Sunday, 15 September 2013

Reinventing myself - Astromony Pt. 2

Yesterday's entry dealt with ordering a new telescope and preparing a stand for it. This entry will be a review of the 'scope itself, the Orion Starblast 6i. We have a fair amount of past experience with Orion telescopes and have always found them to have great products that are also affordable; I highly recommend the company. The Starblast 6i is a 6" f/5 reflector on a Dobsonian base, with the added benefit of push-to technology. The Starblast 6 (minus the push-to computer) is usable pretty much out of the box, but the Intelliscope option requires quite a bit of prep work on the base and installation of the various components that go into making the technology usable. There are quite detailed instructions, but if we hadn't already assembled Mike's SkyQuest 12" Intelliscope a year ago we would have had a much more frustrating go of it working through the sometimes tangled web of procedure. This time it was a lot easier due to experience. Orion's tech support is always helpful, though, and I do suggest contacting them if necessary throughout this procedure. I had bought a "2nd" as I saved a lot of cash this way, and I must say that the scope looked brand new. We did run into a problem in that the two bolt assemblies that attach the tube cradle to the stand were missing. A call to Tech Support to get the exact dimensions and configuration and a quick trip to the hardware store solved that problem.

In the field, this is an amazing 'scope. I did have to figure out some kind of portable stand (see Astronomy Pt. 1 for how I solved this).

The 'scope on its new stand.

Detail of stand.

I spent the first two observing sessions just playing around with the computer to learn its ways for myself (I knew a bit from helping Mike with his) and checking out the optics on various objects, mostly Messier objects (clusters, globulars and galaxies) and double stars and was really pleased with the results. The 'scope comes with two eyepieces (25mm and 10mm), but I already had other eyepieces to round out what I would need for all-round observing. I presently use an Edmund Scientific 28mm, Orion Epic II 18mm, the 10mm one that came with the scope and a huge Orion Long Eye-relief 6mm. These effectively give me 27x, 42x, 75x and 125x with this scope. These can all be doubled with my Barlow. Right now I seldom use the 25mm that came with the scope as it isn't much more powerful than the Edmund, but I might start using it more.
My first real observing session with the 'scope took me to Aquila and Lacerta. It is a beauty on double stars and open clusters. Even faint planetary nebulae were viewed well. Galaxies are amazing in this 'scope, the views giving long arm extensions (I poked south of Lacerta to take a peek at NGC7331, which is actually in Pegasus). For my aging eyes and the skies I normally view in, the limiting magnitude for this scope is effectively 14. I did make a dew cap to fit the Starblast, as I do with all my 'scopes, this being a fairly humid climate.

The Intelliscope interface is great. Although I do tend to "starhop" a lot, it has saved me many times when in a sparsely-populated part of the sky. Also, for fairly faint objects (planetary nebulae, particularly) it gets me to the spot so I can confidently boost power in an attempt to view the object.

This is an extremely portable instrument, sitting in the back seat with the belt around it. We have a VW Tiguan (small SUV), and we can, in fact, pack Mike's complete 12" components, my 6" 'scope, the stand, a folding table, our two accessory cases (essentially foam-lined hard-sided suitcases that hold all of our eyepieces), several books and star atlases, clipboards, a briefcase, a folding chair, two large dew caps, cold-weather clothing, a food bag and both of us and still have some space left in the back seat!

In conclusion, the Starblast 6i is a small 'scope with big muscle and I look forward to many, many satisfying hours of observing with it. A great 'scope for novices (without the Intelliscope) it would also be an excellent second 'scope for an experienced observer who would like an easily portable instrument to throw in the car for travelling or star parties. I am a very, very satisfied customer and highly recommend this 'scope!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Reinventing myself - Astronomy Pt. 1

I had posted a while back that I was at a place in my life where I needed to establish new defining activities ("hobbies") due to severe illness. Microscopy was one thing that has come back into my life. Now I'm re-establishing "macroscopy" with my interest in astronomy. For years and years I had helped Mike with his interest in the science by doing sketches (I'm the artist of the family) and basically hanging around to see what he was viewing at the time. He has been an amateur astronomer since his early 'teens and is now a real force to be reckoned with in this field (his Astronomy blog is here: Deep Sky NGC). Then we recently had the mirror of our old 4.25" reflector Astroscan resurfaced and I had been having a lot of fun poking around the universe with my own little 'scope. It was giving pretty impressive views and I logged a lot of Messier objects as well as some studies of Leo, Lyra and Aquila.
Mike then thought it was time for me to upgrade. Our "go-to" telescope company these days is Orion. Excellent, affordable, portable instruments and accessories. Mike has had their 12" Skyquest XX12i for about a year and has been extremely happy with it. It sets up and breaks down easily, is a breeze to transport and gives amazing views. It has push-to capabilities (computerized directions to which you manually guide the telescope). We checked what they had and liked the Starblast 6i, a 6" reflector along the lines of the 12". Better still, we saw one on their website listed as a second which would save us about $120. Done deal!


This is a tabletop Dobsonian stand, modelled on the same stand as the 12". While the stand would be great on a picnic table or other semi-permanent table, I needed portability, so while anxiously awaiting the delivery of my new baby I poked around the dusty corners of the web to see what other people were doing. There wasn't much to find. One person mentioned a storage tub, but this seemed unwieldly to me. Then I read a person's review where they mentioned a small portable workbench....hmmm. This sounded more like what I wanted. We found one at Canadian Tire (for my US friends, this is a huge CDN chain which is really hardware, sporting goods, outdoors stuff, you mention it...not just tires, LOL) for $17.99 CDN!!! Couldn't go wrong even if it didn't work. It was a bit of a PITA to assemble, but seemed lightweight enough to do the trick.

The Jobmate Portable Workbench
By cranking the two tabletop pieces out to their max, I would be able to set the Dob stand with two of the three feet over the edges, the other in the space in the middle and the central bolt assembly (essential to the push-to technology) would also sit in that central space allowing it to move properly.  It was a bit slippery on there, though (coated board), so it was time to tweak! I took some leftover laminate flooring and cut two pieces to fit around the 'scope base, then  glued and nailed these to the Jobmate:

These would effectively brace the stand without interfering with the movement of the base of the 'scope. I also added some of those self-adhesive felt protectors for the bottom of furniture legs (Dollar Store stuff) on either side to buffer where the two outer legs would come into contact with the stand and increase stability:

Add some nice black lacquer (including on those bright red crank handles which I will try to remove some day):
...and you have a folding, lightweight, very sturdy portable stand for the Starblast that doesn't vibrate or wobble. Pretty sweet for less than twenty bucks.
Here it is in the field before I did all the tweaks:
This stand puts the 'scope at exactly the right height for viewing (I'm about 5'6" and Mike's 5'9" and we were both fine - you could rotate the tube within it's cradle to adjust viewing height as well) and you don't have to reposition it around a large table for viewing ease, just walk around the stand. This stand solution works incredibly well; I'm really happy with the results.

Now, what about the 'scope? I'll review that in my next blog entry, but I'll let you in on a secret: it's all good!