Exactly One Year From Now…

…the first total solar eclipse to visit the continental United States since 1979 will cruise over the heart of the nation. The 47-mile-diameter shadow of the Moon will streak across the land at 1,800 miles per hour, starting near Salem, OR and leaving over Charleston, SC. The United States will be the only country on Earth that will witness this eclipse over land, and so it is being called the Great American Eclipse.


I have a page devoted to this eclipse, but since today marks the beginning of the 1-year countdown to the actual event, I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

My first thought: one year is not a long time to prepare.

  • If you don’t know where you’re going, you better get on that quick — especially if you’re looking for hotel accommodations. Even if you plan to camp out of your vehicle, you need to figure out where you’re going to be, and likely make some kind of reservation.
  • During totality, you can directly at the eclipse, so you really don’t need any instrumentation to experience the most majestic phenomenon in nature. However, leading up to totality — and again after totality ends — there will be about 90 minutes of partial solar eclipse, and you’ll very likely want to have a way to safely view that as it progresses. To do that, you can use simple “eclipse shades” or other safe solar filter. If you don’t have those things, you’ll want to get them ASAP.

My second thought: one year is a long time to prepare.

  • The total solar eclipse will be even more meaningful when you understand just how coincidental and rare this celestial line-up is, so bone up on your eclipse science. How big is the Sun? The Moon? What are the distances between Earth and these two objects? Figure out where that 400x size-to-distance ratio comes from, and you’ll own it in your mind. While you’re at it, find out why don’t we have a total solar eclipse every month.
  • Did you plunge in and get a solar telescope? When you receive it, use it on the sun right away. Get very comfortable using it, so on eclipse day you’re as proficient with the instrument as you are with riding a bike or driving a car. You don’t want to spend time figuring out a solar telescope while the event is happening!
  • If you heed the advice to make a weekend of it, check the Internet often over the next several months to see what other attractions and events are happening in your viewing area. As businesses and municipalities become aware of the eclipse, you can be sure there will be additional events coming together all over the path of totality!

My final thought: tell everyone you know about this event.

  • Got kids? Let their teacher(s) know. Some schools will still be out on 8/21/2017, but teachers may well want to let their classes know about the eclipse, as well as experience it for themselves.
  • Bring the family! And I mean extended family, too. This is certainly something family members will remember and talk about for years to come, so even if there are a few who are less than enthusiastic at the outset, I guarantee if they see the total solar eclipse they will be impressed — even moved. It’s a primordial experience, and they are NOT going to want to be ones in the family who missed it.
  • Send folks to this blog, or whatever your favorite eclipse site is, and get them thinking right now about viewing this most rare and awe-inspiring of natural spectacles. Remember, partial eclipses are NOTHING compared to a total solar eclipse, so unless you live in the path of totality, staying in your backyard isn’t going to cut it. Get yourself to totality, and try to sit on the centerline as close as practical!

Making A Stargazer’s Lantern

The official date for (Inter)National Astronomy Day was today, May 14, 2016. The astronomy club to which I belong celebrates on Memorial Day weekend instead, since the weather in our region of the world is consistently poor from mid-April to the beginning of May. However, I wanted to do something for the occasion, and while shopping at the local Menards for Shop-Vac replacement parts, I stumbled upon Coleman’s Soft Glow Table Lamp.


I thought it would be a good project to turn this into an astronomy-friendly red lantern. How hard could it be? The thing cost less that $20, so I threw it in my cart.

How to make it red? A quick Google search gave me the idea of using the flexible, squishy “gel” material from which decorative window clings are made. A stop at Hobby Lobby netted me a “Fourth Of July” pack of small clings — including a few red stars! Of course I laid down the $3 for that, and went home with my goodies.


Once back at the ranch, I unboxed the lamp, admired it for about ten seconds, and then immediately set about taking it apart. It was fairly obvious how to do so once the (empty) battery pack was removed: there are four cross-head screws that mate the base to the large white shade. So, time to gather all the items so I can work efficiently (I’m also a big fan of mies en place when cooking).


I found out a few things that you’ll want to know if you try this yourself:

  1. You’ll need to use a slightly-small Phillips screwdriver with a shaft long enough to reach the screws in their recesses.
  2. You don’t have to remove the screws completely to free the white shade from the base.
  3. There a small plastic spacer that lies behind the power button membrane on the front of the upper shell; it will probably fall out when you take the lamp apart, so just make sure you keep it safe. In my case, I kept it in a drawer until I was ready to reassemble everything; a reflexive behavior learned by living with thieves cats Elsie.

I decided to use both of the small red stars to get a deeper red, and used a square of clear packing tape to simultaneously squish them against and secure them to the LED and reflector assembly. Be sure to use a square of tape large enough that the edges wrap around the edge of the shield, to make it extra secure.


After that, it was a simple matter of putting the shade back onto the base, and tightening the four screws to mate the two together again.

Putting in the battery pack (now fitted with 4 D-cell batteries) allowed me to test the lamp. And, amazingly enough, it worked great right off the bat! I prefer the lower brightness setting for personal use, but the brighter setting will be good for public events.


There are a few irregularities in the illumination of the shade near the bottom — there were some crinkles in the tape that appeared as I formed it to the round shield. I suppose I could cut out a circular piece of tape and replace what I did, but I doubt I’ll ever get around to it. For $23 and about 10 minutes of time, I’m quite happy with the results, and I expect this lamp will see a lot of use on the deck and in the field for years to come.

Back To Charter

Charter Speed Test

After two and a half years of using AT&T U-Verse, I’ve switched back to Charter for my home services. AT&T nearly doubled in cost after the 2-year intro pricing, and they were inflexible when I called them to see what could be done to mitigate that. That wasn’t the reason I left, however; it was the Internet speed. I’ve always had problems with U-Verse Internet, never getting anywhere near the 18mbps I was paying for. Speeds averaged around 5-6mbps, and sometimes would get into the 10-12mbps range, but not very often. It became very frustrating to try and stream from a webcam or use FaceTime. Charter has changed a lot since I left them, and they promised 60mbps minimum speed. Couple that with essentially the same TV lineup and home phone service for $100 LESS per month than what I could get AT&T down to, and it’s pretty much a no-brainer.

Although their service technician was a little “rusty” in doing installations, everything was up and running inside of 90 minutes. I was blown away by my new Internet speed, and in fact I haven’t had a speed test come in under 60 Mbps! What does that mean?

  • YouTube plays at a wonderful 1080p with no buffering. Last Week TonightSmarter Every DayVintage Space and The Brain Scoop as they were meant to be seen!
  • iCloud is super-fast (my upload speeds are about 4x that of U-Verse). When I take a picture on my iPhone or a screenshot from an iPad, it appears in my Macbook’s Photos app almost immediately. I used to have to wait for the better part of an hour sometimes for this to work on my old network.
  • FaceTime is high-res and solid.
  • Streaming music from Apple Music doesn’t affect my other Internet work.

I haven’t tried Netflix yet, but I’m guessing it’ll be the same type of experience. Downloads from the App Store across all devices has been stellar.

What don’t I like about Charter? I was surprised to see that the old, low-resolution menu system was still there on the DVR box. I really do like U-Verse’s interface, and their mobile app is top-notch. Charter’s TV picture is excellent, but going back to the old box was a little disappointing; I thought for sure they’d have an updated and more modern system by now.

The mobile app (Spectrum TV) is a good app. At first, it appeared to be everything the U-Verse app was: streaming live TV, changing channel on the TV box, and setting the DVR. Unfortunately, I can only stream on the app; apparently, my model of TV box isn’t controllable by the app. I’ll certainly be asking about that when I get a chance to contact Charter.

Overall, I’m very happy with the switch. As a one-person, one-TV household who’s primary need is fast and steady Internet access, Charter seems to be a better solution — that just happens to be less expensive, to boot.

Astronomy Gear & Sheboygan Brats

On March 28, the 8th annual Astronomy Swap N Sell event will take place at the Aviation Heritage Center in Sheboygan Falls, WI. Created and sponsored by the Sheboygan Astronomical Society, this has become a favorite event amongst area astronomy enthusiasts. Late March is the perfect time to dust off the cosmic cobwebs that set in over the long midwestern winter, and the prospect of seeing friends from across the state — and even the region — really gets my astronomy juices flowing.

It begins with breakfast at a nice place on the way. My go-to for this was the Madison Avenue Inn nestled in the tiny town of Cascade, WI — but now it’s gone. Hopefully, we’ll find an alternative to Taco Bell’s “AM Crunchwrap” that one of my friends likes so much.

The Madison Avenue Inn of Cascade, WI was an eclectic little place that had the most wonderful egg bakes. Too bad they closed permanently last year :(

The Madison Avenue Inn of Cascade, WI was an eclectic little place that had the most wonderful egg bakes. Too bad they closed permanently last year😦

How do you get to the Aviation Heritage Center? Just drive to the Sheboygan County Memorial Airport, and the building you’re looking for is hard to miss!

Parking under a USAF jet is only part of the fun -- there is a "sound effects" button on the mounting post that will really add to the experience!

Parking under a USAF jet is only part of the fun — there is a “sound effects” button on the mounting post that really adds to the experience!

Once inside, you pass through the little museum into the main room, where all the action is. It’s important to know that there is a full kitchen off to the left of this picture, where you can get Sheboygan-style brats (yes, a double-brat on a Johnston Bakery hard roll). You can also get “regular” brats if you want, as well as other snack-type items and beverages. I heard that this year they are adding a “Pluto Burger” so we’ll just have to see what that’s all about…in the interest of documenting the event, you understand.

Plenty of astronomy people and gear at the Sheboygan Astronomical Society's annual Swap 'N Sell event!

Plenty of astronomy people and gear at the Sheboygan Astronomical Society’s annual Swap ‘N Sell event! Cafe tables are shown to the left and stretch back to the serving counter at the kitchen.

You can find all kinds of telescopes, binoculars, eyepieces, books and other fantastic stuff. It’s different every year, and the more people who attend, the more there is to choose from, which is great because as word gets out the event is getting bigger.

Gear 1Gear 2Gear 3Gear 5Gear 6

Everyone has such a great time, regardless if you’re buying, selling, or browsing! It’s nice to see old friends and make new ones.

Mickey and Charlotte are two of the many members of the Northern Cross Science Foundation who attend the Swap N Sell.

You never know what you’ll find at the Swap N Sell. I’ve been looking for a copy of the Glass Giant Of Palomar for years, but didn’t want to pay the huge asking prices for the relatively rare book. A few years ago at the Swap N Sell, I found a copy at an excellent price, and in fact, I gave the seller more than he was asking. The Stokes Sandpiper 15-45x65mm angled spotting scope is long out of production, and I was delighted to find it as well.

In 2013 I scored some awesome stuff at the Swap N Sell, and then joined some friends in a trek up to see Dr. Phil Plait at UW-Fox Valley, where I got a signed book!

In 2013 I scored some awesome stuff at the Swap N Sell, and then joined some friends in a trek up Menasha to see Dr. Phil Plait talk at the Barlow Planetarium, where I got a signed book!

Each year there are a few astronomy-related talks as well. People such as Michael Bakich from Astronomy Magazine have spoken in the past; this year, I’m giving a talk:

PN Title Slide

So, mark your calendars and tell your friends about the Astronomy Swap N Sell on March 28. As the event runs from 9am to 2pm, early arrival is advised. I hope to see you there, and maybe we can even do a little business to boot!

Songs Of The Season … from a long time ago.

Songs Of The SeasonMany years ago (back in 1988) a Christmas album was recorded by the choirs of Port Washington High School in Port Washington, WI. I was on Facebook tonight and a few people started posting about this album, talking about how great it would be to have it in digital form. That’s when one of my old classmates, Michele Champeau-Krueger, indicated she had a CD made from it and the files resided on her computer. Well, after a few more Facebook posts and some emails, I had the files on my Macbook. After a little bit of work, I was able to create MP3 files with tags and album art (iPhone 5 in one hand, album jacket in the other). Michele had all 13 songs, but I didn’t realize two songs were on the same track at first, so I initially uploaded a “weird” set. I’ve since split the two songs into separate tracks, fixed the album name tags so they have the correct title, and have updated the set on this blog (you’ll see it as “Songs Of Christmas.zip”. So, thanks to Michele, I can now offer the fabled “Songs Of Christmas” PWHS Choirs Album to the infintesimally-small portion of the Internet that is interested in such a thing. There is no copyright on the album jacket or label, and the original performers are asking me for this, so I think we’re good. If not, just let me know.

Merry Christmas PWHS Grads Of The 1980s! Songs Of Christmas


I’ve added a new section to my blog for Food & Cooking, where I’ve published my own version of jambalaya that’s diabetic-friendly and healthier than the traditional recipes I’ve come across, but still true to the signature flavors of the dish. I’ll share other recipes, cookbooks, and restaurant dishes here too, and would love to see your comments and feedback.

The Everyone Tripod Design Change & Drawing Publish

A lot of people have been asking me for the design details of the Everyone Tripod. It’s been a long and cold winter, so I’ve not had a change to put it through its paces until recently.

One thing I learned from using it “in the field” was that having the leg sides exactly parallel didn’t make for easy height adjustment, since the side clamping force was therefore produced equally along the full length of the leg assembly. A simple solution was to slightly increase the width of the brace plate “ears” so they stay clamped tightly when the lower bolt is loosened for height adjustment. Since this set up a gentle “wedge” shape along the length of the entire leg, I needed to increase the width of the top of the leg assembly (where it attaches to the hub) a little more than the brace plate ears. If you’re making your own hub, that’s a simple dimension to change, but if you’re putting this on an existing hub, just add some extra fender washers between the outside of the hub and inside of the leg pieces. In my situation with the Celestron Nexstar 102GT, three washers on each side produced the necessary spread.

After making the necessary design adjustments, I am now publishing my SolidWorks design drawings in PDF format. Note that I’m still showing the leg sides as parallel, but you can also see where the extra washers and brace plate ears seem to “interfere” with the legs. Depending on your exact cuts and design, the leg sides will have a varying about of “wedge” to them; using the dimensions and BOM I’ve included, it’ll work out fine for the Nexstar 102GT and similar mounts.

You can find the PDF drawings below; be sure to download all four. If you make your own version of the Everyone Tripod, please let me know how it works for you and include a picture of your creation!

Everyone Tripod Assembly Drawing
Everyone Tripod Leg Side Drawing
Everyone Tripod Leg End Drawing
Everyone Tripod Brace Plate Drawing

The Everyone Tripod

Everyone Tripod Snapshot

The universal cure for shaky telescope tripod legs? I’m going to find out this weekend!

I’ve just created a page to house my design information and thoughts on what I’m calling The Everyone Tripod. It’s a design project that’s been literally years in the making, as I’ve used countless telescopes that were pretty good except their tripod legs were flimsy. With the acquisition of the incredible $199 Costco exclusive Celestron Nexstar 102GT, however, I decided to do a little recon at the local Home Depot and see what was available. After noodling a bit, I mocked up my design in SolidWorks and this weekend I’m putting it together. I’m pretty excited because so far the cost is $40 and everything but the spreader and the leg slots are available from my local Home Depot (they cut the leg pieces to length for me in seconds at no additional cost). You can find the details on my dedicated project page.

The One That DIDN’T Get Away

The Original Celestron C6

The original Celestron C6 was a Polaris-mounted 6" f/5 Newtonian.

A few months ago, I wrote about the Celestron C6 Newtonian reflector that was produced by Vixen back in the 1980’s. It was the third of four “classic black Celestrons” that I remembered from when I was a kid, and unique in that it was a wide-field telescope in contrast to the Firstscope 80, C4.5 and C8. While my early attempts to acquire one were unsuccessful, a few months ago I did win an eBay auction for a C6 optical tube assembly.

It arrived without a finder or a front endcap, but I’ve got a friend who may part with her original 6×30 finder from her SP-C6, and heavy-duty shower cap functions as an effective tube cover. There are a few small nicks in the paint, and two small holes where a Telrad base was mounted, but a little touch-up will fix those tiny cosmetic issues.

I’ve had a lot of fun tinkering with this scope (mostly in the garage and the driveway so far), and I’ve learned a few things.

The first thing I’ve learned is that the Polaris mount is more than adequate for this telescope. I really can’t think of a reason why Celestron switched this scope from the original Polaris to the much-heavier Super Polaris mount, other than increased profits in a more astrophotography-ready package. I’m thinking the astrophotography-profit angle here because there were optional dual-axis drive motors available for the Super Polaris, they could charge more for the heavier mount itself, and the 6″ f/5 OTA has a constant-distance “sled” focuser with a generously-sized secondary mirror which would appeal to shutterbugs of the day. At any rate, for visual use, the Polaris mount is simply wonderful. Even without a  second counterweight and the scope being woefully out of balance, when I lock it down, it doesn’t wiggle. At all.

It's easy to drop the rear cell from the C6, just like it is for the C4.5 -- once you know how. That makes it easy to center-spot the primary, which is necessary for collimation.

Another thing I’ve learned is that Vixen really did a great job on their Newtonians. Just like the C4.5, the C6 primary and secondary mirrors are easy to adjust. In fact, this scope practically invites collimation! It was a simple matter to drop the back half of the cell and center-spot the scope, and once I had a proper reference, the scope was collimated in a matter of minutes. The only plastic on the scope is the single focuser knob, and the rack and pinion gears of the “sled” style focuser. I’m told that those plastic gears are the only real points of potential wear and failure on this scope; everything else in the focuser is aluminum. Oh, if they just used brass for those two little parts instead of plastic! If I ever have problems with the plastic gears in the focuser, that’s what I’ll use to replace them.

I also learned why they don’t make threaded declination shafts anymore. These were super-cool-looking on the giant yellow Byers mounts that graced the 1960s and 1970s Questar-12 ads in Sky & Telescope. Perhaps in an attempt to enhance the precision feel of the original Polaris mount, the declination shaft is, in fact, a single length of 16mmx2.0 threaded rod. It does look great, and makes it easy to fine-tune the counterweight position. However, it also makes it a major pain to move the counterweight any significant distance, and taking the counterweight off the declination shaft for portability is more trouble than it’s worth. For the C4.5 OTA, there’s only one counterweight and it’s not a big deal to move the entire thing — mount and scope —  around because it’s so lightweight. I’m thinking the second counterweight is going to be around 8 pounds to accommodate the larger C6 OTA, so that’s going to make the overall setup noticeably heavier. It’ll be easier to remove the entire declination shaft for transport, should it become necessary.

As a side note, what you see in the picture is indeed a 25mm Plossl of the old Celestron “silvertop” variety. I’ve collected several Celestron silvertop Plossls over the decades, and all but one are red-lettered Vixen models of the same vintage as this scope. When I get that second counterweight made to allow for less dangerous use of the C6 on this mount, I plan to use the silvertops exclusively; in my limited testing so far, the vintage Plossls have been surprisingly good. A 16mm Nagler Type 5 might sneak onto the focuser once in a while, though…