Sunday, November 19, 2017


Issue #550: Deep South Star Gaze 2017: You Can’t Win ‘em All…

You can’t expect every star party to be great. Sometimes, often through no fault of the event itself or its organizers, things just don’t quite pan out for you. So it was for me with the 2017 edition of one of amateur astronomy’s longest running events, the Deep South Star Gaze.

I suppose part of the problem was that I just wasn’t as excited about the year’s DSSG (née “Deep South Regional Star Gaze”) as I used to be. Which doesn’t have a thing to do with the DSSG. It has to do, to begin with, with where I live now.

Out here in the suburbs, I have a zenith limiting magnitude of about 5 on a good night, far, far better than I had downtown at old Chaos Manor South. I can observe and even image profitably from the backyard. Sky gonna be clear for two-three-four-five nights? I can leave my telescope set up in my secure yard just like I do at a star party.

Even given the current nasty weather pattern, I can sometimes get 7 – 10 nice nights per month out here in Hickory Ridge, nights with no or minimal Moon. So, there’s just not the level of anticipation there was when I might, if I were very lucky, get one clear night every month or two that coincided with a club dark site observing session. Back then, a week or so at a star party was just heaven. How I longed for those deep sky photons after being deprived of them for months.

Despite the weather forecasts, the field was filling up...
My current mindset also has to do with work—or the lack of it. I am now what they call “semi-retired.” While I continue to teach one day (and night) a week for the Physics Department at the University of South Alabama, and am a Contributing Editor at Sky & Telescope, it’s not like I’m snowed under. When I was still doing my engineering gig, commuting at least a couple of hours a day (and working plenty of hours during that day), a star party wasn’t just an opportunity to observe; it was a much-needed vacation.

At first, it was wonderful to be free of the rat race. I remember Saturday afternoon at the Deep South Spring Scrimmage in 2013, the year I retired at age 59, thinking maybe I’d better go ahead and pack some of the astro-junk in preparation for an early departure Sunday a.m. “Wait a minute. I can leave as late as I want Sunday. I don’t HAVE to go to work Monday!” That was great for the first couple of years, but by 2015, a trip to an astronomy event began to have slightly less appeal than it did in the years when I really needed a break.

That’s where I stood as the October new Moon and DSSG 2017 approached. I wanted to be back on the Feliciana observing field, hanging out with old friends and doing some astronomy from a nice and (amazingly) dark site, sure, but I wasn’t as crazy for it as I used to be.

“The longest journey begins with a single…” yadda-yadda-yadda. My first step was loading the 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, with the gear we’d need for four full days at the Feliciana Retreat Center in the wilds of the Louisiana piney woods.

In recent times, we’ve tended to do three full days, but we thought doing Wednesday through Sunday morning instead of Thursday through Sunday morning might give us a better chance of getting in at least one good night if the weather turned bad, as it can down here in mid-October—DSSG would be early this year thanks to the New Moon date. As the month wore on and the star party approached, it looked like poor weather was exactly what might happen.

When the week of the event finally arrived, the prognostications on showed happy little Suns and Moons for Tuesday and Wednesday, but after that it was partly cloudy days and nights, and, by Saturday, lightning studded thunderstorm clouds. In fact, the weather forecast for Saturday night began to sound dire.

Our setup...
Anyhow, I’ve been to so many star parties over the last twenty years that packing for one is second nature. I know where everything should go in the truck, and, most importantly, what should go in. I make sure nothing gets left behind by relying on checklists I’ve refined and revised over the years. Nothing gets checked off till I physically place it in the 4Runner.

It was all pretty standard stuff, but with a couple of changes:  a new mount, a Losmandy, and a new telescope, a 115mm APO. If you’re a faithful reader, you know I recently sold two of my beloved Synta mounts, the Atlas and the CGEM. I still have my AVX, but what would travel to the star party with me would be my new GM811G.

While I’d been able to try the Losmandy out in the backyard, the cloudy early fall weather prevented me from giving it a good shakedown cruise, and I was looking forward to finally doing that. Thanks to its design, the GM811 and its tripod actually took up less room in the truck than the CGEM had, despite the Losmandy’s substantially higher payload capacity.

New telescope? No, I didn’t go out and buy yet another refractor. The star party would be more than just a pleasure trip for me this year. That APO, a loaner, would be the subject of my next Sky & Telescope Test Report. That was another reason Dorothy and I’d decided on a Wednesday rather than Thursday departure. That would allow me more time to put the scope through its paces.

Once Miss Van P. was loaded, I sat back and relaxed with a little Tuesday night TV. There was really nothing more I needed to do to prepare for Deep South. I hadn’t been asked to give a presentation this year, so I didn’t have to spend time reviewing and agonizing over a PowerPoint. 

The drive to the Feliciana Retreat Center near Norwood, Louisiana was a relaxed and uneventful one when we finally got going. There wasn’t much reason to start the three-and-a-half-hour drive too early. With DSSG taking place with DST still in effect, we’d have plenty of time to set up before sundown. We settled on 11:30 or so as our hit-the-road time. That would allow me to pick up my books from my Local Comic Shop (Wednesday is New Comic Book day, of course), and eat Chinese afterwards, as I always do on Wednesdays.

I'd planned on sitting here while taking pictures...
After a little more than three hours on Interstates 10, 12, 55, and multiple Louisiana back-roads, we were rolling onto the Feliciana Retreat Center grounds. We headed for the field straight away to stake out a spot. The weather had been good Tuesday night, and looked to be even better Wednesday, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that there were already plenty of eager amateur astronomers on the field. My usual place along the eastern side was taken, so I picked one on the northeastern field edge. The view to the south was compromised by a tree, but the light dome in that direction meant I wouldn’t be giving up much.

Up went the tent canopy, the tripod, the mount, and the telescope. It was hot work since we were back into another warm spell after having a few almost fall-like days, but not too bad. By the time an hour had elapsed, everything was ready to go for what looked to be an outstanding evening. The skies were slightly hazy, but only slightly, and were that deep cerulean that spells “good things.”

Setup done, Dorothy and I drove to the lodge to unpack in our small motel-like room. I noted with approval that the FRC had done some maintenance and remodeling, and that our room looked cleaner than the one we had the previous year. 

Thence back to the field for the door prize drawing. No, we didn’t win a thing, but we’ve won (or at least Dorothy’s won) plenty over the years. Drawing done, I did the final preparations for the coming evening’s observing run, and we returned to the Lodge for dinner.

When you’re at a star party with not much to do during the day, food often assumes a more than normal importance. Especially when, as at DSSG, there’s no nearby town with decent restaurant alternatives and other diversions. One thing that had always been good, very good, at the FRC was the meals. Oh, there was one year when the portions were a little skimpy, but the food that was served was high in quality. Not this year. The food was, to put it plainly, terrible.

Start with dinner. Tiny pieces of chicken that were as dry as the Sahara. The next morning at breakfast, I finally identified the yellow disk that was plopped onto my plate as eggs. The plastic-like thing did taste faintly of eggs, anyway. One evening there was jambalaya that tasted like it came straight out of a can, and was accompanied by a side of canned corn. Another “memorable” meal? Salisbury steak that was apparently made the same way MacDonald’s makes chicken nuggets:  smash some powdered something together in a mold. I expected better based on past experience, and knew the Feliciana Retreat Center could have done better if they’d wanted to. I survived largely thanks to the salad bar (which also wasn't what it used to be). 

While the food was reasonably priced, they weren’t exactly giving it away, and it was certainly not a good value. I am aware the FRC has had its share of financial problems and needs to economize, but this is not the way to do it. Anyway, I would have gladly paid five dollars more a meal for good food, and I suspect other star partiers would have as well.

Getting dark, finally...
Dinner, such as it was, concluded, what was the plan for Wednesday night? Astrophotography. I don’t generally like to jump into picture taking on the first evening when I’m tired from the drive and set up, but the weatherman was beginning to suggest that if I were to get any pictures, I’d have to get them Wednesday night.

How was aligning the GM811? Polar alignment was exactly the same as what I’d been doing with my Chinese mounts for the last six months or so, polar alignment with the PC program Sharpcap using my guide scope and guide camera. The difference was that the much more precise altitude and azimuth adjusters on the Losmandy made it far easier to get a dead-on alignment.

Goto alignment was similarly easy. Using the mount’s Gemini 2 hand control, I centered three stars in the west, where I’d be doing most of my imaging, and one star in the east. While you can build multi- star models on both sides of the Meridian, my experimenting in the backyard had shown that four stars total was more than enough for the mount to yield excellent pointing accuracy.

OK. Fired up the laptop, connected to the mount over the Ethernet cable, started my camera control program, Nebulosity, and guiding program, PHD2, and was ready for picture-taking. What first? Well, how about good, old M13?

I clicked on M13 in Stellarium and the mount headed to the Great Globular, stopping with it centered in the frame of my DSLR, which was displayed on the laptop thanks to Nebulosity. I focused using my Bahtinov mask and Neb’s fine focus routine, and began a series of 300-second exposures.

Unfortunately, when the first one finished, I could tell I had big problems. For some reason, the images were in black and white. The program appeared to be debayering them, since they looked normal rather than having the pixilated appearance of non-debayered shots, but they were in black and white and nothing I tried changed that.

OK. I’d work on the computer in the morning (images were normal with the DSLR itself, but I didn’t have a cable release/intervalometer, so I couldn’t use it for long exposures without the laptop). For tonight, I’d just give the refractor a visual workout and spend some time getting more comfortable with the new mount.

How did the APO do? To find out, look for my Test Report in an upcoming issue of S&T. I will say it surprised me. After a while, I forgot I was using a telescope with "only" 115mm of aperture and just enjoyed the beauties of the deep sky it showed me.

As for the GM811, it never faltered. Gotos were dead on in the west; in the east it placed objects in a widefield eyepiece despite me only having aligned on one star on that side of the Meridian. I hung in till about midnight—my usual turn-into-a-pumpkin hour in these latter days, I must admit—before parking the mount and walking back to the Lodge to get some shuteye.

After eating what I could of breakfast the next morning, it was time to troubleshoot the laptop/Nebulosity problem. Sitting in the dining room after breakfast with the PC and camera, I made absolutely no progress. The problem persisted. All the images were monochrome. I was pretty sure uninstalling and reinstalling Nebulosity and the camera drivers would fix things, but that wasn’t possible. The Internet was so slow at FRC this year that my laptop would barely even connect to it.

Really liked my friend Dave's new mount...
So, no pictures Thursday, either. It didn’t look like the evening would be imaging worthy anyway. Stepping outside the Lodge and looking up revealed a sky blighted by high cirrus and even a few “mare’s tails.” If the camera had been working properly, I’d no doubt have tried some shots Thursday night, but it wasn’t, so it would be another visual evening.

In the afternoon, it was prize drawing time. Again, we didn’t win a thing. Well, Dorothy would have won a nice TeleVue eyepiece if she’d been on the field for the drawing, but she wasn’t. The drawing’s time was different from what we thought it would be—I was only present because I happened to be on the field fiddling with my gear.

Unlike in past years, “must be present to win” meant, “not just at the star party, but on the field.” Unfortunately, we rarely knew when a drawing—or anything else—would take place. No schedule was posted anywhere that I could find, so Dorothy and I were in the dark about “when and where” much of the time. 

Other than that, it was a nice afternoon spent getting reacquainted with many old friends. Maybe the best thing about this year’s event was hanging with the people I see too seldom, including Charles Genovese, Walter Serrat, Walt Cooney, Barry Simon, Dave Diaz, Ron Marcella, Greg Thompson, Bryan Shirkey, and many more (I did note a couple of familiar faces were missing, perhaps thanks to the worsening weather forecast).

Also onsite was Scott Roberts, who I’d last seen ten or twelve years before when we’d both been guests at one of Herb York’s old Optics Expo shindigs in Anacortes (Washington). As you probably know, after years at Meade, Scott was chosen to helm the new Explore Scientific. Not only did Scott do a presentation at Deep South this year, he donated many of his wonderful eyepieces and an APO refractor as prizes.

Finally, it was sky watching time Thursday night. I unparked the mount and was ready to go immediately, no alignment required. Conditions were not horrible early on, just not good. Those cirrus clouds were making their presence felt, and it was obvious the sky was slowly going south.

I had a lot of fun touring the early winter open clusters, but by midnight even NGC 457, the bright E.T. Cluster, was fading away, and I gave up. The dew had been incredibly heavy, and I was damp from head to foot and uncomfortable after spending a night at the eyepiece out in the open instead of sitting at the computer under a tent canopy as I’d intended.

Friday afternoon, the weather forecasts we were pulling up on our smartphones (when we could do that given the state of the Center’s Internet) indicated “severe” was not too strong a word for what would happen Saturday night. Dorothy and I decided we’d leave on Saturday morning. Why sit and watch it rain in the FRC Lodge when we could do the same thing at home in comfort?

I got a couple of good Losmandy tips from my friend, Tim...
To that end, I packed the tent canopy and most of the other gear Friday afternoon. Even if it didn’t rain Friday night, the dew would again be heavy, I was sure, and nothing is more miserable than packing wet gear. I left the scope up just in case, but that was it.

Friday night, I wandered out to the field a couple of times, mainly just to shoot the breeze with various and sundry fellow observers. There may have been a few sucker holes over the course of the evening, but not many. I’d covered my scope and mount at sundown, and left them that way. I whiled away the night watching movies in the lodge.

Saturday morning, we were up and on the road before breakfast. We might have stayed until ten for the prize drawing if we’d known it was going to be at ten, but we didn’t, so we didn’t. The trip home was, like the trip out, uneventful. While I was rather put out at the way things had unfolded this year, I could be philosophical, having seen more than a few star parties go down in flames for me over the years, “Well, that’s just the way the old cookie crumbles!”

In retrospect, we made a good decision. The weather Saturday night was indeed severe. Apparently, the FRC actually lost  power briefly Sunday morning, something that’s never happened before despite some fierce storms here and there over the years. Absolutely no viewing Saturday night, of course.

Will I be back for DSSG 2018 next year? I plan to be and would like to be. I’ve missed a grand total of one Deep South since 1992, and it’s unlikely I will quit now. And I feel in my gut that 2018 will be a better year for moi. I hope that turns out to be the case, but who am I kidding, anyway? Long ago, Barry Simon told me, “Look, you know we’ll all keep returning to Deep South like swallows to Capistrano as long as we are able.” I hope to do just that.

PostscriptReinstalling Nebulosity and the Canon driver once we got home did indeed fix my problem, whatever it was. Murphy banished and the weather finally looking up, I find myself eager to do astrophotography from my backyard. In fact, I'm sanguine enough about observing again that I'm kind of looking forward to next year's Spring Scrimmage. PLEASE, NO MORE OF THAT JAMBALAYA, though!  

Sunday, October 01, 2017


Issue #549: Using the Losmandy GM811 for Visual Observing

How do I like my new Losmandy GM811? That’s a question I’ve gotten a lot over the last few weeks. But what is the answer? Given the limited amount of time I’ve had to use the telescope mount, I can at least say I like what little I’ve seen so far.

The problem, as you’ve no doubt guessed, has been the weather. Mostly clouds, and if not clouds, heavy haze. There has yet to be an imaging-worthy night since the mount arrived from California, but I have had an opportunity to use it visually a couple of times, so that’s what this will be about.

I do hope to use the Losmandy for picture taking at its first star party, the Deep South Star Gaze later this month. I hope so, anyway. Alas, the DSSG comes early this year, in late October, and historically, that’s not a recipe for the best skies (not that I want to jinx things; I'm knocking on wood right now ).

Set Up

Sure, the Losmandy mounts are pretty—all that beautiful machining and anodizing—but that’s not what attracted me to the GM811. What did was its good weight to payload ratio. The Chinese mounts (with the exception of the iOptrons) have a fatal flaw for those of us who don't want to or can't wrestle with heavy GEMs. You get decent payload capacity, but that's at the expense of high mount weight. The Atlas and CGEM, for example, can handle maybe 40 pounds of telescope and gear for imaging, but they weigh in at around 40 pounds (for just the mount head). 

In contrast, the GM811, which is a Losmandy G11 RA assembly mated to a Losmandy GM8 declination assembly, weighs less than the Syntas at 27 pounds, but has a payload capacity of 50-pounds. 27-pounds is about the limit of what I feel I should be lifting given my current back problems, and it’s really not bad at all. I could reduce it even further if I removed the mount’s big, honking counterweight shaft, and I will probably do that for transport to the star party. For use in the backyard, however, I can manage it with the bar in place.

There’s also the question of how easy the GEM head is to attach to the tripod. Lighter weight won’t help if you have to fiddle around getting the mount head settled on the tripod. The Losmandy tripod makes that easy. The head is a cylinder with slots for the Allen attachment screws on the mount head. Line the screws up with the slots, lower it into the tripod, turn to engage the screws, and tighten ‘em down. No threaded rods or stuff like that to mess with.

Choosing an alignment star...
Speaking of tripods, how is the one I chose for the GM811, the Losmandy LW (lightweight) tripod? I love it. It’s plenty sturdy given my modest loads, a C8 and 6-inch class or smaller refractors of moderate focal lengths. The big deal for me? It is strong and sturdy, sure, but it weighs about half what the 2-inch steel legged Chinese tripods, like the one that was furnished with my Celestron VX do. Any problems? As I’ve mentioned previously, there’s no accessory tray. I need to make one before the star party, I guess. For now, I’ve been getting by with a camp table set up next to the telescope to hold the GM811’s HC and power supply.

Mount on tripod, let’s attach the scope. The GM811 has a dual saddle that will accommodate either a Vixen (all I have now) or a Losmandy D style dovetail. Install the mount’s declination counterweight on the dec shaft (always do that first), slide the scope’s dovetail into place in the saddle, lock it down and you are ready to balance—which you do just as you would with any other German mount.

Is balancing overly critical with the Losmandy? No, but if you are way off balance, you can get motor stalls. One night out with a telescope I am testing, a 5-inch range triplet APO, I wasn’t careful about balancing; I didn’t take into account the heavier weight of the objective end as compared to my personal scope, a doublet APO of similar aperture. I’ll fess up:  I didn’t balance at all. I just set the scope up as I would my lighter doublet refractor. With the scope badly off balance (it turned out), I did eventually get a stall, but that’s been the only time despite me doing dozens of gotos all over the sky in the course of my scope-testing.

How about the Losmandy’s clutches? Well, they are different from what you may be used to coming from Synta and Meade. The Syntas and their kin don’t really have clutches. They have locks. The Losmandy has real slip clutches. You only need to lock them down tightly enough so the scope is held firmly enough that bumping it or changing eyepieces doesn’t move it. With the power on or off, you can then move the telescope by hand—like to put it in home position—without loosening or otherwise fooling with the clutches. Naturally, moving the scope after goto alignment will cause you to lose said alignment, but I’ve found the clutch paradigm very useful during setup/polar alignment.

Polar Alignment

Center the star...
It’s time to polar align. How sensitive is the GM811’s Gemini 2 goto system to polar alignment errors? I’m not sure, since it’s so easy to do a good polar alignment these days. The mount computer features a built in polar alignment routine, but most people will probably opt for the new ways now: Polemaster or Sharpcap. I’ve chosen Sharpcap since I have a guide scope/guide camera perfect for use with the program’s polar alignment tool.

I set up the mount with the polar axis pointed as close to north as possible (using a compass). I don’t take incredible pains to do so, but I try to get close. When Polaris peeps out, I plug my QHY5L II guide cam, which is inserted in an Orion 50mm finder-style guide scope, into the PC, and bring up Sharpcap. In just a few minutes, the program will have me polar aligned very accurately indeed. If Sharpcap makes it easy, the GM811’s altitude and azimuth controls make it easier. They are smooth and precise and quite an advance over the crude (and I do mean crude) alt-azimuth controls on my old EQ-6.

Goto Alignment

The Losmandy goto system, the Gemini 2, seems to have a reputation for being “hard to understand” and “user unfriendly.” That worried me when I was mount shopping, but after using the mount just a few times, I’m scratching my head over this criticism. The Gemini 2 is no more difficult to align and use than the SynScan or AutoStar or NexStar controllers. Maybe easier. Certainly, the large, full color (or just red if you prefer) LCD screen is easier for me to read than the small monochrome displays of those other HCs. The alignment process itself is no more complicated than what you have with NexStar or Autostar.

You start out with the GM811 in the home position—counterweight down and tube pointed north. At first, I was obsessive about that, being used to my old EQ6—you had to be careful to home that mount accurately if you wanted a decent alignment. So, I used a carpenter’s level to home the Losmandy. I subsequently found out, however, that just moving the mount RA either by hand or with the hand controller until the counterweight bar was straight down by eye, and moving the mount in declination until the declination setting circle read 90-degrees was good enough.

When I am in home position, I turn on the Gemini 2 computer, and after the HC boots, I click (touch) “Cold Start” if I am not beginning from Park. Next, I click “Modeling” and the HC asks me if I want to create a model on the eastern or western half of the sky. If I am going to be doing most of my imaging/observing in the west, I choose that. If east, I’ll pick east.

Accepting an alignment star...
From there, things are much like they are with any other goto hand control. Well, sort of. You can choose as many stars for alignment as you wish rather than being limited to two or three. Being lazy, however, I usually leave it at three stars in the east or west and one additional star on the opposite side of the Meridian. Like any other goto system, you’re best off choosing stars that are well separated and not too low to the horizon.

After I click “west” or “east” I will be presented with a star choice for alignment star one. If I like it, I’ll click “goto.” If I don’t like it, I’ll click “west” or “east” again to get a different star. After clicking goto, the mount heads for the star. With a good polar alignment and assuming I’ve been reasonably careful with home position, the star will always be in my finder, usually in the inner 50% region, and sometimes in the eyepiece. When the scope stops I’ll use the virtual (onscreen) direction buttons or the real buttons on the HC’s reverse face to center the star. There’s an onscreen button that toggles between slewing and centering speeds. When done, I click “model.”

“Model” brings up a screen with a button that says “align.” Press that or your star will not be added to the sky model.  When you do, you’ll be presented with a screen that gives various alignment error figures. You don’t have to do anything there other than hit “back,” which takes you back to the star choice screen, where you select the second star.

A full-blown Gemini 2 alignment involves two models, one for the eastern and one for the western halves of the sky. Each model can be composed of a bunch of stars. Me? I never do that. Haven’t yet, anyway. I do three stars on my favored half of the sky and one more on the other side. How do I do the one for the other side? On the alignment star choice screen, I just choose the opposite side of the Meridian. If I aligned on three stars in the west, for star four I will push east (and vice versa). That will not build a model for the eastern half of the sky; it will just add an eastern star to my western model, which will make gotos more accurate if I cross the Meridian and wind up in the east half of the sky during the evening’s observing run.

So, to sum up, I push “cold start” and then “alignment,” choose my favored side of the Meridian, and center three stars. When I am finished with the these three, I add a fourth star on the opposite side of the Meridian and I am done. If this still sounds confusing, play around with the Gemini 2 “simulator” at (“Gemini 2 Tutorial”). Which is where the HC pictures here came from.

Press "back" to choose star 2...
I am aligned with only four stars. How good is that alignment? I’ve found it’s good enough that anything on either side of the sky will be in my moderate focal length telescopes when they are equipped with a medium power wide-field eyepiece—say a 12mm. I do find objects in the half of the sky where my three alignment stars reside are closest to the center, but even given my minimalist Gemini 2 alignment, the mount has never missed an object. Even the Moon, which can be difficult for goto systems, is always in the field, even if it’s on the other side of the Meridian from the “big three” alignment stars.

How do I get to the objects of my desire following alignment? Once again, it’s not much different from the way you do it with other HCs, and simpler than some. Clicking “goto” on the main screen (the one with the direction buttons) brings up a page that allows me to choose classes of objects: “Catalog Object” (deep sky objects), Solar System, Coordinates, etc.

Assuming I want to go to a deep sky object, I’ll press “Catalog Object.” I’ll then be presented with a listing of DSO catalogs. I choose the catalog I want, say “Messier,” and on the screen that appears next I enter the object’s number. Hitting enter gives the target’s stats. Pressing the screen's goto button will then slew the scope to the object. That is all there is to it. There are many options available with the Gemini system: you can save favorite destinations, enter coordinates to go to objects like comets, and upload new catalogs to the HC, but basic operation is, yeah, pretty darned simple.

Once you’ve got your feet wet using the mount with the hand control, you may want to give operating it with a laptop a go. I won’t bore you with the details again—I talked about this at some length not long ago—but suffice it to say the mount is no more difficult to interface to a computer than the Celestrons or Meades are. Actually, it can be easier, since you don’t have to mess with a dratted USB-serial adapter. You can connect mount to scope with an Ethernet cable (you can also use serial if you insist).

Some people find setting up Ethernet a little difficult, but if you follow simple directions at it is pretty easy. If you have trouble, I will be happy to help and can definitely get you going (send me a Facebook message or comment here). Once the Ethernet interface is active, a laptop can command the mount with the Gemini 2 ASCOM driver using Stellarium, or Cartes Du Ciel, or TheSky or any other ASCOM compatible program.

Choose an object catalog...
When the Ethernet cable is squared away, you can also operate the mount with a web browser without using any astronomy software at all. Built into the Gemini 2 computer is a little website. You don’t need Internet to connect to it, just that Ethernet cable. Enter the URL, “gemini” into your browser and up will come a page that allows you to goto objects, move the scope, edit mount parameters and do many other things. Pretty slick.

That computer stuff is pretty slick, but the takeaway for new users should be that the basic operation of the GM811 (and other Gemini 2 equipped mounts) is little different from the Meades or the Celestrons or the SkyWatchers.

“That’s cool, Unk, but how is the mount mechanically?” For me, it’s a dream. Everything is just so much nicer than the inexpensive mounts I’ve used over the last 15 years or so. In addition to the much better alt-az adjusters and the cool friction clutches, the R.A. and declination movements of the GM811 with those clutches undone are free and easy, making it a joy to balance even lighter scopes.

How solid is the Losmandy, though? The mount is advertised as having a 50-pound payload capacity, and while I haven’t approached that with my modest instruments, it is remarkably solid and shake free with them. My 6-inch f/8 refractor has a tube long enough to challenge the stability of some mounts—a longer lever arm can cause worse shaking than higher weight—and is very steady with the GM811.

To sum up? The GM811 is not a top tier mount price-wise. It is certainly not a Mercedes or a Porsche. Nevertheless, it’s solid and I believe it will be very dependable. It might not be a Mercedes S-Class, but I feel like I’ve at least moved up from Kia and Hyundai to a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord, and that is more than good enough for me, campers.

In the Nick of Time Department

Revolution DVR...
As you may have gathered from the last installment of this blog, I’ve become somewhat interested in doing astro-video again. I got out my Mallincam and my Revolution cameras, and both were fine. What wasn’t fine was my little Orion DVR. It was obviously on its last legs. Not electronically, but mechanically. The switches and connectors were failing. That was OK. I definitely got my money out of it—I used it heavily for much of the Herschel Project after purchasing it seven years ago. But what was I gonna do now? How would I record my video images? How would I get them into a computer for processing into deathless masterpieces?

Up stepped astro-video guru and all around nice guy Mike Fowler of Orange County Telescope. He said he had a new DVR, one similar in size to the old Orion, he thought I might like to check out. I don’t believe in coincidence, but if you want to say this was one, I’ll just call it a happy coincidence. I’ve now got Mike’s Revolution DVR in hand and it is a cute li’l thing. If only the skies were cute. Instead they are hazy and nasty and haven’t allowed me to try the DVR with my beloved Revolution camera yet. Expect report when I am finally able to do so.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


Issue #548: Astro-Video, Slight Return

I’m not talking about new-fangled video observing, “electronically assisted astronomy” as the denizens of a certain contentious forum on a famous (in a small amateur astronomy sort of way) website call it. I’m not talking about using digital CCD/CMOS cameras with short exposures to simulate video observing. I am talking about real-deal video observing with analog video cams.

That doesn’t mean I don’t like the new style digital astro-video cameras. I’ve reviewed a couple of them for Sky & Telescope Test Reports and was impressed. Their strength is that they are far more able to deliver pretty, smooth-looking images than the analog cams were. And those images sure are easier to get into a computer for manipulation than analog video was. You no longer need one of those blasted frame-grabbers; just plug a USB cable into the camera and laptop and you are ready to go. It ain’t all gravy, though. Analog cameras like the Mallincam Xtreme are still more sensitive than almost anything else.

Those were some of my thoughts as I pulled my Xtreme from her dusty case and mounted her on a telescope for the first time in nearly three years. I was in a hurry to get some images for a magazine article, and was pretty sure video would be the quickest way to do that. Which is just one of old-fashioned style video’s pluses. But why, then, had my Xtreme sat unused for so long? Maybe because I'd rarely observed with anything but video when I was doing the The Herschel Project.

The Herschel Project, which I began in earnest in 2009, was my quest to view all 2500 of the deep sky objects recorded by William and Caroline Herschel. It was the biggest observing campaign of my life, and finishing it in about three years as I planned meant night after night of pedal-to-the-metal observing, much of it with video, was required.

While I could have done all, or nearly all, of the H objects visually with my larger scopes, that would only be true given excellent dark skies. At my club site, I needed video to reliably bring home all the small and dim galaxies that infest the list. That’s why I started using video for the Project, anyhow. Frankly, I became so fond of observing the Herschels with my Mallincam Xtreme that I began using it even under dark skies, like in Chiefland.

For a typical Chiefland Astronomy Village run, I’d set up my NexStar 11GPS, Mallincam (Stellacam in the beginning), and sit under a tent canopy until three or four in the morning, controlling camera and telescope with a laptop PC running SkyTools 3, NexRemote, and the Mallican control software. I considered it a poor evening if I didn’t log and record at least 100 objects. In a typical three-night CAV visit I could easily bag 300 of the list’s faint fuzzies.

So, I basically wound up doing nothing but video during the over three years of the Herschel Project. It was fun, but after that much of it I was glad when it was “fun is fun, but done is done.” After crossing the finish line, I wanted something different, which turned out to be DSLR imaging most of the time and visual the rest of the time. There’s also no doubt the changes I’ve been through personally over the last three years have meant that, while I’m still an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, I’m quite not as hardcore as I was during the go-go days of the Project and not as apt to set up the ton of gear a video run requires.

Anyhow, as I mounted the old Xtreme on the rear cell of the C8, some great memories of the height of the Project came flooding back. All those evenings at Chiefland counting Herschel galaxies by the score in places where I’d never seen a single galaxy, like the wilds of Boötes.

The more I thought about it, though, the more astronomy video seemed to be mostly a creature of the Herschel Project for me—even though I’d become infatuated with the idea six years before the Project began, in 2003, at that year’s Astronomical Convention held in Nashville. There was a Stellacam and Meade 10-inch LX200 SCT set up in the parking lot one night and I couldn’t believe what they pulled in from orange-pink skies near the Nashville airport. I just had to have a Stellacam.

I got one, too, shortly thereafter, and while I used it a fair amount at first, that was just at first. It was soon back in its case for extended periods. I couldn’t find a use for it. The video camera seemed neither fish nor fowl. Lacking the personal and immediate magic of visual observing, but not offering the more finished pictures of “real” astro-cams.

That was the way it was until I started in on the Herschel Project. When I did, everything finally clicked video-wise. As above, I could observe dozens and dozens of objects every clear night, literally tearing through the 2500 DSO list. No, they didn’t look as good as they would have in, say, a long exposure DSLR image, but, frankly, many of those objects, as mentioned above, are bland, small galaxies, and don’t have a lot of pretty to them anyway. As opposed to visual? Man could I go deep with video.

I’d known that even before the H-Project began, like the night at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze when I began imaging Hickson galaxy groups and found my C11 and Stellacam (which was limited to 10-second exposures) could show any Hickson group member visible in the Digitized Sky Survey Plates, which were taken with the 48-inch Schmidt Camera at Mt. Palomar. Yeah, I was going deep, real deep, but without a 30-inch telescope to haul around (and pay for).

When my desire for color led me to replace the Stellacam with a Mallincam Xtreme about of a third of the way through the Herschel Project, I found just how deep I could go. A 1-minute exposure would take me to the realm of quasars, easily recording the ancient objects (see the quasar video at the bottom of the page, which I did in 2015 just before I put the Xtreme away) as well as the little sprites of PGC and UGC galaxies that haunted nearly every field.

Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t just seeing the ferociously dim, either. There was also detail, plenty of detail, and not just in brighter objects. As the Project was winding down, I hunted Arp (peculiar) galaxies for a while. Not only could I see them, I could almost always at least make out a trace of the odd details that led Halton ARP to add them to his list.

But then the H-Project was over. In addition to me wanting prettier pictures when I took pictures, there was also that “less hardcore” take on our avocation. There is no denying analog video is “stuff” intensive. You have multiple cables, a PC, power supplies, and, if you don’t want to involve frame grabbers, you’ll need a separate monitor to view the video and a DVR of some kind to record your objects. The times I wanted to pull out that amount of gear became fewer and fewer as the H Project receded farther and farther into the rearview mirror.

And there things remained. Oh, I did do a bit of playing with the excellent little Revolution video imager, which I still think is a wonderful buy, and is about as self-contained at kit as you can get, but it had literally been years since the Xtreme gathered photons. Not since that quasar run during my final spring Chiefland expedition in early 2015.

Which brings us to today. What did I think of the Mallincam Xtreme mounted on the back of the Edge 800 now? Some of the old annoyances remained. I don’t like frame grabbers, so I had to drag out a monitor (my old portable DVD player) and a video switch to route signals to it or to the DVR as desired—the camera doesn’t have enough drive to allow it to be hooked to both at the same time without an amplifier. And wouldn’t you know it? The first video cable I hooked between camera and switch turned out to be bad. So it goes in the analog world.

Those were the annoyances, however. The strengths of video were also on display. I was correct about how easy it was to get recognizable pictures quickly. Once I had everything properly hooked up and the bad video cable banished to the trash, it was a snap to produce usable images.

At first, I was afraid I wouldn’t remember how to run the Mallincam control software on the laptop, but it all came back rather quickly. It’s pretty user friendly as esoteric programs go, and I used it a heck of a lot over the years of the Herschel Project. After just a little fiddling around with the settings I was getting surprisingly nice video pictures.

The images I needed for the article safely on the DVR’s SD card, I had time for a little fun before the clouds rolled in, and pointed at some of the late summer DSOs sinking in the west (I absolutely love the new Losmandy’s Gemini 2 goto system). No, the video pictures didn’t have the look of carefully processed DSLR photos, but you know what? They were not bad at all. The stars weren’t grain-of-sand pinpoints, no, but there was nice color, and the frames coming over were not nearly as grainy and noisy as I “remembered.”

So, the final verdict on analog astro-video. REAL astro-video, if you will? I think it still has a place for those of us who own analog cameras, or who are interested in an inexpensive set up like the Revolution Video Imager (a mere 299.00 including a monitor and the other accessories you will need to get going). For those who don’t have an analog camera and want a top-of-the-line one like the Xtreme? Not so much.

The problem is that the base Xtreme is $1300.00, more than some of the new digital video setups (including the Mallincam SkyRaider DS2.3+ and the Infinity from Atik). The premier Mallincam now, the Xterminator, is over $1700.00. While these analog cameras are definitely more sensitive than their digital sisters, that sensitivity does come at the expense of more noise, smaller sensor chips, and images that are more difficult to process. The digicams are actually quite sensitive and more than usable for near real-time video style observing, but they also can be used to produce respectable long integration images.

I do have an Xtreme, however, it still works every bit as good as it did the day I put it away years ago, and I doubt it will stay in its case for another three years. I’m not going to take on the Herschels again, but when I want to capture something way far, far away on the edge of the Great Out There, the Xtreme, the Revolution, and their analog sisters are still the winners hands down.

Note:  You can view these videos full-screen by clicking "Youtube."

Note 2:  Have you heard there is now a place on Facebook where you can buy and sell astro-gear? There is:  It's administered by the good folk at TPI Astro...check it out.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Issue #547: A Losmandy GM811G Comes to Chaos Manor South

Thanks to my recurring back problems I recently put my Celestron C11 Schmidt Cassegrain and my Atlas EQ-6 and CGEM mounts up for sale. If you are a Facebook friend of mine, you know all three went to new owners amazingly quickly. When the dust settled, I was left with a single SCT, my Edge 800, and a single mount, my Celestron AVX, which I like a lot, but…

I recently did some tinkering with the AVX—well computer tinkering, mechanically it is all you can expect from its price class—and that brought some improvement to its tracking ability for deep sky imaging. Tightening up my polar alignment with Sharpcap, and really bearing down on those PHD2 brain icon settings took me from an RMS error of 2” or a bit more on a steady night to 1” or a bit more (or sometimes less) on an evening with superior seeing. The mount is now really all I need for shorter subs, 300-seconds or less, in the backyard. If I have a relatively light payload onboard the VX.

The thing is, however, that I sometimes want to go a little heavier and longer than my 11-pound 900mm SkyWatcher 120 Pro ED refractor. Sometimes I want my Edge 800 SCT for imaging, and sometimes I want my 6-inch f/8 achromatic refractor for visual use. The SCT is not just heavier than the 120, it’s got more focal length to the tune of 1400mm even with the Edge focal reducer in place. The achromatic refractor? While it’s at the limit for me at 25-pounds or so, it’s not too much for the AVX, but I am happier with it on a heavier mount—I’ve used it almost exclusively on the CGEM.

What to do, then? Well, it looked like stingy old me would just have to buy a new mount. One that would not break my back nor my bank account. I did quite a bit of looking and reading and pondering and narrowed my rather small field of candidates to two, the iOptron CEM60 and the Losmandy GM811G.

I’d had the opportunity to see my friend Bruce’s CEM60 in action last summer at the Maine Astronomy Retreat and had been impressed. This innovative “center balanced” GEM looked good, worked great, and at around 2800 dollars (once you buy the nice tri-pier tripod and a couple of other “options”) would not decimate my wallet. Most importantly, iOptron has kept the weight down to a manageable 27-pounds for the mount head but has kept the payload capacity up at an impressive 60-pounds.

The other mount candidate was a new one, the Losmandy GM811G. What’s different about this GEM? It is a hybrid. Take the R.A. assembly of a G11 and mate it with the declination assembly from a GM8. One thing that impressed me about this one other than its good looks—its components are beautifully machined rather than cast—was that it is almost a G11.

The Losmandy G11 is a mount I’ve thought about a lot over the years. In most ways, it seems perfect for me. Or would be if it weren’t just too heavy in these latter days. The G11 head is 35-pounds, approaching Atlas territory, and the tripod is the same 35-pounds, twice what the Atlas and CGEM tripods weigh.

But then came the “almost G11.” The GM811 has a payload capacity (which is stated to be for imaging) of 50-pounds. But it packs that into a 27-pound package just like the CEM60. The relatively light equatorial head would, I thought, allow me to use the mount on Losmandy’s lightweight tripod, the LW, which is a couple of pounds lighter than the Atlas/CGEM 2-inch stainless steel tripod. The GM811 is in the same price range as the CEM60, which made deciding all the more difficult.

Which should I choose? iOptron or Losmandy? I thunk and I thunk and I thunk…

Pluses for the CEM60? It’s, most of all, been on the street long enough now for the bugs to be out. Yes, I know, it’s a mass produced Chinese mount and there can be variation across samples, but from what I can tell, the chance of getting a good one is high. And if you don’t, iOptron is famous for its good customer support. Despite the odd center-balanced trope, the mount is familiar ground for me. The hand control is much like what I am used to with the Celestron and Meade HCs both in layout and operation.

There are minuses, too. Not many, but some. Chief among them for me is that with the CEM60 I would be covering the same old ground, for example hooking the mount to my PC using a darned USB-serial converter. Also, while I think the CEM60 is beautiful, there’s no denying the U.S. made Losmandy looks better with anodized, machined components. Looks aren’t everything, of course. All cats are gray in the dark. But maybe I just wanted something different this time. Something other than the import mounts that have been my bread and butter for over a decade.

What I liked about the GM811G is pretty much laid out above. Great build quality and great looks. And the mount delivers that at a price pretty much identical to what you’d pay for the CEM60. Another plus is the innovative Gemini 2 goto system. Not only do you have a color touch-screen HC, you can link the mount to a computer via serial, USB, or, best of all, Ethernet.

No piece of gear is without its failings, of course, and the GM811 had a few. Mainly having to do with the Gemini 2 system, which I thought might be a minus as well as a plus. It apparently had more than a few developmental problems early on. However, my research quickly convinced me it is now a settled and stable computer. It is somewhat different from what I’m used to with the NexStars and Autostars, though. Couple that with the fact that there’s no manual for it, just a collection of web pages. The one thing that made me hesitant about the Losmandy mount was the Gemini 2.

Luckily, I’d had a chance to see a Gemini equipped G11 in operation fairly recently, and that took away some of my fear. Playing with the hand control simulator on the Gemini 2 web page also helped. A lot. So did spending a couple of days reading and rereading and doing my best to understand the instructions on the Gemini 2 site.

My understanding of how Gemini 2 works began to improve when I grokked the fact that what most often confused me was the author’s, Tom Hilton’s, tendency to tell me more than I really wanted to know. Lots of information is a good thing, usually, but sometimes I just want “how,” I don’t also want “why.” When I came to this realization, I had an easier time understanding what the pages were trying to say, skipping extraneous explanations.

If you’re a Facebook friend, I’ve already spilled the beans as to my final decision there, so I won’t keep the rest of you in suspense. The winner was the Losmandy GM811G—by a nose. I am more than certain I could also have been happy with the CEM60, too.

And so, the wait began, the dreaded wait for new astro-gear to arrive in the brown truck. Looking at UPS Quantum View, I noted that the shipment would consist of three packages, and that I could expect them between 4 and 7 p.m. Monday.

Naturally Monday was a day of me being on pins and needles, and seemed to stretch on forever. At least my prediction that the UPS dude wouldn’t show up till 7 was wrong. The truck was in front of the house well before 5. My old friend Pat’s prognostication also turned out to be wrong, thankfully—he’d predicted that I’d probably only get two out of the three boxes on Monday. 

Three sizable but not enormous packages were soon in the front hall. Just as with the CGEM, I thought the tall one, which was kinda banged up, must contain the tripod. The heaviest must be the mount head, and the next heaviest surely was the counterweight. Time to dig in.

The box containing the CGEM head had been so heavy I’d had to slide it along on the floor (on a towel) for part of the way to get it to the Sunroom, my usual staging area. Not this time. The equivalent GM811 box was a little heavy, but not too heavy. The box that I presumed contained the tripod was positively light.

In the Sunroom, following my usual procedure, I began with the tripod (I did indeed choose the LW option). It was well packed and hadn’t suffered any damage at all, no thanks to the tender mercies of UPS. All I had to do was spread the tripod legs, tighten three knob-headed bolts, and I was done.

Then there was the mount itself. That had to be what was in the heaviest box. Indeed, it was. Well, that and a positively enormous counterweight bar, a stainless-steel job 1.25-inches in diameter, considerably larger (and heavier) than the skinny counterweight shafts on my old Synta mounts. Now for the payoff, the GM811G itself.

I pulled the mount, which was in a plastic bag, out of the box (which was full of those cornstarch packing peanuts that my young feline, Wilbur, immediately began eating) and put the EQ head on the seat of a chair so I could free it from its plastic bag. When it was out, I was bowled over by the GEM’s appearance. For someone used to the cast aluminum of Chinese mounts, the GM811 was quite a revelation, a machined beauty with no plastic. Man, those engraved R.A. and declination setting circles are beautiful. I don’t know what I’ll do with them, but they sure are pretty.

Also in the box was a couple of pages of brief assembly instructions. Brief, but sufficient. With this mount, it’s pretty obvious where everything goes and how. I am sometimes mechanically challenged, but I had no problem putting everything together and really didn’t even need instructions.

The mount head slides into the tripod head and fastens in place with three stainless allen bolts. When I lifted the mount, and slid it into the tripod, I was again impressed. It fitted into the tripod head easily and precisely; there was no fiddling around required. Same for all the bolts and bolt holes on the mount. They threaded in easily without any fuss at all.

Mount secure, I threaded on that big counterweight bar and opened the final box. Inside was an 11-pound Losmandy counterweight and assorted hardware including a toe-saver for the counterweight bar and a set of allen wrenches—all the bolts on the mount are hex-headed allen bolts.  Finally, there was the Gemini 2 computer, the hand control, the HC's coiled cable, a cigarette lighter plug style DC power cable, and the optional 15-volt AC supply I’d ordered. I might run the 811 on batteries on occasion, but I will probably use it on AC most of the time.

Time to get it going—in the house anyway. It was raining as I assembled the 811, and there was absolutely no chance of me using it in the backyard on this night. Or the next. Or the next. In a way, that was probably a good thing. It gave me a chance to figure out the Gemini 2 system in the air-conditioned comfort of the sunroom.

When I’d ordered the mount, I’d been torn about whether or not to order a second counterweight with it. Would one 11-pounder be enough for my 120mm APO or my Edge 800? I needn’t have worried. With the 120 onboard, I had to move the counterweight almost to the top of its travel to balance thanks to that enormous counterweight bar.

Next, I plugged the R.A. and declination cables, which are terminated with DIN connectors, into their respective receptacles on the Gemini computer and motors. The motors on the GM811 are, by the way, the new “tucked” style. They are kinda flipped around from the way they used to be, meaning there is little or no chance of collisions.

Other than that, all I had to do to get ready was mount the Gemini 2 computer to the tripod with a couple of bolts, plug the hand control cable into the hand control and into the proper RJ plug on the Gemini, and attach the AC power supply.

So, here we were at rubber meets road time.  I turned on the power switch and the HC greeted me with a color splash page and then offered to let me calibrate the touch screen. The Gemini 2 instruction sheet informed me that it had been calibrated at the factory, however, and that calibration probably wouldn’t need to be done again, so I skipped that and was soon looking at the startup page.

There, you have several options including Quick Start, Cold Start, and Warm Start. I chose Quick Start, which takes you through the process of entering the things all HCs must know—latitude, longitude, time zone, etc., etc. That was easy enough to do, and I was able to select and enter everything by just touching the screen. Miss Dorothy, seeing what I was doing, found me a stylus designed for use with smart phones, however, and that made using the touch screen more precise. Especially when selecting smaller items like objects in a catalog list.

Once I was done entering the needed info, I thought I’d do a couple of gotos, fake gotos, to ensure everything was more or less well. With the 120mm refractor in the home position, pointed “north” with the counterweight bar down, I told the 811 to go to Arcturus. Off the mount went, and wound up pointing in roughly the proper direction given Arcturus’ current position.

How did she sound? Pretty loud. Not as loud as my CGEM, but loud enough. At first I thought I might need to adjust the worm gears as some new owners have reported they needed to do (on a certain Internet astro-forum), but I didn’t get any stalls or other errors, and decided that wasn’t necessary. Let’s face it, servo motors, which the Losmandy mounts use, are just naturally louder than steppers. The sound level wasn’t helped by the mount’s position inside near a brick wall, either.

And the rain continued to fall. I did get some more things accomplished indoors, however, installing the Gemini 2 ASCOM driver so I could use the mount with my beloved Stellarium, and getting the Ethernet interface sorted. While the Gemini 2 can communicate with a computer over either serial, USB, or Ethernet connections, the Gemini 2 folks strongly suggest using Ethernet. I am no stranger to working with LANs and Ethernet, so I thought I might as well go that route.

Wednesday, my movie day, I stopped at BestBuy on the way home and picked up an Ethernet cable. Modern PCs don’t care whether you use a “patch” or “crossover” cable, so I just bought what BestBuy had in the length I wanted, a 14-foot CAT 6 patch cable.

Standing in a long line at BestBuy turned out to be the hardest part of getting the mount working with Ethernet. Back home, I entered an IP address and a few other things in the laptop’s network setup, typed in http://gemini/, and was soon looking at the mount’s web page. You can do quite a few things using the web interface, including going to objects via a nice onscreen HC, and accomplishing many setup/housekeeping tasks for the mount. I wanted Stellarium in the mix, though.

That turned out to be even easier to set up than Ethernet. I downloaded and installed the Gemini 2 ASCOM driver (which requires the latest version of the ASCOM platform), selected it in StellariumScope, configured a few things in its set up window, and was soon sending the mount on fake gotos from Stellarium’s beautiful sky map. The Gemini 2 driver works perfectly with Stellarium and StellariumScope, and can talk to the mount using Ethernet or serial interfaces. There’s also a driver that allows you to use it with a USB connection if desired.

Then Wednesday evening came and with it clearing. I really wanted to hit the backyard, but I didn’t. It had rained at sundown, and the backyard was a damp, buggy, and humid mess. I also had a road-trip scheduled for the morrow. Dorothy and I would be going to Huntsville for the famous Huntsville Hamfest and to visit the Space and Rocket Center, so I didn’t want to stay up all night long playing “How the heck do I get this darned mount to work?”

On our return Saturday night, the sky was kinda-sorta OK, but very hazy. Unfortunately, it was already getting dark and I was positively bushed after the drive. Sunday was predicted to be better weather-wise anyway, so I put off the mount’s acid test for yet another day.

Sunday found me both excited and a little scared. The mount looked beautiful and seemed to work well, but that was inside. How would it do under the stars? The GM811 was new, and you know how it usually goes with new gear out in the backyard for the first time. I expected frustration—if not disaster—aided and abetted by sweltering nighttime temps, high humidity, and flocks of mosquitoes.

I was wrong. This was the smoothest first light run I can remember having with any mount. Even to include my CGEM, which, given its NexStar HC, was a known quantity for me. Admittedly, I did keep it simple. I didn't try to take pictures or auto-guide or anything; that will be for next time; I just wanted to polar align the mount, get it goto aligned, and play around in the hazy and humid sky a bit.

As soon as there was a little shade on my accustomed observing location in the yard late Sunday afternoon, I got the mount assembled with the SkyWatcher refractor onboard.  I sure was happy I’d chosen that LW tripod. It was less of a strain on my back than even the standard Synta/Celestron tripods are. The mount head? It was somewhat of a handful, but considerably easier to lift than the CGEM or Atlas.  

There wasn’t much to assembly in the field. The bolts that hold the mount to the tripod can stay threaded into the mount, just loosened. Unless you are traveling, you can leave the Gemini 2 computer attached to the tripod. Other than attaching mount to tripod, counterweight to mount, and telescope to mount (the GM811 will accept either a Vixen or Losmandy “D” dovetail), all I had to do with plug in the R.A. and dec cables, the power supply, and the hand control. I’d decided to leave the PC for some other night.

Any mount needs to be decently balanced, so that was the next step after assembly. Balancing the GM811G was a positive joy.  With the friction clutches disengaged, the mount is free-wheeling in both declination and R.A. There was most assuredly no need to guess at balance as I used to have to do with my old CG5’s dec axis. 

After Polaris winked on, it was time for polar alignment. I moved the scope slightly off north in declination to open up the hole in the counterweight bar so I could center Polaris in the hollow polar bore (I chose not to order the polar alignment scope). I then returned the tube to declination 90 and used Sharpcap’s polar alignment tool to dial in the pole.

Polar aligning the mount using Sharpcap, my wide-field guide scope, and my QHY5L-II guide camera was a snap. The GM811’s azimuth adjusters, especially, are just so much better than those on many of the Chinese mounts. The mount’s altitude adjustment requires you loosen four allen bolts, but that was not a big pain, and the mount stayed where it was in altitude when I tightened them back up again. In the interest of keeping my polar alignment good for a few days, I placed my Celestron vibration suppression pads under each leg. Three paving blocks would work just as well, however—or probably better.

Following polar alignment, I put the mount back in home position using a carpenter's level to ensure the counterweight bar was straight down and the tube pointed straight north. Then it was time.

I turned on the Gemini 2 computer and asked to build a model. What I did, as Losmandy suggests in their (excellent) YouTube videos, was align on three stars in the west (where I'd be doing most of my looking) and one in the east.

I chose Arcturus as my first star, and when the slew stopped, it was in the field of my 12mm reticle eyepiece. Centered it and added Dubhe and Mizar. The touch-screen direction buttons took a little getting used to, but after the first three stars I was already used to them. I never felt moved to use the “tactile” buttons on the reverse face of the HC. After lining up on the stars in the west, I selected "east" in the model screen and added Deneb to the model (I didn't do an east model, just added a star in the east to the west model to it to make pointing better if I crossed the Meridian). 

I got rid of the reticle eyepiece and inserted a 13mm wide-field. Then, I went to the “goto catalog objects” screen, selected “Messier,” and told the 811 to go to M3. The mount slewed, the hand control declared "Goto done," and with some trepidation I went to the eyepiece. There was the big glob sitting dead center in the eyepiece, shining bravely through the haze and light pollution. I followed M3 with M13, M15, M27, and as many others as I could think of. The Gemini 2 never missed, not even on objects east of the Meridian. 

At this point I was literally drenched in sweat and the bugs were biting. There was just nothing for it; it was that dreaded time, time to pull the big switch. I could have parked the scope and reused my alignment the next run, but the somewhat dire weather forecast suggested I'd be dissembling the mount and scope and returning them to the Sunroom on the morrow, so I didn't park, just killed the power.

So, were there any problems or hiccups? Only one. I need to change the 811’s safety limits a bit. The safety limits determine where the mount is in regard to the Meridian when it does a Meridian flip, when it changes sides from east to west or vice-versa. Get too close to the Meridian before doing that during a goto and a longer-tubed telescope can bump into the tripod. As my f/7 refractor threatened to do when I sent it to M57, which was near the Zenith. I had to push the "stop" button on the HC to prevent a collision. I just need to tell Gemini that it needs to do the flip a little sooner than what is dictated by the default settings.

Otherwise, I need to devise an accessory tray of some kind for the LW tripod, which doesn’t have one. On this first night, I settled for setting up a folding aluminum camp table next to the tripod to hold the HC, the mount power supply, and the power brick for the DewBuster heaters. 

Next time? I intend to see how the new baby tracks and guides. Which is the ultimate test for any telescope mount. We shall see, but based on my first light experience, I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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