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

Monday, May 25, 2009

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.

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