James Paulson's roll off roof observatory at the Sunridge Observatory site, taken in the summer of 1986, housing a 10 inch f/5 Cave Astrola Newtonian reflector telescope

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Binocular Heaven

I never thought I would see the day when I could enjoy smaller aperture instruments again, but I am really loving my new binoculars.

I ordered my 15x70 Garretts earlier this month and Zach assured me that these are suitable astronomical instruments. First off, I'd like to thank him and will highly recommend Garrett Optical for any purchases. I would definitely purchase from them again and I really loved being able to speak to them in person even though it was a small order.

Every object that I have targeted this month, and that has not been many because the weather has been less than co-operative has been seen. Some of the objects that I have had little or no trouble with are M65, M66, M13,M92, and M3. Two galaxies and three globular clusters is not a bad start. I am really looking forward to enjoying open clusters like M45 and M44 but that will have to wait a bit for now. Summer brings a whole new enjoyment in star fields in the Sagittarius region, nebula, more globular clusters, and even for the challenge, a planetary like M57. Yep I fully intend to knock this one out soon.

This evening I purchased the FarSight binocular mount and a Multiple Reticle Red Dot finder to mount on top to allow me to more accurately point at these fine objects. Tapered binoculars do not allow one to sight, and trying to sight down the focusing wheel in the dark is hard for an old guy like me, so I will take all the help I can get, especially from a 1x finder, and a decent bino-bracket that allows me to remove them without having to re-tighten the center shafts every time I set them up.

I think the real joy of binoculars is that they demonstrate how little you can use and still see so much, and they are a perfect compliment to any telescope for introducing the general public as to the expectations of binoculars, small, and large aperture telescopes. They can see with their own eyes, nobody has to say a word.

If you don't have binoculars, try them out for yourself at a star party. When you consider how small your investment will be, and how much you can actually see, you might consider ordering some to take along when you are out camping this summer under the blackest skies you have ever seen, wishing for something to use just to do more.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Observatory Planning 101

At the top of this blog, you will see a photo of my observatory that I built in the spring and summer of 1986 to house my Cave Astrola 10 inch newtonian telescope. It worked well, but it's almost 2300 miles from where I now reside. With plans to bring the telescope to Kentucky comes the need to make plans for how to best utilize it and learn from the previous construction how to do things better.

I've not made any blueprints or sketches yet, but it will likely be very similar to this one in design. Initially, it will begin life as a deck with a pier sitting on concrete, since the location that I can best use for an observatory sits on a sloped area of the yard. I have marked out a space using rebar that is about 8 by 12 feet. The new observatory, when completed, will have a small porch on it about 4 feet wide and 8 feet long.

I dream of an observatory wired fully for electronics conveniently located at the pier, with safe and accomodating red lighting, security, and the ability to do remote imaging from indoors one day. I envision an observatory that is architecturally attractive, maintenance free, and easy to use. It must blend in with the overall scheme of the landscape and existing pool and relaxation decks.

But the one thing that I do not intend to do is rush the construction. This will be a carefully planned endeavour that will begin with transporting the telescope, and will be done in segments as it can be afforded.

The one thing I am most looking forward to is that it will be at home, not located at a place 12 miles away at minimum, and with that, it is certain to be used most every clear night and really add to my enjoyment of this hobby again.

I'll post more as things come together.

Returning from Arcturus

Coming back to astronomy from a 10 year hiatus has been an eye opening experience, but one which I am re-adjusting to very well. For all the changes that have come about, not much has changed except the marketing techniques and the quality of the equipment.

There is still some decent equipment out there. And then there are some things that used to be well built that have moved their manufacturing away and have suffered in quality. When it comes down to keeping a scope reasonable in price, you either build it cheaper with labor or with parts, or both. Most of what is made today uses both.

But what astonishes me is the marketing. Today's telescopes are sold like sports cars with labels like XS5 or something like that. Gone are the days when a simple name stood for the product. Like in 1975, if you had a Questar, it was a 3.5 inch or a 7 inch Maksutov-Cassegrain, dark blue with a star map on the rotating tube, on a lightweight mount that performed like a Champion. The name Questar was synonymous with what to expect optically from this finely-tuned machine. The design fell out of the original creators blueprints.

Mirrors on reflectors used to come in standard sizes, 3", 4.25", 6", 8", 10" or 12.5". Today's rough conversions to metric has left one with a host of different sizes to contend with. And all telescope makers told you the diameter and the focal ratio. Today you will often see the diameter and the focal length in mm, and you have to figure it all out, but I guess it is easier for newcomers than learning "the language" as we used to call it. This has become "the language."

Today's amateur has changed. They are a brand oriented consumer with multiple instruments and interests. Very few will build a telescope, or a mount, or know how to modify one. Yesterday's amateur visited army surplus stores for parts, collected optics from places like Edmund scientific and built eyepieces, finders, barlows, and more. Most amatuers in 1970 wanted to own a lathe, whereas today's amateur wants to purchase an EQ-6, an autoguider, and a CCD camera, in the 70's they wanted a 12 inch Byers drive, an off axis guider, and a 35mm SLR. Most serious photographers used to own darkroom gear, and today they own a laptop and PhotoShop. Owning a few high quality eyepieces has been replaced by collections of various eyepieces made by different companies, and you have to dig deep to find the underlying optical layout of many of them.

But it's when I get out under the night sky, with some optical assistance that it all changes to the way I remember it. My new 15x70 Garrett's have allowed me to see my old friends again and make new ones. The time I spent alone under the night sky with my Cave Astrola 10" f/5 before taught me the hard way, and it's still the only way in the end. I've used a Meade LX-90 with GPS and AutoStar GoTo recently, but more often than not, the old way has bailed me out when all else failed.

It is that connection with the heavens that comes with experience, when you get beyond the gear, and get down to the toolbox inside of you that you really appreciate why you still love this hobby. You begin to see the mechanics of the heavens, not the objects, and your curiousity rises, and you begin to question God, history, and even Christianity. You begin to see a deeper appreciation for life, for your home planet, and for the people on it and it's future. That's what keeps drawing me back to this amazing hobby.