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

Saturday, October 24, 2009

There Is No Mastery

I always admire the amateurs that spend incredible amounts of time imaging a single planet, or can spend extensive effort studying a few variable stars, or even the comet hunters who slave night upon night scanning the sky for nebulous objects that don't belong there.

For me, I have always been a divergent amateur. I prefer to investigate all aspects of the cosmos, from planetary viewing and imaging, to deep sky hunting, lunar observation, widefield and prime focus astrophotography. The tradeoff in all of this is you may not achieve mastery.

But approaching things this way has given me so much more in the hobby. I get a chance to really become familiar with various areas of the sky. Following a comet in its path around the sky night after night introduces one to learning the constellations and stars in ways that one would normally not conduct. Traversing the planets in their retrograde motions gives one a sense of the revolution of the Earth itself in space. Chasing deep sky objects has given me a feel for seeing conditions in ways that go absolutely beyond measuring it with a number. And imaging deep sky objects has given me a feel for all that cannot be seen visually when I am scanning out there.

I think most amateurs are like me, interested in a more general perspective on the hobby in general. They are wanting to maximize the use of the scopes they have without investing a tremendous amount of money on gear designed for single purpose usage. It doesn't make them any less knowledgeable about the night sky. Many large telescopes at institutions around the world are targeting objects with instrumentation specifically to study a narrow portion of an objects existence. None of us have the financial resources to compete with that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Taking the Traditional Approach

One of the benefits of technology is that we can remove many trivial tasks involved in practicing our hobby. We might use an online service or planetarium package to point us directly to what is visible right now. Using an electronic telescope with GPS alignment, we place the scope outside, click a switch and it aligns itself automatically. No thought is given to directions, motions in the heavens, visibility conditions, etc. If we are doing astrophotography, we don't have to track exposure times, and autoguiders which remove the chore of manually correcting for errors which we used to track on our own. Those little things we did by hand taught us about a lot of things going on with our equipment. We didn't second guess the behaviour, we learned first hand.

For old timers like myself, many of these technological things are a great bonus because they have enhanced the things we do under the night sky. We have grown with them and they have merely become an extension of what we do. They didn't replace the old ways, they added to them.

But for newcomers to the hobby, they are the norm. They have been born into an era where they cannot imagine doing things without them. Even the owners of computerized Dobsonian's are becoming disadvantaged by all this technology. If you can read a bubble level and you know two stars, you no longer have to identify faint fuzzy objects using a computerized object locator. Image intensifier viewers can even provide one with artificial eyes to enhance viewing. What's next? Video displays of the finder scope? Remote access? Telescopes that can automatically locate alignment stars? No, these things are already here.

I offer a challenge. Put away all of your electronics and computers. Grab a star atlas. If you don't own one, print one online. Use a book and plan your evening based around the constellations that are visible. Figure that out by calculating the siderial time. Research the locations of the objects you are viewing. Develop star hopping techniques to a few objects. Record your observations with pencil and paper. Put away the sky quality meter and use the circumpolar stars to judge the sky conditions. If you don't know what a word means, look it up. Try shooting the sky with your old 35 mm camera and some film. Find your latitude using a map. Use it to calculate how low your southern sky is visible on an atlas. Do this by learning about the celestial sphere and Right Ascension and Declination. Develop your observing techniques based around your observations instead of someone else's.

If you do these things and practice them on a regular basis, you will develop techniques that will allow you to enjoy the night sky using any telescope of any aperture, including something like the old amateur standard, the equatorial mounted 6 inch f/8 Newtonian reflector telescope.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Those Little Things

For those of you who have been following my blog, which is my personal adventure with the hobby, you remember my experience with shipping my Cave 10 inch telescope. Well after that dream died, I remembered all my other smaller things in Canada and had a bunch of books and notes shipped to me in 2 shipments. I am really thrilled to get my logbooks, astronomy lessons from the classes I taught and more.

The entry pictured intrigued me because I remembered the evening only after reading the notes, some 24 years later. But what amazes me is the deep down love I had for the whole experience of doing deep sky astronomy even back then. Here I am, a 23 year old guy, still with sharp eyes making observations with a high quality instrument under the darkest of sky conditions available in the world. My earliest recorded observations go back years before this too, so taking notes and writing logs is not a new experience. What we don't see in this photo is pages 3 and 4 where we go on to do some planetary viewing, viewing Uranus, the polar cap on Mars, and Saturn, and the end of the evening in morning twilight. Without these notes, all of this would have been forgotten.

My favorite journal is nothing but a coil bound notebook. Record things like time, temperature, sky conditions, observing location, equipment, and then begin to document what you are seeing. Make detailed notes of what you are observing. Don't worry about accuracy in terms of a comparison with what you should be seeing, but rather record what you are actually seeing. They may not seem important to you at the time, but the devil is in the details. Be as descriptive as possible. You can use adjectives, you are not being graded on this. Record your emotions, failures, frustrations, successes, telescope struggles, etc.

I have the Cave listed to sell. But in reading this, I realize only now how fantastic this telescope really is, how we varied magnifications, its resolving power, its abilities as a planetary scope, and the thrill of Halley, something that my eyes will never live to see again. Equipment can always be replaced, but the experiences at the eyepiece can never be regained, unless you choose to preserve them. And I have not spoken to my friend Dave in over 23 years, so I am going off on a quest via the net to locate him, and to test his interest in astronomy once again.

Taking notes is not a huge investment, and is actually a great way to improve the experience of doing astronomy. Don't worry about the technical side of it, organizing it, etc. Let what you record be a reflection of where you are at, and it will carry you forward in the years ahead. Only now, some years later, am I actually going through my notes making a list of all the things I have seen. One of these days we have to get organized around here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Adjusting my LXD75 Mount

Meade's little medium duty LXD75 GoTo mount is a nice little mount, but it's not without it's idiosyncrasies. Tonight, after reading about it on the net, I decided to tackle the little bit of lash in the Right Ascension axis. I removed the motor assembly by removing the 3 hex headed screws. I finally located the 3rd screw which is found right above the latitude adjuster coming into the assembly from the backside. Once inside, it exposes an aluminum gear and an adjustment with a collet and locking nut to check side to side play on the worm, as well as 3 adjusting screws to position the worm closer to the worm gear, I did a slight adjustment on these 3 screws, 2 outside first and then the middle one, checking for the tightness of the gear by rotating the worm assembly and checking for play. If you over tighten the worm you will have issues with motor's jamming so one must be careful with this. It only takes a very small adjustment to make it right.

I then set the scope up outside and proceeded to polar align it and I am still a bit off. Also I should have done a few other things which I didn't do but will. I need to do a reset, calibrate motors and train drives since I have changed all of the lash adjustments, but that will wait for another night with more time. The moon was coming up a bit after 9 PM and I thought I would get in some DSO's before then, so I checked out M31 and M13 and found the accuracy to be acceptable, all things considered. A more accurate polar alignment and a drive calibration will fix things more than adequately. I also tested the high precision feature in the mount and found it to be perfectly acceptable, and only a little annoying to have to constantly center an alignment star. I adjusted and used my red dot finder for the first time this evening and it worked out alright.

Honestly I can't imagine what this mount would be like with a larger OTA and some accessories on it, I think it performs best when it's not overloaded at all.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Moonbow Astronomy Program

Once a month I help out with a public star party at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in SE Kentucky. This event is always well attended and offers a chance for many folks to have their first experience with astronomy. I have been working at this event for some 7 months now. Cumberland Falls is the "Niagra of the South" and is the only natural waterfall left in the world that still offers a "moonbow", visible during a full moon weekend. Our public events are held on the Saturday evening of the new moon every month, and if you are in the area, please come and visit us.

Some time back, the park obtained an LX90 ACF just like the one pictured. It is a beautiful telescope and is loaded with all kinds of electronics including a GPS. For several months we have been frustrated with getting it to work properly, but this past Sunday, after consulting with some others, we did a firmware flash to replace a bug-ridden version that it came pre-installed with. Hopefully this will fix some alignment and tracking issues and fully allow us to realize the potential of this great scope.

This past month, we did a 3 hour cooldown on this scope and the views we obtained of Jupiter through fleeting clouds was nothing short of amazing. It would give me great pleasure to finally be able to attain some of the many DSO's that are loaded in this hand controller and be able to provide some real treats to the people who attend our events.

The great irony of this is that this is the telescope that got me back interested in doing astronomy once again, when it wouldn't work properly and I kind of assumed making it work for us. This is just another fine example of what experience can do for you, and how the old ways can bail you out when the new technologies don't quite live up to everything they are supposed to. It still pays to learn things the way we did it as kids.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What's Wrong With Today's Amateur

It’s been a while since I posted anything this controversial but I really feel that some things must be said. After many years in this hobby, there are just some things that are happening that really are issues that need to be addressed. These issues have all contributed to a loss of overall skill in amateurs today and are fundamentally changing the hobby from one of amateur scientist into one of space tourism.

1.Top Heavy – many amateurs are of the assumption that telescope gear must be high-end large aperture gear to extract enjoyment from the hobby. From the eyepiece elitists, to the imaging fanatics, many are of the impression that in order to extract quality results one must invest astronomical sums of money. Complete nonsense. Many of these things still come down to one thing – skill. And skill comes with practice, and if all you have ever used is high-end gear you are really at a complete disadvantage. My friends who are vested in this hobby make their own eyepieces, lenses and mirrors and extract just as much pleasure from their telescopes as the ones who will spend ten times the amount of money, possibly even more because they know how they actually work.

2.Dob Mentality – for all the good things that the Dobsonian mount has brought to amateur astronomy, namely portability, simplicity and the ability to mount a large OTA without a large mount, a counterproductive trend has taken place. The idea that ones needs large aperture and the mount is secondary has created limits that were unseen on what amateurs can actually do. Many of them have no concept of Right Ascension or Declination, basically it has turned the hobby into a form of hunting in the sky instead of an art to the movement of the heavens themselves, and an intricate understanding of our own location in the galaxy, because once you know how the heaven’s move, you begin to understand the distribution of the galaxy itself. You are no longer hunting for an object as a space tourist, but rather you are on a deeper quest for the why instead of the what.

3.Technology Dependent – I love my GoTo scope very much. For me, GoTo is a set of setting circles hooked to a handheld catalog driven by a couple of motors to assist in moving my scope. Some folks love PushTo – basically the same thing minus the motors. But these tools have removed newcomers from many important things, the most important of which is looking at the sky, studying an Atlas, digging into books to make lists, and understanding the constellations themselves and their place in the sky. Give many of these amateurs a pair of binoculars and they will struggle with where to begin. Without their PDA’s, laptops, Stellarium, etc, they would not know which constellation to begin with, the lowest point of their observing limits, etc. If you have to dig in a book to find it, you organize it, memorize it, master it, build on it, etc. Technology has made us lazy. If you need proof, look at an 8th grade math class and take away the calculators.

4.Critical thinking – if everyone is thinking the same, it defines a limit not only on growth but on the potential for new ideas as well. By expanding your base level of knowledge about things as simple as types of mounts, optical layouts, craftsmanship, etc, you are more apt to innovate, to master what you have, and to extract more from it. Thinking outside of the box is what has made this hobby greater, and many of those great ideas are right in front of us.

5.Discipline – astronomy is not one of those hobbies that can be mastered overnight. There is continual growth in this hobby in every single direction one looks. If you are a visual observer, there are techniques to practice and develop, books to read, logbooks to keep, and a methodological approach to learning the sky one constellation at a time. If you have the discipline and patience to take this approach, the things you are learning build and develop. As iron sharpeneth iron, discipline sharpens the countenance of one’s astronomical knowledge.

This is just the way I see it. I should write an app for that.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Everyday Astronomy

To some people, the only time that they enjoy astronomy is when they are actually using their telescope, so I thought I would offer up some tips on things to do on any evening and still enjoy their hobby.

1. Visit the library - A trip to the library can be a revealing experience in this hobby. There are several sections that one can enjoy and still gain insights into the hobby, from the pure science collection of books on astronomy, to the areas of space exploration, UFO's, videos, on through the science encyclopedias, to the periodicals section, most every library has a diverse selection of materials to keep one's mind occupied in an ongoing way. No matter how much you learn, there is always more out there. You may also inquire about inter library loans if your library doesn't have a certain book you are looking for. My favorite libraries to visit are the ones of higher learning found in Colleges and Universities.

2. Cull the Internet - More material than you can imagine on the internet at any given time to read. Make sure you use your favorites menu, organize your collections of websites by category, eg...astrophotography, blogs, telescopes, astronomy forums, etc. I use the internet for everything from exchanging with others to collection printable materials for hard reference.

3. Build an Observing Handbook - You can use the internet and some plastic sleeving and find all kinds of usable and freely redistributable materials that you can print out to create the ultimate reference collection for use at the eyepiece or the kitchen table alike.

4. Decorate a Room - Have a favorite hobby center where you keep your telescope, a spare bedroom, a man cave? Find printable astro images that you can capture on a flash drive, visit a photo lab, have them enlarged and printed, frame them and decorate a wall. You don't have to photograph your own images to enjoy them, and many amateurs will allow you to print copies of their images for your own personal use. They make a great conversation piece for guests, and help put your hobby into perspective for others as well as yourself.

5. Join a Club - Make a point of being involved. Volunteer to clean the grounds, maintain the observatory, organize their materials, do handyman work, go out for coffee with other members. The more energy one puts into the organization brings others to join in, and soon it becomes a pleasure rather than a chore. And you also get that sense of accomplishment.

These are just a few ideas, but this is enough to get anyone started on finding ways to enjoy a lifetime of amateur astronomy. Down the road I will add others to this collection because, honestly, I never run out of things to do with this hobby or ideas to do more. I just run out of time to do them all.