The Stargazer’s Field Observatory

New modifications  to the observatory are on hold for a bit while I am on modified activity levels awaiting back surgery.  Given that we think the construction of the pier was the cause of the back problems I am experiencing, I decided to make the pier construction the topic of this post. I have included a series of photos in the photos page that show the evolution of the pier construction.

It took awhile to decide where on the property I wanted to place the pier and ultimately the observatory.  A lot of my property is wooded and that made it a bit of a challenge to find a place with appropriate horizon views.  In the end, I chose a location nearer to the road than I wanted, but it gave me the best horizon available on my property.  My plan was to address the light problem of passing vehicles in the near future.  This would eventually be managed by the construction of a “light blind” which wil be the topic of  a future post.

Before I began any actual work at the site, there was some prep work to due ahead of time.  My pier construction basically followed the plans posted on the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association and anyone looking to build a pier should consider reviewing that sites documentation, it is quite helpful.

Unlike the TAAA plans, I used an 8″ sono-tube rather than a 12″.  In addition, I made a slight modification to the rebar method used.  Like the TAAA, placed 2′ long rebar segments in the concrete in a criss-cross fashion.  To manage the vertical rebar, rather than using stand alone rods as seen in the TAAA documents, I built a re-bar cage, 4 vertical rods 4′ in length with 6″ rods as the cross-braces at the top and bottom.

To attache the mount head to the pier I used a Meade tri-pod adapter.  I wanted the adapter to be dead center on the pier, or at least as close as possible.  I cut a 12×12 piece of 1/8″ plywood and identified the  center of the board by drawing lines from corner to oposite corner.   I placed the board on the flor with the sono-tube on top.  I ensured the tube was centered then drew then traced around the sono-tube.  At the center point I drilled a 3/8″ hole.  I turned the board over so the sono-tubes outline was on the “bottom.”  I placed the concrete J-bar through the hole.  Treating the board as the top of the pier, I placed the adapter on top and bolted it in place.  By doing this I could judge  how much of the bolt needed to remain above the surface of the pier top.  I left the adapter bolted to the wood square.

At the pier site.

THE PIT!!! To make my life easier, I employed he assistance of a friend with a Kubota tractor to dig the base pit.  The pit was essentially a 3x3x1 hole.  I followed the Tucson website guidance on supplies and concrete calculations.

Preparations                                          Footer                                          Building the sonotube frame

Following the guidance from the link above, we created a bracing structure of 2x4s to hold sona tube in place.  The bracing system was leveled.  At this point we shoveled concrete into the hole as seen in the second photo.  The re-bar cage was then placed into the concrete.  As described in the link, we allowed an adequate amount of time (1-2hours) for the concrete to begin curing.  Don’t let the concrete cure too long because you want the concrete poured into the tube to “merge” with the curing base concrete.  While the concrete was curing, I inserted the concrete J-bar into a thin piece of  wood.

After the brief wait, the sono-tube was then placed over the re-bar cage, into the brace and bolted to the top 2x4s as described in the TAAA documentation.

Mixing concrete                                                     FREE LABOR

The tube was then filled with concrete.  As you can see we made our concrete a little too wet and it caused the sono-tube to rupture at the bottom.  So what do you use to lug up the damn….. duct tape of course.  Duct tape proved an a more the suitable solution.  The concrete bump which remains isn’t too visible after painting the pier, but it otherwise gives the pier some unique character.

Drying & curing time                                                Sonotube in place and filed.                                               Almost done

I let the pier cure fo several day before removing any bracing or the top.  Fortunately I was too busy to do anything for almost 2 weeks so when I got back to working on it I was very certain it was properly cured.

I removed all the bracing hardware followed by the pier head adapter.  I was sureto make the J-bolt with a sharpie on the bottom of the board.  I had not counted on the concrete shrinking and as such there was about 1″ between the concrete top of the pier and the wood plate.  This would turn out to be a unforeseen benefit later.  To fill the gap at the top I decided to use a smoother concrete, the type used to cement stones for stone front facades.  Filled the gap with the concrete up to the level of the sharpie mark.  I let the concrete begin to set.

I would check on the consistency of the concrete from time to time.  Once is reached a point that it was thick but not so cured that it couldn’t be shaped, U ised a large nail to engrave a line pointing to true north.  Once the north line was in place, I too the mount head adapter and sprayed the bottom with cooking spray, like Pam, and placed it on  the pier to over the J-bolt.  I put the nut in place but only finger tight.  The adapter had to be free to spin.  In then, slowly, rotated the adapter to make an impression on the concrete.  Once I made an adequate imprint, I placed a leveling tool on top of the adapter head making minor adjustments to the adapter by gently pressing here and there until it was level.  I rotated the level 360° in about 10°-20° intervals until one side of the level had made a 180° rotation from its starting point.  At this time I knew everything was well leveled.  It was time to let the concrete cure completely.

Before packing it in for the day, I looked over the pier for holes, damage, etc.  I used the remaining concrete to smooth any imperfections and repair any cracks or holes.  This was primarily for aesthetics.

It was easy to let the pier cure for a week since all the work I could only work on the pier on weekends.  After a week of curing, I carefully removed the adapter unit and checked out my work.  All was good.  The final step was to pain the pier.  I purchased concrete paint from Lowe’s and gave the pier a couple of coats.

Once the paint dried I replaced the adapter head, made sure I know where the front of the adapter was and aligned it to the true north line I scribed into the concrete then bolted it down.


At the pier

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Southern Star’s SkyFi – Review

Southern Stars



This past weekend I received my SkyFi wireless telescope control interface.  My plan is to blog about each of the steps I take as I explore the devices, setup, features, functionality, flexibility,  user friendly function and its interface with various software packages.  I will cover each of these in a separate blog post.

Initial impression of the device.

The SkyFi unit is a compact light weight device.  Included with the unit is a power supply, an RS-232 (DB9M) to RJ11 cable, and a serial gender changer.  The unit is very flexible in its ability to connect to various mounts, both new and old, as it provides a USB in addition to the RS-232 connector.  Since SkyFi uses a standard 6 pin RJ11 port for serial communication there are two basic options for using the serial connection.  The unit can connect to the telescope system using the RJ11 to DB9M converter or, if your telescope uses a modular port, a custom “telephone” wire can be constructed to minimize adapte use.  Southern Stars provides a very useful web page with the pin out for the SkyFi and several mainstream telescope brands.

As the weather is not conducive to setting up gear, I started looking at the interface and configuration pages.  At power up, the unit sets up an AdHoc network.  By joining this network, the user can browse to the configuration page located at  The page is very straight forward.  From here the user can customize the units name and AdHoc features or configure the unit to join an already existing network.  This is the only place where I had any snags during setup. Fortunately, it was not the SkyFi design that was tripping me up.  My primary wireless network is 802.11N.  The SkyFi unit will only connect up to 802.11G.  Once I remembered I had set the network to N only, configuring the unit to join the network  was a snap by selecting my legacy 802.11G router.  Once up on the network, Sky Safari Plus found it right away and connection was flawless.  And, if you should have any difficulty with this very intuitive setup procedure, the Southern Stars web site has excellent documentation to walk you through troubleshooting.

Thats where it stands thus far.  Stay tuned for chapter two of the review.  In addition, I will be posting more about the progress towards a more remotely controlled observation platform.

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New Dew Heater Controller online

Well, this weekend was a productive one.  My new SkyFi arrived and is ready for testing.  More on that in a future post.

I have completed the new dew heater controller based on the plans from Simcoe Skies No Can Dew Heater.  Next up is the heater elements.

SkyFi-USBDew Heater

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New DSLR cable ready for testing

I completed construction of my new DSLR to Android cable.  This cable, in conjunction with the Android App DSLR Remote, allows me to control the camera without directly touching the camera body (avoids shake) and program long exposures as well as multiple exposures.  In my case, I am using an older Canon DSLR, the Rebel XTi.  Unfortunately, this camera does not have live view.  For those cameras with live view, the tablet/phone control options sky-rocket.

The app I am using on my ASUS Transformer is DSLR Remote

by BitShift (  This app is a no frills app, but the price is right….. Free.

There are guides on the site showing how to construct your own camera control cable.  It easy peasy.dslr remote

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New cover and heater

Progress on the pier upgrade and automation is coming along.  I ordered a Telegizmos 365 cover from OPT Corp and a Dry Rod from Scope Stuff.  I am not the first person to do this so I can’t take credit for the concept.  I mounted the DryRod on the EQ head.  The EQ head was then covered with the 365 cover.  The 365 cover is designed for continued use in all weather conditions.  With the DryRod in place the temperature under the cover is increased enough to stop moisture from forming under the cover.  The covers interior radiative layer and insulation keep the heat in nicely.  This is a great way to maintain equipment outside continuously ensuring the gear is protected.  If you have a situation of a permanent mount but no dome or enclosure, this is a great alternative.

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Latest projects at the telescope pier.

Setting up for a night of observing.

At present, I have several modifications underway at the pier.

1)  I am using PVC piping and heavy duty tarps to build an “assemble as needed” observatory structure.  The ideal location on my property for observing takes me fairly close to the road in front of the house.  This creates a problem with passing cars and headlights.  The idea of the blind is to block the light from the passing cars and one neighbor who insits on using a light spilling Na+ vapor lamp on the side of his house, ALL NIGHT!  There are other benefits as well.  I don’t live in an area with a homeowners association so if I chose to build a more permanent structure, the only rules I must follow are the municipalities building rules.   This may be an excellent solution for some observers who suffer under the draconian rule of a home owner’s association but also need to block out the intrusive “security lights” of the suburbs.  This project is about 80% complete and I intend to post a separate article about the project including designs, photos, and lessons learned.

2)  Along with the light blind above, I am working towards ever increasing automation of my observing.  I set out to achiev the following modest goals with minimal expense:

  1. Remote control of the telescope across my network.  (including GOTO functions and autoguiding.  Mount is a Losmandy GM-8)
  2. Remote control of an imaging camera across the network.  (Specifically a SBIG ST-8e parallel interface camera)
  3. Remote management of a webcam for autoguiding image input.
The caveat I put on these goals was that from the client control computer I could do anything I could normally do sitting at the pier connected directly to the equipment.
To accomplish this I am doing the following:
  1. Telescope control:  For Christmas I received a SkiFi goto telescope network interface from Southern Stars.  This product is on backorder and expected to arrive sometime this month.  Installation and testing will commence then.  What is so cool about this is the ability to drive the mount via SkiFi with my iphone, ipad, android tablet and mac, all running Souther Stars Sky Safari software.  A product I consider to be the BEST astronomy program on the market.
  2. To control this particular era of SBIG camera was tricky.  The ideal device to accomplish this was the SBIG Ethernet 2 Parallel interface device; however, this product is no longer available from SBIG and is dreadfully hard to find on any auction site, astronomy or non.  To accomplish this I sought the input of the SBIG users group on Yahoo.  Fellow group member Chris Peterson pointed me towards the SBIG free software EsrvWin.  A PC based parallel to ethernet adapter emulator software.  This installed on an old PII laptop in the basement solved the problem in no time.  Thanks Chris.
  3. To manage the webcam issue I began looking at solutions for USB device sharing.  It seemed like for every USB over Ethernet service device I found (ranging from $50 – $500) the reviews were a mix of tremendously positive and tremendously negative.  Given this and the fact that I would have a laptop at the pier, I decided to look at software based solutions.  Thus far I have found several.  Of those, I am evaluation three packages, Eltima Software’s USB Net Gate; Incentive Pro’s USB Redirector, and Kernel Pro’s USB over Ethernet.  These solutions allow one machine to act as a server for the USB device connected to it so a client machine can connect to the device as thought the USB device were physically connected to the client machine.  The application is none the wiser that the USB traffic is actually encapsulated within standard TCP/IP traffic.

Stay tuned for updates from Star Gazer’s Field.

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Welcome to 2013

Welcome to 2013.  So Star Gazers Field is going to go through a change.  I have changed hosting companies and in doing so lost some posts I created, mostly by a lack of due diligence on my part and confirming a deletion.  No big deal though.  For 2103 I have made several, well, resolutions I guess although I dislike that term because it springs to mind the half hearted efforts by people to loose weight which results in a surge in gym usage for 3 months then everyone gives up.  I hope that my efforts here will be more successful.  My goal for this blog is a concerted effort to write at least twice per month, specifically information about amateur astronomy; techniques, successes, photos, etc; physics, science education public outreach (EPO).  I also hope to provide tools for amateur astronomers, educators, and science enthusiasts.  So here we go……….

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A tribute to my friend.

  Article about Jeff

My best friend passed away Sunday August 3rd, 2008.  Jeff Medkeff was an amazing person.  A scientist.  A critical thinker.  A skeptic.  An astronomer.  But most of all he was a self-less friend. I first met Jeff in the spring of 2004 at an astronomy day event in downtown Anchorage, AK.  Jeff and I became instant and the best of friends. Many people in the astronomical arena, both professional and amateur, know Jeff.  If they did not know him personally, they knew of him.  Jeff was a contributing editor to Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines.  During his 40 years of life he owned a computer company and a robotic observatory company.  Jeff”s numerous contributions to astronomy are cataloged in the 100s of asteroids he and amateur astronomer Dave Healy discovered, the countless people whose lives he has enriched through his public outreach on astronomy and science.  Jeff was the consummate writer.  Articulate, funny, and able to cut to the chase and find humor in absurdity.  My personal favorite is when he would point out the GIGANTIC holes in creation science, noting that belief in creation is not science at all.  I am sure Jeff and God are now having some amazing conversations and hopefully having a good laugh about 6000 year old Earth theories. Jeff gave of himself without reservation.  He was there for me when my daughter was born with Down”s Syndrome and I needed someone to listen.  He and I spent many a Tuesday evening at Jitter”s Coffee house in Eagle River.  We talked of science.  Solved the worlds problems.  Pointed out how the rest of the world was obviously wrong for not thinking like us.  (This would often make us laugh.  As we said “Too bad everyone isn”t as smart as we are.”  We were of course kidding.)  Jeff was always there to teach me about astronomy, even when he was trying to take a break from it, he would always help me because he knew it was my passion.  Jeff knew I didn”t have the money to buy expensive equipment for astronomy.  So when I decided to try and make a computerized mount out of a Celestron CG5 with a Meade Autostar, we spent HOURS trying to design the motor mounts and gear system.  It looked like something Rube Goldberg would draw.  When I told him of my desire to do variable star studies, he even offered to send me his SBIG camera. I admire Jeff so much.  He taught me how to think better.  He advanced my astronomy knowledge.  He taught my son how scientists think and discover.  But my son and I were not alone in the gift of knowledge from Jeff.  As a science and astronomy popularizer and educator, Jeff taught many classes at various science centers and schools.  Like all gifted teachers, Jeff had a depth of knowledge that allowed him to take complex concepts and reduce them to understandable levels so everyone in the audience could take away new knowledge.  Even when challenged by, shall we call them fundamentalist thinkers, Jeff addressed their questions with respect and courtesy. Jeff was also a photographer.  I recall how enthusiastic Jeff was to take a portrait of my family on a rare occasion when my parents, both my brothers and their families were in Anchorage.  It is an amazing picture. I am a better person because of my friend Jeff.  He taught me to believe in myself, my abilities and my dreams.  As they say on NPR, “This I Believe.”‘. Good by old friend, until we meet again.

Categories: Astronomy, Friends | 1 Comment