My frustration levels are off the chart with my astronomy hobby. I just can’t seem to raise my capacity high enough to have a consistently positive outing. This is what I was afraid of when I bought the scope, and was the main reason I went with the scope I did — a Celestron NexStar 8SE. Designed as an “easy” entry scope, it comes with a bunch of computerized innards that basically allow you to point it at three bright stars, tell the computer in it where they are, the computer figures out which ones are which, and bob’s your uncle, the scope is fully aligned. On a stock alt-azimuth scope, there’s not much finesse for the user to worry about in the setup. Or so I thought.
However, early on, I was using it and I could find a few things once aligned, but not much that wasn’t already visible to the naked eye. I eventually figured out the problem was not a series of various options it could have been, it was narrowed to one. My alignment sucks (Finally learning with the Celestron NexStar 8SE).
So I came up with a workflow to increase the success factors and eliminate the idiot factors:
- Mount — basic setup, using vibration suppression pads and if I’m feeling particularly anal, a bubble level — most people using this scope skip the level as it “close enough” apparently that unless you’re on a hill, it should be irrelevant, but I have it on my list just to weed out a variable;
- Alignment control — using either phone/tablet connected to the wifi adapter or manually using the handset; and,
- Star selection — using a TelRad to get close to the star, and a 12mm red-illuminated reticle eyepiece for selection.
And it seemed to work (A sky tour with my new setup). Until it didn’t.
As I’ve mentioned, I was in a bit of a holding pattern on some things for awhile and I tried this year to get it going again (50by50: Re-start my astronomy hobby (#04)). But it wasn’t the full use yet. Then I went to the cottage and Luskville and both times the viewing sucked, but even with the haze, I couldn’t even get the scope to align anyways. I saw some stuff, but it was still frustrating.
So I’ve reached the knot before the end of my tether. I’m giving myself five more tries to get a solid positive experience using my scope and then I’m bailing. I’m spending too much time and money on a hobby I just get frustrated by. I would still go to star parties and look through other people’s scopes and support RASC + AstroPontiac, I’d just get rid of the scope and use any money likely on something like buying a good lens or two for my camera, switching my obsession time to photography. I might even do occasional astrophotography.
But before I pull that trigger, I’ll give it five tries, and I need a way to evaluate my experience more formally. Last night was a trial run that doesn’t count as one of the five, but I’ll evaluate it as if it did.
My evaluation criteria
I won’t assign any evaluation criteria to the mount setup as it really doesn’t have any variables. I take it out, I set it up, I might take a few extra seconds sometimes, but nothing that affects my enjoyment. That is more about the lugging from wherever I have to park to the spot where I set up!
The alignment control definitely needs to be evaluated. From the time I set up everything and actually start my alignment to the time I’m finished, I’m going to give myself up to five points. This should take less than five minutes in total, and it should relatively work the first time each time. But I’ll be generous to start — I’ll give myself ten minutes, and two tries at alignment. I’ve pretty much eliminated the wifi and the phone/tablet at this point. I don’t want to, as the visual control later of the scope would be ideal, but it can’t be part of my test. Too many wiggle factors in there that are just finicky aspects of the app and wifi link, not really about alignment. If I’m lucky enough to get my first alignment to work, and under five minutes, I’ll give myself a full 5 points. Second alignment OR under ten minutes, I drop to 4 points, and 3 points if it requires both of those. If it takes more than 2 tries, drop to 1 or 2 (depending on time). And if it isn’t done with my third alignment or takes longer than ten minutes, it’s zero. Either one and it’s zero.
Last night would be a clear zero if I was evaluating. I was on at least my third alignment if not fourth, and it took way longer than ten minutes. I was close to 30-45 minutes before I got it all worked out. But it did eventually work. It may not be a completely fair evaluation though as I literally was figuring some of the stuff out as I went, and that probably added 10-15 minutes, but I was still well over the 10 minutes required. I’m more optimistic for the next round, having figured a bunch of those things out and essentially eliminated the tablet and phone from the equation for now. I have way more control using the handset, and although in theory you can run both simultaneously, mine doesn’t seem to do that. A future problem to figure out, if I keep the hobby.
Alignment results would be next on my list. After I was up and running last night, I did a full star tour. A full-sky 90-minute-plus tour. And yes I saw lots of things. But on a regular basis, I said “show me X” and when it got there, there was nothing in the Field of View. Now I’m not looking for perfection, but I am doing this type of tour with a 32 mm Plossl. That’s pretty low power giving me a huge chunk of sky. The moon easily fits within that view, so it’s not like I’m aiming for pinpoint accuracy. But just as I mentioned in an earlier session when I found out that my alignment was way off with the Ring Nebula, I panned around the resulting area a little and found some of the items that should have been within the FoV initially. I am discounting ones where it was low in the horizon or it was a faint galaxy, since I’m viewing in the suburbs and it could be light pollution or haze at the horizon blocking my view. But there were some bright double stars that were nowhere near the centre of my go to option. I did find them, but the go to scope is supposed to eliminate the search and hunt aspect a lot more than it did.
And I’ll digress for a moment. Yes, I’m hoping to get to the stage where I can sky hop at will, and find things without the Go To function. I even have my star charts, good apps, and the book Turn Left at Orion to help me do that. But I also need to be having some early success finding things that will keep my interest going. Most of what I have been finding so far is extremely disappointing, and if that was the only criteria, I’d swap out my big scope and just go with something that lets me look at the moon only for now. At least I can find that easily. So if your advice is to get rid of all that and just star hop, that’s not how I learn, and you missed the point entirely.
So I am going to give myself a very concrete test, and I don’t know if this is the right list or not, but I’ll give it a go. Once my alignment is complete, I’m going to try and find the following things in the sky using just the Go To settings, and see how I do with the result. A total of fifteen initial points, 0 if it doesn’t find it, half a point if it is in the outer 10% of the FoV, and a full point if it is clearly within the FoV with no edging problems. Here’s my list:
- The planets of the night (counted as 1 target) — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are all vaguely possible, but given my viewing times, it is more likely to be just the outer five (MaJuSaUrNe). The Sky Tour knows what is visible at that time, and to get the full point, the tour has to put all of them within my FoV. I’m being very generous with a 32mm search, if it doesn’t find them, alignment is way off.
- Stars (5 targets) — One of the few stars I can usually spot on my own is Arcturus, and often one of the ones I choose in my three-star alignment…if it doesn’t find THIS, the alignment is hopeless. I’ll also go for Almach (double star), Rasalgethi (double), Albireo (bright double), and I’ll try for Antares (although, like Arcturus, it is sometimes in my initial alignment).
- Galaxies or nebulae (5 targets) — Andromeda shows up as a faint smudgy, but at least it is there. I’ll throw in Hercules, M92, the Ring Nebula, and the Dumbbell Nebula.
- Clusters (4 targets) — The Double Cluster is an obvious if unexciting one, plus M29, M34, and the HorseShoe Cluster. I’d take Pleiades as well, but depends a bit on where I’m viewing from at the moment.
That gives me a possible 15 targets, and on the off-chance a couple of them are unavailable because of angles or time of viewing, I’ll consider adding Mizar and Alcor, Polaris, Gamma Ari or Gamma Cet, Kappa Bo, and Epsilon Bo up until I get to 15 targets.
How did I do last night against that list?
- Planets — Found Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, despite low visibility and haze for the last two — 1 point;
- Stars — Arcturus, Almach, Rasalgethi and Albireo were all visible, but the last two were on the outer edges of the FoV, and I had to replace Antares with Mizar, so three full points, plus two half points — 4 points;
- Galaxies — Andromeda was faint, as was Hercules, M92, and the Dumbbell. However, the first three were within the FoV for full points, Dumbbell was at the edge. I went for the Ring, and it was out of the FoV (I had to pan around to find it) — 3.5 points;
- Clusters — Double cluster was in FoV, as was M34, M29. The Horseshoe was almost out of the FoV — 3.5 points
I didn’t have to “substitute” for my evaluation but that’s also observational and design bias. I found these 15 targets last night with a “not great” alignment, so I kind of expect to always find them, and they only made my list because I *did* find them. But I don’t want these ones to overwhelm my score too much, so I’m going to divide by 3 when I’m done — 13-15 = five points, 10-12 = four points, 7-9 = three points; 4-6 = two points, 1-3 = one point;
But I also need a bit of challenge for stuff I didn’t already find. For that, I’m going to rely on Turn Left at Orion. For the current time frame, they recommend searching for:
- Any sky: Globular Cluster M13, M21;
- Dark sky: Globular Clusters M92, M5, M10, M12, M8 (Lagoon);
With seven targets, I figure I should be able to find three with the go to scope, no problem (well, other than seeing and angles) and I’m going to let it rise up to five points max. With last night’s alignment results, that probably would have been two points only.
So, that leaves me with:
- Alignment control – up to 5 points;
- Alignment results (normal) – up to 5 points;
- Alignment results (challenge) — up to 5 points;
I want to add two other elements here. I realize they are going to be slightly subjective, but I don’t see how I can leave them out.
The first is simple: Did I learn anything? If all I’m doing is hopping and hopping, and not really learning anything, what’s the point? Cute baubles to look at, but that’s it. That’s not necessarily about the scope though, that requires me to use other tools too. Last night, I wasn’t really doing that, just testing alignment, but I need to add it.
The last element is the most subjective of all: Did I enjoy it? If it isn’t fun, why bother? Right now, the frustration level is blocking most of my enjoyment. My sky tour last night was interesting, but with over 100 items searched for, most were not ones that I cared much about or felt really engaged with yet. Some people argue quite convincingly that you don’t feel the engagement if you’re using a Go To mount and letting the computer choose your destination, and I can see that. Eventually, I need to get to the stage where I’m planning an outing with a series of specific targets that I want to find. I kind of like the idea of 20 minutes of big ticket items for the night (planets, etc.), and then an hour of targeted searching for two or three main items to consider. Followed perhaps by another hour of wandering or some “challenge” items.
Last night, I enjoyed seeing Andromeda, Hercules, M92, and the Dumbbell Nebula, although all of them looked mostly like a faint smudgy for the conditions and location. And some of those are the big disappointments I have felt when viewing and searching — I am not seeing the galaxy and nebula formations as anything BUT a smudgy. A dark sky is supposed to fix that, but I have never had a good enough alignment process to make a hour plus drive to a real dark sky setup. I did see the Ring Nebula, although it wasn’t anywhere near as detailed as I was hoping. Viewing and location prevented that. Plus it wasn’t in my alignment when I did it, so was more luck than anything. I just knew what it looked like, and knew the scope’s internal alignment sometimes had problems with it, so decided to pan around a bit until I found it.
I was disappointed with the Double Cluster, M34, and M29. I just wasn’t seeing the star wells I have seen before in other scopes, so they didn’t seem like much from the suburbs. The Horseshoe Cluster was clear though, and I liked it quite alot. I will be memorizing its location for the future.
I enjoyed the regular double stars — Almach, Gamma Ari, Polaris — but I preferred the colours and brightness for Gamma Cet, Kappa Bo, Epsilon Bo, Rasalgethi and Albireo. I didn’t spend a lot of time on Gamma Cet or Epsilon Bo, so didn’t finally resolve them, but they’re on my list for a revisit.
If I was to rate my viewing enjoyment last night, I would give it 2/5. It was okay, not spectacular. But then again, I was also still frustrated, some things weren’t showing up in alignment, there was haze, etc. I hope that number will go up in the future, or as I said, why am I bothering?
Which leaves me with a final point total for my evaluation of 25 points. With five nights to try it, that’s a potential 125 points. What’s my threshold for continuing? Eighty points. That’s about 64%, not that high a threshold, but we’ll see how it goes. A rough estimate for last night would have put me at 0 for alignment control, 4 for normal alignment (normal), 0 for challenge alignment (not rated), 0 for learning (not rated), 2 for enjoyment for a total of 6 out of a possible 15 (40%). Which is why I’m not counting it as a formal test. I was still working out bugs.
On with my real test though, now that I have the criteria mostly mapped out. And I have to reduce my stress and frustration. Ultimately, the worst case scenario is I have more time for photography.