Archive for February, 2017

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Upgrading secondary collimation bolts on a reflector

February 5, 2017

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Here’s a fast, cheap, and easy hack that I do to every reflector that passes through my hands. I hate messing around with hex wrenches while collimating my reflectors, so I replace the Allen bolts with standard hex-cap bolts that can be turned by hand and lightly tightened with a socket wrench or pliers.

I’ve done the mod to all three of the StarBlast 4.5s that the PVAA has placed with the Claremont Public Library – which I am responsible for servicing every couple of months – as well as to my XT10, my SkyScanner 100, London’s XT4.5, and the 5″ f/5 SkyWatcher Newt I had a few years ago. You’ll notice that so far, all of the scopes I’ve done this to have been Synta-made and Orion or SkyWatcher branded. All of the smaller ones have taken identical hardware, but I did the XT10 so long ago I don’t remember – I think it took longer and possibly larger-diameter bolts, but I could be talking crazy.

If this is something you’re interested in doing, you need to take two measurements, make a run to the hardware store, and do about five minutes of work when you get back home. Or you can get a set of Bob’s Knobs, which are much nicer and designed for no-tool use. But making your own with hex-cap bolts costs less than five bucks and gives passable results, and doesn’t stop you from picking up Bob’s Knobs later if you like.

The first thing you want to know, that you can only find out from your assembled spider/secondary mirror mount, is the length of bolt that you’ll need. The secondary holder has two parts, the hub that the spider attaches to, and the 45-degree-angled mirror holder that is usually attached to the back of the secondary mirror itself with double-sided tape. The collimation bolts engage with threads in the hub, and bear against the flat back surface of the mirror holder. The Allen bolts that the scopes ship with are much shorter than the distance from the mirror holder to the front of the hub. So collimation requires sticking a hex wrench down the hole blindly and fumbling a bit to get it seated in the socket (at least for me – if that doesn’t bother you, this post will probably not be of much use).

secondary-mirror-diagram

If you’re going to replace those little shorty Allen bolts with regular bolts, you need to know the distance from the mirror holder to the front of the hub – it’s the dimension between the dotted lines in this diagram, labeled “min. length for bolts”. Your replacement bolts need to have shafts at least this long, or their caps are going to run into the hub before they engage with the mirror holder. It doesn’t really matter how much longer they are, as long as it’s not ridiculous – you don’t want them sticking so far out of the front of the scope that they’ll catch on things or scatter light into the tube.

The second thing you need to know is the type of collimation bolt your scope has – its diameter and thread pitch. If you don’t know that, and you probably won’t the first time out, just back one (and only one!) of your Allen bolts all the way out, and take it with you to the hardware store.

metric-bolt-gauge

At the hardware store you’ll find a bolt gauge like this one. Actually you’ll probably find two, one for English hardware and one for metric. If you have a scope made in China, it probably uses metric hardware, so start there.

testing-original-bolt

Here’s a close-up of me testing one of the collimation bolts from the SkyScanner in the metric bolt gauge. As you can see, it fit the 4mm socket.

replacement-bolt-bag

I already knew from measuring the scope’s secondary that I needed bolts longer than 20mm. And here’s my part: a 4mm x 25mm (diameter x length) bolt, part #81494 at Orchard Supply and Hardware. I bought six – three for my SkyScanner 100, and three for London’s XT4.5, which I hadn’t done yet.

testing-replacement-bolt

My motto is “trust but verify”, especially before buying hardware. If unbagging a part to test it in the store makes you queasy, you can just push the end of one bolt through the bag, enough to try it on the bolt gauge. This won’t destroy the packaging should you need to put it back – buy it or leave it, you can poke the bolt back into the package and only leave a tiny hole (in this case, 4mm!).

original-allen-bolts

Here are the old bolts ready to go into the bag, which has all of the original Allen bolts from half a dozen reflectors now. I don’t know why I save them. I ‘m kind of an astro-hoarder. If anyone out there wants these, let me know and I’ll send them to you gratis.

Anyway, so far, so good. You get home, back out the Allen bolts, and replace them with the hex-cap bolts. Now, this is important: for your sanity, replace the bolts one at a time. If you screw all of the original Allen bolts out before putting in any of the replacements, your secondary is going to be flopping around uselessly. It may well rotate in place and end up not even facing the focuser drawtube. Take it from an idiot who has done this! But if you replace the bolts one at a time and get all of the replacements finger-tight, the mirror will maintain its radial orientation and may even stay in pretty good collimation through the procedure, although of course you’ll want to recheck and touch up the collimation when you’re finished.

There are loads of good sources on Newtonian collimation online so I’m not going to reinvent that particular wheel. I’ll just add a couple of tips that have made my life a lot easier. The first is to try to balance the push and pull on the three collimation bolts. In other words, if you want to screw in one bolt, back off another one first. If you only ever collimate by screwing in, you’re going to either run out of travel, jack up your mirror holder, or force it farther down the tube, depending on what the deal is with the mounting bolt (some are spring-loaded, some aren’t). When I sit down to collimate the secondary, I quickly go around to each bolt and turn it both ways, backing out first and then screwing in, to get a sense for what each bolt does.

The second tip is specific to these replacement hex-cap bolts on the Orion/Synta scopes that I own and service. Once I get the secondary collimation where I want it by tightening the bolts with my fingers, I go back around and give each one a small additional twist, maybe a sixth of a turn, with the little pliers I keep in my eyepiece box (see here). If I do this evenly to all three bolts, it doesn’t affect the collimation, and the extra bit of tightness helps the scope stay in collimation longer. That might no be needed or even helpful depending on how the mounting bolt engages the mirror holder. Play around with it and see what works for you.

Replacing these bolts was just one of half a dozen hacks I made to the SkyScanner 100. The rest will be covered in another post very soon. Until then, clear skies!

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Marking up sky atlases

February 4, 2017

I’m a book lover. Any space I’m in for long will have books on every available surface and piles of extras on the floor. Because of this love of books, for a long time I wouldn’t mark them up. This hands-off reverence extended to my sky atlases. But eventually I realized that sky atlases are tools, not heirloom pieces, and anything that makes them more useful when I’m observing is justified.

marked-up-psa-chart

Here’s a representative page from my working copy of the Pocket Sky Atlas (I also have a second copy, autographed by John Dobson, that actually is an heirloom piece now). The circles and polygons flag objects from various Astronomical League observing projects. Triangles are double and multiple stars, rectangles are Herschel 400 objects, big circles are for the Binocular Deep Sky objects, and an open letter C designates Caldwell objects. I also drew in the position of Almach, which is just off the edge of this chart, wrote in the number for the multiple star 57 Persei, and wrote down the magnitudes of Algol and some of the useful reference stars, including Almach. Arrows in the margins are left over from my Caldwell tour.

I’ve finished all of those projects except the Herschel 400. You’ll see that some of the little rectangles have a diagonal slash across one corner – that’s how I flag which ones I’ve already observed. I’ve actually seen all of the H400s on this chart, I just got lazy about marking them off in the atlas. But I did write ‘CLEAR’ in the corner of the page so I know not to waste my time looking for unobserved H400s here. Other pages have the numbers of the H400s I still need written in the margins, for quick sorting and bookkeeping at the eyepiece.

These marks are very helpful while I am working on a project, because I have an instant visual reminder of what’s available to see in any given stretch of sky. And once I’m done with a particular project, the marks still point me to a lot of ‘best in class’ objects that I might otherwise overlook or forget.

Oh, I also sketch in the positions of comets from time to time, with the dates of observation.

This method has worked so well for me that I have thought about picking up extra copies of the PSA (for $13!) just so I could mark them up with objects from other observing projects. I’ve done that with a couple of my other atlases. My copy of the Cambridge Double Star Atlas has all of the AL Binocular Double Star targets marked, and I use my Jumbo PSA (which is ridiculously useful) to keep track of targets from the last several years of Sky & Telescope’s Binocular Highlight column, to help me avoid repeats. Of course I have other lists for all of these things, both physical and digital, but it’s nice to have an easy reminder when I am out observing or doing desk research.

Do you mark up your atlases? If so, what system do you use? Let me know in the comments.

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Misusing a fast reflactor: moon-gazing with the Bresser AR102S Comet Edition

February 1, 2017

bresser-ar102s-comet-set-up-for-moongazing

I was going to hold off before I posted anything on the performance of the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition (which I swear I am going to start calling something else, just as soon as I think of a good nickname). That’s because I haven’t had a chance to try it out under the conditions where it is likely to do well. This is an optically fast scope, optimized for low-power, widefield scanning, ideally under dark skies where those faint stars can really pop. A great time and place to test-drive this scope would have been last Saturday night at the Salton Sea, right after the new moon, when Terry Nakazono and I stayed up observing almost to dawn, (expect that observing report in the not-too-distant future).

Unfortunately, the scope arrived Sunday afternoon, a day late for our Salton trip. Mount Baldy is covered in ice and snow, and I haven’t had time on these school nights to get up there anyway, much less to get to anyplace farther away. And the skies down here in Claremont have been crappy this week. Never clouded out, but never truly clear either – there has been a thin, high-altitude haze that is really good at both obscuring dim stuff and reflecting light pollution. So the only objects that have looked good are the bright, small things – the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and double stars. In other words, exactly the things that the AR102S Comet Edition is not specialized for.

So I don’t feel like I can give the scope a fair review yet, because all I’ve been able to do with it are the things it’s not built for. It’s like taking a Lamborghini Huracán on a Moab jeep trail – it’s not going to work out well, in ways that are completely predictable, and you’re not going to learn very much by doing it.

But when has that ever stopped me? I may not be able to review the scope, but I can still play around with it.

crescent-moon-2017-01-31-raw

Here’s a raw shot of the moon, taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4500 shooting afocally (and handheld) through the supplied 20mm 70-degree eyepiece.

crescent-moon-2017-01-31-processed

Same shot tweaked with Unsharp Mask and Curves in GIMP.

crescent-moon-2017-01-31-greyscale

And then converted to black and white.

I didn’t learn much. Yes, there is chromatic aberration. In other news, water is wet and the Pope is Catholic. On the plus side, the Trapezium in Orion is split into four members at 23x. Haven’t tried it on the Double Double or any other double stars, really.

On the to-do list are (1) to get this scope out someplace dark and clear and really put it through its paces, at a variety of magnifications – and using a variety of eyepiece designs – on a variety of targets, (2) to do some actual testing on close double stars and doubles with significant magnitude differences, and (3) to experiment with sub-aperture masks to knock down the CA on bright stuff. “Why not just use a smaller or better-corrected scope?” you may wonder. Well, this is sold as a travel kit, and if by using a sub-aperture mask I can make it into a passable solar system scope, I’ve just made it a better all-rounder when and if I take it on the road.

Given the waxing moon and the continuing lousy forecast for the coming week, I’ll probably have to tackle that to-do list in reverse order. Stay tuned.

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Parting shot. I got this Earthshine pic by doing a half-second exposure with the Coolpix. It’s not nearly as good as the one in the banner at the top of the page. I need to try again next cycle when the moon is younger.