The biggest problems experienced by amateur astronomers, who live in the Yukon and the northern limits of civilization, is the cold.

The cold is brutal on the human element, and is capable of wreaking all kinds of havoc on astronomy gear — from poorly made eyepieces and telescope mounts, to laptop computers.

One would think that with all this amazing technology at our fingertips, someone would invent cold weather astronomy gear that would operate in sub-zero temperatures and is friendly and affordable.

This has been a major point of aggravation from my earliest days as an avid stargazer.

In the early days (or should I say nights) in my quest to explore the great Yukon Night Skies, freezing equipment has caused me to abandon more than one night of observing as well as killing off several motor drives and hand controllers.

I have had cold winter nights where the mount would not move with motors or by manual controls. The grease in the mount was not winter grease, so when the temperature starts getting cold, the mount stiffens up and refuses to move. If you force the mount to move, all that happens is that gear teeth break off and the mount is rendered useless.

The next problem for amateur astronomers is the hand controllers for the telescopes. These hand controllers have an amazing amount of technology built into them but do not perform very well past five degrees Celsius. The main reason is the little LED display freezes and you cannot read the display.

All that can be seen is a red smear across the LCD screen with an occasional number or letter showing. Not only is this detrimental to the health of the hand controller, but the telescope mount is now lost in the night sky and all of your fancy go-to functions are paralysed.

If you are new to computerized tracking telescope mounts and hand controllers, then here is a crash course of what they can do for you:

  • Mounts will track an object for hours at a time so you do not have to touch the telescope or eyepiece.
  • Keeps your hand from the telescope tube, which can make the image shimmer with the body heat.
  • A mount allows you to change eyepieces to increase magnification without having to find your target again, which likely will have drifted from view already. When you are increasing power on your telescope by using different eyepieces, the field of view gets smaller and the object you are viewing moves across your field of view faster.

As you can see, the hand controller is the centre of everything … if you want to have a successful observing session.

With the push of a few buttons, you can explore the Yukon Night Skies at your whim and literally never run out of new and fascinating deep-sky objects to explore with the absolute minimum of effort or aggravation.

It sounds like a perfect way to explore the night sky until the northern chill factor arrives. Hand controllers have an LCD display so that you can see what you are doing. These little LCD displays freeze at around 0 to –5 and become useless. The telescope does not know where it is and, to add insult to injury, you cannot even move the mount with the hand controller because it is frozen.

I have had this experience on many occasions and I resorted to building bulky awkward heating systems for the hand controller.

Needless to say I was thrilled to receive an e-mail from Skywatcher Telescopes asking me if I wanted to test out a new hand controller that was designed to operate at –10 to –20 Celsius. The upgraded commercial grade electronics inside the hand controller were rated down to down to –80 Celsius. Life doesn’t get any better than this!

The hand controller arrived by expedited mail in a few days. As I plugged it into the telescope, all seemed fine. In appearance and function everything was the same; that gets rid of the learning curve.

The first night out was Friday and the skies were cloudy. I decided to proceed with my test anyways as the temperature was to be between –15 and –20 Celsius. Quickly setting up the mount outside and placing a thermometer beside the hand controller, I turned everything on. That was at 7:15 p.m.

I decided to check and take pictures every hour to give me a record. The mount and hand controller worked fine all the way till Saturday morning at 4:45 a.m. when my power tank died.

Saturday night was spent with the club up on Grey Mountain and, once again, the hand controller performed perfectly with the telescope mount, providing wonderful views of the Orion Nebula, Mars, Saturn and the Beehive star cluster. The temperature was only –2 degrees Celsius, but with a 43-kilometre-an-hour wind. After six hours everything was still working excellently.

Continuing to test this hand controller will be a joy. Isn’t it nice to know someone out there is making something that we can actually use in the Yukon? I do not have a release date, or dollar value, but I will keep you informed.

Clear Skies, from James “Deep Sky” Cackette.

James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at [email protected]. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.