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

Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Evening of Real Astronomy

A couple of us travelled tonite and went to a public star party armed with my glp and his homemade 6 inch Cave scope on a dobsonian mount.

We arrived in daylight as some of the folks who had volunteered their scopes for the event showed up. There was a large LX200 (12 inch) monster on a Meade fork, a nice C11 on a Losmandy G11, a homemade 10 inch dob having a telrad on it and the absolute filthiest mirror I had ever seen, a 13.1 inch homemade Dob with chunks missing from the mirror's coating, some 10 x50 binocs on a homemade parallelogram, a classic 8" Meade SCT on the old standard fork/wedge, and I think a Meade LX90. I gathered around like a kid in a candy shop eyeballing every detail I could gather about every scope there, asking questions, talking to the owners, just trying to feel it out.

Got to all but touch an actual moon rock (it was encased in plastic) and made some friends. As darkness descended the main organizer began a nice powerpoint show on 400 years of the telescope, and then everyone kinda began to make their way around to all the telescopes. I was KICKIN' myself for not bringing mine, but next time I will know better.

Anyways I spent a bit of time with the scope we brought and I lined it up on Saturn while the show was going on, and the moon. This Cave thing had a crappy Orion right angle finder on it that was all but completely useless and out of focus, but I did my best with it and was showing off M13 to some visitors and pointing out some constellations and stars with the GLP. I finally got around to seeing what everyone else was viewing, and although I got some nice views of the moon, it seemed such a waste to take such high dollar stuff out to show the moon only. When I finally got to the guy with the telraded dob, he was showing Alberio so I had a look and later M57. You can tell this guy uses his unpainted sonotube creation. It was a practical setup.

I had a good time, but I learned that the guy with the fancy scope is not always the one having the most fun. I learned that experience trumps money, and the guy who built his own scope masters his own scope. I also found out that you never take high dollar eyepieces for public viewings, it amazed me how people abused some of them when they were not supervised, I guarantee none of them had their Naglers out tonite. You can spot the people who use their equipment and know the sky for sure. For me it was just another night doing it the old way - no telrad again, and a lousy finder to boot.

I had a blast. I didn't miss my new scope, but the connections I made tonite were very worthwhile and I will be back when we do it again in August with scope and binocs, etc. The more I think about it, the less I want to be involved in one club and just be mobile joining several and taking in nights much like tonite. Life is too short to sit in club meetings and squable over fundraising to pay the insurance on a facility that nobody uses - just get out and do astronomy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

LXD75 SN6 First Light

Mount: Meade LXD75 with Autostar
OTA: Meade 6 inch f/5 Schmidt Newtonian

The telescope arrived early in the day and I had plenty of time to set it up since I am on vacation for a bit. Carefully unpacking the mount first, setting it up was intuitive. I had read the manual that I downloaded a few times and that made it easier. One thing that would be nice is if the telescope came with a DVD demonstrating assembly, alignment, correct optical placement of the tube, various accessories, etc. It's time to think modern, if a carb can come packaged with one surely to goodness something as worthy as a telescope should. It might create less phone calls to Meade down the line for troubleshooting issues as well. I took it outside and aligned the finder on a distant object just to have it ready for nightfall.

About 10 mins before sunset I set it out on the pad that I had built just for it to let it thermally adjust. As the sky darkened enough to see polaris, I went through the motions of using the built in polar alignment tool, and I really like the fine adjustments to the equitorial head in altitude and azimuth, it makes it very simple. I also marked the pad where my legs sat so setting up again should be a breeze.

At 10 PM, well before astronomical twilight I began. I did the easy alignment with the Autostar, and carefully adjusted the objects by leaving them defocused to allow for better centering. Regulus was behind a tree, but a simple scroll let me find a star that was visible, and the mount was ready. I told the scope to move to M13. Here was the big test to see how accurate it could be. Right in the center - call it beginners luck. I'd been down this road before on the LX90 and after two targets you were on your own. Seeing as how I was viewing in a blue sky still, I thought I'd try a few more just to check alignment. M92 - dead on. Let's try M4, it's half a sky away, dead on - I can see the bar, then off to M57, holy smoke rings, there it is. It's not even 10:30, and the sky still has some blue left. So I did what any amateur would do, I came inside, baked a pizza and made a list of things to check out. I thought I had made a pretty good list with 12 objects on it, including M39, M29, NGC 7000, M51, M3, M5 M14, M10, M12, M71, M8 and M81/82. If I could see all of those, that would be a miracle. But time after time, and without impediment, this mount slewed to each one of those selections and put them dead in the eyepiece. Having completed that list, I did the Tonite's Best Tour and checked out Albireo, Altair, the Butterfly Cluster, the Lagoon Nebula, M15, M27, the Trifid Nebula, the Swan Nebula, M11 and M5 before coming inside at 1 AM. My papers were soaked in dew and I felt damp, even though the scope was still dry. I am very impressed with the LXD75 mount to say the least. It's accuracy and alignment, even without training the drive was rewarding and I will never look backwards again. The electronics in it and the Autostar make astronomy a joy because you can focus on the things you want to see and less on getting there. You can also learn from the ? command while you are at the eyepiece, and that is very nice. The ONLY thing I would love to see Meade add to the Autostar is a LOG button that would save the object you were viewing and the time so it could be downloaded to a computer for later cataloging.

Optically the SN6 is a nice scope. For only 6 inches, it can still show you a lot. The views are crisp edge to edge and the fields are wide. I used it at 29X with the enclosed 26mm Plossl, and also with my older University Optics 18mm orthoscopic delivering about 42x. It resolves clusters well, and does the job on all the rest. On my old scope it would take me a summer of clear nights to see all that I saw in 2 hours tonite. And the consistent performance of the combination of the LXD75 and the SN6 is a winner. For a beginner, this is a substantial investment, and the technology may be a little intimidating, but two hours of training with a seasoned amateur at a club would be more than enough to get you on a lifetime of enjoyment. It's too bad we couldn't buy things like this when we were kids because I would have saved every penny I made to own a telescope like this.

Things I like
- the size of the tube
- the weight of the tube/cradle
- the weight of the mount
- the electronics
- the soundness of the mount and OTA - love the LXD75, love the SN6, together or apart.
- the battery pack - D cells are the way to go if you need a small portable source. I also ordered the cigarette lighter adapter for it.

Things I wish they would improve/add
- add a DVD
- put that LOG button onto the Autostar
- small red led in the base to see the eyepiece tray
- velcro strap to hold the Autostar on the leg, trivial but helpful

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tonite the fun begins

It's here!!! The FedEx driver came by this morning at about 10:45 AM with his little van and I greeted him in the driveway. He greeted me with 3 boxes. When I told him it was a telescope, he told me that he had one as well, also a computerized Meade. We talked astronomy for a bit, I talked to him about shipping the OTA of the Cave and it's doable. I packed it all in the door and began to unpack the mount, carefully. It all looked pretty straightforward, but I had read the manual about 4 times before it even got here, and it all went together in under an hour. I had to take it outside to see how it would work on the pad that I had made yesterday for it. I built a completely leveled pad to minimize errors in tracking and finding objects. I hadn't even plugged it in yet, took a picture and shared it with my friends on Cloudy Nights.

After I plugged it in, at first nothing lit up. I tested the battery pack and was not getting any voltage, so I removed all of the batteries one at time, tested them, replaced them, and tested the voltage, this time I was lucky. I know I put those batteries in right, so that was unusual, but now it's fine. I plugged in the Autostar and the battery and fired it up. Beautiful.

Rob in the forum mentioned about being "seasoned" and remebering when setting circles and atlases were king. You know, that's not such a bad thing either, but when you have the ability to just slew without physically touching the scope, and letting the motors guide all telescope control, even that would have been nice back in the Cave days of astronomy. We used to dream of having full control of telescopes, with ideas to build digital setting circles (homemade encoders) hooked to a Commodore 64 using power window motors to slew to the co-ordinates, buying CCD chips to image with remotely, and the like. In our wildest dreams we could not imagine things like autoguiding, that was so much further down the road, and here it is, on an amateur level instrument, and affordable to the world.

As a bonus, they actually program the celestial co-ordinates of a few million objects into a palm sized controller today, you push a few buttons and you're there for the ride. Yet this scope has the complete feel of a classic from the way you can lock the shafts to the counterweight. At heart, it's still a telescope.

The LXD75 is a nice mount. I am going to wait a few months before I sell my Cave and ship the OTA down here since it is manageable. I have a strange feeling this mount will handle it, and if it does I will have the combination of the outstanding optics of a hand made telescope combined with the electronics of a modern mount. And if it doesn't, well I will have a Cave on a Dobsonian mount, and that's not a bad thing either.

Weather permitting, tonite I will evaluate the OTA. I am hoping the Schmidt Newt performs exactly as I expect it, and if it does, then I have made an excellent purchase. I feel I know it's limits well enough, but the real prize will be the camera work I want to do with it after I get my share of viewing in again.

Tonite the fun begins!!!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Stargate 101A

I am writing this in restrospect of all that I have traversed to plan, craft and dream. It is not economical to transport the Cave to Kentucky from Alberta, so now things change. I had thought about just going and getting it, but even that, economically does not make sense. I really hate to part with my Uncle Walter's telescope, but it's the next right thing to do.

Before the internet, we used this thing called mail. And back in the early 70's, there was just me, Grampa, and Uncle Walter who had telescopes in our family. Grampa's was a nice little Tasco spotting scope with a cool zoom lens and a little tripod. It was him who bought me my first telescope for my 6th birthday in 1970, a little tabletop tripod mounted 30mm refractor that had the telescoping tubes like you see the pirates using. And then there was Uncle Walter, who always had to do better. He had a 6 inch f/8 on a homemade mount.

My interest grew in astronomy and I gradually got bigger telescopes, a 40mm refractor, then a 60mm refractor. I'd spend hours out in the yard winter and summer with them and binoculars and Walter and I would write to each other every month or so about what we were observing. And then in the summer of 1976, Walter came to visit, and we had to wait until 11 O Clock for him to show up. It was worth the wait, he outright gave me the 6 inch f/8 telescope because he had bought a new one. At last, my first real telescope. Now I could see everything. Things that were small were larger, and the moon's surface was awesome, as were all of the planets, nebulas, star clusters. That following spring, I was finally able to make out Virgo and learned a ton of new constellations. We would write each other often, he would suggest things for me to do with it, how to do this and that.

And in the summer of 1985, he came back to visit. I was busy with college the few years before that and didn't have much time to do astronomy, but the scope went everywhere with me. I asked him if he still used his telescope. He said no, so I asked him if he wanted to sell it. He notified me that he would, and he wanted $1200 for it, that it was a Cave, and that I would have to make a 6 hour drive to get it. We worked out a payment plan, and two weeks later I picked it up.

I'll never forget getting this scope. Everything about it was precise. The mount was awesome, and a clock drive to boot. The first time I looked through it was unreal. The best star images I had ever seen. The best planetary images I had ever seen. The contrast was fantastic. We removed the homemade 10 inch f/6 from the club's dome and installed the Cave 10 inch f/5 for Halley's comet. I spent every single night out at the observatory, and showed 20,000 people that comet through this scope. When the people went home, we looked at everything you can imagine. The following summer, I built it a home of its own. And I used it whenever I could. Until I moved to Kentucky in 1999, it was 20 minutes drive to the dark country and 2 minutes to observing.

So just as the 6 inch went to a new owner, the Cave must also find a loving home. Unless circumstances change, it is time to move on. I selected a 6 inch f/5 Schmidt Newtonian to take it's seat. This scope has the features I was thinking would be nice to have, such as GoTo and the ability to do astrophotography again. It's the modern version of the old 6 inch telescope. It is small and transportable, and that is desireable since the skies are no longer dark in one place. It has a good mount with tracking. It's even got some neat electronic features. It can never take the place of the Cave. The Cave opened me to deep space, this is just the express ticket for getting back there, a new Stargate if you will. I don't expect to discover anything with it, but I do intend to push it to it's limits and try to take it places I could not get with the Cave. I'm sure we will learn to love each other in the days ahead because all of my telescopes are like children to me.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Beginner Advice

How often do we read on forums and in magazines the recommendations of others about various things. Whether it is what we view, what we use to view with, or what is best for us.
I recently got into a discussion with a new amateur about choosing their first instrument. You know, so often the books today recommend that people begin with binoculars. Then the books go into a long spiel about which binoculars are better suited for astronomy. This recommendation is not carved in stone, but because people read it over and over it has become ingrained in their heads that this is the answer.
The recommendation came about because most people allready have binoculars in their home. If they don't, the recommendation does not say to go out and purchase binoculars although some will want to do them.
So this advice is for the newcomer. Binoculars are very small aperture instruments with fixed magnification generally. Their performance is only slightly better than a similar sized scope. There is no special magic in binoculars today that improves much over yesterday, although some would have you believe that. There is no pair of binoculars that will exceed the performance of all but the poorest 6 inch reflector telescope on a good mount.
So I am going to go on my 35 years or so in this hobby. I feel qualified to offer a new recommendation to beginners, or as qualified as anyone else who has made qualified remarks. Skip the binoculars for now, and invest the money in a telescope. Begin with something 6 inches or more in aperture. Skip the apochromatic refractors and binoculars for now as these are more specialized instruments. For the most bang for your buck, the good old fashioned Newtonian reflector of 6 inches or more in diameter will open the entire cosmos to you. Down the road, you may wish to upgrade. Telescopes like this are easy to sell later on. They are portable enough to go anywhere, large enough to see abour everything, and serious enough to do real astronomy. They are also one more thing, an excellent value.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Gearing Up For Summer

Today marks an anniversary of sorts for many reasons. I am pleased with my progress so far in returning to astronomy, and I am quite satisfied with my new equipment. I find my curiousity is rising in things I could never imagine years ago, particularly in the area of stellar evolution, galactic formation, and planetary science. I am fascinated by the way that the bigger picture is unfolding before me on how this all fits together. Down the road, I plan on writing an article on my ideas on all of this, but in the meantime, tonite I am just going to enjoy the full moon and the occultation of Antares. Clear Skies and if not, Cloudy Nights