Sunday, May 20, 2007

 

You Can't Go Home Again

I really wanted it to work, but I’m afraid it didn’t. Not quite. I’m not talking about my newly restored 12.5-inch truss tube dobsonian; it's been working great. No, what I mean by “work” is me rejoining the ranks of the dob fans at least on a part-time basis.

Sometimes I do long for that simpler wood and glass side of astronomical life. Despite spending some time as a member of the dobbie brigade a little more than a decade ago, though, it seems that short infatuation was a fluke. An aberration. Something not to be recreated. Thomas Wolfe was not an amateur astronomer as far as I know, but he had the telescope game pegged: you can’t go home again.

As you can see in the picture, Rod’s dob is back in her usual spot in the living room, bedecked with her usual Mardi Gras beads. All is as it was before I undertook this exercise in nostalgia. Well, not quite: this telescope is way better than ever. Master ATM Pat Rochford did a wonderful job of bringing a sick old puppy back to life. Among other things, Pat redid the side bearings and installed a set of encoders for the Sky Commander computer. The scope just looks great, and I was hoping for a really great “second light” experience. I’d taken first light with this “new” scope a few weeks ago at Pat’s observatory, but yesterday evening was my first opportunity to get her out to a dark site.

Dark our club site is. Or at least relatively dark. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very clear last night. Oh, there weren’t any threatening clouds moving in, surprisingly, given the normal facts of life regarding late spring weather down here on the Gulf Coast. It was hazy, however. Transparency woes meant conditions were slightly better than at Pat’s Stargate Observatory, but not overwhelmingly better. It was also, amazingly, cold. Low 60s in May? In Mobile? Go figger. I always knew them H-bomb tests back in the 50s would catch up with us one day.

Despite these hazy, humid skies, Old Betsy performed as well as any 12-inch would on a semi-punk night. There were no surprises. Well, actually there was one. Your Old Uncle has forgotten how to collimate a Newtonian. I spent about 15 minutes chasing that blamed paper-reinforcer doughnut before Pat came to my aid.

When the scope was ready, though, she performed like the champ she has always been. Better. As on the last outing, the Sky Commander DSCs were dead-on from one side of the sky to the other, often putting targets in the field of a 7mm eyepiece. It also seemed pretty obvious that my optical upgrades—better coatings and a smaller diagonal--had made a difference too. Stars seemed tighter, Jupiter seemed slightly more detailed, and globulars seemed to have more snap than I remembered. "Seemed" because I have to rely on my fading memories of how this scope used to act.

And yet…and yet. I found myself vaguely let-down at the end of the run. For two reasons, maybe. First, as the years have rolled on, I’ve become more interested in imaging and less in visual observing. My eyesight is still very good (except for my near vision), but visual work is simply not what I’m most interested in at the moment. The whole time I was chasing little galaxies in Ursa Major (and having a lot of success, I might add), I’ll admit I was thinking, “Man, if I had my Stellacam I’d really be seeing something!” Then there's the “souvenir factor.” Back at home, I didn’t have any still images or video sequences to pour over, process, and enjoy—I felt robbed.

There’s also, and I won’t deny this either, the comfort factor. Old Betsy, an f/5, is short for a 12.5-inch Newtonian, but I still spent quite a lot of time standing on my feet while observing, and naturally had to get up every time I wanted to go to a new target. With my SCTs, I can do all my observing while seated. Yeah, I might have to get up to move my chair when I slew to a new object, but I don’t have to stand there moving the dadgummed scope across the sky and squinting at a faint, small DSC display.

Tracking is a big deal, too. I don’t remember being annoyed or distracted years ago when I was nudging dobs along, but I sure was last night. I could get used to the nudge-nudge – squint-squint thang again, I suppose, but I don’t think I want to.

So what’s in store for the dob? Another six years of vegetating in a corner? Nah. There is one thing that will encourage my occasional dob use. There are nights when I want some horsepower, but don’t want to spend much time setting up and tearing down. I will say there is not that much difference time and difficulty-wise in the setup and takedown for the NS11 and the 12.5, but there is some. With no batteries, no cables, no computers, no handcontrollers—no doo-dads—to worry about, I can get the dob apart and tossed in the Camry quickly. On those nights, perhaps, Old Betsy will receive her ration of starlight. I won’t feel guilty if dob nights don’t come often, though. You can’t go home again. Or maybe, now that I think about it, I am home—in SCT land. It feels good.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

 

Who Says Rod Ain’t a Dob Kinda Guy?

Maybe “dob kinda guy” is too strong. Fact is, I like telescopes. All telescopes—well most of ‘em, outside the Walmart horrors. Yes, I like some scopes better than others; that’s why they call me “Mr. SCT.” I do, however, admit that no scope or scope design is perfect. Right tool for the job my friends.

OK, I ain’t gonna beat around the dad-gummed bush no more. Y’all are sitting down aincha? Your Old Uncle Rod owns a dobsonian.

How did I come to own a dob, one of those wood and glass alt-azimuth wonders popularized by John Dobson and the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers a couple of decades back? That’s that proverbially long story. At the beginning of the last decade I found myself embroiled in a not over-bitter but expensive divorce (leastways as I reckoned “expensive” back then). After converting a few easily moveable items into cash, I was still short. Lawyers, God love ‘em, don’t work for free. I also needed to setup separate housekeeping for myself. What to do? Suddenly and sadly, my eyes lit on a certain footlocker.

That footlocker contained, I’m afraid, my Super C8 Plus. I just didn’t see any other solution than that she would have to go, and I soon bundled her off to live with someone whose wife thought he’d enjoy a BIG TELESCOPE. Tell the truth, I felt like I ought to feel worse about it than I did. I had never been overly happy with the Plus. Her optics were passable, but nothing more. It really rankled that I’d sold a splendid Super C8 just to have “the latest.” As I’ve said time and again, “The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better.”

So, the Plus was gone, leaving Unk as close to scopeless as he’s been over the last forty years. All that was, in fact, left was the 4.25-inch Palomar Junior, Rod’s second telescope, which had come his way back in ‘65. That and a homebrew Dobbie with a 6-inch Parks primary. In a way, that was not a bad thing. Minimalist astronomy, seeing how much you can do with how little, can be fun and can, for sure, build your observing skills. Not just that, either: the observations I did with this little scope during this period were the beginning of what would become The Urban Astronomer’s Guide a decade-and-a-half later. But, Jeez Louise, 4-inches is 4-inches and 6-inches is 6-inches. I was soon wondering what was the most horsepower I could pickup for less than a grand?

I could have financed a bottom of the line 8-inch SCT, maybe a Meade 2080, but after buying all the little doo-dads needed to make a CAT useable in the field—dewshields, drive correctors, batteries—all the things I foolishly let walk out the door with the Plus, my derned budget would be busted beyond salvation.

It was then that my eye fell on the latest Astronomy Magazine, on one of Meade’s famous/infamous two-page ad spreads. This one was for a new line of dobsonians they were calling “StarFinders.” These scopes were causing quite a stir amongst amateurs, since this was the first time a big-time scope company was offering dobs. Oh, there’d been Coulter selling its plebian dobsonians and, on the other end of the market, small semi-custom outfits like Starsplitter selling to those with the cash to spend on big guns. But where were dobsonians for you and me? Meade’s entry into the market meant someone was finally mass producing dobs at those always popular popular prices, and, also, we hoped, perhaps offering a bit more than Coulter quality.

Scope hungry as I was, hungry as a starving weasel, it seemed a no-brainer. Order up a Meade 12.5-inch dob. I figgered that was a big as I and my Hyundai hatchback could handle—the 16-inch appeared to be in the “water heater” class. I’d then begin saving my pennies for an LX200 or an Ultima 8.

I had no illusions. I knew this would be a Spartan scope, a thing of cardboard and particle board. If I’d had fun with six simple inches, though, surely I could have some fun with twelve big inches, no matter how minimalist. I ran to the phone one golden Saturday morning and ordered a StarFinder 12, which the nice man at Astronomics informed me would be drop-shipped from Meade “soon.”

We all know what “soon” means in the telescope business, and it was no different back then. I was occupied enough that I didn’t worry much about it, however. For one thing, I’d glommed onto another dob, a Coulter 8-inch f/7, which the company was selling for the insane price of $239.00. I simply couldn’t pass up a working scope for that little money. Even more amazingly, Coulter, known for some of the longest waits in the biz, delivered the scope in one piece (more or less) almost immediately.

Not that I used the Coulter a whole-whole lot. The evening of the day I ordered the Meade was my first date with the wonderful Miss Dorothy. I was seeing stars, alright, but I didn’t need a scope to see ‘em. I did get the Odyssey 8 out one night for Miss D’s first “star party,” a public outreach for the Boy Scouts, but that was almost it. There were a few trips to the club dark site, but my suddenly active social life and the typically horrible Possum Swamp summer weather limited observing of any kind.

As spring aged into summer and then the days began to shorten again, I did occasionally wonder whatever the hell had happened to the StarFinder. But I had little time to do more than wonder idly and resolve to call the dealer “soon.” Then, finally, one day, an assortment of big boxes showed up on the front porch of Chaos Manor South. Dorothy wasn’t surprised; after six months with me and my astronomy club friends, she was beginning to get some idea of the virulence of amateur astronomy equipment fever.

Did I tear into those boxes? You betcha. Did I get to try the scope? No. Wouldn’t you know it? Those jokers at Meade arranged to have it arrive (it must have been intentional) the day before D. and I got married.

After the honeymoon, though, I did drag the thing into the backyard. “Drag” is right. I was dead-on correct that the monstrous white Sonotube was at the limit of what I could handle. Otherwise? Very good optics, even on the planets. Decent 50mm finder. Some of the worst Kellner eyepieces (excuse me, “Modified Achromats”) I have ever seen. A plastic 1.25-inch focuser that worked, nevertheless. Nylon bearings instead of Teflon.

Despite its rather obvious shortcomings, I had a lot of fun with the StarFinder, and have some very fond memories of using it with Miss Dorothy on her first star party adventures. A few minor modifications, like the replacement of the Nylon bearing pads with Teflon, made the scope work pretty well—bearably well, anyway. The telescope’s first hiatus came when Miss D. insisted I get a big kids’ car, a Toyota Camry, and put the poor Hyundai out to pasture/out of its misery. I couldn’t fit the StarFinder in the Camry no matter what I did. I had also by now acquired a beautiful Ultima C8, so that big white Sonotube languished.

Until 1998 when my good buddy and ATM extraordinaire, Pat Rochford, convinced me to “let” him convert the 12.5 into a truss tube scope. Well, throw me into that there briar patch, Brer Rabbit! He did a beautiful job, and the Meade got a new lease on life. The primary, secondary, and finder did, anyway.

But as things heated up on the CAT scene as the 90s waned, with leap after leap in technology and dip after dip in prices, and I obtained THREE new CATs, the StarFinder once again sat unused and unloved. Oh, there was a twinge of regret occasionally. Once, dob guru Tom Clark visited Chaos Manor South and commented, “Looks like a nice scope, why don’t you use it?” I was almost shamed into dragging her out under the sky. I didn’t, though. The idea of giving up go-to for star charts and Telrads didn’t appeal. Yeah, go-to had spoiled me.

That twinge did come again, though, recently. It just seemed a shame to let a good scope with a lot of memories rot. Question was, how big would the project of restoring the StarFinder be? After 13 years, I knew the primary would likely need to be recoated. There were some sleeks, and, last time I’d looked (oh, a few years earlier) there’d been some funny-looking patches that might have been fungus. Truthfully, I expected the worst when I removed the primary cover (with tremblin’ hands, natch).

I needn’t have worried.

The mirror was actually not in bad shape at all. Those sleeks were fewer and less serious than memory had made ‘em. The “fungus”? That turned out to be some minor spots of…oxidation? These areas had not grown nor spread, anyway. When I let Mssr. Rochford have a look at the mirror, he indicated he wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. In his opinion, it didn’t really even need recoating yet. Just goes to show that the proper place to store your telescopes is in the living room. It sure helps to have an understanding spouse, though.

Maybe the primary didn’t absolutely need recoating, but I was determined to do this resurrection right, and sent the primary off to Spectrum Coatings (a fave of amateurs in this part of the country) to receive their top-of-the line “Max R” treatment. I also ordered a new secondary and secondary holder. The original was not bad, mind you, but at 2.6-inches it was way too large (Meade liked to combine big secondaries and tall focusers in those days). A smaller mirror with a better coating from Astrosystems seemed like the way to go. I also ordered a secondary heater as I remembered getting awful tired of dew-zapping the secondary on humid Gulf Coast nights. Finally, I replaced the old Meade finder with one of Orion’s right-angle-correct-image models. The scope already had a Telrad mount, and the focuser, a JMI DX3, still seemed fine to me. That left only one thing. A computer.

I was conflicted. I didn’t want to go back to a Telrad and Sky Atlas 2000, but the Tangent digital setting circles I’d used over the years had left me way unimpressed. Move the scope to a 90 degree attitude. Be precise. Do your alignment stars. Observe the “warp factor” (misalignment figure) on the computer. Too big (nearly always was)? Start over. Accuracy? Maybe half-a-degree. If you're lucky. Pat came to the rescue again with the suggestion that I try the Sky Commander DSCs. He guaranteed I’d like this push-to setup. It (he said) had none of the aggravations of the other guys. Somewhat reluctantly, I ponied-up for a Sky Commander. What else could I do?

Last night, we put it all together at Pat’s Stargate Observatory. Oh, there was a little cut and fit involved, but mostly everything went on easily. Talk about guilty pleasure; as I got started with the “new” scope, I found I wasn’t missing my CATs at all. Well, not much, anyway. The images were at least as good as I remembered them ever being in this scope. Quite comparable to what I see in a C14. I suppose they are actually considerably better than they used to be, what with the better primary coating and the smaller secondary. That’s not what impressed me, however. What did that was the Sky Commander. I will never ever make fun of “push-to” again. Not when a Sky Commander is involved.

After a little fumbling I found the button pushes required to perform an alignment and to select objects to be intuitive (unlike the button-mashing horror of the Tangent boxes). Most importantly, though, the Sky Commander was right on. All the time. It never missed an object in a 16mm eyepiece, and almost all targets were in the field of a 7mm. What makes this amazing was that I’d done the alignment in my typical laissez faire Uncle Rod fashion. You know, “Yeah, that looks centered. Good enough for Government Work, I reckon.” Look for a complete review of the Sky Commander soon.

So the StarFinder has been gloriously returned to life. Question is, “Will I continue to use her?” I wish I could say “yes.” I think I will. I hope so. She is a sweet telescope with, as I said, a lot of memories. Thing is, though, I’m getting started with DSLR imaging. And I’ll soon have that new Powerswitch with the built in filter selector. I’ve got Nexremote working again. Don’t want to let the Stellacam sit unused either. Frankly, it looks like it will be a CAT summer. Again.

I promise y’all, I will occasionally play Dob Guy and treat the good, old StarFinder to the starlight she so richly deserves, but she will just have to wait her turn. CATs still rule ‘round here.

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