07. I was very very curious. I transferred a still image over from the camcorder and played with it briefly in Fireworks. Got lots o' learnin' to do...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

recorded a miss (Toronto)

Unofficially, I video-recorded a miss of the occultation of star TYC 0164-01394-1u by asteroid (157070) 2003 SG307 at the predicted time of 10:16 PM EST. I was not expecting a hit being 57 kilometres from the centre-line. But, as a low rank (1) event, anything could happen.

This evening was more about refining my recent discoveries on the StellaCam3. It was my first completely successful run with Denis's occultation rig.

I have yet to review the video tape and reduce data. But, at this stage, it looks promising.

great photos

I didn't see her during the evening but she was clearly out and about! Sharmin shot lots of great photos at the Earth Hour star party. She posted them to her Facebook account.

She got one of me while I was scanning the sky with binoculars. I was using them to try to find Mercury...

fourth night

Absolutely incredible. Tonight is shaping up to be another clear night. Four in a row in Canada in March. Absolutely incredible.

very impressed he was

Uve emailed me when he got home. He was very impressed with the colour contrast of "the Winter Albireo" double star I showed him last night.

He wanted to know it's official name. Good question! SkyTools lists it, of course, with a variety of designations. The primary one it uses is HR 2764. Alternates are HD 56577, SAO 173349, HJ 3945A, HIP 35210, ADS 5951A, TYC 06537-3290 1.

Haas refers to it as h3945.

I believe it is also 145 CMa. Stellarium uses this as the primary description. I don't know why SkyTools doesn't show that one...

only 5%

Lackluster response to Earth Hour. The Globe and Mail reported:
In Toronto, energy use fell by 115 megawatts between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., a drop of about 5 per cent, said Jennifer Link, a spokeswoman for Toronto Hydro.

Last year, the city's Earth Hour efforts saved 296 megawatts.

In 2009, it was 454 megawatts.
Not good.

Why was it so poor this year? Some say that the novelty is wearing off. Certainly, I did not perceive as much attention to the event. Not very much marketing.

Last year I remember reading a remark that said it is really not the best time of year to do this sort of thing. Last night was certainly not balmy. Lights aside, we need a lot of electricity on these chilly winter evenings.

Another thought I had was about the entire handling of the statistics. I'm sure it's not the case but were the total consumption numbers the same from year to year? There's a piece of data missing. They say it went down 115 this year. But from where? Optimistically thinking, what if we were already consuming less than last year. Then 5% might be a big amount.

As usual, the statistics need to be taken with a grain of salt...

Personally, I think I'm consuming a lot less electricity than ever before. I have many in-service power bars that I switch off when appropriate. For example, I don't run my microwave continously; I only power it up when cooking. I don't run one computer continously where I used to in the past. I recently built my suspended clothes rack (thanks to Lora and Phil) in the new place and I hang and air-dry clothes regularly now. I'm only using the electric dryer when I need something done fast. I make a point of turning off lights when I don't need them. I only use the washing machine at off-peak times. I'm doing my bit.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

flew Phil's 'scope (Don Mills)

Phil and I decided to operate one telescope together. It would ease the load on each of us. If someone needed a break, the other could take the helm. One could manage the 'scope while the other did crowd control. We agreed to meet on the Teluscape in front of the Ontario Science Centre at 7:00 PM or so. He said he'd phone me when getting close. I agreed to meet him at the driveway to help unload.

I took the TTC to the OSC and got there on time. Chatted with François as he set up his gear including MallinCam and monitor. Said hello to Scott (and gave him some paperwork). As I headed to the foyer, I spotted Pat and Shawn setting up the RASC Toronto Centre booth. Picked up my name tag as well as a few others. After visiting the loo, I headed back outside and ran into Leslie and Tom.

When I returned to the Teluscape, I saw Phil's truck! Hey! He had already unloaded stuff. Said he had phoned me. Funny that my Telus phone didn't work. Ironic, on the Teluscape... Sheesh. No matter. I started to set up his gear as he parked.

I decided on the north edge of the central plaza in hopes of catching a glimpse of Saturn early. Was putting up the short steel tripod as Phil returned. Aimed to where I thought north was. Phil grabbed him compass (with the magnetic declination already dialled in) and fine-tuned.

Guy swung 'round and gave us our "target" signage. Hind's Crimson Star and M81/M82...

We prepared the Meade LX10 optical tube assembly and integrated fork mount together. First, Phil located the three mounting screws advising me that the top-centre one had to be pre-installed to hold the OTA and mount in the tray. Phil took the load and I guided. Then I installed the other two screws and tightened everything down.

We hooked up the control pad, small 12 volt battery tank, and 8x50 finder with 5° field of view. We decided to also add the Telrad with dew shield. Phil showed me how the tracking motor drive worked and how to engage and disengage the clutches.

It was around this time that Phil noticed something was wrong... The tines of the fork were pointed in the wrong direction! Oopsie. Noob mistake. I don't have much experience with forks. As soon as he mentioned it though, I remembered that you need to aim the fork to the north celestial pole. We spun the entire rig around.

Phil attached the 2-inch mirror diagonal into the William Optics Crayford focuser and dropped in a medium power eyepiece. I started to align the Telrad and finder scope to the 8" SCT. The only object visible at the time was Sirius.

All this attention caught the eyes of some of the kids. They bustled over to see what we were seeing. Apologised for the plain view of a star. Still, when Phil told me that Sirius was around 8 lightyears away, it occurred to me that would be about the age of the kids. That was a neat comparison.

It suddenly wondered if Mercury might be visible. Funny, all the iPhones suddenly popped out to augment reality! We concluded it should be just above the roof line of the OSC but despite some thorough scanning with the Horvatin binoculars, I could not locate it.

It was still not dark enough for our deep sky objects so I put the telescope on Mizar and Alcor, 80 light years away, and offered up views as the crowds started to thicken.

And the time just flew by...

I know someone brought me a hot chocolate at one point. I know someone handed me one of Lora's cookies. The hot chocolate froze before I could finish it. It took me 30 minutes to finish the cookie. Guess I was talkin' too much! I recall Tony asking me where Algieba was. I know I requested the low power eyepiece, the 35mm Tele Vue Panoptic, giving us approx. 58 power. I remember the little step stool and observing chair disappearing part-way through the evening. While being interviewed, I bull's-eyed the Winter Albireo (aka 145 Canes Majoris). Tony, Phil, Uve, and Guy took a look. Wonderful colours.

When the lights came back up in front of the OSC, we started packing up. The crowds had dissipated. Phil was cold.

I didn't clue in right away but there was a flurry of activity to the north. Some had found a vantage point so to see Saturn. A little late but the few remaining visitors got a look thanks to John and Tony.

I helped Phil pack up. I talked him into going to the pub! Lora phoned me to ask me not to put him on a train to Montréal without credit cards...


While unsuccessful lighting the butane handwarmer, I cracked the sodium ones. But they didn't last long in the cold. I heard the temperature was between -5 and -10°C. And it was breezy. Fortunately, my feet were toasty in the Baffin boots!


It was fun learning a new telescope tonight. I thanked Phil for letting me fly his pristine LX10.

three nights!

I'll be at the Earth Hour star party co-hosted by the Ontario Science Centre and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada - Toronto Centre.

Remember to save electricity tonight!

another word

It's always good to sleep on it...

I submitted another comment to Phil's Facebook query. "Another word: tracking."

Phil replied, "Message received loud and clear!"

winter list targets (Toronto)

With a second clear evening coming up, and the telescope gear still near the porch, partly assembled, I was keen to get out there.
Instrument: Celestron 8-inch SCT
Mount: Vixen Super Polaris
Method: star hopping
That said, I didn't want to... complicate matters. Keep it simple, yes? No fiddling with video gear tonight. Back to basics. Let's just do simple, basic, normal visual observing. Been a while.

And I had a great time! Especially once I put the dark screen up!


7:40 PM, 25 Mar 2011. Started early preparation steps. Once again, breaking up the process so it wasn't too much at once. Allowed me to go slow, double-check, avoid mistakes.

I put the Celestron telescope tube (and mount) outside to begin cooling. The 8" tube and mount were still attached to each other, from the day before. Laid down a towel and set it atop the deck box. It was a bit slippy. I positioned everything hoping it wouldn't slide off! Covered the assembly with another towel.

Roughly facing north, I put the tripod out. All the electrics where still attached, Kendrick dew heating system, Vixen motor drive. It would be quick to integrate everything.

The repaired street light was so bright last night! It was a completely different experience... Like I was on a stage! With studio lighting! Well, not exactly, but crazy bright. Too bad there wasn't some way to shut it off.

I started to entertain the idea of putting up a blind. Rummaged around for some tall or long poles or rods. Found a long wood pole leaning in a corner of the living room. I forget where it is from, perhaps an old push broom. Then I took a handle from the floor mop. A bit shorter and thinner but it would work. Put them near the door. For an opaque fabric screen I checked my queen-sized duvee covers. Ah ha! The black one! Forgot about that.

Prepared an observing list in SkyTools with the primary choices being the unlogged items from my (detailed) Turn Left at Orion winter list. I was particularly interested in finding the Winter Albireo! Set the observation status of logged items to observed then adjusted the filter to suppress the previously observed items. Added up to about a dozen targets. I threw Saturn in as well.

I installed red film sheets on all the computer monitors and activated red LED lights about the place.

Nancy settled into my bedroom, curled up at the end of the bed. Probably still stinging from his recent sojourn...

8:53 PM. I now had the optical tube assembly, with mount, installed on the tripod. Did a rough polar alignment. I still had the Vixen flip mirror installed from the previous evening. I swapped it for the Williams Optics 2" dielectric mirror. The dew heaters from the tray were reinstalled. As I wasn't pressed for cigarette lighter adapter ports this evening, I added the finder dew heater. The motor controller was connected and powered.

Dropped in the low power baader planetarium eyepiece.

Ready to go!

Checked the charts for HR 2764 and saw it was just above the rump of the Big Dog. When I examined the SkyTools3 telescope chart, with wide-field, finder, and eyepiece panels, I felt a little intimidated. As much as I want to employ the new high-speed method of "star hopping," I didn't see a lot of bright stars and useful sign posts above Canis Major. How difficult was this going to be? Would I have to switch to classic, traditional star hopping (in little jumps)? Would the tree branches mess me up?

9:23. I aimed the telescope in the general above the hindquarters of CMa, about the same distance above δ (delta) that delta was away from ε (epsilon). Looked through the Orion right-angled finder scope... Hey! I noted a tiny, colourful pair of stars in the field of view. I had stumbled across an amber and pale blue star. By sheer luck, had I centred on the Winter Albireo?!

I headed indoors to compare the stars in the ocular to the ST3 software.

While at the computer, I checked the Environment Canada conditions (at the main airport):
  • temperature was -7°C, but with the wind N at 24 km/h, gusting to 35 km/h, it created a wind chill of -15
  • pressure was 102.0 and rising
  • the humidity was 60%
  • the predicted dew point was -13 but probably the wind would keep frost at bay
The computer view seem to correspond to what I was seeing. Returned to the 'scope to compare once again.

9:30. They were the same! Ha ha. Skip finder view, skip regular star hopping, go directly to star. I confirmed it is the Winter Albireo. Cool.

I reconsidered the colours. Amber was too strong a word. The primary was definitely orange. Citrus? If I remember correctly, the main star in Albireo, "Summer Albireo," was yellow.

These two star were wide apart. They did not seem as tight at those in Cygnus. It would be interesting to compare them simultaneously... Can only do that in software!

I added Albireo to the SkyTools observing list so that I could set them against each other. Ah. So, β (beta) Cyg is listed with a 34 arcsecond separation, 8" wider than HR 2764.

Definitely worth it, this beautiful pair, also know as HIP35210. But a little off the beaten track.

It was a little funny how I stumbled on it.

9:50. Observed NGC 2362, a beautiful little open cluster, just beyond 29 CMa. I was still using the 36mm eyepiece. I noted fine blue white stars in a rough triangle shape. There is a main star in the centre of this group. It appeared to have 2 faint companions near it, in a perfectly straight line. [ed: aka Caldwell 64.]

I learned that main star was τ (tau). Those two companion stars were mag 9.8 and 11.2.

10:02. I viewed Alnitak. It came from the TLAO list as a double star. It showed in ST3 as a multiple and variable. I saw a faint star, widely separated. I was still using the low power ocular. Was this the companion of the double star?

ST3 informed me that the magnitude 9.5 star in fact one of the companions. Alnitak or ζ (zeta) Orionis was a triple and I was looking at the C star at 57" separation. But I couldn't see the closer one. ST3 said it was only 2.2" away. Oh, rather tight... OK. Let's try!

10:20. I successfully separated the B star from A! Yes! But I had to use 222x to do it. The Tele Vue Nagler to the rescue. That the B companion is bright (ST3 says mag 4) helps too.

Funny, back at 55x I thought that the primary was not round. It became a peanut at 77x then two stars touching at 111x.

The colours of (Struve) Σ774 emerged in the 9mm as well. I thought the primary was white-blue, B dusty yellow, and C simply grey. Sissy Haas describes the colours as yellow and silvery yellow. But she does not say which stars. Haas also notes that B is 2.6 seconds of arc from A.

It was upon reviewing double stars for small telescopes that I noted a check mark beside ζ. That meant I had previously viewed it. Huh. Checked my double star life list. Yep. Noted. When? Why had I not marked it as observed in SkyTools? Dug through the old notes and learned (recalled) that I had viewed the AB pair 3 years ago, by accident... So, it proved a worthy subject.

The next target was a suggestion from a different ST3 observing list, one I had imported, called TAC Eye Candy, prepared by Smith, Dillon, and Jardine (from The Astronomy Connection). I headed up from Betelgeuse. Hey, turn right at k (aka 74) and 73 Orion!

10:45. I enjoyed NGC 2169. SkyTools calls this 37 Cluster. That's an odd primary name. Just below (or south-west of) ξ (xi) and ν (nu), forming the apex of an (up side down) isosceles triangle, Collinder 83 is a very small and compact grouping of fine blue-white stars. There seemed to be two distinct V-shapes at right angles to one another. That was a nice little find.

I was feeling a little low. I started drinking water for a boost.

I starhopped, using the classic method, from Sirius, pretty well straight up, pausing at θ (theta) CMa, and continuing toward the zenith, departing the Big Dog for the Unicorn. I found a little rhombus cornered with HIP 33534. A bit further up I landed on an L-shape of stars with HIP 33729 at the apex.

11:19. I viewed M50. It was a large object, filling most of the field of the 36mm. I saw what appeared to be a funnel or cone shape. It was a pleasing object to view. More fine blue-white stars would appear the longer I looked.

This object was also not noted as logged in SkyTools but I found it showing in my Messier life list with an asterisk. That meant that I had wanted to view it again. Done!

Felt myself winding down.

11:27. I decided to try my screen experiment... I attach the poles to the railing with Velcro straps, two each, so that they were about 6 feet apart. That covered a good chunk of the south railing. I hooked the duvee cover over the left pole and wound it around the right. Everything stayed put although it was drooping a bit in the middle. This just might work.

11:43. Wow. The black blind was really nice! With the fabric about 3½ to 4 feet above the top of the railing, it blocked the street lights but still afforded views of objects fairly low (for what it is worth). If higher, it would block the reflection of the street light from my kitchen windows. The overall effect was stunning. The level of darkness it produced on the deck was surprisingly good.

What an improvement! And I was only blocking a portion of the light. I wondered what it would be like with a complete wraparound barrier. I took measurements (9'0" x 7'9")!

I hadn't considered it so formerly. On my deck, I can do whatever I want. I can build a full light blind and enjoy using the porch for astronomy fun in the city. This was not something that I could have done at my old place per se, in the shared back yard, shared driveway, at the back of the house. Wow. This actually might prove better than I had hoped!

I took another look at M50. The open cluster was dimming. Not surprising at 18 degree elevation.

I decided to go for one more object: 63 Geminorum. Another multiple star system. A triple according to TLAO; a quad as per ST3.

12:01 AM, 26 Mar 2011. I spotted the AB pair of 63 Gem. The companion was faint (mag 9.5) and at approximately a 90° to another faint star mag (10.5), which was twice as far. That was the C star. Double-checked the positions and separations in SkyTools. Learned that the AD sep. was much closer at 3.9". Doable. Particularly given that I had split the 2.2 (or 2.6) pair of (albeit brighter) stars in Alnitak.

12:07 AM. I could not split A and D. Perhaps it is because the primary is mag 5.2 and the second star 9.3.

Haas only discusses the 63 AB pair. She notes the following: "Fantastic contrast." Smyth says, "Pale white, purple." Wow. I forgot to note colours but I sure didn't see purple.

Went for another look.

12:08. No luck star splitting.

I did see something else interesting. I wondered if I had found a fast mover. There was a very faint star between A and C. ST3 shows a mag 12.6 (admittedly poor quality) star nearer A; but I'm seeing a very faint star nearer to C. The position is very different that SkyTools; curiously, Stellarium seems closer to my view (and notes the star 11.9). I'll have to get digital surveys. Maybe make my own image!

I know I had said "one more." But I suddenly remembered that Saturn was rising high...

12:28. Just viewed Saturn. The seeing is really good! Spotted Titan off to the right. Went inside to warm up and check moon positions.

Checked the Environment Canada conditions: -8°C. The wind had died down.

12:43. Increased the power. Saw (mirror-revered) Titan (right), Rhea (left), and Iapetus (far left). I could not see any of the other moons. I tried to probe deeper but the eyepiece was cold (I forgot to take it inside) and kept fogging. The tree branches were also in the way which was annoying. I think I was very tired.

I packed up rapidly (again).

12:44. Everything (sensitive) was back inside.

That was a great session! It proved very enjoyable, doing basic, direct visual observing. It was very satisfying getting a few items crossed off.


Checked 63 Gem in the Aladin previewer with the Simbad data using the coordinates 07 27 44.3634+21 26 42.891. The view closely matches what I was seeing. Looks like the SkyTools data is a bit off.


The 37 Cluster is also known as OCL 481.

Friday, March 25, 2011

can't decide?

Phil posted on his Facebook profile that he couldn't decide which telescope to bring to the Earth Hour star party. Either his 4" refractor (on alt-az mount) or his 8" SCT (on motorised fork mount). He may have opened a box he won't be able to close...

I jumped in and said, "One word: aperture."

two clear nights?

In a row? In March? In Canada?!

StellaCam research

Now that I have access to the StellaCam Yahoo!Group, I'm reading all the notes and documentation. I've found a number of interesting notes...

From the Sky and Telescope Sep 2007 review, they note that in the manual it says you should warm the CCD before tear down. Oh... You do this by pressing on the LED! It's not just an LED!

From the same article they say that the maximum integration setting (9) is roughly equivalent to an 8½ second exposure and takes 10 seconds to be served. Then, "With four frames, the display appears nearly real-time."

So, I do not get the math of this at all, but it is interesting the idea that I might be able to use SLOW settings of 1 through 3...

The author talked about using the single-exposure long-duration mode. "Not surprisingly, a 1-minute single exposure went far deeper. Three-minute exposures generally reached my sky-fog limit..." Why I didn't try that last night escapes me.

The author also discuss lens speed. "StellaCam3 is very sensitive, but it still benefits from fast optics. Among the telescopes that worked best for me were 11-inch f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain fitted with an f/3.3 focal reducer."

The amount of air was alluded to: "Not surprisingly, objects near the zenith in a dark sky always appeared better than those near the horizon."

He captured M81 (with his 8" f/5 Newt) but took a 90 second exposure. Ah ha.

Tried to download the other documents from the Yahoo!Group. Directory errors. Great.

Located documentation at OptCorp for the StellaCam3. Downloaded the PDF. Hmm, looked familiar. It is clearly labelled for the StellaCam3 but the notes refer to the other control box! Damn it. I hate that! Bad documentation.

Also on the OptCorp I found a product info page for the control box. It showed a photo that matches Denis's. There were notes below. Wrong! Wrong information; information for the other controller. Probably what happened is they just copied and pasted the text. Frig!

wrong dox

Ha. Jumped into the StellaCam Yahoo!Group. Noticed the photo on the main page. Looked closely at the control box... hey! It's different.

Found the same photo in the storage area. It's labelled StellaCamII control box.

That explains the different labelling...

I've got the wrong dox!

StellaCam testing (Toronto)

It was looking clear and the Moon was not rising until about 1 AM so I decided to set up to testing of the StellaCam3.
Instrument: Celestron 8-inch SCT
Mount: Vixen Super Polaris
Method: star hopping
I wanted to select stars at or near the zenith and see how sensitive the CCD camera was without the integration or accumulation settings enabled. This, so to explain why I had trouble seeing stars in the camera and video at the Long Sault Ludmilla occultation (of a mag 11.4 star)...

I also wanted to smooth out some other kinks with the rig.

5:00 PM, Thu 24 Mar 2011. Shovelled the porch of snow and erected the tripod. Put the table and observer's chair outside. Moved the Celestron 8" Schmidt Cassegrain telescope outside to the deck box to begin cooling. Began the assembly of an observing list in SkyTools3, including Polaris for alignment, and some galaxies in Ursa Major for fun. Then, prepped dinner.

9:00 PM. Whoa. It was a lot brighter out on the porch now that they fixed the street light across the road... Damn. I may need to implement my light shield barrier idea sooner...

It was getting cold. Put on my winter coat. Fortunately, there was no wind.

Aligned to NCP using SkyTools hints.

Phil and I talked on the phone. He wanted to know if I would join him at the Earth Hour star party on Saturday at the Ontario Science Centre. He was looking for someone to share a 'scope. It was what I needed to hear, to push me over the edge. We talked about which one to use, timing, etc. I told him I'd be there at 7:00 PM to help unload and set up!

10:17 PM. I chased down the star PPM 50856. It is classified as a "neglected" double star in the Washington Double Star catalog. Used the "SkyTools way" of "hopping" to a star. Wow. Fast. I found the little kite-shape with tail. The bottom star of the diamond was the target star. It was faint! Well, they were all faint. I had started with the baader planetarium Hyperion 36mm 2" eyepiece but then, after fitting the 1¼" adapter, I moved up to the Celestron Plössl 26mm and finally the Meade orthoscopic 18mm, yielding 111 power. I could not split with faint star. I headed inside to review my notes.

Oh... the companion is magnitude 12. The separation was doable at 5 seconds of arc but I didn't know if I'd be able to see the second star given its brightness.

I was buoyed in discovering that the final star in the kite's tail, TYC 03417-1368-1, was mag 11.9. I was seeing that without difficult. I thought that not bad from the porch, on a bright street, new light and all, car headlights, reflections everywhere, with my poor eye dark adaptation!

Checked my life lists for magnitude limits. Well, I didn't break records. It February two years ago I was getting the same number, from both High Park and from the backyard on Evelyn Crescent. Without all the lights around, I bet I could get deeper tonight... The sky was very good.

10:22. I noticed Manuel had popped into the RASC Toronto Centre chatroom and said hello. We chit-chatted for a little while. Told him what I was up to. He said he had obtained a new camera. Invited me over for imaging (tempting me with yummy coffee). I asked if he was going to OSC party. He said he was planning to. I gave him some pointers. As I headed back outside, I urged him to do some observing.

10:35. I bumped the power to 222x with the Tele Vue Nagler 9mm. Wow. I still could not see a split of two stars although the target star looked fuzzy... I dunno. I didn't think I was clearly seeing the companion. I think I will need to wait for dark skies, when I get down to mag 13.

11:40. Well, I solved some problems... Not able to split that star but I made some progress in other areas.

When I first powered Denis's occultation rig, I found the image on the little Oslon monitor was terrible. I couldn't see anything. It was flipping and jumping. I pressed the Menu button—no change. I pressed the AV button but that didn't work. Wondered if it was a loose wire. I had never seen it so bad. Unusable.

Frustrated, I went inside to fetch a deep discharge 12 volt gel battery.

The entire occultation rig is powered by a single cigarette lighter adapter (CLA) plug which is split, inside the carrying case, to three feeds, one for the CCD camera, one for the Kiwi time-inserter, and the other for the LCD monitor. I had (like the last time on the porch) plugged in the kit to my custom 120VAC-12VDC adapter. This triple-socket CLA receptacle was shared with the Kendrick dew heater controller and the Vixen motor drive. The power supply was plugged into an extension cord from the kitchen. I wondered if the combination of things—AC input, dew PWM controller, and motor-controller—was producing the tremendous interface.

When I had the kit at Long Sault, obviously, I was on battery power. But I deliberately put the motor and heaters on a battery separate from the occultation rig. No interference issues then (just other problems).

When I have tested the occultation equipment to learn it and when I had it at the CAO, it was on AC power. No major interference issues then.

Plugged the occultation rig-in-a-box to the heavy battery and powered up the monitor. Perfect! Nice clean image. Ah... It was a good, clean, stable picture! I could easily read the Kiwi time values. There was no stripping or banding.

Somehow, in my panicked poking at buttons, I had set the monitor to PAL format... I put it back to Auto.

The next thing I worked on was to get the 26mm ocular (in the long shaft of the Vixen flip mirror) to be parfocal with StellaCam camera (in short/straight-thru tube, of course). I recalled trying to move the eyepiece before and quickly observed that moving it out made it worse. So, I tried moving the camera.

It worked! As I slid the camera outwards, the focus began to match the eyepiece. I continued moving it out. Then I went beyond the detent position. Not ideal but hey... After a few attempts, I found that with the camera about 5 to 6mm beyond the detent groove offered a good solution. It was a compromise. Still not perfect but passable. At least I would have visible stars monitor based on a visual focus setting. No more hunting.

Finally, I started playing with, and paying more attention to, the integration and gamma settings on the AstroVid control pad.

With integration on setting 1, the "lowest," and gamma on medium, I could see mag 10 to 11 stars. If I went the gamma off, there were no stars. If I changed to the "high" setting, level 1, no stars. In all cases, I had the gain setting at maximum, or nearly so.

These target stars were at 71 degrees altitude. There was no moon.

This was a little disappointing. But at the same time illuminating. I had simply assumed that the StellaCam3 could punch into the sky deeper than I could visually. I actually wonder if I can see better than the camera...

I re-read the StellaCam documentation. It's not great, it's not really clear. I wanted to get a deeper understanding of the integration and exposure setting.

The 6-page manual says that one would set the frame dial to high speed shutter mode (labelled HIGH) for planetary, lunar and solar imaging. "The shutter speeds are labeled HIGH 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. They correspond to shutter speeds of 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, and 1/2000 second." That made sense.

And this corresponds to the label plate on the bottom or back of the control pad. The HIGH option shows parenthetically "SEC," presumably meaning seconds (or rather fractions of a second). Also, the 1 setting shows E: 1/60 and C: 1/50. I think the E is short for EIA (the North American NTSC standard) and C means CCIR (the PAL or overseas standard). And the numbers appear to refer to the number of fields per second. Not sure what that means in the broader context but I don't think it really concerns me...

OK. Next paragraph:

In accumulation mode, the SLOW settings are used. This setting is "used to integrate timed exposures within the camera. The box is labeled OFF (1/60 second mode), 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256." Um, what box? I think this is referring to the freeze option.

Does that mean the freeze "off" setting is 1/60th of a second, unless you start pressing the Start/Stop button?

Back to the labelling: the face of the control pad, around the frame dial, opposite the HIGH settings, is simply marked SLOW 1, 2, 3 and so on up to 9. The numbers referred (128 or 256) to are not shown on the dial. On the back, yes, on the info plate, the values are shown:

1 1
2 2
3 4
4 8
5 16
6 32
7 64
8 128
9 256

"These (values) are equivalent to the number of frames that would accumulate for a corresponding exposure time." Right. So, set to 5 and 16 frames aggregate to produce the image. Effectively increasing the sensitivity 16 times.

But how long is each exposure? 1/60? Assuming that, then setting 7 or 64 frames, means the exposure is about 1 second long. Setting 8, approximately 2 seconds; setting 9, 4 seconds.

I found it curious that the setting HIGH 1 seemed to worse that setting SLOW 1. And the freeze option also seemed better than the HIGH 1.

And what exactly is happening at SLOW 1. Is that 1/60 or something else?

Is the documentation that I have for a different controller?!

In the end, I need a "live" setting for occultations. But I am not clear if I should use HIGH 1, the in-between setting, or SLOW 1. Looks like I'll need to do some more reading. Or maybe query the folk on the StellaCam Yahoo!Group.

11:56. I double-checked settings and configuration. I was pointing almost straight up. At the high speed shutter mode of 1/60 (setting 1), I seemed to be, from a city street, at the limit with this camera. I could detect mag 9 to 9.5. Only the mag 9.45 star HP 43545 aka SAO 42579 was visible.

Now I can choose occultations accordingly... Well, maybe I can help when (157070) 2003 SG307 occults TYC 0164-01394-1u!

Testing done! Let's image something. Oooh. Maybe Bode's or the Cigar!

12:06 AM, Fri 25 Mar 2011. Just imaged M81. Tried the SkyTools way of finding it but struggled with so few marker stars; switched to traditional methods. Took me a very long time to find it!

Fortunately, I remembered why. When moving the finder scope, twisting it, it goes out of alignment. That's what happened to me at Long Sault. So, when I recalled this, I realigned. Then I found the galaxy quickly.

Gain: fairly high, about 2/3rd. Integration: 9. Gamma: off. Recorder: Canon Alura 80. North is down; east is right.

The galaxy is huge. It should fill the whole frame. Maybe I'll try stacking some of the video frames.

1:12. I tried to locate M82. No luck. I was getting tired...

I briefly considered viewing and imaging Saturn. Checked the location in software. Well up. Eyeballed it from the porch, through a big tree. But suddenly didn't feel like doing any more. I especially didn't want to start facing into the street lights...

1:26. Done tear down. Experimented this time to wind down a bit faster. Left the observing chair and AV table outside. I also did the telescope tear down differently: I left the OTA attached to mount. It was quicker; but the entire assembly is quite heavy.


Alignment was very good for the evening. Seeing and transparency were rather good.


Wikipedia link: Messier 81.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eric's presentation posted

Oh. Eric posted his DDO logbooks project PowerPoint presentation and notes in the Yahoo!Groups. I thought he wanted to deliver in person later...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

meeting cancellation disconstructed

Toronto, the GTA, K-W, got pounded with snow. Way more than the predicted 5 cm. Today should have been snowmageddon. And it did not let up. In fact, it started snowing harder in the late afternoon... At some point, Dietmar and Charles contacted Ralph to discuss cancelling the RASC Toronto Centre meeting.

4:15 PM. Charles left his work. The shop is near the Mississauga-Etobicoke border. He left his staff go home early. He himself left a bit early to accommodate for the conditions. But he was still surprised at how bad the roads were.

4:34 PM. Al phoned my home and left a message in my voice mail there. He was wondering if the meeting was cancelled. He had checked the web site but not seen anything special...

4:45 PM. Charles pulled off the 407. He awaited the final decision to cancel.

5:00 PM. I left work with netbook bag (so to coach Joan on the listserv), Magic Bag v4.0, and cardboard tube, with red film (for Wolfgang). Walked along North Dr to Royal York Rd. There was a lot of heavy snow... Saw a petite woman steering her snowblower along her driveway. Caught a southbound bus. Destination: Ontario Science Centre.

5:08 PM. Dietmar sent a note on the Yahoo!Groups listserv, for Ralph, to cancel the meeting. Presumably, Ralph was on the road at this point. Too bad Dietmar didn't know how to use the web site CMS.

5:10 PM. From the bus, I phoned Lora at home. I was curious if she played White Witch with the snowblower today. That got a laugh. She told me that Phil wasn't planning to go to the meeting. Wimp.

5:13. Phil phoned me from his mobile to say that because he wasn't going to the meeting they decided to cancel it. Say what? Really? Really!

5:15. I phoned Tony to get a confirmation. Hit his mobile voice mail. Left a message. Descended into the subway.

5:16. Dietmar emailed me directly to ask that I make an update on RASC Toronto Centre web site.

5:16. Eric logged into the web site CMS and changed the Recreational Astronomy Night meeting article to tell people it was cancelled.

5:18. Guy relayed his disappointment and concern on the listserv. He intimated, given the late notice on the Yahoo!Groups, that many folk would likely not see the notice in time and continue to the Ontario Science Centre. He asked if the OSC had been informed. He wondered if signs would be posted to let people showing up know what was going on. He also asked if the speakers would be rescheduled. A bit early to say...

5:21. I hopped off the train at Old Mill to get a wireless signal. Checked my mobile voice mail to find a missive from Dietmar. He spoke of the cancellation and asked if I could update the web site.

5:22. I tried telephoning Stu thinking that he could change the web site on my behalf. Got his voice mail. Press on. I had a wifi computer with me. I could also go to the library...

5:26. Eric said, on the listserv, he talked to Doug at OSC. He said that he would personally continue to the Science Centre to redirect the "diehards." He then said that he hoped his presentation would be rescheduled. He also noted that Brenda had not yet photocopied her handouts for The Sky This Month. Good: we didn't waste paper.

5:27. Dietmar also said, on the listserv, that OSC had been informed.

5:27. Stu, another one of the presenters, said he was pleased with the decision. On the listserv, he admitted he was not looking forward to the drive in.

5:27. Tony phoned me. Twice. He first called my home line. Left a message: "WTF, man? They cancelled our meeting." Invited me over for a couple of hours. Then he called the mobile, but I missed the call. I was probably underground.

5:28. Joan left me a message at home. She said that without a home computer she had to check with another member to learn that the meeting had been cancelled. She decided to stay home and read.

5:30. Exited Runnymede subway. Headed to Timothy's coffee shop. Grabbed a Colombian-to-stay. Checked my mobile voice mail again. Tony said he was at the No Frills and suggested coming over to their house. I phoned Tony. Asked where he was; not the No Frills I was staring at. I suggested Mackenzie's. He told me to ask Grace.

5:38. Up and running, with netbook, jacked in via Timothy's free wifi. Sent Doug an email. Noted the web site was already updated. Logged into the CMS and found that all the original article content had been deleted. Too bad: some of it can be reused. Downloaded last year's council phone list. Then I phoned Sara and left her a voice mail... knowing it would probably be moot.

5:40. To the unofficial RASC Toronto Centre Facebook page, Eric noted the cancellation, as decreed by the executive. Grace and Brenda commented on it. Brenda, in particular, remarked at how the telephone was still the fastest way to convey this information. Funny that.

5:41. Asked Eric if he had backed up the meeting content.

5:55. Finished my java, disconnected, packed up, and headed to the TPL.

6:03. Phoned Grace. Asked if she wanted to get together in lieu of the cancelled meeting. At Mackenzie's. She said, "Sure!"

6:09. I popped into my local library branch to pick up an item. Quickly left as a young child ran around yelling for his mom.

6:17. I settled in at Mackenzie's, at a table for four. Ordered a Guinness.

6:22. Now up and running, with netbook, jacked in again via free wifi. Jumped into the Yahoo!Groups chatroom. Invited people to join me.

6:25. I began drafting an inclement weather meeting policy article for the web site...

6:30. Grace, Trevor, and Tony arrived at Mackenzie's. I asked Tony if he would have cancelled the meeting. His first reaction was no; but he did acknowledge it was pretty nasty driving. And that the city had done nothing to clear the roads. It was snowing heavily now.

6:54. Ralph, home after a long two hour drive from Waterloo, talked about the discussion points and weather conditions on the listserv. His drive normally should have taken one hour. He said Paul would try to reschedule the speakers. He too said OSC knew. And that Brenda and Eric were at the OSC.

7:30. I noted that it had stopped snowing.

7:50. Andrew, to the listserv, said that those who showed up at the OSC were now heading to the Granite pub. It was over a dozen people!

7:54. Ralph noted that the skies were now clear (from his home in Mississauga).

7:56. Grace, Trevor, Tony, and I departed Mackenzie's. I noted beautiful clear skies to the south and west.

8:36. Having arrived home, I reconnected to the chatroom. Noticed that a few people (including Charles) had popped in and then out, coincidentally, while I was walking home. Frig! Sent out another "I'm here"...

8:37. Realised my cat was missing, outside. And likely had been outside for the entire day! Opened the porch door and put out some food. Made and posted Lost Cat signs. Told my neighbour he had left his minivan door open.

8:38. Chatted with Paul about upcoming meetings and web page hit counters.

9:12. Replied to Eric's email. Told him I was able to regenerate the lost article content. And I urged him to consider giving his talk in the future. I said that his talk was "timeless" i.e. could be delivered at a new date. Brenda and Ralph's presentations however were timely...

9:30. Chatted Steve and Stu. Conversation covered Granite Gap, telescope mounts, CAO supervision, the upcoming Earth Hour star party.

9:52. Sharmin joined the chatroom.

9:56. Gilles joined the chatroom. Said he had gone to the OSC! Noooo!

9:59. Asked Steve how he was accessing the chatroom. On his Mac with Chrome.

10:00. It was right around this time that my chatroom session froze up. I started a bunch of things to recover... Finally reconnected 12 minutes later.

10:13. Saw that Sharmin was still not entering messages. Or maybe her messages weren't getting through... Sent her an email. I said that I thought the system used Java. I think that is OK for an iPhone though.

10:20. Sharmin replied to my electronic message. Said that she wasn't able to chat.

10:28. Sharmin sent another note. Her Mac computer was fine; but her iPhone wasn't.

10:42. My Bell Internet service was crapping out. The DSL modem would connect for a minute or two then drop. Then the CPU fan on the tower computer decided to quit. I shut it down. Also shut down my model and router for a while.

10:46. Ralph joined the chatroom. No one else was there. Paul had never disconnected. Ralph left 2 minutes later.

11:00. Reinitialised by modem and router. Even with the netbook computer, I could not connect for more than a minute or two...

11:30. Rescued my cat from the neighbour's roof.

11:31. Phil received my chat invitation (the one I sent at 6:22). Bell Sympatico issues at their end? He also noted that Ralph's 6:54 message did not arrive until hours later, either to his home mail or Crackberry. He was a little disappointed; said he would have hopped in the chat.

11:35. Eric joined the room.

11:45. Fed my ravenous cat.

11:59. At around midnight Ralph rejoined. He and Ralph chatted a bit. Ralph said that they should think about cancellation notices being issued earlier in the future.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Phil signed up

Phil signed up for the Earth Hour star party. Asked me if I was going...

Monday, March 21, 2011

hounding me

Mr Markov asked me several times if I would deliver RASC The Sky This Month on April 6. He wore me down...

card and letter

This morning I sent a message to the RASC National Office (NO) asking on the status of my electronic membership card and conveying my disappointment of the handling of the matter.

Then I sent message to one of the Toronto Centre national representatives. We volleyed back and forth on various details. They called the NO as well, which I was grateful for.

I tried to convey that it didn't really matter whether I had an e-card or not; I am worried about the new member, without identification, trying to attend a members-only event. The chance of this happening is low, but I would just hate to learn of someone slipping through the cracks. I guess I'm still stinging a little from Pete's experience...

Another issue behind all this, an undercurrent, is just the whole matter of communication. National has stated, in their strategic planning, that they want to "improve the customer/ member experience" and offer "better service" because they know that means "more customers, and increased satisfaction, loyalty, and revenue." Their deadline for this improvement is 31 Dec 2011. So, perhaps, 9 months ahead of the deadline, I should not expect excellent or outstanding service.

Again, I personally didn't care about the card. But the NO staff could have easily been more transparent with me. Told me about their workload or priority matters. Then I'd know what was going on instead of stewing in my juices.

Anyway, all my stomping and grumbling sort of worked, I guess. My e-card (in a PDF) showed up. Yeh. It was also accompanied with my confirmation letter (PDF) that NO admitted "you should have received a while back." So, all is right with my account.

About 30 minutes later, I jumped. Ya goof. You better print the card now before you forget! Be a little ironic if I got carded for some event... I don't know where my cardstock is so I used regular paper. Put it in my wallet. Now, all is right with my account.

(It took 2 months. If I took 2 months to pay, they'd boot me out of the system.)

But then I suggested the national rep check with Phil...

It's not over yet.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

grey background

Phoned Charles. Asked him what he was doing. Rummaging around in his basement trying to weed out old stuff he was hoarding.

(It's been a long time since I took the Nikon photography course... And I've since forgotten the number scale used for sunny vs. cloudy days.)

I told him to get outside. It was grey horizon-to-horizon. Good for shooting panoramic photos for background landscape imagery in Stellarium! Go!

replaced fuse

Picked up a three-pack of 3 amp fuses at the store formerly known as Radio Shack.

(Oooh. They have the Atrix in stock... But not the "laptop" docking station. Well, not a real one. Just a "dummy" unit. Keyboard looks similar in size and design to the netbook. Includes two USB ports. Super thin. Looks like it will be light. Big screen!)

Replaced the loaner fuse from my kit with one of these new units.

Denis's occultation rig is back in its original configuration.

chatted with Colette

Via Facebook, Colette and I messaged about the Moon. She and James had set up their telescope and enjoyed the full Moon. She said she hadn't really seen the craters and rays before. They were thrilled.

They also caught some videos on the formation of the Moon and its relationship with the Earth. Good stuff.

I encouraged them to look again during First Quarter so to revel in the terminator, the interplay of dark and light, see incredible detail in craters.

not built

Learned that Malcolm has not assembled his Galileoscope yet!

Chop chop!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

webspotting 20 - Weather Network

As published in the Apr/May 2011 issue of SCOPE, the newsletter of the RASC Toronto Centre. Republished here with permission.


Astronomers are, by nature, amateur weather forecasters. We stare at the afternoon skies looking for high cloud, we watch the barometric trend, we check wind direction and monitor the dew point prediction. We dive into our trusted internet resources like the Clear Sky Chart  and  Environment Canada. Prevailing wind, day time heating, seasonal factors must all be considered. We tap the crystal of our old analog barometers. We stare at radar images, the visible clouds, the infrared, from satellites on high in the comfort of our homes. How will all these things affect our precious transparency and seeing?

I've always been a big fan of Environment Canada's weather resources. You may know that this is where, ultimately, the data from the Clear Sky Charts comes from. I'm guessing here but I suspect many other weather-reporting sites simply use or reference EC. So I've always gone to the horse's mouth.  It's one of the many tools in my tool kit.

Now we have a new weapon—nightly weather predictions—yes, condition predictions in the Long Term Forecast for evenings. This includes POP %, high temperature, low temp (with wind chill), wind direction and speed. The icons are most helpful to rapidly assess the upcoming nights.

These are provided by The Weather Network. The WN web site is not a new one. It's been around forever, well, since 1996 anyway, when the Internet was still very young. But recently the Weather Network added a little tab onto their future forecast element: the Night tab.

They don't document on their site how they arrive at these predictions exactly. But that's not entirely out of order: the weather services do not explain their magic tricks.

So, surf info, type your preferred location in the Search box, and hit GO. The Current Weather details are shown at the top of the web page. Scroll down to the Short Term Forecast. You'll see that these include nightly predictions (that's not new). Continue scrolling past the Top Stories. And there it is: the Long Term Forecast with the Day and Night tabs. Good luck predicting your clear dark skies.

oh no

Damn. Some efficient city worker replaced the burnt out bulb in the street light directly across from my porch and living room...

caught me (Toronto)

OK. I admit it. I looked at the Moon tonight...

considered StellaCam test

But no. It's Super Duper Extreme Moon night!

Nice and clear but sadly, my interest in seeing how the StellaCam3 works with no integration on stars at zenith would be adversely affected by our nearest neighbour.

MallinCam via USB tested

While looking through the multitude of boxes in my office marked "office" a couple of days ago, I found my "USB kit." Inside the little canvas and mesh bag I have a USB adapter kit with all the various USB connector flavours, a spare USB extension cable, and a few others bits and bobs.

I suddenly had a thought... having not seen my USB-to-serial convertor for a while. Ah ha! In the USB kit bag. Nice! The missing piece would allow me to perform a full test of the MallinCam remotely controlled via a USB connection.

After building this mad net of wires and cables on my desk with two laptops, the missing USB-serial adapter, the new "green" RS-485 cable with its RS-232 adapter, and a power bar to boot, I installed the MallinCam Control MSI onto the netbook and fired it up. It defaulted to COM1 and of course didn't see the camera there. After diving into the Devices List, I found the USB convertor sitting at COM6. Adjusted the MCC, saved the setting, and "read" the camera.

It worked!

From MCC I changed the camera settings for Moon imagery and pushed the profile into the camera.

It worked!

So, I think we're ready... We have everything we need to do easy, seamless public outreach or webcasts via NSN.


Dietmar and I are planning a meet-up to try the Night Skies Network part. That will be fun...

activated pages

When Eric announced that the April/May SCOPE newsletter was available for RASC Toronto Centre members to download, I quickly "activated" the BAO and MODL pages on our web site.

The Bob Anderson Observatory will be a separate dome at the Carr Astronomical Observatory for remote imaging.

The My Own Dome Lot is an exciting opportunity for members to lease one of ten pod lots, put up their own dome, and leave their equipment on site.

I helped Dietmar, Charles, and Tony with some of the preliminary planning and measurement for both of these projects. I gathered content for the web pages.

These also mean that the information technology at the CAO will need some more attention. It will be interesting work.

lights for parts

I picked up a ten-pack of the Emerald stainless steel solar lights. They were deeply discounted at Canadian Tire.

These will serve as extras, provide parts, for the lights up at the Carr Astronomical Observatory. There are 8 units at the CAO already. Units which I hacked with red LEDs, replacing the stock blue-white.

the bells tolled

Went to the funeral mass for Tony's Dad.

There were lots of RASC Toronto Centre members there.

But not Katrina. Sadly, she had just received word, from the other side of the planet, that her Dad had just died, on the eve of heart surgery.

After the mass, we spilled out onto the sidewalk and parking lot. I saw Diane, tears in her eyes, some I'm sure for her recent loss, as she embraced Grace, who's Dad passed only a month early.

And I lost it. This upswelling burst out of me. It surprised me. Crushing in. Overwhelmed me.

So empty.

I miss you Dad!

13 years, 1 month, 1 day.

Tony came over and when he saw me we both sobbed.

extreme-ly lame reporting

The Toronto Star relayed a report from Ken Kaye of the Sun Sentinel about the upcoming "extreme supermoon" which might cause beach erosion and minor flooding along the shoreline. The horror...

He goes on to say that "if no clouds get in the way, it should be a great night for stargazers."

What a load of crap.

Yet the Toronto Star sees fit to publish it.

Along with the horrorscopes.

Friday, March 18, 2011

cloud history

Terry initiated a conversation about cloud cover. He asked if anyone knew how many clear days Toronto averaged per year. He was feeling a little irked about his regularly cloudy days (nights) in Pittsburgh.

I pointed out that when a Clear Sky Chart is sponsored it offers the "Forecast History/Climate" link. It seemed that Toronto enjoyed 33% nights without cloud cover. Wow.

Stu, our closet meteorologist didn't know about the history link. He had been collecting data of his own to churn. He mentioned that while tables showed forecasted vs. observed values, they were good at illustrating trends.

Joe jumped in and reminded us that the CSCs are a reference but shouldn't be treated as the gospel. And then he made a very interesting remark, that Danko should be considered an Order of Canada candidate. Cool idea. A short time later, he sent links from Environment Canada's Weather Office site regarding historical and climate information.

Paul piped up and asked if the CSC "history" was based on "predicted" values. He crunched the numbers and came up with 120 perfectly clear nights. It did sound kinda crazy.

I missed Joe's second communiqué and asked in the thread if EC had historical data. Stu sent out a few more links. He had dug a bit deeper and found the products and services page, including the Climate Normals & Averages link with climate averages and extremes for Canadian locations with at least 15 years of data. Nice!

Stu said he's considering downloading the huge flat files to filter and process. He remarked it would be a good "winter project."

Curious that it is incredibly grey today. It's been looking like heavy rain or snow all day...

still no card

Another Friday has passed. No membership card from RASC National.

If you can't do it, tell me. Don't say you'll do it and then not.

magnitude limits of telescopes

As I was reviewing my things-I'd-like-to-do-astronomically list, on noting that I want to re-observe the moons of Uranus and Neptune, I suddenly thought, hey, I should add the moons of Mars. But then I wondered, is that even possible?

Did a couple of quick searches via Yahoo! but didn't turn up any leads.

Fired up Stellarium, went to Mars, clicked on the moons, and saw that they were presenting at magnitudes 14.something. Oh. Nasty. That's at the edge of visibility for my Celestron 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope in dark skies (under visual use). I know 14 is the limit based on remarks I read (and memorised) a long time ago in All About Telescopes. But then I wondered what the limit of the RASC Toronto Centre's C14 was.

Not having my bootleg AAT sheets handy (man, I gotta buy that book!), I web-searched "limiting magnitude" and stumbled into the Woodland Hills Camera and Telescopes site and the Telescope Science page on aperture. Ah ha. Found the formula:

limiting visual magnitude
= 2.7 + 5 * log-base-10 of aperture (in mm)

So, I crunched the numbers for 'scopes I get to look through...
  • 12.4 - the Questar
  • 12.7 - CAO Tele Vue 101
  • 13.6 - Mom's newt
  • 14.2 - my 8"
  • 15.5 - C14!
  • (and, out of curiousity, 15.6 in Phil's Obsession)
Awesome. That means that Mars's small moons are accessible in the Centre's telescope on Blue Mountain.

Hold the phone. Jumped back into Stellarium and started tapping the ] key, to advance one week. And watched the planet get bigger... March 2012 I stopped. That is the best time in the next apparition of Mars, when the Red Planet is closest to the Earth. Checked the magnitudes of the moons again: oh, ho! Mag 12! Very doable.

Rather handy, knowing that formula.


Updated the CAO eyepiece-telescope matrix spreadsheet (and uploaded it). And I updated the "our telescopes" sheet in my Psion for Mom's and my OTAs.

rebuttal to Yahoo bashing

There was more bashing of the Yahoo!Groups again, aimed at the Photo Albums feature.

I composed a balanced response pointing out pros and cons (and fees) for services mentioned, as well as a few other options.

Hopefully this will give RASC members a better (and less-coloured) platform to make their decisions.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Messenger in orbit

All went well with the orbital insertion burn. The Messenger craft is in orbit, the fifth planet in our solar system that we have orbited.

Strangely appropos on St Patrick's Day.

And curious that I was looking at that planet last night.

I never thought about it quite that way before... that I've looked at planets naked eye and with amplication around which or where there is a probe in orbit near.

cancelled event

Sharmin called about the ASX event being cancelled. I gave her suggestions for adjusting the web site page, drafting an email for the RASC Toronto Centre listserv, linking to the article, and then getting the word out. She affected the changes to the site and relayed the news via the Yahoo!Group. Good stuff.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mercury and Jupiter indoors (Toronto)

Still trying to shake off a persistent cold. Didn't want to go outside. I was happy to find Mercury and Jupiter with Stellarium, my compass, and my cheapo binoculars from my west-facing office windows.

Easily fit in a binocular field. Rummaged around for my eyeglasses so to get a... 1 times... view (can't say naked eye, I guess). About 2° apart, I would estimate. Tangled in the trees across the street as the sky darkened.

Surprised how bright Mercury is (mag -1.0). Or perhaps it is that Jupiter is so dim (-1.5)...


It was not completely unlike Göran's photo from Frösön.

Monday, March 14, 2011

not happy

One of the RASC Toronto Centre web site content editors exploded. I've never seen him so angry before. I don't know what happened exactly but he struggled with his new article. I could tell something was up because he kept hiding then displaying the post. And then when I asked him why the font was all weird, he lost it.

This is not fun.

We desperately need a better tool.

And I think I lost a contributor.

a small f/10

Ah ha! If he can do it, so can I!

I found Richard Nugent's web page on Asteroid Occultation Basics. He's an IOTA member.

He shows his rig:
  • CCD camera
  • focal reducer
  • telescope-to-camera adapters
  • shortwave radio (feeding into recorder audio)
  • small video camcorder (with large screen and built-in speaker)
  • small battery pack
  • various cables
Oh. Yes. Before I forget: a small compound telescope!

He uses a Meade 4" Maksutov (or SCT—whatever).

Richard refers to Paul Maley, another IOTA person. Paul says that his "ideal" setup is a 8" SCT. No mention of a focal reducer. Very interesting.

Sheesh. I've got twice the aperture of Richard; I have the configuration Paul suggests. Why was the image so crappy last Monday?!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

ode to Marko

a grey Moon
far above grey clouds
fails to lift
my spirits on these
grey days

they blame you
for the heavy toll
land rippling
seas boiling
buildings crashing down

far away
quiet devastation
is brought into my home
as I struggle to breathe
heavy with sorrow

and I learn this grey morning
in this shortened day
that my friend
lost his father
so I blame you Moon

Saturday, March 12, 2011

debunking with friends

Dace asked me for some clarification on a few astronomical topics she had heard about recently.

I thought she was going to grill me about bacteria in asteroids... She asked about a special alignment of all the planets. And then she asked about the new Milky Way galaxy discovered. By a child.

I did not think there was anything special about the planets, at the moment. A few were aligned with the Sun but Saturn was opposite. Nothing out of the ordinary.

I explained that I had not heard about a new galaxy discovered per se. But I did share that we were constantly making discoveries about our own galaxy, such as more detail about the spiral arms and the structure of the galaxy. I reminded her that it was difficult though as we experience the fish-in-the-fishbowl phenomenon: we're inside our galaxy and it's challenging to do things from inside it.

With respect to the child reference, I asked if she meant the recent supernova discovery by a Canadian girl. That was pretty cool.

Dace said she could not remember the particulars.

As we concluded the astronomy theme, I said, "While we're at it: no, the Moon did not cause the earthquake in Japan. And, no, the world will not end in 2012."

YouTube occultation

I found a very nice asteroid occultation video on YouTube by apolloisgo. 225 Henrietta to be precise.

It was recorded on 16 July 2007. The asteroid passed in front of a 10th magnitude star over North America. Watch the stars in the middle-right of the image. You can hear the shortwave international CHU time signal in the background.

The equipment used was a Celestron NexStar 8 GPS with Fastar and an Astrovid StellaCam EX.

The contrast is excellent. No problem seeing the field stars in real time nor the target star disappearance. This is encouraging. I don't know why I'm not getting these kind of results...


The Fastar system replaces the SCT secondary mirror with a CCD camera. This allows the system to see a very wide field of view at a very fast optical speed of f/1.95.

So, not an apples-to-apples comparison...

Friday, March 11, 2011

inspected flip mirror

No blockages. The Vixen mirror, when flipped up, is barely visible in the 1¼" tube. Nothing wrong with this accessory.

One theory I had was that something was in the light path going to the camera...

no e-card

National said they were going to email my new electronic RASC membership card "by this Friday."

Nothing received.

I hope other members aren't in this boat (and that the DDO opens tomorrow for the Member's Only Star Party)...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lillian and Bob back in group

At long last, Lillian and Robert are back in the Yahoo!Group for the RASC Toronto Centre. I sent another invitation to join tonight which they finally received.

March blahs

Bill pointed this out on Facebook. More precisely, he noted that the Toronto Clear Sky Chart showed white blocks. Everywhere.

I looked up my "favourite" CSC charts...

That's pretty grim.

That's one big cloud.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Skeena saw the shuttle too!



washed out?

Did some quick research at lunch into StellaCam3 issues...

Found an interesting note via the StellaCam Yahoo!Group:
In light polluted conditions, I've found that things get really washed out below approximately 60 degrees altitude. There's a significant increase in brightness the lower you go, so I pretty much don't bother with low altitude objects - saving them for the darksite.

And, I never observe with gamma on high. I only use high gamma for locating objects. Once I find an object or identify a starfield with gamma on hi, I switch gamma to low, cut the gain down to below 50% and increase exposure time. Then, I keep cutting down the gain incrementally to find the best image for that type of object at that altitude in the sky. I imagine that's a pretty standard procedure.

Plus, playing with brightness and contrast on the monitor makes a significant difference as well. I'd like to add that fact that there are just a few controls is one of the things I like best about this camera. You're only experimenting with a few knobs, which is intuitive.
The star Ludmilla was to block was at 20° altitude...

Discovery home

The incredible Discovery space shuttle is back home. She racked up some amazing numbers: 365 career days in space; over 148,000,000 statute miles; 5,830 orbits.

She looks great.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Some RASC members asked about the International Space Station and Space Shuttle.

Sharmin asked me why were they still so close to each other? And could the ISS be seen in daylight?
  • I explained that they weren't close, in terms of physical distance. Probably 5 or 10 km apart. They were about 5 degrees apart when overhead. And that I'd have to do some trigonometry to get the real distance. Ew!
  • I also explained that departing spacecraft cannot "power away" from the station because the jets and exhaust would damage the station. They must inch away slowly and with minimal plume.
  • I surmised that ISS could be spotted in daylight, especially if it went to magnitude -4. But it would be challenging.
Kiron posted on the Yahoo!Group that he thought the fainter point sped up and pulled away from the second.
  • I said it wasn't pulling away; it was getting closer. When we spotted the ISS and space shuttle near the horizon, they were approximately 2000 km away. When they went overhead, they were about 300 km away. So the angular separation increased due to proximity...

took 5 days

National finally replied to my RASC membership renewal query which I issued on the evening of Mar 3. They confirmed receipt. They said I would receive my new electronic membership card by the end of the week.

I renewed on Feb 1. The system did not generate an acknowledgement. I did not receive any communication in the days that followed.

I see now why they want to improve their support response time. It's crummy.

no data on Ludmilla (Pontypool)

Good data was not collected on the Ludmilla occultation. I actually don't think I was on the correct star. But the video quality was so poor, it would have been difficult or impossible to conclusively report the occultation.


Uve picked me up from my home at a little after 7:00 PM. He reported, during his drive from Scarborough, that he could see some clouds in the west. This discouraged the both of us. But he said he would follow my lead. I didn't wanna go if we were going to get clouded out! We hatched a plan to pop in to the RASC City Observing Session at Bayview Village Park to assess the skies. If it looked bad, we could do stay put, some quick observing and save the time and gas.

I scanned the western horizon as we drove up the DVP. I could see Jupiter just above the city skyline. That was a good sign.

From the park, while hanging with Stu, Bill, David, Ed, and crew, we noted the skies looked very good. Decent transparency. This improved our mood.

Uve asked if I thought his binoculars were OK despite a scratch on one objective. I thought the views satisfactory.

We enjoyed views on the Moon, the Orion Nebula, and the Trapezium (along with the E star) in Stu's 85mm refractor and Bill's 9.25" SCT. Seeing the shuttle and ISS flyover (at 8:32) gave us a big shot in the arm.

We departed BVP for Long Sault, happy to warm up in the car (forgot to note the temperatures during the evening but I seem to recall Environment Canada predicting a low of -7°C). Grabbed some coffee at Tim's in Bowmanville and continued north. We found Steve set up and waiting in the parking lot. He had started to worry we weren't going to show. He had sent me an email at 9:35.

After we assessed the views and sight lines, the guys helped me complete the regular setup of the Celestron 8" SCT right at the east edge of the parking lot. Connected the dew heating equipment and motor drive to the custom dual CLA power outlet on one deep discharge battery (leaving the other isolated battery for the occulation rig). I bolted up Williams Optics mirror and 2" baader eyepiece to do some quick observing. It also gave me a chance to demonstrate to Uve how the Bahtinov focusing mask worked.

Then I setup the occultation gear including Vixen flip mirror. Before it ducked behind the trees, I used M42 to show how one could draw out details of nebula using the integration settings. It looked like I was pretty well ready to go. We headed to one of the cars to warm up. The north wind was bracing. It was around 11:00 PM.

At about 11:30 PM I returned to the 'scope to finalise the occultation recording gear setup and find the target star.

The power cable from the StellaCam3 slid out at one point as I was moving around the telescope and getting cables settled. I was not surprised when the cord decoupled. The A/V-power cable is not well designed. The way the cable feeds into the camera puts tension on the power cable. It really needs to be looped around something or secured to eliminate the chance of this happening. I reconnected the power cable, noting the typical blue-white spark.

Looked at the monitor display. Nothing... It was then I noticed that only two of the three CLA plugs were showing their red LEDs. Fuse! I blew the fuse. When I reconnected the camera power it overloaded the circuit. I knew I had not seen an extra fuses in Denis's kit. But before I could panic, I remembered that I had all my dew heating gear here including 12 volt hair dryer and the 12 volt coffee cup warmer (as impromptu finder scope warmer). In fact, the cup warmer cable was close at hand as I did not have a plug for it to attach to.

I slowly unscrewed the end of the plug, warning the guys that they were often spring-loaded, recounting tales at Mew Lake. I carefully removed the glass fuse. When I heard something small fall to the ground and bounce off Uve's boot! Oops. It took us a couple of minutes to locate the centre metal button for the CLA plug. Sheesh.

I put the good fuse in the camera power cable and I was back in business, red LED aglow, camera fan cooling.

It was around this time that Lewis arrived with coffee, tea, and Timbits! I energised two of the sodium handwarmers. Uve was very impressed. Put on my custom deep red flashlight with headband.

I had SkyTools3 configured and activated its telescope view. I reached the view as shown in the finder scope but then struggled with the eyepiece view. Asked Steve to check. But, in the end, I was not convinced I was at the correct location. The eyepiece orientation was throwing me off too. I was not sure which way to rotate the field of view. But with time winding down and I had to move on.

I activated the flip mirror and checked the view on the Oslon monitor. And couldn't see anything. I knew the focus was off. We spent a couple of minutes searching. "No wait," Steve said. "I see a star!" Indeed there was one star on the monitor. But only one. It was barely detectable, flickering and shimmering in its low altitude.

I double-checked all the camera settings on the control pad. Tried the gamma at all three settings: off, low, high. Cranked the gain to maximum. Stars appeared with the low integration settings but I reminded the guys that this couldn't be used. It looked like there was something wrong with the camera or the telescope. I checked the corrector plate. No dew. It didn't make sense. I had see dozens of stars in the finder and many stars in the 26mm eyepiece.

It just didn't make sense. Was it the elevation of the star (now around 20°) and the related atmospheric extinction? Was there cloud there, that we couldn't see, but the camera was detecting? Was it stray light from Toronto given that I was aiming west? Was it light pollution and cloud together? The focal reducer was installed so my Celestron 8" SCT was not acting like a f/10 but rather an f/5. My expletives were recording on the audio portion...

I didn't see much point but I connected the camcorder and recorded the field for a few minutes. Recorded the mystery star from 12:10 to 12:15. No change.

Frustrating. So close and yet... Steve kept laughing, "All that... All that!" Lewis asked me if I wanted my ice coffee.

Removed the camera and inspected the glass of the focal reducer and camera. All clear. No dew.

Wound down showing Lewis some double stars. He had a hard time splitting Castor at 77x (or was it 55?); it was easy at 222x. As I was doing this, I noticed the finder scope was not in-line. Oh oh. It proved to be out by about 1/4 or 1/3 of the field. And that would equate to more than 1 degree. Which might explain why the FOV in the eyepiece didn't seem right...

1:26 AM. Sent Guy a text message to ask how he did. I probably woke him up...


Lessons learned:
  • Have at least 1 spare fuse for each device.
  • Realign the finder scope after any rotation.
  • Avoid distractions.
  • Give yourself (even) more time to prepare.
  • Don't phone or text other team members during or after. They may have been clouded out, gone home early, and may be sleeping.
Things I forgot to do:
  • Take location weather reading with pocket sensor.
  • Record longer than you think necessary, i.e. 5 minutes before and after.
  • Tune the eyepiece so to be parfocal with camera.
  • Reset Kiwi at end of recording to verify time synch and to capture date and elevation.
  • Netbook red film and keyboard light.
  • Astronomy box α with red film (for Oslon monitor), lanyards, towel.

Monday, March 07, 2011

2 for 2 times 2 (North York)


We watched the second flyover of the shuttle and ISS. I was with the gang at the City Observing Session at Bayview Village Park.

We caught the ISS just at the edge of the trees, despite backing up, on time. It was far away and dim. But as it rose, someone noticed a point in front of it! Ah ha. The shuttle! That was cool.

I was very happy to have seen the Discovery shuttle during her last flight and final orbits along with the International Space Station two times in the same evening.


Lots of RASC members shot photos, including Paul, Katrina, and Lora. I know! Lora!