IF YOU LISTEN TO the songwriters, the stars are big and bright in Texas when they're not falling on Alabama, no doubt wrenched from Vermont where there's only moonlight reported. But if you stand outside on a clear night and look up, a sparkling canopy of mystery awaits your study. Thanks to the ancients who had no streetlights and lots of time on their hands, we have fancifully-imagined constellations to consider, not to mention solar system objects and the more recently-catalogued phenomena like star clusters and distant galaxies.
These days, each time bright Venus rises, the number of UFO reports generally goes up. No professional astronomer makes that mistake, and, thanks to a happy combination of telescope and computer, neither will you.
Many fine astronomy programs are now on the market, giving planetarium-like tours of the heavens. And there are computer-telescope combinations in addition to what I describe below. But where the others combinations merely help you to aim that telescope barrel, Software Bisque's TheSky actually feeds the Meade LX-200 telescope the information it needs to position itself, telling it to center its focus on the object of your choice.
It's the kind of thing that makes old-line astronomers grumpy. You haven't earned the view of that object by skewing the scope by hand, hour after hour, to learn every square inch of what's up there. But isn't this exactly the kind of drudgery computers are supposed to spare us?
Besides, this experience will definitely spur you to learn more about the night sky. We all know how to spot Orion and the Big Dipper, and the fiery blue twinkle of Sirius cuts through even the lights of a city. Using this telescope and software, however, you can't help but pick up on the names of more stars and constellations. And the view up there changes hour by hour, even as the moon and planets reposition themselves (according to our point of view) day by day. TheSky tracks those changes, letting you know what's up there right now or how it will look any time in the future or past. Thanks to the information I gained from a virtual time-travel journey with the software, I was inspired to get up an hour before dawn the other morning so that I could watch the rise of Venus and Saturn in the east before the sun rose and obliterated everything.
You get more than just a planetarium picture. Tell TheSky where you live and the time of day, and it calculates the heavenly view. Use the Time Skip feature and you'll see what the view will be in an hour or two (or more). A yellow horizon line shows what's rising at sea level; you can draw your own horizon line to reflect what's blocking that view.
TheSky software comes in several versions, so be sure you choose the Remote Astronomy package. When you crave more in the way of heavenly objects, though, there's a CD-ROM-based version that incorporates information captured by the Hubble telescope, giving a database of 20 million things in the sky.
Although the LX-200 telescope looks stubby (but don't be fooled – it's heavy!), it actually sends the light bouncing three times the length of its tube thanks to a clever arrangement of mirrors. By the time it hits the eyepiece, significantly more of that light has collected. Which means that this telescope will show you pinpoints of light that you've never seen with the naked eye, and that you'll be able to see formations of comparatively weak magnitude, so browse TheSky's listing of Messier objects – those nebulae and clusters that make outer space seem all the more wonderful and mysterious – and make a shopping list for your observation sessions.
This has been a treat for my household and the neighbors, who quickly learned to gather in my yard whenever the skies were clear. With the telescope in place, aligned, and connected to the computer, I found Jupiter on the computer screen and instructed the telescope to skew to find it. We were greeted with the image of the planet's radiant disk closely surrounded by its four brightest moons, which is a startling sight.
Setting it all up is straightforward, but it's best done during the daytime when you can see well enough to set up a table and to stash the wires away – which can be done by placing a piece of heavy carpet over them. Keep in mind, though, that the greatest potential danger with a telescope this powerful is a glimpse of the sun during daytime. Even a momentary glimpse can cause blindness. I read the cautions, dismissed them as over-fussy – who's going to look at the sun? – and almost swung the scope right at it as I followed the track of a jet through the daytime sky.
I'm looking forward to the dark nights of late summer when the band of the Milky Way spreads across the sky and I can probe that band of galaxies and dust. It even gets a little spooky when I'm confronted with the evidence of so much else in the universe and reason that somebody, somewhere, hidden amidst those stars, has a computer-guided telescope aimed back in my direction and is also wondering just who else is out there.
Step 1: Install the Software
Step 2: Configure the Software
Before you even start the program, set your computer's date and time correctly. Never mind what it already says: go to an atomic clock. If you're a shortwave listener, you already know how to tune WWV; otherwise, call 303-499-7111, keeping in mind that the number you get will be Universal Time, and you'll have to adjust it for your time zone. With Daylight Savings in effect, my location is four hours behind. Type TIME at the C:\> prompt and enter the correct time (using 24-hour time format). Now run TheSky and choose Date & Time from the Input menu. Check the box marked Use the System Date & Time, and check the Daylight Savings box if necessary (it's in effect until the end of October). TheSky also needs to know your location. Latitude and Longitude can be tough to find, but the numbers show up on certain road maps and atlases. I had to extrapolate from a small map of New York State, but with the info in hand, I pulled down TheSky's Input menu and chose Location, then typed in a longitude of 74 degrees 25 minutes west, latitude 42 degrees 55 minutes north. I typed my town name into the Description box, clicked Add to File, clicked Set to Current, and then selected OK.
Step 3: Set Up the Telescope.
Step 4: Level the Telescope.
Step 5: Make the Power Connections.
Step 6: Connect the Telescope to the Computer.
Plug the serial port adapter that comes with TheSky into a serial port on your computer, taking care not to interfere with your pointing device (you’ll need it!), and run the wire from the adapter to the telescope’s control panel, plugging into a jack labeled RS232.
Use the telephone wire that comes with TheSky to connect the computer to the telescope, with a serial port adapter that comes with TheSky software. Plug the adapter into a Two slide switches sit at the upper right of the control panel; one, with ends marked N and S, is set for your hemisphere, so I left it at N; above it is the power switch. Switch it on. You’ll see the control panel spring to electronic life with an assortment of red LEDs.
Step 7: Establish a Data Connection.
Pull down TheSky’s Telescope menu, and select Data. Choose the COM port number in the pull-down box labeled Communication Port; confirm a baud rate of 9600 in the next box. In the Communication Box, select Meade LX-200 series from the pull-down menu. Click OK. Pull down the Telescope menu again and select Link; from the next menu, select Establish. When the link is successful, a small yellow-rimmed circle appears on the screen, corresponding to the view in the telescope eyepiece.
Step 8: Align the Telescope.
Step 9: Find a Cluster.
Step 10: Call the Mount Wilson Observatory.
Have a friend help you. That telescope is heavy!
Get a couple of outdoor-quality extension cords.
Set up your area in daylight; include a table and chair.
Get a piece of old, heavy carpet to cover the wires running between telescope and computer.
Don't ever look at the sun through the telescope. Use extreme caution when daytime viewing.
Don't adjust the telescope's position by hand once the motors are activated.
Don't wave flashlights around while setting up – you’ll ruin your night vision.
You'll Also Need:
Table and chair
Old piece of carpet
[Note: products and pricing have changed since 1995, but the contact info has been updated.]
862 Brickyard Circle
Golden, CO 80403
TheSky Remote Astronomy Software, $295.00 (School price: $200.00)
LX-200 Serial Connector, $25.00
Meade Instruments Corp.
Irvine, CA 92618
LX-200 Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope (8-inch), $2,495.00
– Computer Life, Aug. 1995