In the Astronomy Department

Joe Shuster

Recently I was wandering through the astronomy department of my local science supply store. I was looking for material for my latest astronomy "do it yourself" project and I pondered how great it was having the luxury of a single place for all my astro-DIY needs...... And then my alarm clock rang and that dream went "POOF"! In the cold light of day, I realized we don't have such a thing. We have very nice local retailers for astronomy gear like telescopes and eyepieces, but for all those "other" things we need in astronomy there is not a single place that solves your problems.

So does that mean it's hopeless to think about the concept of a store with all the things I need for astro-DIY projects? Not really. But we need to be realistic and admit that the materials, products, components, and bits are available - just not at a single, nicely labeled, local place.

This is the first of a set of articles about not-so-likely places where you can find a portion of the fantasy "astronomy department". I invite you to send me your favorite surprise sources and unintended application of products. The more we share our discoveries the more we can build a "virtual astronomy department" that will help everyone find what they need.

For this article, I want to consider a common problem: What you do with your telescope mount hand controller when it's not in your hand. Some mounts have built-in holders for the hand controller, but some of the most expensive products have nothing at all. Unless your hand controller can float in air by itself, you'll want a common, safe place for it to rest when you don't need it for a while. So, let's hit the astronomy department and see what you can do.

Probably the lowest-tech approach is to put Velcro on the back of the controller and the front of some surface -- the mount base or tripod -- to allow you to "hang" the controller. That's the method I used on my LXD55 mount for the Autostar controller. Velcro has a "hook" surface and a "loop" surface the cling to one another. The hook surface is rough to the touch and the loop surface is soft. It's sold in rolls and often has an adhesive backing. You can easily find Velcro in a hardware store or discount retailer. Certainly the "heavy duty" version is nice for astronomy because the stronger adhesive resists the consequences of extreme heat and cold and can ward of penetration by dew.

(As a side note, there's a bit of a challenge if you plan to mount multiple things -- like a dew controller, mount controller, focuser controller -- on multiple places. It's nice to have a convention so that all the objects have one style of surface and the mounting points have the opposite Velcro surface. This makes the objects and mounting points more flexible. My convention is "smooth saddle, rough rider" meaning that the mounting points get the smooth loops while the objects to mount get the rough hooks.)

So Velcro is one solution, but besides being a little mundane, it can be a nuisance when you're wearing gloves or other clothing that gets caught on the hooks. And the Velcro on the back of a controller doesn't do anything to protect the controller from bumps and knocks.

Recently I was wandering through Menards and noticed that they had a sale on tape measure holders. These are leather pouches (for the tape measure) with slits to let you slip your belt through. In its designed use you can put your tape measure in the pouch (with the snapable strap over the top) to hold the tape measure on your waist as you do your job. I had no need the product for its designed use, but I noticed that the pouch area was about the same width as my Gemini hand controller for my Losmandy mount. I picked up two pouches (in case I found other uses) and headed home for a fitting.

Indeed the controller fit nicely (head down). The depth of the holder was enough to prevent an easy flop-out by the controller. It turned out that my Autostar controller can't use the same holder because it's too tall. It would be too easy to bump the tripod and knock the controller out of the holder.

To attach the holder to the Losmandy tripod I weighed obvious choices like bungee cords, duct tape (ugh!), and short nylon straps. But I settled on using another material -- Camo Form -- which I recently discovered. Camo Form is designed for use on rifles. It's a non-adhesive tape that feels like rubbery gauze. It comes in camouflage colors and black. When it's wrapped around a rifle or other shiny object, it hides glints. It also can reduce noises made by metal on metal contact. Its most interesting property is that it clings to itself, but doesn't stick to anything else.

From what I can tell, it isn't affected by water or heat or cold -- a nice trio of properties for astronomy use. Camo Form isn't all that easy to find and it's not cheap. I could only find the black rolls on-line and it took some shopping for find the lowest price with reasonable shipping. So far, the winner in that department is Cheaper Than Dirt, (self proclaimed "America's Ultimate Shooting Sports Discounter"). At $10 for a 12' roll (plus shipping) it's about $1/foot. But it seems extremely resilient and reusable. I've found that you can use it as a "grip" surface on flashlights, knobs and anything cylindrical.

I wrapped the Camo Form through the belt loop of the tape measure holder and the Camo Form nicely gripped the leg of my Losmandy tripod. So although I really wished the astronomy department of our local science retail store had a section for hand controller holders, I managed to get by with a wander through Menard's and a little on-line shopping for some hunting supplies. Check out any hardware store for similar holders for your hand controller or anything else that needs to be protected during the night. (I've also heard that office "literature holders" that accommodate tri-fold pamphlets can be adapted for "hand controller rest" use.) And if you stumble across some local retailer with a good price on Camo Form, let me know.

If you have stumbled across a place or product that deserves to be included in our "virtual astronomy department", tell me about it.

Next time: "Take Me Out to the Tripod Game".

Published in the August 2007 issue of the NightTimes