Thursday, July 10, 2008

Way down telescope way pt. 4

So, now we come to the traditional "First Light" report, in which a new telescope is pointed to the heavens and Oohs and Aahs are made approvingly by all in attendance. Technically, this is a second "First Light" report, since I've owned the scope for the better part of three decades, but as the original first light came more than 25 years ago, I think we can agree to dispense with technicalities.

The July 4 weekend had the family visiting my hometown of Columbus, Texas. The Houston Astronomical Society maintains an observatory site not too far away because of the relatively dark sky conditions there, and Columbus is where I did almost all of my observing with this scope. After checking out the nifty Clear Sky Chart for Columbus, Texas, it looked like I'd found the perfect time and location to break in the refurbished Meade 645, from here on out known as the Maroon Barsoom.

Cue reality. By Saturday afternoon things looked mighty grim. High humidity, overcast skies and a monster rain storm came through that absolutely drenched everything for an hour or more. I was starting to think the Clear Sky Chart was smoking something funny, but around sunset the clouds began breaking up and a light breeze dispelled the sauna conditions. It actually felt comfortable, so in a fit of optimism I started set-up. At this point I ran into my first problem. My folks' backyard is very large and in years past, offered pretty good views of most of the sky with the exception of parts of the southeast and a little bit of the northeast. Unfortunately, in the 20 years I've been gone, half a dozen pecan trees (which were insignificant back then) have grown to prodigious size rendering the backyard problematic for observation. I'd known they'd gotten bigger, of course, but since I'd not been lugging my telescope around with me, the impact of that tree growth never registered. Emergency location scouting revealed that a section of the front yard, near a bluff overlooking the Colorado River, offered fairly open views of the north, east and south. The west and southeast were right out, but it was the best I could do. There was a small concrete slab that offered a level place to set up the scope, chairs and a nearby power source. The crescent moon, Saturn and Mars were beyond my seeing, sadly, since I'd observed them many times in the past and would've liked to compare the scope's current visuals with my memory. Them's the breaks.


I'd forgotten my wrench and protractor at home, so couldn't do a perfect polar align, but I did manage to get the scope fairly well aligned once Polaris was visible. I plugged in the tracking motor. So far, so good. I had my set of recently-acquired GSO plossl eyepieces ready to use. But what to observe first?

As a teen, I used this scope for planetary, lunar and comet observation pretty much exclusively. I just didn't understand the whole Deep Sky Object concept, which is sad since this scope was made to excel at that. So I thought I'd try to find my first DSOs. The Orion Nebula is the only DSO I'd ever found and observed on my own before, but that came through using Monkey Girl's tiny refractor and was barely visible even then. So I don't count it. I checked my Sky & Telescope sky chart for something easy... and decided on M51. I remembered trying to find this Messier Cataloged galaxy (best known as the "Whirlpool Galaxy" near the handle of the Big Dipper as a teen and giving up in frustration, so imagine my astonishment when I found it instantly. In succession I observed it with 40, 25, 15 and 9mm plossls. The 15 gave me my best views, resolving the smaller companion galaxy although I wasn't able to resolve any pinwheel or dust lanes. The 9mm was simply too dim to make anything out.

I have to point out at this time that neighbors across the street decided to turn on all of their outdoor flood lights around this time, butchering my carefully cultivated night vision. Drat.

Wondering what I should turn to next, I noticed that Jupiter had crept into a gap between the trees to the southeast. Yay! I started with a 20, then 15, then I added my old Meade 2x Barlowe to the 15... I have to say, the 15mm plossl is rapidly becoming my favorite eyepiece ever. The four Galilean moons were all out on parade, but what floored me was the contrast and definition of the main cloud bands. Wow. I'd never seen them so clearly. I goofed around with Jupiter for another 20 minutes or so, trying different eyepiece combinations before it slipped back behind the trees.

I had a clear view of the constellation Delphinus, so I pulled out the chart to see if anything interesting could be found there. Hmm... M15, a globular cluster, is right to the south. Bingo. Found it no problem. I was unable to resolve it into anything more than a fuzzy, comet-like cloud, but it was unmistakable. By this point I was almost giddy--two for two on Messiers!

The constellation Scorpius was coming out from behind the trees and the star Antares was very bright (and very orange), so globular cluster M4 should be a snap, right? Wrong. I looked. And looked. It wasn't there. I checked the chart again. It should be there. Nothing. What the heck was going on? M4 is supposed to be one of the easiest clusters to find, and I'd already found M15 no problem. Finally, the sneaking suspicion comes upon me that I may have my directions reversed, that I'm looking on the wrong side of Antares. So I slew over a little and... there she is, M4 in all it's glory. Honestly, at first I thought I'd found an open cluster of some sort because of the sprawling tumble of stars, but yeah, it was M4 (I pulled the Maroon Barsoom out a couple of nights ago and double checked). Simply gorgeous. And the tracking motor seemed to be working effectively, since I wasn't seeing any significant drift in the DSOs. Yay!

The Wife was moderately impressed by the DSOs, but she and the kids wanted something more tangible. They weren't happy that Saturn wasn't visible, but would "settle" for Jupiter. So I picked up the scope and moved it over 20 feet or so (losing my flat surface and semi-accurate polar align in the process). We had a clear view of Jupiter now. Much oohing and aahing was made. I was very impressed by how sharp the planetary images were--4mm proved to be too much, giving more fuzz and blur than anything else, but at 6mm it looked quite impressive, with minimal washing out of the colors. Feeling pretty daring at this point, I broke out my Canon XTi and hooked up the T-mount and camera adapter. I inserted the 15mm plossl (remember how I said I liked this eyepiece?) but the resulting images were too small and bright initially. So I added the 2x Barlow. Score! Focusing, as has been mentioned in other places, is difficult through the tiny viewfinder of a dSLR, but thanks to the LCD image review and histogram, I was able to make a good run at it. Since the polar alignment was lost, the planet kept drifting out of the frame, but not so quickly that I couldn't compensate. It's not perfect, but here's a five-image stack I put together, including two of Jupiter's Galilean moons (although only one is readily visible). Not bad at all for what amounted to a shakedown cruise:


So by now it's after midnight, and as I'm experimenting with starfields and other through-the-eyepiece astrophotography attempts, I come to realize my hair is dripping wet. As are my lanterns, eyepiece case... Sky & Telescope is downright soggy. At some point, the dew monster snuck up on me. Time to call it a night. I packed up the camera and eyepieces and lanterns and hauled it all inside. I went back out, took a look at the faint light of the Milky Way above and the 20mm in the scope, and thought "What the heck? One starfield sweep then I'm going in." Would you believe that less than a minute later I'd stumbled across M11, the "Wild Duck Cluster," completely by accident? One of the best views of the night as well. I went to bed very happy.

The following night, I set up for a while back home in New Braunfels. Light pollution in my immediate skies is worse than in Columbus, due to the close proximity of San Antonio to the southwest, New Braunfels to my immediate north and a honking big street lamp less than 20 yards from my front door. Even so, I was able to get a decent shot of the crescent moon:


The following Tuesday, I got a decent look at M13 before humidity and high clouds drove me indoors.

As far as the optics went, I was very happy with the performance. The stars were very sharp, with only slight coma near the edges of the field--certainly a vast improvement over seagulls I remember seeing some of the final times I took the scope out before it sat unused for a decade. I guess collimation has that effect, eh? The one thing I really leaned is that it's difficult to focus the dSLR camera when it's attached to the telescope, simply because many of the objects being observed are so dim and fuzzy that it's well-nigh impossible to tell with the camera's tiny eyepiece when you've actually got them wholly in focus. But other than that, it was great. Before I pass final judgment on the Maroon Barsoom, I'd like to get it to a star party where there are other scopes with which to compare it, but in my opinion, I don't think it's too far short of its optimal performance when fresh from the factory.

Certainly the tracking motor works now, which is more than it ever did before.

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