Monday, October 24, 2011

Guaranteed Cloudy Skies

It's a dead certainty this week will be the rainiest and cloudiest on record in Massachusetts, because I've finally pulled the trigger and ordered my Celestron telescope.

This will be the third telescope I've owned. My folks bought me my first telescope, a refractor made by the Monolux Corporation, when I was 11 years old. The Monolux telescope had wobbly wooden legs that were screwed together with an endless series of hardware store replacement wingnuts as the original equipment stripped, cracked, or simply fell off during road trips. My dad took the telescope fork to work several times, re-welding the cracked mounting bracket with a heli-arc plasma torch. It was a flimsy instrument but I learned a lot about astronomy just by working within its limitations. Through the Monolux's eyepiece, I first saw the Galilean moons of Jupiter, the Comet Kohoutek, the Great Nebula in Orion, and the mountains of the Moon. I learned that increased magnification sometimes just meant increased blurriness, and I also found out how fast a planet moved across the sky just from the simple act of the Earth's rotation.

My second scope was an abortive attempt to discover the world of Newtonian telescopes - - although I made a horrible choice by getting an example model at Sears. As far as I could tell, the mirror at the base of the Newtonian scope was made from the underside of a soup can. I couldn't resolve the crater Copernicus while looking through the viewpiece as a first light experiment. Brought the Newtonian back to Sears the next day, and didn't bother looking for a new scope for decades.

Wednesday, my new Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain 8" scope is due to arrive from Amazon. Unlike either of my previous telescopes, this one has a tracking motor so that I don't have to keep dragging the eyepiece along the ecliptic as the night progresses. The tracking motor is attached to a handheld computer that can move the scope to any of 40,000 celestial objects. This is (pardon the expression) light-years beyond any of my previous astronomy outings. I feel like I've finally moved  to a "grown-up" telescope.
I'm not sure what object I'm going to look at for a First Light subject - - ideas are welcome. First Light for my Monolux was Copernicus Crater on the Moon -- that landmark became a regular destination for setting up my telescope most Moon-filled evenings. Since there's no Moon this week, though, I'll probably go with Galileo's choice and focus on Jupiter. It's been a friendly planet to astronomers for 600 years now, and I feel very much at home when I see the place through a lens. Uranus is another possibility, because it's a planet you can only really see in a telescope, and an initial viewing may give me a feel for how good this new scope is.

All this, of course, is dependent on the weather, so I may not have a First Light report until the end of November.


  1. Yay! I can't wait to own a telescope with a computer/tracker.

  2. I don't see how you can go wrong with Jupiter! From what I know of the object-finding computers though (not first-hand, my simple Newtonian doesn't have one), their operation isn't trivial. You've got to align and calibrate it first; I don't expect you to have much trouble with that, but I hear it comes as a big shock to folks who want to plunk it in the driveway and dial up Pluto. Good luck, clear skies, and I can't wait to see some pictures!