Old Scope: New Tricks
by Dave Brody
"If I trip over this bloody thing one more time!" my wife exclaimed - only I think she might have used a different adjective.? She was referring, of course, to my classic Meade LX200 8-inch circa 1992; a really nice f10, 2000mm Schmidt-Cassegrain.? There it sat, in its case, in our garage, gathering a disrespectful amount of dust; its sturdy tripod supporting a stack of cardboard boxes full of painting supplies and plumbing parts. I started to concoct some lame response along the lines of "since becoming a new father I've wanted to devote full attention to our twins..." She wasn't buying. "Use it or lose it, dude," the back of her head said to me.
Well, she had a point.? Telescopes like to be operated.? Their focusers crave regular exercise.? Mounts and motors get creaky unless put through their full ranges of motion, spreading the lubrication around.? My astronomy brain was getting a little rusty too.? Wouldn't hurt to get back into the sky, its endless destinations and rich lore...
But what really got me and my old 'scope moving was a new software program on my laptop.? It's a powerfully informative window on the universe called: Starry Night Pro Plus version 5.? Just a couple of clicks in Starry Night's "Options" pane to turn on some labels for various kinds of objects and, instantly, my appetite for observing was whet anew. My old friends Saturn, the Beehive Cluster (M44) and the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) would all be high up in the clear air.? And they'd be there early enough for me to enjoy them and still make it to work on time next morning. I might even have a shot at the Owl Nebula (M97) if skies were dark enough. "Pro Plus", as Starry Night insiders call it, contains a beautiful AllSky photographic image, digitally stitched together from no less than 20,000 high resolution astro-photos.? It's what you'd see if you could persistently stare at the full sphere of the sky, never once blinking, for many nights of time, from a totally airless Earth.? Simply gorgeous; and a great way of choosing objects to observe.
Best of all, Starry Night promised to control my LX200 - a seductive enticement for the toy-boy, gadget-freak that inhabits my inner soul.? In fact, this software can drive 'scopes from Meade, Celestron, Orion Telescopes, Astro-Physics, Discovery Telescopes?and others.
To make my particular Meade telescope?talk and skywalk, a little wiring witchcraft needed to be invoked.? Meade Instruments showed incredible foresight, nearly two decades ago, when the company designed the LX200 line. In addition to a pluggable keypad hand controller, they built in electronics and ports for illuminated reticle eyepieces, motorized focusers, CCD servo guiders, encoders, PLUS an RS232 port for computer control! And years before it was fashionable, they opened the source code for all to work with.
Starry Night's programmers worked it. And worked it well.? Now it was my job was figure out the "goes-into and goes-out-of".? My laptop has USB ports, a spec that was not even a gleam in computer engineers' eyes back when the Meade was built.? A quick e-mail to Starry Night's online support folks yielded an even quicker answer: "Get a 'Keyspan'" - a hard-wired USB to Serial adaptor (about $35 and widely available) "or a BlueStar" - a new wireless dongle (keep reading, details later). The Keyspan talks to cameras, PDA's, cell phones, barcode scanners, GPS boxes, MIDI interfaces, package-tracking tablets, medical equipment&the complete quiver of geek-a-zoid gear. Yes, and telescopes too.? It has a USB connector on one end of a short, shielded cable and a streamlined plastic box with a 9-pin serial connector on the other.
All I needed now was to get the 9-pin adapted and cabled to the Meade's telephone-style RS232 jack.? A short jaunt to the computer shop yielded a DB9-to-RJ45 multi adaptor ($12).? But, as wired, the pin-outs were not what the parties on either side of the data conversation needed to see. Meade's documentation - both in my old printed manual and online in .pdf form - was, well, a little murky on the subject.? Ripping the adaptor open, it took a few leaps of logic, several educated guesses and some good old-fashioned trial-and-error to get the right pins on the Keyspan's DB9 wired to their 14 year old counterparts on the LX200. [The magic formula: Black = Pin 3 / Yellow = Pin 5 / Red = Pin 2.? Your mileage may vary.]?
Most scopes - including my Meade - only use 3 wires (Send Data; Get Data and Ground) for complete control of pointing and tracking.? So I could have used a simple 4-conductor "telephone handset" cable.? But instead I went for 25 feet of 6-conductor cable (about $10 from my local Radio Shack store).? It's not that more conductors are electronically any better. The issue is that the smaller RJ14 phone-style connector found on 4-conductor cables can get jammed sideways on the LX200 panel - especially when you're trying to mate 'em in the dark. The bigger 6-conductor plug fills the whole jack.? It is, therefore, self-aligning.? And it's physically stronger.? That's really important for the inevitable time when somebody stresses it with a footstep.
In fact, once it's built, the only inconvenience of this rig is that cable's trippy tendencies.? It seems to be a principal physics principle that no matter how you string an astronomy cable across the ground (short of burying it), someone's feet will find it in the dark.? This generally causes that individual's head to auto-locate the inevitably nearby heavy, angular and belligerent telescope part, with predictably painful results.? Prevention is available in the form of "BlueStar" from Starry Night (about $150) that uses Bluetooth technology to eliminate the cable entirely.? This neat little box contains a built-in USB to serial adapter (for 'scopes only).? Computer and telescope can be up to 30 feet (9 meters) apart.? I haven't gone BlueStar yet, but I sure will.? Meantime, my investment in wire - $57 plus one personal afternoon - has yielded an incredible return: the dream of computerized telescope-control is finally reality.? My reality.? Hold it right there, Hubble!? Look out, Keck!? Just a minute, Gemini North!? The Brody Mobile Observatory and Minivan DVD Theatre's ready to roll.? It was time to get the Meade out of the garage.
As with most "pre-GPS" telescopes, my old LX200 needs at least a one-star alignment in order to know where the universe is.? Starry Night always knows where the universe is - it's right there inside Starry Night. All you need to do is tell Starry Night where in the universe its host computer happens to be. In seconds, your screen is telling you whatever you need to know about what's up that night - or any night within 200,000 years of tonight.? No more hunting through primitive printed constellation graphics to figure out which Arabic-named superstar up there is available to align your 'scope.
With the Meade happily tracking on its motorized AltAz mount, I turned back to Starry Night for the moment of truth.? The program fully obeys the ASCOM protocol. So it was amazingly simple to establish the link between 'scope and laptop.? I opened the Telescope pane; clicked the "Configure" button; and selected the Keyspan from the pull-down list of "Communications Ports". [I use a Mac PowerBook outdoors. If I had been on my Windows PC, I would have gotten the easy-to-follow ASCOM dialog box.]? I then simply chose Meade LX200 from the extensive list of supported "Telescopes Types" and hit "OK".? Finally, I just clicked where it said "Connect" and my new 21st century automated observatory leaped to life!!!?
Right Ascension and Declination data poured into Starry Night's "Status" display, quivering with constant corrections as the Meade's stepper motors squirted positional updates through my new cable. I was instantly controlling last century's Starry Night's four on-screen directional arrows.? I could also adjust Slew Rates; set Nudge-Increments; and establish Positional Limits.? That last one is something you'd really, really want to do if you had, say, a big digital SLR camera attached to the telescope. It'd be the surefire way to keep your 'scope's powerful motors from trashing your expensive camera as it swung through the limited clearance of the support fork.? I started imagining the robotic possibilities - me inside on the couch, the hardware outside in the cold, tirelessly tracking while I sipped...
Hang on a minute.? A puff of cool night air woke me from my musing: One of the reasons I bought a telescope in the first place was to get out under the real sky - not a virtual one. And I smiled to myself at the irony: this computer-resident program, Starry Night, had provided the push I needed to get back out here.? Starry Night had just taken my outdoor observing hobby to the next level.? "Welcome back, Dave," the sky said, "where've you been?"
Down on the laptop, I could see a target reticle circle labeled LX200 indicating the location of the patch of the cosmos I'd see through my eyepiece.? I had Starry Night's Zoom function pulled out to a pretty wide 130? in order to choose some targets.? I pointed and Control-Clicked (Right-Clicked) on the planet Saturn. Scope and software went where I sent them - absolutely no complaints! Clicking the small arrowhead near the programs' field of view numericals (Width x Height) dropped down a menu listing common telescopes and eyepieces.? I chose "Sample Schmidt-Cassegrain - 25 mm Plossl (35')" and Starry Night's display zoomed smoothly until the dot that was Saturn resolved itself into an image of the planet shockingly similar to what I was seeing in my eyepiece - except that in Starry Night two handfuls of Saturnian moons were labeled and their orbital paths represented by graceful arcs, shadowed appropriately to the sun angle on the big planet.? Oh my goodness!!!
It was time to get serious (Sirius itself having already set, along with the Moon).? I clicked open Starry Night's "Options" menu from the bar atop the display.? I selected "Night Vision".? The screen gently faded to red.? In a few minutes I was dark adapted enough to see all the useful nomenclature.? With each passing interval of time, I sank further and further into the sky.? I admit it: I imagined myself a lone astronomer, atop a remote mountain, (instead of a suburban ball field); temporarily granted control of an astronomically expensive, awesomely powerful, yet deftly delicate time machine.? And so the night's reverie rolled on...
I soon discovered a favorite way of working.? I toggled-on two features of Starry Night's Telescope control pane: "Sync Gaze" and "Follow Scope".? "Sync Gaze" (located under Setup) syncs the scope's direction with Starry Night.? "Follow scope" (found under Control) slaves the software to the hardware, as an engineer might say. With these two functions keyed, I could easily put Starry Night's cursor on an object. Then, just pop open the drop-down menu (associated with that object) and ask both Starry Night and my scope to move to "Slew to (named object)".? Telescope servos ramp-up smartly.? And, on-screen, the sky wheels around in agreement. Starry Night Pro really "plugs and plays" well with others.?
My Meade's keypad hand controller didn't seem to feel the least bit threatened. The best surprise was that Starry Night was perfectly happy to let the LX200 do the driving; my laptop smoothly tracking the slewing scope across swaths of fascinating sky. Both the laptop and the keypad had full command of the 'scope. It's easier to use the keypad when you're star-hopping at the eyepiece; but it's much quicker to use Starry Night to pick targets by name or type or reputation. [There was just a bit of lag between eyepiece and screen view.? My fault.? I'd left Starry Night Pro Plus 'AllSky image turned on.? That caused my older laptop to huff and puff a bit while animating the "AllSky's" detailed graphics file.]
Driving a 'scope this way is like watching the moving, annotated GPS map in your new car. All of a sudden you realize what all that real estate up there really is.? You instantly appreciate the Universe for the super-set of places and attractions and delights and sights that it truly is.? The combination of GO-TO-style telescope and Starry Night is dizzyingly powerful
There're some other benefits to "virtual astronomy".? You can pre-plan all your moves with Starry Night Pro. Save them as "Favorites". Use Starry Night's "Planner" pane to easily see your options and edit a target list quickly. If you're connected to the Web the software jumps online every time you boot it up, downloading the latest ephemeris data for all objects in its virtual universe.? Especially tempting astronomical events automatically populate Starry Night's "SkyGuide" and "Sky Calendar" panes. There's as much detailed information and "back-story" about your target objects as you could want. And you realize that there're a LOT of targets up there, even in tiny scraps of sky.? Instead of a confusing star chart folded out of a magazine, you're presented with an embarrassment of celestial riches to choose between.
That's why it makes sense to rehearse your moves in daylight, building your observing plan directly in Starry Night. As every astronaut knows, it's always best to train as you're going to fly, then fly the way you were trained. Musicians understand this too; indeed Starry Night's "Planner" pane works much like a composer's score.? Outside, in the dark, is the public performance.? Whether it's a jam session, a solo recital, or an orchestral concert is totally up to you and completely a matter of your taste.? Either way, it's vital - and fun - to spend some time in "the woodshed" (as musician's call their practice rooms).? Step through some targets on your observing plan and watch your instrument's choreography.? Your brain will retain a strong sense of those movements at night, really helping your eyes to connect with the photons your telescope is collecting.
Starry Night driving a good scope, on a capable mount, establishes that linkage you originally desired back when you bought your telescope.? Computer-assisted observing plugs your telescope's optical hardware directly into your human sensory "wetware" in a deeply profound way. You'll find yourself completely "inside" your observations; fingertips moving from mouse or track-pad to focuser without conscious direction.? Your laptop working like an encyclopedia, planetarium and starship flight deck all in one...
And, if you're with other people - perhaps family and friends - the experience is even headier.? You'll feel the quiet confidence of the knowledgeable because the deep database of Starry Night Pro is always there for you. This new software got me, my old 'scope, and my young family out of the house and interested in new aspects of each other, under Nature's original starry vault.? Our kids are bright, but they get chilly quickly and bored with their daddy's stellar fixations even faster.? They do love computers, though.? With Starry Night running the show - virtually on the laptop's screen and kinetically as the big Meade impressively and obediently servo-tracks from attraction to attraction on the sky, I can hold my audience of 4 year olds without having to resort to bribery, hollow threats or physical restraints.?
No, our family's telescope sure isn't a dusty trip hazard anymore!!? Just ask my wife.