Planning for 2017 Solar Eclipse

Never look at the sun without eye protection!

If you didn’t already know, in August of this year there will be a total solar eclipse across a swath through the center of the United States from Oregon to South Carolina.  Given the rarity of such an event many people, including yours truly, are planning to make the trip to see the eclipse somewhere along the path.  While others will see a partial eclipse from regions outside the band, only those along the marked path will see the Sun totally blocked by our Moon.

2017 Eclipse PathPath of the 2017 solar eclipse, courtesy of Xavier Jubier’s interactive Google Map.

To that end, I’ve been working on plans to go to a location within the totality region and try to set up for a day of observing and photography throughout the eclipse.  I can’t justify the trip to the West Coast where weather is likely to be the best, so I’ve restricted myself to an arc with a maximum of about a thirteen hour drive from Austin, TX.  However, since the weather and cloud cover are a complete unknown, from this distance it doesn’t make sense to restrict myself to a single location.  On the other hand, hotels and camp sights are rapidly filling or already sold out along the center-line of the eclipse, with some of the regions catching on and offering their few rooms for $400 or more a night.  In order to hedge my bets against the weather and other factors, I’ve made reservations at hotels along that arc from Kearny, NE to just past Lebanon, TN, and will make the final decision on where to go a few days before the eclipse.

2017 Eclipse PlansPotential observing locations highlighted by red dots.

It’s easy to find information on the eclipse with a simple web search, but has put together a very good set of resources and links, including viewing locations and an article on why you must see the total eclipse and not just a partial eclipse.  There’s also plenty of good information on viewing and safety, as well as links to buy viewing glasses. Always remember,

Never look at the sun without eye protection!


And if it doesn’t work out for me this time, or if you don’t get a chance to go somewhere to see it, those of use in Central Texas will get another change in 2024, when we will get a beautiful view of a total solar eclipse across most of the Hill Country, crossing through Fredericksburg, Marble Falls, and on up through Dallas, and catching Austin at the edge of the much wider band of totality.  The Austin Astronomical Society dark sky site at Canyon of the Eagles on the north side of Lake Buchanan is directly under the center-line, while Orion Ranch Observatory will have almost as good of a view with well over four minutes of totality (compared to about 2.5 minutes max for the 2017 eclipse).

2024 Eclipse PathPath of the 2024 solar eclipse, courtesy of Xavier Jubier’s interactive Google Map.

2024 Texas Eclipse Path of 2024 solar eclipse through Texas.

2024 Central Texas TotalityRegion of 2024 solar eclipse totality covering Central Texas cities including about half of Austin.

So happy observing!  I hope you get a chance to see something like this as it’s something you’ll never forget.  And always remember:

Never look at the sun without eye protection!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Beta Testing QHY247C ColdMOS Camera

In December I ordered the new QHYCCD QHY247C COLDMOS camera on their beta program and it arrived the last week of January. It’s a 24 megapixel APS-C format cooled CMOS camera with a 14-bit ADC (same one used in the Nikon D5500), 3.91um pixel size, 2-stage TEC, 128MB DDRII image buffer, anti-dew heat board and airproof CMOS chamber with silicon gel tube connector, and USB 3.0.  I’ve posted various pictures of the unboxing and initial integration and testing in this gallery.  I’ve also started a thread on Cloudy Nights to review the progress.  I’m looking forward to it replacing my disappointing Celestron Nightscape.

This image of M1, the Crab Nebula, was cropped from a stack of nine ten-minute shots taken with the new camera.  While I’m still getting things worked out, this was the best I’ve done on this target to date, so I went ahead and posted it.

If you’re interested in how the camera is performing, you can also check out test images I’ll be putting in this gallery.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Merry Christmas from Orion Ranch Observatory

Hoping you and yours have a blessed, safe, and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Astrometry Data Now Online!

After quite a bit of work, I’m proud to announce the incorporation of astrometry data to my astrophotography gallery. By incorporating the API from into a custom module I developed for the gallery software, I can now provide annotated views of the images along with details of their location in the sky.  When you hover your mouse over the resized image in the gallery, the annotated version will appear.  You can still click on the image to get the standard full-window view.  On the right side you’ll see the star charts with the image location, starting with a full-sky map and zooming in to show more detail in each subsequent image.

Example astrometry gallery page.

Example astrometry gallery page.

I’ll be adding more features to detail the items found in the image and its exact location and other properties, but I wanted to get this posted before too much time passed.  For now, there’s just a link to the full sized annotated image just below the item description.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Friday Night Star Parties at TXMOST

For about the past four months I’ve been helping host Friday night star parties at the Texas Museum of Science and Technology (, weather permitting. They’ve become quite popular, with as many as 100 people showing up over the summer. We had a relatively slow night this time, so I was able to capture a few photos.

With the smaller crowd, we were able to see quite a number of objects, including Venus, Saturn, Mars, the Hercules Cluster (M13), the Swan Nebula (M17), the Lagoon Nebula (M8) & open cluster, the Ring Nebula (M57), and the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) & M110.

Update: This last Friday (September 30th) we moved to starting an hour earlier (8 PM instead of 9 PM) due to the shorter days as we move into Fall.  We had a much larger crowd this time (probably 50 people or more) and the cooler weather was wonderful after the hot nights we’ve had all summer.  The few light clouds blowing through weren’t a problem.

I arrived even earlier to set up my camera with a timer to catch the images to make this time lapse video.  This video covers two hours from setup to tear-down.

Note the clouds moving south all night and the stars rotating around Polaris in the upper right corner.  In the first part of the video you can also see Venus setting to the left of the street light and right down through the window of the SUV parked there. Be sure to view this full screen for the best result.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Welcome to X10 Hosting!

Hi Everyone,

If you’re seeing this, hopefully you’re on our new web server and hopefully everything is going smoothly.  I’d actually posted this yesterday, but something still hadn’t refreshed in my browser and the post ended up on the old site!

After working through some initial headaches, primarily with WordPress and some missing functions in PHP, things now at least seem to be functional.  There are still a few problems with the gallery that I’m working on cleaning up.  These are really the fault of not being able to download the entire old site as a single zip/tarball from my old hosting provider.  In the process of doing a full FTP file transfer through Windows, various file naming conventions caused problems with some directory and file names getting changed, and the hidden thumbnails used for folders in Gallery getting corrupted.  I’m working through those and hope to have the rest resolved tonight.

I was generally happy with my previous service at Hostmonster, but their price had gone up in recent years. When I needed to add some additional services to be able to add an SSL certificate to my wife’s Orion Ranch Spa website, the added cost was absurd. I found X10Hosting who would do much of what I was getting on Hostmonster for free, and for a fraction of what I’ve been paying Hostmonster, I could get my own private IP address and professional SSL certificate. Despite the pain of migrating the sight, the cost difference is just too good to pass up. As long as the performance remains similar, I think we’ll be very happy here.

Please let me know if you encounter any missing files or anything else that doesn’t appear to be working as expected.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Website Migrating to New Hosting Service

Hi All,

As some of you may have noticed last night, I’m in the process of migrating the website to a new hosting service, which always has its difficulties.  However, in order to test I need to point the orionranchobservatory domain name over to the new server in order to see what’s working and what’s broken.  I’ll be doing that in the evenings for the next day or two (or however long it takes).  Since the WordPress installation that handles this blog is giving me most of the problems at the moment, I’ll be adding a notice to the main page of the website that will let you know when you’re seeing the new host.  As if the other problems wouldn’t be enough to tell that.  The gallery does seem to be working pretty well although the thumbnails aren’t displaying properly.  I may diagnose that first this evening since that’s more important than the blog anyway!

Note that since it tends to take some time for the domain name server (DNS) information to propagate, you may experience period where your browser is attempting to source portions of the website from different locations.  Since I’m using sub domains here (,, all of those have to be refreshed in addition to the main domain name.  You can try refreshing the DNS list on your Windows PC by using “ipconfig /flushdns” from the command line.

Note that for the duration of the changeover, the weather conditions on this site will generally not be updated.  The hosting service I’m leaving isn’t flexible enough to allow me to set up the same FTP account on both sites.

Please bear with me as I attempt this move.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

3-D Printed Tripod Parts

I’m running behind on my posts relative to the pictures I’ve been uploading and sharing on Cloudy Nights, so I’m going to merge a number of different related posts into one here.  I’d posted on my new business cards for the observatory and the 3-D printed card holder I’d made, and that was more or less the start of a series of 3-D printing efforts that have culminated in quite a few changes.

The used Celestron 8SE I picked up off of Craig’s List (and finally sold after finishing this) was missing the leg spreader/eyepiece holder, so I finally decided to try designing and printing my own.  I didn’t have one handy as a reference (my other was out in the observatory) so I found a picture online and scaled from that to get suitable dimensions and then just kind of eyeballed everything else.  I wasn’t sure if I’d have a big enough footprint on my printer, but I knew there was a reason I bought the largest I could get for the price!  The design itself is pretty simple, so I was able to put it together pretty quickly.  The only problem was tolerance on the eyepiece holes, since the width of the print trace tends to shrink the holes a bit.

At any rate, it turned out pretty good and worked great, but was still just the same as the original Celestron spreader, which was pretty limited.  I’d also decided the center column was too short, requiring more turns than necessary to clamp down. I figured I could do better. Thus I designed my initial version of a delta shaped leg spreader that provided six 1.25″ and three 2″ eyepiece holders which were slotted to do double-duty and allow the legs of the tripod to close completely without having to remove the spreader from the tripod.

In the meantime I wanted to see how well the printed spreader would hold up, so I tested the strength of one of the first prototypes by screwing the nut to the bottom of the thread. It flexed, but there was no evidence of cracking or failure. Upon release, it went back very close to its original shape, and at this point I couldn’t tell you which of the two I’d printed was the one I tested.

I then tried out a new glow-in-the dark red filament, that actually tends to look closer to the Celestron orange of the 8SE OTA than does the orange filament. The material was a pain to print with as you have to run hotter and slower than typical PLA material, so a print like this took about 19 hours! This image is with the camera at auto-exposure just after charging, so is pretty close to what you’d see visually. After a few hours, you’ll have to be in really dark skies to see anything. Notice too the hand controller clip I designed based on the clip for the business card holder.

With a thirty second exposure it looks really cool!

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t last that long. I’ve come up with a solution for that as well, but that’s somewhat out of order!  As mentioned, the glow in the dark material doesn’t work all that well (at least in my printer) and I had a lot of failed attempts trying to get it to work.  Along the line I also discovered problems with the Y axis of the printer now that I was trying to use the full build volume.  The original Robo 3d design uses drawer slides that over time start to bind as the bearing moves out of center.  Normally in a drawer you just pull a little harder and re-seat them, but the stepper can’t overcome the additional friction.  On top of that, the range of motion is limited by the drive limits and cabling, so the only way to reset it is to partially disassemble the bed.  Before I figured all that out, I had a lot of disappointing if somewhat entertaining results.

The delta design eventually evolved into something a little nicer, with curved edges and a set of retention bumps to allow the legs to snap into place when closed.  That took a few attempts to get right.  I was also having problems with warping due to the large size.

I even developed a version for the larger 1.75″ legs of the Celestron CG-4 and equivalents.

Here’s a closeup of that leg retention mechanism.

I then set my sights on making a spreader version that had more 2″ eyepiece holders since that’s generally what I use exclusively.  In the “check it before you build it” category, I came up with a really cool looking design that just didn’t work!

I was afraid of this when I designed it, but didn’t take the time to model the whole tripod or even check using my existing delta design.  The problem is that you can’t put anything tall under the legs due to the angle.  Thus, even my smallest 2″ eyepiece won’t fit.

It’s not a total loss though.  I can still use it for caps.

As mentioned, the glow-in-the-dark material doesn’t last very long, but it also happens to be fluorescent.  Thus I bought a strip of UV LEDs and printed a holder that clamps to the top of the rod.  It turned out that the half meter of 30 LEDs was far too bright, so I cut it down to three that I still need to turn off when doing deep sky observing.  I still need to print a new holder that’s smaller for this simpler approach, so I’m not even highlighting that.

It still glows for a bit after turning off the UV light.

So my next iteration on the spreader was to try to exceed the limitations of my build volume by breaking it into pieces and moving away from the delta design to get more room out from under the legs.

Here’s one segment of the three-part 2″ eyepiece spreader.  Note the retention feature on the side of the rib.

I also printed the logo into the “top” as well, but that’s such a pain to clean out that I don’t think I’ll continue with that approach.

The three segments snap together with three clips that hold quite well.  I don’t really see any need to glue anything together, although that could be done if more strength is desired.

Here’s the finished spreader.

Fully loaded, the legs are still a problem.

Of course nothing can help the Holy Hand Grenade that is the 21 mm Ethos.  It needs a whole side to itself!

I finally made a model of the entire top of the tripod so I could address the leg clearance issues.  With the three wedge design, I still have room to expand in my build area, so I’m going for a larger design that will sit lower on the tripod.  This new spreader will accommodate multiple 21 mm Ethos, and six 1.25″ eyepieces as well.  There are 12 holes total, but the ones near the legs can only be used for caps or small eyepieces due to the same clearance issues as before.  I had the space though so I figured why not?!!  It doesn’t hurt to use a bit less plastic either.  With this larger design, I’ll also have to extend the tripod rod to attach it.

Here’s the finished over-sized spreader.  Again it’s a three wedge, three clip design and holds solidly without any glue, etc. although I might add some just as a hedge against catastrophe.

To install it on the tripod, I ordered a piece of threaded rod and a coupling nut to match the thread of the knob and extend the center shaft.

Here it is , loaded for bear with every 2″ eyepiece I had at home plus some adapters, and a case full of Meade 1.25″ eyepieces plus an extra Celestron for good measure!  I was actually thrilled that all the small eyepieces fit by the legs with no problem.  I wasn’t sure they’d actually go into the holes due to the legs.  That monster of a 21 mm Ethos in the middle doesn’t look so big anymore!

In the closed position there’s an added bonus to the coupling nut in that now the spreader is captured in both directions and doesn’t move to the top anymore.  That keeps it where I want it to keep the legs closed.

As mentioned above, I also developed a hand controller clip based on the business card holder leg clip.

I eventually enhanced this as well, just before going on to design the first sectional spreader.  In this case I added a slot for the power cords to capture the cord on the leg.  After a number of iterations where I had to tighten the clamping power due to the longer overall arm length, it works pretty well.  Also in continuing with my Orion Ranch Observatory branding, I managed to get the letters ORO and an Orion constellation into the part as well.  I was also having fun with different colors when I did this.

Here it is with cables routed.  I also developed a smaller clip for the lower portion of the leg.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Celestron NexStar 8SE Azimuth Axis Adjustment

I finally sold the used 8SE that I’d picked up, so I pulled out my original 8SE to use at the TXMOST star parties we’ve been having every Friday.  Unfortunately when I got there and set everything up, I discovered that I probably should have kept the one I sold!  The mount had a tremendous amount of vibration from the slightest touch; something I recall now from when I used it before.  If I pushed on it at all, the azimuth axis would move back and forth noticeably (several degrees of play).   What I didn’t realize until just then was that this mount had always been defective and never performed as it should.  The used mount I had performed much better than the one I’d bought new.  So after years of working on other Celestron mounts that more often than not do not arrive from the factory in peak operating condition, I wasn’t afraid to tear into this mount and take care of it.

As I reassembled the mount, I took a picture log to give others an indication of how to disassemble/reassemble this mount.  I’ll post a few images here, but see the gallery for more detail.

Here’s the NexStar mount disassembled down to the base to gain access to the motor and drive spur gear for the azimuth axis. Note too the motor control board with the interface board on top. The design is very simple.

Here’s a close-up of the stack up of interface and motor control boards. These are the only PCBs in the entire mount.

There are two ferrite cores clamped on each of the motor and interface cables. One in the base and one in the arm.

Here’s a view of the arm and elevation drive system. I didn’t make any modifications or adjustments to it this time. The plastic cover is held with four screws.

Views of the base cover with battery compartment (just unplugs from the interface board) and the cover around the OTA clamp.

After re-installing the azimuth motor and pushing it tight to the spur gear to eliminate play in the azimuth axis, the drive is much tighter now.  There’s quite a bit of adjustment in the four screw holes.

Four socket head cap screws hold the arm to the base above the azimuth drive motor and behind the power switch plate.

Here’s a view of the assembled mount components and cables before re-installing the covers. Note the location of the ferrites.  Oops, that bottom ferrite should probably be clamping all four cables (don’t recall now if it did or not).  Doubt I’ll get in to change that though.

See the remaining images in the gallery.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Business Cards and 3-D Printed Business Card Holder

I’ve been doing a bit more outreach, helping to host star parties for TXMOST, so I finally got around to designing a business card to direct people to this website and getting them printed. I then decided I needed a good holder to make it convenient to pass them out. Rather than buying something and trying to figure out how to attach it to my tripod, I decided to print one on my 3-D printer. It turned out better than I might have hoped.

First off, here’s the front and back of the business card. Since the observatory is not currently open to the public and the goal of the card is to point people to the website (and to just look cool!), there’s no additional contact information.

Here are a few different views of the holder, with more on the gallery page.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment