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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Memory of My Uncle - Walter Frey

It is with great sadness that I got a phone call today informing me that my Uncle Walter Frey had passed away, at the age of 73 from a brain annurism. For people who read this website I have made mention of him in previous entrys.

Walter was a special man and I feel very sad for his wife Myrna and kids and grandkids today at having to cope with the loss of his incredible presence in their family. We will all miss him. Nobody could ever take his place.

He was so typical of many of the people in this hobby in the 1970's, very intelligent with an innate ability to grasp things almost instantly. He excelled in all elements of his life, and even in his rerirement remained very fervent about enjoying a good life. He could enjoy a good drink or a good book alike. I remember when we visited together and he came out to see my observatory. He had a profound influence on my life, we would exchange letters, and he was my mentor into this hobby and other elements of my life. In reflecting on it today, I am amazed at his influence on so many of us. Because of our geographical seperation we didn't see each other often enough but what we lacked was made up for by the quality of the time that we did get to know each other. I will never spend a lonely evening under the stars again without thinking about him.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Choosing a First Telescope – Part 3

I’ve been showing you all some of my favorite instruments that I think would make fine scopes for a first time purchase and provide some longevity of use. All of the scopes I’ve shown are complete, meaning that they include the mount as well, and fall in the under $1000 price range. There are several optical tube assemblies (OTA’s) that one can purchase in this range, but a telescope without a mount is not really a telescope that can be used as is. I consider the mount to be equally important if not more important than the scope itself. Because of this limitation on selection, some very fine refractors will not make the price point, but are still very nice instruments. With that in mind here are a couple of more contenders.

4. Orion XT8i
An 8 inch telescope is a very nice sized instrument and is surprisingly affordable in the right configuration and mount design. This Newtonian reflector comes on a Dobsonian base and includes the Orion intelliscope computerized object locator system allowing you to quickly pinpoint objects from its database. It is fairly easy to setup and use. As an f/6 configuration it is a bit more tricky to collimate than its baby brother XT6, but is still capable of delivering good pinpoint star images. It is a very affordable $529 and can carry you forward in the hobby for many years.

5. Celestron C6-NGT
When you want a telescope that gives you some aperture, and an equatorial style mount with GoTo capability, the Celestron C6-NGT is worthy of a close examination. I really like this little f/5 Newtonian reflector because it gives one the ability to move into the area of beginner astrophotography on down the road. The Celestron handset and stepper motors guide you around the sky with ease, and because the OTA is small and lightweight it’s not really a burden on the mount. A GoTo equatorial mount always performs better when it is underweight, and this fits that bill nicely. And because it is a Celestron there are always upgrade options open to grow with this scope. You may experience a bit of coma with this scope, but there are ways to counter this if it’s really important to you. A bit pricey but well worth the $799 price tag in my opinion.

6. Meade ETX-125 AT
This selection wouldn’t be complete without including at least one Maksutov telescope configuration to choose from. This 5 inch f/15 GoTo telescope is capable of delivering incredible views of the planets in a good portable scope. Because it is a Cassegrain design, eyepiece location is good on it allowing one to view reasonably comfortably. At f/15 it is a bit slow for DSO viewing but will work. It is priced right in line at $699

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Choosing a First Telescope – Part 2

In my last article, I established some guidelines for the instruments that I am selecting as my favorite picks for a good first telescope. I am picking these instruments as good first time instruments because I feel that they are worthy of owning both in the beginning and long term. I want to pick equipment that I think will give the greatest rewards both today and on down the line. There is no particular order of ranking of these telescopes, these are just instruments that I feel comfortable recommending to others. Once people begin to grow in this hobby, their interests and needs change, and they may find other instruments suit their purposes better. This is normal and a natural part of growing in the hobby.

2. The Orion XT6
For many years the standard amateur telescope that many used was the old 6” f/8 Newtonian reflector. This old fashioned choice never goes out of style but what has evolved over the years is the mount that carries it. Years ago the German Equatorial Mount was the standard and it has been replaced with a modified alt-azimuth mount made famous by John Dobson in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This mount is very stable and surprisingly smooth and easy to use. This telescope is not large and unwieldy, it’s actually quite transportable and fairly rugged, and dare I say, simple. It’s f/8 focal ratio allows for easy collimation and it is very forgiving with eyepiece choices. The 48 inch focal length allows for plenty of magnification for viewing the moon and planets, and it will fit inside many small cars to transport to darker sites. It will deliver years of viewing experiences. This is a good budget happy entry into serious observing. It’s a real steal of a deal at only $279

3. The Celestron NexStar 6SE
Here is a nice compact telescope with plenty of aperture to keep a person happy for years in a design known as a Schmidt-Cassegrain, or SCT. It is an f/10 instrument that sits on a computer controlled GoTo alt-azimuth mount. The Celestron brand has been around for years and as such has a lot of support and accessories to enhance the ownership experience. Aligning the telescope is as simple as centering a couple of brighter stars and it can direct you through its large database of objects via the hand controller. Because the eyepiece is in the back, viewing heights and angles are suited for seating or standing without a lot of neck craning, so it is a very comfortable telescope to use and enjoy. It is a bit pricier than other models, but it holds it value well, and should you decide you want a larger telescope down the road, it makes a very nice portable scope to own. It is presently selling for $799

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Choosing a First Telescope – Part 1

Recently I did some Google searching on this topic to see what kinds of articles a newcomer would read if they went out in search of some useful information to help guide them in the right direction. What I found instead was the usual advertisements for cheaper instruments, intermixed with some advice to newcomers on how to proceed into the hobby of amateur astronomy. What I found lacking were some real nice objective persuasive arguments for or against particular instruments, so I have decided to stick my neck out and offer up some perspectives on some equipment that I think would serve a newcomer well, both in the beginning and long term of this hobby. I feel qualified to do this after a number of years in this hobby and a whole lot of outreach and training with others in the field.
I want to offer the kind of advice that I think would always serve an amateur well, something that is not too heavy on the wallet, something that would hold it’s value well and re-sell quickly should they decide the hobby is not for them, and something that I think they will find easy to use, and most of all, enhances their experience, rather than frustrates them. To define some guidelines, I am going to limit the initial purchase to not more than $1000. By no means does one have to spend this much, but this defines some direction, as there is a whole lot of gear in this range, and not all of it really delivers for the money spent.

1. The Orion (Synta) ST-80
I was first introduced to this scope some time in the mid 1980’s when a friend of mine brought it along on an observing expedition. A variety of companies make variation of this scope and they are priced similarly, the general reference to it refers to it as the ST-80, made by Orion. This telescope is a true gem of an instrument. Although it is an achromatic refractor as opposed to a more expensive apochromatic unit, the views through it are still very nice. It is an 80mm f/5 refractor, and as such it gives very nice low power wide field views of the sky. The finder on it is a bit weak, but because it is so short of a focal length, it’s really not needed as the scope is it’s own finder. This unit will find it’s way into your equipment collection for years to come as it is small, lightweight and multi-purpose. It comes as an OTA only or you can get it on an equatorial mount for a bit more. It can be tripod mounted and used as a terrestrial spotting scope, or it can be piggybacked and makes a fantastic guidescope when you decide to venture into astrophotography. It holds its value well and many amateurs have one of these in their collection. While it is by no means a planet killing telescope, one look at the milky way, or M31 through one of these will show you why it is such a nice little instrument to own. You will never go wrong buying one of these, and even if you sell it, down the road you will find your way back to it. This scope on the EQ mount retails for $299.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Developing Your Observing Skills

One of the things that all astronomers learn to develop is their ability to observe objects properly at the telescope. This takes time to develop. In the beginning, it’s a matter of knowing how to view into the eyepiece, how to properly focus an object, how to observe square on to the object, how to block external lights and maintain well adapted eyes. In time, you develop the ability to discern details in objects because the atmosphere may be slightly turbulent as well. You will learn about the importance of good eye relief as well.
If you wear glasses, leave them on if you are nearsighted. If you are farsighted, you can remove them, the key is to be able to get close enough to the eyepiece to have as full of a field of view as possible without actually banging the eyepiece.
Another developed skill is the ability to align your expectations with your instrument. I think that it pays to look through large telescopes, and a wide variety of instruments, at least in the beginning to align your expectations with your wallet. You have to balance the cost and convenience of your equipment with that you are viewing, and you will find with time that you will know exactly what to expect from whatever you have.
A familiarity with the sky is important. Feeling comfortable under the stars comes with time, and while initially you may look up and not know one star from the next, with the use of charts, planispheres, software, etc, you will begin to mentally picture the asterisms you are viewing, and begin to see exactly where you want to point your telescope to find your target. In a later article I will discuss the art of sky sweeping, and how to use it to your advantage if you are a non-GoTo user. Clear skies.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Thank You

I want to take a moment to thank all the readers of this blog for your excellent feedback, and to tell you what a humbling experience it is for me to be able to do the things I love: astronomy and writing, and to share them with you all.
This past week I discovered a website that rates blogs, and I am deeply humbled to see that blogged.com has rated my site a 7.8 very good rating. I am not much of a writer, and even after 40 years I would consider myself not much more than a beginner in this wonderful hobby. Everything I write and all the passion I share about astronomy comes straight from the heart, this truly is my lifetime hobby, and it will be until the day I die, in one form or another. I have always felt more connected to the heavens than the planet I live upon, always felt small in this immense universe, always felt a greater significance to that out there than all of this down here. And while, as a child I used to recite numbers to describe a lot of it, today it holds even more significance because I can appreciate how large those numbers are, how time works, and even our greater role in what it all means in the long run.
But most especially, Thank You all for giving me this space to share with you the thing I love above all else.