I had one of those handheld telescopes when I was a kid, and I tried to look at the stars, but well, that went about as well as you think it might have gone. I couldn’t see diddly except for the moon. And even then, I never saw ridges. Then five years ago, I bought a real telescope (Celestron NexStar 8SE below) and attempted to embrace my new hobby without a lot of success.
I’m not a star-hopper kind of learner
Now, I’m going to deal with a giant issue right upfront to get it out of the way. I tried a variety of scopes both before and after I bought my scope, and it was very clear when I was done that I had bought the right scope and mount for me. Easy setup, good value for money, a few steps above entry-level, and a computerized scope to help me get going. I mention this because as I describe some of the problems to come, there is a rabid group of starhoppers out there who think the goto motorized scopes are either a waste of money or the devil’s spawn for learning or just more trouble than they’re worth. It’s a lot like someone who likes baking telling someone who has trouble working a bread machine that they should just skip it altogether and make bread by hand. It’s an option but has nothing to do with solving the bread machine problem that the person actually has.
In my case, I fully understand and respect their advice. I just don’t agree with it for me, because that’s not how my brain works. If I have to star hop and struggle with the first few outings, I’ll be done. My frustration levels with some of the other types of scope, many of which I borrowed over the course of a summer from the local astronomy group, were considerable. With my scope, the Celestron NexStar 8SE (one of the big orange tubes), I could get set up and be ready to start alignment in about 5 or 10 minutes depending on how far my site was from the car. I often spend more time walking back and forth than actually physically setting up the scope but that would be true of any of the scopes in terms of getting stuff from car to viewing spot.
And I had some early success. Saturn was popular with not only me but some of the family, as Saturn always is. The moon was a bigger surprise, I didn’t think I would get that much fun out of viewing it, but I do. I’ve seen Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Neptune, and Uranus. I haven’t seen Mercury or Pluto yet.
Some success, some struggles
But after that, I struggled. Well, sort of. It was hard to be sure. I would do my alignment, the scope would say “success”, I would look at planets and the moon and a few things, and then I would try for a few harder options. Like the Andromeda galaxy. Easily seeable as a faint smudgy. Except I couldn’t sometimes. Nada. Nothing. Yet I trusted my scope, so what was the problem?
I had it broken down into several possibilities…perhaps my eyesight wasn’t good enough. Perhaps my scope wasn’t powerful enough, or the optics (tube or lenses) were not high enough quality. Or it was the fact that I was mostly using the scope in light-polluted skies. Or alignment. Or my expectations were way too high. Or I was just an idiot. It was hard to figure out which one was the actual cause. All I knew was that it didn’t seem to be performing as well as I thought it should. But which one(s) was an actual problem?
In an earlier post (Finally learning with the Celestron NexStar 8SE), I outlined how I went to a star party after three years of sub-par usage on my own and was “mirroring” another guy’s viewing session. He would go to object A, and I would go to object A. Then I would look through both scopes and compare. Pretty similar quality. His seemed a bit better, but not in a worrisome way. Then he went to the Ring Nebula, I went to the Ring Nebula, and wtf? No Ring Nebula for me. It just wasn’t there. Now, I had never seen it before so I didn’t know if perhaps it was so faint and his “better” setup would see it, but I wouldn’t. Maybe it was beyond my scope. So he came over, assured me we should be able to see it, moved my scope manually with the hand controller, and bob’s your uncle, the Ring Nebula. My alignment was off. There was nothing wrong with anything except alignment and my own knowledge.
And while I felt a bit stupid, I now had an answer. And I realized later that I probably would NEVER have figured that on my own. I needed to know what my expectations should be, and the only way to know that was to compare it to someone else’s scope and have him confirm I wasn’t over-estimating what I should expect. I just hadn’t had the right combination of a good comparator and star buddy for an evening.
So, great, it was an alignment issue. I could fix that, couldn’t I?
Well, perhaps. Although in the end, it fell into basic, moderate and advanced diagnostics.
For the basic diagnostics, I read the manuals, I searched the online forums, I read tips and tricks, I watched videos, I talked to the telescope people. And I realized there were certain things that could improve my alignment process. Like levelling the scope more accurately. Like using a lighted 12mm reticule to make sure the alignment stars were as close to dead centre as possible. I also expanded my three-star choices to cover more of the sky. I started using precise GPS coordinates instead of cities.
For the moderate diagnostics, I was a bit worried about the mount itself (a previous gear problem) but it seemed to check out; I had it collimated with the laser option at the store, was still good; my diagonal was fine, and my firmware on the mount could have been out of date (seems fine still). Between the changes in basic and moderate, I started having more consistent results, and I honestly thought it was “solved”. I even managed to do an actual sky tour two years ago, not too long after the star party (A sky tour with my new setup). I was on my way.
And then I wasn’t.
Over the last two years, that initial success with the improved alignment process (basic and medium) produced only one consistent thing — inconsistent alignment results. Sometimes I could see Andromeda, sometimes I couldn’t. Sometimes I could see the Ring Nebula, sometimes I couldn’t. It’s been driving me crazy. In 2015, I used it a couple of times, got frustrated, and quit for the most part. In 2016, with the summer coming, I got excited again, motivated to make it work. Then I had inconsistent alignment, got frustrated and stopped again. I just didn’t know what I was doing wrong. The local astronomy club had some telescope clinics, but I didn’t have trouble with the initial setup that could be taught during the day, I needed tips for actual night time setup. I had hoped for a mentoring program that was being looked at, but it didn’t pan out for me. I had one member who was convinced we could find someone in the club who could solve this and he did a lot of outreach to people to try and find someone. Even the guy at the telescope store was offering to do a viewing night at his house one night, but the challenge in my view (rightly as it turned out) was not a general telescope issue, I needed someone with experience with this type of mount and controller.
So I went online again. I haunted Cloudy Nights out the wazoo. And I noticed something. Two-thirds of the really good posts summarized other posts by the same person. A guy, T, was quite active and had pretty good expertise. I saw a lot of things that were possible causes that could be out there still for fixing my alignment problem, but knowing which ones I should try first were hard to prioritize. And I needed to know if my expectations were too high…maybe this scope’s operation was as good as it got. So I emailed him to describe my problem and to ask, “Am I over-estimating what my scope and mount can do?”. While he didn’t directly answer that question, over a series of emails, he made it clear that I wasn’t over-estimating, and instead, he started helping come up with ideas of things to try in order to narrow down the likely problems. I outlined some of them in a series of posts on this blog ( Hazy astronomy viewing last weekend, Good location, lousy set up by me…, Attempt #0 of 5 to save my hobby, Continuing to diagnose alignment issues, and One step forward, three steps back…). What do they all have in common?
Increasing frustration by me to solve the problem. Here’s my list of “possible issues” to consider, my advanced diagnostics list:
- Hand controller errors;
- Degree of play in alt-azimuth directions;
- Slew motion and backlash settings; and/or
- Two-star alignment rather than three-star alignment.
So I thought I had a shot at some of those. I reset the hand controller to factory default settings…if anything was wonky in the setup, it was gone. I tried new batteries to eliminate a variable but had the same result with and without the external Lithium-Ion power pack, so it wasn’t power. I wasn’t sure about the degree of play, I couldn’t get the slew motion to work, and the two-star alignment was “okay”, not stellar (okay, small pun, I promise I’ll avoid them for the rest of the post).
A total shit-show night. And my confidence and approach hit rock bottom. I was no longer confident it was the scope and not just me being the stupidest wannabe astronomer on the planet. And I tried one last desperate plea. I sent a message to the two local astronomy groups offering to pay someone to tell me I was an idiot. Seriously, this is the email I sent:
Soooo, I’m officially getting desperate now with my scope. Basically, I’ve been using my Celestron 8SE for almost 5 years, with the same basic pattern. I use it for about six months, never get a good alignment, get frustrated, give up, and ignore it over the winter. Sometime the next spring or summer, I drag it out, I see a few things, get excited, try to improve some basic alignments, see a few more things but miss a lot, get frustrated, put it away for six months.
An expert has been helping me recently on Cloudy Nights with some diagnostics, and (M) has a line on someone who might be able to help when they get back into town in a few weeks. But I need a guaranteed solution, and I asked earlier if anyone wanted to make money. So here’s what I am going to do.
First, I’m taking the gear in (to the store) to have them check slew rates, backlash, etc. A number of years ago, I had a gear meshing problem and it had to go to Celestron for repair for two months. Maybe it was fixed right, maybe it’s still messed up, I have no idea. I have no way to know myself.
Second, I need someone who knows Celestron 8SEs or equivalent to come out for an hour or two and tell me if either the mount is a piece of crap or I’m the stupidest person on the planet. I have no idea how much to pay you, name your price. Yes, I know, people will say “Oh, don’t have to pay, people can help”, but the short version is I’ve wasted five years to this point and I don’t think I’ve ever had one single night of good viewing with proper alignment.
So, yes, I’m willing to pay you to use my scope and then tell me if I’m just too stupid to own a scope. And then I can sell it all off or something. Take up knitting. I can probably learn that from YouTube videos or something, I hear.
So who wants to make some money telling me if it’s my scope or me? After five years, I don’t have too much optimism left, to be honest. If I can’t even get a stupid GoTo scope to work…sigh. Let me know if you’re interested…my goal is a final decision to continue or dump the hobby by November 15th.
I signed it the Idiot Astronomer. Why am I repeating the text of the email here? Because it drips with frustration. I was deadly serious that if I couldn’t have a working option by November 15th, I was pulling the plug. I just couldn’t take the stress and frustration and inconsistent results anymore.
I got about 8 responses across the two groups. Two encouraged me to hang in there, they were frustrated too in the beginning. Two suggested I switch to star hopping. One gave me some suggestions of things to try. And three offered to work with me on it directly. None of them wanted to be paid, they just wanted to help.
One of the first to respond, A, had worked with the scope, and I took him up on his offer early. We agreed to meet at his place, and I went out one night last week. A much darker area than I have in Centrepointe, but also taller trees, but that wasn’t going to be a problem. I told him some of the history from above, trying not to turn it into a giant pity party or sob story.
When I was done my recap, he told me a bit about his experience. Including that he had programmed some of the software that the mount and handset were using. Holy crap. What a resource. I think my optimism started to bounce right away.
Working with the expert
The first thing he said he wanted to check was the alt-azimuth movements. The guy at CloudyNights had mentioned trying to figure out if when I went left / right or up / down, did the scope stop when I took my finger off the direction button? It did, but rather than a quick dead stop, it was more like a slightly gentle slow down for half a second. Was that a problem? This guy, A, checked it and it seemed okay. Not a lot of play, good tight resistance. A good sign.
We ignored fine-tuning the levelling — it was good enough for our test, but I do have a bubble level and a clinometer app on my phone that works well enough.
Then he wanted to check the encoder card. That wasn’t on my list and I didn’t even know what it was! He moved the scope to a set position, identified on the handset what the “position” it thought it was facing, and then slewed the scope in a full 360-degree turn right back to the exact physical spot where it had been previously. And then he checked to see if the angles were the same. They were. If they weren’t, i.e. if the scope had gone 360 degrees physically but the scope registered less than or more than 360, then all the alignment attempts in the world wouldn’t help — it would mean that the scope wasn’t tracking properly so it wouldn’t have known where it was even looking at any given time. But it worked fine, so that wasn’t the problem. That also eliminated backlash and confirmed the alt-azimuth movements.
Now it was time to try an actual alignment. I mentioned in passing that the CloudyNights site said an automated two-star alignment was better than a three-star alignment, and I confessed that it made no sense to me. How could two stars be better than a full triangulation? He knew the answer — mainly that 3-star wasn’t really a 3-star triangulation. It took the 3 stars, and then used the best two of the three. It was still a two-star alignment. However, the automated 2-star or the manual 2-star used KNOWN stars. Pre-programmed stars. Precise stars.
So he did a 2-star alignment, and it failed. I actually felt a little bit of sick confirmation at that — even with his experience and knowledge, it failed the first time. We moved the scope physically to give a better view of some western/northern stars and did it again. Success. I also learned that the programming assumed people were using a 25mm lens, as that was the default one shipped with the scope. Meaning that the margin of error for 1 Field of View (FOV) was basically the 25mm size. So we used that one for the test.
Now, with the alignment set, it was time to test a few stars. But before doing so, he told it to go BACK to the first star we had chosen. If alignment was solid, it should be dead centre. It wasn’t. It was considerably down and a little to the left of centre (noting I have a 90-degree star diagonal on the scope). WTF? That shouldn’t happen.
So he told it to go back to Star 2. Again, it wasn’t dead-centre. It was off. But, interestingly, it was off by the SAME amount as the first star had been off. Relatively fine for left-right, but off on the altitude setting (up/down).
Which, when I think about it, I had always suspected. When I did my alignments, I was frequently off more by height than left/right.
But the fact that it was off by the same amount, and mostly altitude, he had an inkling where the problem might be. The final tracking just before alignment was imprecise/loose.
That takes a bit more explanation, and I’m likely to completely misdescribe the problem. The scope can go left or right, up or down. But when aligning, you are supposed to always go right and up as your last movements. I link to think of it as like a drive train — if you go right and/or up, the train is tight. If you go the other way, there’s a bit of slippage before it goes tight. So it always requires you to go up and right. Up and right. If you go past the centre when you’re aligning, you go back left and down and then up and right again. Always those two directions at the end.
Now, the right / left part seemed fine. But the up wasn’t “tight” for the actual alignment. I mentioned to him that because I had a star diagonal, the various fora said that technically I was going down and right in the eyepiece. Which is true, but he said that regardless, it didn’t matter what was in the eyepiece, it only mattered what was done on the hand controller. That had to be up and right.
Which made me think of something I had seen in the settings. When I reset to the default settings, I had checked a bunch of settings looking for anything that might be set wrong. But it all seemed fine. Yet, when he mentioned that it was only the handset controls that mattered, I realized that while the setting for azimuth (left / right) was set to normal, the default setting for altitude was REVERSE. This meant that the default was WRONG for telling it to go up and right — it was not going up and right when it was reversed, it was going DOWN and right. In other words, it was deliberately choosing the loose setting for height.
We reversed the setting i.e. made it normal, and then he realigned. When he was done, he went back to STAR 1 and checked in the eyepiece.
Star 2? Dead-centre.
Near perfect alignment. But let’s not get cocky. Those were the alignment stars, they SHOULD be aligned.
So I started doing a star tour. While not everything else was dead centre, it was well within the eyepiece FoV. I played for over an hour, and all the tests seemed fine. Better than fine. More like “Voted the best alignment in five years”-fine. Freaking awesome.
He even showed me some advanced options for a precise GOTO and for a SYNCH goto option. Basically both add some temporary precision to a go-to by first going to a star in the area and then when you confirm alignment for it, it then knows where your nearby target is with more precision. Which means if I am having trouble finding something, I can give it a temporary “boost”. A huge tool to have. He even explained how to do a two-star alignment during the day! Mind blown.
Which if I left off here would seem like he solved all the problems, all great. But in the end, the real issue was a setting in the hand controller setup. I would never have known all the other issues were fine on my own. I needed him to weed that out as a possibility. And with the basic and medium all taken care of earlier, and some of the advanced eliminated, I at least had it down to a narrower field of suspects.
And yet, I still feel like an idiot. Five years of struggling with alignment to find out there really aren’t anything likely wrong with the scope or anything. I just was doing it completely wrong because the default wasn’t set to what the instructions told me to do. I went up and right, and the computer program went down and right. So I was never “tight” with my drive train equivalent, and my altitude settings have always been off. Which isn’t to say all the other things didn’t play a factor, I’m sure they did.
But the big issue of the handset controller settings being wrong would have never been found if I didn’t have someone like him to walk through the other options and eliminate all of them one by one.
So where does this leave me?
Well, I did the outing with him early last week (about 10 days ago). And then had no nights to test it myself here in Ottawa. I took the scope with me to the Kawarthas last weekend and had no chance to use it. This week has not been too kind. Until tonight.
Tonight I tested it all myself. My setup. My alignment. My test. All me.
In one of the posts that I mentioned earlier (Attempt #0 of 5 to save my hobby), I created a full formal test for myself. Evaluation criteria that if and when I had a new approach, I would try and find a set list of options, award points for various areas, and total up my score. If I got a decent score on five test nights, I would stick with the hobby. If I didn’t, I’d quit.
After the test tonight, I’ve decided to quit.
The testing, not the hobby. Because there is no need for further testing.
Because…drum roll, please…
It freaking worked!!!
Once physically set up, I marked how long it would take me to do an actual alignment. My goal was five minutes, and definitely less than 10. How about less than 2? I then made an adjustment, tweaked a setting, redid it, and was all aligned again. All in less than 5 minutes in TOTAL for two alignments. With testing against star 1 and star 2 to see how it went. Not as perfect as the other night, but pretty good. I also had it work on the FIRST attempt. Full marks, not even close to a problem. The way I had always hoped it would work.
I then tested it on a series of targets. My only available planets from this site at that time were Uranus and Neptune. Uranus was easy, Neptune was playing hide and seek. But I had a small tree problem that I was peering around for Neptune, and seeing was terrible anyway. I feel like I was in the right area, just couldn’t zero in to confirm it. I’m giving it full marks anyway.
Then I moved on to stars — Almach, Rasalgethi, Albireo, Mizar, Polaris, Gamma Ari, Kappo Bo, and Epsilon Bo. Eight stars, eight successes. Again, full marks.
For clusters and galaxies, I found Andromeda, Hercules, M92, Ring Nebula, Dumbbell Nebula, Double Cluster, M29, M34, Horseshoe Cluster, M05 and M13. Eleven more, eleven successes.
Twenty-one targets, twenty successes. The only one that was off was Neptune, and I’m not counting that one either way. 20 for 20.
I don’t need further testing, it WORKED exactly the way it is supposed to work.
My hobby is alive. Thanks to R at the star party who narrowed my problem down to alignment and to A for an evening that confirmed it was mainly the handset settings messing up my altitude movements. And to T who went above and beyond the call of duty on CloudyNights to even get me into the ballpark.
I still have a little way to go in order to be a little more consistent each time in my setup, but wow, I can’t believe it worked. Five years to get here. Now I can start really learning.