Archive for March, 2009

A few days ago I got what I term “radical remorse.” I was overtaken by self-critcism. Why do I always have to do things differently? Why can’t I just accept the conventional answers?  The particular focus of this episode was the mount in my observatory. Most people use a standard alt-az mount and a popular one these days is the Voyager. I have a Voyager and like it. I usually use it on an extended tripod, the version it came on being too short IMHO. But my SV102EDT refractor in the Observatory was mounted on a parallelogram mount – a type of mount usually used with binoculars and only rarely with telescopes. I felt I had good reason to use it with my telescope, particular this very short, very rugged version of a parallelogram mount made by Universal Astronomics called the “T-Mount.”

But then I decided I was crazy. The standard mount, such as the Voyager,  took up less room and was easier to point through the narrow, shuttered opening of the rotating dome.  Wrong. This morning I got to try out the Voyager set-up. It wasn’t supposed to be good observing, but it turned out to be fantastic conditions – at least fantastic transparency.  I settled in to use the Voyager on M3 which was nearly directly overhead at the time. Awkward, but I found it and was using it, having adjusted the observing chair to its lowest position.  I tried out the “Sparrow Hawk” which was riding “side car” on the larger scope’s rings and I found it awkward to use that way – but not impossible. (Strike one.) Then I switched to Saturn, fairly low in the West. This meant rotating the dome, moving the observing chair and … geeeeesh. I was jammed right up against the dome wall. (Strike two.) Not only that, it took three tries to get my observing seat to approximately the right height – good enough so I could see, but hardly perfect comfort. (Strike three – back to the dugout, Voyager!)

This would never do. I was so convinced that even though it was 3 am, I went into the house, got some wrenches, went to the observing deck where I had installed the T-mount on another pier and fumbling with nuts and bolts in the dark, undid it from one location – removed the Voyager from the pier in the Observatory – and reinstalled the T-mount. Not a minor operation, but oh what a pleasurable change!

Earlier I listed the advantages of the T-Mount as:

  1. You bring the telescope eyepiece to you so that you remain in a relaxed position.
  2. Although you occasionally make adjustments in chair height, these are gross adjustments and rare.
  3. The finder – “companion telescope” can be easily moved into viewing position, used, then replaced by repositioning so the main telescope is at the eye.

Yes, yes, and yes! What’s more, I simply found the T-mount smoother and more intuitive – it went where I wanted it to go, stayed where I put it, and to my surprise was easier to track objects with than the Voyager with its knobs for slow-motion control.

So the T-mount reigns in the little observatory. I know it may not be  right for everyone. But its right for me – and as a side benefit I have a new confidence in my “crazy” ideas. 😉 Oh – and do not take this as a wholesale condemnantion of the Voyager. It’s less cumbersome to move about and set up, since it has no counterweight. So it will live up to its name and be my grab-and-go mount – the mount I most frequently use when I’m moving  a small scope about the yard, or going on a field trip.


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Little Rascal -aka Sparrow Hawk - riding sidecar as a "companion scope" to the SV102EDT.

Little Rascal -aka Sparrow Hawk - riding sidecar as a "companion scope" to the SV102EDT.

Just came in from another pleasing observing session with the 50mm Sparrow Hawk riding sidecar to the 102EDT. Both scopes are new to me, but I must admit, I’m as fascinated with what the Sparrow Hawk has to deliver as I am with the 102 EDT. Tonight I was playing around the feet of the Twins and diving into the black depths of the Unicorn. I also went over to the tip of the Bull’s Horn to check out M1. Here’s what I learned about the Sparrow Hawk’s capability in my mag 5 skies:

  • At 40X ( 5mm Nagler) the Christmas Tree cluster (NGC2264) looked like a respectable tree, showing about 20 stars.
  • With M35 I learned I could crank it up to 59X (3.5 Nagler) and the result was pleasing – roughly 30 stars lying on top of lots of powdered sugar.
  • The two anchor stars of the core cascade in M35 – one on either end – showed nicely, but the cascade itself was like a glowing rope arcing between them. I couldn’t pick individual stars out of it. (In the 102EDT I could see eight of these stars.) I tried bumping the power up to 82X with a 2.5mm Nagler – no luck. The image just deteriorated.
  • I thought I could see NGC2158, the much more distant companion cluster to M35, as a tiny puff of smoke at 40X, but I wan’t positive. I know where it should be and maybe my brain was playing games with my eyes.
  • M1 was not visible at 9X with the 23mm native eyepiece – but boy it popped right out at 40X. I was surprised at how easily it was seen.

Earlier I tried a couple multiple stars. Sigma Orionis did split – I could see it as a triple – at 40X. Beta Monocerocis remained stubbornly double at 40X, but was a beautiful triple in the 102EDT. I should have pushed the Sparrow Hawk with the 3.5mm, but I had had bad experiences another night with this eyepiece and scope, so I didn’t expect it to do well on these stars. I was probably wrong.

Ah well-another night! Tomorrow morning I hope to tackle the Virgo cluster and there I think the Sparrow Hawk will assume the role of finder only. I’m also experimenting with an inexpensive prism diagonal in the 102EDT – I’d really like to keep everything right side up and not bass-ackwards if I can do so without serious loss of light and quality. Will see. The juries still out, but my early experiments are very encouraging.

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I think among other things, the 50mm Stellarvue Sparrow Hawk might prove to be my best teaching tool Here’s what it’s got in its favor:

1. Simple – you point it, you look, and you see a right-side-up image just as with binoculars.

2. More comfortable to use than binoculars because it mounts on a tripod and has a 90-degree diagonal, so no craning of your neck to look up.

3. Wide field and just enough magnification so a person doesn’t lose their sense f context when moving from the naked eye view to the telescope.

4. Unlike binoculars, you can change powers – up to about 60X effectively. This makes objects, such as bright globular clusters, take on enough of their true nature so they can be identified as such by the beginner.

5. 50 mm is small – but it’s a 100 fold increase pver our eye in terms of light graps and to get another 100 fold increase youw oul dhave to go to a 20-inch telescope.

And now – the laser.

I admit it’s not always that easy for the beginner to know where they are pointing the Sparrow Hawk. Enter the laser. There are little holes on the flat area of the clamshell that holds the Sparrow Hawk to its mount and they sure make it simple to mount a laser on top of it. So now I can teach people how to star hop and find on their own some of the easy stuff that looks real good in the Sparrow Hawk, like the Coathanger – and some of the more distant stuff, like M13. Can’t wait to try this out.

There is a real satisfaction in finding things on your own – and especially in being able to find them with such amodest instrument. This should be abig step forward.

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Or more generically, the question is whether or not to use a parallelogram mount in the small observatory – or settle for a more standard alt-az arrangement. “T-Mount” is the particular product that fits the bill, should I decide to go with a parallelogram mount. The “Voyager” is the particular product I would choose should I decide to go with a more conventional alt-az.

witht he T-Mount  the scope is on one side of the pier, the ocunterweights on the other - result is very flexible, but also take sup alot of room.

with the T-Mount the scope is on one side of the pier, the counterweights on the other - result is very flexible, but also takes up a lot of room.

Advantages T-Mount:

  1. You bring the telescope eyepiece to you so that you remain in a relaxed position.
  2. Although you occasionally make adjustments in chair height, these are gross adjustments and rare.
  3. The finder – “companion telescope” can be easily moved into viewing position, used, then replaced by repositioning so the main telescope is at the eye.

Disadvantages to T-Mount:

  1. It projects sideways into the observatory on both sides of center making it very awkward to have visitors and sometimes awkward when I’m there alone. (Telescope to one side, counterweight to the other.)
  2. Because it is off-center it does not line up with the slot in the roof meaning that it has to be adjusted differently than what your intuition tells you. (I end up rotating the dome more often, aprocess that is hard on mys houlders.)
  3. There are sometimes awkward viewing angles created by bringing the telescope too low – these need to be compensated for by moving the telescope back from the opening to give it a better chance to see out.
Voyager is a more conventional alt-az approach that takes up less room, but you adjust your position to where the eyepieces is rather than the putting the eyepiece where you are.

Voyager is a more conventional alt-az approach that takes up less room, but you adjust your position to where the eyepieces is rather than the putting the eyepiece where you are.

Advantages of alt-az Voyager:

  1. Centers the scope on the pier so there is significantly more room in the observatory to move without hitting the scope.
  2. Can use knobs that can be turned to finely tune the pointing of the scope and thus more easily track objects.
  3. Looks straight out the slot in roof making appropriate rotation of the observatory simpler.

Diadvantages of alt-az Voyager:

1. You need to adjust your observing position to meet the eyepiece instead of adjust the scope to meet your observing position – this is important in terms of both gross and subtle changes.

2. You need to stretch to use the finder – companion telescope. Not much, but you either have to adjust your chair so it’s perfectlyr ight for one, or the other – can’t be just right for both.

3. Need to use an observing chair with a greater range of height adjustment. The office chair I’ve been using is most likely out of play and it – being on wheels – is very convenient.

This was a non-issue with larger telescopes because they backed you up against the Observatory walls – now that I have the shorter  f/6 102EDT  this whole question comes back into play.

I’m not at all sure it can be solved  by a simple matrix of plus and minus like the above. I think I have to live with the scope on an alt-az mount through several viewing sessions. Fortunately, this is not an issue. I’ll give it a try.


I think I see it falling into place now – this seems to make sense.

1. The Alt-Az Voyager is the best fit for the Observatory, even though not always themostc onvenient. The 102EDT will be the resident scope there with Sparrow Hawk frequently sharing that mount.

2. The heavy-duty T-Mount with it’s dove-tail clamp will be perfect for the pier on the Observing Deck where it can accomodate very nicely the 80mm Eon – or the SV102EDT, or binoculars.

3. The light-duty T-Mount will go on the Voyager tripod and be used at locations around the yard, or for field trips with the 80mm Eon and/or the Sparrow Hawk.

4. The Sparrow Hawk can also go on a light weight tripod for field work, or for itnroductory binocular work – hmmm. . . might be good to team it with a laser to show people where they are looking.

5. The 4.5-inch DOB will go on a table on the Observing Deck in the northeast corner. Well – I need to think about that – don’t want too many people walking on the Observing deck. Probably would be good at the east control station, or the north one ont he shell path.  )Either of these places – plus the middle of the yard – are good locations for any of the portable set ups including the Sparrow Hawk.

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I know what a finder scope can do and I know what 50mm binoculars can do, but I still felt startled and a bit thrilled to see M65 and M66 so clearly in my new Stellarvue 50mm Sparrow Hawk. For such a tiny scope to gather so many photons that left their stars roughly about halfway – in time – between the last of the dinosaurs and the first of my species and bring them to my aging eyes is awesome. But after the fun wears off, does this little scope have a place in a regular observing plan?

Perhaps – but only extended use will tell. Maybe where it really belongs is as a finder for the 15-inch Obsession, but it’s funny. Give it that role and my attitude towards it tends to change. Call it a “telescope” – something that can hold its own with the big boys and act independent of them, and it becomes a different animal. So what does it do for me in that role? I think it helps supply a sense of context – especially in a day of “go to” and red dot finders. Actually, I hadn’t thought of that before, but with the “go to” scope and the red dot finders we’re losing that sense of context. The red dot finder is like using your naked eye – but on a “go to” scope it only gets used to identify a couple bright stars at the start of a session, so “go to” folks miss entirely the experience of seeing the sky through an optical finder of about 50mm.

Why is this important?  Binoculars, finders and the Little Rascal – all roughly the same size –  provides a different excursion into the dimension of light and it’s that dimension that I think makes it so interesting to use scopes of various sizes, all aimed at the same object. Obviously the field of view changes as you change scopes – but that can happen to some degree by just changing eyepieces on a single scope. What I like is simply the different appearances brought about by the different number of photons harvested. This really hit me as I looked at M44, the Beehive, in the Little Rascal. I did a double take. I guess it’s been a while since I used anything less than an 80mm on this cluster, for suddenly I saw it as a huge triangle of stars – a Christmas tree really, with a scattering of lesser lights – dust of snow that seemed to have been shaken off the outer branches. Funny, with larger scopes the small triangles within this cluster always attracted my attention – there are several that jump out at me – but the whole cluster just seemed to be a loose, rather shapeless conglomeration. Now it took on a form that was startlingly obvious. I’m sure 10X50 binoculars would reveal the same thing,  or for thatmatter the traditional optical finder,  but, of course, with the Little Rascal you can zoom in some and in this case that enhances the impression – at least for me.

Maybe Christmas trees were on my mind. I had just used the little scope to visit the Christmas Tree cluster in Monoceros – NGC 2264. Now I must admit, this was tough with the 23mm eyepiece that comes with the Little Rascal. The cluster was there, but it took something like the 13mm or 7mm Nagler to make it large enough so it took on more obviously the aspect of the Christmas Tree.

Using Starry Night software screen shots I’ve tried to show this, limiting stars to roughly what is seen in the  “Little Rascal.”

Looking at the Beehive with the Little Rascal at low power it took on the aspect of a Christmas Tree for me.

Looking at the Beehive with the Little Rascal at low power it took on the aspect of a Christmas Tree for me.

Zoom in with 7mm and 5mm eyepieces (29X and 41X) and we get the "dust of snow" shaking fromt he Christmas tree branches - at least that's how the Behive looked to me when the light was gathered by a 50mm lens.

Zoom in with 7mm and 5mm eyepieces (29X and 41X) and we get the "dust of snow" shaking fromt he Christmas tree branches - at least that's how the Behive looked to me when the light was gathered by a 50mm lens.

At low power (9X) the Christmas Tree cluster, NGC 2264, hardly lives i up to its name, though the bright star that is the trunk is obvious. (At this particular date and time the "Christmas Tree, in the correct image "Little Rascal," seemed to be lying on its side, it'strunk tot he left.

At low power (9X) the Christmas Tree cluster, NGC 2264, hardly lives i up to its name, though the bright star that is the trunk is obvious. (At this particular date and time the "Christmas Tree, in the correct image "Little Rascal," seemed to be lying on its side, it's trunk to the left.)

Zoom in at 29X and 41X and NGC 2264 really does look like a Christmas tree, though leaning on it's side. This ability to change power is what sets the Little Rascal aside from the usual finder scioe, or 50mm binoculars.

Zoom in at 29X and 41X and NGC 2264 really does look like a Christmas tree, though leaning on it's side - well, more towards upside down. This ability to change power is what sets the Little Rascal aside from the usual finder scioe, or 50mm binoculars.

So the Little Rascal provided nice context from which to move on to the same object with an 80mm Eon and later the 15-inch dob which made obvious the nebulosity around the bright “trunk” star. As I looked at various objects witht he tiny scope  I found myself settling on four eyepieces – the 23mm it comes with, plus a 13, 7 and 5mm Nagler. I tried 40mm 32mm Plossls, but, of course, these create far too large an exit pupil for my eye to use. For that matter, the 23mm probably exceeds my dark adapted eye exit pupil. Be interesting to see how the 20mm Expanse – it’s “in the mail” right now – will do instead. Higher powers – a 3.5 and 2.5 Nagler – came to focus, but seemed to overwhelm the scope. Hey – it’s an F/4.1 – I don’t expect miracles.

Most disappointing were views of Saturn – and what seemed to be the inability to handle high power well. Yes, I could make out the rings, but the image of the planet wasn’t good. I found that somewhere around 40-50X is the maximum it was willing to handle under what were above average seeing conditions. In theory a two-inch telescope should be able to handle 100X. So was it me – perhaps failure to focus properly? The Nagler eyepieces – not a good choice at this power for this scope? Or is it just that you shouldn’t expect that performance out of an inexpensive, F4.1 achromat? I guess if you want to press the envelope you need to spend about three times as much and get the 45mm mini-Borg? Of curse, it’s an F6.6. Anyone ever done a side-by-side comparison of these two? I have no clue what the Borg can do and my curiosity isn’t great enough to cover that price tag 😉

When I posted this report to the Stellarvue group, another Little Rascal user reported that he was able to get a very sharp image of Staurn and its rings using the Celestron 2.3 mm X-Cel ED eyepiece. I experimented some more this morning – this time with a 3.2mm Burgess Planetary eyepiece and both the 3.5 and 2.5 Naglers. My target was Mizar and the skies were getting light in the pre-dawn. No luck. Mizar  looked like a comet – or there was a ghost image – even when I moved the image to the center of the field and did my best to focus sharply.

I also was disappointed in the quality of the image of Mizar – of course Mizar and Alcor are widely split, but you have to increase power quite a bit to split Mizar itself and the result was a crude approximation of what I’m used to – of course, what I’m used to is scopes in the apo, or apo-pretender class, so again, I’m probably just expecting too much. I’m trying to buy some used Expanse eyepieces for use at public events. I would like the public to see that you don’t need a huge, expensive, computerized scope to have a lot of fun. So I’ll be interested to see how these work. Of course, I’m getting them because I’ve read good comments about them online .  But I have a feeling the 6mm Expanse offering 34X will become my “high powered” eyepiece – and at that it will have close to a 2-degree fov! But I need to do some serious study of lists of binocular objects to determine what will be the best targets for this little scope. For example, Cor Caroli made a nice split and M42 was terrific, though I had difficult seeing more than three stars in the Trapezium – and much of the time saw only two.

My most enjoyable views of the evening were of M81/M82, M65/M66 and M35 – one of my favorite star clusters that in the “Little Rascal” made me feel for all the world like what I was seeing was part of a model railroad set-up – the cluster was obviously M35, but in miniature! Bottom line – it’s fun getting a fresh perspective on old, familiar sights. The ability to change powers gives an edge over 10X50 binoculars, but a side-by-side comparison showed good 10X50s giving a brighter image. And, of course, this is the ultimate grab and go – but I’m working on other plans to incorporate it into my observing routine.

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That last stands for “Keep it Simple Stupid, at Driftway Observatory.” The “stupid” is aimed at me for letting my astronomical life get too complicated and in doing so, losing my “rapt in awe” focus. So KISS is my new – old – approach at Driftway Observatory.

If you visit this spring you’ll find some changes that impact you and your participation. This has all come about over the winter and was triggered when Meade introduced a new telescope that does everything for you except make the hot chocolate. I dropped a quick note to Rose Trinidad about that scope because I knew she was thinking about getting a new telescope. She essentially said “thanks, but no thanks.” Here’s how she put it:

Wow , that’s an incredibe scope for the price. Actually I am very tempted by it, but I find a couple of problems. (not with the scope, but with my personal preferences). It has so much to offer, that it would be similar to going to the UMASS open house and looking thru the scopes after they are all set up and focused with the object in sight. It’s a great experience, but I want a little more from my own viewing time. Knowing where to look and finding the objects on your own is very exciting. I really need to have enough of that experience before I can truly appreciate letting the scope do it all for me.

Yes, and she might have said like coming to Driftway Observatory. When I started inviting people here my intention was for them to be much more participatory – to take more responsibility for their own observing. I purchased several simple, inexpensive telescopes with that in mind and would have as many as 10 set up in different locations for when a group visited. It didn’t work. One of two things happened:

  • I was like the proverbial one-armed paperhanger, running from scope to scope helping people out and making myself tense and disagreeable in the process.
  • Or I stayed at one scope and people ended up gravitating to the scope where I was and taking quick peeks.

So I started doing too much pointing and lecturing. On a typical night I would set up two or three scopes and most, if not all, were on computer-controlled drives. I also introduced video astronomy into the mix. In short, I wrapped myself in a technology solution – and in the end that frustrated me:

  • First, the technology always needed attention and there were too many systems with too many wires, too many small parts that could be misplaced, and too many complicated parts that could break. I enjoy technology, but this was getting to be too much.
  • Second – and most important – people weren’t getting as involved with the sky as I would like to encourage. In short, they were letting me, or the technology, do the work.

Rose reminded me of that with her note. I think she’s absolutely on the right path and while I know “one size doesn’t fit all” – it’s the path that feels right to me. So I decided to rebuild Driftway Observatory in February and frankly, rebuild it for me with the hope that this would also prove to be the right way to go for visitors. I’m convinced that what I have done has increased what I’m getting out of my personal observing – whether it does so for others remains to be seen.

Here’s what I have done:

  • Eliminated all computers and motors from telescopes, as well as the video set up. Fast action on Astromart means that what you used to see here is now in the hands of amateur astronomers in California, Tennesee, Virginia and elsewhere.
  • Purchased, three new (to me) , small, high quality refractors.
  • Purchased a couple used, high quality, alt-azimuth parallelogram-type mounts and modified a third alt-az mount.
  • Purchased eight of the best-type eyepieces I know of – all used, but in excellent condition. Just FYI – due to the availability of Astromart and online classifieds at Cloudy Nights none of this dented the family budget – I actually sold more than I bought and ended up with a modest surplus. 😉

The new guiding principle is this: I want to see with my eyes, not a CCD chip; I want to find with my brain, not a “go to” computer; I want to move the scope with my muscles, not a motor.

When I stripped all the wires and computers from the 15-inch Obsession I swear it breathed a sigh of relief. It is essentially a simple, beautifully-constructed telescope, designed to move with buttery smoothness when you push it employing the clever – and incredibly simple – ideas of the monk/physicist John Dobson. I didn’t add the electronics. You can order it that way from Obsession and I did because it made sense to me at the time. But I always felt a little nagging doubt – there seemed to be something wrong with the whole idea of hanging all these boxes on John Dobson’s elegantly simple machine.

The Obsession still needs a new visual finder, but it’s on its way to being the simple, powerful companion it was intended to be when originally designed. Now right here I can hear two very legitimate objections:

  • Isn’t it easier to find things with the computers? Yes. But after half a century of amateur astronomy I can find most stuff faster on my own than with the computer and the stuff I can’t find? Guess what – I’m learning to find it and enjoying it. Hope you will too. Pushing a button and having the telescope do the work is great in some situations, but really, getting there is half the fun – maybe more. See, in the end the sky is just a big puzzle and as you put the pieces together it become more and more familiar and sometimes you discover that the trip was more fun than the destination – that when trying to find an obscure galaxy, or even a well-known one, you suddenly stumble across a delightful asterism you never would have seen had you let the computer and motors do the driving. And then there’s just the simple satisfaction of doing it yourself. For me, using the telescope was just becoming much to much like watching TV and the last thing I want is to encourage a bunch of couch potatoes who view the wonders of the universe like they do the latest “Law and Order” spin-off.
  • Ah – but what about those motors? Aren’t they critical when it comes to locking onto a subject and keeping it centered in the field of view? Yes – when you’re taking photographs. They aren’t at all critical when you’re doing visual observing.

With visual observing the critical element is to learn how to see – to stay alert and focused so you draw out every last bit of information you can from that constant stream of ancient, well-traveled photons that is entering your eye and pinging your brain. But I like the object to move because that’s what it’s doing. Well, not it, but us, and we need a constant reminder of that fact. We need to know the incredible fact that we are on a ball spinning at 800 miles an hour and traveling through space at the unheard of speed of 66,000 miles an hour. And as we watch objects move across our field of view we are reminded of that – and when we become good at watching objects move across out field of view we’ll start to notice that they don’t all move at the same speed and maybe we’ll start to wonder why the stars of Orion seem to be moving so much faster than the stars of Cassiopeia – and making that discovery – not abstractly as you are reading it here, but as part of a concrete experience – then asking that question – will be healthy for us.

But there’s more. I’m reminded that the way a small bird avoids a marauding Coopers Hawk is to stand still. In fact, I’ve seen a small bird sitting absolutely still on a limb not five feet away from a hawk that would like nothing more than to make that tasty little bird his breakfast. But the hawk couldn’t see him unless the bird moved – and if the bird moves, the hawk will see him – from fifty, a hundred or more feet away.

We don’t have hawk eyes – but our eyes do respond to movement. One old trick of observers trying to see a faint object is to jiggle the telescope. This is not to be encouraged with a modern “go to” scope – but take the motors off and jiggling is not only encouraged, it’s absolutely necessary. Every visitor to Driftway Observatory will therefore learn how to move the telescope and keep the object in view – and in so doing, will, I am convinced, see more.

When I started in astronomy I had no choice –there were no computer controlled telescopes and motor-driven ones were expensive. I had forgotten how enjoyable it was to watch something drift across my field of view – to see it from different perspectives with other objects leading the way and more trailing behind it – and to thus gain a sense of it’s context.

Again – artificially freezing the picture with motors is too much like watching TV – the experience becomes what I call a “black box” experience where the primary reality of the universe starts taking a back seat to the secondary reality of the machine. In a word, I believe we’re less involved when using the automatic guidance and motors and instead of our brain being forced to adjust to a constantly shifting scene, we are lulled into apathy. We are simply more alert, more awake, more focused when the scene is moving and we have to make an occasional adjustment for it with our own mind and muscles.

And what about the video and camera? Wonderful tools. Absolutely a great way to experience the universe. Nothing I’ve said here is intended to put down the way others observe. Many amateurs today use some sort of camera equipment with their telescopes and many more want to do so. But it is complicated and it provides a different experience – not better or worse – different. You become wrapped up in the technology – and believe me, you can also become very wrapped up in your subject as you try to get the most out of the technology. I’ve done it and refining an image on the computer screen makes you focus on all the details in that image. And being that involved is another way for you to learn to see more.

Imaging in all it’s modern forms is a healthy and useful experience for the amateur astronomer. Don’t misinterpret me. I am not against technology. I am not some neo-Luddite battling the textile mills. I really do love technology and I really do respect my fellow amateurs who are doing wonderful things with imaging. But it is not the way I want to observe and I don’t believe it is the best way for me to help others see the universe and be “rapt in awe” – and I take those words of Einstein I’ve so often quoted very seriously. I really do feel that if you are not rapt in awe, you are a zombie – you are among the walking dead, missing the essential experience of life.

No, people who use technology are not automatically zombies – a peson using technology can be very much awake and aware.  But for me it was a route towards sleep – it was a distraction. I was becoming a zombie because the technology was becoming the center of my focus, not the universe. It was the classic case of having someone pointing out something important and my ending up focusing on the finger doing the pointing rather than what it was pointing at!

So it’s an appropriate technology path for me – and for better or worse, it’s what you will experience should you choose to visit Driftway Observatory. By the way – in going the simple route I am employing some of the best, most modern technology I can find. The telescope mountings we will use are all simple – but they are simple and work well because they are very well made by people employing the latest materials available for these tasks. The eyepieces you will be using are well-executed, modern designs that provide apparent fields of view of 68 and 82 degrees. This compares with 52-degree fields for the typical astronomical eyepiece. Why? Because the wider fields mean you don’t have to move the telescope quite so often to keep an object in view and at high powers – where the field is small – this is especially important.

I’m not a fanatic. I don’t want to create work that will then become its own distraction. But the money obtained from selling my computerized scopes has gone into new, well-designed, well-made (read very expensive) eyepieces. It’s not easy to make a good eyepiece with a wide field and it’s not cheap. I’m not trying to force everyone back to seeing the universe as I saw it as a teenager. In those days we had small, hard-to-use eyepieces with tiny fields that made you feel like you were looking through a drinking straw. What we will be using at Driftway Observatory should make you feel like a kid on a spaceship who has just gotten the opportunity to run to the nearest porthole and press his nose against the glass! (For those of you familiar with today’s equipment market, they are all Naglers and Hyperions. )

Also – I have become a huge fan of small refractors.  Believe me, I am not throwing out or putting down my 15-inch Obsession. It is a terrific scope with terrific optics and we will see more with it than we will with a small refractor. My love affair with the refractor comes from three things.

First, it’s small size makes it a more intimate tool – one that feels, as any good tool should, like an extension of yourself – in this case an extension of your eye. It reminds me of how I felt as a teenager when I got to drive a friend’s 1953 MG TD. You wore that little car! And the same thing happened when I first got a modern, fiberglasss – not a Clorox bottle, mind you – kayak. Mine was just under nine feet in length and as I shoehorned myself into it and felt my legs press the deck from underneath I knew I was part of this little craft – that it was an extension of me and we could go anywhere and do anything together. That’s how I feel about my small refractors, but they’re taking me on much longer journeys than my kayak.

The second thing about the small refractor is a good one delivers exquisite images. The differences may be too subtle for new users to appreciate, but stars become sharp little pinpoints (when the seeing is good) and the contrast between objects and the universe in which they float is greater. This too is thanks to modern optical technology delivering new and better kinds of glass and modern optical design making it possible to produce at reasonable cost a quality telescope without having to make it a very long and awkward telescope. That said, I still can’t bring myself to invest in the very best of these new, small refractors – the price is too high for what I suspect is relatively little gain. But I have invested in something well above the minimum and it’s been the type of instrument that has given me many happy hours of observing this winter as the 15-inch has remained locked in snow and ice.

The third thing is that I’ve learned that if I take the time to see properly I can see a lot more with less telescope than I ever believed possible. To prove this point I have on order a 50mm (two-inch) “Little Rascal” from Stellarvue that I hope will arrive today and I believe will show a lot of people just how much can be done with how little. That doesn’t mean I think everyone should rush out and buy a “Little Rascal.” But I am convinced that it’s bigger brothers – quality 80mm and 100mm refractors that now sell for less than $1,000 are very reasonable choices.

But again – I hasten to add – DO NOT THINK I AM SAYING THIS IS THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR EVERYONE. This is what works for me and what I want to get out of observing. And in my case, I don’t think I would have seen nearly as much with a small refractor if I had not first done a lot of observing with a 15-inch reflector. In fact, more than 20 years ago I had an opportunity to own one of the best of the new breed of refractors, just being introduced at that time, and after using it for a couple of weeks I gave it back to the store owner who had let me try it. James O’Meara, a far better observer than I could ever dream of being, had the same make and size telescope in his hands about the same time. He kept it and put it to great use night after night, eventually writing a series of observing guides that I believe are the best you can buy and all reporting observations made with the same type of small refractor I had rejected because I failed to appreciate it at the time. I had a lot to learn before I could understand just how much could be seen with a small refractor.

So will I ever use the 15-inch again? You bet – and with enthusiasm. See, I know my observing with the 15-inch will be enhanced by all the time I’ve spent with the small refractors – and I hope yours will also. I expect the two experiences to complement one another. The 15-inch will show me more – much more – and the small refractor will give me a more intimate experience and on many winter nights and morning will be the only choice open to me and I won’t regard that as a handicap. Again – the experiences are different – not better or worse. So expect, when you visit Driftway Observatory, to use your eyes and brain to find things. To sit in the rotating beach chairs and explore with your naked eye and binoculars. To sit at the mounts with a small refractor – I now have 50mm, 80mm, 100mm refractors and in the observatory, a special, Stellarvue102EDT that I call my “Goldilocks” scope – just right for me.

Expect to use these on your own as your competence grows. Expect to learn to guide each of these scopes by using your own muscles. And expect to spend some time, as your skill progresses, finding objects on your own with any of the telescopes.

I’m not done changing. The basic directions and basic instruments are set. Refinements are still to come. One big one I’m exploring is the use of correct image prism diagonals in the refractors – something that has always been considered a mistake. My early experience with them challenges this view – I think they make a lot of sense and perform well. In the end we will probably look at fewer things – but I hope we will see them better. As I have said many times before, it is our destiny to be, in a very real way, the universe becoming aware of itself. We are not separate from it – we are very much a part of it. Many of the absolutely crucial atoms that make up our bodies were formed in the incredible nuclear inferno of an ancient, exploding star. In a very small way, I hope these little housekeeping changes at Driftway Observatory will help us all make a more meaningful connection with this incredible universe.

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My “new” – used , of course, since this scope is long out of production – Stellarvue 102EDT arrived yesterday and miracle of miracles, I had a sparking clear night where I could burn the candle at both ends – observe for nearly three hours in the evening and another 90 minutes in the morning. Results in a nutshell: This looks like my Goldilocks scope:

• at 102mm, just enough light grasp to gives me a great view of all classes of astronomical objects

• at F/6 a short enough tube to fit comfortably in my 6-foot-diameter observatory dome without having the objective nor my head banging up against the walls

• optical performance –as I was told beforehand by Clive Gibbons, this is an F/6 achromatic that performs like an F/12 archro. That’s my subjective impression, without making direct comparisons, but with decades of experience with a wide variety of scopes to draw from; and did I mention the focuser?

• I’ve heard the JMI fine focus is especially delicate and could be a problem. OK, I’ll treat it with kid gloves – it deserves it! This is, bar none, the best focuser I’ve ever used and that means better – to me – than the Feathertouch I have on my 15-inch Obsession.

Now I hasten to add that all of this is simply my personal opinion relating to my particular set of observing needs and goals that may not fit your situation at all. Oh – and the price point – under $1,000 – fit my budget. I’m sure there are better – even faster – scopes out there, but I’m not ready to lay down my cash for those – especially when this does the job for me. And before going into a more detailed observing report – one of my requirements is that this scope – through its length and weight – work well on a Universal Astronomics T-Mount. I sit in a rolling, adjustable office chair when observing, but I still like to bring the scope to me when I’m in the most comfortable position possible. I don’t want to have to crane my neck to meet the needs of the mount. This isn’t simple laziness – every little strain we put on our muscles to position ourselves over the eyepiece adds to tension and detracts from focusing on what we’re seeing.

Oh – and one last challenge – it needs to meet the optical performance requirements while using a correct image prism diagonal – something that goes against the grain of all I’ve ever heard, but guess what. I just got in from observing a perfectly mesmerizing split of the Double Double at 122X and 175X and the diagonal I was using was the relatively cheap, correct image prism diagonal sold by Orion.

I need time to live with this scope. I’m skeptical of my first impressions. And except for the focuser, it gave me no immediate, starry-eyed, “wow” experience – just a solid, growing feeling that this is, indeed, the Goldilocks scope I’ve been seeking – not too long, not too small, not too costly, and not too colorful where color is a detriment – in other words, just right!

OK – some details. First light was Tennyson’s “swarm of fireflies, tangled in a silver braid” – the Pleiades.  Except for me M45 was at that moment tangled in the upper branches of my tree line. Ah, but very nice with a 24mm Hyperion gathering in all of M45 at 26X – the fov was about 2.6 degrees. I thought the 24mm would be my finder for the night – I haven’t figured out yet how best to mount a finder on this 102EDT – but I soon discovered that a 32mm Televue Plossl (19X, 2.6 degree fov) was a better choice than the Hyperion for this function because the Plossl was pretty much parfocal with the other eyepieces I was using – 13, 9, 7, 5, 3.5, and 2.5mm Naglers. (I use the Naglers primarily because of their 82 degree AFOV – a big help if you’re dedicated to pushing the scope. )

First serious target – Rigel – and I was less than impressed. In fact, it worried me, for I had trouble splitting it. The issue wasn’t the diagonal because at this time I was using a trusty Astro-Tech dielectric mirror diagonal that up until now has been my steady choice. The problems, I think, was a combination of three factors: The triplet lens may have needed more cooling time, Rigel was just 30 degrees above the horizon, and maybe at this time – 90 minutes after sunset – the air was still too unsettled, though seeing did improve through out the night. I did split it – and it did better at medium powers – but there was a lot of light dancing off Rigel and I was starting off with some large doubts about the optical performance.

I did a quick check of M42 and the Trapezium – just fine, then moved on to a favorite open cluster – M35 and it’s faint, much more distant companion, NGC 2168. I could see both, though NGC 2168 was merely a puff of star dust, and I felt the pinpoint stars and contrast was very nice. Time to try another double star challenge. Castor is hardly as bright as Rigel – in fact it just misses being a first magnitude star – but it’s a nice visual triple and while I knew a split would be easy, the question was – how good would it be?

The answer was very good. I love nice round stars with crisp lines, their faint diffraction rings challenging one another. I spent a lot of time changing eyepieces and going back and forth between M35, M37, and Castor and this – along with the rest of my experience of the night – pretty much convinced me that my low power eyepiece will be the 13mm at 47X and my most used eyepiece will be the 5mm at 122X . I will less frequently reach for the 7mm (87X) and the 3.5mm (175X).

Then came the highlight of the evening observing – my first “wow” experience. I turned to the Leo Triplet – M65, M66 and NGC 3628 and it really warmed my heart –helpful when the temperature was right at freezing – to see this bright pair with their ghostly companion snap into view. Made me want to go hunting in the Virgo cluster, but it had been a long day and I had no charts – so while I took a quick look in that direction, I decided to leave it for another night.

I did make a quick check of the nearly ringless Saturn. My, it does look strange these nights! I only picked up a couple of obvious moons, but I did see a much less obvious band on the planet with strong hints of others – and I saw no false color, a good sign. After four hours sleep I was out again, my main goal to check the last quarter moon, low in the south among the still bare trees. A hint of color on the bright rim perhaps, but nothing I would notice without looking for it – great! My spirits are rising.

Now for Vega – yep, too many spikes and too much purple, but nothing I can’t live with and with careful focusing much of it can be eliminated. How about the Double Double? Oh yes! This is nice – especially at 122X. Splits nicely with either diagonal, though I must say I’ve looked at this system so many times it’s a little disconcerting to see the pairs swap sides when the correct image prism diagonal is being used. I pushed it all the way to 245X – significantly more than a 4-inch should handle well, not to mention the seeing, while good, wasn’t that good. Still, what I didn’t notice was a sudden introduction of spurious color – something I would expect with a correct image prism diagonal in a fast scope. I’m sure it was there – just not to a degree that would bother me.

I meandered on over to the Ring Nebula, then on down to Albireo and M27. Just quick peeks – all satisfying. What I really wanted to do was catch M13 before the combination of twilight and moonlight did it in. It was transiting – about 82 degrees altitude, a challenging position for any scope and mount.

The mount handled the high altitude just fine – I could view comfortably, and what a view! Just wonderful, pinpoint stars scattered over the snowball core and falling off the edges. Pixie dust again, sort of like what I could see with NGC 2168, but better defined.

I love globulars and M13 and M5 vie for the top spot on my list, but the sights in small refractors are different and I’m still getting used to them. I love what a 15-inch reflector can do with these clusters – but in its own way, the view through a 4-inch refractor can be just as satisfying, though different. Light, afterall, is a dimension, and how our amazingly versatile eyes handle different amounts is one of the things that has sustained my interest in this hobby since a teenager. In the end, the tools we use don’t matter. What matters is the awesome universe we get to share.

So is the 102EDT a keeper? You bet. But I am well aware that this has all the earmarks of puppy love – when the chemistry wears thin will I have a lasting relationship, or be looking for something else next year? Just have to wait and see. But for now let me put it this way: I love my Eon 80, but it’s a bit small for the Observatory so it’s officially the “grab and go” scope. And I hate to part with the Orion 100ED, but it’s a bit large for the observatory and I just can’t justify it sitting idle. The Stellarvue 102EDT at F/6 is just right – a Goldilocks solution if there ever was one! 😉

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