Archive for the ‘Gear’ Category


Anyone tried the AstroBox yet?

June 5, 2017

Just learned about this. Am seriously considering springing for the eclipse box. If I do, I’ll post a review when it comes in. If you or someone you know has gotten one of these, lemme know how it worked out.


Young crescent moon, pleasant surprises, the Bresser gets a name

March 1, 2017


Got out tonight for a few short burst of observing amidst other things. I set up the C80ED and caught the young crescent moon as it was going down. Above is my best shot. It is still wildly inferior to the one I have up in the banner image, to the right of the blog title. That one I shot with my XT6, which had about three times the light gathering ability and almost twice the angular resolution of the C80ED, and I got that shot one night earlier in the lunar cycle. That was back in the early days, when we were still living in Merced. From my driveway I had a straight shot almost to the horizon, so I could catch a 2-day old moon. Here I have lots of trees and buildings in the way, so I generally have to wait an extra night to get a shot at the moon from the driveway.

Then I was out again in the half hour before midnight to try some things with the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition. First, I put it on the lightweight Manfrotto CXPRO4 tripod and DwarfStar alt-az mount that I have previously only used for much smaller scopes (example 1, example 2). Orion was going down over LA so it was pretty stinky, but I still had a long look at both the belt and the sword, and I powered up to split the Trapezium and Sigma Orionis. Then I swept up to hit M35 in Gemini, then back down to Meissa at the ‘head’ of Orion. I finished on Jupiter, using the 60mm aperture mask to knock down the CA.


I was deliberately bouncing around the sky, looking at a variety of targets at a variety of magnifications, to see if the Manfrotto/DwarfStar combo would keep up. I’m a pretty forgiving observer – witness my near-pathological devotion to cheap scopes and stuff made out of junk – but one thing I just can’t handle is an undermounted scope. My first Mak was a 4″ which I hated and sold away before I realized that I hated it because I’d never put it on a solid mount. That experience left me traumatized when it comes to rickety mounts.

The Bresser/Manfrotto/DwarfStar rig doesn’t look like it should work. It looks like the definition of a spindly undermounted disaster. But it was fine. I never had any problem slewing, tracking, or focusing. It helps that the Bresser is lighter than it looks, and carbon fiber is a lot stronger than it looks.

(In the photo, I have the optional eyepiece rack attached to the DwarfStar – I don’t think I’ve ever shown a photo of the mount with it in place. It’s useful.)

I was also pleasantly surprised by the views I got of Jupiter. To get to a decent magnification I used the 8.8mm ES82, both natively (52x) and Barlowed (104x), and a Celestron 8-24mm zoom dialed down to 8 (57x). In both eyepieces I could see the North and South Equatorial Belts and stacks of minor belts marching away toward the poles. There was some CA, but I could minimize the effect by keeping Jupiter in the center of the field, and my eye centered over the eyepiece. The view was so good that I slipped out of gear testing mode and just stared for a few pleasant minutes. I was also happy to find that with the rubber eyeguard removed, I could see the entire field of the 8-24mm zoom at all magnifications while wearing glasses. Which I have to do now. In fact, the other night at the Salton Sea I made almost all of my observations with glasses on.

And lastly, the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition – whew! – finally has a name. I posted on Cloudy Nights about the Messier survey I’m starting with it (thread here), and CN user ‘Glob’ wrote,

mwedel, I read and enjoy your blog, let me suggest nicknaming the 4″ “The Ferret” as King Louis XV called Messier.

I responded:

That is a lovely suggestion, and it put a huge smile on my face. One thing I haven’t blogged about yet is that basically by serendipity I managed to pick up an 80mm prototype of the Bresser ‘reflactor’. So now I have two, big and little, otherwise nearly identical. Ferrets are mustelids (weasel family), along with wolverines, badgers, skunks, fishers, martens, stoats, weasels, and otters. My late grandfather was an accomplished taxidermist and one of his stuffed badgers is sitting on top of a bookcase about four feet from me as I type. It’s just about the same size as the 4″ reflactor. So I’m going to take your charming suggestion, with one modification: the 80mm will be the Ferret, as I anticipate some effort to ferret out all the Messiers with it, and the 4″ is henceforth the Badger, because it can just knock them around with all that aperture. Thanks for helping me solve that long-standing and vexing problem!

So, it’s official now: from now on, the Bresser AR102S is the Badger, and the 80mm will be the Ferret. More info on the Ferret one of these days. I’m going out with this family photo of the two – Badger’s up front, Ferret looms behind:



From sub-aperture mask to replacement dust cap

February 23, 2017


Here’s something dumb. The Bresser AR102S Comet Edition is optimized for two things: widefield, low-power scanning, and portability. At 20″ for the OTA it’s just within the bounds of airline carry-on-ability, but you can unscrew the dewshield and shave off another 4″, at which point the options for storage and transport expand wildly.

BUT the stock dust cap for the objective is dome-shaped, for no good or obvious reason, which means it sticks out about a full centimeter longer than necessary. When you’re thinking about flying with a scope, that is one centimeter more stupidity than you should have to put up with.

There’s another problem with the stock dust cap: when the scope gets cold, it gets loose and falls out easily. Nothing unique to this scope about that – I’ve had to shim the majority of my scopes’ dust caps for the same problem, including the C80ED and XT10. One cheap package of sticky-back green felt has kept me going since 2010. I think I’ve used almost a third of it.

Now, I already have a nice 60mm sub-aperture mask for this scope (construction details here). If I could plug the central hole securely, I’d have a replacement dust cap that would be shorter, would get tighter rather than looser if it shrunk in the cold, and would serve double-duty as both a dust cap and a sub-aperture mask. The problem was finding a plug the right size, with a good lip on it to keep dust out, that would grab the edges of the mask hole securely.


And it’s the dollar store to the rescue again, with this container of Tootsie Rolls that is intended to double as a coin bank. The hard plastic lid snaps down into the cardboard tube very securely, and the plug bit is just a shade over 60mm in diameter.


I used the Dremel and some sandpaper to enlarge the hole in the sub-aperture mask ever so slightly, and voila. There’s a small lip that runs around the top edge, and even a little recess in which to hook a finger and pull out the plug.


Here you can see the ridges on the plug. By sanding in short increments, I was able to fine-tune the hole diameter until the plug snapped in very securely, without stressing either piece. I need to put some tape or a little epoxy or something over the perforated slot, which is intended to be punched out so the candy container can become a coin bank. Or cut out the center and replace it with another, smaller plug, so I’d have a dust cap and two aperture masks in one package…


Boom. Now the scope is a centimeter shorter for travel, and I don’t have to keep the sub-aperture mask in my eyepiece case.

What I really want is for someone with even rudimentary 3D modeling skills to create a series of nested aperture masks, like Russian dolls, in 10 or 20mm increments, which could be 3D printed on demand in whatever combinations people needed. Most of them could be standard sizes, with only the outermost adapter for each telescope model needing to be custom. Then you could order the adapter for your scope and whatever set of nested masks you wanted, or maybe all of them to simplify, so your 100mm scope could also be an 80mm, a 60mm, a 40mm, and even a 20mm (the “Galileo model”) if you liked, just by taking out the relevant bits from the dust cap. Sure, it would be gross overkill for most people, but for those of us who like playing “what if” (“what if my C80ED was a C40ED?”) it would be a godsend. And with 3D printing no-one would be stuck with a bunch of useless stock when the idea inevitably bombed.

Anyway, if someone would to that, it would save me the trouble of building my own “Mask-ryoshka” dust cap out of junk from the dollar store. But if I’m being totally honest, avoiding building my own stuff out of junk from the dollar store was never the point of the exercise, was it?*

* With apologies to Adam Savage.

The 28mm RKE in action

February 20, 2017

Still cloudy here, but we got a gap earlier this evening, a persistent sucker hole right over Orion, and I got a whole 10 minutes of observing in. I was using the Bresser AR102S Comet Edition and for eyepieces the 20mm 70-degree that came with it, and my new 28mm RKE from Edmund.

Both eyepieces will just fit in the belt of Orion, with Alnitak and Mintaka in the last 5% or so of the field on either side. So the belt turns out to be a good test of edge characteristics. The 28mm RKE is way sharper at the edges, by the way. You might think that its 45-degree apparent field of view would feel positively claustrophobic after the 70-degree field of the Bresser eyepiece.

But it doesn’t, because of the magical floating stars effect. It’s real! It’s one of the most arresting things I have experienced in almost a decade of observing. As your eye gets closer to the eyepiece, you begin to be able to see the image. As you move in until you can see the entire field, the point where the eyepiece barrel disappears from view coincides exactly with the point where you are far enough to see the field stop of the eyepiece. If you hold up right there, you see the image created by the eyepiece floating in space, with a thin ring of unresolved darkness around it, which if you back out a bit will be the eyepiece barrel, and if you move in a bit will be the eyepiece field stop. In either case, the eye relief is great enough that you can still see the rest of the scope in your peripheral vision, past the thin ring of darkness at the edge of the field.

I have never, ever seen anything like this. It is exactly as cool and immersive as the legends have it. I can imagine building a whole observing kit consisting of this one eyepiece and a series of Barlows of various magnifications.

Anyway, if you have been on the fence about this eyepiece like I was, just get it. It’s amazing.


Me and the ‘Stig

February 19, 2017

This story started a few nights ago. I had been monkeying around with the AR102S, both at its native aperture and stopped down, and I decided to see how it compared to the C80ED. In particular, I wanted to compare the rich-field views of both scopes (such as they are here – I was observing from the driveway after all), so I was looking at the belt and sword of Orion. The results of that comparo were not very surprising – with it’s wider aperture and shorter focal length, the AR102S goes significantly wider and brighter, but the longer focal ratio and low-dispersion glass of the C80ED produce a better-corrected image.

What was not only surprising, but actively alarming, was that at low power I was getting ugly star images in the C80ED. Even in the center of the field, stars were not focusing down to nice little round points, but to crosses and shapes like flying geese. I wondered if my diagonal might have gotten banged up, so I swapped diagonals. The problem persisted. The scope will not reach focus without a diagonal or extension tube, and I don’t have an extension tube, so I couldn’t try straight-through viewing. Still, it was exceptionally unlikely that both of my good diagonals got horked in the same way.

I didn’t know what to make of that. I figured maybe the scope had gotten out of collimation somehow, and I was pondering whether to mess with it. It’s always been optically excellent and mechanically solid (overbuilt, in fact), and I was loathe to take it apart (as opposed to the TravelScope 70 and SkyScanner 100, both of which were crying out for disassembly).

Then a few days later I ran across this thread on CN, in which a guy was having the same problem I had. It sounded like it was more likely astigmatism (aka the Stig) in the eyes than in the telescope. Apparently it’s worse at low powers where the exit pupil is large, which makes sense – astigmatism is caused by having corneas that are out of round (football-shaped rather than basket-ball shaped), but as the exit pupils get smaller, the less of the cornea is involved in vision, and the more likely it is that the ‘active’ portion will approximate a radially even curvature.


One commenter recommended making a little diaphragm between thumb and forefinger to stop down the exit pupil. I tried that, but it was awfully difficult to hold my finger and my eye all steady and in alignment. Then I had the idea of using a collimation cap from one of my reflectors. That stopped down the exit pupil to a 1mm circle, which made the image d-i-m, but the star images cleaned right up. Then I took away the collimation cap and tried the view with and without glasses, and the glasses also cleaned up the star images.

It wasn’t the scope, it was me. I have astigmatism, and it’s bad enough that stars look ugly at low power unless I wear glasses.

On one hand, that’s a big relief, because the C80ED scope has always been a rock-solid performer. Along with the Apex 127, it’s my reference standard for good optics. I was feeling a bit queasy at the thought that it might have gotten out of whack.

On the other hand, I now need to prioritize eye relief in my eyepiece collection. I have a bunch that are too tight to show the whole field when I’m wearing glasses. So I have some decisions to make.

That was the first major discovery of the night.

The second was that the AR102S can take 2″ eyepieces with the most minor tinkering. The 2″-to-1.25″ adapter at the top of the AR102S focuser drawtube screws right off. I had been worried that it might be permanently affixed, but when I tried turning it, it spun with remarkable ease. Once I had it off, I dropped in the 32mm Astro-Tech Titan, which is my only 2″ eyepiece, and the views were pretty darned good. Way wider than with any of my 1.25″ eyepieces, and pretty clean as well, although I need to a little more head-to-head testing on that score. Possibly the star images looked good because they were so small at only 14x.


In any case, the 32mm Titan gives a significant boost in true field, from 3.6 degrees in the 32mm Plossl and 24mm ES68, to a whopping 4.88 degrees.

I don’t think there would be any advantage in going wider, at least in the AR102S. Astronomics seems to be out of Titans, but the equivalent 70-degree EPs are available through Bresser and Agena. The next step up would be a 35mm or 38mm, giving 13x and 12x, but those would push the exit pupil to 7.7mm and 8.5mm, and that’s just wasted light. At least in the AR102S – in the C80ED, longer 70-degree eyepieces would yield the following:

Focal length / magnification / exit pupil / true field

  • 35mm / 17.1x / 4.7mm / 4.1 degrees
  • 38mm / 15.8x / 5.1mm / 4.4 degrees

Either of those would be a good step up from the 3.7-degree max field that the 32mm Titan gives in the C80ED, without pushing the exit pupil uselessly wide.

Anyway, I’m just noodling now. The big news is that the C80ED is fine, I need to prioritize long eye relief in future EP purchases (and maybe thin the herd a bit?) so I can observe with glasses on, and the AR102S can take 2″ EPs after all.


Unboxing the Edmund 28mm RKE

February 17, 2017


Look what came in the mail today.


Something small, in a gold box.


An eyepiece wrapped in paper, and a rubber eyeguard.


And here they are.


That is a big honkin’ eye lens. And that’s why I got this eyepiece. The 28mm RKE from Edmund is legendary for its “floating stars” effect where the big eye lens, the sharply raked barrel, and the long eye relief combine to create the impression that the eyepiece has disappeared and the image is simply floating in space. I’ve never experienced this, because I’ve never gotten to look through one of these before. But the reputation of this eyepiece, illustrated by several glowing threads on Cloudy Nights (like the ones that follow), was enough to convince me to take the plunge:


It didn’t come with a case, so I made my own out of an old prescription pill bottle. A little bubble wrap stuffed in the bottom and taped inside the lid, and I’ve got a nice padded case for free.


And I need that case, because the new gear curse is in full effect. How does this eyepiece work in practice? No idea yet – with any luck, I might find out next Wednesday, when the clouds are finally supposed to part. I’ll keep you posted.



Why and how to make a sub-aperture mask for a refractor

February 11, 2017


Here’s the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition with a homemade aperture mask. I just converted the scope from a 102mm f/4.5 to a 60mm f/7.7.

“WAT!? You took a refractor, the most aperture-challenged of the three basic telescope designs, and made it even smaller?”

Yup. For several reasons.

The first and most obvious is to control chromatic aberration (CA), also known as false color. Despite the name ‘achromat’, which literally means ‘no color’, doublet refractors without extra-low dispersion (ED) glass do show some false color, because their lenses do not bring all of the colors of light to the same focus point (they’re still a LOT better than scopes with a singlet objective lens, like those used by Galileo). For dim objects like galaxies, nebulae, and most field stars, the effect is not noticeable, even in large and optically fast scopes like the AR102S Comet Edition (nickname needed). But bright objects like the moon, planets, and first magnitude stars will be surrounded by purplish halos, and may have yellowish margins. In effect, the purple and yellow-orange parts of the spectrum are forming out-of-focus images that are superimposed on the main in-focus image.

The problem is that CA gets bad fast as refractors get bigger. There are a couple of standards that are commonly used to describe the focal ratio necessary to minimize CA to acceptable levels, the Conrady standard and the Sidgwick standard. By the Conrady standard, the focal ratio must be 5 times the aperture in inches; by the less stringent Sidgwick standard, 3 times the aperture in inches is good enough. Note that the standards describe focal ratios, not focal lengths, so they go up fast with increasing aperture. Here are some apertures, focal ratios, and focal lengths required to meet the Sidgwick standard:

  • 50mm (2″) : f/6 : 300mm
  • 76mm (3″) : f/9 : 684mm
  • 102mm (4″) : f/12 : 1224mm
  • 127mm (5″) : f/15 : 1905mm
  • 152mm (6″) : f/18 : 2736mm

This, along with mounting considerations, explains why reflectors and catadioptric scopes are progressively more common past 4″ in aperture. A 6″, f/8 Newtonian will be free of false color (as are all reflectors) and has such a gently converging light cone that it is easy to collimate and to focus – it’s easy for such scopes to achieve ‘planet-killer’ status if the mirror is good. A 6″, f/8 achromat will be a beast to mount and it will show lurid false color on bright objects.

But people still make, buy, and use such scopes! Why? Horses for courses: big, fast achromats can be superb deep-sky scopes, where chromatic aberration is typically not a problem. With the fixed sizes of standard eyepieces, achieving wide true fields requires short focal lengths (not just short focal ratios), and bright images require aperture, which drives the development of large but optically fast scopes like the AR102S Comet Edition. At f/4.5, it is well into ghastly CA territory on bright targets. The other night I stayed up late to catch Jupiter, and in the AR102S the planet wouldn’t even come to a clean focus. It was just a bright ball of light inside a sea of purple. I switched over to London’s 60mm f/11 Meade refractor and Jupiter snapped into a sharp and essentially color-free focus. There was a moon emerging from behind the limb of planet, already one moon-diameter out into black space, that was completely invisible in the CA-smudged view of the AR102S.

I’m okay with that – as I noted in a previous post, observing bright solar system targets with the AR102S is deliberate misuse of the scope. When I want good planetary views, I have a 5″ Mak and a 10″ Dob that can both be pushed to 500x (assuming the atmosphere is steady enough). But their max fields of view are pathetic compared to the AR102S – about 1.1 degrees for the Mak, and a shade over 2 degrees for the Dob, versus 3.6 degrees for the refractor, which is enough to take in all of Orion’s sword at once, with space left over on either side.

Still, I’m not going to take all of my scopes out with me every time I go observing, and chances are good that at some point I’ll want to look at something bright even if my main goal for the evening was low-power sweeping with the AR102S. Under those circumstances, it’s easier to have an aperture mask shoved in my eyepiece case than to pack a second scope. Hence this project and this post.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are other reasons to stop down a scope besides reducing CA:

  • To reduce glare from bright objects. Mostly applies to the moon when it’s full or very gibbous.
  • To give a more aesthetically pleasing image when the seeing is bad. Opinions differ on this point. Some folks prefer to look through a larger aperture despite the increased susceptibility to bad seeing, on the grounds that in the moments when the atmosphere does settle down a bit, you’ll see more detail. I suppose it depends on whether one is in exploration mode or aesthetic observation mode.
  • To make it easier to focus. F/4.5 is a steep light cone, and it’s easy to overshoot the point of best focus. Stopping down the scope makes a shallower light cone, so it’s easier to watch the image transition from out of focus, to near focus, to in focus. I’m going to test this method of finding best focus on some close double stars.

I had done some calculations in advance to figure out what sizes of aperture masks I’d want to try out. Given that the AR102S has a fixed focal length of 459mm, here are the focal ratios at full aperture and at 10mm decrements:

  • 102mm gives 459/102 = f/4.5
  • 90mm gives 459/90 = f/5.1
  • 80mm gives 459/80 = f/5.7
  • 70mm gives 459/70 = f/6.5
  • 60mm gives 459/60 = f/7.7
  • 50mm gives 459/50 = f/9.2
  • 40mm gives 459/40 = f/11.5


I didn’t want to trade away too much resolving power, so I tested the scope on the moon using cardboard masks of 76mm and 60mm, made from the light cardboard spacers from a box of wet cat food. The 76mm is shown above. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at this aperture and focal ratio (f/6) the view was still unappealingly soft. But 60mm looked good, with minimal CA. This makes sense – the working focal ratio of f/7.7 is a healthy step beyond the f/7.2 that the Sidgwick standard suggests for a 60mm aperture. Going any smaller would be trading away valuable resolution, without significantly improving the image.


The light cardboard aperture masks were fast and easy to make, but they weren’t very sturdy. To make a more permanent mask, I needed plastic, heavier cardboard, or foam-core board. So I unscrewed the dewshield from the scope and walked down to the dollar store, where I looked for food packages and storage containers that might fit. Finally on the last aisle I found this 1-gallon plastic jar. The lid slip-fit over the dewshield with just a bit of extra room, which I knew I could shim out with some sticky-back felt.


I wanted to make sure the lid would fit before I did the hard work of cutting, so I put the felt on first. This was very familiar – it seems like every other scope I get has a loose dust cover that has to be shimmed to fit correctly. I’ve been slowly chipping away at the same package of sticky-back felt since 2010. I didn’t have a compass handy, so I used a small paper ruler to make a ring of marks around concentric 60mm circle inside the lid. Then found a lid to a jar of vitamins that was exactly 60mm in diameter and used that to trace the circle neatly.


I was going to cut out the aperture using hobby knife, but the plastic was too tough. So I moved up to a box knife, and then a linoleum knife. Then I said heck with it and got the Dremel. The hole I cut wasn’t perfectly circular and had rough edges to boot, so I wrapped some sandpaper around a pill bottle to make a tool for rounding out the aperture.


Here’s the scope before…


…and after.

Even with the aperture mask, the AR102S is not a champion scope on solar system targets. The C80ED blows it away, which makes sense – it has a 33% resolution advantage over the stopped-down AR102S, and frankly just better glass. But at least the view now is clean and not appallingly degraded. A dramatic way to see the difference is to get a good tight focus on the moon with the mask on, then quickly take it off without removing one’s eye from the eyepiece, and watch the view get a lot brighter and a lot softer at the same time.

I have a few more things I want to do. The 60mm aperture mask fits over the end of the scope so securely that it could work as a dust cover, if only I can find or make something to plug the central hole. Also, I think I am going to play with making aperture masks in other sizes, just to see what happens.

And finally, I have another 4″ scope that will be fun to make an aperture mask for. But that will be a subject for another post.