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Celestron Comet Catcher
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The Celestron Comet Catcher
By: Steven Reecy
Photos: Dianne Perfit
I was just dozing off when I heard a small voice say; "Those guys who bring us boxes were here." I was home for the day, sick with a horrible cold. "What?" I said, not comprehending. "Those guys who bring us boxes!" said my 4-year old daughter. My wife was there, and she had a puzzled look on her face. So did I. Then it clicked. "OH, the UPS guy!" With the adrenaline rush from the prospect of opening a box with a "new" telescope, I felt better and dashed to the door. Like a kid at Christmas, I was beaming at the box on the doorstep. I thought back to the story so farÉ
I had recently completed the construction of a homemade 12-inch dob using Hardin (GSO) optics. I had been looking for a guide scope big enough to provide pleasant views in its own right for my star party get togethers. This dob, while made from manufactured components, was no slouch. Supposedly 1/12th wave or something like that. All I knew is that the mirror was really, really good, and I wanted a guide scope that would compliment it. I was initially looking at refractors, but realized that a good guide scope should be a really "fast" scope, so I started looking at reflectors in the 4-inch to 6-inch range. My thoughts were that I could go with that much aperture since the guidescope would be housed in a lightweight short tube.
I love to hunt for bargains. So when I saw an E-bay auction for a Celestron Comet Catcher, I put in a bid. I had heard that the orange tube Celestrons were good. This one was virtually scratch free and came with an old 18mm ortho, the lenscap, the original box and paperwork. With a kind of "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality, I figured I would bid on it now, then do some research to decide whether this was something I wanted to aggressively bid on. I held the bid for only a couple hours, and now it was gut check time. So, out I went to the internet. Not too much information available on the Comet Catcher out there. I found a website that rated and ranked telescopes that gave it a 9.8 out of 10 with 7 people submitting grades. I learned that the Comet Catcher was originally produced in 1983 for Halley's comet. It has a 5.5-inch (140mm) mirror with a 500mm focal length. It was somewhere around F3.64! I learned that it was a Schmidt Newtonian, because it used a spherical mirror with a corrector plate. Spherical mirrors are easier to make, so the quality is usually good. The mirrors are supposedly Vixen mirrors too (made in Japan?). What a weird set-up! What a piece of history! I had to have it! I did my research, and knew how much Comet Catchers changed hands for through the classifieds...if they changed hands at all. People used them for photography and didn't like selling them. I can understand why, because the market price for these telescopes is (now) a small fraction of what it would cost to buy something comparable brand new today. Made in Japan? Empty your bank account. So, I upped my bid based on what I learned. Well, I'm happy to say that the auction didn't go as high was I thought, and not so high that my wife would kill me for buying another telescope. After the auction closed, I got in contact with a small internet forum for Comet Catcher owners. "Pinpoint stars edge to edge", they told me. Couldn't wait to get it.
The memories cleared from my head, and I picked up the package and headed into the house with my prize. Snagging the scissors, I started opening the package under the watchful eye of my wife. I marveled at the original white box, with the words "Comet Catcher" written in bold black letters. I carefully popped it open, and a shower of packing peanuts heralded the arrival of the newest telescope. The thing that struck me first about it is how solid it was. It was a pale orange color with black trim. The orange tube walls had a textured relief, like raised specks. It really did remind me of an orange peel. It was almost exactly 19-inches long and the tube was just two or three hair strands wider than 6-inches. One odd thing that I wasn't expecting was how the back of the tube was shaped. It was somewhat dome shaped, with the mirror adjustment screws prominent. The adjustment screws for the secondary were behind the glass corrector plate, and from what I've learned, if the corrector plate is removed, it must be put back exactly as it came out for best performance. The scope came with a vintage cone-top shaped 18mm Orthoscopic 1.25" eyepiece which I later learned from the manual was provided when the telescope was new.
Flash forward: The manual is cool. I was amazed how deeply buried the "don't look at the sun" warning was in the manual! You won't see that today. I found this quote in the manual, "Observing comets is one of the fun things you can do with a Celestron Comet Catcher and Halley's Comet is coming sooner than you think. (It will be visible late 1985 and early 1986)."
And this gem, "The Celestron Comet Catcher is a fantastic instrument. It can open your eyes to a whole new Universe. The Comet Catcher will give you intimate views of the surface of the Moon, of comets, and (with a safe Celestron solar filter) of the face of the SunÉThe Comet Catcher will let you look deep into space ? at neighboring galaxies that share our Universe, at the nebulae that are the birthplace of new stars or the dying embers of old ones, at the massive formations of stars that make up the globular star clusters, or even at double stars, that orbit each other endlessly." Wow. I'll take three!
Ok, so nobody really reads a manual when they open the box containing a new telescopeÉespecially a used one. I did what you would do. Wondering what I saddled myself with, I popped off the lens cover, then removed the eyepiece, and inspected the optics and collimation. Well, jeezÉjust looking at it, you can't tell that it is a spherical mirror, which probably means the corrector plate is doing its job. The optics were amazingly clean (because it is a sealed unit). I noticed that the collimation seemed to be off just a hair. I thought about adjusting it right then and there, but I decided that I'd wait until I tried it outÉyou never know if maybe the center mirror dot was slightly off (this is blatant foreshadowing).
Now, the one kooky thing about the telescope is that it was (apparently) designed for use on a photo tripod. We have one, but they are cumbersome, too light, and ours is sticky. So, I knew right away that I'd need tube rings or maybe I'll make a mini-dob out of it. I cradled it in my lap and looked at some trees out the window. There was a little bit of minor distortion at the outer one half percent of the mirror. Was it the eyepiece or the mirror? The rest of it looked really great. So I did my usual "scientific" test where I aim it at a distant brick house, and the lines looked good and parallel. I thought that the field might have had a slight, almost imperceptible curve to it, but I didn't think it would be evident at all at night. This proved to be correct.
Later, I awoke from my nap (I'm sick, remember?). I put on too many warm clothes, and slunk past my wife with the telescope to the cold backyard. I left the 18mm ortho in the focuser, cradled the OTA in my lap, and dialed in the stars. What a funky set up! The focuser slides a plate, moving the secondary along the axis of the tube, and there is only one focus wheel. Quirky! The stars tuned in, and I gasped for air. Beautiful! Pin points from edge to edge. I was floored. I have a 60mm ETX, a 70mm Orion refractor, an 8-inch Discovery reflector from back before they had two-tier mirror qualities and a dob made from a mirror that is (supposedly) 1/12 wave. I once had an F7 Meade reflector and a 4.5-inch Orion Shorttube reflector that was a really "slow" scope. This was better than all of them. YesÉeven the refractors. I knew right then that I'd be one of those people who will never sell their Comet Catcher. So, then I tried to hit Mars with the OTA in my lap, but I was having no luck finding it. The moon was just starting to clear the trees. A full moon. So I turned toward it and let the moonbeams guide me in the rest of the way. It blasted my eyes with light, but I was a man on a mission. Words can't describe the beauty I saw. I was stunned. Every time I've ever looked at a full moon through a telescope, the edges of the moon looked round, and this is what I expected to see. But this time, the image was so sharp, and so clear, that the mountains along the edges (the horizon) of the moon were visible all the way around it. These are details that an inferior mirror can not collect and focus to points. It reminded me of a cruller doughnut, or a saw blade. It was jaw dropping. With the wide field, I could have looked at three moons. Really beautiful! I looked at it as long as I could bear the light, and then dashed in, risking my wife's displeasure at my cold-night hi-jinks (while sick) to drag her outside to see it. I put the OTA on my photo tripod (YUCK!), and tuned in the moon. I got the same reaction from her. She gasped. Best view of the moon we've ever seen.
The following night, feeling a little better, I had about an hour before the moon rose over the horizon to check out some deepsky from my backyard. During the day, I had hastily piggybacked the Comet Catcher onto my Dob, but this was a temporary marriage that was wobbly and it had balance problems that I will have to address later. Never the less, I was eager to see some deepsky, so I clicked on the Rigel Quickfinder. Nothing happened. I guess the last time I used it, I left it on. I do that too often. Fate was conspiring against me since the Comet Catcher is my finderscope, so I had to do this the hard way, by sighting down the tube! I needed big easy targets. didn't get to see much, but the double cluster looked amazing for such a small aperture. It had some color, and the stars were pinpoints and there were a ton of them. I compared views with my 12", and though the image was dimmer, the clarity was the same or better. I then turned toward the Andromeda Galaxy. There is too much light pollution in my backyard to see it naked eye, the moon was started to rise over the horizon, and I'm embarrassed to say that it took way too long to find it (it helps when you look in the right place!). Note to self: use the bottom square of Pegasus, not the top. But when I found it, it looked great. I was amazed that I could make out more than the core of it, and I could see one of the companion galaxies. I was pleased with the view that the aperture providedÉespecially with the light pollution. One thing I did notice, while using the Comet Catcher is that when the scope is near the zenith, the weight of the eyepiece, in the focuser which is designed to slide back and forth along the tube, will actually pull the focuser (and the secondary) back. So you definitely have to lock the focuser set screw. It is there for good reason. If you do that, there are no problems.
After these two all too brief viewing sessions, I decided that I would make careful notes about where my collimation is set, and never, EVER!, change it. And my wife and I agreed that this telescope is a keeper that will never see the open market again. OK, so I'm biased, but I give it a 10 out of 10. If I wasn't biased, I'd still give it at least a 9.8 out of 10. I might be giving it extra points for being such a unique part of amateur astronomy history, and maybe a few more for the rarity. I think the image quality is every bit as good as all but the best refractors, with no funny colors added in to the mix. These are great telescopes that are hard to collimate (because they are so "fast"), but if collimated right, give really good views. In my opinion, at $250 or less, these are ridiculous bargains if you can find one for sale. Do you want to buy mine? It is not for sale!