The Greatest Astronomy Accessory, Ever (Part 1)

Can I keep it???
Can I keep it???

Giant telescope? Rock solid mount with arc-second accuracy? APS-sized, duel stage cooled camera? Nope. Not even close… The game changer for me is my 2016 Model 179 r-Pod camper, christened AstroPod. After Mrs. Smith and I decided to sell the summer vacation cabin (I called it “the Shack”), I lobbied to spend money on something that had no chance for a return on investment: a recreational vehicle. True to form, Mrs. Smith was, as always, completely supportive. Still not quite sure what lottery I won to end up with her.

View of my Neighbor's Telescope and the Mesas at OkieTex 2015
View of my Neighbor’s Telescope and the Mesas at OkieTex 2015

At my second outing at the OkieTex Star Party, I was up and running with “remote” control of my telescope… That is, sitting at the dinette in the AstroPod using a laptop that was networked to the laptop at the scope. It is conceivable that for some of the time, I may have even been in my bed instead of at the dinette. What a treat.

I shopped for my Astro-Pod at a couple different dealers. The low-priced mega dealer in Ohio, the high-volume dealer north of Pittsburgh, and ultimately, I ended up purchasing at a smaller family business in Hermitage called Kerola’s Campers. While they were very competitive in price, the main reason that I chose them was… a feeling. That they are smaller and remembered my name, and gave me a coffee mug for stopping by to shop, and were willing to jump through hoops to make requested changes to my trailer, and a half-dozen other examples made me think that if something wasn’t right with the trailer or if something ever needs to be fixed they will do their best to make me happy. In short, they seem to care about what they are doing, and I am delighted to support that.

So that’s a bit of background. For the rest of this entry, I am going to do a bit of a review that is slanted more toward some of my fellow r-Pod owners and prospective r-Pod owners. There are some very active user groups, in particular on Facebook and the r-Pod owners group who have both been very helpful to me, and hopefully this is a little way to give back and to help some future buyers.  Please realize that my opinions may be against the grain and may not align with others… I try to share what works for me

The Trailer and My “Mods”


Two Trojan T-105 Batteries in Series with Cut-Off Switch and Battery Tenders
Two Trojan T-105 Batteries in Series with Cut-Off Switch and Battery Tenders

Power was a concern for me and I approached it from several angles. First, I opted to use a pair of Trojan T-105 golf cart batteries for power. These are true deep-cycle batteries, 6 volt, wired in series, and best of all, they fit in the footprint of the r-Pod battery tray. They are a bit taller than standard batteries, but there is still plenty of room. While installing the batteries, I included a quick disconnect battery switch in the lid of the battery box, since there is a constant drain on the battery from several sourced in the trailer.

Two 100 Watt Renogy Suitcase Panels Plugged Into Battery Tenders
Two 100 Watt Renogy Suitcase Panels Plugged Into Battery Tenders

To keep the battery charged when hook-ups are unavailable, I purchased two Renogy 100-watt suitcase solar panels. I included battery tenders with connectors on the Trojan batteries that are identical to the Zamp connector so that the panels can be connected up right at the batteries… or, I can connect one panel to the built-in Zamp connector at the rear of the trailer.

Covers Open
Covers Open

Inside the trailer I added a number of 12 volt outlets. Some are in the form of USB charging ports and some are cigar lighter forms. At the same time, I added a digital voltage readout to get an more accurate idea of the actual system voltage and therefore, state of charge.

Outlets by TV
Outlets by TV

Finally, I added a second propane bottle.  I didn’t hack the old holder off as some have, but instead I cut two support blocks to lay on the hitch at the same height as the stock holder.  So my two-bottle holder sits on the existing holder plus the blocks on the hitch and is all bolted down with carriage bolts and a stock strap.  So far, I chose to not go with an automatic change-over regulator.  For now, I plan to run it like my grill at home… that is, I will run a bottle dry, then change it over manually and I will know it is time to get the first one filled up.  Maybe this will change, but is how I think will work for me.

Results: Very successful. At the end of 9 days without hookups (my longest continuous stay, so far), the batteries were still fully charged. This was not in the face of heavy usage, but did include all the trailer systems, lighting, charging IOS devices, and keeping 1-3 laptops charged.

Interior Lighting

Painted with Rustoleum
Painted with Rustoleum

People who do astronomy tend to abhor light. Understandably. I am one of them. So, as anyone with a late model r-Pod knows, the surgical theater-esque lighting of the r-Pod is a little much. However, one way to circumvent this problem is the use of red lighting since red lighting doesn’t destroy your night vision. So at the time I ordered the r-Pod, I asked the dealer to order me a spare set of lenses for all the interior lights. After a bit of experimentation, the most effective solution I found was to simply spray the lights with red Rustoleum paint. Two coats applied within 30 minutes of each other, then allowed to dry over-night was just right. I tried the inside first, but that wasn’t as good as just painting the outside.

Results: This worked just great. I ended up leaving some of the red lenses in for use even when not at a Star Party because it is enough light, but is much less harsh.

The Bed

Cutting the Standard Queen Topper to Size
Cutting the Standard Queen Topper to Size

On the user groups, there are no shortage of complaints and solutions to the quality of the included r-Pod mattress. I don’t think they are very good either, but I was struggling to shell out several hundred dollars for a mattress upgrade on top of the purchase I had already made. (I mean this is coming right out of my astronomy accessories budget, right?) So even though I was skeptical and an avowed memory-foam hater, some kind of pad seemed worth a try. I purchased a 3″ thick, dense memory foam pad from Sam’s Club.

Memory Topper in Place. Added 3/4" Thick Regular Topper to Tie Everything Together
Memory Topper in Place. Added 3/4″ Thick Regular Topper to Tie Everything Together

I purchased a regular queen pad and trimmed it to size with an electric kitchen knife. Then I ordered an RV queen padded topper (3/4″ thick). Then I assembled all these pieces, put on a sheet, and finally a quilt on top of it all. When I am doing astronomy and up and down several times a night, I sleep on top of that stuff with another quilt on top of me. It is perfectly acceptable and comfortable, and the total cost was $150. A worthwhile compromise that worked out well.

Results: Just great!

Other Mods

These mods are pretty common, but I will briefly share what I did and thought.

  1. Under bed storage – The r-Dome doesn’t fit into the storage area without
    R-Dome Fit into Longer Space
    R-Dome Fit into Longer Space

    laying diagonally across the entire storage area.  This is really silly and I fixed it.  I rate this as not so much an improvement as a correction to a clear deficiency.

  2. Remove the right-hand ottoman – I initially balked at doing this on the first outing, then did it on day two of the second outing.  Do it.  It makes things much roomier.  I am further planning to build a removable platform over the gear in the left-hand ottoman to give me a shoe storage area (which was in the removed ottoman).
  3. Shelves in the closet – This is a huge improvement for me.  I don’t need toshelves hang up anything when I am camping, but I could keep two weeks worth of clothes on the shelving.
  4. Put a window in the door – I love the way this looks from the outside.  It looks like it belongs there.  But frankly, I have mixed feelings about the success of this.  At night at my star parties, it allows a remarkable amount of light out, so I have to either block it or put a black out curtain on it.  It would be nice to be able to open the little window, but it is klunky to have to go outside, close the screen and open the regular door, then open the window in the door.  If I had it to do over, I probably wouldn’t do this.
  5. Super Slider sewer hose storage – Like the under bed storage, I see this as Better Sewer Hose Storagemandatory to correct deficiency rather than an upgrade.  The new Super Slider version of this product make installation a literal 10-minute thing.  Decide where you want it and install it with 4 self-tapping screws.  R-Pods need the middle sized version.

In Part 2, should anyone care to check in, I will share my experiences with dry camping, towing, the R-Dome, and problems I have had with the R-Pod.

Note that any of the pictures in this article can be enlarged by clicking on them.  Also, I have additional pictures of some of the mods located here.

Thanks for reading.


Quick Update – MagicShirtAstro Facelift

Back from perhaps the best-ever OkieTex Star Party, I felt inspired to get organized with this blog and my image repository. And here it is. For the first time in a few years, all the images I care to share are back up on line. For anyone who cares to look at them, they are categorized into galleries in the right hand column. Makes me feel more organized and ready to process some of the data which I gathered over the last two star parties (hopefully at least three images are on the way). Also, I think the style and color scheme is much more readable that the old format.

Now, all of my images are stored within in the WordPress Media Manager instead of in a separate gallery. I have lost data (in the sense that I had to re-create it) twice in the separate-gallery model, while I have never had issues with WordPress. So, I am more confident in this as a solution. Even better, it is easy to create and modify individual galleries and best of all, they can each be formatted differently. This is great because with each astrophoto that I publish, I would like to publish text describing it’s acquisition. But for general star party pictures or for some tidbit about using the trailer at the a star party, it would be nice to have a slide show with only captions. Either way, it is nice to have options!

Of course, I can also upload images to AstroBin, too, but I just haven’t jumped into that arena, yet.

A New Image from Josh

josh_imageI don’t do this often, but please take a look at this beautiful capture of NGC 1333 that was just completed by my son at the 2015 Okie-Tex Star Party (click on the thumbnail)!

Back Patio Testing

Last weekend and this one, the skies were clear enough to allow a bit of testing on the back patio. The next few days will bring a more detailed entry on the steps between the WSP and today, but here is a little test image (actually a quick stack of 16 5-minute sub frames). Just enough of a taste to be encouraged I am on the right track with this setup. This is both the first automated test with SGP and the first successful test through the AT10RC reduced to somewhere around 1600 mm via the AP27TVPH.

M106 Test Image - from my back patio
M106 Test Image – from my back patio

It appears I can be a little less conservative with my pick-off mirror placement and also like I should get busy on my larger flat box and my collimation technique. But an encouraging start, just the same.

Winter Star Party Results – Part 2

Phase 3 – Initial Test with the AT10RC

Since things went well on the testing with the 110 testing, I moved ahead with testing the AT10RC, windy conditions be damned. Initial efforts were hampered in two ways. The first issue was a collimation problem with the after-market Moonlight focuser that I have installed on the scope. For some reason, it’s collimation is substantially off. Since I purchased the Moonlight focuser second-hand on the Mart, I can’t fault Moonlight for this problem, but through several tests, I was able to confirm that it was the focuser, itself.

(Note… this focuser is on its way to Moonlight for diagnosis)

In the interest of forging ahead with testing, I collimated the best I could, but the collimation was not satisfactory.

AT10RC Test Image at WSP - NGC 3628
AT10RC Test Image at WSP – NGC 3628

The second issue was only discovered on the spot when I couldn’t reach focus with a Telecompressor in my train… the Astro-Physics 27TVPH. I had all my adapters lined up, including a custom part from Precise Parts, but the overall assembly was a bit too long to come to focus. Of course, all of this messing around caused my camera orientation to change often and render previous efforts at telescope collimation moot. I will follow up more with this focal reduction and Moonlight focuser effort in a later blog.

In any event, I decided to plow ahead with marginal collimation and at the native focal length of 2000mm. The result is the first image in this article. It is a stack of 6 10-minute sub frames. The camera is my SBIG setup shot at 1×1 binning (somewhere around .6 arcsec/pixel). Despite the poor collimation, and the lack of flats to calibrate these frames, I am very encouraged by potential of this setup.

AT10RC Test Image at WSP - NGC 4438, Binned 2x2
AT10RC Test Image at WSP – NGC 4438, Binned 2×2

I also grabbed a few frames of NGC 4438 in Markarian’s chain at 2×2 binning. I only was able to grab 4 10-minute frames before morning twighlight.

There is still some work to do with the AT10RC besides addressing the focuser collimation and getting the reducer to work. I also need to refine guiding parameters, and may need to adjust the OAG pickoff mirror a bit more into the light path. But for a first test run, I am pleased.

Phase IV – Fun Stuff

Just for the fun of it, I am re-posting the images from this page… both images have arrows indicating asteroids that were captured. The first shows a bright asteroid, 1133 Lugduna as well as several other fainter trails. The second image shows Princetonia again, having moved closer to the subject galaxy from the capture in the previous blog post from the night before. Hopefully this asteroid stuff will become old hat, but it is pretty fun right now.

Note that you can see an animation of the image containing 5 asteroids here.

AT10RC Test Image at WSP - NGC 3628 with Arrows Indicating Asteroid Trails
AT10RC Test Image at WSP – NGC 3628 with Arrows Indicating Asteroid Trails
AT10RC Test Image at WSP - NGC 4438, Binned 2x2 - Asteroid Princetonia Indicated
AT10RC Test Image at WSP – NGC 4438, Binned 2×2 – Asteroid Princetonia Indicated
Image Through 110 Scope from Previous Night Showing how far Asteroid Princetonia Traveled
Image Through 110 Scope from Previous Night Showing how far Asteroid Princetonia Traveled