Post-Starfest, I’m charged up!

Starfest is an event hosted by the NYAA early in August of each year around a weekend close to new moon at a site close to Mount Forest, Ontario. Several hundred (at least!) amateur astronomers and their families show up, and some of the kids who attended with their parents in the eighties are now showing up with their own kids. It’s a great event, but for most attendees it involves spending a few nights under canvas, and that’s one of the motivations behind my van conversion – I don’t mind putting up a tent, but I certainly don’t love it, and my wife hates it to the extent that last year she refused to come.

While I’ve been dithering over design details and waiting for engine repairs I’ve also been acquiring things (new mount, new OTA, new astrocamera) which were appropriate to Starfest, as well as appliances (power inverters, a microwave, a drip coffee maker, an induction cooker, a propane stove) which could be tested there. This last Thursday I more or less threw everything into the van and headed off to see how everything worked together (and I consider myself to be one of the components in the mix – things can work perfectly together, and I may still feel uncomfortable with them.

Now, first of all, Starfest as an event was excellent. The skies weren’t cooperative, in the sense that we got only one all-nighter out of it. Thursday night it was cloudy, Friday night it rained before clearing up well after midnight, and Saturday night, the one clear night, was distressingly cold for August. The various daytime talks were good, though I missed a couple which I had wanted to catch because my internal clock was awry after I stayed up talking with friends late into the night. The vendors had lots of interesting stuff, and some of it was quite drool worthy – but I’ve been spending on the van recently, and spare cash is there only if I am delusional (I must be though, since I bought things, and had some difficulty remembering details when the bills came in).

I did run into problems with my electrical setup, though. The microwave is billed as a 700 W device. Which it is. Sort of. It delivers 700 watts to whatever food I am cooking, but it unfortunately draws well over 1000 watts from the wall socket, wasting the rest in heat, a turntable, and internal electronics. In consequence, my 1000W inverter shut down rather than supply the power, and I had no working microwave. On the other hand, I did have a 3000W inverter supplying modified-sine-wave power, so with some trepidation, I tried that. I say trepidation because modified sine wave power contains a lot of transient frequencies which can make electronics unhappy, but in this case the microwave seems to have been able to handle them (though time may reveal that the life of the micro has been reduced).

I had my hot oatmeal, but something was bubbling at the back of the van. It turned out that the micro had pulled the battery voltage low enough to trigger the EFOY fuel cell, which was merrily dumping power into the battery pack. Not a great concern, but something of a surprise, and rather unwelcome because the cooler was pumping along keeping my food and pills cold and drawing about as much power as the fuel cell was putting out. I can’t run the cooler from the battery pack because the EFOY can’t keep up – I need a more efficient fridge. That night I pulled the plug on the cooler, and eventually the EFOY got ahead of the point where the battery had started out. Every time I used the micro the EFOY lost ground, but a couple of hours running brought the battery pack back. Had I started from a truly fully charged point and never used the cooler, I might have survived the first couple of days without triggering the fuel cell at all.

I still needed to cook, but in my hurry to leave I had left the propane fuel behind, and given the power problem (I still needed to cool my food and meds during the heat of the day), I was reluctant to even try the induction cooker (and I still haven’t). I called Daniella at home, and she brought up a small bottle of propane when she came up on Friday afternoon. After that, the propane stove worked just fine for cooking purposes,and I’ll happily use it in future outings.

The only other disappointment was again due to my haste in leaving – I came up with only one of the counterweights for my scope, having fooled myself into believing everything was balanced when in fact I had not released the clutch properly on the RA axis. The scope was therefore unbalanced in operation and I decided to limit the usage as much as possible. I did wind up learning more about my new mount, though, and I count that as a plus – and as an added bonus I got to look through a number of other people’s scopes, including a monster made by Normand Fullum’s company (36″ f/3.5. Wow!)

There are a number of changes to make (real fridge, designed for 12V operations, just as one example) but all in all I happy with the setup and I think I could leave for the Great California Trip anytime (but I’ll see how much more I can fix up before we actually leave).

Testing the fit

The van conversion is moving along. Due to insurance requirements I had to pull seats from the passenger compartment, so this was the starting position:

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The intent is to lift the bed high enough to allow for storage underneath, but I’m nervous about stability. Here’s the first attempt:
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Unfortunately by the time I got the unit set up a storm was rolling in, so the image is a little dark, but I think the main idea is clear. The base is over 30″ high, with a further 6″ for the foam mattress, so I will need to provide a step or two in order for Daniella to climb aboard (I’ll need a little help myself!).

I will have to raise the mattress another inch or so – it’s a double, and is just slightly longer than the inside of the van is wide, so I can either raise the mattress so that it encroaches on the window “sill” area very slightly or cut the mattress to fit the limited space available. Cutting is irreversible, so that isn’t really an option.

This part of the project allowed me to give my router table a workout, and it worked out quite well, along with the Porter & Cable 1 1/4 HP router. I can’t say the same for the Bosch palm router I used for other parts of the project, as the collet came loose a couple of times, allowing the bit to drop slightly while I was cutting a slot. Perhaps the bit’s shank was a little undersized so that the collet couldn’t tighten properly. In any case, the net result was a ragged cut, and I’ll have to do a little work to smooth it out.

So far I’ve managed to keep everything removable, so in a pinch the van can be restored to its original condition with the exception of one row of passenger seating. That will change once I start adding electrical connections, but I will continue trying to keep changes minimal.

If it matters, construction is in 1×2 maple and 12mm maple plywood, and is currently held together entirely by glue and friction fitting in slots routed into the 1x2s. The mattress base is built from 1×4 maple spanned by a set of slats from IKEA. I’ll peg everything later, and probably reinforce the interior corners with further bracing.

Stay tuned…there will be more!

Increasing mobility

When I first moved to my present house skies were typical for an outer suburb – not very dark, but acceptable. After a while I built an observatory because I was having difficulty seeing Polaris and setting up and aligning was taking longer and longer. My thinking was that with a permanently aligned scope I would be able to do more on shorter notice.

As a notion it wasn’t totally wrong, but I forgot the astronomer’s curse, and no sooner had I committed to a permanent observatory than construction of a major shopping mall began a couple of miles away – to match the searchlights that sprang up from a flying-saucer-shaped cineplex a couple of miles to the south. Skies have gone downhill even more since then, and I’m looking at other options – specifically, at ways to get to distant observing sites, spend the night (or a couple), and return home in daylight.

So far, I’ve decided that a modified Sprinter van will fit the requirements. The van has been purchased – see the picture below – and I am fumbling for a design which will work. I’m building a preliminary version which will become the end design if things work out, or be further modified if they don’t.


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My new-to-me 2007 Dodge Sprinter 144-inch wheelbase passenger van


The design will have to have storage sufficient for loading up at least one scope, mount, and associated cameras and accessories, sleeping space for two people (Daniella will be with me occasionally, and the van won’t be exclusively for astronomy), and enough ancilliary support to allow independent living for a day or two. Some of the sites I am considering have food, power, and washrooms available, some do not – so I will try to prepare for those which do not. Few (none, really) of the sites are happy with noisy generators, so any power I bring with me will have to be very quiet (ruling out the relatively inexpensive diesel and gasoline generators I have seen). Space is limited in the van, so the full washrooms (shower and toilet facility combined into one enclosure) seen in commercial conversions will be tough to squeeze in. And finally, Daniella wants to accommodate two or even three additional passengers for times when we are using the van to visit other family members around the continent. Oh, and I want to minimize the number of times I have to punch a hole in the outside of the van. I think these are tough specs, and I not at all sure I can meet them all. More later….

New scope blues (I am so sorry!)

It is a phenomenon universally acknowledged that when an amateur astronomer acquires a new telescope or major scientific instrument the local observing weather goes sour. And so with a heavy heart I announce the repair of my G11 mount and the purchase and delivery of a Mallincam Universe, a Celestron Edge HD C9.25, and a further mount, a Skywatcher AZ-EQ6. The current sky is clear, but tonight will be cloudy, or at best partly clear with a bright moon close to full. So I extend my apologies to all who would otherwise be taking an interest in the spring parade of galaxies. I will endeavor to do less in the future, and to continue to be properly grateful to my beautiful, gracious, and sylph-like spouse. Amen.

Well, here’s a fine mess!

I’ve been unable to observe the stars visually for some time as a result of Fuchs’ Dystrophy, and I’ve been considering other ways to look through my ‘scopes for quite a while. One of the main paths I’ve been following is that of Video Astronomy, which essentially involves pointing a low-light video camera through the ‘scope and directing the output to a TV screen. There are several companies serving this line of astronomy, but the company which has always appealed to me the most is Rock Mallin’s Mallincam. The problem I have always had with any of the videocams, from Mallin or anyone else, is that the pixel resolution of the cameras generally falls in the NTSC or PAL ranges – for NTSC that’s 640×480 – which is a little too low for my taste.

Recently Mallin came out with t;he Mallincam Universe, a 6.1 mp camera which has a lot in common with the DSLR cameras I have been using. Its sensor is roughly the same size, but the software supplied with the camera gives a near-video experience – not live, but close to it. So I bought one.

It’s been cold out there, though, and I generally don’t observe in the cold. First light consisted of a brief look through the camera, hooked up to a tiny SV70 scope mounted on a photographic tripod. I successfully viewed the Moon – wheeee! Then I retreated back indoors, chilled to the bone. Real observing would require a bigger scope on a real astronomical mount. And that’s when my troubles really began…

I admit, I was eager to get started. Temperatures were finally above zero. The night was clear, and though I hadn’t prepared much, I didn’t expect any problems. The mount was tried and true, the camera was new but performed well on first light, and I had watched a number of videos explaining what to do with the camera and software. All I had to do was point the camera at Orion and grab a view of M42. What could go wrong?

As it turned out, very little actually went wrong, but it went wrong in a big way. Possibly as a result of the cold (it cooled down rapidly after sunset) the mount began to report a lag in RA motion, and eventually stalled. I fiddled a little. I fiddled a lot. The mount seemed fine. The cables were firm in their sockets and I had almost 14V of power, more than enough I turned everything back on and went through the startup process. Suddenly the mount took off in one direction, and wouldn’t stop until I pulled the power. I now have a runaway motor. Oops!

That’s about a $250 fix (new motor), and I could have gone ahead with that, but instead I decided to buy a new and lighter mount and trade in the old one in its current condition. I wouldn’t get full trade-in, but I could accept a small loss somewhere above the cost of repair. While I was at it I would sidegrade the ‘scope – same aperture, but with a flatter field and the opportunity to use Hyperstar. I took down the scope and mount and set off to Khan’s in Toronto, where I had just bought the camera.

When I got there, I was told I would have to order a mount before their technician would look at the scope, or pay for a couple of hours of the technician’s time – about $180. Before committing to the trade-in I wanted to know what they considered the mount and scope were worth – it would have affected what I would purchase, so I couldn’t order ahead of time. Considering I had just spent a couple of grand in the store for the camera, I was seriously annoyed, and decided instead to fix the mount and buy a new scope somewhere else. I may still replace the new mount, but not at Khan’s, and I’ll sell the old mount elsewhere. Send me a note if you have any interest in a Losmandy G11 with Gemini I controller.

Right now, though, I’m left without a fully-working mount, so it’ll be a while before I post any review of the Mallincam Universe. Ain’t this a fine mess I’ve put myself in? Hrrrmph!

Venus transit, 2012 edition

With uncertain weather for the Transit of Venus, I decided to stay home rather than chase holes in the clouds in the hope of being able to observe the transit. Predictions for my home location were for clearing at least a little bit in the late afternoon, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

I did a quick and dirty dry run last week to make sure everything was working in the observatory, but today it turned out to have been a little too quick. Everything worked, but few things worked properly. The pier has shifted over the winter, and required levelling. The mount tracks and slews properly, but the alignment is off (due to the shifting pier), and once the mount was levelled, the alignment was off even further. Consequently, though the mount tracks something, it doesn’t track the sun very well at all. I wanted to try the Lumix camera mounted a focally on the 110 mm refractor, but I had trouble locating the correct cable for the focuser, and when I tried to focus through the screen, it turned out to be just a touch too small. There’s no way of controlling the Lumix from a laptop, so I had to trigger the shutter manually – with all that implies for image sharpness.

Still, I was able to muddle through, and I’m fairly happy with the images I did manage to get before the clouds rolled over me. I will post at least one of the images (pre-second contact) and, I hope, a brief movie (second contact showing black drop effect). Right now everything is on the iPad though, and it may take a while – watch for a link!

Blind luck, blind fate.

Over the past few years I have complained about the difficulties of driving at night, particularly in rain. I figured it was one of the benefits of growing old. More recently I have noticed how my vision has been variable over the course of the day, generally being at its worst in the morning, but gradually improving during the day. I guessed that my blood sugar was varying over the day, changing my vision in the process.. At last, I found my glasses were not correcting my sight well enough most of the time, and I called on my friendly neighborhood optometrist for a checkup.

“Hmmm.”. Along with “oh-oh” that’s a word you don’t want to hear when you’re having any kind of check-up. In this case, it preceded the strange (to me) pronouncement of “your right eye is uncorrectable.” That turned out to mean that a visit to the ophthalmologist was in order. There’s a long lineup, so it wasn’t for a few weeks that I got the next part of the message, which wasn’t, as I expected, that I was developing cataracts, but rather that I had a relatively rare genetic condition which results in a corneal problem called ‘Fuchs Dystrophy’ (or sometimes ‘Fuchs Endothelial Dystrophy’ or FED for short). This results in the cornea turning white, with occasional painful blisters. In other words, I’m going blind – and since it affects both eyes, it will be complete and total. Ugh.

Fortunately there is a transplant treatment, so at some time in the future I can hope for a few endothelial cells to be slipped under my cornea, and if that goes well, a couple of weeks later my vision will be on the road to (more or less) recovery. It won’t be perfect vision, be it will be good enough for me to navigate around a room, and probably enough for me to keep reading.

For this to work for me and other sufferers we will need donors. So sign your donor cards when you renew your drver’s license! You’ll feel good about yourself.

Starfest? Not tonight, anyway

It’s Starfest time, but I’m not there – I expect to go tomorrow, Saturday, but then again, I expected to go on Wednesday. I’ve been watching the Clear Dark Sky forecasts for the site as well as the weather forecasts for nearby Mount Forest, and with poor skies predicted together with Tornado Watches, I haven’t felt it was worth heading out. Friday night was predicted to be good after midnight, but I spent most of the day feeling slightly queasy, so I passed on that also. Instead I stayed up late here at the house, and stepped outside a few minutes ago to check on things.

It’s about as dark as it gets here in suburban Woodbridge – my dark sky meter reads 18.03, which is just about as dark as I have seen here (Bortle 8 or 9). Jupiter is climbing up in the southwest, and the air seems steady, with no noticeable shimmy or flicker. The trouble is, I can see Jupiter, but only three or four other stars – transparency seems to be much worse than usual, which is disappointing since the prediction was for average transparency at worst, improving to better than average towards the early morning hours.

Hot, mizzable, tired and oddly satisfied

It’s been in the 30s today, and my A/C is not working – looks as though there is some sort of start capacitor which has blown [yup! Simple fix, but still $110 – but no consequential damage], because the fan won’t start without help. I’m just wondering how long it has been running this way, and if there has been consequential damage to the rest of the unit. When I manually start the fan (by carefully spinning the blades) the fan keeps running, but there is no cool air coming out of the AC vents. I guess I’ll find out soon, as the HVAC folks are due for a maintenance check at the end of the week. That’s my hot and miserable start to the week.

Meanwhile, I’m just back from a visit with my daughter in Southern California. While I was there I happened to see that the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference (RTMC) was being held over the US’ Memorial Day weekend. I was due to jump on the plane home on Saturday, but I went up to the site on Wednesday and stayed until early Friday morning.

The weather was dry and pleasant during the day, and downright cold during the night. I fired up the new Astrotrac and took a few exposures, mostly of the region around Vega and a little south of Antares. There was a hulking great mountain to the south, so I didn’t see much point in trying for the southern sky. This was an impromptu exercise, and I wasn’t well prepared.

I was able to set up and align reasonably well. The first night I learned that it was better to set up with the tripod legs fully extended, as trying for a minimal extension resulted in greater stability but an aching back. I ran two image sequences up to about 1 am, but packed up when the wind picked up. I have no idea what the actual wind speeds were, but 50 mph gusts had been predicted, and it certainly sounded as though that was what came through.

The following night I set up with full extension and was much more comfortable in both the alignment and object selection processes. Unfortunately the second night I was exhausted – didn’t sleep well – and quit after only one image sequence.

Since I hadn’t expected to be observing – and certainly not imaging – I had nothing to process the images I captured, and didn’t have any capture software with me either. I captured using an intervalometer I had in my gadget bag, and didn’t capture any darks or flats. I don’t expect the final images to be impressive, but in any case I will post them when I have had a chance to stack them and remove the sky glow.

Shooting at f/4 and ISO 800, I felt comfortable with 4 minute exposures, but not at 5 minutes. Stars were nice and round after a couple of alignment tweaks, and I took sequences of 20 or so each time the Astrotrak fired up. I’m happy with that.

I was shooting with a 70-200 and a 24-105 lens, each with L glass, but I will have to check the EXIF data to see what the nominal focal lengths were for each series.

Seeing wasn’t great on either night, but I thought it was a little better the second night. Skies were fairly good, but I think Starfest skies are a little better. There was a bit of a light dome to the NNE (Las Vegas?) and on the second night another observer complained about the light dome from San Diego (?) to the SSE. The mountains seemed to do a fairly good job of blocking the lights of the greater Los Angeles area, but there was a lot of sky glow along the entire horizon. The site is just barely a borderline green zone on the sky pollution maps, while Starfest, as I recall it, is solidly green.

I’ll try to plan a little better next year so that I can attend the entire event (I missed the swap meet and just about all the vendors, which I normally enjoy at Star Parties). I also have permission to purchase equipment and leave it with my daughter, so I should be able to do more next time. It was a tiring event for me, but considering it was all catch-as-catch-can, I’m pretty satisfied with the way things went.

P.S. Access to the event site is via California Highway 38, a twisting little road full of hairpin turns with breath-taking drop-offs waiting for you if you take them too fast. White-knuckle driving for me, but long-time attendees told me “you get used to it.” Eek!

Earthquakes and floods

It wasn’t all that close – Toronto and Ottawa are separated by a couple of hundred miles – but yesterday’s earthquake was noticeable down here in not-so-sunny Woodbridge. It’s not quite true to say we’ve had no sun, but we have also had a couple of deluges in the last day or so.

I’m not sure if the combination of these two events is a contributing factor, but when I went out to the observatory today I found that the bubble level on the mount was no longer showing a cleanly centered bubble. Instead, the bubble is off to one side, so it looks like the mount has shifted quite a bit. It looks like the next time I go out I should set aside a half hour or so to confirm and reset the alignment.

Oh well. At least the wrath of a vengeful god didn’t make the earth gape open and swallow the observatory whole. That won’t happen until 2012….