On this page I discuss anything to do with telescope making and observational astronomy.
This is my home-made 16″ Dobsonian reflector telescope I used from 1987 until 2008. It has seen many different reincarnations. This is the latest version which I call English Rose. Long story.
This photo was taken at the Galleria Mall in Henderson, Nevada on Astronomy Day in April, 2004. English Rose now languishes in my storage shed.
The scope I use now is a 16″ Meade LightBridge I bought at Scope City here in Las Vegas in 2008. It is actually the very first commercial telescope I have ever bought. I have been at this hobby for 44 years and have always ground and polished my own mirrors and made all the other parts. My very first telescope was a 60mm (2.4″) Sears refractor that my parents bought me for Christmas in 1966, so that doesn’t count since they bought it for me. I still have it, too.
This photo was taken at the Furnace Creek Airport at Death Valley in 2010. The mirror is the same diameter as the one in English Rose, except the tube is much shorter and therefore, the telescope is more portable. I love it!
THE OBSERVER’S CHALLENGE
In 2009, I met Roger Ivester through the Las Vegas Astronomical Society (LVAS). He’s a member at large and actually lives in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. We’re both kindred spirits in that we’re strictly visual observers. In other words, we have absolutely NO interest in ever doing astrophotography. We can both appreciate a pretty picture, but have no desire to ever do it ourselves. Our preference is to be out under the stars with a bare telescope and an eyepiece, gazing at the object, live, no Memorex.
I don’t remember exactly how it came up but we started talking shop one day and came around to the idea to generate more interest in visual observing within the LVAS and the country, in general. We were both getting pretty fed up with the predominance of astrophotography. In fact, I got into trouble with some members of the club when I did a rant on how sick I am of hearing about the subject. So, as kind of a reaction to it all, we decided to start the Observer’s Challenge. The idea was to take one object a month, challenge our club members (actually anyone else for that matter) to observe the object visually, and write about it, draw the object, or even take an image of it (yeah, that’s astrophoto) and describe what they see. The idea was to draw people to appreciate and learn how to really look at the wonders that are up there, not just glance at something and go “Oh, cool, what’s next on the list.”
We’ve tried to keep each object within the reach of most telescopes, but some of them have admittedly been a stretch for smaller apertures. We also don’t want to do just the “tourist” objects that everyone sees all the time.
What has really helped make this venture a great success is the outstanding support of Rob Lambert, the (now former) president of the LVAS. Without his kind participation, support, suggestions and enthusiasm, we never would’ve got this project off the ground.
As a result, we’ve attracted participants from all over the country including some prominent figures in the astronomical world. With over three years under our belt, we have barely scratched the surface of deep sky objects (galaxies, nebulae and star clusters) that we can choose from.
Roger compiles most of the writeups from people, I put it all together and do the final editing and Rob posts it on the LVAS web site. The only difference is that the version posted on the web site used to be in first-person whereas the master copies that I created were in third-person until Rob finally convinced me of the error of my ways. They are now all in first-person. One day, Roger and I may have enough objects accumulated to turn them into a book.
Rogers’ many contacts in the astronomical world have been key to our little venture rising above obscurity. Because of him, more and more people in the world of astronomy know about us.
If you’d like to see some of our work, please go to: http://www.lvastronomy.com/ and on the left side, click on the Observer’s Challenge link. Or, you can now go to the Observer’s Challenge page here on my web site or also see then on Roger Iveser’s web site at www.rogerivester.com
THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF AMATEUR ASTRONOMY
Sputnik – How It All Started
As a punky little five year old kid, I never paid much attention to the sky. The world was just too big for me to worry about what was above it. That changed one evening when my grandpa took me out in the backyard of his house in Playa Del Rey, California. He told me we were going to look for something up in the sky. At that point, all I could think of were the huge DC-3 prop planes that buzzed the house every day from LAX, since their house sat between the end of the runway and Dockweiler Beach. Those planes shook the house so often we hardly noticed.
He carried an old ship’s spyglass. I’d seen it up in the hall closet along with a pair of large binoculars (which three decades later, I made two straight through 50mm finders out of). He took me into an open space on the thick dichondra lawn, glanced at his watch in the porch light and looked up. After a moment, he went “Aha!”
I looked up but didn’t see anything.
“Freddie, over there.”
Lost among the myriad of stars it took me a moment to spot it, but I finally saw a light moving against the background of stars. Yes, despite being at the edge of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, in 1957, the light pollution wasn’t that bad. You could still see the sky. I gazed at this tiny light moving east to west (I think). “I see it!” I thought a moment. “What is it?”
“It’s Sputnik, Freddie.”
“A space ship.”
“Just look. You’ll understand one day.”
Grandpa aimed that old spyglass up there and tried to spot it. After some badgering, he finally gave me a crack at it and all I saw were some blurry lights but I could never spot that Sputnik thing because it moved too fast and I had no idea how to aim a soda straw at a moving object. I also had no depth perception (which would later come to play in my rather disastrous sports attempts). It was not long before it disappeared behind the cork tree, and that was it.
“Freddie, remember this night. You’ve seen history.”
I did remember that night. I also remembered those stars because that was the first time I actually noticed them. It made me wonder what was going on up there.
It was around that same time, even though I was probably too young for such things, I became aware of monster movies. My parents went to the drive-in theater between Palmdale and Lancaster on Sierra Highway and saw The Angry Red Planet. I will never forget that movie. It scared the daylights out of me. What I remember most was when Les Tremayne was eaten by this blob creature and as he’s floating around in the stomach I could hear this crunching sound! I had nightmares about that for weeks. Then in the spaceship as they are escaping Mars, the captain hero’s arm falls out of his bunk and he has this green goo all over it. All of this had to do with what’s up there, somewhere in those stars, up in space.
As I gained an interest in monsters and science (real science), I also discovered that I had an interest in telescopes. It didn’t hit home until I was in high school. Ever since I saw Sputnik, I’d been looking up. I had plenty of reason. We lived in Lompoc, California from 1958 until 1965 and just to the west was Vandenberg AFB and Point Arguello. It was almost a daily occurrence for a missile to go off. For us residents, it became so passé, it only became interesting when one would blow up. Still, it kept me looking up. Yet, it never dawned on me to get a telescope until we moved back to Palmdale in 1965, where the skies were much clearer at night. What really sparked my desire to get my first telescope was the planet Uranus. My journey to the 7th planet would take me far beyond Sputnik.
Uranus – Journey To The Seventh Planet
I don’t know how this happened, but somehow I’ve always associated The 7th Voyage of Sinbad with Uranus, even though the movie didn’t have anything to do with it. I think it was just because it was the seventh voyage and Uranus is the seventh planet. Doesn’t matter, a more relevant film at the time was Journey To The Seventh Planet. That film actually dealt with a flight to Uranus in the year 2001 and starred John Agar. That film began my fascination with our distant neighbor.
Okay, Bevis and Butthead aside, I still pronounce it Your-Anus instead of the more politically correct Yer-Uh-Nus, which I’d never heard of until Carl Sagan said it that way on his Cosmos series. Sue me. I had no idea what anus was until senior high school biology, and still never made the connection until years later. I digress.
The deal clincher came for me when I was a freshman in high school in 1965 in Palmdale, California. We were shopping at the Safeway store across town on Palmdale Blvd., past 5th street East (it is now called the Vallarta Supermarket). There was this pallet of kids books on the floor by the produce department. Sometimes they were encyclopedias and sometimes storybooks. One week they were various fiction titles and I spotted a science fiction book. These kids were in space suits standing on an ice sheet looking down at an alien city under the ice. The title was something about Uranus. I had just seen Journey To The Seventh Planet. My parents wouldn’t let me get the book because they were on a tight budget. The next day I went to the library and found one of those Time-Life books on the solar system. I looked up Uranus and wow! Our seventh planet had faint bands like Jupiter, rotated backwards, and lay on its side. What really clinched it for me was that in the few color photographs I could find, the planet was green, my favorite color. From that point on, I HAD to have a telescope so I could see it for myself.
My quest began for a telescope. It took over a year of badgering until my parents finally broke down and bought me my first Sears 60mm refractor. I remember browsing the catalog, looking at all those “big powerful” telescopes. 400 power! 600 power! I think they even had one with 800 power! With that I could see to the other side of the universe! Little did I know.
As Christmas drew near, I looked high and low for anything I could find on Uranus. Being a naive kid, I didn’t know diddly about research, so instead of seeking out Sky & Telescope magazine, I found the Farmer’s Almanac. It listed the phases and some info on all the planets. To my delight, it listed Uranus and the more distant Neptune. I discovered, or rather reinforced through the almanac that Uranus had five moons. Wow! I can’t remember all their names now, but I used to spout them off the top of my head. Once I got that telescope, I would go out and look for my favorite planet and see that greenish color, those dark green bands, and those five moons. After all, the almanac listed them and their phases throughout the year. I would go out at night and look up at the stars, wondering which one was my favorite planet. The star patterns hadn’t sunk in yet.
Christmas day, 1966, I found my telescope under the tree. I remember opening the box and smelling the fresh plastic and metal. As I took out the eyepieces and other parts, my dad tried to help and I got mad and then he got mad and Mom had to tell him to back off and let me open my prize alone. Luckily, he wasn’t one to hold a grudge. I set the scope up, still smelling of fresh paint, took it outside and discovered what most kids found out real quick. That fascination wears off in a heartbeat! I couldn’t aim it at anything. I couldn’t see anything through it. The mount was wobbly. It wouldn’t focus. Aaagh! With great effort, I found the insulators on a nearby telephone pole. At least they stood still long enough for me to try the high-powered eyepieces.
Did that deter me? I dragged the scope inside after finally getting a more substantial focused image of the local mountains, some pine trees and snow. After eating Christmas dinner, I sat down and dug into that green book that came with the scope. Most of it went over my head. However, I learned what a Barlow lens was, the difference between low and high power, and how to align the finder scope. That night, after dark, I think there was a bit of moon so I tried again. This time, with the yellow eyepiece, the low power one (a 20mm Kellner), I finally got the moon into the view. I saw craters!
It took a few weeks, but I finally learned how to zero in the finder and how to use the slow motion knob on the side. I quickly discovered the only eyepiece of any real use was the 20mm low power one. The 6mm and 4mm eyepieces were such high power, the view was like looking through a soda straw and unless I was looking at the moon, no other object was large enough that with the wobbly mount, that I could keep it in the field long enough to see anything. Eventually, I was able to spot Jupiter and Venus with it, purely by accident. I never once stumbled across a deep sky object.
After this rather severe learning curve, did I ever see Uranus? Sheesh! Are you kidding? I hadn’t the slightest idea where to look, let alone how to focus on something that tiny with such a narrow field of view. It didn’t matter. I had the telescope bug. I was bitten. That’s all that mattered.
One day in early 1967 I was talking about my telescope at school and a friend mentioned that his dad had several telescopes and that he made his own. I asked him how big they were and he said his biggest was 12”. I said with my best sarcastic voice, “Ooh, wow. That’s big.” I was thinking the scope was 12” long. Mine was at least 16” long. He just grinned and never corrected me. Instead, he invited me over to meet his dad. I accepted the invitation. That invite would change my life once again. Boy, was I in for a shock!
How I Became An Amateur Telescope Maker
When I think of the 3-second MTV attention span bred into kids nowadays, it makes me wonder if there will ever be anyone left under 30 making telescope mirrors. Since there are no absolutes in this world, I’m sure there may be a few, but how do you teach that kind of patience nowadays?
Thinking back, it wasn’t that easy for me either. However, I had a natural tendency toward patience because I already had slow reflexes. Because of those slow reflexes, I hated sports with a passion. The only sport that ever grabbed my interest was golf, or as my dad used to call it, galf. Galf is a slow game. When talking about making a telescopic mirror, that is the definition of a slow process… a very slow process!
My friend Robert told me about his dad’s 12” telescope. Since mine was around 16” long, I thought, Oooh, wow, that must be a really big one. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I accepted his invitation and came over to his house to meet his dad Carl. I’d walked past his house many times without realizing it. At the time, my best friend Dennis lived a few houses down from him, across town near the high school.
Robert’s dad Carl greeted me at the door and we talked about astronomy and telescopes. I told him I had a telescope and was interested in the stars, and particularly seeing Uranus. He gave me an odd look and said it would be kind of hard to see it with my scope. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but more on that in a future story. He asked if I’d like to see his scope and I said “Sure.”
I tagged behind him out to his garage. He opened the door. While I was expecting to see him pull this tiny little refractor telescope off his shelf, I was unprepared for the monster 12” telescope that slapped me in the face when the door went up all the way. I nearly fainted. That thing was huge! This wasn’t some 12” long telescope. It was 12” in diameter! It was more like seven feet long. It had a big white cardboard tube with large metal shafts and a big cement counterweight. I almost said a few bad words.
“What do you think?”
“Wow! How powerful is it?” Of course, I had to ask the question I still get to this day, a question that sounds logical to a newbie but makes sense to an amateur astronomer.
“Well, it isn’t a matter of power but what you can do with it.” He went on to explain some of the things he could see with it such as the planets, star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.
“I can’t drag it out tonight but tell you what, let’s take out my 8” in the back yard and we’ll look at a couple of things.”
He then went to the side of his monster and grabbed this other telescope. It had a square plywood tube about six feet long. It was mounted on a base made from pipe fittings. He carried it into the back yard, plopped it down and aimed it over the fence and across the street at the Sagittarius Milky Way. I saw the Lagoon Nebula over the skyglow of Los Angeles, 50 miles to the south. You know what? I also saw blues and purples in it. This was early 1967. I’ll never forget that night.
The even bigger shock was when he told me that he’d ground and polished the mirrors in all of his telescopes. He had the 12”, the 8”, plus a 3” finder on the 12” and I think there were a few more he had lying around. My little Sears scope at home suddenly lost its appeal.
Carl took me inside and gave me a catalog from Telescopics, an outfit out of Los Angeles and showed me a book by Allyn J. Thompson.
It wasn’t long after that before I had a new focus, a new purpose in life. With a bit of badgering to Mom and Dad, I had a book and an 8” mirror kit on order. That fateful night started me on a new adventure that involved patience and a lot of work. After seeing the Lagoon Nebula, my quest to spot Uranus took second seat to a new fascination that would consume my sophomore, junior and senior years of high school. It was either high school band, rock and roll, or telescope making that kept me sane during that turbulent time. Little did I know what I’d roped myself into when that package finally arrived.
Making My First Mirror
The hot desert sun beat down on the patio roof, the smell of dog pee not far off as I circled the 55 gallon barrel. Luckily the smell of carborundum mud overcame the smell the dogs left behind as I ground away at my 8” mirror blank, day after day. I came to love the smell of that compound and before long, Fritzi and Sam’s residue came in a distant second to the comforting aromas of telescope making materials. I had no idea it was that hard to make a telescope mirror!
It was so exciting to unpack that mirror kit from Telescopics. It came with a tapered PyrexÓ mirror blank, a white ceramic tool, a set of half a dozen cardboard cans of grinding compounds, some red rouge, Barnesite and two packs of tar pitch for polishing. I was in heaven as I unpacked that box and meticulous as I set everything up on the bookcase next to the barrel. The big problem was keeping everything clean with the dry desert air allowing plenty of dust to get into everything. It wasn’t such a problem at the rough stages of grinding but once I got to find grinding, preventing sleeks on the mirror became a major issue.
Grinding a mirror is tedious and messy. It also tries the patience of a 16 year old teenager. Because I didn’t see results right away, I always wondered if I was doing things right. I’d keep checking and checking and checking. It took a while, but I began to learn patience, Grasshopper. I wanted that mirror so bad I knew I’d either have to get it done or go back to that old Sears refractor that couldn’t see anything. After observing the Lagoon Nebula in Carl’s 8”, I couldn’t go back. To make things more urgent, by this time I’d also looked through his 12” several times. Wow! I was spoiled.
The day came when I finally got to the polishing and figuring and I became totally lost in the process. I had to enlist Carl to help. With great patience, he helped out. If not for him, I never would have finished it. I’ll admit he put the final parabola on that first mirror of mine. Because it is an f/9.44 focal ratio, the parabola is so faint, I could barely see it on the tester. The shadows are so dim I’m surprised he could see them. He used Jean Texereau’s book and formulas instead of my Allyn J. Thompson guide to get the final figure. I tried to help but in the end, it took his delicate touch to get the final figure. I learned a lot but didn’t get to put it into practice until my next mirror. With that done, I sent it off to Pancro Mirrors down in Los Angeles. When I got it back, I had to build a telescope around it. To this day, it still has that original coating from 1968. Oh, I forgot to mention, this mirror making process took almost two years!
I purchased a focuser and diagonal and holder from Criterion, the company that made the famous RV-6 telescope. The rest of the parts I obtained locally. I made an equatorial mount out of pipe fittings and plywood. First light was from my back yard and the object was Venus. I cried when I saw it. I used my .965” Kellner eyepiece and it was beautiful. I actually made a telescope!
I took that thing everywhere, from nearby Juniper Hills to Saugus to Mt. Pinos. Everywhere I could get to. I even took it to Palmdale High School one day and displayed it in front of the band room. We watched a guy walking around up on the mountains at Wrightwood 30 miles away under high power (a 6mm SR eyepiece). The Valley Press newspaper came to the school and took a photo of me in the band room with my telescope and did a small article for the school astronomy club. I still have that article somewhere.
It was then that I really learned to appreciate deep sky. When I became the president of the Palmdale High School Astronomy Club in 1968, we would take my scope plus the school’s Criterion RV-6 out on star parties and have a ball. It was around this time I actually saw Uranus for the first time through a telescope and went to my first real star party.
Star Parties And El Presidente
Armed with my very own telescope of decent aperture, I now had a way to see something. Even though I had only one decent eyepiece, a .965” 20mm Kellner from my Sears refractor, it was enough to get me going. Things started slow as my friend Dennis and I would drag the scope, along with the school’s Criterion RV-6 out to Sierra Highway in Saugus where we’d have band practice during the day with our friends Gary and Steve. Our rock band, which went through too many embarrassing names to mention, was getting ready for some gigging in nearby Agua Dulce, Lake Los Angeles, and even Downey which was “down below” in Los Angeles. In the meantime, when we’d stay the night on weekends, we’d set up both scopes on their property and observe whatever we could see, which admittedly, wasn’t much since I didn’t have any real star charts.
Eventually, borrowing the scope from the school and having my own drew attention of the local paper. I brought it to school, had that photo taken in the band room. Once I became el presidente of the astronomy club, they did a second article with me, our science teach and the vice el-presidente of the club. Our first real star party was up in Juniper Hills at some rich guy’s house. He invited us up there because he had an observatory. His scope was a Cave Optical 12” f/9 on an equatorial mount in a dome. The great thing about it was that he could dial in faint objects with his setting circles that I could never find in my little 30mm finder, or that I could find on a star chart (which I didn’t have anyway).
My quest to see Uranus finally came to fruition when I asked him to find it. After several years of frustration and making a telescope just for that purpose, I finally got my wish, though not with my own scope. He dialed in its position and pointed that big honkin’ 12” at the planet. I approached the eyepiece and my jaw dropped.
“I’m afraid so.”
“I was expecting it to be a bit bigger… a bit greener?”
“It’s pretty far away.”
“What power are you using?”
“That’s about 220X.”
I stared at this tiny greenish ball that blurred in and out of focus. I could see no moons, no markings and then again, the green I was expecting looked more like a washed out watercolor. To say I was a bit let down was an understatement. No wonder I couldn’t see it with either my 60mm refractor or my 8” reflector. Even if I’d somehow stumbled across it, I probably never would have recognized it.
He (sorry, can’t remember his name) smiled and said, “There is so much more up there. Let me show you something that you can see in your scope. I’m sure you’ll find it much more interesting.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my mentor, Carl, had already shown me most of what he showed us that night. However, he was right. Everything we looked at was more interesting, by far. Though I still have a fascination for Uranus, it has taken a distant second to deep sky, my real passion.
Toward the end of my senior year, sometime in early summer of 1969 (around graduation time), Carl took me to my first real big star party at Mt. Pinos in California. I’ve been told it was one of the first of the Riverside Telescope Makers get-togethers before they started meeting at Big Bear. Lately, I’ve been told it isn’t even the same group, but I’ve also been told that more than likely many of the people that were there were most likely major players with the early RTMC. Whatever the case, I got my first taste of a major star party.
I learned a lot being there. I discovered many different new telescope designs from a large group of do-it-yourselfers. I also figured out how I could apply some of that to what I wanted to do. However, I also got my first taste of the dark side of the hobby, the elite side, the snobbish side of things. My wonderful and fulfilling hobby would turn out to have two sides to it. Luckily, that other side would be only a small part of the big picture.
The Big Leagues and the Elite
As my friend Dennis and I followed Carl in his truck, I had the window open and enjoyed the climb up the mountain. The scent of the pines was intoxicating, the fresh air invigorating as we rose above seven thousand feet to the parking lot on Mt. Pinos for my first major star party. Carl invited us to come with him for a get-together with a bunch of amateurs from mainly Los Angeles and Riverside. I’d never been up there before and it was to be a camping as well as observing trip.
We reached the spot in my 58 Ford station wagon and discovered a huge paved parking lot. There were already many folks set up and I was amazed at the variety of telescopes. We followed Carl to the far end (which was his favorite spot) and there, we set up. Right next to the spot was a very cool grassy meadow.
It didn’t take long to set up and get everything ready. We were there by three in the afternoon, so we had plenty of time to walk around and drool at the scopes. Being a do-it-yourselfer, it was my first real up close and personal chance to see alternative ways to build what I wanted, since I couldn’t possibly afford to buy anything commercially. I’d seen photos of many designs in Sky & Telescope magazine, especially in the long-gone Gleanings for ATM’s, which I dearly miss, but seeing it up close and personal was totally different.
I cannot even begin to describe all the designs I saw that afternoon and evening. My head was swimming by the time it got dark. It gave me ideas that helped form some of my future experiments, the failures and successes, and steered me into how I eventually became the Dob guy I am today. It turned into a fun ride, but that’s for future chapters.
That night, I had my first exposure to what I call, the dark underbelly of our hobby. I have been beaten up about bringing this up on an on-line astronomical forum web site called Cloudy Nights (even though I never started the thread to begin with). I’ve been called a whiner, a liar, an equipment chauvinist, you name it. However, this is my story so I can tell it how I see it.
As I wandered around, I met some really great people who were more than willing to discuss their telescopes and how they made them. I saw very few commercial scopes. In fact, almost all of them were home-made. However, I also noticed something else. Almost everyone there were all lawyers and doctors or some other kind of bigwig. Rich guys. The elite. Here I was, a kid making ninety dollars a month, at best, talking to guys who were able to throw several hundred dollars into a mount or a mirror or lens on a whim. Many of them made their own stuff in their own decked-out machine shop, but some of them would have the work done for them to their specs. That work wouldn’t be cheap.
At every turn, when I saw something I liked, as soon as I started to ask how they did it, it came down to money, and lots of it. There was almost nothing cheap. I realized right then that it would be years before I’d ever have the money to be able to do anything remotely like what they were doing. However, that wasn’t going to stop me. More on that later.
There was this guy there with the first Portaball design I’d ever seen. It was all white, the scope had a six inch mirror and sat on a table. The guy manning it seemed nice at first. Dennis and I looked it over and the movement seemed pretty slick. Since I’d made my own mirror, I asked him what the wave rating of the mirror was.
He gave me a leer and said “One hundredth wave.”
Dennis and I looked at each other. I took a gander down the end of the tube and saw this dirty mirror with dirt and fingerprints all over it. The mirror looked horrible. Not only that, there is no practical way to measure a short focal ratio mirror (it was about f/5) to that tolerance to begin with. I don’t know if the guy was being sarcastic, smartass, or just being a jerk. We moved on. I certainly didn’t mean the question in a bad way, but I got a bad response. Another side of the dark underbelly.
As we continued to make our rounds, I heard the doctors and lawyers talking about all the money they were spending on this and that and I looked at Dennis and shook my head. We didn’t spend that much on our cars. Keep in mind that this was 1969.
I swore that I would continue to live my dream to look at the sky with whatever I could get my hands on. As the night wore on, we got back to the telescopes and I spent the night looking through my scope and Carl’s twelve inch. However, a few times I made the rounds to take a peek at some of the other scopes. That’s when I noticed something odd. Most of those doctors and lawyers and other rich guys were not looking through their scopes. They were sitting around talking about their equipment! WTF?
I started to realize something that has become evident more and more as the years have passed. There seems to be two types of amateur astronomers, with plenty of blurring in-between, of course. There are those that are more concerned with what they are looking at and then there are those that are more concerned with what they are looking through.
I’m definitely more concerned with what I am looking at. I’ve been derided for not having any standards. That’s okay. I can live with that. I much prefer to enjoy looking at a faint fuzzy and nudging the scope to keep it in the field than worrying whether the outer edge of the eyepiece field has pinpoint stars, or whether the mirror has the highest Strehl ratio. I have learned appreciating just being able to look. The luck of working my way up to a 16” mirror from that first 60mm refractor has been a long road, but well worth it.
Unfortunately, not long after that star party, I had a big dry spell when I first joined the Air Force in September 1969.
Odds and Ends, a Dry Spell Then Back in Business
After my one big star party, it was nearing graduation time and I had to decide on what kind of real job I wanted, whether to go to college and how I was going to get out of ending up in a foxhole in Viet Nam. I worked as an office machine repairman and also watered a golf course at night. As for college, it seemed everyone in 1969 was getting degrees in protesting the war. Every college professor I saw walked around with beards and sandals and carried the readings of Chairman Mao. Not that I was particularly political either way, but I just didn’t want to deal with any of that. On the other hand, my friend Dennis (a year behind me in school) and I had, for a brief moment, considered going to Canada. However, neither could live with ourselves if we did that. So, with a summer to ponder things, even though I loved ships, I figured the best chance to stay out of a foxhole was with the Air Force. Turns out it was a gamble that paid off, but more on that later.
As for my favorite hobby, besides music and bands, several things happened in quick succession. The neighbors behind me had a telescope mounted in the ground just over our brick fence. Since they knew I was into astronomy and didn’t have a clue how to use it, they gave the telescope to me. All I had to do was dig it out of their back yard. It was a 6” f/8 scope with a mirror made by John Hodak, according to what was etched into it. The mount was made from stainless steel with Teflon bearings. I hauled it over the fence and stored the aluminum tube and all the parts in the back patio for future use.
In the meantime, since I never completely finished the 8” all by myself, I wanted to prove to myself that I could make a mirror all the way on my own. Our science teacher had some mirror blanks the school accumulated from somewhere and he gave a couple to me. I also got one from somewhere else. I ended up with enough grinding and polishing materials left over from the 8” to make a 3” f/5 and a 6” f/8 mirror. I figured each to at least ¼ wave from Allyn J. Thompson’s specs, best I could tell, and star tested them un-aluminized in mockup tubes out in the back yard on Jupiter and (I think) Venus. They produced good (really good) images, best I can remember. I even tried them on a few stars and they focused to pinpoints. I also had another 3 ½” blank that had a convex back on it but could never figure out what to do with it.
Now, I had all this stuff accumulated but had to abandon it in September when I joined the Air Force. After basic training and tech school, I might have taken the 8” out once or twice when I came home on the weekends while I was stationed at March AFB in Riverside, California during 1970, but soon I was on the way to Spain. Yup, I gambled on not going to Viet Nam and they sent me to Spain! However, once I reached Spain, being a single airman living in the barracks, I didn’t have room for a telescope. Besides, my room was filled with band equipment including guitar amplifiers and drums because of the various bands I was in. I would not see any of my telescopes again until mid 1973. When I did, I was to flash back to that one night up on Mt. Pinos and all those articles in Gleanings for ATM’s. With nothing but the optics my dad managed to ship over to Spain, I had to make the rest of the telescopes from scrap.
Somewhere along the way, those uncoated mirrors I made got lost in the shuffle. Today, all I have left is that 3 ½” blank with the convex side. I never found out what happened to the 3” and 6” mirrors. Someone has them somewhere. My dad shipped over my 8” and the neighbor’s old 6” mirror optics though, and I was back in business.
We lived in a place called Eurovillas, about 40 miles as the crow flies from Madrid, Spain. An isolated summer community at the time, the skies were pretty dark. My first problem was the 8” and a tube. What to do? Here’s where it gets interesting. When we installed our kerosene heater in the house, we used this cement fiber smokestack. It was only 4” in diameter, but when I bought it, I saw that they made it in larger diameters. I took my trusty tape measure to the place in Alcala de Henares and found one about 10” in diameter and about seven feet long and voila! I had a tube. It was heavy as all getout, but it worked. Because of the weight, though I was used to an equatorial mount, I was forced to make an altaz mount out of pure necessity. It took a while to sink in that it was for the best mount for me, but more on that in later chapters. As for the 6”, I made a square plywood tube with another alt-az mount. It worked like a champ and became another example of the simplicity of the alt-az mount. Remember, this was the early 70’s, before I’d ever heard of John Dobson.
Now armed with two telescopes and some older Sky & Telescope star charts, I was greased and ready to kick butt! I soon learned that with the darker skies of central Spain, there were a lot more objects up there to stumble upon. Even my 20mm Kellner eyepiece with a 40° field at 96X as my only real good eyepiece worked well for a long time. I didn’t see another equatorial mount until we returned to the states in early 1975.
Stateside Return to Equatorial Heaven (Old Style)
Upon our return to the states around Christmas of 1974, we got stationed at Luke AFB just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. With the White Tanks Mountains just off base, they provided a tempting placed to set up on a night off from work. We first arrived from overseas in my wife, Kim’s home state of West Virginia, bought a Chevy Luv truck, and drove it cross-country to Phoenix. That epic drive made the jaunt to Palmdale, California a short jaunt in comparison. Since I had to throw away both of the telescopes, except for the optics, when I got to Palmdale, I was able to pick up my old tubes and mounts for both the 6” and 8” scopes and bring them back to Phoenix. There, I reassembled the original scope I’d built in high school. I’d also intended to reassemble the 6” but since the base was just a pipe with some cement still stuck to it, I left it alone.
My original; 8” mount had 1 ¼” steel shafts, pillow block bearings and angle iron pieces that they mounted onto. The base was an 8” well casing and the legs were Dexion angle iron. The counterweight I made from molded cement. The friction clutches were my own design based on my mentor Carl’s design. They were ¾” plywood discs held together with one stationary against a flange while the other one pressed against it with stiff springs that were adjustable with bolts and ¼” nuts. As crazy as that sounded, they actually worked until things got too humid. Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem in the desert, but once we moved to West Virginia, the game was up.
Anyway, since the mount was equatorial, I improvised a saddle so the tube would rotate. It wasn’t anything fancy, but I could twist it around without too much effort and the clutches kept the balance fairly nice. The long tube, all seven feet of it, held pretty steady considering all the beef holding it together.
I saw a lot with that scope. I never knew what I was missing until I met my wife Kim’s uncle Ray who lived with her aunt Carol in New River, just north of Phoenix. Ray, like me, loved astronomy. He also had gone through a few telescopes. At the time I met him, he was between scopes, but to make a long story short, we used to visit them a lot, the year and a half we were there and he ended up giving me two things which I still prize to this day. One was an 8” Coulter classical Cassegrain mirror set. I’ll talk more about that later. The other was a 2” 32mm Edmund Scientific war surplus Erfle eyepiece. That ocular opened me up to the world of wide field eyepieces and changed my life. After using a 20mm Kellner with a 40° field for almost a decade, seeing the sky through a 65° eyepiece was a radical change.
That eyepiece was the second step that led me away from equatorial mounts and to the simplicity of what would later become the Dobsonian telescope. Nudging the scope would become second nature on a Dob (which I had a taste of that first time in Spain) where on an equatorial mount, it was not quite the same.
Soon, I was out of the Air Force and we moved to West Virginia. For the first time in my life, I was going to live under skies that didn’t give me much to look at. It was also the first time I would have to deal with humidity.
Four Years of Little Progress
Moving to the east coast let me in for a rude awakening. I’d never lived in an area with so much humidity, so much snow, so much “weather.” I had my original 8” equatorial reflector back again, but found that not only were there few if any nights where I could use it, but there were now lots and lots of trees in the way. On top of that, everything started to rust. My plywood friction clutches warped so that they became brakes instead of clutches and my mount became almost useless. About the only thing that didn’t tarnish were my mirror coatings. I guess those quartz overcoatings were worth something!
We lived in West Virginia from early 1976 through February 1978 when I rejoined the Air Force and we relocated to Abilene, Texas. During that time, I managed to stargaze maybe a dozen times, all from the side of my house on the hill just outside Roanoke, the West (by God) Virginia Roanoke, population 100. What did I see? About all I can remember is Orion. Centering on M-42 with the rather cranky clutches and my good old 20mm Kellner eyepiece didn’t seem like such a chore back then. During that time, I never bothered with the 6”. It and the mount remained in one of the storage sheds.
When we moved to Abilene, I’d somehow accumulated more telescopic junk, mount junk which was more or less heavy metal and it ended up in a storage space that used to be the garage door. The house was so small, the previous owners converted the garage into a third bedroom. A small chunk of space between the door and the front wall of the bedroom became a storage shed. I had big dreams for another massive equatorial mount which never came to fruition.
While in Abilene, I was able to use the telescope marginally more than in West Virginia, but there was another problem. When I first arrived at Dyess AFB, the base in Abilene, I noticed all of the trees leaned the same direction. Uh oh… I soon discovered the wind blew and blew…. and blew… When it didn’t blow, it rained or it was dusty or it was cold. I never saw many clear evenings. I took the scope out of town to a friend’s spread once or twice, but in those two years I was there, from 78 to march of 80, I can’t remember a single thing I observed.
About the only good thing, astronomically speaking, that came out of that era was from our last trip out west to see my parents in Palmdale. On the way back, we took a side trip to Phoenix to see Aunt Carol and Uncle Ray. Ray gave me a Coulter Optical 8” classical cassegrain mirror set and what would change my life, a 32mm 2” Erfle war surplus Edmund Scientific eyepiece. I wasn’t able to use either of those goodies for a while, but they were to play a HUGE difference in the direction of my astronomical leanings.
We returned to Abilene, ready to move to Incirlik AB in Turkey. It was time to let go of some weight. Unfortunately, that meant that all my hopes and dreams… bla bla bla of equatorial heaven would have to wait. As a compromise, I decided to keep the lowly 6” equatorial head since it was smaller, tighter, and better put together. Everything else, I took to the dump. We’re talking a serious load of metal!
As we packed up for our move, we left with my optics and hardware, an equatorial head with Teflon bearings, some very low-tech and obsolete eyepieces (all .965” except for 2 1 ¼” ramsdens), my 2” Erfle that didn’t have a barrel yet for 1 ¼”, and my dreams. Off to what was known as the garden spot of the middle east and the asshole of Europe (not my words, believe me!). Let the experimentation begin!
Making Friends With Machinists
Our arrival in Turkey was turbulent, to say the least. The flood, the military coup, the terrorists. The list goes on. Let’s just say it took a while before I was able to even think about messing with my telescopes. About all I was able to do was drool at the ads in the occasional Sky & Telescope or the very new Astronomy magazine that started to appear in the Stars & Stripes book store at Incirlik Air Base. Okay, let’s get something out of the way right off. Incirlik is pronounced “Injure-lick” not In-sir-lick.” I have to point that out because in Turkish, the Roman letter “c” is a “j” in Turkish. It’s like when people pronounce Lompoc, California “Lawm-pawk” instead of the correct way, which is “Lawm-poke.”
Now that I’ve completely digressed from astronomy… it was a year before we finally moved out of our apartment in Adana and moved to a house on base. At the time, the houses were either single family units separated by a carport or were trailers. We lived a few blocks from the trailer where Francis Gary Powers once lived, the U-2 pilot shot down over Russia.
After drooling over ads in the magazines, I’d ordered just about every free catalogue I could get from every telescope company in the states. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to “improvise” since there was no way in hell I would be able to afford even a nut or bolt off of one of those expensive equatorial mounts that I was still unfortunately obsessing over. Yes, I was still in equatorial mode. My obsession was to have an equatorial mount so I could have a clock drive, so that my high power narrow field eyepieces would hold an object long enough so I could actually view something. Considering my high power eyepieces were still Ramsdens then, you should be able to see my logic. Astrophotography was in there somewhere, but it was always second fiddle, never quite up there with looking through that blurry eyepiece.
I now had an actual house, a back yard, and a bunch of astronomical parts. I had an 8” Newtonian mirror set, a 6” Newtonian mirror set, an 8” Cassegrain mirror set, plus miscellaneous optics that I didn’t think counted. I had that Teflon-bearing 6” equatorial head, some crappy .965” Japanese eyepieces, one 1 ¼” Criterion 18mm Ramsden eyepiece and a 2” war surplus 32mm Erfle eyepiece that wouldn’t fit my focuser. What to do? By now, I’d come to know a lot of guys in the squadron including the guys at the machine shop. Being the scrounger I was, I’d kept my eye out for scrap and such and one thing led to another. A pair of really great guys helped me out. In the end, some of it they let me do myself, all of it off time with junk and scrap we gathered from trash piles off base and places like the auto hobby shop:
- An aluminum housing for my Erfle bringing it down to 1 ¼” for my focuser.
- Oilite bearings to replace the Teflon bearings in the 6” equatorial head.
- Three angle iron legs welded together and bolted to the post for the mount.
- An expanded saddle plate for whatever tube I wanted to put on the mount.
- A cell for the 8” Cassegrain main mirror.
- A secondary holder and spider for the Cassegrain secondary mirror.
All of this was done in just a matter of a few weeks and I learned some machinist skills in the process. From there it was a matter of finding a tube. Being back in Europe, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to resort to another cement tube like I did back in the 70’s. Luckily, Turkey had discovered PVC. In Adana, I found an approximate 10” sized sewer pipe and voila! I had enough to make both my 8” Newt and the 8” Cass. With the same plywood saddle, I could switch them out.
I soon discovered, that collimating a Cass, even a classical Cass was not as easy as Coulter made it sound in the directions. They sent along a 100 line per inch Ronchi grating and the idea was to set the secondary so that at focus, the lines were straight. The paper had the exact spacing between the two mirrors written on it and I did my best, but getting the secondary straight in the holder wasn’t all that easy. The main mirror was easier, no adjustments, just flat in. In the end, it worked. However at f/16, even the 20mm eyepiece was such a high power, I had to use the 32mm Erfle just go get a decent view. It was quite a view though!
As for the Newt, it saw about the same use as before. Living next to a city of nearly a million people at an altitude of 500 feet about 15 miles from the ocean isn’t the best place to observe, but it had its moments. My real awakening didn’t come, however until we moved back to Spain in March of 1982.
New Beginnings And The Discovery Of A Lifetime
Upon our return to Spain in March of 1982, we were really excited to find another house in our old haunt in Eurovillas. The place still existed, much larger than it was back in the 70’s, yet in many ways still the same. The place was nestled on the plains a good 40 miles from Madrid, next to the town of Nuevo Baztan. Mostly a summer community, it still had a hard-core group that lived there all year around. The funny thing about the place was that you’d see a lot of empty lots with pools. The reason for that was that the ground, more than a few inches below the dirt, was solid rock. When people bought their plot of land, if they wanted an in-ground pool, they’d have to blast it out. It was a wise idea to do the pool before risking a house next to the blast hole!
We found a two-story house behind the community center that contained a bar, a store and a couple of other shops. I opted to keep the cassegrain optics boxed up as I’d thrown away the tube. Of course, I still had the mount and after a short search, I found another length of PVC tube in nearby Alcala de Henares and reassembled my 8” f/9.44. What started as just a way to get above the trees developed into a joke about my cannon aimed at the Falkland Islands.
We had a balcony off the master bedroom upstairs. I put the telescope up there. It faced toward the back of the community center across the street. When the Spaniards saw it, they asked me if it was a cannon aimed at the Falkland Islands. At the time, the British were involved in a conflict with the Argentinians, if any of you might remember. That observing didn’t last long as the views were too restrictive and I opted for the back yard.
That summer, I had my first life-changing event. I purchased a Tirion Star Atlas. I had been relying on the S&T star charts to find stuff and though they had their merits, they were crude and lacked much detail. The Tirion opened up a new world. The second thing I did was that I decided to get serious about my observing and put it in some kind of order. I purchased a lined record book and started keeping a log of my observations. On 28 July, 1982, I recorded my first observation. It was a warm night and transparency was good. However, I also noted that my tangent arm clock drive was working! As soon as I saw that entry it all came back in a rush. When I got back to Spain, that was one of the first cockamamie schemes I tried with that 6” mount. Since it had those brass oil-lite bearings in it and a nice counterweight, I decided to try and put a tangent-arm clock drive on it (since I didn’t have a worm gear). I used a ¼-20 threaded rod and a 1 RPM motor. I did the rest with several pieces of angle iron. Somehow, I got it all to work, at least for a few minutes before it started to bind up. I think the longest I ever got it to work was 10-15 minutes. However, after all the tweaking and fudging, the motor finally gave out and I disconnected it.
That first observation was M-28. “Small globular, so so.”
The second biggie, and the most profound for this tour in Spain happened in mid-1984. I was scrounging around in a junk yard when I stumbled across some kind of an old alignment device. I still have no idea what it was for. However, mounted at one end was a first-surface mirror flat. It was tarnished and kind of beat up. However, it was huge. I measured it. 16”. Wow! I removed it from the clips and it was mine. I got it for free!
I took that mirror flat home. I guessed it was an optical flat and assumed it was worth way more than a regular telescope mirror. I thought maybe I could sell it and for the price, maybe buy a much larger commercial mirror, maybe an Odyseey 29” (popular at the time) and I’d be set! So, I wrote letters to every telescope manufacturer in both Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines. Every single one of them. Guess what happened? About half of them sent me catalogues. The rest ignored me. Not even a hello, sorry not interested, could you please tell me more. Nothing!
Right then and there, I decided if nobody was interested, I was going to make my own 16” mirror. From there forward, I went deep into mirror-making mode for the next three years.
Scrounging For Gravel
Finding a 16” mirror blank was a life-changing moment, especially for a punky little amateur like me who’d spent decades drooling over all the ads in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines. Even the catalogs I’d ordered that sold mirror kits never went above 12 ¼”. The only company that sold anything remotely that size that wasn’t a complete telescope or a mirror at an insane price was Coulter Optical Company out of Idyllwild, California. They sold the Odyssey 17.5” for $659.50. Unfortunately, I had nowhere near that kind of money and never would for a long time. Not to despair, I had in my grubby little hands, an honest-to-goodness 16” disc of flat glass. All I had to do was work some magic on it and I’d have my own larger-than-average telescope mirror.
Seeing as how I was still only a Technical Sergeant in the Air Force and had a family to support, I was not exactly rolling in bucks and was not about to throw my family aside for my hobby, no matter how important it was. Therefore, time to improvise. Originally, I wanted to hog out an f/4 curve but the glass was only 1 ¼” thick. The mirror disk was way too thin and I knew I’d have severe flexture problems. Second, I wanted something without so much coma and something that was easier to figure. I settled on f/7. The curve wouldn’t be too deep and figuring the parabola wouldn’t be too severe. However, there remained one slight problem. A 16” f/7 would be 9 ½ feet long. So, I settled for somewhere around f/6. As it turned out the final focal length ended up f/6.4.
Since we had a four-bedroom house, we had plenty of room. Because of the cold winters and altitude, I opted to set up my workroom in the fourth bedroom downstairs. I scrounged a 55-gallon hydraulic fluid barrel, cleaned it out, set it up and filled it with water. I ordered an assortment of grinding and polishing materials from Willmann-Bell. However, I still had two problems. My trusty old mirror making book by Allyn J. Thompson only addressed mirrors up to 6” and the 80 grit offered by Willmann-Bell didn’t seem heavy enough to hog out the deep curve I needed to get to on such a large mirror.
The first problem I solved by ordering Standard Handbook for Telescope Making by Neale Howard. The second was a bit trickier. I needed a coarse-grit carborundum. I just happened to know of a local sandblaster. They used coarse grit for some of their heavier blasting. Turns out it was #36. With some wheeling and dealing, I managed to get a few lbs of that “gravel” for my mirror. I was set! The only issue I now had was the family had to put up with the horrendous noise of my hogging out a curve with that gravel. It made quite a racket!
I made my grinding tool by going to a local glass dealer and having a 16” piece of roughly ¼” plat glass cut. Then I epoxied it to a piece of ¾” Formica tabletop cut to the same size. Luckily, it made it through the process with just enough glass that it didn’t crack until I got to the fine grinding, in which I just pulled away the cracked edges and filed the sharp corners.
It took almost a year before I had a final curve, fine ground down and ready for the pitch lap. When I did, I applied the pitch to the tool, commenced polishing with Barnesite compound and soon had a solid polish on the mirror. Unfortunately, when I put it up to the Focault tester, I couldn’t get a decent shadow. That is when I found a life-long friend and mentor, Sherman W. Shultz. This man, from Minneapolis, St. Paul’s McAllister College, helped save the day. He kindly guided me by sending me a Ronchi grating with lines calculated for my rough f/6.4 curvature. His method of figuring mirrors with that calculated grating was producing some fine mirrors and it also provided a great diagnostic tool. Once I slapped his grating on my tester, I took a look at my mirror and instead of seeing straight lines with a slight curve, showing a nice parabola, my lines looked like a butterfly! My figure was WAY off.
By this time, I had to pack things up because it was time to move back to Incirlik AB in Turkey for a second tour. My mirror-making activities would have to be put on hold for about six months. Then, the adventure would continue.
Sorry, No Manufacturing In Your Carport
As I was writing this, I just realized that when we moved back to Incirlik, AB, Turkey the second time, I was not able to work on my 16” mirror for almost a year and a half. Besides having to pack up three months before we left Spain, when we got to “Injure-lick”, as it’s pronounced, or “The Lick,” as it’s called, we at first had to move to an upstairs duplex in downtown Incirlik Village, the town just outside the base. With open sewers in the streets and electricity that varied from the normal 220 volt 50 cycle, to 250 volts in the morning down to 90 volts at peak hours in the evenings, I never bothered to set up my grinding barrel. I did have a nice large cement roof though and was able to set up the 8” scope after I found a piece of PVC pipe. I still had the 6” equatorial mount and all the trimmings, knew the machinists on base and was able to scrounge whatever doodads I needed. Of course, the light pollution was horrible plus the locals always wondered what that big tube thing was, though they never asked to look through it.
We finally moved on base in mid to late 86 and I was finally able to get back to working on my “baby” again. This time the barrel was in the carport. Yeah, not the ideal place for a polishing operation but I had to make do. I did all my pitch laps at the kitchen sink and my testing in the hallway inside. All in all, it worked out much better, especially after my friend Sherman Schultz’s Ronchi gratings showed me that I had a horrible turned down edge and astigmatism. My first step was to go back to fine grinding. To make a long story short, I had to polish the mirror out, figure, then go back to fine grinding twice before I got rid of most of the astigmatism. By most, I mean that even now, it still has a bit of it. The mirror is just so thin I couldn’t get rid of it all. Using Neale Howards’ figuring method and Jean Texereaus’ methods, I figured the mirror on the best face to around 1/12th wave, the best I could tell. Yet, I’m probably lucky if it’s ¼ wave overall considering the astigmatism in it. However, when I took it out to my test rig, which was my mirror test stand mounted to a 10 foot 2X4 with a diagonal at the other end and an eyepiece, I somehow managed to get it on Jupiter and even uncoated, the image blew me away. I figured I’d better quit while I was ahead and called the mirror done. I’m sure a mirror snob or a pro would sneer at it or say it is crap, but you know what? When I finished it in early 1987, I have not looked back. I’ve seen the central star of the ring nebula, the Horsehead Nebula. I’ve observed and cataloged over 800 deep sky objects with it also.
The next step was getting the mirror coated. Through many inquiries I decided on Evaporated Metal Films out of New York. I got an enhanced aluminum coating. While I was waiting for the mirror, which I had to crate and ship from Turkey, I ordered an 2.6” diagonal from Coulter Optical plus a diagonal holder and spider. My wife’s uncle Ray had given me a 1 ¼” rack and pinion focuser with the Coulter Cassegrain set and I used it. For my mirror cell, I made a 9-point flotation cell out of plywood with nylon wall inserts for the mirror contact points and floated each triangle on swing set bolt protector buttons on the backing.
The tube was made from a spider framework of 1X2’s with 20” plywood rings. I then wrapped hardboard around this framework and made a 20” tube with a 16” hole through the middle. I then put guitar amplifier handles along the side so I could grip it.
The mount was the biggest challenge. I was still an equatorial idiot, having forgot what I learned from Coulter and Dobson. I found some 4” aluminum from an old antenna rod and made two shafts. I used 4X4 pine to make pillow blocks and mounted big pieces of ¼” Teflon inside of them for the bearings. With a bunch more wood, I made various block and a saddle and used 2X6” pine to make a triangular wedge base. Voila! An equatorial mount. The only problem was that I did all this woodworking in my carport and one of the Turkish housing monitors came around and wrote me up for “manufacturing” in my carport. Turns out I was not supposed to do that. I was supposed to use the Base Wood Hobby Shop. Problem was that the tools over there were crappy, most of them didn’t work, and then I had to haul the beast back to the house, which would have been quite a job in my small Spanish station wagon. Oh well, too late. Already done!
I got my monstrosity done just in time to see Comet West. For being a 500 feet above sea level and only 15 miles from a city of almost a million people, I got some pretty decent viewing in.
Here is a picture of the finished scope.
Throwing It All Away
I managed to eke out a good year of observing while in Turkey, that last tour. Having a brand new 16” telescope made it much nicer also. Now I could experience what all those Coulter owners were talking about as well as the Dobson crowd, particularly the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. I was seeing details in objects I’d never dreamed of. I found deep-sky on my Tirion atlas that I couldn’t even think of finding with my 8”. My log book became thicker with notes.
In the meantime, my final obsession with a clock drive happened around this time. I put the 8” Cassegrain together and placed it on the 6” mount, solely for the purpose of giving said mount a load for my experiments. While in Spain between 82 and 85, I was rummaging around at the Rastro, an open-air flea market in downtown Madrid when I ran across a 100 tooth gear and worm. I now had a chance to try and put it to use. With my rather limited machinist skills, plus some very generous help from the guys at the local machine shop, I fiddled around and figured a way to mount that gear to the hollow shaft on the mount. You see, the brass gear was spoked and had a hub with a ¾” hole in it. The shaft on the mount in question had a 1 ¾” hole in it. I had to make an adapter so that the two would mate together. Once done, the next problem was finding a clock motor with the right ratio to get 1440-1, since the gear had 100 teeth. I had several motors, but the only one close was a 1RPM motor. I made a monstrosity of a tiny gearbox from scrap gears to get the proper gear reduction and mounted it to the worm with the motor on the other side. Somehow, I got this thing to work for about four or five minutes before it bound up and the motor burned out.
I made another attempt with a tangent arm and a 1/4-20 rod. Without going into details, I think I got about four or five minutes out of it before it, too, went kablooey.
Time was short, I had to start thinking about lightening the load for the move back to Spain, for the third time in my career, and I realized a few things. First off, I tried taking a couple of photos with several of my cameras. They sucked. I read up on astrophotography. I looked at the results. I looked at the cost involved. Was I crazy or what? Second, the more I thought about it, I really (I mean really) hated moving around an equatorial mount. The awkward shifting of the tube all the time, the having to remember which way to move depending on which way I wanted to go. That was a real pain. Third, The complications of making an equatorial mount were a major pain. The shafts, the counterweights, the saddle, the tripod legs, the ladder size. Finally, the clock drive. The main reason I wanted a clock drive was to be able to look at an object at high power without having it drift out of the field of view (plus astrophotos, of course). The problem was that I never really enjoyed looking at object at high power anyway, especially deep sky. Of course, that view was tainted by the fact that I hadn’t experienced much steady clock-driven viewing at high power since high school, but when I thought back on it, I was more impressed with low power views through Karl’s 12” scope. Since I now had that Erfle eyepiece, I didn’t have to constantly nudge the scope to keep the object in the field of view. Plus, something I forgot to mention, I had also purchased a couple of eyepieces when I finished the scope. A 25mm Kellner from Coulter along with 6mm and 12.5mm Orthoscopics. From Adorama, I also bought two Plossls, can’t remember the focal lengths. All of them had wider fields than that .965” 20mm Kellner I’d been using for years. That meant I could keep just about any object in the field of view without so much nudging. A clock drive held a lot less appeal. I wasn’t completely cured, but I no longer had a burning desire to have a clock drive anymore.
Since I was close to my household goods weight limit, I kept my optics for the 16”, the focuser and diagonal and spider and threw away the rest of the scope. As for the 6” mount, I gave it to a fellow amateur I met. I decided I needed a cure from my clock drive obsession, and that was it. About six months later, as we finally settled into our lives in Spain, I entered the world of Dobson and haven’t looked back since.
Back To The Junk Pile
The Start Of Dob Heaven
The next few months seemed like a blur as we packed up our belongings for our third and final move back to Torrejon AB in Spain. We’d been in Europe for eight years straight and still had at least a few more years of adventure before we’d be forced to return to the states. My 20 year retirement days were looming on the horizon and I knew the gig would be up soon. I knew I couldn’t stay overseas forever. Nonetheless, I still had at least three to four years in our favorite country, Spain.
It didn’t take long to find another house and once again, we ended up in Eurovillas. This time we got a place on three lots and it also had an in-ground pool. By far, the best setup we’d run across, we waited patiently for our household goods to arrive from Turkey. In the meantime, I planned and schemed how to build another shell around my 16” set of optics. By now, I was totally disgusted with equatorial mounts. Here at Torrejon, I didn’t have access to a machine shop, for one thing. For another, I didn’t like the movement of an equatorial. Then there was the need for a clock drive. Zip. Finally, what little interest I had in astrophotography pretty much ended when my SLR camera got dropped and the lens and shutter wouldn’t work right. The camera we bought to replace it wasn’t suited for adapters (it had a fixed lens setup), not to mention all the other crap involved.
I had plenty of info on making a Dob mount including the excellent How To Build A Dobsonian Telescope. That pamphlet gave me all the inspiration I needed. Once our household goods arrived, I went to work. The mount and rocker box were made from ¾” plywood, the feet underneath the baseboard were chunks of wood tire chocks. The azimuth baseboard was a formica table top. The altitude bearings were two halves of a split tire rim. The tube was the same design I used in Turkey. A framework of 1X2s held together with 20” plywood rings with 16” center holes. In this case, the tube was about five feet long and slid into the OTA box where the mirror was mounted at the bottom. The exposed five feet of the upper tube was covered with fiberboard.
I scrounged every single part of this telescope from the base dump except the Teflon bearings and minor hardware which I bought at a local hardware store in Nuevo Baztan. I had scrounged a sheet of ¼” Teflon years earlier and still had plenty. In this case, I used the same Teflon from the bearings in the wood pillow blocks from that massive equatorial mount I had in Turkey. I didn’t even have to cut the stuff down any!
I even got the paint for free when the base threw away a bunch of expired paint. I had to scrounge through some dried up cans until I found a few that still had paint left in them. That is why the scope is the gray and blue and white as seen in the photo below. I set the scope up and left it set up in the back yard under the carport. I’d drag it out in the open when I wanted to observe. I kept it under a tent tarp to keep the elements off of it.
Whenever I wanted to observe, I’d go around the neighborhood and pop the circuit breakers in all the streetlights. They were conveniently located at the bottom of each pole. At the end of each observing session, I’d go around and pop them all back on. The neighbors all knew what I was doing and nobody objected during the three years we were there. Being at about 3,500 feet, and despite living only 40 miles from Madrid as the crow flies, I got in some great observing, especially with that 32mm Erfle eyepiece. It was with great sadness that I finally had to throw it all away once again when we packed up and headed for home in March of 1992. The adventure was over, but a new one was beginning. I was about to re-enter the world of other amateur astronomers.
Return To The U.S.
New Beginnings With The Barney Scope
November 18, 1991 was my last observing session in Eurovillas, Spain. After that, it got too cold to drag the scope out, we were getting short and I soon had orders to return stateside, this time to some place called Altus, Oklahoma. Wasn’t on the top of my list, but considering some of the other choices I had, many of where I considered in the arctic circle, it could have been worse. Yeehaw!
Once again, it was time to strip down the scope, except this time instead of throwing it away, I cut the pieces up on my home-made table saw and burned them in the fireplace for heat. That was how we kept warm. I used to go to the base dump after work every day and collect scrap wood, cut it up on my saw, and burn it in the fireplace. The heater in the house used diesel oil and not only was that super-expensive, but the burner plugged up all the time. As a sidebar, that was how I was able to find the “junk” to make the scope so easily.
It wasn’t until summer of 1991 that we were settled into a rental house in downtown Altus, Oklahoma and I was able to rebuild the scope. This time, I went all-out and bought all the wood at the local lumberyard. I even bought the paint. Thanks to my wife, Kim, we were at Wal-Mart. She was looking through the paint swatches and came up with the color. It was a bright purple. She said I ought to do something unique and not so drab and conventional. Why not? Little did I know…
The new scope, built with much better woodworking tools and materials, took into account some lessons I’d learned after the quirks from the last mount in Spain. Though it was fundamentally the same scope, I tweaked it here and there with minor changes that I can’t remember. The fanciest thing was the metal band around the end of the tube which gave it a bit of flair.
One day at the base dental office, Kim was with me in the waiting room and spotted a local magazine advertising the Okie-Tex Star Party. It was run by the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club. To my surprise, she said we ought to look into attending. One thing led to another and that October of 1991, we drove to Lake Murray near Ardmore, about 150 miles away, and I attended the largest star party I’ve ever been to. It was the first time since 1969 I’d ever been around other amateur astronomers. It was to be a very fulfilling, exciting and yet a rather puzzling and frustrating experience. Good and bad, but mostly good.
They say no matter what you get involved in, it takes all kinds of people. As I soon found out, my favorite hobby was no exception. We arrived with great excitement and were greeted by a friendly group of people. Clive and Beryl Cadle were two in particular that were very gracious to us. There were many others that I can’t remember the names of, but over time, I may recall them and if I do, I’ll come back and edit this report and plug in their names. We found a cabin, settled in and I went to the telescope field to set the beast up. It didn’t take long for Wayne Wyrik, the resident astronomer from the Oklahoma Observatory (and I think the president of the club at the time) to spot my scope and dub it the Barney Scope because of the purple color. Word got around, and the name stuck.
This photo was actually taken in 1996 or 97, one of the last times I attended the Okie-Tex. I don’t have an earlier one scanned yet. If I get one, I’ll replace this one. The scope hadn’t changed unless you look close and see the weathering. It’s still the Barney Scope.
I was in hog heaven. I saw so many different scopes of all varieties. Almost every scope I’d seen in the magazines over the years were present. Plus, there were so many home-made scopes around. I came away from the event two days later with tons of ideas that if it had been ten years earlier, I might have considered a clock drive and equatorial mount all over again. Alas, I was over that bug but still admired their work. Harking back to that star party on Mt. Pinos in 1969, I recalled the expense and machine work that was still at the forefront of these guys I was talking to in the here and now. I had the best time going around and chatting with each one of them.
Over the course of the afternoon before and up to dark, I also came across my first sign of the dark underbelly of the hobby. The equipment freak. I noticed a few guys set up their super-expensive scopes, then set back just to wait for people to come around and admire their gear. Yet if I asked a question about objects in the sky, I’d either get a blank stare or some sidetrack answer about equipment. Later after dark, I noticed these guys were never at the eyepiece. They were still sitting around talking about their equipment. In fact, I don’t recall seeing them ever look at anything the entire weekend. This discussion warrants an entire chapter as some rather unpleasant nastiness took place that first weekend. Yet there was also the start of a lifelong friendship. Overall the weekend was one of the best times I’ve had in my life, marred by a bit of ugliness. Can’t have it all. As the saga continues, we’ll talk about the still mostly great weekend with the newly dubbed Barney Scope and my reasons for never owning a TeleVue product.
The Dark Side Of Amateur Astronomy
My first major exposure to the world of amateur astronomy as an adult came at the Okie-Tex Star Party in October of 1991 at Lake Murray near Ardmore, Oklahoma. I had not been around so many amateur astronomers since 1969 when I was still a teenager. For the most part I was in hog heaven. I still mark the weekend down as one of the most exciting events of my life and I will always cherish it. I met and made friends with a lot of people, rubbed elbows with some big names in the hobby and came away with a wealth of information on optics, mounts, and a plethora of subjects on my favorite hobby.
One special treat was the continual swap meet going on in the large main building in the camp. There were several vendors set up and I loved to look through their wares. Most of the stuff I couldn’t afford but I was still happy to just drool at all the amazing stuff. I bought a new 28mm Plossl eyepiece from either Gary Russell or Bill Vorst who were regulars.
As it started getting dark and the stars popped out, this guy approached me. He didn’t have a scope at the meet, but he was just there to fish and also observe. I was glad to show him stuff and he hung with me for the evening. Turns out, I was the only one willing to take the time to show him things and not shove him aside. His name is Tony Labude and that night we became friends and we still are to this day. In fact, he is one of the contributors to our Las Vegas Astronomical Society Observer’s Challenge. He is the only person from the Oklahoma group that I’m still in touch with.
I must address the dark side of this hobby, mainly because nobody else will. Sure, everyone wants to push the positive, and I understand that, but not everything about this hobby is sunshine and roses and I’m not going to pretend that it is. After all, this is my story and it wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t give it to you, warts and all.
I’ve already mentioned the equipment freaks. These guys are there for the gear. They don’t seem to care about observing or what is up in the sky. All they seem to care about is either specs, penis size, or who knows what? Then there are those that do observe, but they are ultra-perfectionists. They obsess over every minute detail. Since I am a writer, I know writers like that who will agonize over a sentence for days or maybe weeks. They never get very much done. It takes all kinds. So be it.
All the while I was overseas, I was drooling over the equipment ads. I finally got to see some of this gear up close. A company called TeleVue made some super-fantastical but also super expensive eyepieces. I could not understand why they charged so much money for their eyepieces. They must have been super good. Of course, with the 82° field, that had to be a real wow factor. I finally got a look at some of those green monsters at the swap meet in the big building and in some of the scopes in the field. They were nice, but I wasn’t really blown away. What was more disturbing to me was talking to some of the owners. That started to creep me out. I noticed right away that when asked about TeleVue eyepieces, some of these guys would get this fanatical gleam in their eyes and this reverent tone in their voices as they’d sing the praises of Naglers and TeleVue Plossls. I was reminded of the 700 club and Jerry Falwell and fire and brimstone preachers on early morning Sunday TV. I noticed a pattern.
Saturday night, I was observing. Tony had gone back to his cabin for a drink or something and this guy came over to my scope as I was looking at the Ring Nebula. He asked to take a look. I obliged him. He took a quick look and scoffed.
“That’s not a real view. You need a real eyepiece in there.”
I asked him, “And what would that be?”
“You need a Nagler.”
He pulled an eyepiece out of his pocket. “Let me put this in here and show you how the Ring Nebula should really look.”
He put this 9mm Nagler in the focuser, twiddled with the focuse then said, “There.”
This was the first time I actually got to try a Nagler in my scope. I was, in a way, excited to try it out, but at the same time, annoyed at the attitude this jerk had when he approached me. I climbed the ladder and took a peek. The Ring was larger, dimmer and to me, it was duller and looked like crap.
“Isn’t that amazing?”
I pulled the eyepiece out and gave it back to him. “It’s too high a power for the conditions. The humidity is too high right now. It looks better at a lower power.”
“You don’t like the eyepiece?!”
“To tell the truth, it doesn’t impress me.”
“You obviously don’t know squat about telescopes!”
He huffed off and I never saw him again. He said a few more things than that but I have to keep this PG rated.
Considering I built that entire telescope including the mirror, I think I know a little about telescopes, probably a lot more than he did, but I never got a chance to tell him.
That incident left a bad taste in my mouth about TeleVue. Though I have nothing against normal people that have and use them, I certainly don’t think they are worth the exorbitant prices. They are good quality equipment but way overpriced. They have a fanatical following, for sure. I just refuse to be a part of the TeleVue religion.
That is not the end of this ugliness, just the first stanza. There is more a few years later.
In the meantime, all good things come to an end. The weekend of observing ended and we had to pack up and go home. I had a full log book, made some great friends and came home with a Meade nebula filter for a raffle prize. Also got to rub elbows with Barbara Wilson and Wayne Wyrick. Not bad for my first major star party since 1969!
Next up is the plastic over under and more Okie-Tex experiences.
Another Okie-Tex and The Over-Under
Over the next few years, I attended more Okie-Tex star parties. I can’t exactly put a year to it, but early on, I was able to put the final nail in the coffin of my desire to delve into astrophotography. Our featured speaker that year was none other than world famous astrophotographer, Jack Newton. I even had (still have) one of his books. I was soon to learn what was involved in digital astrophotography. Also on the ticket was none other than Jason Ware. He was responsible for many of the outstanding film images featured in the Meade catalogues. A double whammy.
We arrived early Friday, as usual, and I set up the Barney Scope. Tony Labude was there as well with a brand new used (?) Coulter 8” Dob. He needed a good finder for it so I made him one to match the one on mine. I took half an old fashioned 50mm binocular, slapped it in a straight tube and put in the other 25mm Coulter Kellner eyepiece I had (I think). I made the crosshair from two hairs I plucked off my dog, Noche, and glued them at the focal plane of the field lens on the eyepiece. Wasn’t perfect, but did the job.
At first light, who walked over, but Jack Newton! Mine was the first telescope he looked through. I can’t remember what we looked at but he was complimentary, though he might have just been saying that to be nice.
The next afternoon, he gave his presentation after Jason Ware. I learned from Jack what maximum entropy deconvolution was. I also learned how he would set up his rig in the garage, take a photo of a face, then take exposures through red, green and blue filters and time the exposures so that when he blended them together, he could match the flesh tones of the face. That is how he was able to match the exposures in the sky to get the real colors for his astrophotos. I hope I’m explaining that right!
He went on to explain a lot of other stuff, much of what I later used in a college paper for credit. Jason Ware’s presentation was pretty much as complicated. They also both talked about expenses. Both were fascinating but left me with the realization that not only was the end product not worth it to me, but I would never in my wildest dreams ever be able to afford it. EVER.
I had the usual great time hanging out with Barbara Wilson, Wayne Wyrick and the gang and went home with The Sky and another new eyepiece, this time an 18mm Bertele from Russell Optics.
I also had some great inspiration for my two 8” optical sets, languishing in boxes in the garage. In a scrap heap I found a bunch of 1” thick PVC plastic, like they use for bathroom stalls. I scarfed it up. My idea was to make an all plastic Dob that could sit out in the weather. Something I wouldn’t have to cover up with a tarp. Since I had two sets of optics, I came up with the over-under scope. The tubes are 10″ PVS sewer pipe. The side bearings are 4″ toilet flanges. The Cassegrain focuser is a set of PVC threaded pipe flanges. The result is below.
I built it and set it in the back yard. The only thing I did was cap both ends and left them alone. Of course, the Cassegrain was a bit awkward to use because I didn’t have a 1 ¼” diagonal, but it was still novel. I took it to the next Okie-Tex just to show it off. Never really used them much though, not with my 16” sitting nearby. Sure made a great conversation piece!
TeleVue And Equipment Freaks: One Final Straw
The highlight of each of the eight years I lived in Oklahoma was the Okie-Tex star party. There was nothing we did for myself or as a family I enjoyed more (with few exceptions). It was truly our event of the year. There were only two things that tainted that event for me. Equipment freaks and TeleVue fanatics.
One of the things I loved to do at each event was go around and look at all the different telescope designs, something I’ve mentioned before. I may not have mentioned that I learned that many if not all of the commercial scopes I’d read about for years rarely, if ever, worked as advertised, right out of the box. The Meade SCT’s were the premiere examples of this. However, that didn’t stop the equipment freaks from forking out unholy amounts of cash on these uber-expensive setups, along with an absolutely insane collection of every high-end eyepiece imaginable, all to display at Okie-Tex for everyone to drool at while they never bothered to look at anything. Yet despite their equipment not working right to begin with, they’d argue endlessly about the fine points of “X model this or Y model that” and why you should have this and why it is the only way you should go for this or that. They would politely but still look down benignly at those of us that had to make our own scopes. I got to know who these idiots were and would steer clear of them.
However, there were also the tweakers. These guys were serious observers, but almost as bad as the regular equipment freaks in a different way. They would spend their time obsessing over specs, though at least they were actually observing. I could admire their observing skills but their view of things was a bit skewed where they would assume everyone else had as deep of a pocketbook as they did and could afford to spend the money they did to get the minute optical and mechanical advantages they obsessed over. (I still see that today on Cloudy Nights. My name is pretty much Mud whenever I try to argue with them.) They had the absolute highest end gear, the best of the best of the best, way beyond what us normal peons could ever afford, but at least they actually used their stuff, usually with decent, though not always any better results than those of us with modest equipment. Of course, we couldn’t convince them of that, but that’s where the rub lay. You couldn’t win a circular argument. My only real beef with them besides avoiding arguments, was when they’d get hold of a newbie and give them unrealistic expectations of the hobby. That pissed me off! There was nothing I hated worse that to see a newbie discouraged from this hobby by thinking they’d never be serious or would never be happy unless they had the best of the best of the best. I still see attitudes tainted like this to this day on occasion and it… well, you get the picture. Through the years, I’ve looked through many of those high-end telescopes and I came to one conclusion based on my experience. The difference between high-end gear and average commercial gear was usually one night a year. Think about it.
Finally, there were the TeleVue religious fanatics. I don’t know how else to describe them. It was their tone of voice, the gleam in their eyes when they talked, the way they acted around those green-lettered eyepieces (nowadays, other products too). I just found it scary. During the years I went to Okie-Tex, my curiosity overcame my aversion to the “religion.” I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about, despite my original rude introduction with that 9mm Nagler guy. I borrowed each and every focal length available at the time and tried them in my scope. I included all the Panoptics, the Naglers and the Plossls, each borrowed from whoever was willing to lend them, an easy task considering how willing everyone was to try and “convert” me to their religion. I compared them to my war-surplus 32mm Erfle, 18mm Bertele, and 28mm Plossl oculars, which were my main eyepieces at the time along with a pair of Orthos of 6mm and 12.5mm focal lengths. My scope had a focal ratio of f/6.4 so the natural coma wasn’t too bad (edge correction was supposed to be a big deal with them). The results were that though I admired the wider field of the Naglers and even the Panoptics, the optical advantages were not enough to warrant the second-mortgage prices of each one. Besides, the lower powered ones were the size of hand grenades and weighted down the scope so much I had to put an extra counterweight on the back end. The Plossls were just well… Plossls. Expensive Plossls. The Panoptics were nothing better than my Erfle optically, just a bit flatter at the edge, but a hell of a lot more expensive. The Naglers had those nice 82° fields which were impressive, but those insane prices? I didn’t think they were worth it. The center of the field, the part I was most interested it, wasn’t any better than my trusty Erfle, Bertele or Orthos. Okay, all of the Naglers beat my Plossl, I’ll give them that. Then again, I only paid $25 for it so I still got a bargain!
All of the above occurred accumulatively over the six or seven Okie-Texes I went to. In the meantime, the freakiest thing occurred during a private star party sometime around 1996 in Altus where a few of us got together (I’ll talk more about this local group later) with some new guy out at this observing site north of town. I can’t remember the guy’s name but I think he had a four-inch refractor. I remember his eyepieces more because his case was nothing but Naglers. He and his wife showed up in his white van and he set up next to me. I think there were two other guys there, maybe three, and not regulars but guys I’d met somewhere and we were using his property which was a couple of acres. The night was a bit awkward because none of us had observed together before. Right away, this other guy started in on his Naglers. He wouldn’t shut up about them. Nagler this and Nagler that. I heard that same religious fervor that had been bothering me since day one at the Okie-Texes. I’d been trying to be polite and ignore him and enjoy myself. The night wasn’t too bad and I was getting some good viewing in. However, after this constant barrage of Nagler this and Nagler that, I finally snapped when he asked me a direct question.
“How come you don’t have any Naglers? You need to get on the ball.”
That wasn’t the right question to ask me. That moment was when it dawned on me what I really thought of TeleVue. The words just popped into my head.
“To tell you the truth, I think they’re just a bunch of rich man’s toys. I don’t think they’re worth the money.”
After a split second of stunned silence, the guy freaked. He started in on a tirade calling in an ignorant fool and other things. I responded with something like a fool and his money. Wrong answer. He came at me, screaming. I know my opinion was strong, but generally, amateur astronomers are a placid bunch. I never expected this kind of reaction, even from a TeleVue fanatic. I was on my ladder and was afraid he was going to knock me down. I heard one of the other guys say something like “Woah, Dude.” I think they were too stunned to say anything else. When the guy grabbed the ladder with one hand and his other fist pulled back, I thought for sure he was going to knock me down. His wife ran up and pulled him away. She said something like, “Stop it. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Let’s just leave.”
That pretty much ended that event for the evening. He packed his stuff up and they left in a huff. I never heard from him again. Good riddance, him and his Naglers. The rest of us were a bit rattled. We talked about it for a while but the night was pretty much ruined so we packed up. I don’t remember observing with those guys again, though we’d planned another event but weather got in the way.
If anyone wonders why I’m a bit creeped out about TeleVue, now you know. It’s been an accumulation of events that still continues to this day. That was by far the most violent. I believe there are plenty of sane people that own TeleVue products and use them responsibly. However, I also know there are fanatics out there that live and breathe those green-lettered products. For inanimate objects, they certainly bring out a lot of insanity!
To me, it still boils down to the fact that I believe they are just way over-priced products, whether eyepieces or telescopes. It is “Uncle Al Nagler’s” right to charge whatever he wants and I applaud him for his business savvy. He’s developed some admittedly outstanding and innovative optical products over the years and charged dearly for them. Whether consciously or not, he’s developed a fanatical following and tapped into a hot button among amateur astronomers. It reminds me of an author who comes out with a blockbuster book that hits all the right buttons. J.K Rowling did it with Harry Potter. Stephanie Meyer did it with Twilight. They created something that pressed all the right buttons. Uncle Al has done it with a line of outstanding optical products. All he has to do is sit back and collect the money. His products are good enough that they sell themselves and he can charge just about whatever he wants and his fans will scrimp and save and pay his prices. I just choose to not be any part of it. There are much cheaper alternatives that are just as good and don’t have those scary religions implications associated with them! I really do admire Uncle Al and would like to meet him someday. It’s a small percentage of his fanatical followers I have a beef with.
Anyway, as I told you up front, I intended to tell you my story, warts and all. Here again were a few more warts. What I haven’t mentioned yet were a few buffalo patties. Stay tuned!
Buffalo Patties And Shoemaker Levy
In July, 1994 I had the opportunity to get together with some amateurs from Altus and Lawton when we heard news of Comet Shoemaker Levy crashing into Jupiter. It was quite the momentous event and one of those once-in-a-lifetime occasions right along with the meteor storm my friend Dennis and I witnessed. Not to digress too far, but since Dennis and I saw that meteor storm that one evening in 1968, I’ve never been impressed with a meteor shower since.
I don’t remember the details, but we were all invited to an impromptu star party at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge to witness the event. Turns out, it was attended by a reporter from the Lawton Constitution.
One thing I learned real quick about driving into the wildlife refuge, they weren’t kidding about the term wildlife! Specifically, certain wildlife called buffalo. Bison are huge beasts that some say are about as dumb as a box of rocks. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that with something that weighs just shy of a freight train car, you don’t want to piss it off! So, I’m humming right along in my Dodge Dakota, telescope in the back, navigating this twisty narrow road as I’m approaching the observing site from my home in Tipton, when I come around this curve and there, blocking the road is a huge bison. What to do? I hit the brakes and sat there. I could have gone off the road around it, but the way was rough and I didn’t want to risk hanging up an axle, or ruining a tire. Or worse, catching the eye of the beast. At the same time, I surely wasn’t about to start honking my horn! So what happens? Some idiot coming the other way, slows down, almost hits the thing and starts honking his horn!
Thanks a lot jerk! Make this meat freight train stampede right into me! The beastie gives the guy an annoyed glare, munches on some grass on the edge of the road and just stands there! At least that thing didn’t panic and go into a rage. I’m looking at the setting sun (wondering if I’m going to make it to the observing site) and wondering if the idiot on the other side is going to try and push the thing off the road. Then, another buffalo comes into view from off to the side and this one must’ve sensed it because it moves away. I was relieved, but felt like giving that other guy a certain gesture as I passed. Instead, I kept my hands on the wheel.
We set up the scopes and had a great time observing the after-effects of the comet crash. The reporter asked a bunch of questions too. He took lots of pictures and you can see some of the results below. I am not posting the entire article because the print is too small to read here. Anyway, after that all died down, we all stayed to observe some more. I remember some guy had a Meade research grade Newtonian and it had a really nice mirror in it. We looked at M-13 with it and I remember how it sparkled.
We were well into the night when I happened to walk over to a bush to “use the facilities.” I happen to look up when one of the bushes right next to me moved. It was a mighty big bush! Next thing I know that “bush” moved right next to telescope field as if we weren’t even there. I seem to remember one of us suggesting no sudden movements. There may have been more than one “bush” moving out there too, suggesting a herd of “bushes.”
Though that site was not all that bad for viewing, I think I was cured of using the wildlife refuge for further observation. I think we just got lucky. We could have stepped into a lot worse than a buffalo patty!
Next time, someone notices what’s up in my back yard and an unfortunate accident during show and tell.
Photos from the article in the July 1994 Lawton Constitution.
Something’s Up In The Back Yard & An Unfortunate Accident
Living in a small farm community in Oklahoma, one expects to see all manner of horticultural equipment scattered about. With the wide-open prairie going for miles, it’s pretty hard to miss something unusual. It didn’t take long for someone to spot my Barney Scope in the back half of my acre of land, set amongst my peach trees. Along with it, I had my over-under 8” scopes.
During the summer of 1994, I got a call from the county paper, the Frederick Press. They wanted to do an article on the local amateur astronomer. So came the article, “‘Far out’ Hobby – Man studies astronomy, builds telescopes”
The only thing erroneous about the title was the fact that I didn’t study astronomy and never really have. I observe. Oh well, I was still happy the reporter took an interest in me. She came over and spent some time interviewing me and did a really nice article about me based on the interview. I learned later that part of the reason she sought me out was also the article where I appeared in the Lawton Constitution earlier that month.
Now that I was a local celebrity, my youngest daughter Brook needed something for show and tell during her science class that fall when school started. I had the perfect thing. I’d bring the mirrors out of the over-under and do a presentation on reflector telescopes and how mirrors are made.
The presentation went well and we all had a good time. The problem came when I packed the mirrors back in the box. I thought I’d packed them well. I had no idea anything was wrong until October when it was time to go to the next Okie-Tex. I got out the box I’d packed the mirrors in so I could put them back in the over-under and to my horror, the mirrors had bumped together! I was just sick! My first-ever mirror had a huge chunk out of the face, twice the size of a silver dollar. The Coulter classical cassegrain primary mirror had a deep occlusion the size of a half dollar going deep into the glass. I put them both back together in the over-under but when I took them to Okie-Tex, it was obvious those problems could be seen out of focus. That notch in the 8” was obvious when I put the scope on Saturn. I’d rack it slightly out of focus and you could see a shadow on the edge of the disk. The image still looked okay focused, but it wasn’t as bright. As for the Cassegrain, I never tried getting it completely in alignment, so I’m still not sure to this day how bad the occlusion affects the figure. It’s probably pretty bad. One day maybe I’ll check it out.
As you can see from the photo, that old Pancro Mirror coating on the 8” is shot. It doesn’t matter with that huge chunk of glass out of the surface. The Coulter is a bit harder to see the occlusion but if you look at the bottom 6 o’clock position of the mirror, you can see a scratchy circle area. That is where it broke through to the surface. It fans out much wider below that. The area at the 4-5 o’clock position is tarnish on the mirror.
I also threw the old 6” mirror into the shot. If you remember the earlier stories, I got it from my neighbors behind me in Palmdale back in 68 or so.
Next time, college teaches me how to use Access and all my notes come together on a database.
The Original Fredscope
Okay, I know this is way out of sequence, but I finally got the photo scanned, so I thought I’d take the time to elaborate on the original Fredscope. Sorry about the quality of the photo, but it was a copy given to my mom & dad by the Valley Press from the article that was run in the paper. Somewhere in a scrapbook that is lost at my mom’s house, I have the original newspaper article with hopefully a better picture. As it was, this photo was glued to a thick cardboard backing for a retirement “wall” photo hanging that I used to have on my wall at work. I wasn’t able to detach it without destroying the photo even more, so I just cut it away from the backing, cardboard and all. Enough of that!
The old 8” f/9.44 mirror, which in the above photo has that big chunk out of it now, had a fresh Pancro Mirror coating. The diagonal was from Criterion Telescopes as well as the diagonal holder and the rack and pinion focuser, which finally gave out in Indiana. It (the focuser) ended up on the over-under scope but it was already on its last legs, even then. The tube was Sonotube from some construction shop in Palmdale.
The “finder” scope was my 60mm Sears refractor. As you may notice in the photo, my little 30mm finder is attached to it. That is what I actually used as a finder. I only had three eyepieces at the time and when I used the 20mm eyepiece in the big scope, I was left with either a 6mm or a 4mm for the refractor. A soda straw doesn’t make much of a finder! As for a guide scope, well… if you look at the equatorial mount, you can see there is no provision for a clock drive, not even a shaft for one to fit on.
Speaking of the mount…
The saddle was ¾” plywood and the straps were 1” steel crate strapping. I coupled ¼” rods with ¼-20 threads and wing nuts on one side of each strap to hold the tube in place (the other side were just regular nuts). The saddle was held onto the equatorial axis with a pipe flange. That went into my plywood friction clutch assembly. That all coupled to the polar axis and its’ own clutch assembly. The counterweight was what was left of my barbell set. You can pretty much tell I never used those barbells! As for the shirt, I’d probably still have it if I hadn’t gained so much weight, 45 years later.
The base, out of the photo was three legs made from 1 ½” angle iron, bolted together.
Next time, I’ll continue with where I left off with college and the database.
By the way, this photo was actually taken just outside the Palmdale High School band room the day I brought it to school. We watched a guy peeing next to a ski lift thingie on the mountain near Wrightwood. At least that’s what it looked like he was doing! That was the only time the 4mm eyepiece was good for anything. Dubious distinction!
The World Of Computing Helps Satisfy My OCD
My time in the Air Force was short and soon I’d be retiring. I’d earned my bachelor’s degree in Education, Training and Development. However, I still had plenty of GI bill left and the job market was looking pretty dismal, or at least I wasn’t getting a warm fuzzy at the time. My wife and I decided I should go for the gusto and I dove into a dual master’s program. As part of that program, I took a course in database management. One of the requirements was to learn how to use Microsoft Access©.
Learning a database for a college course grade was one thing, but what it did for me personally was something else. One of my projects was to create a functional database. I decided to create a database of my astronomical observations. Little did I know then that I would still be using that same database today sixteen years later. It has expanded from a measly 101 objects to 1462 with 220 observations then to 4376 observations today.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started it. Figuring out the base tables, then linking everything together, figuring out what I wanted in there, what data I wanted, what columns and how I wanted the data to be entered (what style) would not be easy. There were a myriad of different parameters I had to set up and live with until I became proficient enough with changing things that I could go back and modify the database to fix things.
Today, the Starlog Database is refined to just about how I like it. I’ve tweaked it and added things to give me what I want, a way to add in all the objects I’ve ever seen and a way to fill in lists. My OCD is satisfied in that I have a need to fill in lists. This database is the means to do it!
With that being said, once I got that original database going, I also finished my Astronomical League Messier Observing List and got my first pin, #1533 from 14 Sep, 1997. Since I’ve completed that “list”, I’ve gone on to other lists, many of them helped by a software package I picked up later on called Megastar.
Back then, the database provided the way to collect all my messy notes into one comprehensive place. At the time, I had a book called NGC 2000 by Roger Sinnott. It provided all the technical data I needed for each entry, objects I mostly got from my Tirion sky atlas.
My OCD need to fill out lists now had a depository which I still use to this day. I’ve complied quite a bit of data on all manner of astronomical objects. What I’ll ever do with that data, I have no idea!
During that timeframe, I hadn’t made a mirror in a decade. After listening to some others talk on the subject at Okie-Tex, I volunteered to conduct an open discussion forum one year at the event about alternative mirror materials. I’ll talk about that next time.
A Presentation On Alternative Mirror Materials & Televue Rears Its Ugly Head Again
In the mid to late 90’s, I volunteered or was asked to conduct a presentation and forum on alternative mirror materials at one of the Okie-Tex events. The exact year is a little fuzzy, but it was between 95 and 98. I conducted it in the afternoon in the pavilion and had quite a crowd. I didn’t have any slides or visual aids so it was just an hour long talk and discussion that proved quite entertaining, as it turned out.
I came with lots of ideas after doing my research and brainstorming. The crowd also brought forth a few ideas that I’d already had but failed to mention to see if anyone else would, and they surely did. They came prepared! However, I was able to come away with a few surprises too.
One of the problems with making mirrors is obtaining the glass, especially in the larger sizes. Buying the blanks can be quite expensive and making them yourself can be not only just as expensive, but quite tedious. Making an oven large enough and hot enough to cast Pyrex or glass is no easy task and the tempering (or annealing) process takes quite a while and is delicate and prone to error. What about other materials? Something easier to produce?
The discussion ranged from casting Plexiglas to solid sheet aluminum to speculum, ceramic to a spinning vat of mercury. There were a few other ideas bandied about which were rather bizarre, including concrete and super-thin plate glass warped with a vacuum. By the time the forum was over, we all came away with a head full of possible ideas. Since that discussion, I’ve seen at least one company in Canada that made black ceramic large-format mirrors. They’ve since disappeared but were in business for a few years. I had a 10” solid aluminum mirror blank I was going to grind at one time, but never got around to it. I’d heard another guy was going to try casting a super-hard mixture of Plexiglas into a 24” mirror, despite the inherent occlusions that usually occur in the mix. I’ve heard that someone from the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomer’s has actually made one from Plexiglas.
Quite the interesting discussion. During that same Okie-Tex, I wandered into another discussion among some TeleVue freaks who were getting a bit heated with some other tweakers about how Naglers could make a mediocre mirror into a good one, just because of the virtues of the eyepiece. They were convinced that the Naglers, in fact all TeleVues including Panoptics or whatever Uncle Al had out at the time, were so good they would bring out the best of any mirror, even a mediocre mirror, and make it perform as good as a great mirror with a regular eyepiece (or something to that effect). They were basically arguing that the eyepieces were so good that they could make the telescope, rather than the optics. Say what? The tweakers weren’t taking too kindly to that. Though they weren’t anywhere near coming to blows over it, there were some raised voices and red faces that I don’t think were sunburn. I saw that gleam in the (TeleVue freaks) eyes, heard the awe and reverence in their voices, and though back on that idiot that attacked me back in Altus and decided to steer clear of that discussion, though I had idle thoughts of grabbing my friend Tony and finding some popcorn.
That makes me think this had to be at least 97 or so (because of reminding me of the attack). This was also the year there was a rumor Uncle Al was going to show the next year, which he never did. I still would have liked to meet him.
Next time we’ll talk about the anticlimactic meteor shower.
Meteor Showers – How Do You Spell Jaded?
To say that I look up at the night sky and don’t get a thrill is a mistake. I do. However, that doesn’t mean that everything I see up there has equal value in the whoopee department. I’m not a huge fan of the Moon. In fact, that old light polluter is my nemesis. It usually signals super clear and stable skies, ripe for a bright full moon, only to have it finally go away so the skies can turn to crap, just in time for my few precious dark nights to be wasted whining about the weather.
I sometimes have a passing interest in the planets. Jupiter, Saturn and Mars still can put on a good show, but only when the atmosphere is behaving, which isn’t all that often. At least, they’re not affected by the Moon. Venus and Mercury, eh. Venus is good to check sky conditions, and Mercury just something to see once or twice a year, just to say so.
Uranus and Neptune, perennial favorites, are nothing to brag about because they are so tiny. Seeing the moons of each are much more interesting. Pluto? Just telling the speck from the background specks is sort of an accomplishment, but not at the top of my list, just like asteroids.
Double stars have never really been my bag either. I’ve observed a few of them, close doubles and multi-colored ones, but they have never really rung my bell.
Comets are pretty cool, but don’t come around all that often. When they do, they can be a treat or a dud, depending.
My real thing is deep sky objects so there is no point prattling on about them.
That leaves meteor showers. For some reason, there was a big hubbub about the Leonid meteor shower in Oklahoma in the late 90s, around 97/98. I hadn’t really paid attention to them for a long time. I’d see singles on occasion and go “Oooh, aaah” with whoever was with me, if anyone, and go on with what I was doing. I’d always seem to miss the big events for one reason or other. So, this time, I was eagerly awaiting my first big meteor shower since 1966. We set up chairs in the back yard of our house in Tipton, anticipating a night of fireworks. My wife and kids joined me and maybe a few friends and we found an open spot between trees to watch the show. I think it was supposed to reach its peak around midnight.
Well, it reached its peak. “That’s it? That’s the big event?”
While everyone was oohing and aahing at the occasional fireball that hit about every minute or so, I was expecting something more. I was expecting at least twenty or thirty a second! Maybe even a hundred a second. I was expecting a meteor shower! Not this streak every minute. Let’s just say I was underwhelmed. That event in 1966 was spectacular and it spoiled me. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even today, when we go out for a meteor shower to a dark site, I just use it as a regular observing night.
The girls were duly impressed, but I went to bed disappointed. Scratch meteors off my list of objects to wow over.
Oh, but there’s more. Next time, we’ll talk a bit of UFO lore with some flashbacks to Palmdale and Spain.
UFOs – Time For The Tin Foil Hat
It never fails. Being an “astrologer” with a “big microscope,” it’s inevitable we’re going to be asked how many UFO’s we’ve seen. In our last stanza, as I was giving my distinct lack of enthusiasm for meteor showers, I was struck with the notion that by looking up into the evening and night sky, as observers, the odds are a bit higher that we’re going to spot something unusual moving around up there. Therefore, I thought I’d jump around the timelines of my story and sum up my experiences with real UFOs, at least a few highlights (don’t want to bore you with all of them!).
First, I must define UFO up front. For the purposes of this story, I will clearly define UFO as unidentified flying object. Got that? Nowhere in that definition am I saying alien spacecraft! While there is the remote possibility something I’ve seen up there could have been some sort of alien vehicle, the chances are extremely slim to almost nonexistent that they actually were. For a long time, I was convinced that we were being regularly visited by extraterrestrial beings. There is still some element at the back of my mind that says just maybe we are. However, the vast majority of logic and science has convinced me that not only is it highly unlikely for scientific and physical reasons, but for economical reasons as well. Not to beat a dead horse, let’s go on to the incidents and let you decide what you will.
Back when I was a paranoid teen in Lompoc, long before I got my first telescope, a mysterious foam substance washed up on the shore near Santa Barbara, around 1963 or 1964. When some people tried to handle the stuff, it exploded and burned them. Nobody could figure out what it was and it was suggested it was of alien origin. That freaked me out and I thought we were going to be invaded by aliens. I was 12 or 13 at the time.
A few years later, around the time I got my first scope, 1966-1967, we were back in Palmdale and we were treated to a lime-green sunset. People all over Southern Calee’fornia were freaking out. A few actually committed suicide over it, thinking the apocalypse finally came. What happened was that due west of the Antelope Valley is Vandenberg AFB and Point Arguello. They’d launched a missile with some kind of experimental chlorine-based rocket fuel. The thing blew up in the upper atmosphere and dyed the sunset green! Caused a major freakout. I can say it freaked me out a bit too!
Not long after I finished my 8” reflector, a bright ball hovered over Palmdale. It wasn’t supposed to be there. It was brighter than Venus or Jupiter and could be seen well before dark. Everyone was freaking out about it. Fred to the rescue. I dragged the telescope out and put it on the UFO. It was a weather balloon. I could see the wrinkly skin and the basket hanging beneath it. Mystery solved.
A few months later, we were out at dusk and saw a huge meteor crash. It was so bright and the impact was so huge, it looked like it hit in the hills between Palmdale and Down Below (Los Angeles). We had just learned in science class how much meteors were worth, so we hopped into the car and took off to try and find the impact site. We gave up after a while. We found out the next day the thing landed in Brazil!
In the 70’s in Spain, we were coming home to Eurovillas one evening and Kim happened to look back toward the east and saw a V formation of lights on the horizon. We pulled over and watched them for a while. The V moved along the horizon then turned at a 90 º angle toward us, came closer then faded away. We never figured out what it (or they) was.
In the 80’s, I was driving to work one morning when I saw a light moving across the sky. It was moving kind of slow and didn’t have the wing or tail lights of a plane. I pulled over, stopped the car and got out. It seemed fairly close. Silent. I watched it for about a minute and a half, after I got out of the car, according to my watch. That was at least a minute from when I spotted it and pulled over. It had to be moving that way for at least 2 ½ minutes since I first spotted it. All of a sudden, it started shooting sparks out the back, then it disappeared. I was about to say it was a meteor, but I’ve never seen a meteor last for over 2 ½ minutes! I reported it to the base at Torrejon and they recommended I go to the equivalent of the Spanish Project Bluebook in Madrid. I never did though.
Now, here I am living in Las Vegas, not too far from Area 51. I ain’t seen diddly either.
Next time, heading for the Great Lakes, a shock to the system!
Northwest Indiana – A Shock To The System
All good things have to come to an end. Okie-Tex was gone, as far as I was concerned. The Oklahoma City club went through a political upheaval and Okie-Tex had a major change in venue, so I was not longer part of it, even long distance. All the key people I was friends with had left the club so there was no point in my hanging around. There were a lot of bitter feelings, though I was not personally involved with any of the goings on. I didn’t have any particular animosity toward anyone, though I certainly wasn’t happy with the change in venue of the one major star party my family and I loved to attend.
The other problem was that locally around Altus, we couldn’t get a club off the ground, and I was a bit wary of get-togethers anyway because of Mr. TeleVue fanatic, so nothing ever seemed to materialize, even when we tried. That last year, 98 to early 99, I was back to solitary observing, and just corresponding or calling my friend Tony in Oklahoma City or writing Sherman Shultz up in Minneapolis St Paul. It’s not that I didn’t get anything done with my observing, but it would have been nice to actually share it again after that big burst of seven odd years of activity. The other thing was that we (my family) were all getting real tired of living in Oklahoma. Nothing against the people, but the isolation and small town living was getting to us. Then a job opportunity came up and before you know it, we were packing up and moving to Gary, Indiana.
I started work in April so I had no idea what I was getting myself into (the winters were brutal). We were able to find a house and get settled in by early summer. Unfortunately, the house in Miller Beach, exactly one block from the southern tip of Lake Michigan, had no garage. The basement door was too small to haul Barney downstairs, so I had to use the old dog cage from Oklahoma that we still had from a potbellied pig we once owned, and made a storage shed in the back. That, along with a tarp, became the new home for Barney.
By an odd twist of fate, the electrical supervisor in the maintenance department where I worked at a wet corn mill, just happened to be a member of the Calumet Astronomical Society! If that don’t beat all. What was even more weird, was that Dennis had actually attended mirror making classes at Yerkes Observatory and built an 8” Cassegrain back in the day, when they still had such things. It was his main scope. I’d only read about those things back in the 60’s and here was a guy I worked with that actually attended one of those classes, in the flesh!
With great anticipation, I got the location and attended my first meeting at the north campus of Purdue University in Hammond (or was it Highland), Indiana. I met a really nice bunch of people and found an honest-to-goodness astronomy club I could be a member of without having to commute 150 miles.
Meetings were always interesting and I don’t think I ever missed one. Observing sessions, however were another story. They were few and far between, and always during warm weather. That meant, spring through fall. Our main observing site was a place called Lemon Lake State Park. It was a few miles south of Crown Point, which for me was about 30 miles from Miller Beach. When we later moved to South Haven near Portage, it turned out to be about the same distance using back roads.
What I learned real darn quick about that part of the country was that deep-sky observing was never going to be worth spit. Why? Humidity and skyglow from Chicago and urban sprawl. Even on the darkest nights, humidity averaged in the 40-60% range. At our site, there was a radio tower nearby and the lights on it glowed, leaving an aura around them that spread several times the size of the moon on most nights. I can remember trying a few times for the Herschel 400, which I’d started in Oklahoma, but of the three years we were there, I never bagged a single one. I was relegated to viewing and showing outreach objects.
One great thing, though, was that the club had a 22” Dob with a mirror made by none other than John Dobson himself. The scope was donated to the club from someone up in Michigan after John had made it for them years earlier. I remember looking through it several times but was never impressed with the images, mainly because they always had the magnification cranked up too high for the humidity.
I had a great time with the Calumet Astronomical Society, but it was a killer for my visual observing. When I got laid off at the corn mill, Las Vegas came a calling and everything came together.
Back To The Dry Desert
On January 2, 2002, I got laid off at the wet corn mill I’d worked at for three years. The company changed hands, I had several new bosses, they decided to get rid of the newer employees and I was one of them. Soon after that, my boss and his boss were gone along with a lot of other people. About a month later, I’m sitting in the garage, it’s snowing outside, about 20 degrees, I’m huddled by my kerosene heater working with my scroll saw. I’d just spent the day on all the job boards with no luck. Unemployment had kicked in, but job prospects were bleak. Yet, it felt so good that I didn’t have to go back to that plant! I job hunted until April, 2002 when I got a call from Las Vegas and had to drive out there by myself for a contract job as a Technical Writer.
Living in a hotel, on a six month contract, I had no telescope. However, that didn’t stop me from looking up the Las Vegas Astronomical Society. I thought it would be cool to get into a much larger and more organized club in a more observer friendly area of the country. I went to a meeting at the Cheyenne campus of UNLV. To my surprise, I saw Bill Vorst there. He was one of the vendors at the old Okie-Tex star parties I used to attend at Lake Murray in Oklahoma. Unfortunately, it was the only good thing about the club. I found the members at that time very uncommunicative and cold. I tried to talk to some of them, but could barely get a grunt out of anyone except the president, who was the only one that would talk to me besides Bill Vorst. The two conversations I distinctly remember wandering into were about astrophotography and TeleVue and I had nothing to say about either. There was one guy there that was friendly, now that I think about it, but he only attended that first meeting and told me he was quitting because he didn’t like the direction the club was going. I tried two meetings, but came away with the same feeling both times and stopped going. As I remember, the presentations were about astrophotography and a planetarium show. Then I heard about another, smaller club in town called ASNLV and looked them up. To this day, I still don’t know how I heard of them originally, but I turned up at that first meeting for an eclipse event in the parking lot of the main campus of UNLV.
I couldn’t have met a friendlier bunch of people when I pulled into that parking lot. For a small club, this group was great. My memory of names is a bit fuzzy, but the one name that stands out is the one person who migrated back to the big club years later and convinced me to give them another try, David Blanchette. He was a member of ASNLV back then along with about a dozen others. As with the LVAS, the club president was very friendly and took me in right away. All of the members were talkative and very anxious to talk about observing. We didn’t have much time to talk at that first meeting as it was a public observing event of a lunar eclipse. Turns out, some local TV reporters were there including NBC and Fox News. There were several scopes set up including a club 10” Dob. The president asked me to man the 10” since I didn’t have a scope and he was busy with the media.
Turns out, since it was one of the larger scopes for the evening, the news guys gravitated to me. I was interviewed by both NBC and Fox as well as the club president! Here I was, not even a member of the club, and they picked me to interview. The funny thing is that I could care less about eclipses. I’m a deep sky guy. An eclipse is just a chance to dim the moon so I can see dimmer deep sky objects for a few moments (if the eclipse happens in the evening). So, here I am, trying to sound enthusiastic about a huge astronomical event with no preparation and of course, I wasn’t. I told the truth. I don’t remember the exact words but I told both reporters that eclipses don’t really excite me all that much, but just getting out to observe is what thrills me.
They were kind of perplexed at that and asked me why I do it. My final answer was that it’s in my blood. It’s like rock and roll. It’s something that gets in your blood. It’s just something you love.
When I later watched the clips on TV, they showed clips of the president on camera, but not me, yet they tagged in my voice and that last phrase with me saying, “It’s like rock and roll. It’s something that gets in your blood.” They had it both on Channel 3 and Channel 5 news.
Welcome to Vegas, Baby!
Settling In To Las Vegas
By late 2002, my technical writing job with the Las Vegas Valley Water District was drying up and I was looking for more work when I got a call for my next employer and one that would keep me busy for the next nine years. It would still be technical writing, but writing a different kind of curriculum this time, in a different deal in more familiar territory back amongst my Air Force compadres. It was good to come home again.
With more steady and more permanent employment, it was time to look for more reliable digs and bring the wife out from Indiana. I’d been living in a hotel behind the Stardust Casino for the past six months and though it had its perks, I had no telescope. I was a full-fledged member of the ASNLV now, and the president, J.C. Willette, made me feel right at home.
It wasn’t until sometime in late 2003 that we finally moved into a large enough apartment, just outside the main gate at Nellis AFB, that I was able to think about rebuilding the Barney Scope. The planning began on a long project. This time instead of making the tube as a skeleton of 1X2’s with plywood rings wrapped in hardboard, I opted for Sonotube. I also completely rethought the bottom half of the tube and how things should all go together. Since I had to lug this beast into a one bedroom apartment, by myself, assemble it out in the field, by myself, possibly, I needed to figure some things out. It was going to weigh close to 250lbs assembled, so I needed to think it through. As for the Dob base, the rocker box, I made it one piece. I added wheels on a single removable axle and added removable wheelbarrow handles. That way, I could move it wherever, set it up or store it and remove the handles and wheels at will. It worked out very well, I might add.
The saddle for the tube was my next hurdle. Since the tube was to be a single unit, I mounted guitar amp handles, reinforced on the inside in two balance points along the tube. I also added a reinforcement ring at the top end of the 20” tube with a 16” opening. At the bottom end with the mirror cell, I sealed it off. Like all my other Dobs, I had no air circulation through any of them. You may wonder about that but it never seemed to be a problem for me.
The saddle was made from ¾” plywood with reinforced flat sides to hold the two split rim side bearings. It folded open so I could lay the tube in it with hinges on one side and stiff folding luggage latches on the other. Once snapped shut, it held the tube tight. I knew right where to position the focuser and had scratch points for the balance spot. I also had the finder scope mounted on the saddle.
That my friends was the new scope except for one other minor detail. The color. My wife wanted to paint it the same color as the Barney Scope so we could rename it Barney 2. However, when we took the paint swatch from Wal-Mart back to Wal-Mart, the guy screwed up the mix and we ended up with a slightly different shade. What we ended up with was English Rose. So, instead of the Barney Scope, we ended up with my new scope called English Rose.
I finally took it out for first light for Astronomy Day, April 2004 at the Galleria Mall in Henderson, Nevada. This photo is the actual first light, daytime, as it turned out. It was taken the same day as the photo at the top of the page. Go figure. I did get some good views of the moon and some killer views of Mars later that night. Then there was that guy that saw Venus before dark in my scope and swore up and down it was the moon and wouldn’t believe us when we told him the moon was over there…
Finding The Ultimate Observing Site
Now a full-fledged resident of Las Vegas and a member of the ASNLV, the early 2000s were filled with many decent observing weekends. This was the time when I was able to make money on my Herschel 1 list and even delve into the Herschel 2s, which I’d just become aware of. Our problem as a club was that we needed good observing sites. We couldn’t use the same places as the LVAS as the two clubs didn’t get along politically (I still don’t know all the details). That meant we couldn’t use Cima Mountain, just over the border in Calee’fornia or Echo Bay over on the north shore of Lake Mead.
Through my exploring around town and probably through the club, I discovered Scope City, one of the few real honest-to-goodness telescope stores on the west coast. I had never been to a real telescope store before. The closest thing was a camera shop in Madrid, Spain. What they had were a few very expensive .965” eyepieces and a decked-out 4” Unitron refractor in the window with a wind-up clock drive! Believe it or not, that refractor was still there the last time I visited the store in 91.
It didn’t take long for me to get to know the store manager, William Hildebrandt. We have become friends, which we still are to this day. Through him, our intrepid site explorer David Blanchette and the club, we came up with two main observing sites that covered summer and winter. The summer site was a snow chain pull-off next to a weather station on Lee Canyon Road on Rt. 157 near Mt. Charleston. The site is perched at the 6500 ft level and has a ridge blocking most of the skyglow from Las Vegas. On the west, the mountains block the skyglow from Pahrump. To the north, there is just a slight skyglow from Indian Springs and the Cold Creek prison. The biggest problem with this site is that thought the pulloff is paved, it is too close to the main road and cars passing by shine their lights on the scopes. Luckily, traffic is not that bad, but it can still mess with your night vision. The other problem is the wind. Because it is a canyon, it often acts as a wind tunnel. It’s hard to tell when and if the winds are going to be bad, so we never know what will happen until we get there, despite what may be happening down in the valley. It was our site back then and even though the club is now disbanded, when I’m not doing stuff with the LVAS, I still use this site with William.
The other place we came up with was Sunset Overview, on the west shore road of Lake Mead. This site, at the time, was a relatively short drive from town and was blocked from the skyglow of Las Vegas by a ridge and a dormant volcano that sits on the east side of Henderson, Nevada. It was our main winter site for the tenure of the ASNLV. Unfortunately, since the club disbanded in the late 2000’s (more on that later), there is a water district project to reposition the water intakes further out in the lake, and the barges out there are lit up like downtown Las Vegas. The spot is now so light-polluted you can read your star charts without a light.
I digress. The site wasn’t perfect, but to the east it wasn’t so bad. The only problems there were the bugs and the curious people that came by to see what we were doing. A lot of times, it became an almost public event where we were showing people the stars, along with the occasional drunk biker.
It was from Sunset Overview, by the way, where I famously cheated and referenced a friend’s 8” SCT GOTO to verify some of the Herschel 1 open clusters in the Eridanus(?) area that I was having trouble positively identifying.
I cannot thank David Blanchette enough for his efforts to explore and seek out more observing sites. He was always going out and looking for new places to try out. During that era, he found a borrow pit (that’s gravel pit to the rest of you) on the Cold Creek Road that was a bit further out than Lee Canyon and turned out to be a pretty decent spot. He also found another borrow pit right across the road from the Lee Canyon weather station. The only problem with both borrow pits was the dust and dirt.
Life goes on…
This was taken at one of our outings at the Lee Canyon weather station.
Eyepieces – Jaded Even More
The early 2000’s were great times. I was really making progress on my Herschel’s and finally, after a long time, getting the full advantage of the clear skies of Southern Nevada. The ASNLV club was starting to show cracks, though, as membership and participation waxed and waned. Our president had job issues and wasn’t able to attend meetings as much. Eventually things started to fall apart. I remember trying another random meeting with the LVAS in the 2004-2005 timeframe and got the same weird standoffish vibe so I stayed away. However, clubs aside, that never stopped me from observing. With a healthy group of observers from either the ASNLV, stragglers from the LVAS, or the Scope City group, I could always find people to go out somewhere. At that time, the usual site suspects were either the Lee Canyon weather station or Sunset Overview on Lake Meade.
The thing about having friends not only with lots of equipment, but from one of the very few real telescope stores in the country was that I had access to just about every make and model of eyepiece imaginable. Because of that, I was able to vary my viewing somewhat from the standard 70X 70º field Erfle I’d been using for almost two decades and try other eyepieces in English Rose. It broadened my horizons. I was making enough money at the time that I could pretty much afford the medium-priced oculars if I wanted or even stretch for a high-end one if I desired. Being relatively practical and with a highly tuned bull detector, I learned some significant lessons that will probably not endear me to a certain crowd. Of course, I already had an attitude to begin with over past incidents, but the thing that changed was that I now had the money to overcome at least one negative. With that negative taken away, would I think differently about TeleVue? How about Brandon or Vixen or Meade or Celestron?
I’ll tell you this. Of all the eyepieces I tried over the next several years, the only people that got pissed, indignant, or irate when I didn’t fawn over their oculars, were the TeleVue crowd. Everyone else just shrugged and said fine, even the Brandon people. That’s a fact.
Without going into a huge pages-long review of each individual eyepiece, I’ll sum up general impressions.
The Brandons were fine narrow-field eyepieces. Sharp to the edge, because they had such a narrow field compared even to my Erfle. They looked great on the planets and had nice definition. However, I couldn’t justify the four times the price of my Orthoscopics. Sorry, nice works of art, but not my cup of tea. For someone who is a planetary or double star observer, they would probably be worth it.
The Vixens were very similar to the Brandons except they had a weird color issue, at least in the two that I tried. I remember a gray-blue tinge and of course, the narrow Plossl-like field. Not bad, but nothing that blew me away.
The Meades at the time were like hand grenades. I can’t remember if they were the wide angles or the old style UWA’s but they were huge and upset the balance of even my scope. The wide view was nice. However, they had this orange tint during daylight which still seems to be the case today, even with the Explore Scientific offshoots. However, the wide views were excellent and I have two modern day UWAs which are great and their mid-range prices were reasonable and affordable. Back then, the prices were a bit stiff, but still cheaper that you-know-who.
The Celestrons were very similar to the Meades except they didn’t have that orange glow in the daytime (at least that I can remember).
Now we come to the TeleVues. The Panoptics and Naglers both had excellent views right to the edge in every one I tried and even seemed to be improved over the ones I tried in the 90’s. Overall, they were nice eyepieces. However, when comparing them to the Meades and Celestron wide fields, as clunky as the others were in size, and despite the orange tint for the Meade’s during the daytime, where it counted at night, the two cheaper ones measured up just as well for me at the central part of the field where I wanted it to. While the edges may have been a tad nicer in the TeleVues, they weren’t that much nicer for the sometimes more than double the price. That was the real kicker. Whatever efforts or quality may go into TeleVue, their prices are just too high. I realized, time after time, that no matter how I cut it, those oculars were just too much money. To me they were rich man’s toys. I’m repeating this term for historical purposes because that’s what I called it back then. If course I’ve had to stop using that term as it’s considered inflammatory and after being physically threatened, I guess it was wise to refrain. I have many friends with TeleVue products and more power to them. No, this isn’t over yet. A few years later, I got hold of the newly minted Ethos and ran one through the paces. When I did a review on Amazon… well, that’s another story.
I didn’t spend the entire era just trying eyepieces though, I actually did observe! Sometimes I bagged forty to sixty objects a night. It was quite a prolific time. There were also a few interesting events including a chance meeting with a celebrity. That’s a story for the next time.
A Celebrity Evening With Charlie Callas
It’s funny how life’s paths run together. Call it a small world. Being the only honest-to-goodness astronomical telescope store in the state of Nevada, Scope City tended to draw the occasional celebrity. William Hidebrandt, the store manager was always tending to affluent people looking for their first or maybe even second or third telescopes or accessories. Some were famous. Since we got together for star parties most dark moon weekends, it wasn’t unusual to occasionally have an invite for one of them to join us, though most never did. The only other one I remember off hand was Tom Petty. He was supposed to join us one time at the alternate Blue Diamond site one evening but it never panned out.
One Saturday evening, between 2005 and 2007, we went up to the Lee Canyon weather station. William told me the Friday before he’d arranged for comedian Charlie Callas to come out with us. Charlie had his own 8” Meade or Celestron SCT scope but wanted to get out to a dark sky site just to visit and view through some other scopes. He was getting up in years and wasn’t going to bring his own scope. Too heavy, and I guess he it set up at his house. I wasn’t actually expecting him to show up, to tell the truth.
I got up the mountain and set up as usual. William and his partner, Jim Widman showed up along with a few other people. We all waited for it to get dark. A little while later a car pulls up and William said, “there he is.”
Sure enough, this little guy in a beret-type hat got out with his driver staying a few steps back, and started cracking jokes. Just like the Hollywood Squares. Charlie came down the line, shook our hands, and talked to each of us. His routine was the same. He came up to my scope, pretended to rub the dust off my “lens” on the front of the scope, then climbed the ladder to look through the eyepiece. I think I showed him M-57 and M-13 and maybe a few other things. He really liked my scope and we talked a bit about Hollywood Squares and about his telescope before he moved on to the next scope.
He stayed a while then he and his driver headed back down the mountain. We all had smiles on our faces when he left.
It wasn’t until he passed a few years ago that I found a closer connection to him. Back in Palmdale, I was in a big band when I was a senior in high school. I was a pretty lousy jazz drummer, but the band leader let me play one song, sharing drums with their regular drummer, Phil Tynan, who would go on to play with a local band called Rattlesnakes & Eggs.
That band leader was a close friend of my parents by the name of Felix Mayerhofer. I’ve known Felix since 1969 and have kept in touch with him through Facebook and through my mom. He’s a prolific children’s author and was a band teacher in the Palmdale School District for decades.
When Charlie Callas passed, I posted a tribute on Facebook. Almost immediately, Felix responded. Turns out, before Felix became a band teacher in Palmdale, he was a hot trombone player at the end of the big band era in the 50’s and 60’s. During that era, he played with this drummer named Charlie Callas! That’s right. Charlie Callas was a big band drummer before he became a comedian. In fact, he was a really good drummer, according to Felix, but his heart was in comedy more than music.
Felix was touched with my tribute to Charlie and told me the story of his time with him back in the early 60’s before Charlie switched to comedy. Felix tells that and more in his biography, Diary of a Young Musician – Final Days of the Big Band Era.
My love of the night sky and one of the many forms of music I like came full circle that one Saturday night.
Makin’ Progress With The Herschels
Celebrities and eyepiece controversies aside, the Las Vegas sky conditions proved conducive to quite a few good viewing nights. After that lousy three years in Indiana, it was nice to be back somewhere where every star didn’t have a nebula around it and I could see past mag. 10 deep sky objects. As a consequence, the gaps in my Herschel 1 list slowly filled in.
The hardest objects for me to nail were in the realm of the galaxies, the region of Leo, Virgo, Canes Venatici, Bootes, etc. That spring part of the sky is a huge swath of galaxies crossing from south to north. The catch? That’s also the time of year with the most unstable weather. As much clearer as the skies are in Las Vegas, that doesn’t always apply between March and May! Year after year, I’d keep missing out because of wind, storms, or dust. I’d end up either having to stay super late on a late February evening, or catch the tail end of some of those objects in early June if it wasn’t too cold up on Lee Canyon at the weather station.
Eventually, it all paid off though, and one by one, I plucked each Herschel 1 galaxy out of the sky. On top of that, I started the Herschel 2 list and threw those into the mix. I figured I might as well since I kept seeing all these other faint fuzzies in the same field. Luckily, I had Megastar to help me identify what they were because my Tirion charts, which I’d been using for years, just weren’t detailed enough.
As much as I am no fan of electronic doodads, I found myself cheating a few times. Something new observers may or may not know is that the Herschel lists are not all galaxies, at least the Herschel 1 list isn’t. There is also a fair representation of nebulae and star clusters. Because of this, I was stuck with some really obscure open clusters in, I believe, Eridanus. These open clusters are quite difficult to pick out. The one night I bagged about six of eight of them, we were out at Sunset Overview on the west shore of Lake Mead, before it became severely light polluted. One of our guys had an SCT with GOTO. As I was gazing to the southwest at these dull and obscure clumps of stars, I wasn’t at all sure I’d found the open clusters I was supposed to be spotting. I turned to him (sorry, can’t remember his name) and asked if he’d punch in the number and pull it up. One by one, he did, not only to help but also just to check out his GOTO. Sure enough, I’d nailed the correct grouping each time. That’s how I nailed every one of those open clusters. If not for that helpful friend and his GOTO, I probably never would have known for sure if I’d spotted the right place in the sky. In some cases, the background didn’t look a lot different from the actual cluster.
One by one, I filled in my 400 page book of Herschel objects. In that search, I also made progress on the Herschel 2s, and consequently, a lot of other objects that were not to become part of new lists until several years later. I love lists!
Here is an example of my Herschel log book. It’s derived from the log page I developed when I did my Messier certificate back in the 90’s. I could’ve made it smaller, but I like the bigger format so I can see it easier. Makes a huge book, but that’s just me.
Through all this, I was still using my 16” f/6.4, the 32mm war surplus Erfle and an 18mm Bertele. This was despite testing other eyepieces, which didn’t count toward my Herschel observations. Things were about to change.
I really enjoyed the ASNLV club. It was small but a very friendly group and I’ll always cherish the relationships I had with the members. When I first joined, we met in the science department at UNLV, the University of Las Vegas main campus which gave us an official stamp. However, after a few years, something changed and we could no longer meet there so we had to switch to a new location at the Saturn dealership at the Henderson Auto Mall. That turned out to be the beginning of the end for the club. Our president had lost his job, or had taken on a new job and couldn’t find the time to attend meetings. Our vice president could only make some of the meetings and the Saturn dealership wasn’t the best place to meet. Eventually the club just faded.
In the meantime, David Blanchette “turned traitor” and decided to check out the LVAS again. I like to kid him about that because originally, he’d had some of the same feelings about the club I did. For a while before the end, he’d been going to both club meetings and even as our club wound down, I saw him at what few meetings we had, and at the occasional star party, and he told me there’d been a leadership change at the LVAS and it was not the same club anymore. Eventually, he talked me into trying the old club again.
The moment I walked through the door at the CSN, College of Southern Nevada planetarium door, I could sense a change over the last time I’d been there. Though I saw a few familiar faces from the last time I’d been there, I noticed plenty of strangers. I also saw plenty of smiles and people actually talked to me! However, the biggest change was the new president, Rob Lambert. A real dynamo of an amateur astronomer, this guy, a virtual newcomer to the hobby, embracing it with gusto and his infectious enthusiasm changed the whole face of the club. I immediately sought out John Heller, the treasurer and paid my dues. I never thought I’d see the day I’d be joining what I’d considered a lost cause!
Since I’ve joined the LVAS, it’s given me a solid foundation and base for my amateur astronomy in Las Vegas well beyond what the ASNLV could do, as much as I loved that little club. I miss those guys, but outside of David Blanchette, we’re the only two people that became members of the big club. I’ve lost track of everyone else. I know one member moved to Calee’fornia, but outside of that, I have no idea what happened to the rest of the old gang.
With the new club also came time for a new telescope, but that’s for the next installment.
English Rose Goes Into Retirement
As much as I enjoyed lugging the beast to and from our observing sites, my wife, Kim was worrying about my bad back. English Rose could be quite a chore to ramp up and out of the back of the truck, let alone wheel around to the best spot and in and out of the garage. Of course, I never thought of that myself.
One Friday when I was out and about, I made my usual stop at Scope City and there on the floor was one of the new 16” LightBridge scopes from Meade. Being an f/6.4, it had the same light grasp as mine but a much shorter tube. I played around with it and liked the way the bearings felt and though they were a tad loose compared to the beast, they were well within my tolerances. William and I had a nice long talk about the scope and the price was not bad either, $1836 I think.
That afternoon when I got home, Kim asked me about my day and I mentioned the scope. She perked up and asked me more about it. When I told her the price, I was shocked when she said I ought to go pick it up before they sold it! I was kind of shocked but she said she was worried about my back and since it was the same diameter, I wouldn’t be losing any light grasp. Well… I called William and told him to hold it for me. Knowing how she could change her mind, I drove right back down to Scope City and bought it that evening before he closed. Turns out he had another one in a box in the back so I got a brand new one, unopened.
That evening, I made space in the storage shed out back and retired English Rose. The only thing I salvaged was the finder scope, which I’d obtained from David Blanchette. I even had to get a new ladder as my old one was too big. So, I went to Lowes and picked up a shorter one.
I did a review of the scope which I posted on Cloudy Nights a few years later and is posted again below. It was a good move to buy this scope and I still use it today.
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It’s funny how this is the only industry I know of where you pay thousands of dollars for a telescope and don’t expect everything to work out of the box. To be fair, the Schmidt-Cassegrain systems they mostly sell are complex, but not any more than a piece of stereo equipment or an automobile. But time after time, other amateurs tell of how they set up their scope for the first time and something doesn’t work right.
So, when I decided to buy the 16″ LightBridge, I had to wonder what wouldn’t work. It’s such a simple system, no electronics, no drives, no doodads. Still, you never know. On top of that, consider the optics. I’ve heard many complaints about their old DS-16 mirrors being very mediocre at best, depending on the individual mirror, of course.
Whatever the risks, the LightBridge telescopes are hard to beat for the money. Oh, wait a minute. They’re built in China. No wonder the price. This could be good or bad, depending. Since I won’t be chewing on any of the parts, at least I don’t have to worry about lead based paint! Seriously, I did a little research and these scopes are made by a Taiwanese firm that has their own very similar line of scopes. The optics seemed to be much better than the American equivalents for the price, and they have a good reputation, if the blogs out there are to be believed. With that in mind, I bought my scope.
I must say, I was very pleasantly surprised. The scope came well packed, nothing was missing, and the parts went together with no problems. Nothing was damaged either. Putting the scope together is a snap. There is a little bit of assembly required for the base, but despite numerous grammatical errors in the manual, figuring out how to put it together was easy.
The scope comes in three major pieces, plus the truss tubes. You have the base, the mirror cage, and upper cage. I had first guessed it would all fit in a compact car, but the base is way too big to fit in a trunk or squeeze through a back door. However, when I took it out the first time, I threw the base into the back of the truck and stuck the other parts in the front and back seat of my extended cab. Despite a bad back, I had no trouble handling the weight of each piece.
Setup is simple and can be done by one person, though it would be a little simpler with two to put the cage on the top of the trusses. One reason I bought this scope was because my home built 16″ was just too bulky. It is an f/6.4 where this one is f/4.5, much shorter! Let’s just say the transport and setup is much nicer with the LightBridge.
For first light, I set it up in my driveway and there was nothing to see through all the light pollution except Saturn. I started with the 26mm QX eyepiece that came with it and the planet looked crisp and clear. Sharp as a tack. Then I tried a 12.5mm Ortho and it still looked sharp. Then I put on a 2X Barlow and the magnification was around 300X and Saturn still looked sharp. I must say, the mirror is indeed a keeper.
This scope worked right out of the box, so I was pleasantly surprised. However, like I said before, there is nothing too complex about this machine. The optics are great, but the laser finder is garbage. It functions like it is supposed to, but that is not good enough for my purposes. First off, the laser ring is so bright it drowns out the stars you’re trying to zero in on. I messed with it for a bit but didn’t find an adjustment that would dim the red ring enough to see any stars in it. I found Saturn by turning it off and just eyeing through the little window. Given the aperture of the scope and its deep sky potential, at least a 50mm finder is needed to really find anything. I have one from my other scope and that was the first mod I made.
With the original configuration, the altitude movement is dodgy. Especially with 300X, I could hardly keep Saturn in the field of view. Instead of the smooth movement I expected for a Dob, it was jerky and inconsistent. At lower powers it wasn’t so bad but should’ve been better.
Once I installed the 50mm finder and put in my heaviest eyepiece, that little clutch thing on the altitude bearing didn’t even slow the tube from dropping like a rock. So my second mod was to buy some large band clamps, string a few together, wrap them with duct tape, then clamp an exercise weight to the bottom of the mirror assembly. This gave me just the right amount of balance, and as a bonus, seemed to smooth the altitude movement out. The only problem is that at certain positions, like really low and really high, the altitude movement could still be better, but it works for me. The base moves smooth, especially with that large roller bearing sandwiched between the baseboard and the rocker box.
Alignment of the mirrors is not hard at all. If you have a good laser collimator with the diagonal in it, you can tweak the alignment from the back without constantly going back and forth to the eyepiece. Unfortunately, my Meade laser collimator isn’t straight and as I’ve said in another review on it, there are adjustments to center it which I still haven’t got exactly right. Because of that, I had to do the alignment the old fashioned way and for first light, I just eyeballed it and the crisp images attest to how close I got. When I took it out in the field, I did a more precise alignment with just a pinhole eyepiece instead of the laser, but didn’t notice a difference in the already excellent images.
The focuser is excellent, though it has a little slop in the draw tubes. There is a friction screw that I had to adjust to get the focusing knob to work properly. Now the focuser is silky smooth and I really like the two speed knobs. I’m not really crazy about the position of the focuser on the cage. It is angled up so that you have to arch your body over the trusses to look. This is the perfect position for looking at low to moderate height objects, but when looking straight up or at a high angle, you need a step stool to get to the eyepiece. I’m 6’2″ and I still need a step up when looking at a high angle. The finder is positioned on the far side of the focuser so you have to arch your head over the tube to find stuff. However, the scope is so close to the ground that after a little learning curve, I got used to it and must say it is not a problem. If you are less than six feet tall though, you may have a more awkward time using the scope.
The views of the sky are typical for such a short focal ratio. There is significant coma at the edges, especially at low powers. Plus, the QX eyepiece has natural coma at the edges, which is typical for the Erfle type 70 degree designs. However, I didn’t mind the coma at all. Some people will, and if you want to fork out the bucks for a Paracorr or some other high-end coma correcting eyepiece, the more power to you. Just keep in mind that it adds more elements in the light path that can dim the really faint objects.
The first field test went very well. Despite what looked like a lousy night, we had a three hour window between clouds and wind. During that time, I spotted several Herschels and looked at a few of the “tourist” objects for some visitors. The Orion nebula looked tack sharp and there was no blur between the stars of the trapezium. The nebula was a little washed out but that was because of the transparency in the sky and not the scope. The Pleades showed lots of nebulosity around the brighter stars. Saturn, once again, looked spectacular from 57X up to 300X. The Herschels I looked at were galaxies and despite the less than ideal conditions, the scope performed well. Sweeping was a lot of fun despite the coma. For normal observing, I used an Orion Q-70 32mm eyepiece and I just felt lost in the stars, even though the oversized exit pupil wastes light. I sure didn’t notice!
The scope came with a software CD. I guess it’s for those that want to add GOTO or electronic setting circles. The CD wouldn’t install properly and I wasn’t able to load the star database on the hard drive. The Moon program that came with it crashes when you try to load it and never even tried to load the Messier program since I’ve been there, done that with the Messiers. From what I saw of the main program (which loads despite having the guide stars only on the CD), it doesn’t hold a candle to my Megastar software. I didn’t get the scope for any electronic or automatic capabilities, so I just deleted the programs off my computer and stashed the disc. Not even worth calling Meade over it.
Overall, despite a few little things, I am quite happy with this scope. It is the first brand new commercial telescope I’ve bought since 1967 (a Sears refractor), and I’m quite impressed. The 16″ LightBridge is truly a light bucket and if you like to scan the skies and observe in a low-tech fashion, this scope can’t be beat. Well worth the price. Highly recommended.
New Telescope, New Eyepieces
Now that I had a brand spanking new telescope, it was time to upgrade to some decent 2” eyepieces. My wife came to the rescue. A 2” 26mm Meade QX came with the scope and I was given another QX from a friend named Joe from the old ASNLV who moved to San Diego and never asked for it back. In fact, we lost contact and I have no way to return it. That Christmas of 2007, she bought me the complete set of Orion Q-70 series. Wow! These modified Erfles from China were perfect for low power viewing. They came in 26mm, 32mm and 38mm. With my 2” Parks Barlow, the most expensive ocular I possessed at $200, I had a fair range of magnifications without having to resort to an adapter.
I initially did reviews on all three eyepieces on Amazon in early 2008 and didn’t even get any hate mail, even though I referred to TeleVues as rich man’s toys for the first time in public. That was to come later. These eyepieces became my workhorses for quite a long time. Today, since I’ve purchased several others which I’ll talk about in alter articles, I mainly use the 38mm. It is great for outreach and grabbing all three galaxies in the M-31 group, or the double cluster.
Below is a review I did last year for Cloudy Nights along with a few photos.
I’m not a Nagler fan, to put it bluntly. The ones in this range are more like counterweights and the costs are “astronomical.” And, as I have come to realize after trying many of them, despite the relatively flat fields, I can still see the natural coma of my f/4.5 scope. That means to get a totally flat field, I’d have to spring for a coma corrector, which adds more money and more air-to glass surfaces to worry about.
I have nothing against those that spring for Naglers and other high-end eyepieces, I just don’t see the bang for the buck with them. Because of that philosophy, I prefer the more reasonably priced oculars, and there are plenty to choose from, some good, some really bad.
The Orion Q-70’s are not only reasonably priced, but they come with 2” barrels, which was my original reason for wanting them in the first place. I have been attempting to convert all my eyepieces to 2”. In the end, it didn’t work out that way, but for a good year, the Q-70’s were my primary eyepieces.
I got the whole Q-70 set for Christmas in 2007. I have had a chance to put them through their paces on many occasions in 2008 and 2009 and have got to learn their ins and outs. The 2″ format really helps but the big thing for me is the wide field of view. They are basically a modified Erfle design with 5 or maybe 6 elements, not too many to suck away the faint light I live for. Sure, the edges have a lot of coma, or as I like to call it, the fishbowl effect, but the majority of the field gives excellent images. These eyepiece are great for sweeping, or “mowing the lawn” as I look for faint galaxies. Even at the extreme edge, I could tell the difference between the blur of a star and the blur of a galaxy, and was able to nail over a dozen Herschel 2 galaxies the first night I tried them.
The one I use the most is the 26mm so I will start with it first. In my 16” f/4.5, it gives me a magnification of 70X and a true field of almost 1 degree. It is outstanding for sweeping for faint fuzzies. With it, I have identified several hundred faint galaxies, nebulae and star clusters.
I don’t use the 32mm as much because it wastes some exit pupil, but when I want a larger sweep, it works great.
The 38mm is my favorite on the double cluster.
After careful examination, I found all three perform about the same. The usable area is about 70% of the field. The stars are pinpoints in about 50% of the field, but when looking at an object larger than the central part, you can play with the focus and get the stars relatively sharp over the whole 70% area. Also, because the field is only 70 degrees, the natural coma of the scope is not noticeable. However, the field is far from flat at the edges. At the 70 percent zone, the stars lose focus and flare out.
The contrast, especially in the sweet spot in the center, is outstanding. I noticed it in particular when I viewed the Horsehead nebula for the first time in years. There was no mistaking it. The Orion nebula was breathtaking in its complexity, especially with the 26mm.
Each eyepiece works great with a Barlow. I use a Parks 2” unit and there is nothing about these eyepieces that detracts when using it. In fact, the field becomes flatter.
Eye relief is great, though they can have a sensitive eye cone. Once you get used to the proper eye position, they work great. Each ocular comes with a rubber eye cup but I just leave it at the stock setting and am so practiced with them, the proper eye position comes natural.
The fit and finish of each unit is also outstanding. For their price, these are well-made and solid oculars. Each threaded for filters, I have yet to have a problem screwing in any 2” filter I have. Each unit, especially the 38mm are solid and you know you are holding some serious glass. Yet, they are not just an expensive counterweight.
Another big feature I really appreciate is that the 2” barrels do NOT have one of those stupid safety grooves. Because of that, one would have more leeway when and if the focus is not quite there. You can slide them out a bit if your low-profile focuse will not travel out far enough.
Each unit comes in a nice solid cardboard box, along with a lens cloth and caps for both ends. They are truly quality units.
As I’ve said, these eyepieces aren’t perfect, as in a super wide flat field. But for my money, they don’t need to be. They do everything I want in that focal length and didn’t break the bank to get there. For those of you new to the hobby, don’t let the ad copy in the magazines bamboozle you into taking a second mortgage just to buy one of the high priced oculars. Invest a hundred bucks and get something you can really use. Highly recommended.
Little Did I Know…
Things were really humming along with my astronomy. I had a new telescope, new eyepieces and I was a member of a much different and much friendlier Las Vegas Astronomical Society. I had nearly completed the Herschel 1 list and was already deep into the Herschel 2’s, plus I discovered more and more object lists with potential to keep me busy for a long time, though I hadn’t got around to doing anything about them yet. It was around this time I was also hard and heavy trying out new gear and had the opportunity to get my hands on one of the new TeleVue Ethos eyepieces. Yup, you heard it here. Despite all the bad history, I was in a financial position at that time that I could have sprung for a stupidly priced ocular, the high end of the food chain if I wanted. For once in my life, I actually had the wherewithal to pull it off. The question was, would this chunk of metal and glass be worth $800 bucks?
I put the 17mm Ethos through its paces on a Horsehead night in January, 2009 from the Redstone Picnic Area at Lake Mead. This was to be the first time I’ve seen the Horsehead since the mid 90’s. Alas, it wasn’t with this mechanical marvel.
I swept a rich star area of the sky with the Ethos. Right away, I could tell it was a decent ocular. The star field was sharp and the background black. However, I noticed the coma from my f/4.5 mirror. What? This $800 eyepiece doesn’t cure coma. It cures pincushion and kidneybean and field curvature and whatever, but it can’t cure coma. I would need to spend another $400 on a Parracorr coma corrector, making the true price to get a real flat field at around $1200! Uh oh.
Still, the field was nice, however, what I didn’t like was the wonky eye cone. I had to keep working my eye around to keep it just right or I lost the field of view. That was irritating. The other problem was that I didn’t really like the 100º field. It was too wide. To me, at that magnification, it didn’t frame things properly for me. It left most objects I viewed too tiny and lost in the field.
I compared it to my cheap Q-70 26mm. Sure, the edges were much better in the Ethos, but the center wasn’t any better and that’s all I cared about. Considering the magnification differences, I got just as much pleasure out of my cheap 26mm viewing galaxies as I did out of the Ethos. Then I stretched even further and switched out with a 1 1/4-inch 18mm Bertele which I paid $50 for back in 1995. It has a 65º field or so and just as good of a center as the Ethos with almost the same magnification. This is where I really drew the line.
It came time to try for the Horsehead. Since I hadn’t seen it since the mid 90’s, I was quite surprised when it just appeared in my 26mm Q-70 with the H-beta filter. I was amazed how easy it was to see. Then I switched the filter to the Ethos and no dice! I couldn’t see even a hint of it. The field was so wide I couldn’t get rid of Zeta Orionis, or when I did, I could still see the glare off the edge, but no way could I see the horse’s head. My observing buddy tried and couldn’t see it. So, I used my 1 ¼” H-beta and my Bertele 18mm and guess what? There was the Horsehead! How is it that a $50 eyepiece of approximately the same focal length can see this object yet an $800 monster cannot? I’ve heard all the excuses and they don’t add up to me any more now than they did when I got all the hate mail. Did I say hate mail?
I was pretty disgusted with this monstrosity. I was actually considering forking out enough money to buy a 10” Dobsonian for one. I felt like a complete fool. Soon after, I did a review on Amazon expressing my feelings. I gave it a three star review and called it a “rich man’s toy.” Though I still feel that way, I have since toned down my opinion just to keep the peace and edited that line out.
It sure didn’t take long to start getting hate mail. I’d actually forgot all about it until I received hate mail from a few anonymous TeleVue fanatics that somehow found one of my old e-mail addresses through the net. Scary, isn’t it? I let it go on for a little while then shut that e-mail down (I was sick of the porn ads anyway) but it made me go back and look at my review and there was a slew of comments. That’s how I discovered there was a thread about me on Cloudy Nights. Cloudy What? I’d vaguely heard of the web site but thought it was like Astromart, a place to sell gear. One of the commenters on Amazon told me there was a thread about me there so I checked it out. Sure enough, in the Equipment Forum under Eyepieces, there it was.
I received a few snarky comments (plus a few defending me) on Amazon but nothing like that thread on Cloudy Nights! I learned what fanatics are really all about, as if I didn’t know already. I also learned how to choose my words very carefully because they would be picked apart literally word-by-word, analyzed and spit back, and I made my share of mistakes in the endless discussion that ensued until the moderator had to shut it down because it was going nowhere. To me, it displayed the religious fanaticism I’ve come to know about TeleVue fans since that first idiot didn’t like my opinion of the Nagler he shoved into the Barney Scope at Okie Tex. It also showed how biased we can all get when things get so heated about a stupid eyepiece brand, me included.
When the thread starts with the implication that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I did a review on Amazon instead of Cloudy Nights, that indicates the tone the conversation was headed. Yet I couldn’t resist diving right in anyway.
I became a member of Cloudy Nights and still am to this day. I’ve found the site to be quite fun in other forums (I avoid the equipment section now), despite the seeming overwhelming bias toward TeleVue and other brands that many accuse the site of. In fact, there are many that refuse to go there because of that perceived bias, so I’m not alone in noticing it. However, I’m not so fanatical in my dislike for TeleVue that I stay away from anything to do with them. Geez! They’re only a brand of gear, not the Antichrist! I’ve said before I admire Al Nagler for his business acumen and his ability to put out a product that generates a fanatical following. I can’t fault him for that. I just don’t choose to be part of it.
Off my soap box again, I became a pariah in that very public astronomical community because as a member of Cloudy Nights, I gave my real name, location and even a photo so everyone knows who I am.
It all boils down to the fact that I am still not impressed with the Ethos line, even after trying the 21mm and the shorter focal lengths since then. I find the fields either too wide or the wonky eye cone too hard to deal with. If these oculars were $150 and not made by TeleVue, I might have been tempted at one time, but their quirks still don’t warrant the price, in my opinion. Explore Scientific sells their own 100º field oculars but I’m just not interested. Now they even have those 120º oculars at a price even stupider than TeleVue at $1000. I love my Explore Scientific 18mm, but no thanks!
A lot has happened since that review including another one I did on the 20mm Nagler type 5 which I’ll talk about in a later installment. This whole incident introduced me to Cloudy Nights, reaffirmed my opinions of the TeleVue crowd, and also showed how stupid the arguments can become when it comes to any type of equipment, not just TeleVue. All one has to do is go to the Equipment Forum on Cloudy Nights and pick a thread at random and you’ll likely find an argument about minutiae that will go off into never never land, especially when it comes to the high end brands like TeleVue, Brandon, Questar and such.
Soon after this I would stir the pot again, but something much better would come from it.
Fed Up With Astrophotography
Not that I’ve ever really been disillusioned with the hobby personally, but socially, it’s had challenges. After becoming a pariah to all the TeleVue loyalists, I haven’t exactly endeared myself in the astronomical community. That’s never stopped me from either being a member of a club (yet) or going to star parties.
In late 2008, I went out to Redstone Picnic Area on the north shore road of Lake Mead, Nevada with my friend, William and his Scope City gang. It was too cold to go up the mountain so this was our winter spot and it is still (even as of 2012) quite dark. Back then, we had quite a crowd show up along with a fair scattering of newbies. I set up the 16-inch LightBridge and went about my business viewing faint fuzzies.
As the evening progressed, I idly listened to the chatter around me. After a while it got under my skin. It was all talk about astro-photography. Every single word of it was! This model this and that model that. All about equipment for taking images and such. Not a single word was uttered about visual observing, and guess what we were doing! Not one person out there had a camera! To top that off, very few of these people, after much effort to set their scopes up, align them and go through all that crap to get them to track, were actually looking at anything! To be fair, there were two people with Dobs but they were mostly talking to the astrophotography guys and gals.
I had by far, the largest aperture out there, yet after two hours of observing, only one person came over to see what I was looking at (besides William). You know what he asked? He asked how I took images with it! Now, this is the real clincher. I told him I had absolutely no interest in taking images, never would. He actually gasped. This kid (I say that figuratively) glared at me like I’d just dropped an f-bomb in front of a bunch of third graders at take your parent to school day!
The guy walked away from me and never asked to look through the scope. He wasn’t even interested in looking through the eyepiece!
That evening made me think back on the past two decades and to trends I’d been noticing in amateur astronomy.
The next day, I was pissed. I blew off some steam and wrote a letter on the LVAS message forum. I pissed off some people in the club!
In my message I vented a few things which I’ll paraphrase below:
Many newbies coming into the hobby thinking that
- The goal of every amateur astronomer is to take images.
- Visual observing is only for those that can’t afford an imaging setup yet.
If you look at the two magazines, they’re overwhelmingly biased toward imaging.
In most clubs, even though they support outreach, the vast majority of the members are either imagers or those striving to be imagers.
Visual observing is given a back seat to imaging.
The funny thing is that though I pissed off some people and developed the reputation as that cranky old visual guy (which I still have and we joke about at meetings), I also attracted the attention of one Roger Ivester, a club member at large in North Carolina. He read my rant and realized we’re kindred spirits. He, like me, could care less about imaging. Roger is a strict visual observer. The difference between him and I is that he uses an equatorial mount where I us a Dobsonian. He also is an outstanding artist where I do chicken scratches in comparison.
We exchanged a few e-mails and before you know it, we (I think Roger suggested it first) came up with an idea to pick an object a month and challenge people to observe it. Not to just look at it, but really observe it, see it for the first time. This way, people can get used to using an eyepiece and hone their observing skills. Then maybe observers could draw the object, take some observational notes, or even image it. At first we weren’t really too keen on images but we decided early on that we couldn’t exclude them either because not only could someone observe from an image, but some people like our other partner, Rob Lambert, cannot see well through an eyepiece so he has to use a Mallincam video assisted system to see the objects.
The first two challenges, M-1 the Crab Nebula, and NGC-2403 a galaxy in Camelopardalis, were primitive write-ups. We compiled some data from a few observers including Roger and I and a few others and Rob threw it all together on the LVAS web site. However, it wasn’t quite right. I, being a technical writer, turned each monthly report into a technical document starting with the April 2009 Challenge.
From there, the Observer’s Challenge has grown and we’re now in our fourth year. All because I got pissed off at a star party over astrophotography!
Glutton For Punishment
Things hummed right along with the LVAS. We had some great star parties going on, public events and now with Roger Ivester, the budding Observer’s Challenge. Along with that, I was seriously into solidifying my eyepiece collection. This was a time in my life where I finally had the income to get what I wanted for my telescope. I had the aperture I could afford, though I would have loved a 32-incher, I knew that was probably never going to happen! Instead, I would have to do with my LightBridge and at best, enhance it with practical eyepieces. I didn’t see anything else out there that rocked my boat, especially after being burned with the whole Ethos thing. I’d heard about the new Explore Scientific series but back in late 2008 and early 2009, they were not readily available yet, or didn’t have what I was looking for at the time.
In early 2009, I had a chance to once again, try a TeleVue product. I wasn’t completely turned off to them yet. I was looking for something in the 20mm range. The sweet spot for my scope for magnification and exit pupil requires an eyepiece focal length of around 20mm. One night while we were up at the Sawmill trailhead, I had the opportunity to try the Nagler 20mm Type 5. Though the price of $450 was ridiculous, if it impressed me with spectacular views, I had sufficient enough cash flow at the time to splurge and get one.
Below is the original unabridged review:
I was really hopeful that I’d find a Nagler that actually blew me away, and this one had promise. Sporting their famous 82º field, excellent contrast and sharpness, and doing so with only 6 elements piqued my interest. However, the ultra-high price tag was a huge bar from ever getting this eyepiece. Still, I was sorely tempted to buy one if the performance was exceptional. Unfortunately, that was not the case here.
I finally got to try one the other night. Admittedly the viewing conditions were not ideal. Despite being at an altitude of 7,400 feet, an icy wind and glowing sky did not make for a spectacular night.
I first tried it on the Leo Trio. With my cheap old Orion 26mm Q-70, I could get all three galaxies in the field, though the distortion at the edges was noticeable. However, the sweet spot in the middle provided plenty of detail as I centered each galaxy. Then I switched to the 20mm Nagler.
With its 82º field, even at the higher power, I was able to squeeze all three galaxies in the field, and they were not distorted at the edges. That is a nice plus, and one of the things these eyepieces are known for. However, the contrast and sharpness, no matter where I had each galaxy in the field, was no better than that sweet spot in my Q-70. I also didn’t see any more detail than I did at the lower power of the 26mm Orion. Even given the less than ideal viewing conditions, I was expecting something more.
Then I tried M-13. For all the talk of their sharpness and contrast, I expected the Nagler to reveal the propeller, a dark area within the cluster, but alas, I couldn’t see it. When I added a Barlow, the propeller flashed in and out of focus and looked almost identical to the view when I switched to the lower power Q-70. The feature actually showed up better when I dropped an 18mm Russian made Bertele into the Barlow.
Given the crummy seeing, I still did not see enough of a boost in performance, the wide flat field notwithstanding, to warrant the ridiculous price. There is no doubt that this eyepiece has excellent optics, however, the overall performance does not warrant the high cost. I can live with the fishbowl edges of my $90 Q-70, as the sweet spot in the middle is what I’m really after, and it performs just as well as the Nagler in that respect.
I still wouldn’t mind having one of these eyepieces, and if it were say $150, I would probably get one. But $450? No way.
Unfortunately, I have to classify the Nagler 20mm Type 5 as another rich man’s toy. Don’t let anyone fool you. You can be just as serious of an amateur astronomer without breaking your bank on one of these. If you are planning to buy a new telescope and eyepieces, my advice is to spend those extra dollars on telescope aperture. You can do just fine with a cheaper eyepiece.
Since I did that original review, I edited two things. The Russian made Bertele I later found out was actually a Russell Optics Bertele. The second thing was that I took out the inflammatory line, Unfortunately, I have to classify the Nagler 20mm Type 5 as another rich man’s toy. Even though I still whole-heartedly believe that, I’ve found that it’s too inflammatory for the sensitive fans. Since so few people read this blog and since this is my warts and all story, I am show it here because I don’t give a crap!
Surprisingly, I only got one nasty comment on Amazon for this review. I’d thought of posting the edited version on Cloudy Nights but figure they wouldn’t even post it there as being inflammatory, even my edited version, or not detailed enough, or being too negative. I’ve several eyepiece reviews there but stay away from the sacred cows for obvious reasons!
Despite this kerfuffle, I also honed my observing skills thanks to the Observer’s Challenge. I now not only had to write something more elaborate than just “Small oval disk, faint”, I had to actually draw it. Plus I got to see how others described things.
Next time, more on the early Observer’s Challenge.
The Observer’s Challenge Gets Going
2009 saw the Observer’s Challenge come into its own. What started as my rant on astrophotographers and Roger Ivester’s desire to spark a widespread interest in visual observing began to take focus and pick up more participants. I must say that this project never would’ve had any exposure without the enthusiastic help of our (at the time) club president and web master, Rob Lambert. When we asked him if he’d be willing to post the challenges on the LVAS web site, he readily agreed. In fact, the first two Challenges were in a very primitive state. Originally, we just threw a bunch of observing notes and a couple of drawings together and sent them to Rob. He then had to compile it all and post it on the web site.
Seeing as how I’m a technical writer by trade, or was at the time, it finally dawned on me that we needed an official format. I thought about it a bit, discussed it with Roger and wrote up a draft of a standard format. At that time, since I was deep into technical writing standards, I made the decision to convert everyone’s notes into third person past tense. To me, the technical nature of our Challenge seemed to warrant that. I also set some early standards, which have been tweaked over time. For brevity, magnitude became mag., Messier designations became M- and the number and NGCs all became NGC- and the number. Because of the stupid arguments and dealings I had with TeleVue and other brand name arguments I witnessed in the forums on Cloudy Nights, I made a command decision to remove any and all brand names from the notes, no matter what. Unfortunately, because of the highly technical nature of the astrophotos presented, I couldn’t and still cannot figure out how to edit them out without butchering the info. Besides, there tends to be fewer issues with that info anyway.
I started each master copy with the same standard introduction. I updated it once, sometime after 2009. I may address that in a future article. After that standard intro, we decided to have a blurb, or history on the object or objects observed. Then we chose to add references with notes from several books including Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and Skiff & Luginbuhl to name a few. We later trashed that idea due to copyright and bibliography issues.
Next would be the observers and their notes. I’d place them in random order, sometimes with any new observers up top, sometimes one of the regulars. Whatever I felt like, but the intention was to give everyone a chance to be at the top.
What I didn’t realize at first was that Rob had his own idea of how the Challenge should be written! He changed all my edits to first person, took the dashes out of the Messier numbers, etc. I kept my masters the same but let him re-edit the web version the way he wanted it. I still posted the master on our web e-mail list so there were always two versions available. It wasn’t until 2012 when we converted them all to .pdf files that I had to go back and re-edit all the old ones. I cleaned things up and agreed to at least change to first person!
All the technical stuff aside, Rob was our champion on the web and that brought us a lot of exposure. We picked up more and more new observers and the year hummed along. I started to draw more detail for the objects we picked and wrote more detailed notes. Speaking of which, Roger and I went over the list of objects for 2009 and hashed out what they would be. They were mostly his suggestions with a few of mine. He was the fire that really heated things up and he was brimming with ideas for objects. I had a few like M-13 and M-1. We went for mostly easy objects but though they were easy, we wanted people to really look at them, not just go “Okay, there’s a cluster.”
M-13 is the perfect example and the one I still use as my example when I pitch the Challenge at our meetings. Almost every amateur has gazed at M-13. However, how many have really looked at it? How many have seen the spider arms? How many have seen the propeller? How many have seen the nearby galaxy NGC-6207? You may look at the cluster all night and never notice this if you aren’t really looking at it!
We finalized the list along with an object Roger has been obsessed with for a long time, the odd asterism, the Virgo Diamond. It was our Spring 2009 Challenge. I’d never heard of it until he told me about it and I’m glad he did.
What I thought was cool was how enthused Rob became when we went out together. Though I could never observe with Roger, I did many times with Rob. He uses a Mallincam setup which might seem contradictory to where I’m coming from with visual, but it’s not, actually. He cannot see very well through an eyepiece so he got the Mallincam so he’d be able to see and enjoy the objects better.
Though it might take him an hour or more to set up and get going, in which I could make fun of him as I’ve already observed a dozen objects, when he did get set up, always with the screen facing away from me, of course, he’d look for the same objects and get images on his screen very similar to what I was getting visually. At the time he was using a 4-inch refractor and a 10-inch SCT. In fact, we could compare and verify the objects. Sometimes he would verify fine details, and me to verify the correct object through his GOTO.
What’s really cool is that the images Rob submits to the Challenge are not overly processed Hubble-like presentations but realistic exposures, very much like what Roger and I would see through the eyepiece. Very much similar to visual observing. Perfect for the Challenge.
We also gathered participants from the world of astrophotography. Though their images seem to also go against visual observing, which was what the Challenge was all about, we weren’t about to exclude anyone and welcomed them with open arms. Most of the time, their images were short exposures similar to visual and included extensive visual notes which is what this Challenge represents. They are highly valued contributors and don’t bog us down with a lot of technical talk about cameras and exposures. The purpose of this Challenge is the object NOT the equipment!
2009 saw the start of a great new project.
Annoying Things I’ve Noticed At Outreach Events (& Other)
I’m a big participant in the Cloudy Nights forum. I visit the site almost every day. During the work week, I’ll take a peek at break or maybe during lunch. Sometimes in the evenings. On the weekends, I can usually dedicate more time to handle more elaborate answers. Unfortunately, many times my fun is spoiled due to the subject matter.
It’s the same old bugaboo I’ve railed about before and not to harp on it, but it has to do with those nasty old initials T and V. I usually scan the Beginners, the General Observing and Astronomy and the Deep Sky forums. For the past few years, I’ve deliberately avoided the eyepiece and equipment forums, specifically due to those two initials, T and V. Unfortunately, plenty of that crap bleeds over into the other three seemingly non-controversial subject lines.
I troll these sites for interesting posts, ready to either dole out advice or my opinion, especially on the first two forums, or simply state my experiences, especially in the Deep Sky Forum. I’ll see a great subject that I think is going to be the start of a dynamite discussion, only to have that big elephant come stomping into the room. I read the first post and it starts out with either a blatant brag (or a seemingly off hand but assuming everyone has one comment) about guess what? My bull meter goes off the charts and I lose interest in the subject, no matter how intriguing it might have sounded because I know what the subject is really about. When I see that stuff, it’s hard to get past the bragging about TV and on to whatever the supposed innocent subject it might have been. The blatant bias is built right in. I’ve heard back-handed comments from others that this is a big turnoff also. That’s one reason that (which I’ve probably mentioned ad-nauseum) I’ve taken all the brand names out of my signature block and don’t mention them much in posts any more unless they are specifically brought up. Of course, then I can’t resist throwing them in because those comments are so rare, especially on this web site. I feel amateurs HAVE to know there are alternatives. At the same time, I used to list all my equipment with brand names, just to show that I didn’t have ANY TV products. Now I realized how childish that was, but also that I was in my own way, bragging about what I DID have. That could also lead to stupid (there I said it) arguments going the other way. So, I took all of that out. Now I just list what I have by specification, no brand names. No controversy. People know what I’m using but not who built it.
As a now, long-time veteran of public outreach, I’ve done so many events that they all run together. I’ve had long lines at the telescope and gathered years of anecdotal evidence along with it. Little things I’ve noticed from beginnings at the first Okie-Texes to the small Lawton and Altus events to all of the ASNLV and LVAS events, and they’re not about the public but the amateur astronomers. I’ve learned what the public seems to like the best and what they don’t but may be too polite to tell some people. I’ve overheard them talking and my friends and family have also.
Not to harp on my big bugaboo some more but one big beef is this first one. If you have any regular eyepiece and someone asks you the “power”, you tell them, more than likely after correcting them by telling them it’s magnification and not power. Some of you might go on to explain what that really means and go on with what the boxes the cheap refractors come in say about “power” etc.
However, if you are a TV owner, this is what you get.
“So, what power are you using?”
“Well, let’s see. This is a Nagler 9mm with a…”
When the first words out of the guy’s mouth are something TeleVue, that’s a big smug red flag.
Then they go into a spiel about TeleVue and the virtues of their products.
Or even worse, you get the Ethos fanatic who tries to convince you that you can see the equivalent of a twenty-five inch telescope view with a ten-inch telescope. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that one.
I’ve had dozens of outlook people come up to me wondering what these people are talking about. They’d say this other guy went into some sales pitch or the gospel about some TeleVue thingie in their telescope. All they wanted was to look at Jupiter and then it was too blurry. They didn’t know why, but I did because the “power”… oops, sorry, “magnification” was too high.
Speaking of which. My second beef. A lot of times, with roughly equivalent scopes on the field, between twelve and twenty inches or more, a lot of people would tell me how much better the view as in my scope. They’d say it was clearer or the object was either larger or smaller but easier to see or just nicer to look at. With such a long line at my scope, I didn’t always have a chance to compare views. However, when I did, I wandered over and checked out the views on the same object through a variety of similar aperture scopes to see why I kept getting these compliments. I don’t know if people were being polite or what. I don’t think so because not only were every age of adults saying so, but little kids, who have no filter.
What I found was a variety of things. The guys with driven systems always seem to want to crank the magnification up way too high for conditions. Where I may be using 102X with an 82º field, they will have a (guess what?) EP plugged in for a magnification of 300X. Sure, the drive is keeping say, Jupiter on there, but the planet is blurring in and out of focus, so bad, it’s Ghandi-dancing like crazy, and the slightest touch to the EP causes jiggle despite the steady mount. Or, the scope may be huge, but the magnification may be stingy, like 40 or 60X to keep it in the field longer on the un-driven Dob. It’s so tiny, it almost looks like one of the moons through my scope! Okay, I’m exaggerating. Then there is the Ethos fanatic. This person will have that 100º monster in at a moderate magnification, but with the field stretched so far, Jupiter still looks tiny. People’s perception is still off.
In the above observations, in all fairness, I can’t just pick on TV. It happens with all brands. Some people just don’t know how to give the public a good view. They’re thinking like an experienced amateur astronomer instead of a first-time viewer. In that same way, I don’t try to show the public some faint fuzzy they can barely see. That’s why I call the bright stuff the “tourist objects.” We’re dealing with people who have never looked through a telescope before. They don’t care about brand names, they don’t care about super-high magnification, they don’t care about how wide the field is and if it’s flat all the way to the edge. They want to be impressed by what’s in the center for about two to twenty seconds. Then they can go “ooh” and “aah.” Maybe it will spark their interest and they’ll want to see more. Maybe they’ll stick around for another look or come back again. Maybe they’ll show up to a meeting. The rest will never look through an eyepiece again. NONE of these people want a sales pitch or to have their observing skills tested when they don’t have any!
I must point out that the majority of my buddies come to the public outreach events and do things right. From those with 60mm (2.4-inch) refractors up to our own monster 25-inch Dob, most of our club members know how to deal with the public. However, over a lot of years, there have been those I’ve run across, that I still run across occasionally that don’t do us or the public any favors.
I’m just sayin’.
The Joys Of Outreach
Being at this for 47 years now, I’ve had a lot of experience at the eyepiece (or eyepieces, to be exact). One of the greatest joys is to share it with others. In the really good old days of the sixties, especially since I didn’t know diddly myself, I was in no position to show much to anyone else except my buddy Dennis and maybe my mom or dad which was not likely since they had no real interest. That left Dennis, pretty much my only observing companion until I met my bandmates Gary and Steve. By this time, I’d already started work on my 8-inch mirror and had access to the school’s 6-inch Criterion RV-6 reflector. With that “serious” aperture, I could stumble across a few things and show my buddies M-57, M-13 and the odd planet. They appreciated it.
From that point until my senior year of high school, when my 8-inch was done, I never had anyone else to show anything to. By then, I still could only find a few of the tourist objects so I wasn’t skilled enough to give much of a tour. Come to think of it, it was pretty much what I still show to the crowds 47 years later!
As the astronomy club president, we now had two “large aperture” telescopes to use on our infrequent star parties, my 8-inch and the RV-6. Of course, with me being the only one who knew how to find anything, it was still M-57, M-13, the newly acquired M-31 and M-8. I must add the odd planet also. My outreach career was already in full swing though it was the same guys over and over again.
My one trip to Mt. Pinos for what might have been one of the first RTMC’s, (which might have just been a regular star party, now that I think of it), wasn’t outreach. It was other amateurs with a lot more experience. Plus, most of that time seemed to be about the guys bragging up their gear and not really looking at anything.
From there, my outreach consisted of friends visiting our houses in either Spain, Turkey, West Virginia or Abilene, Texas for the next 20+ years. I wasn’t in a group. Yet, once in a while, as I became more experienced and especially when I built the 16-inch, I was able to find a lot more objects to choose from. Friends would come over, I’d find an object and give them a look. They’d look into the eyepiece, and more often than not, I’d get a “Wow!”
That reaction is gold.
Then as now, people aren’t always impressed. What they see isn’t a Hubble shot or it doesn’t look like a photo. Sometimes I go through the trouble to prepare them, but especially nowadays, I don’t bother. I let them figure it out on their own. They should discover that little “surprise” or “disappointment” on their own. It reminds me of that outreach I did at the Galleria Mall back in 2004 when I showed Venus during the day and because it was a crescent, one person swore I was showing them the moon. What was worse was they wouldn’t believe me when I told them it wasn’t and even showed them the moon was behind us. I guess they thought because the eyepiece was aiming that way, instead of the scope, that it was the moon and I was pulling their leg.
As we settled in first, Oklahoma and then finally ended up in Las Vegas in 2002, I’d become more involved in a club and thus, more with outreach. I’m one that doesn’t dread these events. In fact, I look forward to them. I have no desire to “show off” my equipment. I think that is stupid, flat out. Most people naturally will ooh and aah at the size of my scope, but they have no idea what it actually does, so they have no idea what they’re oohing and aahing about. Pointless. As I’ve mentioned time and time again, it’s even dumber to brag or get all worked up about the eyepieces also. Totally meaningless to strangers. I love doing outreach because of what I said earlier. When they look through the eyepiece and say “Wow!” That makes it all worthwhile.
Who knows? That view may inspire someone to get into the hobby. My job, my passion, my drive is to encourage them to look into our hobby, to see it in real terms and not as something that is a money well, a math nightmare, a status war, an intellectual nightmare.
The simple pleasure of peering into an eyepiece and seeing the beauty of the heavens, live, is something that can be experienced by anyone with modest means, a little patience and the willingness to learn a bit about the sky.
The joy of outreach is to show those tourist objects to everyone, whether it’s for two seconds or twenty. Many will never look again, but some will walk away and carry with them the memory of knowing they’ve peered deep into the universe and seen something many of their friends probably never will. A few may come back for a second look. Even fewer may want to take it up as a hobby. Can’t ask for more than that.
I Hear A Lot About Boredom
Maybe it’s just the times and being able to recognize ADHD and AD for being more widespread than anyone thought, but I hear more and more how people are becoming, or have become bored with “astrominny.” If I haven’t used that deliberate misspelling before, I’m using it now. I like to play with words and that’s one I throw around a lot along with “Wow, Mister. I want to get a big microscope like you and become an astrologer.” I just can’t help myself. After all, it keeps things exciting, at least for me, right? It keeps everything from being boring. I say that will deep sarcasm, because if there’s one thing about astronomy (or most other subjects I find interesting) that has never happened to me, I have never been bored. Ever.
I have to constantly bite my tongue when I see so many dive into this hobby with thousands of dollars in equipment, far more than I could afford in a lifetime. Then these individuals get bored in a split-second and move on to something else. It seems to me, the ADHD/AD subculture is running rampant and once in a while, it just happens to touch amateur astronomy. I guess it’s great for the equipment manufacturers. On the other hand, as I just witnessed on the Cloudy Nights forum, there’s a thread with some amateurs that have been at this a while, and the question came up about burnout. Burnout?
Burnout can result from diving into the hobby with both barrels blazing. By letting astronomy eat up every waking minute, or getting yourself involved with every astronomy related activity you can, you wake up one day and realize you’ve taken too much on. It’s like the person at the buffet loading their plate and halfway through the meal, realizing they can’t eat half of it. That doesn’t seem to be the case from what I see most of the time.
A lot of responses about astronomy burnout seemed to be more down-to-earth. The individuals pursued the hobby for a while and just got bored with it. This resulted in changing how they approached the hobby. Maybe they started with visual and changed to astrophotography. Or, they first went for the Messiers and changed to comets. Whatever the case, they got bored or burned out with astronomy. To keep from leaving the hobby, they had to find some other way to keep it interesting so they’d stick with it. While this isn’t necessarily a sign of ADHD, it reminds me a lot of the thirty-second attention span drilled into many people from the MTV generation. I’m not saying any of these individuals were affected by that, but I see similarities.
In my case, I became hooked on astrominny when I received that crappy Sears 60mm refractor at Christmas, 1966, 47 years ago. I unpacked that thing and couldn’t wait to take it out and find Uranus! Of course, I never did because I couldn’t aim it correctly, for one, and for the other, I had no idea where to look for Uranus.
I must ad one caveat to all of this. I know there are some people that come into the hobby with only a casual interest, to begin with. It’s perfectly understandable that they could get bored with it more easily than someone that would dive into it full-bore. Not everyone has the passion for this hobby that I do. However, seeing how fired up people get over subjects such as equipment and AP, I have a hard time finding as many of the casual hobbyists.
My interest only grew from there. It never waned. Burnout has never, even once, entered the picture. I don’t have ADHD. I don’t get bored easily. I never let the MTV era affect my attention span. In fact, it annoyed me to no end. Maybe I’m lucky I don’t suffer from those afflictions, but it bugs me to no end to keep hearing so many amateurs dabbling in this hobby and getting bored so fast, or even at all. I know I should just let it roll off my back. However, when I see so many plunge deep into amateur astronomy, so cock-sure and full of knowledge and then burn out like a Fourth of July firework and move on to the next hobby, it’s like they’re trivializing it. Then again, why should I care? There are still people that don’t have those issues. The problem as I see it is that there seem to be fewer and fewer people like me. When my generation, and maybe the generation after mine is gone, will amateur astronomy be just a flash-in-the-pan thing? Will it be like an app that people get, use for a while then delete? Or, will there be anyone left with an attention span long enough to keep it going?
I certainly hope so.
Probably because the web site Cloudy Nights is the focal point for so many people, there’s bound to be more diverse opinions. With so many in the mix, why not a mix of whiners? Yup, I’m talking about a recent post that is actually a summation in so many words what a few others have been dancing around about, “When Astronomy Becomes A Chore.”
Since I’m trying to keep this web site clean, I won’t use the first term that comes to mind, though I’m sorely tempted.
Astrominny is a hobby to most. To me it’s a lifelong passion. I guess I just don’t see it the say way as most. Then again, when you have several thousand people contributing to the Cloudy Nights forum, these few whiners are not the majority. I think of some of the people in our club, the LVAS, for instance. The club officers go way above and beyond to keep the club going. To me, that can make astronomy a chore but not the hobby itself, the running of a club. There’s a big difference.
I think the intent of the poster was more hypothetical (as opposed to whining), though it also involved his setting up his scope for astrophotography and having everything go wrong, etc. He was asking how others handle the situation since he’d also seen other similar posts about burnout.
If the hobby is that much of a burden, find another hobby! Don’t whine about it!
I started this page on my web site to reminisce about the good old days when I first came into astronomy (astrominny), but also to give my views on the hobby and my experiences. We’ve come a long way since that first installment. Never once, despite the negative experiences, rare as they were, have I thought of this as a chore. Then again, I’m smart enough not to take on the burden of becoming a high-ranking club officer. I can handle being secretary, but anything above that is beyond my grasp, especially with also being in a writer’s group. Both clubs take enough time away from home.
To think that one second of this wonderful and fascinating hobby could be boring, to me is ludicrous. Yet, I readily see and accept the glazed look in the eyes of most people when I even mention the subject. In that regard, I understand people who start this hobby full force, go at it for a while, then consider it a chore. However, my answer is simple. Stop. Do something else. Shelve your thousands of dollars worth of gear you never should have bought right off, and do whatever, until the whim strikes you again. Does that sound about right?
I see this predicament as that some people find astronomy interesting enough to dive right in full force, burn out then decide it was too much. I’m back to the buffet line analogy. Fill the plate then decide it was too much and you aren’t really all that crazy about what you scooped up.
I spent many years stumbling, as my long and winding story has outlined. Wobbly mounts, crappy clock drives, a mirror that wouldn’t cooperate. Setbacks. Did that mean burnout? Not at all! That meant back to the drawing board for another go. Try something else. Never did it dawn on me to quit. Never did I consider giving up. I continued working angles until I found my groove which turned out to be the simplest of all, the plain old Dobsonian, after all that trouble and experimentation. I can say though, it was a lot of frustrating fun getting there!
I started slow because of ignorance and economics. The economics kept me from diving in too fast to where the ignorance caught up to the equipment or the equipment overwhelmed the ignorance. With that slow burn, I grew into the hobby, learned patience and my fascination never waned. I never lost that wonder. I learned what I really wanted, developed goals, caught my groove. I can see why new people burn out quickly. They get too much, too soon with no chance to develop a sense of wonder. Maybe that’s the problem with these whiners. They skipped a few steps.
The good and bad of participating in a forum like Cloudy Nights is that you get all kinds. Just as with any other large group of people, there will be just as many opinions, some of them close to yours while others are on the fringes.
The other day, there was a post about do you consider yourself an amateur astronomer or what… something like that. I, of course, chimed in. To tell the truth, I really could care less what I am thought of. However, I said something like well… let me quote what I actually said, direct from Cloudy Nights. First, the title of the thread is: Amateur Astronomer and whether you, as one of the hobby, consider yourself one.
My first response: I use the term, more for convenience sake that actual definition. This discussion has come up before. I’m actually a visual observer (stargazer) and former telescope maker. Truth be told, I don’t consider myself the astronomer part at all because 1: I’m allergic to math, and actual astronomers are many times little more than glorified mathematicians that have a focus on astronomical stuff. 2: I’m not all that interested in the science or if at best, only casually interested. 3: Most real astronomers never get anywhere near an actual telescope. They leave that to technicians.
NOTE: I’m generalizing because there are a few real astronomers that actually look through telescopes as a hobby. I guess they would be considered “amateur astronomers” on the side?
Right off, came a response that there were a lot of actual astronomers that were also observers, even though I clearly stated I was generalizing.
Then, after that, came a rather pointed reply about how people are always putting labels on everything.
My second response: I never meant to imply that I actually cared that much! Keep in mind, this whole discussion, at least from my part, is with a huge grain of salt. Though we all put labels on stuff, nobody has to take them seriously or dig too deep into their meaning. Whether I call myself a stargazer, amateur astronomer or something else, I’m not going to freak out about it. Nobody else should either.
I stand by that. I don’t care! Some people, especially when you get such a large crowd, tend to get all high and mighty about things. A few people chimed in to agree with the poster about labels. I, for one, still don’t care, but figured I’d just better shut up as I know how circular arguments end up, as I’ve already talked about from my experiences with the eyepiece forums.
This is what you get when you speak your mind, however facetiously or even half-seriously. You get others doing the same, but sometimes going off the rails.
Just because this is amateur astronomy (oops, I just said that again), doesn’t make it any different or more noble than any other hobby or pursuit.
What do you want to call me? Amateur astronomer? Visual observer? Stargazer? Prick? The choice is yours. I’m easy.
Green Laser Pointers
Ever since I first saw one in Scope City in Las Vegas, I thought it was a novel idea. A green laser pointer seemed like the ideal finder, especially since I wasn’t real fond of craning my neck to look through my 50mm straight-through finder. I was well used to it, since I’d been using one for decades, but a change would be nice.
For about 20 years, I used a 30mm straight-through finder. It sucked, to be honest. Then again, with my dismal but growing knowledge of the sky, it at least got me in the ballpark. It transferred from my 8-inch f/9.44 to my 16-inch f/4.5 and worked for a while. When I inherited an old pair of binoculars from my grandpa, I got the brilliant idea to make a straight-through finder. I already had two 25mm Kellner eyepieces from Coulter Optical. Both had twist focuser adjustments which made them idea for my purposes. So, I took the 50mm lenses out of the binoculars and mounted them in a straight metal tube, no baffling. At the other end, I mounted the eyepiece. For the crosshairs, I grabbed some hairs off my dawg, Noche and glued them into the focal plain. One of those was my finder until around 2007. The other went to my friend Tony Labude, who I just found out, still uses it to this day.
I replaced that finder with a Meade straight-through from my friend David Blanchette who dented his when his scope fell over in Death Valley during a bad wind gust. I’ve been using that one ever since. Around the time I got that one, I picked up my green laser pointer.
I’ve tried the Telrad and absolutely hate it. Worst piece of crap on the planet as far as I’m concerned. Others swear by them and that’s fine. To me, the red rings get in the way of faint stars and you still have to crane your neck. Might as well use the straight-through finder. I also tried the red dot finder that came with my Mead LightBridge. I immediately pulled it off my scope and tossed it. Piece of crap and same as a Telrad.
With the green laser, I just turn it on, aim it at the spot and I’m in the ballpark. Half the time, I’m right on the money. Most of the time, I just have to mow the lawn a little bit, and I’m on the object. It’s the best doodad investment I’ve ever made.
The only times I can’t use the laser is when the batteries go dead, it’s not dark enough to see it, or when it gets too cold for it to work. When the air temp gets below about 40°, forget it. The thing only comes on for a split second and stops. I don’t want to hassle with a heater coil as that’s just another doodad that has the potential to break, so in that case, if I can tolerate the cold, I use the 50mm finder.
The ugly side of this is the news stories about idiots abusing lasers. Though every time it comes up, the astronomical community (i.e. Cloudy Nights in particular) acts like it’s news, and a certain segment gets fired up and wants them banned permanently from amateur astronomy. Bullcrap.
As it is, throughout the country, there is a ban on green laser pointers at most major star parties and at many of the clubs. The reason is an out of portion sense of danger and panic over some non-amateurs who like to paint planes, helicopters and vehicles deliberately. These morons sometimes get caught and not a one of them are part of our community. Not only that, but the wattage of the lasers they’re using are way beyond what we use on our telescopes.
There is one example that is touted by the naysayers in the astronomical community about how one of ours had his vision damaged by the accidental discharge of a laser at an event. One of my friends may have been witness to that event, and it didn’t turn out, according to him, as the stories have said. Not only that, but the stories have varied quite a bit.
Lasers are banned for several reasons. One is that they ruin the purity of the night sky. Oh, boohoo. My good friend Rob was banned from the Grand Canyon Star Party for bringing his Mallincam because it wasn’t a “visual” scope, plus the screen polluted the darkness. Boohoo.
Two, it ruins the pretty pictures everyone is taking. That means, astro-photographers have precedence at star party events. In other words, not only can’t you use lasers, to get down to brass tacks, you’d better not flash a red flashlight anywhere near a scope imaging, or go near your car and accidentally hit a dome light, or walk anywhere near a scope where you might vibrate and jiggle the image. Boo hoo.
What really irks me is that some guy with a camera decides, at a star party, to take an open lens shot of the northern sky, all night to get the full star smear, from dusk till dawn. That means, nobody can introduce any light whatsoever around this guy all night. In the image this green laser hater showed on Cloudy Nights, there were two laser pointer slashes across the image. Boohoo. To me, the guy hogged the whole sky all night.
If I’m going to a star party, the sky is for everyone, not just astro-photographers, not just visual observers. Nobody should be able to hog the whole sky. This extreme movement to ban all lasers is a knee jerk reaction by people who want to hog the sky.
A couple of points. First, most people don’t like laser pointers as a finder. Therefore, at any one event, there never will be a bunch of people using them. Second, most amateurs will be courteous when using their lasers. If not, they, not the whole use of the device, should be banned from the group.
Everyone knows I use a GLP as my finder. First, I’m very careful where I point it. I always look first. Even then, since it is a 5mw laser, the signal is weak enough, and the flash far enough away from anything that should I accidentally hit an aircraft, I would hopefully point it away in time before I could do any damage. After all, I’ve accidentally hit myself in the eye with it. Yeah, it hurt, but I’ve never suffered any permanent damage from it. Second, I NEVER let anyone else use it unless they’re an adult and I’m monitoring what they’re pointing at. I won’t even let my grandson point it and he’s aware of how dangerous they can be. Third, I always go around to any APers and ask them if they’re going to image and if so, where and when so I know not to aim it in their direction. Sure, that could be trickier at a larger event, but not impossible.
That brings up another thing about APing. It seems to me, imaging is either an observatory thing or something to be done solo. To hog the sky at a star party just doesn’t seem right when you have so many other people there with different desires. There’s too much potential interference. To have to force people to comply with your specs so you can image and force them to bend just seems to go beyond common courtesy, at least sometimes. I’ll admit it hasn’t been a problem for me, but with the advent of so much new technology, and not just GLPs, I’d think this subject might cause a bigger cramp in everyone’s style.
We have a few imagers in our club and usually, they don’t image at our events, or if they do, it’s later, after most everyone has packed it in for the night. The exception is Rob, our Mallincam guy who can take his images in just a few minutes. I always make sure to aim my GLP right at his images so he can enjoy that big bright glare!
One more aspect is the dark sky purists. They don’t want the dark sky polluted with any type of light. They especially don’t want their view polluted with someone’s green laser if they happen to be looking at the same object someone else points to at the same time. I can understand this to a point. Then again, how often is this going to happen and how long is the brief exposure going to last? I’ve had my field of view interrupted by a green laser many times, especially when I’m viewing and the tour of the night sky is going on. Or someone else is showing some outreach people objects. Outside of a hey, there’s a laser in my field of view, it has no effect on me whatsoever. I don’t get sky blindness from it, I don’t lose my night vision, I don’t freak out. Boo hoo.
Time for everyone to take a chill pill. I sometimes hate that phrase, but it seems to fit.
My First Experiment
In the beginning, there was Sears.
Being a young naïve spud without a clue, I wanted bigger and better. Maybe if I made the scope look bigger, it would perform bigger, right? It worked when I tried to make my own contrabassoon, except I could only play one note on it. At least that was something. Using the same principle and carpet roll, I made a bigger, longer and uncut (thanks Bevis and Butthead) tube and mounted my Sears refractor inside. Now, that little 15-inch long scope was six feet long! Would it be more powerful? Would it now zero in on Uranus and make it as big as a basketball in the eyepiece? Would I see mysterious features nobody else had seen before?
For one thing, I still had no idea how to find Uranus, with my only source to find it, the Farmer’s Almanac which of course, didn’t have a good star chart. Saying it was in Leo was a little vague and giving a magnitude, which didn’t mean squat to me, wasn’t of much help, especially when almost every visible star was brighter.
Second, when I looked at the Moon and finally discovered Venus and Jupiter by sheer accident, they didn’t look any bigger than before. My experiment fell flat on it’s face.
To mount this huge carpet tube, I needed more than that wobbly altaz mount which was nowhere near sturdy enough or wide enough to hold it. After a trip to several junk piles along the dirt part of Avenue Q in the nearby desert, I scrounged what would be the second half of the Beast.
I made my first attempt at a telescope mount. Surprisingly, it actually worked! The problem was that my “tube” did nothing for the views and besides, I couldn’t use my finder scope. Eventually, I dismantled the contraption and mounted my refractor on the new mount. Below is the result.
It’s a bit beefy for a little refractor, huh? It actually worked, but it wobbled almost as bad as the original mount! The bearings were terrible and it moved with a lot of jerking. However, it started my career as a telescope maker. Little did I know then where I’d be some 47+ years later as I write this.
I still have that scope tube out in the garage. The monstrosity is of course, gone, but I can say I enjoyed every minute of the attempt. I was sixteen and full of imagination. I couldn’t afford something better, so I made it. How many kids do that today?
Cloudy Nights – The Good, The Bad, And The Annoying
It’s been quite a while since I’ve added anything new to my “astrominny” page and believe it or not, I can actually put the on-line astronomy forum, Cloudy Nights into the Good Old Days column. Geez, I’ve been annoying people there since what…2011? I guess that qualifies.
As I stated in another story a long time ago, it all started with my TeleVue Ethos review, or I’d probably still think Cloudy Nights was some kind of equipment trade site.
Being a very active member with several thousand posts now, I’ve been around the block. I’ve garnered just as many likes as screw you’s from various members. What’s really funny is that though I go by the screen name Feidb, at least half the people there know it’s me. Some of them have followed the link in my signature block right here and checked out my site.
Once in a while, I fail to properly edit one of my thought streams, especially when I respond to something at work and rush it out. I end up putting my foot in my mouth and it doesn’t take long for responses to return and for me to come off like some pompous ass! I hate when that happens, but oh well. I’m not there to win a popularity contest. I’m there because I feel like it and want to give my opinion as I see it. I also want to try and help steer newbies from making bad choices based on bull others tout based on “averted imagination.”
THREADS I AUTOMATICALLY IGNORE
After browsing the many forums, I’ve come to the realization that there are only three that I care to follow. They are: Beginners, General Observing And Astronomy, and Deep Sky Observing. At one time, I used to go to the Equipment forum. In fact, that’s the one I started in because that’s where I was first mentioned because of my Ethos review and that’s where the reviews I finally posted to Cloudy Nights ended up. However, as you’ll see, I avoid that one like the plague now, cliché intended.
Despite the titles of each of these forums, if the subject matter isn’t my interest, zip, off my radar! That includes any kind of imaging. Next is any kind of place setting that I have no interest in, which is 99% of the nation. Next is any physics or astronomical related questions that involve science. I am no scientist and have no interest in that. Unless the question is particularly intriguing and not involving something esoteric, it flies under my radar.
Now, the one that is my real pet peeve is brand name touting. If the title of the article starts with a brand name, unless it is a brand name I use, it goes right in the mental trash can. I have no clue what such and such model this or that is. Half the time, the question is a thinly veiled brag for their high-end gear. That’s a huge pet peeve of mine.
WHAT SPOILS A GOOD THREAD
Here’s where things spoil real fast. Say there’s what starts as an innocent discussion by a newbie on observing the Orion Nebula, M-42. He or she saw it for the first time and wants to tell everyone about it. A few people chime in, including me, that we’ve seen it, with details.
Okay…then we get the TeleVue or Zambuto love-fest started. “Oh, I saw it with a Panoptic bla bla bla.” “I saw it with Nagler bla bla bla.” Or, “My Zambuto saw this such and such…”
Oh please, shut the hell up and just say I saw it at 100X with a 10-inch scope and an O-III filter. These schmucks will blink their eyes and go, “But what if they want to know what gear I saw it with for a reference?” No, what they really mean is they want to brag about their high-end TeleVue and/or Zambuto or whatever they have so everyone will know they have it. Plus, it’s thinly veiled ad-copy.
Just shut up and give the aperture and magnification and the description, like most books do. Save your advertising and bragging for your own web sites.
As soon as I see that, or if I enter into a thread and see that right away, I stop and move on to another one. I don’t want anything to do with another brand-name brag fest. I may have lost out on many good discussions because of that, but I don’t care.
THE OLD HIGH-END OPTICS ARGUMENT
There was a thread that started in the Beginners Forum but got moved to the Reflectors (another one of the Equipment) forum. It’s called GSO vs. Zumbuto mirror: lower power for DSO? The guy wanted to know if anyone could tell the difference between a Chinese mirror and a Zambuto mirror looking at a deep sky object at low power.
This is my response:
The fact is, as a rhetorical question, one could argue all day about the subject and if you look at the thread link above, you can see it is quite lengthy.
The reality is that you have what you have. If you align it and make sure the optics are in there good, it’s going to perform the best that the optics will give for their quality. For the most part, the Chinese mass produced mirrors are not bad. They do the job. On most nights, given average sky conditions, you won’t be able to tell a bit of difference between premium and average optics, especially at moderate magnifications unless you have a very experienced and trained eye, or have someone who can do a side-by-side comparison at the same magnification with the same brand eyepiece bla, bla, bla.
The thing is, don’t let the arguments for high end optics get into your head and make you think you HAVE to have them or you’ll never be happy. I’ve seen this plenty of times. I’ve seen guys get the bug and they’re never satisfied unless they have the best of the best of the best and even then, they keep on tweaking and it becomes an obsession. There are those that are perpetually disappointed because they can’t afford a high-end scope and so forth.
From someone who was at a point when I COULD afford a high end scope, I still chose mass-produced optics because I didn’t feel the tradeoff was worth the massive price jump. Now, that’s just me. I can’t speak for anyone else. That was my call. What I hate to see is someone always thinking their scope is inadequate and are always looking for flaws because they think they can only get that extra oomph by forking out three times the money for something they won’t get except on those few exceptional nights when the weather permits.
Have fun with the rhetorical questions but take it all with a grain of salt. Make sure your scope is collimated and adapted to the night air. Always take the seeing and transparency into account, then forget about the optics and just enjoy the view, which is the whole point. If you’re buying a telescope only to worry about little nits, you’ll never be satisfied. Just a cautionary word.
More than likely, this thread is going to continue to grow as more people pitch in with the pros and cons of high-end optics. Just check out the equipment section if you really want to see how far it can go!
My prediction? It’s gone on to a second page as I write this, a day after the thread started! You see why I stay out of the Equipment forum? What really surprised me is that I got seven likes, more than I’ve had for any other thing I’ve written there in recent memory! Ain’t that a peach?
By the way, a few guys are still arguing over paragraph two of my post. Go figure.
PETS AT OUTREACH EVENTS
This is something that recently affected me. In fact, the last time I went out, which was in mid February 2016, the LVAS held a public event at Spring Mountain Ranch in the mountains west of Las Vegas. For a public event, it’s one of the darkest sites we go to and much better than the Red Rock Visitor’s Center, which is our other go-to site for public outreach. While we tend to get more people at Red Rocks, that is slowly changing, as evidenced by the event at Spring Mountain I missed this March due to circumstances out of my control.
Anyway, I was able to make the February outreach and it started well enough but quickly turned to crap. Why? Dawgs (my spelling for dogs).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a dawg lover. I have three of them and happiness is a warm snoot. However, I’ve come to the very strong conclusion that they have no business being anywhere around a telescope field, especially around strange telescopes. There have been times where dawgs have been no problem, but they were trained for telescopes and knew how to respond to them. They were familiar with them. When you get a bunch of strangers with animals not accustomed to being around strangers with strange telescopes. Well…
We’ve had outreach events at Red Rocks, Spring Mountain Ranch and the Desert Wildlife Preserve (which is north of town) where people have brought their four-legged friends. Even a few events in town I’ve attended with the same problem. Some dawgs have lifted their legs on my scope!
Needless to say, I take issue whenever someone brings a pet near my scope. I don’t care if the dawg is female, I don’t care if he or she is “trained,” I don’t know either that person or their dawg. I don’t want that animal anywhere near my scope. It’s made of wood and though it has paint/vinyl on it, dawg piss is hard to get off. And the smell lingers. Whether we as humans can no longer smell it, dawgs still can for years afterward!
Okay, this night in February, we had dawgs. I gave out my warnings. Some people were annoyed but I didn’t care. The final straw came when some idiot had this little poodle schitzu like dawg that he didn’t leash. It ran around loose, running in and around everyone. Not only that, but when grandson and I made the trip to the bathroom, the dawg came at us and tried to bite us. Not once, but twice, the way up and the way back. I never could nail down the owner for sure, but I kept loudly proclaiming that I was going to make that dawg a football if he came within range. The guy next to me cheered me on when I started dropping f-bombs and threatened to kick that miserable little white ball of fur across the telescope field. I think he was ready to do the same. The dawg kept running in and around everyone and every telescope around us.
I know I should’ve got hold of el-presidente and let him deal with it, but I had a line at the scope and by the time my line died down, I was so pissed I just wanted to leave. So, grandson and I packed up and left. I wrote a diatribe about it on the club Facebook page and the club has since banned pets from the events. Probably should’ve done it sooner, when I was still an officer. I’ve never seen it this bad before. At the event here in March that I missed, there were about 2,000 people and they said there were no dawgs so the word must’ve got out. Wish I could’ve been there!
It’s, the middle of May, May 19, 2016 to be exact. I haven’t been out with the telescope since early February. This has been a significant dry spell for me. If it’s any consolation, the last time I was at Death Valley, coincidentally in early February, I was able to get current observations on all the Observer’s Challenges up through April. However, here it is, halfway through the month and the last two weekends will be moon weekends and I still don’t have a current observation of M100, the May object. Oh, I have plenty of past observations, but I always like to get something up-to-the-moment, so to speak. I like to see it with fresh eyes and with more up-to-date observing notes specifically for the Challenge.
Speaking of which, it seems that the Challenge has been the summit of my “astrominny” activity for this dry spell. Outside of an aborted attempt in early April to go out to my “undisclosed location” with some buddies, which never happened, I haven’t done much else. This includes my almost daily lurking on Cloudy Nights. Oh boy, that place, despite literally hundreds if not thousands of new posts, hasn’t generated much of interest to me. As usual, when a thread sparks my interest, I open it up and right away, it starts with a brand-name love fest. So much for that!
To tell the truth, folks, the subject matter in discussion lately at CN just hasn’t sparked much interest. In the three forums I participate in, Deep Sky hasn’t focused on any objects of interest, just general stuff for the most part. In General Observing and Astronomy (sic), there was one thread about Spain a while back that I had some fun with. Then in the Beginners forum, there was a thread on telescopes in movies and TV. I had some fun with that. Outside of that, the subjects have made my eyes glaze over.
Here I go for another spring, watching the realm of the galaxies slide by and I am not getting diddly from any of it.
With such a long dry spell in 2016, I started pondering how to get the most bang for my buck when I finally did get out with the scope. Just think. For the past fifty years, I’ve been manually searching for and finding objects, up to around two-thousand at this point. However, as time has worn on, I thought about it. On the past few observing sessions, going back a couple of years, my yield slowly dwindled.
With a couple thousand objects under my belt, there were not only fewer of the bright objects left to find, but there were fewer with key stars nearby to orient on. That’s right. When I aimed either my finder (but mostly my green laser pointer) at a spot and started mowing the lawn, I’d have to guess more and more on the spot and dead-reckon more than I wanted to in a relatively blank area of sky.
When we’re talking about faint smudges that are often barely within the detection threshold, or ones that only jump out at you if you know exactly where to look, they’re just too easy to miss “mowing the lawn.”
Turns out, I spent too much time mowing the lawn, failing to find the object, and having to move on to the next one. My yield dropped significantly.
One day, I was obsessing over Obsession telescopes. This was one of my rare moments of weakness. To be real, my current 16-inch was about all I could either handle or afford. I noted the add-ons and one of them was the Argo-Navis digital setting circles. The unit cost way too much and at the time, it seemed like they weren’t designed for my LightBridge scope. I’ve since heard they do have kits for them…maybe. Because of the price, I never researched it one way or the other.
My friend Jay, one of my observing buddies, used the Sky Commander, sold through AstroSystems in Colorado. When I checked their web site, I found not only was it close to half the price of the Argo-Navis, but they had a direct kit for the LightBridge. It had every feature I needed and then some. Even if the Argo-Navis had a few more bells and whistles, they were things I didn’t need when I did a side-by-side comparison (like interfacing with a computer in the field, which I’ll never do).
It took a while to convince the wife, but right after we got back from vacation, I ordered one. As it turns out, it came right in time for our main September outing to Cathedral Gorge State Park in East-Central Nevada. This semi-annual trip is one of our two major away-from-town sites, the other being Furnace Creek at Death Valley.
I ordered the package and told the guy at AstroSystems I needed a rush on it for the star party. He was very nice and once I gave him the size scope (he custom makes certain pieces), I received the package the weekend before the event.
Installation was a breeze.
I had to remove the pivot bolt from the base and replace it with the one supplied for the azimuth encoder. At the same time, I not only cleaned the lazy Susan bearing on the bottom of the table, but I also replaced the rubber feet, of which I only had one left. Not to get off subject, but I contacted Meade in an attempt to get replacements. Let me tell you, I hope if you have a Meade product, it never breaks. Let’s just say I found what I needed at a local hardware store.
I replaced the bolt and added the encoder, a 10K version, enough resolution for this purpose. Yeah, competing brands use 32K encoders, but in the end, this one is just fine.
As for the altitude encoder, this is where the custom part really came in. The side bearings are a different size, depending on the size of the telescope. The bracket that holds the encoder is centered and then double-sided taped on. From there, the encoder is mounted with the shaft facing out. A long insulated bolt is screwed into the side of the mount and a tangent arm attached with a fork in one end and a knurled lock screw that locks onto the encoder shaft. The issue is to make sure to remove it before lifting the OTA out of the cradle when breaking down the scope!
When I centered the bracket for the altitude encoder in place, I was worried about it being true. The end cuts, which fit the circle of the bearing perfectly, made it go on just right. With the tangent arm attached, I rotated the scope in place and there was no wobble with the shaft. Perfect!
This is the tangent arm stud.
This is the bracket, encoder and tangent arm installed. Note the cable, which has a telephone-like connector, is also installed.
As for the wiring, I routed it through the light shroud from the encoders up to right below the focuser, where I Velcroed the main unit on. I had a minor issue with the bottom encoder catching on the counterweights at the bottom of the OTA, so I added an open-ended plastic clamp (supplied) on the inner front wall of the base to slide the wire in to keep it away from the bottom of the OTA. Problem solved!
Here’s the open plastic wire clamp.
Here’s the azimuth cable installed in the clamp.
Here are the cables hooked up below, then routed inside the light shroud and ready to pull up top to the cage.
Here’s the Velcro strip on the upper cage.
The Sky Commander hooked up and the cables installed.
When it came time to operate it, I powered it up with the internal 9V battery and tried to set it up in the garage. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing and thought I had it at least functional.
I found out the error of my ways when I got to Cathedral Gorge.
In the meantime, when I read deeper into the instructions, I discovered that not only would the unit not function well under 50°, but using the Fastrack mode, which allows use of the 10K encoders and moving the scope faster without confusing the computer, it drains the battery. The solution is external 12V. Uh oh. I had no plans for an extra battery pack or running power to the scope! My friend Jay came to the rescue. The solution? A jump start power pack from Harbor Freight for $50 or so. All I had to do was figure out what to do with it. The solution turned out to be simple. I installed two hooks on the front brace of the base and mounted it with a bungee cord. Problem solved!
For the next short week, Monday to Thursday, I worried about what would happen when I put the unit to the test in the field. It was a good thing I always go to the Gorge a day early so I can get in more observing. I spent most of that Thursday ironing out the bugs in the Star Commander.
I had an opportunity to actually go through the alignment process on real stars and not just guess what I was doing in the garage. Since I did a quick Dobsonian setup at home, I missed one important step. So…when I set the date one day ahead (this is recommended so that the planets will be in place, due to Zulu time…don’t ask, I don’t know or care about the particulars), I first couldn’t get to step two, the alignment stars. Polaris was behind a cloud. Oh…kay. Now what? I stared at my green laser pointer and wondered if I’d be using it. Instead, I waited a bit and finally, Polaris peeked out from behind the high clouds drifting across the north.
Now, to find the second star, which had to be at least ninety degrees away. The unit used star names. Despite being at this passion for fifty years, I don’t know hardly any of the star names! Yeah, sue me. I don’t care about individual stars, except how I can use them to locate deep sky objects. I know star patterns, sometimes not even what constellation they are. It’s just not my interest. So…I had to look through the provided list for a star that I actually knew. When I checked my Tirion star atlas, though I thought it might at least give me the names of a few of the major ones, sorry…it didn’t name hardly any of them! Just great!
For the first test, I didn’t want to, but I settled on Vega, which was almost straight at the Zenith. Also, it wasn’t obscured by the few odd clouds still drifting over.
I bring this whole ritual of finding the stars for a reason. Once I had it aligned, I pulled an object from the database and tried to find it. Now I had another problem. I hit find, and it kept changing the object to another one. Aaagh! Back to the instruction book. When I finally figured out how to get it into find mode, I had another problem. It was also in random search mode as well. In this mode, as the scope moves, it identifies whichever object moves through the field. This is a mode you want if you’re just aiming and letting the unit do all the work. Turns out, my punching in objects was ineffective. Since it was in random find mode, it would automatically jump to whatever object the scope was aiming at. Or, so I thought.
Now, once I figured out how to shut the random mode off, (by the way, I never actually looked to see if I was on any of those objects), I finally put the unit in regular search mode. I plugged in M22, which was in the right area of the sky with no clouds. It was almost dark enough to see it with the naked eye. I moved the scope and followed the numbers. Uh oh, the scope moved in the wrong direction. Well, it moved sort of toward M22, but it was at the wrong spot. I re-read the initial setup instructions. It turns out for my model scope, I had to reverse the direction of the altitude encoder. I re-entered the entire initial setup and made sure all the bells and whistles were set the way I really wanted them. Fast track was on, random find (it’s actually called something else) was off, the encoders were the right direction, so on and so forth.
Now, I had to go through the alignment ritual all over again. Guess what? Polaris was gone again. Now, I had to sit tight and wait for the band of clouds to dissipate. In the meantime, one of my observing buddies and I watched a spectacular lightning storm to the southeast. Finally, not only did Polaris show again, but Antares, one of the stars I actually knew, showed way to the south, and a minimum of 10° up from the horizon. Woohoo!
Despite what others have said about unnecessary precision, I used a 12mm Orthoscopic to align both stars. I used it not only because of the magnification but because of the narrow, relative soda-straw field of view (45°). I figured if I centered both stars in that narrow field, I should have the thing pretty close. Turns out, my method works pretty well and I still use it now.
Once I had it aligned and with the correct parameters, wow! That thing worked fantastic!
I started finding object after object. They were never perfectly centered, or rarely, but with my 18mm 82° EP, they were always well within the 70° distortion-free zone. I learned to center the object, then look at the offset and go for that on subsequent objects. After a little practice, it worked like a champ, the objects close enough to center.
That first night, I found two Palomars and several open clusters which were custom objects I manually entered back home, plus some Herschels from the already installed database.
Then a funny thing happened. The battery went dead. Huh? I had a fully charged 12V jump start battery. There’s no way it could’ve drained so fast. Then I wondered if the power cord was bad. When I checked the power, it was in 9V mode. Turns out, the entire night it was never even plugged in to the 12V unit, even though the cable was attached.
By then, I’d had enough. It was around midnight, I’d at least found a few objects, and the next morning I’d either get some more 9V batteries or maybe a new power cord for the 12V unit, if need be. I was in no mood to troubleshoot things in the dark.
The next morning, I pulled the fully charged battery pack into the trailer and studied it, the cord and the Sky Commander. Sure enough, the Sky Commander 9V battery was almost dead. When I plugged the 12V unit into it, I got nothing. The power cable was brand new from Radio Shack and should’ve been good. I almost drove into nearby Caliente to look for another power cable but studied the one I had. Radio Shack sells all their cables with adapters. You buy a generic cable and get an adapter depending on what you’re plugging it into. When I unplugged the adapter, I noticed it had a polarity on it. I felt like such an idiot! I looked carefully at the markings, plugged it in right and then into the Sky Commander and wham! 12V power. As a precaution, I went into Pioche on a store run for something else, and grabbed a couple of 9V batteries just in case.
Between the next two nights, I found 70 objects, including Pluto for the first time confirmed since sometime in the 70’s. Back then, I can’t say for sure I actually saw it. The unit worked like a dream! The only other issue I had wasn’t with the unit but the battery pack. The cigarette lighter adapter plug has a green LED on it to let you know it’s plugged in and hot. Well…that little LED was pretty bright! That first good night, Friday, I ended up putting four layers of masking tape on it. It was still very bright so I rolled the plug until it faced down and at least it didn’t light up the whole front of the telescope!
Here it is lit up now, even through four layers of tape.
The Sky Commander is an awesome tool. Because I had it, I was able to look for faint fuzzies, some in the mag. 15 range that I’d never find with the green laser and hunting and pecking method. There were no nearby stars to orient with. The two Palomars I found I’ve been trying to spot for several years. I never would’ve spotted Pluto without it either.
I’m very satisfied with this unit. Now that I know what I’m doing, the setup is very simple and using it’s a dream. At my last dark sky observing session, I’d call out the object from my Megastar pre-printed maps and my 11 year old grandson would dial it in and find it for me.
The unit has a capacity of 30,000 objects. It currently comes loaded with catalogs including Abel Planetaries (82), ARP Galaxies (338), Bayer Stars (1,564), Double Stars (600 select), Hickson (100), Messier, Named Deep Sky Objects (135), Named Stars (142), NGC (7,840), UGC (12,921), Herschel 400, IC (5,250), Barnard (343), Berkley (86), Collinder (471), Trumpler (34), Planets (8) and it allows for 59 user-defined miscellaneous objects.
I’ve filled up the 59 user-defined objects with Palomars and open clusters. As I knock them off, I’m going to erase them and add more. I must note that entering the coordinates is a bit odd. You only enter the major coordinates and not seconds per se. Only so many digits are allowed, but that’s enough to get you in the ballpark, especially with current wide-field eyepieces, and within their 70° zone.
Also, when I was at Radio Shack, I purchased a RS-232 to USB adapter cable so I could plug the unit into my computer for software updates. Well…the cable/computer doesn’t recognize the Sky Commander. It could be several different issues but so far, I haven’t taken the time to figure out what’s wrong yet. That’s something to keep in mind if you purchase one.
Folks, I do NOT recommend one of these for a beginner. Why? The simple reason is that I’ve been doing this 50 years and I know the sky. I know what to do if this system goes on the blink. For a newbie, if the system fails, they’ll have a useless and very expensive piece of gear. They’re going to have to pack up their toys and go home because they won’t be able to find anything. If you’re experienced at finding objects, or are maybe disabled and need this kind of assistance, it’s an outstanding unit that’s simple to set up and very easy to use.
For the experienced observer or the disabled, I highly recommend it.