Sunday, June 28, 2009

 

ETX Love

I’m surprised. Not that last week’s blog turned out to be controversial and generated quite a few comments on this website and even more emails, but that that traffic was so danged nice. Almost all of it was supportive and thoughtful. In fact, a grand total of two comments (posted on the blog) were anything less than, uh, “complementary.” Not that everybody else agreed with me, you understand; that’s something I wouldn’t want, anyhow. What’s the fun in that? If nothing else, your interest shows y’all don’t want me to steer clear of controversy. So, when the occasion arises, I just might pull out that ol’ soapbox again. This week, though, back to amateur astronomy, and that part of amateur astronomy so many of us follow with such fervor: gear. New gear.

Given the title, I reckon that unless you’ve been snoozing under a rock for the last year you know what I am talking about, the ETX LS. Before I express my preliminary thoughts on this new SCT (yes), though, let’s quickly review where the ETX has been. Where it’s been in the thirteen years since Meade gave birth to the small wonder is in a lot of amateur astronomers’ backyards. Particularly beginning amateur astronomers’ backyards. I’m stating the obvious when I say many of y’all got your start on the road to Obsession 20s and C14s when a little ETX 90 on the shelf of the (late, lamented) Discovery Channel Store caught your eye and your heart. It’s hard to believe, but the youngest amateurs among us can’t remember a time when there wasn’t an ETX. Not that the ETX is respected and admired by everybody. Hardly.

The ETX 90 and her follow-on sisters, the 125 and the (now discontinued) 105, have never been perfect telescopes for beginners. The 90, especially, is limited by a small aperture that makes it ill-suited for anything much beyond casual looks at the Moon and planets and brighter deep sky objects. That is enough to open up a whole world of wonder, though. And that deficiency is also shared by the Questar 3.5, which is respected and admired by just about everybody. Otherwise, though, there’s little comparison between the two scopes. Well, except maybe for the optics. Like the Q, the ETX has and always has had exquisite optics fully competitive with the Questar’s J.R. Cumberland marvels. The catch is that when you have to keep the price way down (the ETX 90 is currently $599 and the 125 is $899) and the optical quality way up, and throw in a fully functional computer-go-to system, something has to give somewhere.

Where it gives with the ETX is almost everywhere beyond the optics. The scopes’ fork mounts, as you would expect, are plastic driven by plastic gears. Backlash? Yeah, a lot. Gears that can strip in gear mounts that can break away with even a minimal amount of abuse? Yes ma’m. That’s never been all, either. Many early 90s were afflicted with the Sliding Baffle Syndrome. The baffle around the secondary mirror on the inside surface of the corrector was originally affixed with glue that tended to let go in warm temperatures. What you’d notice first would be that the baffle was slightly off-center compared to this Gregory Mak’s silvered-spot secondary. Eventually, if you didn’t take steps, the baffle would go ker-plunk on the primary. Tighten down the altitude lock a wee bit too much? You might find it would never work again, leaving the tube drooping sadly in its little fork. Quite a few excited amateurs received pretty new ETX 125s that had dead drives. The problem stemmed from a connector in the scope’s base that inevitably came loose during shipping or soon thereafter. Oh, I could keep going on about the Small Wonder’s many faux pas, but you get the picture.

Which doesn't mean Meade ain’t taken steps to improve the scopes over the years. They have, upgrading the mounts and electronics and software continually. For example, the original 125’s fork was a completely plastic affair that was incapable of holding the surprisingly heavy 5-inch MCT steady. Eventually Meade replaced the plastic with metal (though still plastic covered). The Autostar hand controller the ETXes have used since they went go-to not long after their birth has lots of features, but it took years to get the software right. For the longest time, for example, the Autostar was prone to “rubber-banding”—you’d center an object with the hand control, and the Autostar would resolutely reposition it at the edge of the field as soon as you let up on the buttons. Meade exterminated this and many other bugs via software updates (often a couple a year); it just took a long time.
Another problem always suffered by the ETX, and in recent times also by Meade’s more expensive telescopes, is poor QA (quality assurance). Far from getting better over the years of the ETX’s run, it seems to have gotten worse in the second half of this decade, perhaps because of the company’s exacerbating financial problems. My own ETX 125 PE, Charity Hope Valentine, is an example. As delivered, she worked pretty well, but it took some work from me to put her exactly right.

Two of the three problems she exhibited out of the box were minor. The “Meade” label on the tripod head had been applied upside down. Not a big deal, but it looked bad and made Meade look bad at a time when they needed all the customer goodwill they could garner. Yeah, I understand the Chinese person who assembled the tripod (likely a young woman) probably couldn’t read English and didn’t know if “Meade” was right-side-up or upside-down. A means could have been found to make it easy for a non-English reader to put the nameplate on right-side-up if anybody had cared, however. In addition to the nameplate, I found the RA setting circle (a metallic strip) was mis-applied, its ends being glued solidly to the base, making it impossible to adjust and thus impossible to use. Yeah, I know, who’s gonna use an analog setting circle on a go-to telescope? But, like the nameplate, it looked bad, cheap, and a little pathetic.

Miss Valentine’s final problem was decidedly more serious. The first couple of times out, I noted some pretty severe reflections when bright objects, especially the Moon, were in the field. Given the ETX’s reputation for good optical performance, that didn’t seem right, but I could not figure out what the problem might be. Till one afternoon when I’d set her up indoors to take her portrait for one of my books. As I was focusing my DSLR on Charity’s rear cell, I was stopped right in my tracks: “Aw for cryin’ out loud, MEADE! You suckers!

A close look indoors revealed the eyepiece tube was crooked. It had been screwed into the (plastic) rear cell at an angle. What to do? Given the turnaround times for repair from Meade, I decided to take a chance. I retrieved a small strap wrench from the toolbox, gently but firmly unscrewed the focuser tube a bit, and then reversed directions. It popped right in and was suddenly perfect. Subsequent use showed the weird reflections had been banished. But I don’t mind tearing into any telescope; what about the person who does? A long repair wait or the hassle of an exchange. And the person who didn’t notice the focus tube misalignment (I didn’t at first, remember)? They’d just assume their telescope’s optics were lousy.

Moreso than the design missteps and the QA fumbles, one thing has kept the ETX from being the perfect novice scope. It is small and cute, sure, but it can also be fussy and frustrating. Don’t do things the right way, or don’t do them regularly, and you’ll want to stomp the little thing into the dirt of the observing field. That’s well-illustrated by my recent trip to my dark site with my 125. It looked like a perfect ETX night: hazy, occasional clouds. Not the kind of evening that inspired me to drag out a big CAT or even a C8. It was also at the end of a very trying work week. Still, I wanted to hang out with my bubbas and see something, and that, my friends, is the classic ETX Night. I can have Charity setup in ten minutes, and back in the car just as quickly.

In fact, setup was so quick and easy on this night that I found myself with time on my hands before sundown: “I ain’t used the scope in months; better power her up to see if that dadgummed battery is still good.” I didn’t mean the battery that powers the 125. I eschew AA cells in the drive base (usually) and hook her to a hefty jumpstart power pack. No, I was worrying about the button battery used to power the LNT. The ETX PE is equipped with Meade’s “Level North Technology” finder, a red dot job that incorporates a real time clock, an electronic compass, and level sensors. It’s like GPS without the GPS. Unless you move to a substantially different geographic location, all you have to do to get the scope aligned is place it in a simple “Home Position” and power up. The PE levels, finds north, and gets date and time from the LNT.

Great feature, but it has an Achilles heel. The small CR2032 cell (that Meade misidentifies in its manual as a “2023”) that holds date and time in memory lasts for about six months at most despite Meade’s silly claims that it will last for years. It had easily been six months since I’d been able to use Sweet Charity, and I expected the battery to be dead or nearly so.

Which it was. The Autostar’s time and date were way behind. If I’d just said to myself, “Self, we’ll need to change that soon; tonight we’ll enter time and date manually,” all would have been well. Maybe I’d forgot how difficult it is to change this battery on my early-model LNT, or maybe I was just bored, but I foolishly decided to replace the cell while I waited for dark.

First problem? I immediately dropped one of the two screws that hold the LNT halves together. Hunting around in the tall grass easily ate up a good ten minutes. Screw located, I managed to change the cell without ripping out the delicate wires that run from the top of the LNT to the bottom and got it back together. In Meade fashion, the act of changing the battery necessitates more work. First, you’ve got to realign the red dot finder, since the screws that hold the LNT together also adjust finder alignment. Second, you have to do something called “Calibrate Sensors” because changing the battery causes the telescope to forget where true north is compared to the magnetic north it gets from its compass.

Readjusting the red dot is a pain, but since our dark site is adjacent to a private airfield, I was able to use runway lights to get it dialed-in with just a little cussin’. I then proceeded to Calibrate Sensors, but had to stop halfway through. It wasn’t quite dark enough to see Polaris, which is needed for the calibration, so I had to wait until the sky darkened some more. By the time I finished fumbling with the Autostar following Polaris’ appearance, hordes of stars had appeared, but I was in something of a snit. What good does it do to have a scope that’s quick to set up if you have to waste an hour playing with it? Why couldn’t Meade have made the battery easily accessible? Why couldn’t they have designed a circuit that would keep the LNT memory fresh, if not in CMOS, at least long enough to change a cotton-picking battery? Sheesh!

Oh, well, at least I could now do an alignment and get down to observing with my girlfriend. Ha! Charity wasn’t done demanding attention. Alignment went smoothly as it almost always does, Miss Valentine picking two stars and slewing to them and me centering each in the main scope. Being that my girl is a little on the high-maintenance side, howsomeever, I was a mite suspicious when we was done. Trust But Verify. M3 was in a good spot for looking at, so I mashed the Autostar buttons to send Charity there (on my Autostar, due to either defect or because I don’t use it that often, I really have to push them buttons hard). Miss Valentine made her usual coffee grinder noise, beeped, her way of saying, “Unk Rod, we have arrived,” and I jammed my eye to a 20-mm eyepiece. Anonymous starfield. No big star ball of a globular did I see it. Dadgummit! Time to Train Drives.

All inexpensive go-to rigs exhibit some backlash—gear “slop”—and if go-tos are to be accurate, that has to be taken into account. Celestron does that by having you do final centering of alignment stars using the up and right keys only. Meade takes a different path with something called “drive training.” It’s pretty simple to do. Center an object, execute the training routine, and the scope slews away from your target. You then use the Autostar buttons to put the object back in the center of the field. Do that with both altitude and azimuth axes, and the scope will know how much backlash is present, and go-tos will be right-on. Trouble is, you have to do this every once in a while. Why, I don’t know, but I have to retrain drives maybe once or twice a year. I’ve sometimes thought the need to re-train coincides with changing the LNT battery, but I’m not sure why that would be.

Anyhoo, on this particular evening I couldn’t use a terrestrial target (which for some reason seems to be better for training than a star), since the runway lights were now off, and had to use Polaris instead. Nevertheless, when I sent Charity back to M3, that great glob was now reassuringly centered in the field of the 20 Expanse. Takeaway? If you are an ETX owner, be prepared to continually have the truth of two laws affirmed: Murphy’s Law (“Anything Bad that Can Happen Will”) and Finagle’s corollary to Murphy’s Law (“At the Worst Possible Time”).

Despite the occasional irritations, I come here not to bury the ETX, but to praise her. How’s that? Start with the optics. They are dead sharp and also high in contrast despite a sizeable central obstruction brought-on by the secondary’s baffle. Yeah, aperture rules, but under the conditions that comprise an ETX Night, that rule can be bent a bit. My 5-inch ETX doesn’t give up much to a C8. Sometimes I even think planets look better in the ETX than they do in the eight-incher. One thing’s sure; the edge of Charity’s field is sharper than that of an SCT.

Yes, the ETX’s f/15 focal ratio means you won’t be taking-in the whole of the Pleiades in one go, but it also means even an humble Orion/Synta Expanse performs more like a TeleVue than the bargain basement eyepiece it is. Go-to? When you’ve got the drive training sussed, it’s fairly impressive. On the night under discussion, I observed about 35 objects before incoming haze and clouds shut us down about midnight. With only an exception or two, all were in the field of the 20-mm Expanse (66 degree AFOV), and often in the field of the 15 or 9-mm Es. All in all, go-to performance was similar to that of the NexStar 8i set up next to me.

Yep, despite the occasional headaches, I still think the ETX is a wonderful telescope. I love my Sweet Charity very, very much, and I will never, ever stop using her or sell her. Oh, shortly after Celestron re-released the NexStar 5, I’ll admit I toyed with the idea of turning her in for one of them new Orange Tubes, but a little thought and a couple more times in the field with Charity banished that idea. Her images are at least slightly better than those of a C5 (I’ve done a shootout between the two scopes), and, while very nicely built, the Celestron has its warts, too. Yeah, as I’ve said before, I occasionally fear Charity is gonna collapse on the observin’ field in a self-pitying neurotic heap, but she never has after nearly four years. One thing I will say for sure, the ETX is definitely a scope with personality, even if it’s not always a normal personality.

No matter how much I love Charity, though, I’ve sometimes wished for a just slightly better ETX. One with less plastic, especially in the gear train, better QA, and better build-quality. Surprisingly enough, about a year ago Meade, at the time in the throes of daunting financial woes, announced we was to get just that with something called the “ETX LS.” First thing I heard about the LS made me real happy: this was to be a 6-inch instead of a 5-inch. The second thing I heard made me come back down to earth just a little bit. This was to be an SCT, not an MCT.

Hell, y’all know how much I like SCTs, but I actually prefer MCT optics in small apertures. The small ones seem real easy to make very well. SCTs? Meade’s record with little ones is not stellar. The old 2045 4-inchers had good build quality, but their optics were nothing to write home about. On the other hand, Celestron is making waves with a 6-inch SCT of outstanding quality, the new C6, so I figgered I’d take a wait-and-see. The third thing I heard just made me sad. Meade would be discontinuing the two remaining MCT ETXes.

Further details about the LS in the form of full-color ads were soon being scrutinized by me and my CAT loving brothers and sisters. What was being made the most of in the spreads was the fact that the new ETX would incorporate what Meade called “Light Switch” (LS) technology. The user would set the scope up on its tripod, throw the (nice, big) power switch, and the scope would north and level with the aid of a real GPS. That the ETX had gained a GPS was not the big news. What stopped the presses was that Meade said the LS user would no longer have to center go-to alignment stars.

The new ETX would feature a built-in camera that would enable the telescope to center the stars itself. Yep, you’d plunk the scope down, turn it on and that would be it, or so Meade’s marketers said. In short order, the ETX would be ready to go-to go-tos without you having scratched your head about which o’ them stars in the finder was “Alderamin.” The Quick Start Guide Meade released shortly before the LS’s debut was composed of a mere 18 short steps, many of which were things like “place telescope on tripod,” “remove aperture cover,” “plug in Autostar.”

What caught the interest of Astromart and Cloudy Nights cognoscenti at the beginning was the telescope’s built-in camera, which Meade called the “ECLIPS CCD.” At first, quite a few folks figgered this camera would shoot through the main scope. Admittedly, the wording in the ads was vague, but it seemed self-evident to this old boy that the only way to take in a big enough swath of sky to be of help during alignment would be to shoot through a short focal length camera lens, not the main scope. As Meade’s ads and manuals issued shortly before the LS began shipping made clear, that was indeed the case.

The CCD could be used for informal short exposure imaging of constellations, but this small-chip uncooled camera, which was slung under the tube, not unlike the Quester 3.5’s built in finder, would never be practical for long exposures of small objects. Hints by Meade that it might be possible to run one its DSI cameras with the LS’s Autostar III without a PC in the loop didn’t do much to mollify those who thought they’d been misled. These people were also P.O.ed (so was I a little bit) that the original quoted price, $1299, it turned out, would not be for the ACF (aplantic SCT) version; instead, it would be for standard SCT optics, with ACF LS being 200 bucks more. The good news for me? Apparently Meade’s new CEO, veteran Steve Murdock, decided the MCT ETXes would live on.

What else was evident about the LS? That there’d be plenty of glitz, starting with something Meade called “Astronomer Inside.” What this was, according to the ads, was not just text descriptions of objects ala’ the Autostar and Autostar II, but oodles of multimedia. Audio. Video. Animations. Stills. How would you see this video? What would have been cool would have been for a small color display like that used by the ill-fated MySky to have been incorporated into the Autostar, but that was not to be; instead, the scope would be equipped with audio and video outputs (and a built-in speaker), allowing a user-supplied video display to be attached.

This all sounded OK to us old-timers. Most of us, anyhow. The usual crew of curmudgeons were outraged the LS would free novices from having to identify and center alignment stars. All I can say is they must not have helped many newbies work through their go-to problems. When the new scope won’t go-to its go-tos, the most likely culprit, even more common than insufficient power sources, is misidentification of alignment stars. Hell, that’s even stumped me a time or two, since most go-to systems identify stars by proper names rather than Bayer letters. I know dadgummed good and well where Beta Ophiuchi is, but where is “Cebalrai”?

In my humble opinion, anything that helps beginners is a Good Thing. A good thing for them and a good thing for us. If we can keep them in our avocation, they may even go on to learn them bright stars and constellations. But they will only do that, most of them, if they have a good initial experience. Sounded to me like this little scope could be just that experience, with decent aperture and the promise of a foolproof alignment system (as if there can ever be such a thing). This system work have to work well and consistently, though. If the LS turned out to be as fussy and QA challenged as the other ETXes, novices would be more hurt and dismayed than helped and elated.

If there was one thing that indicated the ETX LS might be a success, it was what I saw at NEAF. No, Unk wasn’t there. Someday I will make the pilgrimage to that astro-gear Valhalla, but I was on the sidelines again this time. I did see videos and stills of the show thanks to the Cloudy Nights crew. One of which was a shot of the LS undressed, with the cover off its (single) fork arm. Not only was it apparent how undersized the OTA is compared to the mount, but also how much better the metal gears inside that fork arm look compared to the plastic, grease-slathered 90 and 125 gear trains. So impressive did this mount appear that I opined Meade might even have an entire LS series in the offing, including maybe even an 8-inch that would nudge-out the LX90. Only time would tell, of course, and we had plenty of that, with winter morphing into spring with still no ETX LSes in the hands of users. I had been hearing rumors that Meade was pushing the Light Switch back again, to fall, when my good buddy Bob Black (of the excellent dealership, Skies Unlimited) told me he had received one.

His verdict? Bob didn’t have the skies to run the scope through all its paces, and did not get to try many of its features, but he assured me the LS seemed as well-built as the pictures indicated, and, most of all, that the alignment procedure worked:

“We started the automatic alignment process at 9 PM when the moon, Arcturus and Vega were visible, but not much else. The LS selected Arcturus as its first alignment star, slewed to that general area and began taking CCD images. After evaluating those images the scope slowly corrected its position, bringing Arcturus near the center of the standard 26mm Plössl eyepiece. The LS then automatically selected Eltanin as its second alignment star. This star was just barely visible at the time, yet the telescope found it and successfully completed the alignment. Yes indeed, the automatic alignment works as advertised!”
Bob’s experience is only part of the story, of course. What remains to be told? It will be a while before we know whether QA will be good enough to ensure all LSes do as well as the one Bob tested. The initial reports I’ve had from the small number of amateurs who’ve received ‘em thus far are mostly (though not all) encouraging. Me? Would I, based on what I know now, buy one, or replace Charity with one? Like I said, I will never part with my Sweet Charity.

Could I see having an LS in addition to Miss Valentine, though? Maybe. It still remains to be revealed just how good Meade’s 6-inch SCT optics are. Much also depends on the things Meade (and third parties) do with the scope in the coming months and years. All the audio and video and processing power the scope possesses and the fact that it is equipped with an SD card slot makes it sound like it ought to be possible to do some amazing and innovative stuff with it. We shall see. In other words, “Naw, I ain’t gonna run out and buy no LS at this time (even if I sorta want to),” but if I get my hands on one otherwise, you-all will be the first to hear about my experiences. I am frankly excited about this telescope, both for what it is now and for what it could be.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

 

To Light One Candle

When I started this blog almost five years ago (on the old AOL blogsite), I vowed the subject of each entry would be amateur astronomy, peripherally at least. I think I’ve stuck to that right well; I can’t remember the last time I strayed off the beaten path of gear-star parties-observing. This is one of those times, though, muchachos, and for good reason...

One recent and quiet Chaos Manor South afternoon I was, as I often do, yakkin’ on Cloudy Nights and Astromart. AHHH—OOOGAH! Mail’s in! I strolled into the front hall of the old manse to see if Mr. Postman had perhaps left a new issue of Sky and Telescope or, at least, yet another Orion catalog. No such luck. What I found instead was the little brochure pictured above. Somewhat distractedly, but with nothing else to do—clouds were coming in and the cats had been fed—I set to browsing through this pamphlet. Shortly my jaw was dropping down to my chest. Well, almost, anyhow. This was a solicitation for a group pushing the geocentric theory. They were, it seemed, downright tired of godless scientists claiming the Earth goes around the Sun!

Like Popeye, your Old Uncle has had enough and he can’t stand no more. While I try to keep things light here and, yes, focused on the amateur side of astronomy, I do have a toe in the other camp, too. As an astronomy educator at the university level, if just an enlisted man in the trenches of academe, I get to see firsthand the increasingly sad state of science and math literacy in this country. Sure, many of my students are as scientifically and mathematically inclined as my generation of undergraduates was. But not all, and the ignorance seems to be spreading. Example? The first class I taught, over a decade ago now, an otherwise bright-seeming young woman raised her hand after I’d reviewed the syllabus to include the requirement that each student have (and know how to use) a scientific calculator: “You mean we have to do MATH? I thought this was a SCIENCE course.” And it’s gone downhill from there.

Lots of people a lot smarter than your Old Uncle have wrestled with the causes of our country’s science illiteracy and innumeracy (“math illiteracy”). A quick Google will turn up lots of opinions from everybody from the AAAS to Discover Magazine. Since I’ve been teaching for a while, and have observed a goodly number of math and science challenged post-secondary students up close and personal, I think I’m allowed to offer a few opinions myself. I’ve decided the Troubles with Kids Today science and math-wise originate, near as I can tell in four general areas: secondary schools (high schools), the home, the culture, and religion (in other words, “the whole dadgummed shootin’ match”).

Yeah, I know and acknowledge there are many talented and tireless secondary-level science teachers, so y’all don’t grab up the torches and pitchforks. Certainly colleges share part of the blame for turning scientifically and mathematically ignorant students loose on the world after four years, but I don’t think I’m being prejudiced if I say mostly it ain’t our fault. It’s awful hard, especially in this time of dramatically reduced post-secondary education budgets, to do much to rehabilitate the freshman who is badly deficient in math and science. Those who’ve chosen majors that require a respectable degree of math/science knowledge from the get-go fall by the wayside or are shunted into majors that do not require this knowledge to any degree and (theoretically) never think about math and science ever again.

The reasons freshmen are coming in without much math or science as compared to the college freshmen of fifty years ago are complex, but probably start with a fact that is seldom considered: we are attempting to fully educate many more marginal students today than we were in the 1950s or 1960s. Back then, the student who couldn’t stay awake in Algebra or Biology (or English or Social Studies) was quickly switched onto the “vocational track” that culminated in trade-school or work on graduation. Of course, innumerable minority students, no matter how impressive their talents and grades, were also steered away from colleges (if not locked out of them), but that is a kettle of fish for another day.

Today, it is generally presumed every kid should go to college. That’s made possible by financial aid, renormalization of the ACT/SAT scores, and by what amounts to open-admissions policies at public universities. Naturally, there still are and likely always will be plenty of kids who fall asleep in algebra and biology and who, failing or failing to take the college prep science courses, get very little science (or math) education in high school. The difference is that many of these students are nevertheless college bound.

What can be done? Secondary science curriculums need to be designed to also serve students who are not going to be able to handle the time-honored high school track of biology-chemistry-physics and algebra-geometry-precalc. These kids, even those who have no intention of going anywhere near a university, need to be well-educated in the general concepts of science and math. They might not be able to balance chemistry equations when they graduate, but they damned well should know what the Scientific Method is and have at least a simple picture of the universe around them. Yes, I know some schools do do a good job with “general” science courses. Most don’t, however, and the most important thing that could be done to improve science literacy in the good, old U.S. of A., I’m convinced, would be for these courses to be viewed by secondary educators as critically important, perhaps even more important than the “real” science courses they teach.

For good and ill, the American home has changed one hell of a lot since the 1960s, and I’d be a fool if I didn’t look there for another source of our problems. In the intervening forty years we’ve come a long way from the old norm of two-parent – one-career homes where stay-at-home Moms kept an eagle eye on Junior and Sis and made danged sure the homework got done every night, were at PTA meetings every month, and showed up for those unpleasant teacher-parent conferences on the (hopefully) rare occasions when they occurred. Clearly we are not going back to those days. For one thing, many—way too many—families struggle to keep their heads above economic rough waters with both Mom and Pop working full time.

I don’t have the solution for that, but one thing that couldn’t but help is to educate parents (many of whom are scientifically illiterate and innumerate themselves) as to the importance of math and science for their children’s success in school and after. This is one area where we—amateur astronomers—can do yeoman duty. Even if all you accomplish at a public star party is to impart to some parent the wondrous knowledge that the Sun is a dwarf star and the Moon was born of the Earth, you may have unknowingly motivated Mom or Pop to put the kids on the road to scientific literacy. Which may be as simple as them beginning to help little Junie Moon with her biology homework despite a long day at The Office.

You know what really pisses me off? Hearing the interminable jokes on the sitcoms about how much math sucks. It is truly bizarre, but in our popular culture being mathematically illiterate is not only rib tickling, it is presented as something to be proud of. You listen to this junk on the boob tube, and you get the idea that the only person who can do or is interested in doing math is that fabled and weird rocket scientist. It is not just TV, either. I am a big Jimmy Buffet fan, but I near-about blew a gasket when I heard his “Math Sucks” song. Yeah, maybe that was ironic or at least slightly tongue-in-cheek—maybe—but I doubt that’s what most of his fans thought.

What they thought was likely “YEAH! ME TOO!” I am just amazed when a person who would be mortified to admit they have trouble reading or writing readily and chirpily confesses they cannot add two and two. Every time you hear a math (or science) joke on the television, I encourage you to complain to the network and sponsor with an email. Yeah, I know it seems a small thing, but popular culture is viral, and the current message is that little Johnny must fail in mathematics in order to be “normal.”

We now come to the lollipop-in-the-beach-sand sticky part of the problem: religion. As most of y’all know, your Old Uncle is not a praying man. That does not mean I hate religion. While I am not shy about excoriating religion for the evil it has done, I also respect it for the good it has done and continues to do. Naturally, the older I get, the more I wish I could believe, but I find I simply cannot, not in the objective reality of gods and goddesses. I acknowledge the psychological reality of spiritual entities, but as concrete big daddies and mamas watching us from the clouds? No, I never have been able to. But I don’t want you to think I, like some folks who count themselves among the non-believers, have any particular axe to grind when it comes to religion. I actually find religion fascinating—if not convincing.

As for the subject at hand, most well-established religious sects—Christian ones, anyway, the modern religions I know the most about—have a pretty good record when it comes to science. The Roman Catholic Church, despite its continuing bad press over the Galileo affair four centuries back, embraces both Evolution and The Big Bang. Most of the mainline protestant churches are the same. But that is not true of the evangelical protestant sects that are still very popular and wealthy in the Americas. Being a Southron born and bred, I’ve been aware of the fundamentalists’ battle against Darwin since I was a pup. I still remember how my old man, an immigrant to the South who was European in both heritage and outlook, used to laugh about the “crazy preachers” the TV station where he worked as an engineer used to broadcast on Sunday mornings. How we used to laugh about one worthy, who, once he was done with the HEALING, would lay into Darwin, his spiel culminating in this goober crouching down and capering like an ape among the congregation.

These people were always a tiny minority, though; one formed of the less privileged, and one that had relatively little influence even in the Sunny South. That began to change with the fundamentalist explosion that got seriously underway about thirty years ago. By the 1980s, folks toeing the fundamentalist line were not confined to the South, and not confined to a demographic consisting of the poorest of the poor dirt farmers and unskilled workers. Soon, prominent and (supposedly) educated men in Washington were casting aspersions on pore ol’ Charles Darwin. And soon the crusade against Evolution expanded to include anything that contradicts the most literal interpretation of the Bible.

That was really always the argument they had with Charlie, anyway. Sure, the hardliners may have hated the aesthetics of the idea that a “monkey” was their (distant) uncle, but what really torqued the jaws of the (increasingly) right-wing religionists was that Evolution contradicted what “The Lord” said in Genesis. If contradicting the Bible’s literal interpretation was the offense, why shouldn’t Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton be in the dock with Darwin?

One evening about ten years ago, a student approached me after class. At first I supposed he might still be struggling to understand Kepler’s Third Law, but a glance at his face showed this was something more serious. Perhaps the need to, regretfully, miss next week’s astronomy lab. You could have knocked me over with a feather, though, when he looked me in the eye and said, “I was talking to my pastor and his wife, and they want to know who at this school has been teaching blasphemy about the Moon.” Noticing my uncomprehending look, he elaborated, “The Pastor says that teaching the Moon was formed of the Earth is against God’s Word.”

Not knowing what else to do, I recapitulated the reasons we believe the Moon was probably formed as the result of the collision of a large body with the nascent Earth. It was immediately apparent, however, that the mind of this student was now firmly closed to anything I might say on the subject. With nothing else to be said, I told him he was welcome to give my name to his pastor and that I’d be happy to chat with the holy man about the origins of the Solar System. I never heard from the kid’s preacher, and can only assume the student decided the old aphorism, “Don’t Start Nothing, Won’t be Nothing,” was a pretty good one to follow.

From that evening forward, I kept my ears and eyes open. It wasn’t long before I became aware many—if not all—the sects loosely described as “fundamentalist” (or “right-wing,” or “hard-shell,” or “literalist”), groups that have one thing in common, an unbendingly literal interpretation of the Bible’s stories that does not admit any possibility of metaphor or fable, are in opposition to almost all of modern science. That includes, especially, biology, astronomy, and geology, the disciplines most likely to contradict the myths in the Holy Book. I thought I knew the score, anyway, but actually I really wasn’t aware how far things had gone until the other day when I received the mailing mentioned at the beginning of this here screed.

At first I couldn’t believe anybody with the money to professionally print and mail a pamphlet like the one I got (likely in large numbers; it was addressed to “occupant”) could be serious. This had to be a gag. By the time I finished reading and had done a little Googling, it was clear that this was anything but a gag. There is a (thankfully) still small, but perhaps growing group of religionists who don’t just deny the 19th century’s Darwin, but also the 16th century’s Copernicus. The people who sent me the brochure, for example, are distributing a free book called Geocentricity Primer and seriously (near as I can tell) do believe the Earth is not just the center of the Solar system, but is in a central and privileged position in the universe itself, a universe very limited in size and age.

What is their proof? There is none, of course. As is usually the case with the scientifically illiterate writing about science, they follow two paths, making up things wholesale, and positing a CONSPIRIACY AMONG THOSE BAD OLD GOD-HATING SCIENTISTS:
"Ever since the scientific community adopted heliocentrism as fact, attempts have been made to prove it. NOT ONE of these attempts produced the proof…the results…are consistent with the hypothesis that the earth is at rest."
As is also usually the case with these people (and their buddies, the Creationists and Intelligent Designers) the words “theory,” “fact,” and “hypothesis” are sprinkled liberally throughout the text despite the fact that it’s readily apparent that whoever wrote this thing had no more idea as to what these words mean in the context of science than my cat, Growltiger, does.

So, we now have a bunch that don’t just deny Evolution or The Big Bang in favor of religious texts, but who go so far as to crank us back to the medieval in the service of their faith (after a few paragraphs about “science” my little pamphlet gets straight to the point with plenty of scripture quotations). Are people who believe the Sun goes around the Earth a tiny minority? Yes. Could the idea spread? It’s scary, I know, but given the high degree of ignorance about science demonstrated by a large proportion of the American public this and other crackbrained and Luddite ideas could spread. You doubt that? I’ve seen a survey in which a majority indicated that they thought the best way to decide which should be taught, Creationism or Evolution, would be to have residents of a school district vote on the ideas. Will they next be voting on whether or not the Earth is round?

What do we, the majority of Americans who understand the importance of science, do about the Geocentrists and the IDers and the Creationists and (believe it or not) the Flat Earthers? We do nothing about these religious sects per se. One of the beauties and strengths of the western democracies as opposed to the fundamentalist religious regimes of the Middle East/Southwest Asia is that we allow the most harebrained among us to worship whichever gods they see fit in whatever ways they see fit as long as they do not do unwonted violence to themselves or their children or infringe on the rights of the rest of us. Which does not mean these people should not be opposed if they, for example, begin lobbying your local school board to “teach” Creationism or Intelligent Design alongside or in preference to Evolution or whichever scientific theory or subject they oppose at the moment. If you do not stand up, not only will their children be harmed, yours will be too.

How about individuals? How do you respond when somebody wanders up to you at the public star party and loudly declares, “I cannot believe you are tellin’ these kids that Jupiter goes around the Sun. My preacher says that is the word of Satan.” What you should not do is say, “Ha! Ha! Ha! You loony! Why don’t you move to Iran and hang out with the Ayatollahs?” I am embarrassed to admit that is (almost) what I did at an astronomy club meeting when a new member chirped up with that old canard about human tracks alongside dinosaur tracks in Texas proving man lived with the dinosaurs (like the Flintstones, I reckon), proving the Bible correct. Don’t ask me how the discussion got on that subject, but it got my dander up, I responded too harshly, and we lost a valued club member.

Instead, talk to these people calmly and gently. The truth is, most of them were educated in the same schools and colleges as the rest of us and really know the basic facts of the universe. Deep down, they know Copernicus and Kepler, not Jim Bakker and Oral Roberts are correct about the layout of the Solar System. In my experience, quite a few of ‘em are practicing Doublethink—the art of holding two opposed things to be true at once. They know Earth is revolving around good, ol’ Mr. Sun, and that their god is not (literally) a bearded old man sitting on a throne up in the (literal) clouds. Their bold assertions about Dinosaurs or Galileo are sometimes a cry for help, help in reconciling their faith with their knowledge.

You can help them, not by banishing them to Tehran, but by gently and simply summarizing why and how we know the things we know and by emphasizing that the knowledge of these things does not necessarily mean they give up (all) their beliefs. Tell them about brilliant scientists who’ve remained believers despite knowing the Bible is not literally true. The examples of religious men, like the astronomers of the Vatican observatory, who acknowledge the truth of our astronomical knowledge can also be convincing and reassuring. You may not immediately covert these people or even obviously sway them, but you may later find you planted a little seed that blossomed into enlightenment. If you ask me, good, ol’ America is ripe for a Second Age of Enlightenment in the face of way too much ignorance—religiously induced or otherwise.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

 

Keep it Rocking

Keep your club rockin’. I frequently revisit this question, “What makes a club good and how do you keep one good?” because I think it is an important one for all amateurs. Yeah, even in this age of 24-hour-a-day amateur astronomy chit-chat on the dadgummed Internet, the good ol’ local astronomy club is still important. Even if you don’t belong to your local club (though I think it’s downright foolish not to) it may still be doing things like crusading for sensible lighting that benefit all area amateurs, members or not. The astronomy club is also what keeps amateur astronomy in the public eye. Outreach activities attract new members to our avocation, and that keeps amateur astronomy healthy, and that keeps the new gear all you twidgets crave flowing.

Yep, there is a virtual meeting going on all day and all night at places like Cloudy Nights and Astromart, so what good is a non-virtual astro-club when you can talk scopes and observing any time you want on the I-net? For some people, “no good at all.” Astronomy is one of those pursuits that can be practiced in solitary fashion, and that is what some people like about it and good on ‘em. I used to be surprised to meet enthusiastic and active local amateurs who, despite being in the astro game for years and years, were not members of my club, the PSAS. I’m not surprised anymore. I eventually wised up to the fact that some amateurs are not joiners.

That’s not the best path for most of us, though. A club brings enough tangibles and intangibles to the table to make it worth belonging even if you consider yourself an introvert. The greatest asset? Strength in numbers. You can pool your resources to, for example, acquire a dark observing site that because of cost or other reasons would be undoable for an individual. That there alone is enough reason for almost anybody to belong to a club. In most cases, you don’t even have to attend meetings. Keep your dues current, and usually you’ll be able to use the dark site like anybody else. Prob’ly no one will care even if you don’t say much, set up in a corner away from everybody else, and fly alone. For most of us, though, there are also the intangibles. Mainly the experience of observing and doing other things in a group of like-minded individuals, who, over the years, often become the closest of friends. My most cherished astronomy memories are almost exclusively built on the adventures and misadventures of our little club.

Those are a couple of reasons, and good ones I think, to jine-up with your friendly neighborhood astronomy society. Howsomeever, neither you nor anybody else will want to remain a member of that club if'n it is not done right. Every club can get into a rut; it’s easy to recognize the signs: meetings become progressively more boring affairs where everything but astronomy is discussed, the membership begins to dwindle, nobody goes out to the dark site anymore, and the last public star party was, when you think about it, during Hale-Bopp. What is important is to do something about club-entropy before it goes so far as to be irreversible. How? Glad you asked.

Meetings

Ah, yes, the dreaded business meeting. Every club has ‘em, and every club has trouble keeping them interesting. Oh, it used to be easy. Back in the pre-Interweb days of yore, the monthly club meeting was a huge treat for me. Over the course of a month, it was often the only time I got to shoot the breeze with my fellow amateurs. All that’s changed, but it is still possible to keep meetings fun. It don’t even take that much work.

Rule One is, take the word “business” out of “business meeting.” Sure, you’ll want to hear the Treasurer’s report, and have the Secretary read the minutes of the last meeting, and Robert’s Rules of Order can keep the proceedings rolling along smartly. B-U-T… I’ve seen clubs where “meeting” consisted of droning recitations about the bank account, interminable reviews of the report on same from last month, and soul-blistering expeditions into the land of “Point of Privilege,” “Floor Motion,” and “Adjournment Debate.” The most ironic thing? The folks running these dry-as-the-Sahara affairs were continually amazed the only people in attendance were their fellow officers and (fleetingly) new members.

How do you keep business meetings interesting? You focus on AMATEUR ASTRONOMY. There are plenty of ways to do that. My own club has a long-running style that suits us and may suit you as well. We open with a short report on the treasury and a short presentation of the minutes of the last meeting. That occupies maybe five minutes, which is almost too long. Following is the “what we gonna do.” Reminders about public outreach events, dark site expeditions, and other group activities. Maybe ten minutes. Max. Next is the heart of it, a presentation (now often a PowerPoint), usually about a constellation.

When we adopted this format a decade ago, I thought we’d soon run out of stuff to say about the 88, but that never did happen. Each person tends to focus on a different aspect of their chosen constellation: deep sky observing, imaging opportunities, variable stars, etc, etc. And each year when a constellation comes back around, we are all usually ready to hear about it again. Who gives the presentation? Whoever volunteers for that duty. It used to take a little wheedling, but before long, the membership found out giving a presentation is often more fun even than listening to one. This is your chance, after all, to show off your astrophotos to a captive audience, go on and on about double stars if that is your thing, or dwell on the mythological background of the star pattern if that is what floats your boat.

After that? “Anybody got anything else?” In other words, Open Mike time. If somebody has a presentation on some other subject, like a new piece of equipment they’ve acquired, or a report on a visit to a star party, or a talk about Solar eclipses or QUASARS, this is the time. That done, it’s punch and cookies. You’d be amazed at how much fun it is to gobble munchies from the Wally-World down the road and drink plastic cups of Purple Passion Punch in the company of your fellow amateurs. Sometimes Cookie and Punch Time after the “main” meeting is more fun and illuminating than anything that has gone before. Cookies reduced to crumbs, a look at the watch says an hour, sometimes even two, has gone by in what seems like fifteen minutes and another successful PSAS meetin’ draws to a close.

The takeaway? We keep it simple, we keep it short, we keep it interesting with talks by members, not endless droning by officers, and we allow everybody to have their say month after month. “But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, my club is way too big for your simpleminded ideas.” Nonsense. I’ve seen similarly informal and fun meeting formats work for the largest organizations. Which might be even larger if they took some of the starch out. Pass the cookies.

Recruiting

You are FREAKING OUT because your numbers have dropped from fifty to forty to twenty and ten is approaching. Don’t be overly concerned about occasional membership doldrums. Every club waxes and wanes. A long-term, constant bleeding away of members? Get worried, but don’t freak out. Do something. First, take a look at your meetings. If they are hidebound parliamentary parties, change that, do it right away, and strive to get the word out that there’s a new game being played down to the club. How do you get the word out? Whether you have a newsletter or not, you should have a mailing list of all members. I know it is low tech, but the simple postcard can work wonders: “We miss you at the club. We are trying some new things we know you are gonna like. Why not give us a try this Thursday evening?”

How do you get the word about your group out to prospective new members? The most efficient way is at public outreach sessions. Got a prospect (you’ll quickly develop a sixth sense as to who is and who is not an amateur aborning)? Give her/him a flier about the club, which includes a few words about what you are and what you do along with contact info and a (current) meeting schedule. How else? The same old things that have always worked. If your local newspaper (assuming you still have one) has a community events listing, make sure your meetings are included there every single month. Most cable TV systems have a “community bulletin board” scroll and will be happy to add your meeting announcement to that. Even the lowest of the low tech can still be very productive: fliers posted at the local library and the university student union building. In my experience? The problem is not getting members, but keeping ‘em, and if you are doing your meetings the right way, you are well on the way to doing that.

Despite my snide comments about that new-fangled Internet, there is no doubt in my formerly military mind that a good website—hell, a website of any kind—attracts new members. These days, when somebody wants to know something they hit the Google. It is vital that when they type in “Mayberry Astronomical Society” they get a hit for your MAS. I would guess that if you don’t already have a site, there is someone in the membership with the talent (and server space) to put one up for y’all—and will prob’ly enjoy doing it. This is mucho important. The last several new members we’ve garnered have found us on the web. Oh, and when you have that site up, don’t forget about it. Make danged sure that the date, time, and place of the meeting is listed in bold letters on the home page, and that, come hell or high water, it is updated every month.

Who do you recruit, by the way? While I think the Great American Astronomy Club is in fairly good health, a snapshot of the membership of all too many groups will show not all is rosy. That snapshot will often reveal a bunch of faces that are white, male, and older. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, your Unk being a member in good standing of that demographic, but if you, like most of us, want to see your club prosper and thrive and survive after your time on this Pebble in the Sky is done, you have to move beyond that group.

We’ve made fairly good strides in gaining women converts, but need to do more in that regard. Youth? In addition to actively recruiting them, what will stand us in best stead there is figuring out how to keep them. If you’ve got a youngster who’s all fired up about computers and Internet telescopes, encourage her to give a presentation or chair a committee. Don’t relegate the kids to the back row. Make sure they are in on the action even to the extent of serving as officers. When it comes to minority representation in clubs and amateur astronomy, we are really hurting, brothers and sisters, hurting bad. What will change that? Getting the word out on amateur astronomy to EVERYBODY. Do you provide astronomy outreach services to inner city schools? On a regular basis? Do you hold general public events in areas accessible to the minority community? Do you announce your meetings in media targeted at these folks? If not, get to it and right now.

Newsletter

Every club needs a newsletter, correct? Well, maybe. Oh, that used to be true, but these days, when even the PSAS has a dadgummed website, not so much. The website (or a Yahoogroup) performs most of the functions that used to be done by the newsletter: meeting and other event reminders, listings of upcoming star parties, pictures and general news items about the club. Still, if you want to do a newsletter, there is no reason not to. If you have a person in your club who’s become afflicted with the astronomy-writing bug, a newsletter can be a beautiful thing. I got my start by writing stories for club papers, and I’m still as proud of those articles as I am of anything else I have written. If you do decide to do a newsletter, I strongly recommend you keep it simple; otherwise, it will become an albatross around somebody’s neck before all is said and done.

The way to keep it simple is to forget hardcopies and stamps and mailing. Those things are incredibly expensive and time consuming, and today are a drag on club resources for no good reason. If you want to do a newsletter, do it however you want on the computer: with a fancy desktop publisher or just with Microsoft Word. Make it as pretty or as utilitarian as you want, but DO NOT PRINT IT. Save it as an Adobe Acrobat file (Word 2007 will do that, and so will many free/cheap utilities). When you are ready to “publish,” post it on the club website if you have one, or email it as an attachment to your membership if you don’t. Yes, almost every club has a few members who don’t do email or Internet for various reasons. These people are easy to accommodate. Print out a few copies and have them on hand at meetings. I’ve easily weaned all but two or three of our folks off the printed newsletters.

Keeping in Touch

How do you email all them club members? At one time I maintained an extensive mailing list in Microsoft Outlook. Till one day I said to myself, “Self, it’s a lot of work to keep this mailing list current. There has gotta be a better way.” ‘Deed there was, and it was right in front of my nose: Yahoogroups. Most of y’all are well acquainted with these mailing lists. You join one and thenceforth receive all the messages everybody in the group posts. You can elect to get these via email, or just read them on the World Wide Web. It’s free, too, a big drawing card for Unk.

As quickly as I could, I transitioned everybody from the old mailing list to the PSAS Yahoogroup. What a work-load reduction! The most beautiful thing? I don’t have to manage the list, the members do that themselves. Individuals subscribe or unsubscribe as they see fit. Many of the folks who don’t like email are happy with reading the group messages on the web. There are also a lot of frills that are even more useful for clubs than they are to the usual discussion groups. Your “Eyepiece Caps Uncensored” Yahoogroup prob’ly don’t have much use for upcoming event reminders, but being able to set up a reminder message about the monthly meeting that is sent to everybody automatically a few days prior is sweet, real sweet, muchachos.

Dark Site

Business meetings can be fun, but amateur astronomy is about observing, and that’s what your club should be about too. Every astronomical society needs a dark site where members can observe as a group every single month. Even moreso than good meetings, a good dark site can keep a club alive through thick and thin. What’s a good dark site? That is for y’all to decide, but my opinion is what’s more important than “super dark” is “accessible” and “safe.” If you’ve got a decently dark site within an hour’s drive for most members, a site that is comfortable and secure, that’s highly preferable in my opinion to a location that is distant and prone to “trouble.” Unfortunately, the countryside is not as peaceful as it used to be, with out of the way dark spots sometimes frequented by the bottom feeders of the meth trade. The dark site subject cries out for an entire article, and I’ll do that sometime soon.

Public Outreach

Most clubs do public outreach programs. They do them for a couple of reasons. The average amateur just likes showing off sky and scopes to the public, and most of us believe we are providing a vital public service in the bargain. It is no secret the United States is troubled by significant math/science illiteracy (which also deserves an entire article), and introducing Mom and Pop and Bud and Sis to astronomy is our little contribution to the fight against the encroaching darkness of superstition and ignorance. The added benefit, as I’ve already said, is that public outreach is an excellent scouting opportunity if you’re looking for new members. It’s also a bonding experience for your existing members: us out there together with a few scopes facing a few thousand eager kids and adults.

In my opinion, every single club should be doing at least a couple of major public star parties a year, if not more. And most do. However, let us not lose sight of the fact that just because you and me and Little Sister like to work with the public, that doesn't mean all amateurs do. Some just do not like dealing with the public for one reason or another, and should not be pushed into participating. Certainly I think it is a mistake in most instances for a club to be focused entirely or almost entirely on public outreach. Do not lose sight of the fact that astronomy is not one pursuit, but many pursuits, and a good club should try to serve them all.

Working

All these things, public outreach, and meetings, and dark site star parties have one thing in common: they require a lot of work on somebody’s part. That “somebody” is the club’s officers. The astronomy club is ‘bout the only organization I know of where there’s a constant competition to see who can avoid holding the reins of power. All too many clubs leave the same people in charge year after year after year. These officers are often highly motivated, and will tell you they enjoy the work. Eventually, though, the time comes when they burn out. Sometimes that happens with several officers at the same time—that happened to our club once. A few of the movers and shakers got tired of doing all the work, a few moved away, and a few dropped out. We’d gotten so used to their guidance that the club foundered and nearly died as a result.

What to do? Do your darndest to change most of your officers each year. Hold elections regularly and encourage the nomination of new faces. Yes, I know it’s sometimes impossible to get someone to sign on for a thankless job like Treasurer, but, at the very least, you can set up committees. If you can’t get Joe Amateur to agree to be Secretary, it might be possible to sign him up to be Dark Site Committee Chair, which will lessen the work load for another officer. Also good is that changing officers yearly will help break the “us and them” pattern: “us” club members come to the meeting to be entertained by “them” officers. Everyone needs to be involved in running the club, and the line between the “us” and the “them” needs to be blurry at all times.

Having Fun
All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. The main reason we are club members in the first place is to have fun as a group. One way to do that in addition to meetings, public star parties, and dark site observing runs is to do stuff like organize group expeditions. Is there a major star party somewhere nearby? Why not caravan there and set up together? Is the club in the neighboring city having an especially good speaker this month? Why not get together as a group and go? You don’t have to limit yourselves to astronomy events, either.

One thing we down here and have done for years and have had great success with is our annual Holiday Dinner. In lieu of the normal January bidness meeting (who’s in the mood for that after New Year’s?), we meet at a local restaurant. We keep it simple, with everybody paying for their own food and drinks, but arrange a backroom or at least a table for the club beforehand. Not only is it fun to enjoy the waning of the holiday season and ring in another year with your good buddies, it’s surprising what you can learn about/from your fellow observers after they get a little whiskey in ‘em.

Every club is different, just like every amateur astronomer is different. I am not saying I have all the answers when it comes to keeping your club healty; I don’t, but I will say the broad brush strokes of what I have been yakking about will work for you too, no doubt about it. If I had to boil my club philosophy all the way down? Informal is better than formal. Inclusive is better than exclusive. Short is better than long. Active is better than inactive, and a little fun is better than a lot of seriousness.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

 

Uncle Rod’s Telescope Hall of Fame

Hall of fame or hall of shame? Hall or fame or hall of shame? Hall of fame or hall of shame? I couldn’t decide whether this should be a “best of” or a “worst of,” as both can be illuminating. Eventually, I settled on “best.” Not only might that ensure I got fewer emails telling me I ain’t got the sense god gave a goose, it would also mean I didn’t hurt anybody's feelings. You see, in this old boy’s experience, every scope there has ever been is remembered fondly by some amateur, and it ain’t my intent to spoil anybody’s memories.

You may still be hopping mad that I’ve committed the sin of omission, of course, “Hell, Unk, how come you didn’t include the Fecker Celestar and the Mayflower 3-inch?” But I think you will nevertheless agree that every one of these telescopes belongs in the Hall of Fame. Not necessarily because of optical or mechanical fineness, mind you; I’m basing inclusion not just on that, but also on the innovation demonstrated and the impact on you and me, Joe and Jane Amateur Astronomer.

Astronomy Technologies 66ED/William Optics 66SD 66-mm ED apochromats

If you read the previous installment of this here blog, you know how much I love the Short Tube 80-mm refractor, and that my occasional reference to this 66-mm APO as “the new Short Tube 80” is high praise. Yeah, it’s a little more expensive than the achromat, with an OTA going for about $350.00 as compared to the $250.00 the ST80 commanded when it was introduced, but those dollars have shrunk over the last 13 years, and in some ways the 66 is worth the small amount of extra moola required. Yeah, it’s smaller in aperture, but it is unarguably better than my beloved 80 both optically and mechanically.

On M13, which, as I noted last time, can be a tough nut for the Short Tube to crack, the 66 picks out a few stars regularly and without complaint. And it’s easier to get those few stars in focus due to a two-speed Crayford that’s worlds better than the primitive rack and pinion of the Short Tube. Your extra $$$ also wins you a retractable dew shield and, on most examples, a very serviceable and attractive case. If the Short Tube is a versatile scope, the 66 is more versatile, since it is much more capable of producing good looking CCD images thanks to its (relative) lack of chromatic aberration. Visually? Despite the smaller aperture it will take more magnification on the Moon and planets than the Short Tube and show you more.

Similar also-rans: I’m not quite sure, since I’ve never been quite sure which Chinese scope factory(ies) produces the 66es, which are sold by a variety of vendors under their badges with differing accessories and in a wild array of colors (check out the paintjob on my 66, William Optics’ “Patriot Edition”). Closest competitor that appears to be made by somebody else is likely StellarVue’s sweet 70-mm ED.

AstroPhysics f/12 Super Planetary Refractor

I could easily have put any AP here: a 150EDF or any of the Starfires, the Traveler, you name it; they are all beautiful, finely made, and reasonably priced. And yet, this late 80s scope is the one I’ve always fancied (I never got around to putting myself on the waiting list for one and it’s long been too late to correct that). Maybe the color correction on this and Roland’s other earlier scopes wasn’t quite as marvelous as on the newer ones, but at the Super Planetary’s f/12 you’ll never know that. The few I’ve used have been essentially perfect in that regard.

But it’s not just that. With that long tube, this one truly looks like your retro Uncle’s conception of what a lens scope should be. No, it’s maybe not quite as delicious as a Unitron, but it’s right up there. And good luck getting a 6-inch Unitron. The few that were made were priced in the stratosphere (7000 heavy dollars in the 1970s), and you can imagine what one would command now. The Super Planetary? An insanely reasonable $1500 for the OTA. Put one on a sufficient mount, turn it to Jupe, and prepare for a jaw-dropping experience. For me there’s just something about a high focal ratio 6-inch of any kind that warms the cockles of me little heart, and this one just about sets it on fire.

Also Rans: As far as I know, there is not a refractor around at this time that resembles the Super Planetary, combining long focal length and an apochromatic lens. Sure, you can get some big, long refractors from D&G, but they’re achromats.

Cave Astrola 8-inch

The 1960s and (early) 1970s were the golden age of the commercially produced Newtonian telescope. There were quite a few to choose from—Optical Craftsmen and Starliner and Edmund and Criterion come to mind. More than anybody else, though, there was Cave, the telescopes remembered thirty years after their heyday as being the pinnacle of the Newt Maker’s art. If you wanted and could pay for better than Edmund and Criterion, you went to Tom Cave for one of his “Astrolas.” Not only was he a master observer who knew what constituted a good telescope, he was perceptive when it came to hiring the best people, legendary mirror maker Alika Herring, for example.

Cave produced Newtonians in apertures from 6-inches up to a gigantic 18.5-inches. I know the word “gigantic” might seem inappropriate when describing a “mere” 18-inch scope in these days of big Dobs, but take my word for it, an 18-inch Cave on a GEM was a towering beast. Cave made Cassegrains, too, which were almost as highly regarded as the Newtonians. For most amateurs, though, the Astrola to have was one of the 8-inch models. Lots of light gathering compared to the 4 and 6-inch telescopes we’d cut our teeth on, but relatively affordable and relatively portable compared to the larger Caves, which even at 10-inches were getting big enough to make hauling ‘em around a pain even if you owned that fabled Chevy Van.

My fave, and the one I finally ended up owning briefly was the 8-inch Deluxe. If I’d admired Edmunds and Criterions in the past and thought ‘em “beautiful,” this was a scope in a whole ‘nother class. Audrey Hepburn compared to Jayne Mansfield. White fiberglass tube (Parks), a rack and pinion focuser that left the Space Conquerors and RV-6es in the dust, primary and secondary mounts that did the same, a 50-mm finder, a big and (fairly) steady GEM on a hefty pier, a clock drive good enough for imaging (maybe), three Orthoscopic eyepieces, and—well, you get the picture. The telescopes were as good working as they were good looking. Yeah, some folks think some Cave years are better than others, and that quality began to slide as the 70s got underway, but I can testify that my 70s Deluxe produced great images. So why did I sell my Cave after owning it for barely a year?

The answer is simple: amateur astronomy for me and for most amateurs changed in the 1970s. We went from observing mostly the Moon and planets and Messiers to focusing on the deeper deep sky, following in Scotty Houston’s footsteps. Certainly a Cave is as capable of producing good deep sky images as any other telescope, but in the 70s, the problem was becoming getting the telescope to a spot where you could see those objects. Whether in Possum Swamp or my adopted home of Little Rock, Arkansas, I had to pack the scope in the car and drive an hour or three to get to truly dark skies.

Imagine, if you will, the pain involved in wrestling an 85-pound Cave Newtonian from my upstairs apartment, into the back seat of a Dodge Dart, and doing the same thing in reverse at 3 a.m. on a 20 degree Arkansas morning. It wasn’t just portability, either. I and many of my brother and sister amateurs were now obsessed by taking pictures of the deep sky. A Cave could do that—Evered Kreimer proved that in spades—but not without a lot of modifying and fussing. One of them new-fangled C8s was just about astrophotography ready out of the box, and was as portable as portable can be. Which was why I sold the Cave for an Orange Tube. And have never looked back. I respect the Caves but I do not miss them.

Also Rans: None, really. The Cave 8-inch hit the mark, and nobody, not Starliner nor Optical Craftsmen, much less Criterion or Edmund, did one better—or as good.

Celestron Orange Tube C8

In some ways, this is the ultimate legend, the scope that, with the Dobsonian, rang in modern amateur astronomy. Sure, it’s possible to argue that the predecessors to the Orange Tubes, the Blue and White Celestrons of the 1960s, are more deserving of Hall of Fame Status. They were, in many ways, better telescopes with superior drives and a zero image shift focusing system. They were also the telescopes that cracked the code (thanks to Celestron owner Tom Johnson) when it came to mass producing Schmidt Cassegrains. The problem was that they were very expensive. Few Blue and White C8s were made, and the next size up, the C10, cost dern near as much as a Volkswagen Beetle.

The Orange Tube didn’t introduce the mass produced Schmidt Cassegrain, it just made it affordable. Sort of, anyway. You still had to fork over 1000 dense 70s dollars by the time you paid for “options” like a tripod, and I couldn’t afford one until I was in my mid-20s—and then only just. It was worth it, though, to finally experience a telescope that wasn’t just portable, but adaptable. Astrophotography was only the beginning. Almost anything astronomical that can be imagined can be done with a C8, from peeping at a fat gibbous Moon to taking the spectra of distant stars.

Also Rans: From Celestron? We thought the C5 was nice, and admired the C11 and C14 when they came along, but neither stole our hearts like the C8. The C8 had absolutely no challengers for a decade, not until Meade released their 2080, which was at least somewhat of an advance, being equipped with a (semi) worm gear drive.

Coulter Odyssey I (13.1-inch) Blue Tube

Jim Braginton’s humble 13.1-inch Odyssey Dobsonian won’t win any optical prizes. Oh, it’s usually good enough; especially if you run it at low power, or, as Jim used to say, at “visual equalization.” Contrary to what he used to preach, though, low power is not always good for deep sky observing. Whether it’s appropriate or not depends on the object in question, but it sure does help cover up optical sins. It was no secret even In The Day that when you were buying one of Coulter’s telescopes you were not buying optical fineness and planetary performance, you were buying pure and simple aperture horsepower that would allow you to see things you’d never seen before and see things you had seen before in a wholly different way. The Odyssey I is a true classic for that single reason.

What was it like? If you want details, have a look at my article “Meade Forever” but the equation is purty simple: 13.1-inches of aperture + $395.00 = compromises. Those compromises included not just optical, but mechanical ones. Whether we are talking the Blue Tube or the less good Red Tube that replaced the original as the 90s came in, we are talking “cobbled together, simple as simple can be and still be called ‘telescope’.” Nevertheless, amateurs loved the Odyssey I, and it is easy to see why. For folks used to observing M13 in a 6 or 8-inch telescope, the Great Glob in a 13-inch, especially from a dark site, was, to put it mildly, a revelation. These big, gawky, but loveable telescopes will never win any design awards, but they did what they needed to do, turn a whole lotta boys ‘n girls on to the beauties of the Great Out There.

Also Rans: Really weren’t none from this company. The 29-inch wasn’t around long enough to have any effect on amateur astronomy, even if it hadn’t been so dadgummed big and heavy. The 17.1-inch Odyssey II was still too big and too heavy and usually had optics considerably worse than those of the 13.1. The 10-inch wasn’t so much cheaper that we would want to settle for it. The 8-inch? With that we were back in C8 territory and there was no way Jim Braginton’s 8 could compete with Tom Johnson’s—‘cept on price, of course. Today? It’s Dob heaven thanks to the Chinese telescope invasion; take your pick from ultra cheap to purty dern good.

Criterion RV-6 Dynascope 6-inch f/8 Newtonian

If you hang out where classic scope fanatics gather, especially where classic reflecting telescope fans gather, you may at first be surprised that ever’body talks about the Criterion RV-6 Dynascope 6-inch f/8, but almost nobody talks about the (nearly identical) Edmund 6-inch f/8, the Super Space Conqueror. Not only do the two scopes look right similar, they are similarly equipped with eyepieces, clock drives, and good optics. Hell, the mirrors are from the same maker, Upco. So why? Most of all, I reckon, because there are more RV-6es around. Criterion sold more six inch telescopes than Edmund did. Mostly, I suspect, because their advertising was better. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the RV-6 occupied a full splash page almost every month in Sky and Telescope, while the Super Space Conqueror was usually confined to a postage stamp sized area of one of Edmund’s multi-product ads.

There was more to it than that, of course. The RV-6, which debuted in 1959, wasn’t a whole lot better than the SSC, but it was some better for almost the same price. The focuser, finder, and drive were just a tad nicer than those of the Edmund. You also got to choose your three eyepieces from a wide selection, which even included some Orthoscopics. The RV-6’s tube was at least semi-rotatable while the Edmund’s wasn’t, which caused the Space Conqueror’s eyepiece to assume some wicked bad angles in some areas of the sky. For whatever reason, amateurs just liked the RV-6 and still do. It is still capable of producing fine images within the limits imposed by its somewhat small aperture and lives on not just as a collector’s item, but as a working telescope.

Also Rans: Criterion produced a full line of Newtonians including an 8-inch and a 12-inch. The RV-8 8-inch is prob’ly the company’s other sweet spot, right behind the RV-6. I know my Bubba Phil Harrington still loves and uses his. The 12? I’ve used one frequently and both mount and optics seem a little subpar compared to the other RVs.

Edmund Scientific Astroscan 4-inch f/4 Newtonian

I began noticing this weird looking little scope not long after its debut in 1977 as a no-name RFT. It was hard to miss, since Edmund hadn’t had ads as interesting in years, if ever. The telescope didn’t remain anonymous for long, either, with Edmund soon running a contest to name the little bugger, eventually settling on “Astroscan 2001.” As the new century approached, the no-longer-spacey “2001” was dropped, but the telescope remained and remains the same. It is a 4-inch Newtonian in a sealed tube (the optical window on the end is just that, a flat—more or less—optical window; this is a straight Newtonian). The most innovative thing about it? Edmund adapted the “bowling ball telescope” that ATMs had been making for years into something mass produceable and light and very manageable. A little tube that could be aimed anywhere in the sky sitting in its proto-Dobsonian cast-aluminum base or easily handheld—CUDDLED—at low power.

And I ain't got one because? Once I got over my doubts as to the efficacy of an RFT, there remained some mutterings I heard about the quality of the scope. Yes, it offered an insanely expansive wide field, but at f/4 most eyepieces tended to turn ugly even fairly far out from the field edge. That wasn’t the worst though: Images would likely degrade the longer you had the scope and the more you hauled it around. The Astroscan couldn’t be collimated by end users (!), and the mirror mounting scheme meant it wouldn’t hold collimation over the long run. You could have Edmund re-collimate it for you, but by the time UPS got done with it on its return voyage, it would likely be “out” again. Basic optical quality of the 4-inch parabolic primary could vary, too, especially as the years of production rolled on. I pitted a mid-production A-scan against my Short Tube 80, and the 80, despite its aperture disadvantage, kicked the Edmund’s booty all over the field. Last and least (good), the Astroscan’s focuser was—no way to mince words on this—t-r-a-s-h.

Nevertheless, this is such a convenient and easy to handle telescope that it still is and probably will long remain popular. Get one out under the Milky Way, cradle it in your arms, start Astro-Scanning, and all those daunting minuses just evaporate. I still may buy one one of these days. I ought to. If rumors are correct and Edmund (the new Edmund, “Scientifics” which bought the consumer division of our old friend some years ago) comes out with one with a collimateable primary, I prob’ly will.

Also Rans: Nuttin’ from Edmund, who ain’t much interested in scopes these days, and little from anybody else. Bushnell has sold an Astroscan clone, but despite an adjustable primary, this one don’t make it. I mean, come on, a spherical primary at f/4? I don’t think so! The closest competitor is the Orion StarBlast, which offers a quality mirror in an adjustable cell. It is not really suited to hand-holding, though, being best in its micro-Dob mount.

Meade ETX 90-mm MCT

When John Diebel and company began this project, “ETX” stood for “Everybody’s Telescope,” and in many ways it is that. Not that everybody greeted it with open arms. When the ETX-90 first appeared in Meade’s ad spreads in 1996, the reaction of the more cynical among us was, “Ho, ho, ho, Meade is trying to clone the Questar 3.5, what a laugh!” And in truth, that was exactly what they was trying to do with this ETX, 90-mms of f/14 Gregory Maksutov on a little fork mount which sported tiny screw-in legs just like the real deal. It soon became apparent that it was a rather pale imitation of its inspiration in most ways: the fork mount and drive base were plastic, and there was a small and insufficient finder rather than the Questar’s elegant built-in finder system.

Yeah, there was no denying all that. And yet...and yet...the optics on the little telescope were, it turned out, fully competitive with the Q's. In fact, the result of my "shoot out," which pitted one buddy's ETX against another buddy's Q3.5, were that I COULD NOT TELL THE DIFFERENCE IN IMAGES. Sure, the Questar was much more pleasant to use, but nothing looked much--if any--better in it. I took some heat from Questar owners for saying that in a magazine article of the time, but I stand by it.

Competition? There are plenty of small MCTs out there these days, most notably from Synta (sold by Orion), but there is only one ETX.

Meade LX200 10-inch (Classic)

When Meade first began advertising its go-to telescope in 1992 or so, I proclaimed it was destined for failure. How could they make all that computer stuff work for a price that was about the same as that of Celestron's "manual" Ultima 8 SCT? "Stuff and nonsense," said the Rodster. Sure, I hadn’t seen an LX200 in the flesh, but so what? My mind (such as it was) was made up.

Until, just a little while later, a fellow club member in search of a new scope took the plunge and ordered a 10-inch LX200. Out at our old Hurly, Mississippi dark site on one chilly fall eve, I was prepared for disaster. My buddy, set up his admittedly pretty blue-tube CAT, turned on the power, zipped it around with the hand controller a bit, and beckoned, “Take her for a spin, Rod.” After a minimal amount of instruction, I was punching in “M15,” and inititating somethin’ that sounded like the coffee grinder down to the A&P. When the racket ceased, I put my eye to the eyepiece. HOLY SMOKES! Not only was M15 centered, it was sharp and beautifully resolved. And so it went for the rest of the evening, one object after another, prob’ly more than I could have starhopped to in a week. Was I a convert? You bet. It was still a few years before I switched over to go-to myself, but I have, and the Classic is responsible for that—and for me seeing far more over the intervenin’ years than I would have by fumbling around with a Telrad and Sky Atlas 2000.

Also Rans: There was also the 8-inch LX200 Classic, and, after a while, a 12-inch and a 16-inch. But the 10 was the winning filly. Its optics seemed a bit better than those of the smaller scope, not just light gathering wise, but quality wise, and it was generally more problem-free than either big sister. Not surprisingly, Meade sold more 10s than any of the other LX200s (maybe even combined).

Questar 3.5

Some of ya’ll don’t think I pay sufficient obeisance to this most hoary and legendary of all amateur telescopes, the Questar 3.5-inch Maksutov. Not that that matters much, since obviously somebody must like it or the Questar Corporation of New Hope, Pennsylvania would not have been able to keep selling these expensive scopes (four grand plus) year after year for more than half a century. It ain’t true, anyhow, as I’ve acknowledged this as a genuine and beautiful classic in my SCT books and in my Used Guide. Do I think the Questar is a good choice for everybody? Now that is another kettle of fish.

In some ways, the Questar is still innovative. No one has ever equaled its “control box,” which allows you at the flick of a lever to switch the eyepiece between the undertube finder, the main scope, and a Barlowed main scope. The dewshield is built in, and, like the rest of the Q, lovely. How my mouth has watered at the dewshield’s engraved star map and the tube’s engraved Moon map. The whole thing fits in a beautiful leather case, and the build quality is such that you will hand the Questar down to your children and grandchildren. The optics (made now as in the past by J.R. Cumberland) are exquisite, with it bein’ (almost) unheard of for anything the least bit subpar to slip out of Cumberland or Questar and make it to a customer.

Beauty is only skin deep, though, even with telescopes. Those optics, while exquisite, yeah, are small. A 600 buck Orion 5-inch MCT will show you much more. For all its beauty, this is not a very versatile scope, either. It is a long focal length MCT with a naturally narrow field. The average 1000 dollar 4-inch Chinese APO will do a lot more. Yes, the Questar does have that cute little fork mount, but while cute, it can be awkward. The drive base interferes with the tube when you are trying to view objects in the far south if your latitude is low, and those silky slow motion controls are not always backlash free. Oh, and forget those cute little tripod legs that screw into the base. They are useless. You will need a substantial tripod to provide sufficient support for this long focal length baby, something which tends to abrogate the “observatory in a case” mantra of Questar lovers. Drive electronics? There ain’t no stinkin’ electronics on the base model. With that you get an AC synchro motor jus’ like in 1954.

And yet…and yet… I still want an Omega Speedmaster Pro watch, though I know an humble Casio or Timex will likely keep better time. Sometimes, muchchachos, you gotta take the whole gestalt o’ the thing into account. As I said in Choosing and Using a New CAT, I sometimes daydream myself onto a desert isle, Questar at my side and cold drink in my hand, waiting on the beginning of a long total eclipse. So why don’t I stop wanting and do something about it? I defer to Mr. Spock’s opinion: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

Also Rans: Questar also sells a 7-inch MCT, but its price has prevented it from being anything but a pretty curiosity. The (no longer produced) 12-inch Q? Its sky-high price tag made it not just rare, but R-A-R-E. Optical Technologies Incorporated set out to out Questar Questar in the 1970s, selling a whole range of Maks with Cumberland optics. In just a few years, though, they found out there is only room for one Questar in the telescope bidness, and that that wasn’t them.

Synta Short Tube 80

From the sublime to the ridiculous, I reckon. Unlike the Questar, Synta’s Short Tube 80-mm f/5 refractor is not here because it is beautiful or finely made, it ain’t. It is here because thousands of amateurs have found it highly useful and fun and because it is so cheap (less than $250.00) that almost every amateur can have one and most do. For a complete rundown on the small wonder, see last week’s blog entry. Here, I’ll just say, as I did last week, that this is a versatile scope that delivers images as good as can be expected from a fast achromat. I hang on to mine because it’s continually making itself handy: as an uber portable grab ‘n go, as a capable guide scope, as an excellent wide field visual instrument, as a passable wide field imager. This adaptability is what makes it more useful to me than my ETX (or my imaginary Questar 3.5). That and the fact that it is so cheap and sturdy that I don’t have to worry about babying it. I’ll toss it in the back of the car for a weekend at the beach, and leave it in the motel room without frettin’ about it possibly bein’ stolen by some denizen of the Redneck Riviera.

Also Rans: Orion sold a (non-Synta) Short Tube 90 for a while, and Synta still produces 100, 120, and 150-mm f/5 achromats. All have their fans, but the 80 is by far the best.

Tasco 11TE (or TR)

Like the Short tube, this is an humble telescope. The Tasco 4.5-inch reflector of the 60s – 80s (made, usually, by Japan’s Towa), whether in its original white tube (TE) version or the later red tube mutation (TR) had a huge but seldom acknowledged impact on astronomy. For over twenty years, Tasco sold a scope that for most of that time was of good quality, sold for a reasonable price, and was available almost anywhere. Whether you got yours from the local department store or from the BX like Unk, what did you get?

You got a spherical f/8 primary mirror that did a surprisingly good job, a small but workable GEM comparable to today’s EQ-2, and a couple of eyepieces that were passable at least (.965-inchers of course). I know I had some awesome views with the scope from the very dark skies of the northern Arkansas of the 1970s. No, the Tasco was not a fancy scope, but as I say in “The Good Tasco,” it is fondly remembered by almost everybody who owned one, and got more than a few started in a career in amateur—or professional—astronomy.

Also Rans: Nothing similar in the reflector realm from Tasco. The other most fondly remembered scope they sold is probably the 10TE 3-inch refractor. This was an unarguably fine instrument, but a somewhat rare one. The good, ol’ 4.5 reflector had a much larger impact due to its more reasonable balance of quality/price (the 10TE was close to 600 fat dollars).

Unitron 4-inch Photo Equatorial

As I’ve said a time or three previous, if you were raised in the amateur astronomy of the 1960s, this was the telescope you wanted, and maybe still want. Back then? Good luck. Unless you (or your ol’ man) was Mr. Moneybags, you could prob’ly forget it. But, still, what a dream! That long (f/15) tube! That Unihex! Those zillions of eyepieces (simple .965s though they might be)! A clock drive (maybe a weight driven clock drive)! That weird and funky lookin’ astrocamera (which took 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ PLATES)! Unitron achromats reigned supreme for near-bout three decades; in fact, “reigned” is probably too weak. From the 1950s and into the 1970s, if you said “refractor” to an amateur astronomer it was usually understood you meant “Unitron.”

How good were they, really, though? I’ve been lucky enough to look through quite a few, and usually, though not always, the answer is “very good indeed.” No, you don’t got much field with any but the longest eyepieces, but so what? Long focal length has its uses, too, despite what I said when I was picking on the Questar, and not just on the planets. Most deep sky observers tend to use too little rather than too much power.

As is the case with more than one scope from the classic age, older examples tend to be better optically, but even some I’ve used from the company’s winding down period in the 70s have impressed me. So why not just go out and buy a new Unitron? Shocking as it would have been for us to know in the 1960s, these were Japanese scopes (a few of the larger objectives were sourced from U.S. companies); Unitron (United TRADING Company) was just the importer of these beautiful instruments, which were largely made by Nihon Seiko. When the owner of that business called it quits, the components needed to make Unitrons dried up. Unitron is still around, and even has a web page with pix of a few of their beautiful scopes on it, but they don’t seem to sell much of anything.

Also Rans: Back then, I agonized over the choice of the 4-inch Model 160 Photo Equatorial or the Model 145 3-inch Photo Equatorial. I mean, that huge, long tube and non-collapsible tripod of the 4-inch… wouldn’t that be a bit much? Since I didn’t have a dog’s chance in hell of actually owning either, the answer was, “Hell no, I’ll take the 4!”

There y’all have it, Uncle Rod’s Telescope Hall of Fame. Sure I coulda kept going…the TV Genesis prob’ly belongs here. The Orion StarBlast too. How about the Celestron Ultima 2000? Or the Meade LX6? Surely the Palomar Junior should be there. Maybe some more cogitating on my part and some suggestions on yours will give me enough candidates for a “Part 2.”

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