"first telescope": the Great Lick Refractor
Matt Wedel (CN username mwedel)
I was 12, a friend brought a telescope catalog to school. It was from
Celestron. It was the first time I'd ever heard of a
Schmidt-Cassegrain. I borrowed it, kept it for a couple of weeks,
read it cover to cover until I had large swaths of it memorized. I
I was also broke. I computed that if I saved my
allowance for two years I could buy the cheapest model in the
catalog. I was 12, for cryin' out loud--my interests changed monthly.
Saving up for a few weeks to buy a new dinosaur book was about the
limit of my financial stamina.
returned the catalog to my friend. Pretty soon I was back to catching
turtles, reading about dinosaurs or whales or fighter jets, building
Lego space cruisers, and listening to Dr. Demento. Life went
Astronomy became my dream deferred. I watched every
televised shuttle launch that I could, pored over magazine articles
on the Voyager flybys and the debut and re-debut of the Hubble space
telescope, eventually collected a giant folder of astrophotos for my
screensaver, and put APOD at the top of my link list. I even took an
astronomy course in high school and saw Jupiter and its moons for the
first time through my teacher's telescope. But I never went out
stargazing, and I never got my own telescope.
Then in the fall of 2007 I chaperoned some students on
a field trip to the Lick Observatory. We all got to look through the
Great Refractor, which turns 120 this year. Afterward, I picked up an
intro astronomy book in the gift shop. Power keg, match, WHOOMP! A
few days later I dug my old Tasco 7x35 binoculars out of the closet,
went outside, and found the moons of Jupiter, which I'd not seen with
my own eyes for half of my life. A few weeks later I bought my first
telescope, an Orion XT6, and I've been observing ever since.
to the Lick Observatory
so the Great Lick Refractor was not actually the first telescope I
ever looked through, it was the second. But I think of it as my
"first telescope" because it's the one that changed things
for me. Before September, 2007, I loved the sky but I thought it was
all beyond my reach. Looking through the Lick telescope inspired me
to look into amateur astronomy again, and I found that it was more
accessible and more affordable than I'd ever dreamed.
first time I visited the Lick Observatory I didn't know what to
expect. I'd never visited an observatory before, never heard of the
Lick Observatory before the trip, and certainly didn't expect that
I'd get to look through a telescope the size of an ICBM. On that
first trip we got to observe M13, the Double Double, and the Cat's
Eye Nebula. Everything was beautiful, and it was all a wonderful
the second trip, on April 26, 2008, I was ready. In the intervening
months I had read Henry C. King's The History of the Telescope, every
Sky & Telescope that hit the newstands, Ed Ting's entire site,
and more Cloudy Night reviews than is probably healthy. I knew about
magnification and field of view, tube currents and chromatic
aberration, limiting magnitudes and eyepiece designs. This time was
going back with my eyes, ears, nostrils, and pores open--I was going
to soak up every quantum of information and experience I could.
are the views through the 120-year-old, 57-foot-long,
36-inch-diameter Great Lick Refractor? Pretty darned amazing.
Contrast and resolved detail are off the charts. If you're curious
what they use at the eyepiece end of the big machine, it's a Televue
55mm Plossl sitting in an Orion 2 inch dielectric diagonal. The focal
length is 17,370mm so even the 55mm Plossl yields a magnification of
316x at the eyepiece. Unless they've got some monster eyepieces
hidden away in storage, that's as low as this baby goes!
of the objects we observed on April 26 was NGC 3242, the Ghost of
Jupiter nebula. The eyepiece view was better than any photo I have
ever seen of that nebula, period. Photos always show it as a couple
of mushy rings, like two jellyfish getting amorous on the other side
of some frosted glass. Through the Lick refractor it was a pair of
crisp concentric clouds with ruffled edges around a pinpoint central
star. Absolutely amazing.
M104, the Sombrero Galaxy,
stretched all the way across the field of view. It wasn't like
looking at it through a telescope, it was like zooming up to it in a
But my favorite celestial object that night is
also my favorite celestial object of all time, and a preference I
seem to share with most amateur astronomers: Saturn. It was
spectacular. The astronomer leading our tour let me take a quick snap
through the eyepiece with my digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix 4500.
The photo doesn't do it justice--I didn't have time to fiddle with
the focus or exposure time, and I couldn't hold the camera as steady
as I wanted to. Still, I guess the point of digiscoping an immense
observatory telescope more than a century old is just being able to
say that you've done so.
Saturn photo does show up the Achilles heel of the Lick refractor.
Even at f/19, the chromatic aberration is psychedelic. Still, I
didn't find it that distracting, because everything else about the
views was outstanding. I didn't ask if visitors are allowed to bring
their own 2" anti-fringing filters.
didn't participate in amateur astronomy for two decades because I got
two bad ideas fixed in my head when I was 12. Both of them were
wrong, and I don't blame the folks at Celestron or their charming
catalog for either of them.
The first Bad Idea is that If
you want to be an amateur astronomer, first you have to buy a
and the second is that Amateur
astronomy is prohibitively expensive.
Neither of these is true, although many people do buy telescopes and
some of us end up spending improbable amounts on them. But you can
get a good start for next to nothing and an average pair of
binoculars can keep you busy literally for months seeing things that
are invisible or nearly so to the naked eye.
So if you're
interested in astronomy, you need not be intimidated. Chances are you
already have the most useful piece of gear for the beginner. A few
minutes' effort is all you'll need to see if you have a taste for
stargazing--and if so, you can equip yourself to do almost everything
for a lot less than you think.