April 14, 2016: NEAF 2016!

Well, another year has come and gone, and since we astronomers mark the passage of years by the coming of astro-conferences, that means that NEAF is here!

I returned to NEAF after having gone last year, and much of it was the same.  I’d say about 90% of the booths were the same as last year, with the same drool-worthy giant scopes on display.  On the one hand, who doesn’t get tired of looking at classic telescopes of yesteryear (which you can see in this video – my first scope, a Criterion RV-6, makes an appearance at 3:15 into the video), gigantic scopes on humongous mounts, or enormous truss dobs.  But the other 10% that was new really was new and different, and was well worth the trip.

NEAF at 6pm on Saturday, as it was closing down for the day.  The crowds were huge when it was open!  The Airstream trailer on the right was the Explore Scientific booth; the Classic Telescopes were straight back at the end of the left aisle.

New at NEAF were a whole bunch of telescopes from a few vendors.  In particular, Explore Scientific seems to be expanding their niche beyond just refractors and going after dobs in a big way with their elegant truss models.

The ES 10″ truss dob.  Note the dual cooling fans.  Nice-looking scope for $699.

You can watch a video of this dob in action from a Cloudy Nights member named Pinbout here.  ES also was displaying a couple of stunningly gorgeous carbon fiber apos:

That’s the 152mm apo on the right, and the 165mm (!!!) on the left.  Only $7000 and $9000 respectively.  I’m not sure if that includes the mount. 🙂

Then there was this pair of telescopes.  Well, actually, it would be more correct to say that this was a pair of gigunda binoculars:

Side-by-side f/15 6″ refractors.  Must be annoying to collimate.

Check out the business end:

That’s three diagonals on each side.  The owner was asking only $40,000 for the rig.


I don’t know if this is a new scope or not, but here’s a monster 16″ Meade ACF LX200 scope for you, just for fun.  My back hurts just looking at the mount.

Only $1000 per inch.  Get yours today!

Here’s a new mount from iOptron, and the object of most of my latest mount lust:  the AZ Mount Pro, just $1299 at a website near you.

It’s got the iOptron 150mm Rumak mounted on it.  Drool.

You can watch a video of this mount here.  Like the Minitower mounts (and contrary to the claim of the salesman in the video), this mount can support two scopes, one up to 33 pounds on the primary side, the other, up to 10 pounds as a counterweight.  This mount is supposed to be an advancement over the Minitower Pro in that it has Wi-Fi, better motors, and an onboard lithium-ion battery.  I just can’t get away from the idea of having two scopes on one mount.

So the 10% that was new was plenty entertaining.  Besides, the display on the floor of the Fieldhouse is only one reason to go to NEAF.  Another reason to go is for the solar party, featuring H-alpha telescopes showing the prominences and flares emanating from the limb of the sun.  Unfortunately, the weather outside was frightful, and it even snowed on Saturday, so the lawn was utterly bereft of solar telescopes.

But the real reason to go is to hear the terrific talks by the experts.  And oh, what talks they had!  David Shoemaker gave an excellent talk on LIGO’s discovery of gravitational waves.


Someone has uploaded a video of the bulk of his talk here and here.  It’s a good one and well worth your time to watch.

Another speaker was Fred Espenak, Mr. Eclipse, who has seen dozens of them, and who described some of what to expect for the upcoming All-American Eclipse of August 21, 2017, which will be visible from coast to coast.  It seems that Casper, Wyoming is one of the best places to plan to see it in terms of a predicted lack of clouds based on past weather patterns over the years.  Of course, plans mean little when faced with the actual weather forecast for a particular location the day before, so you have to be prepared to drive – a lot.  Here he is with a composite photo of the corona he took on his last view of an eclipse:


However, the primary one among these speakers was Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator on the New Horizons mission.  If you’ve seen anything in the news or on a science report of some kind about Pluto over the past year, the guy talking about it was this guy, Alan Stern:

Stern at his sterniest.

In fact, much of the conference was devoted to Pluto.  As Stern outlined the discoveries at the Pluto system, Clyde Tombaugh’s two children, in their seventies, sat in the front row, and gave their own talk about their father right after Stern’s.  Alice Bowman, the Mission Operations Manager, who “flew” New Horizons for three billion miles to Pluto and beyond, gave her talk at Sunday’s session.

You can watch the bulk of Stern’s talk here and here.  In front of Tombaugh’s “kids”, Stern made a very impassioned appeal to the audience in relation to Pluto’s reinstatement as a planet.  In fact, he told the audience to simply ignore the IAU’s pronouncement entirely, as they are astronomers, and not planetary scientists, and therefore their opinion (well, actually a ruling) on the subject carried no weight.

He also disparaged Mike Brown and his team in relation to the current discussion of “Planet Nine”.  As you may know, Mike Brown is the leader of the team that discovered the Kuiper Belt Object Eris.  Eris was originally thought to be slightly larger than Pluto, although later, further refinement of the data shows Eris to be just slightly smaller than Pluto, but more massive.  Discovering Eris led directly to the IAU’s demoting Pluto from planethood, and to Brown’s Twitter handle being “Plutokiller.”

Brown and his team are currently investigating the existence of a Neptune-sized object hypothesized to orbit the sun 20 times further than Neptune.  This object is apparently effecting the orbits of a number of other Kuiper Belt Objects that they can detect.  Brown and his team, having displaced Pluto as the ninth planet, have dubbed this object “Planet Nine.”  Stern took great umbrage at this as it dishonored the great achievement of Clyde Tombaugh in discovering Pluto in the first place.  He described how others had failed to find it for decades, whereas Tombaugh invented the method and equipment we still use today – blink comparison – and discovered Pluto after only one year of intensive searching.

Although I was swayed by his emotionally-charged appeal, and the crowd practically (but didn’t) give him a standing ovation for it, the facts on the ground simply have not changed.  Pluto is no more a planet than Ceres or Vesta were for about 40 years at the beginning of the 19th century.  Just as Ceres is the leading member of a group of objects we now call the asteroids, Pluto is the leading member of a group of objects we now call KBOs.  Both are rightfully labelled “dwarf planets”, such that they cannot buy beer or vote.

This does not mean that Pluto isn’t fascinating, or that it isn’t worthy of study.  It is, and it is.  So are Ceres, Vesta, and any of hundreds of other bodies in the asteroid belt.  Of course, asteroids are much, much closer to us, and can be investigated by a fascinating probe like Dawn.  Dawn has the ability to move from orbiting one asteroid to orbiting another by use of its ion propulsion, something which very much appeals to the Star Trek geek in me.  Rather than wait another 15-20 years for another Pluto probe to be designed, built, tested, launched and travel to its destination, we should be sending out a super-Dawn in just 5 years or so to further investigate the asteroids, and maybe even put a rover or two on a couple of them.

Speaking of Star Trek geeks, the uber-nerds from Star Trek:  New Voyages had a booth for the world premiere of their latest episode at NEAF:

Yes, those are tribbles on the table, and yes, they do have the ability to detect Klingons by wiggling and shrieking.

Yes, I am a Trekkie as well (not a Trekker!), and I did have a very nice time chatting with these two about all things Star Trek and generally geeking out over the quality of the production in the episodes.  Of course, I use the term “uber-nerds” solely with affection.

In case you don’t know, New Voyages is one of a few different groups that is in essence trying to finish off the 5 year mission of the original Star Trek series, which was cancelled in 1969 after only 3 years.  They are able to do this, like any fan project, by not making any money off of the venture – and therefore keeping the Star Trek overlords at Paramount satisfied.  They have rebuilt most of the Star Trek sets up by Lake Ticonderoga, NY, and film about an episode per year.  They’ve had a few guest stars in their episodes, including Chekov, Sulu, and some other guest actors from the original Trek universe.  They even give tours of their sets, with, of course, the opportunity to take photos of yourself in the transporter room, or in The Chair.  Nuns look especially inappropriate in the transporter room.

I had a look at a few of the episodes online.  Sure the costumes are excellent, the sets are perfect (they were very proud to have rebuilt them using the original blueprints – with the original handwritten notes! – so that they really are incredibly exact), the music and sound effects are lifted directly from the original show, the acting is okay (they guy doing Kirk is about as stiff as Spock), so it definitely looks and sounds like a Star Trek episode.

But the scripts?  Honestly?  P U.  The stories are as if they were taken from the reject pile of the third season of the show – Turnabout Intruder comes to mind – only they’re worse.  They seem to like time travel a lot, but the time travel theories just don’t hold up well as they present them.  They also seem to want to try to reference as many previous Star Trek episodes as possible instead of just doing something new with these characters in this universe.  I’ve only watched a few episodes, but what I don’t see is any social commentary – which was one of the things that made the original series truly great.

I also stopped by the Stellafane booth where a guy was displaying a completely gorgeous and totally homemade 6″ Mak-Newt on an equally stunning homemade mount.

The builder is the bald guy to the left of the scope.

The scope was only about 700mm in focal length so that it had an enormous field of view.  The side of the tube by the focuser was open so that cooldown was easy.  He had worked it out so that the tube rotates 360 degrees in its cradle, and so that the finderscope used the same attachment as the secondary.  You can see it in the photo, sticking out of the meniscus, ahead of the secondary.  The tripod also had some cable tensioners that assisted in its stability.  Really quite a feat of engineering all around.

One thing I was able to do was to keep myself from spending anything at the conference.  This was actually very difficult, especially when I had all three volumes of Annals of the Deep Sky (the successor to Burnham’s) staring me right in the face, ready to purchase.  I thumbed through them, and they look to be as good as everyone is touting them to be.  But they’re available with free shipping online as well, so I can get them whenever I want for the same price.

Once again, I had a terrific time at NEAF, although it might be a few years before I get back to see it again, as I might not be on the East Coast for too much longer.


Next time:  Science! and Vixen!



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