Saturday, December 17, 2011

Problem connecting Meade LX200 to a computer

I spent a lot of time over the past two weeks trying to connect my HP Windows 7 netbook computer to my Meade LX200 telescope. Nothing I tried worked.

Then I posted a desperate cry for help on two forums (Stargazers Lounge and Cloudy Nights), emailed Tim Crawford (he's a mentor for the AAVSO), and emailed Paul Rodman, the creator of the AstroPlanner software I wanted to use.

Tim didn't have the answer, but he contacted other AAVSO members to ask if they had a solution. Similarly, Paul did not have the answer, but he posted my problem on the AstroPlanner Yahoo Group site.

The response from all of these sources was overwhelming. It's hard to diagnose this type of problem over the internet, but I got dozens of ideas from a lot of people.

As an aside, it is exciting to find how "connected" we are as amateur astronomers. I don't know anyone locally involved in astronomy, but I suddenly had lots of smart people helping me solve my problem, from around the world.

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. It was suggested that either Windows 7 was the problem, or my Meade USB/Serial adapter was the problem, or both. (Note: If the Meade adapter is the problem, I also had a problem with a Gigaware adapter previously. Some people told me Meade has sent out some bad adapters in the past year or so. Some of the testing I have planned next will help me figure out if I got a bad one.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book review: So you want a Meade LX Telescope

If, like me, you are a relative beginner and visual observer who uses your Meade LX 200 in alt/az mode, and don’t have an experienced mentor living nearby, you will likely find one or two dozen tips in this book that will help you. That made it worth buying for me.
  • The book: So You Want A Meade LX Telescope! by Lawrence Harris, Patrick Moore's Practical Astronomy Series
I always dog-ear any of a book’s pages with useful information and figure that if a book has at least 10 dog-ears it was worthwhile. This book ended up with 13, so it “passes.”  Almost half of the book’s 230 pages are about software, primarily for astrophotography. I’m a visual observer, at least for now, so half the book didn’t matter to me, at least not yet.

I’ve had my Meade LX200 for a couple of years and still have lots to learn. There’s no group of amateurs locally, Meade users or otherwise, so my only support group has been “The Google” and a few forums. The problem with that is there is almost always too much information to sift through to find answers, and when you find them you can’t be certain they are correct. I have found a few websites, like Mike Weasner’s Cassiopeia Observatory, that share a lot of useful, accurate information. But I still needed more.

If I had an experienced mentor living next door, using the same telescope, I wouldn’t need this book. But I don’t. Instead, the book acted like a mentor with a lot of simple tips I guess I should have known or figured out, but didn’t. Here are a few of the author's tips: 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lessons from observing the lunar eclipse

Here are four lessons I learned from getting up early this morning to view the lunar eclipse:
  • Sloppy is okay
  • Sleep is bad
  • Don't breathe
  • Back up

I got up at 4:30am MST to set up my telescope. I had it outside covered all night, but now I had to get it aligned and ready. I didn't bother trying to center either of the two alignment stars, choosing to accept wherever the telescope pointed. That worked out fine. The telescope tracked the moon perfectly, at least for visual observing.

I knew I wasn't going to see any of the total eclipse. "Red Mountain Observatory" is a significant exaggeration of the term "observatory." It's just my telescope on wheels that I roll out to view. But Red Mountain is no figment of my imagination. It looms large in the west. As a result, I knew I would not see any of the totality. And I knew it was going to be cold, okay - cool (26 degrees f and 47% humidity). So I was considering sleeping through it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Shadow & Substance

I posted a link to a great site the other day showing an animation for the upcoming lunar eclipse... and not just an animation, but one showing what it wold like from lots of locations. Plus, this site, called "Shadow & Substance," seems to regularly post a variety of astronomical animations.

I wanted to find out more about the creator of these animations and the person behind the Shadow & Substance website so I used "The Google" (have you heard about it?) to find out who he is. His name is Larry Koehn. Then I posted a link to his site at Stargazers Lounge and at Cloudy Nights and I emailed him to say thanks for his website and also asked him to tell me why he posts these animations.

Here's what he said. You can tell from how he wrote back how excited he is about astronomy. And isn't that what it's all about (sorry Kiefer Sutherland... you can kill yourself in the barn because you are melancholy about Melancholia, but we're just excited. Period.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


In addition to the spreadsheet discussed in my original post (below) here are some eyepiece links friends on the Stargazers Lounge and Cloudy Nights forums have suggested:

Original post: November 28, 2011
I created a simple Excel spreadsheet to calculate power, exit pupil, and true field of view for my eyepieces. I use the table when I'm observing to pick the best eyepiece for whatever I'm viewing. I also use the spreadsheet when I'm considering a new eyepiece.

I have set the spreadsheet up for my telescope and eyepieces, but you can input your own equipment and the spreadsheet will give you results for your setup. I'd be happy to share this spreadsheet with you. you can contact me through my profile page. (I have not figured out how to attach the spreadsheet to this blog.)

Total eclipse of the moon

I just found a great website called Shadow & Substance with a wonderful set of animations showing what the December 10, 2011 total eclipse of the moon will look like from a number of locations and at various times.

Even if you can't see the eclipse from your location, I recommend you check out this website. It looks like its creator, Larry Koehn, posts other astronomy animations periodically.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Brightness difference based on magnitude difference

This is pretty basic information but I'm still sharing it for two reasons. First, it has been completely overcast and windy for the past two days, so what would have been observing time gave way to projects like this. Second, even though Astronomy 101 teaches that a star with an apparent magnitude of 5.0 is 2.512 times brighter than a 6.0 magnitude star, these brightness differences amaze me.

That's particularly true when I apply these differences as I observe. For example, my site's visual limiting magnitude is about 6.0. My telescope lets me see stars with an apparent magnitude fainter than 13. That difference of 7 magnitudes means the dimmest star I can see with my naked eye is 631 times brighter than what I can see through my telescope.

Or consider a variable star that has a range of 4 magnitudes between its brightest and dimmest. Small numbers like that are deceptive; they just don't sound like that big of a deal. But a range of four magnitudes means the star is 40 times brighter at its brightest. That's an impressive change.

Thinking about brightness when you look at apparent magnitudes or magnitude differences puts what I'm looking at in perspective and makes going out in the cold weather this time of year well worth the effort.

Here's an Excel table I made showing the brightness difference for every 1/10th of apparent magnitude difference from 0.1 to 15.9. The table is too wide to fit on this blog page so I apologize for posting it sideways. At least you can read it and copy/paste it if you want to use it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

R Leporis

I took my first visual variable star measurement of R LEP last night and was blown away by its deep red color. It was truly mesmerizing - I just wanted to keep staring at it. It was easy to see that it was dimmer than the 7.4 comp on the chart but R LEP was clearly all about R LEP.

That led me on a search to learn more about it, and found some great information posted by Jim Kaler, Professor emeritus of Astronomy at the Univeristy of Illinois [Link]. Here are some interesting tidbits from his article:

Monday, November 28, 2011


Tim Crawford analyzes variable stars from his Arch Cape Observatory in Oregon. He is very open, responsive, and enjoys sharing information and helping new observers get started.

Kevin McLin, director of the Global Telescope Network is very responsive and helpful in providing information about how to participate in astronomical research.

Mike Weasner, Cassiopeia Observatory, Oracle, Arizona. Mike is an exerienced amateur astronomer and author. His website provides a lot of useful information, and he has been very responsive to questions I have emailed him.

Attilla Danko, Clear Sky Chart. Attilla creates astronomers forecast charts. Each chart shows at a glance when, in the next 48 hours, we might expect clear and dark skies for one specific observing site. His website has charts for almost 4,000 locations across The United States and Canada.

A reading list

I am just beginning to delve into these books, so it will be a while before I post my comments. Feel free to suggest more reading material.

So You Want A Meade LX Telescope! by Lawrence Harris; Patrick Moore's Practical Astronomy Series. If, like me, you are a relative beginner and visual observer who uses your Meade LX 200 in alt/az mode, and don’t have an experienced mentor living nearby, you will likely find one or two dozen tips in this book that will help you. That made it worth buying for me. [See my review]

Celestial Sampler, by Sue French. I wasn't going to buy this until I read her most recent article in Sky & Telescope, because I thought I had more than enough to keep me busy for a few months (or decades). But her article provided the kind of information I was looking for, so now I've got more homework.

The Night Sky Observer's Guide (Vol 1 & 2), by Kepple & Sanner.

The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, by Dickerson & Dyer. I read most sections of the book the day I got it and found a lot of valuable information. Now I'm going through it again to learn more. It is a valuable reference, which the authors supplement with updated information on their website.

Astronomy - A visual Guide, by Mark Garlick. This is beautifully illustrated and I'm sure contains a lot of useful information. However my initial quick read didn't give me enough of the type of information I was looking for that I didn't already get from The Backyard Astronomer's Guide.

Quotes I like (related to astronomy)

"Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth." Ptolemy

"Listen; there's a hell of a good universe next door: let's go." E. E. Cummings

"For I dipped into the Future, far as the human eye could see; saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be." Tennyson

"There is just one thing I can promise you about the outer-space program: your tax dollar will go farther." Wernher von Braun

"How quickly do we grow accustomed to wonders. I am reminded of the Isaac Asimov story "Nightfall," about the planet where the stars were visible only once in a thousand years. So awesome was the sight that it drove men mad. We who can see the stars every night glance up casually at the cosmos and then quickly down again, searching for a Dairy Queen." Rober Ebert - Chicago Sun Times

"The meek shall inherit the Earth. And the rest of us will go to the stars." Omni Magazine

"Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another." Plato

"The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage." Mark Russell

Light pollution

Here is the light pollution map for my site (in the green zone):

Sky conditions

My equipment

  • Binoculars: Nikon 7x35
  • Telescope: Meade LX200 ACF/GPS 10" SCT
  • Eyepieces: Meade 40mm 2"; Meade 26mm 1.25"; Hyperion modular 13mm 1.25"; Meade 9mm illuminated reticle; Meade 6.7mm 1.25" UWA; Meade 2x teleXtender
  • Filters: Celestron polarizers 1.25"; Lumicon 1.35" filters - UHC; neutral density 25; 80A blue; 56 green; 23A light red; 12 yellow
  • Camera: Orion StarShoot Deep Space video camera
  • Computer: HP Pavilion DM1 notebook
  • Software: AstroPlanner; TheSkyX Professional; RegiStax6
  • Mobility: JMI Wheely bars
  • Weather protection: TeleGizmos solar scope cover
  • Other: Orion imaging flip mirror; Orion 1.25" filter wheel; Telrad reflex sight; Bob's Knobs; Celestron night vision red LED flashlight, Keyspan USB/Serial adapter

Why did I start this blog?

This blog will share my amateur astronomy interests and observations so I can learn more by taking time to reflect on what I have seen.

In addition to enjoying the sights above as a tourist, I am fascinated with the behavior of variable stars and have begun my personal variable star observation program.

My "Red Mountain Observatory" consists of one telescope on wheels emerging from my garage on clear nights. It is located under clear southwestern skies at 37.17N and 113.66W in Ivins Utah, elevation 3,088 feet.