Oh For The Love of a Small Telescope

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Apollo XX
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Oh For The Love of a Small Telescope

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I've long been a proponent of small telescope observing. I've spent a fair amount of time observing through larger amateur instruments and yes, nothing can replace that aperture when it comes to resolving dim stuff, but some of my finest observing experiences have come when looking through small, high quality optics. I recently had an experience that exemplified just that, and it inspired me to jot down a few words about it. Maybe too many words for some of you, but it doesn't cost me anything to copy and past them here so here you go;

Oh For the Love of a Small Telescope

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Large telescopes definitely have their place in the world of amateur astronomical observing, but it’s a small telescope that’s more likely to provide us with that ‘wow’ experience on a regular basis, if for no other reason than it’s easier to deploy and likely to get used more often. What follows is the tale of one observer’s recent and rewarding small-scope experience.

By Mike McCabe

Saturday, August 13th, Daytime; Recently I’d begun cleaning house a bit, at least as far as astronomy equipment goes. I’ve got lots of stuff lying around here and I’ve decided to make some decisions regarding what to keep and what to move on. Instead of being just a buyer on Cloudy Nights I’d become a seller too.

One of the items on my list of things to move on was my old Meade ETX90 Maksutov-Cassegrain OTA. I hadn’t used it in a long time and I figured that it might draw a buck and a half on the aftermarket, so maybe half of what one of the Televue Delos eyepieces I’d like to pick up would cost if bought used. The tube is in great shape, and it’s even equipped with the elusive electronic focuser motor that’s very hard to find these days. It’s always had decent optics, but the old fork mount that it came on was a worthless piece of junk and that made the user experience less than thrilling. Beyond that I had never taken the time to try and mount it properly, and truth be told I’ve got plenty of options as far as choices of telescopes to use goes. The decision was made, FOR SALE!

Next I set about starting to get it ready for the listing. The finder mount was rickety and needed some repair, and a short section of Vixen dovetail attached to it would make it more marketable because it would be easier to attach to a mount that somebody already has. After about an hour of tinkering on the bench it was deemed ready. Now all I had to do was snap a couple of pictures and post it up. Surely it would be in the mail to a new owner within the next week or so.

But before I took those pictures I decided to throw it up on a simple mount and look through it to confirm its functionality. I pulled out the old Stellarvue M1/homemade pier combo, which at the time had the classic Celestron 60mm refractor mounted on it. I took the long achromat off of the dovetail clamp and on went the ETX, then off I went to find the extension handle for the M1 to make slewing the short tube a little easier. Soon I had the streetlight across the street in the eyepiece and was tweaking the finder scope alignment screws. At some point I realized that through a medium power eyepiece I was reading the serial number label on the ambient light sensor on top of the streetlight being used for an alignment reference, which was a good 200’ away. Once again the quality of the optics was obvious, but still the scope was for sale and it was going on the market. I put it aside for a bit while I tended to other tasks needing to be done that day. I’ll get those pictures later, I told myself.

Eventually evening arrived, and the primary objective for the onset of darkness on this night was to assess the outcome of my ongoing efforts to refine the optical alignment on the 20” Beast. It’s something that I’d been picking away at little by little over the prior weeks, and truth be told the last test didn’t have a good outcome. Some problems had been identified though, so repairs were made and there was reason to believe that a better experience was on tap. The Beast was positioned for cooling and it was given its space. The Beast likes to be alone while it acclimates, so we let it be.

In the meantime I pulled out the old ETX on the M1 mount and positioned it behind my truck in the driveway. Nowhere near as finicky as the musclehead cooling off in the other driveway, the little optics could be put right to work as soon as the stars pop out. When I could see Vega I knew that my first quarry was within my grasp. Double-Double, a classic test of telescope optics if there ever was one was the first target on my list, and it might have taken a little longer than I would have liked to show up in the puny 25mm finder scope, but soon it was in the eyepiece of the classic 90mm Mak/Cass.

The low-power view at 40x was crisp and clear, but it was obvious that more would be needed to pry those tiny globules apart. Boosting the power up to 140x instantly revealed all four components of the system in perfectly formed airy discs and diffraction rings. There was no doubt now about the optical quality, if there ever was any, but then I began to wonder just how much it would take before I saw a drop-off in image quality. I wouldn’t find out. The shortest eyepiece I had on hand at the moment was a 4.9mm Harry Siebert Star Splitter, and in that optical configuration it amounted to a magnification of 255x. The view was nothing short of stunning! Seeing the twin pairs of globules in Double-Double with big gaps between them isn’t all that common, but lots of power can do it. The little 90mm lenses were supporting over 70x per inch of aperture and the image was perfect! Surely the asking price could be raised some for such a fine instrument!

I spent the next couple of hours working with the Beast, and I’m happy to report that we’ve now got fine star images coming out of the system. The motions still need a little work and we still need to refine a few things here and there, but it’s relief to have it at least operable. We cruised the sky together doing the big scope thing. Large optics like those in the Beast tend to come into their own under dark, transparent skies, and the sky was anything but that from my driveway on this night. We certainly weren’t going to be resolving any dim nebulous stuff even with all that light grasp, but objects familiar to us like M29, NGC 7789 (Caroline’s Rose), M52 (and of course V1405 Cas), NGC 663, M103, NGC 457, etc. were all wonderful. The stars were round and tight…and plentiful…a 20” primary objective will do that.

Satisfied that appropriate progress had been made with the big scope and starting to get tired now, I went through the motions to store it away for the night. Still sitting in the other driveway though was the little ETX, and before I picked that one up and put it away too I decided to take another look through it. This time I put Albireo in the eyepiece, and in the eyepiece holder was the cheap 9mm eyepiece that I use to plug the eyepiece hole in the scope for storage. What I saw simply blew me off of my observing chair. Once again the globules were perfectly formed and with perfect diffraction rings too, but it was the COLORS this time that set me aback. Maksutov’s are known for their high contrast images, and this rendering of the colorful duo showed the most saturated blues and golds that I’ve ever seen in the pair. Wide-set at 140x, the image was fantastic! I picked the setup up and walked it into the garage. Somebody would soon be getting a very nice small telescope.

One of things I enjoy doing at the end of a day is just sitting out under the sky in the dark, with perhaps a nightcap handy, just gazing around seeing what’s what. As I was doing that on this night a couple of things caught my attention. The first was the sight of another of several really good meteors seen during this evening, obviously Persieds, and the second was an unfamiliar dot emerging from above the trees behind my house. The dot was unfamiliar because it was the planet Saturn, and for my viewing location it’s just coming onto the scene in the prior-to-midnight hours. Hmmm…into the garage I went and out I came with the old ETX – again.

Once again, the view was exhilarating. In keeping with the theme of just using the cheap eyepiece because it happened to be in there, this 140x rendering of Saturn showed the Cassini division in a way that would have made Cassini himself desirous. The view was splendid, with the Saturnian moons Titan and Rhea readily apparent and various shades of that signature creamy color in the banding on the planet’s surface obviously evident. All in all the view just served to confirm for the gazillionth time what we already know about Saturn –that it is beautiful! Eventually I was able to pry my eye away from the eyepiece and put the scope back in the garage – again.

Sleep came soon afterward, and as has been the case for every day of my life so far it eventually ended and I was awake yet again. For reasons unimportant to this discussion that happed shortly after 3:30am on Sunday morning, and it wasn’t but a few minutes later that I was back outside and scanning the sky. Looking to the south I saw a most beautiful 93% waning gibbous Moon to the S/SW, with a startlingly bright planet Jupiter significantly higher and due south. Into the garage I went and out came the ETX – again.

Choosing to look at the Moon first, what I saw was simply amazing. As an observer that generally speaking keeps his waking hours to the before-midnight period, most of my lunar observing gets done during the Moon’s waxing phases. This four-in-the-morning foray was being conducted during a waning phase, when the Sun illuminates everything on the Moon from the opposite angle from which I am used to seeing. This makes for a marked difference in the appearance of what are otherwise familiar features.

The position of the terminator at the time of this observation provided this observer with his very best views ever seen of the large-crater trio of Langrenus, Vendelinus and Petavius. At diameters of 80mi, 90mi, and 107mi respectively, copious amounts of fine details were discerned in the views, especially in the terraced walls and features on the floors. To the north of these spectacular craters lies the equally spectacular Mare Crisium, and it too was an amazing sight in its own right. The ‘setting sun’ lighting angle highlighted things not typically seen during the waxing phases, and this experience has got me considering the possibility of making more effort to observe the Moon during the waning phases.

Putting Jupiter in the eyepiece next, the view – yes, you guessed it – was nothing short of exquisite. Multiple bands of upper-level cloud features were discerned, and leaning on experience I know that the GRS would have been easily visible had it been on the earth-facing side at the time. The image was crisp, clear, colorful and full of contrast. The Galilean moons were all present and accounted for, but not doing anything special at the moment. It had been quite some time since my last good telescopic view of Jupiter, and it’s nice to be back with the planets again.

Sitting back and scanning the sky with my eyes now, pretty much everything looked familiar expect for one bright dot to the south of the Pleiades. I may not know the sky perfectly, but I couldn’t remember a prominent star in that position, and that’s because there is none – HELLO MARS!!! The red planet is getting closer but still appears quite small from our perspective, and putting it in the eyepiece got me the typical Mars viewing experience for this timeframe – small, gibbous, few markings, a hint of a polar ice cap and seeing so unsteady that the planet took on the appearance of a cat trying to escape from the inside of a balloon. Yes, that’s a scientific definition of unsteady seeing – from the Mike M. book of science.

Finally, we dropped back in on Jupiter again where the moon Io had progressed in its orbit enough to now be casting its shadow upon the planet, the sharp black pinprick readily discernable against the off-white upper cloud deck of the mighty gas giant. It brought a fitting end to what essentially amounted to an epic observing adventure with the old Meade-made Questar wannabe. Truth be told, I don’t think a Questar could have put up a better experience than the ETX did on this occasion. It was that good.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, that EXT 90 ain’t going nowhere! The couple of hundred bucks that it could command on the best of days is nothing compared to the viewing experiences it just provided, and I don’t care if that happens just every other eon or so, that scope is staying in the fleet! I’ve long been a proponent of the small scope viewing experience, and this one was second to none, period.

Keep Looking Up!
Mike McCabe
"The purpose of life is the investigation of the Sun, the Moon, and the heavens." - Anaxagoras
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AstroGeek
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Re: Oh For The Love of a Small Telescope

Unread post by AstroGeek »

**BRAVO**
A wonderfully scripted description of your experience.
And some nights, its like a WET cat inside a balloon.
Steve
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Apollo XX
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Re: Oh For The Love of a Small Telescope

Unread post by Apollo XX »

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"The purpose of life is the investigation of the Sun, the Moon, and the heavens." - Anaxagoras
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mrgizmo65
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Re: Oh For The Love of a Small Telescope

Unread post by mrgizmo65 »

Mike , all I can say is Inspiring!! Jerry. I'm glad we had that talk today. :mrgreen:
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Bruce D
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Re: Oh For The Love of a Small Telescope

Unread post by Bruce D »

Mike I've gone through the same progression with my 125 ETX, APO killers...
Bruce D
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Re: Oh For The Love of a Small Telescope

Unread post by daedalus1 »

Nice work, my romantic friend. It don't get much better than a long focus Mak. I, too, enjoy the views from a small telescope. My 80ED Celestron refractor is a great 'scope, and when paired with University Optics orthos leaves nothing to be desired.

Yours was a good read!

Tony
Tony T.

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And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke!
---Rudyard Kipling, THE BETROTHED
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bluemax
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Re: Oh For The Love of a Small Telescope

Unread post by bluemax »

Mike, what a great read! Thanks for sharing the story. Your literary prose is to be commended...... seriously :) you are a wonderful writer!
Frank N

12.5" F5 single arm Dob

"I'm a seeker too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be"

Taylor in "Planet of the Apes" 1968
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mrgizmo65
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Re: Oh For The Love of a Small Telescope

Unread post by mrgizmo65 »

Mike with regards to your literary piece,I found 4 threads that praise the small refractors.several brand were mentioned but all remarked now some of these scopes 20 plus years old can bring a smile to the face of the viewer. I just thought you like to know. Jerry :mrgreen:
Orion ED80T CF #9534 Carbon Fiber
Ioptron IEQ 45 Pro mount
Ioptron tripier
Ioptron eq 25 mount
Ioptron tripod
Celestron #93709 next image solar system imager
Unitron 3 inch equatorial mount W/ tracking motor and tripod
Restored ED 102 Vixen ss Doublet


"Ilagitami non carborundum" Uncle Nick '49
rose
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Re: Oh For The Love of a Small Telescope

Unread post by rose »

Mike,
I definitely want a view from that scope of the double double! Save the shipping cost, I'll pick it up with cash in hand, if it's that breath taking!
Rose
Rose A.
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