Getting Started: Visual Astronomy released

Getting Started: Visual Astronomy is quite a departure for me as most of you know I am primarily an astrophotographer and spend comparably very little time visually observing. When you are imaging for up to ten hours at a stretch however that still leaves a lot of time for visual observing, so compared to many others around me I do a lot of visual observing. It is all relative. There are a lot of fantastic books on general astronomy and observational astronomy. The one thing that I could never find however is a book that got right to the point on how to visually observe that was easily portable. This led me to do the research and write my own.

Getting Started: Visual Astronomy Getting Started: Visual Astronomy is a standard sized book just like my others that gets right to the heart of the matter. It is designed to get you up and observing quickly. It answers all the basic questions and some of the more advanced ones as well making sure you know how to use the equipment you have, and what equipment you may be interested in purchasing. From naked eye observations, through binoculars and all the way to the different types of large telescopes, you will find all the information you need to get out under the stars and begin your journey. It even includes a few biographies of important people such as the father of modern observational astronomy, Galileo Galilei, so that you get a feel for the history of observational astronomy.

You can get more information, read the table of contents and introduction and more at the book’s home page here:

Look for Getting Started: Visual Astronomy in both print and Kindle editions from Amazon. The first person to review the book on Amazon had this to say: “This book will help you get started in Astronomy and answers every question you have plus plenty more you didn’t know you had. From buying your first telescope to how to read star maps this book offers a step by step guide on everything. Written in a well structured format that makes the information easy to digest. Well worth the sticker price for the amount of information contained. I highly recommend.”

I hope you enjoy Getting Started: Visual Astronomy!

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Total Lunar Eclipse 04/15/14

Last night I was able to not only view, but image a total lunar eclipse. There are a lot more lunar eclipses than there are solar for us to view. That doesn’t make them any less amazing. The weather cooperated wonderfully as a front blew through earlier in the day making sure that the air was extremely clear, although cold. As the clock passed 1:30am the shadow on the moon started to grow. At first it was so dim you really didn’t even notice it. It took me looking at the moon through binoculars and at the images from two different camera’s before I was sure it had started.

total lunar eclipse progression It is interesting to watch a total lunar eclipse and see the progression on camera. Your eyes are amazing devices and compensate for the moon dimming where the camera does not. You sort of notice that everything is getting dimmer around you but it doesn’t really sink in until you have to adjust the exposures on the camera to keep things looking even. The so called “blood moon” looks almost as bright as the full moon, but it is tremendously dimmer. The lunar eclipse schedule is pretty quick and it is all over before you realize it. If you get the chance to watch lunar eclipse live, put aside at least an hour or more. Some last less than an hour and some last for three or more hours.

total lunar eclipse Once the eclipse is in totality it is hard to pull yourself away from looking at it long enough to check the pictures and make sure the exposure is correct. This is when you need your camera automated. You can automate higher end cameras by using a computer to control it or using a device that takes exposures on a set schedule or interval called an intervalometer. Some cameras, and even video cameras like a GoPro can take multiple exposures at a set interval without external control.

If you haven’t seen a total lunar eclipse in person you really should make it a point. The next two are October 8th of 2014 and April 4th of 2015 for a good portion of North America.

You can read more about a lunar eclipse at Wikipedia.

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Zhumell Z8 Dobsonian Review, not all dobs are equal

After purchasing my new Zhumell Z8 Dobsonian I thought I would share some information on it.

In doing research for my upcoming book “Getting Started: Budget Astrophotography” I was in need of an 8″ Dobsonian telescope. Lots of people have this type of telescope so it is absolutely one that needed to be discussed in the book. Like most people, I wanted the best scope for the best deal I could get and I had heard a lot about Zhumell Dobsonian telescopes, that led me to Hayneedle.

If you are curious about the design of the Dobsonian, read more at Wikipedia.

Zhumell Z8 Dobsonian Most people who know me know that I typically have a brand preference that I stick with. They also know that I will only stick with that brand if the price, performance and quality are close to the competition. This meant that I wound up comparing the Orion XT8 vs Zhumell Z8. In this case they weren’t really close so I went with the Zhumell Z8 Dobsonian telescope which is the house brand for Hayneedle. To start with the price between the Zhumell and its competition is very close, not really enough to worry about. The Zhumell Z8 Dobsonian comes with both a 9mm 1.25″ eyepiece and a 30mm 2″ eyepiece whereas most competitors including the Orion only ship a 25mm 1.25″ eyepiece or something close. In addition they ship a screw on moon filter and laser collimator, the Orion ships with a collimation cap and cheap reflex finder.

Zhumell accessories While I prefer a red dot finder the 8x50mm right angle finderscope on the Zhumell Z8 Dobsonian is a very nice finder and typically considered an upgrade to a simple red dot. Another huge win for the Zhumell is the dual speed crayford focuser that is just as smooth as silk.

Zhumell focuser Finally, my favorite feature is that the Zhumell Z8 Dobsonian has adjustable pivot points so you can balance the scope (Orion has nothing like this), and then adjustable tensioners on each side (not flimsy little springs or friction tape) so you completely control balance and resistance, nice.

Zhumell pivot points

To make this telescope perfect they should offer a kit that swaps the 8x50mm finderscope with a deluxe red dot, and maybe throw in a 2x barlow which would effectively give you the equivalent of 4.5mm (pretty much unusable), 9mm, 15mm and 30mm eyepieces. Other than that little pickyness, I highly recommend this telescope and consider it the best Dobsonian telescope in this size and price range. If you are in the market for a Dobsonian, this should be on your short list. You can sometimes pick up the Zhumell Z8 Dobsonian used HERE or head on over to to get a new one.

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Huntsville astronomy club’s new website

The Huntsville astronomy club (Huntsville Amateur Astronomy Society) in Huntsville Texas is finally getting ready to move to a new website, complete with image galleries and a forum of our very own. The new address is and should feature a lot of great information not just for those in our area, but for anyone interested in astronomy in general. Come on by and take a look!

Huntsville astronomy Once you are finished looking at the new site be sure to email us tell us when you would like to come out to a meeting and meet the gang. We meet at the SHSU observatory which you can find with this Huntsville Texas Map that has the observatory marked. There is a lot of stuff going on in Huntsville astronomy!

The website has a lot of cool information, a forum where you can  communicate with other people, tons of astrophotography from our members, astronomy related weather forecasts, an all sky camera so you can see what the sky looks like at the observatory in real time, links to our member’s websites, and much more.

We meet on a pretty irregular schedule so check the website or email a member for information on the next upcoming meeting. Everyone is welcome, there are no dues, show up, have fun!

Thinking about getting into astronomy or astrophotography and not know where to start? Start by coming to a meeting or contacting the club and we will be more than happy to give you a tour, show you our equipment, and help you decide what you want to do. We can also help make equipment purchase decisions (although you can start a great astronomy hobby with just your eyes or a pair of binoculars!).

Are you a student at SHSU? Be sure to take the SHSU astronomy class! Our Huntsville Astronomy Club president is the instructor so you are sure to have a blast.

Here is a schedule to see when official things are happening at the SHSU astronomy observatory.

Come on out and join us for some astronomy in Huntsville Texas.

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Orion SkyView Pro mount review

A short while back I decided I wanted another EQ goto mount so I picked up a lightly used Orion SkyView Pro telescope mount (SVP). Why the Orion SkyView Pro?

1) Carries more load than my Orion SkyView Deluxe, so better suited for my 127mm refractor

2) Tripod, weights and hand controller interchangeable with my Orion Sirius in case anything happens

3) Uses same interface, drivers and cables for computer control so I am already set up to use it with my laptops

4) OK, yes, I am kind of an Orion fanboy, but with their good products and excellent customer service, it is hard not to be.

Orion SkyView Pro After purchasing the polar scope separately and installing it in the Orion mount, I felt as if I was using the younger brother to my Sirius mount. Setup was fast and easy as the mount worked exactly the same as the Sirius but is lighter. This allowed me to be setup and running, including polar alignment, in about 15 minutes.

Polar alignment scope Running the mount is again, much like the Sirius mount. Since this is an EQ-5 based mount much like Celestron’s CG-5 I expected it to have much more in common with it than the Sirius, and indeed the motor covers, external cables and polar scope covers make it similar in appearance, but not so much in function. While the CG-5 is a capable mount, it has earned the nickname of “coffee grinder”, and if you ever hear one slew, you will understand why. The Orion SkyView Pro goto on the other hand sounds just like the Sirius, quiet and smooth.

Orion SkyView Pro mount Accuracy is exactly what you would expect given it has the same controller, excellent. Load capacity seems higher than listed by Orion (as it is for virtually any Orion mount) and I would have no problems running the Orion SkyView Pro with more weight than a CG-5. The tripod is only 1.5″ tubes as compared to the CG-5 which I believe has 2″ sections, but as with my Sirius mount once the mount is at it’s minimum height (which is always where you want to image from) stability is not an issue at all. If for some odd reason I needed to image from a fully extended position, then I might consider replacing the tripod with the 2″ version from the Atlas.

Orion SkyView Pro controller There are some things I do not like about this mount, starting with the rear cover for the polar scope. This cover just “fits” on, not really snapping, and not screwing, into place. Even looking in its general direction makes it fall off. Heck, while slewing if a cable brushes it, it comes off. Come on guys, I will pay the extra quarter, put some threads on it!

Next, for those of us that really use our equipment, the little rubber coating on the bottom of the tripod feet is a real pain in the rear. Why, you may ask? It eventually comes off. Not all at once mind you, but a little here and there. This messes up your leveling (if you always set up in the same place, once leveled you can lock the legs and never have to level again, until the rubber starts to come off one leg). Save some hassles later, remove the rubber coating as soon as you get this mount.

Lastly, I do wish the polar scope was lit although I generally set up right at dusk so that is not too much of a problem.

Overall the Orion SkyView Pro is an excellent goto mount that I would highly recommend for both visual and lightweight AP work. My only serious complaint is that it is a little too expensive when there are very capable alternatives such as the CG-5 or VX from Celestron. If you could get the SVP, CG-5 and VX mounts for the same price, it is a no brainer for me, the SVP rules the roost. Unfortunately for Orion you can still get the CG-5 from High Point Scientific for $549 new making it a much better overall deal.

Once High Point’s inventory is gone however, the Celestron VX series is showing a price of $799, just $50 less than the SVP, so in that case, I would splurge and take the Orion SkyView Pro over the VX, if for no other reason than how the SVP works with EQMOD and computer control.

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Explore Scientific AR127 review

I recently bought an Explore Scientific AR127 (sometimes called the ES127 or just ES AR127) and thought I would add my experiences to the other ES AR127 reviews.

Back in October I bought an Orion 90mm f/11 scope to do visual. I didn’t want to spend much because I really don’t do much visual and didn’t have much of a desire to. Recently I have been wanting something a little more, a little larger. Not too large mind you because it won’t fit in the car with all the AP rig already in there (and I drive a full size car, Buick Lucerne). I looked around for something in the 120-130mm range, any larger and it would be too big a pain in the rear to use and I would have to have a new mount for sure. Too small and there won’t be much of an improvement over what I already have. I also really hate the finderscope on the old Orion but it used a weird mount so you can’t just slap a different finder in there. I would also like to use all the 2″ equipment I already have for my APO since the APO will be imaging while I use this. I wanted something much higher end than the standard starter 120mm scopes offered by Orion and Celestron, but where to look?

All the reviews pointed to Explore Scientific refractors, specifically the Explore Scientific AR127, as the finest non-ED/APO out there right now even discounting issues with their focusers. I chatted and emailed them and got really depressed. The chat was about the finderscope they include, an 8×50 finder with a proprietary mount, and the possibility of buying just an OTA with rings as I have no need for the finder or diagonal in their “kit”.

The employee in the chat session, Langlee, informed me that they had no alternative to the finder on the AR127 but I could contact one of their distributors, Camera Concepts, as they carried many different types of adapters.

After a quick call to Camera Concepts I was relayed a message from the owner and told to use double sided tape as they had no adapters for the Explore Scientific AR127. Yes, that is why I am looking to get a high end achro scope, so I can mount my accessories with double sided tape. Langlee also said they could probably get me just the OTA but he had to talk to accounting and would get back to me. So on to email which was the response about buying just the OTA and rings, which was from David. After many volleys back and forth the general gist of the conversation was that no, they would not sell me anything but their kit, and I should be happy to have it. I also found out that they have an entire machine shop dedicated to things like making finderscope mounts fit for customers (seems Langlee had no idea that part of the company even existed). So would they take the existing finderscope, mount and diagonal in trade for putting a $15 aftermarket vixen style shoe on the scope before they shipped it to me? Absolutely not because it is “Hard to pay our machinist with parts.  He prefers cash for some reason.” Yes, that is exactly what David told a prospective customer.

So I have to assume that even they don’t believe their finderscope and diagonal is worth $15. But enough of that, I want the Explore Scientific AR127 for the optics which are supposedly first rate, and indeed David challenged me to find another doublet with equal optics which he claims are 1/4 wave or less PV. This was right before David suggested velcro instead of double sided tape for my finder, LOL! So you may ask, if I was already this unhappy with their customer service, why would I buy their scope? Simple, I could not find anyone with a scope that had comparable optics in a comparable price range, anywhere, or I certainly would have bought elsewhere. Because of their terrible customer service, I decided to buy my AR127 from a different vendor, such as from Amazon HERE instead of direct from ES to add a safety net into the equation so I did not have to deal with ES at all.

Explore Scientific AR127 So here is the Explore Scientific AR127 mounted and ready for the night’s observing. How did she do?

Optics: First rate for an achro. Of course not even in the same league as my Orion APO, but then again it is larger and a fraction of the price. Views of stars shows some CA around them, but surprisingly enough Saturn and the Moon show only very minor CA. In fact, the views of the moon were amazing. This scope takes power like nobody! I even went to my 5mm Stratus and it held up well although it preferred the 8mm. Of course this is with my Orion 2″ diagonal. Note the three sets of collimation screws in the image below:

Explore Scientific AR127 objective  

Overall build quality of the Explore Scientific AR127: The tube is nice, paint is nice, rails and rings are very nice. The handle at the top is a really nice touch although it would be pretty useless to mount anything but since I have no need to mount anything I like it. Dew shield is not retractable like my Orion so the scope is pretty long.

Focuser: Although it performed fairly well I see why people don’t like it. It feels cheap, the lock works….kinda, and the tensioner works…kinda, there is no scale printed on it, and it does not rotate. The two knobs for lock and tension are so close together and so close to the same size, I am honestly not sure which I was turning at any given time. I see a new GSO focuser in this scope’s future. I wish it had a focuser like the one on my Orion.

Explore Scientific AR127 focuser knobs Documentation: You mean the packing slip? You must because that was all that was in the box.

Lens cap: Large, with a molded in handle, but plastic and not screw in. I much prefer the aluminum screw in of my Orion, but again, the Orion was a much more expensive scope.

Overall: I think I will keep the Explore Scientific AR127 because the optics are really good. I have a new finder shoe and scope on the way from Orion and am looking at focusers right now. With those two replacements this will be an excellent scope. As it stands I feel I overpaid ($649 with free shipping) for what I got, but maybe the sale of the diagonal and finder on the bay will help bring the cost down a little.

On a different note I mounted this scope on my Orion Skyview Deluxe mount for now which handled the load very well. I did have to make one modification which was a dovetail adapter from as shown here:

Right view of the ScopeStuff adapter and here:

Left view of the ScopeStuff adapter  

I can’t say enough good about this dovetail adapter and the service from ScopeStuff. They shipped so fast I thought they made a mistake telling me when it shipped (same day I ordered it, well after 5pm their time) and it arrived two days later perfectly. The only downside was I had to buy longer bolts and more washers since I was running an aftermarket mounting plate but that was totally my problem and not theirs. If I had been using the factory plate what they sent would have worked fine. If you decide to get your own Explore Scientific AR127 (or ES127, whichever you want to call it) please use THIS LINK to help offset the costs of running this site.

I hope you enjoyed my little review of my Explore Scientific AR127!

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Orion Skyview Deluxe 90mm f/11 refractor

After purchasing my Orion Skyview Deluxe I thought I would share my thoughts on it.

Imaging can take many hours without touching anything. You just sit there. Sometimes I read, sometimes I watch TV, sometimes I browse the internet. Why not look around at the sky? So I found an Orion Skyview Deluxe on the bay that I liked, first because it was a refractor and I really like my refractors, second because it was kind of a classic from the 1980s or 1990s, and thrid because it was Orion and I really like my Orion stuff. I managed to get it for what I though was a reasonable price, just under what a new Orion Astroview 90mm would have cost and this one had a better mount and polar scope to boot. When it arrived there was a problem, they had not packed it well and the top plate where the scope mounts was broken:

Broken mount adapter  

So I emailed Orion, I could hear the laughter from here, no, there is no replacement part for an Orion Skyview Deluxe. I tried Astromart, dead silence. I tried a local welding shop, they laughed saying it was cheap pot metal and there was no way to repair it. They did however suggest a machine shop. After talking to Pat at ELM Machine in Oakhurst it seemed he was confident he could make a new one better than the old, and here is what he came up with:

New custom adapter   This isn’t “better” than the original, this is WAY WAY WAY better than the original! Excellent work Pat! Now my scope is in service and I will have more to do than read or watch TV while imaging for more than eight hours a night.

Orion Skyview Deluxe with new adapter I like this scope so well that even when it is not in use it is assembled and sitting in my living room where I can swing the scope around to look out the back window. I can also carry it through the sliding glass door and set it on the back upstairs deck. With a low power eyepiece the Orion Skyview Deluxe is a wonderful scope for watching the buzzards sitting in the tops of trees.

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