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A Look at the Future of Amateur Telescope Makers
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A Look at the Future of Amateur Telescope Makers
By Zane Landers
Telescope making in particular is one of the facets of amateur astronomy that for so long has begun to drastically shrink in size and to perhaps seem due to disappear entirely. After all, with the availability of the omnipresent Chinese-made telescopes that have all but cornered today’s market, there’s little economic incentive to build your own scope - even at the largest apertures like 20 inches, mass manufacturing has begun to eat away at the surface-level basic cost advantages in doing it yourself.
Without growing up in a time where making your own scope was commonplace - perhaps the only option to get your own at a reasonable cost - or perhaps at least witnessing the rise of the Dobsonian in the ‘80s and ‘90s - it seemed to me, and perhaps to almost everyone, that the grand tradition of telescope making - a craft that traces its roots to Foucault, Herschel, and Galileo himself among so many others - had pretty much no attraction to newcomers. When I picked up my first mirror blank in the summer of 2017 at the age of 14, I was the first teenager in a long time to have done so seriously - or at least, to have been particularly vocal about it. But I won’t be the last. I’m proud to say I think I’m far from it, actually.
If you’re reading this, the thing you’re probably wondering about now is - what’s causing the newfound rise and perhaps rebirth in interest in telescope making and astronomy as a whole? I can think of several factors.
The biggest draw, in my opinion, is probably the renewal of the general public’s interest in astronomy and space exploration. You can thank myriad events for that. SpaceX has succeeded in landing and re-using rockets, building one of the most powerful launch vehicles ever (only trailing the Saturn V used for the Apollo program, the Soviet N-1 and Energia, and NASA’s upcoming SLS), and is now set to return American astronauts to space from American soil alongside Boeing this spring/summer, for the first time since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011.
NASA’s Artemis program - utilizing the massive SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft, and commercial vehicles - will fly its first, unmanned SLS flight next year and could put people back on the Moon in under five years from now. A variety of new robotic missions from several different countries will be on their way to Mars in just a few months.
COSMOS is on air again soon, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. We’ve had two well-publicized lunar eclipses and Mercury transits in the past half-decade visible from the US. The James Webb Space Telescope is almost ready to launch. Hubble is still in operation. Kepler (and now TESS) have shown us that maybe we aren’t so alone after all, and that the Solar System is less unique than we thought. The Great American Eclipse of 2017 inspired countless people to get started in astronomy. Films like Interstellar, The Martian, and Gravity have made space cool and trendy in pop culture.
I would argue that if nothing else, overall public interest in astronomy and space is the highest it’s been in the last thirty years, and will soon beat out the hype around Hale-Bopp, Halley and perhaps eventually Sputnik and Apollo.
However, other things are at play too. Among them:
Real-time, high-speed Internet communication. I showed my friend Jordanne how to disassemble a C8 step-by-step over FaceTime. And without websites like Cloudy Nights, Reddit, and Instagram I would be limited to the knowledge of people in my local astronomy clubs - of the five I’m active in, there are two ATMs total across all of them. I don’t think I or any of my peers would have anywhere near the level of access to equipment, knowledge and other people to help us were it not for the fact that Cloudy Nights gives us the ability to talk to literally thousands of other amateur astronomers and telescope makers of almost all levels of age and experience.
Increased interest in DIY in general. You can thank hipsters for this, as well as the “maker” movement and the general buzz on social media about DIY stuff. It’s cool to make things. It’s easier than ever to make things, even if the past two or three generations haven’t tended to grow up in households with a shop or handy person of some kind the way a lot of Baby Boomers did.
Freely available information and discussion on Cloudy Nights and other websites. You don’t have to do everything by the books out of fear of messing up anymore. Ideas and inspiration are only a Google search or a post away.
New technologies. In the optical testing world alone there’s Bath interferometry, computerized Ronchi simulations, and Foucault analysis software. Being stuck with Couder masks makes mirror making a heck of a lot more daunting, and in my opinion much harder to get a really good idea of the overall quality without sticking it in the scope and star testing. 3D printing and CNCs have also made it drastically easier to design and manufacture precision, high-spec parts.
Reasons to strive for homebuilt quality. Pretty much all the cheap Dobs on the market use particle board bases and Nylon bearing pads or rollers. While I’ve got nothing wrong with anyone buying an XT8 or Z8, the fact is that for just a little more money you can build a scope that’s lighter, probably provides sharper images and is easier to move around the sky. I’d argue that it’s far better to spend money on a well-built 8” than a barebones 10”. There’s also, of course, the massive mass/bulk advantages with DIY versus commercial big Dobs (mainly at above 10” of aperture) and the possibility of faster focal ratios, thinner blanks, and meniscus mirrors.
For a long time, however, I thought I was just perhaps one of the last teenagers involved in telescope making, and might perhaps, one day, be the last person at all. That is, until about a year and a half ago when I was introduced to Logan Nicholson, now 15. Logan - who lives in Melbourne, Australia - just happened to get the same urge to grind a mirror and make a telescope shortly after I did. And unlike me, Logan didn’t have nearly as much experience with visual astronomy. Before he built his first Dob, Logan mostly just took astrophotos. He’d hardly ever looked through a scope before, let alone become accustomed to it.
While two people on opposite sides of the planet both deciding to make their own telescopes is more of a coincidence than a trend, just the fact that somebody else my age had decided to grind a mirror and build a scope with it was encouraging. Logan’s shown that not only can anybody make a good mirror on their first try, but that you can do more ambitious projects even with relatively simple skills and a low budget. Logan’s first mirror was a 10” f/5, his second a 6” f/3 - both far more difficult tasks for a beginner than a humble 6” f/5 or f/8. He built a mirror grinding machine out of random junk for almost nothing. And he’s got his own Bath interferometer. Logan’s so good at making mirrors that people pay him to test and refigure them! I personally commissioned him to make a 10” f/3.2 for me, which I’m still finalizing the scope for.
Logan recently refigured his 10” f/5 and put it into a truss scope, and he’s uploaded a nice video of it which you can find here:
Logan’s mirrors, machines, and relatively proletarian scope builds are a testament to the kinds of things anybody, even a teenager on a budget, can achieve with enough effort and willpower. He’s now got a 16” f/3 in the works, albeit temporarily on pause due to some of the issues with the slump of the 0.75” thick meniscus mirror blank. Soon he’ll either finish that or make a conventional 16” or 18” mirror.
Logan’s…… model, if you will, has become quite popular. Take for instance Aaron Tragle. Aaron, 17, is a bit less of a stranger to visual astronomy than Logan was. In fact, he mostly turned to astrophotography because of (thankfully, somewhat temporary) physical impairments he suffered in an unfortunate accident a few years ago. However, I think that if you told Aaron a year ago that he’d be grinding a 6” f/3 mirror and have virtually duplicated Logan’s drill-powered grinding machine, he probably would’ve called you crazy. I suspect I would have too! But Aaron’s now grinding 6” f/3 and f/5 mirrors for use in dual astrographs, and he has plans for using the 6” f/3 for visual observing as well - and perhaps to build a larger 8” or 10” sub-f/3 Newtonian. Aaron also has been experimenting with 3D-printing most of his OTAs, along with chemistry involving anodizing and electroplating his own telescope parts. He plans on using the 6” scopes for both casual imaging and for supernova hunting as part of the ASASSN project (he’s already confirmed 3 candidates with his 90mm refractor).
Aaron and his fixed-post grinding machine in action.
Sub-f/4 mirrors and big Dobs aren’t the only reason some of us make our own telescopes and mirrors, however. It sure wasn’t what I was thinking when I started with my 6”, and it’s surely not what Anton Grankin, 16, is thinking either. He’s already got a 10” commercial scope, but Anton wants something smaller he could bring on a plane for vacations, or on crowded family road trips - and a project for the school science fair was a nice bonus. Thus, he’s grinding a 6” f/5 and putting it in a compactable travel tube.
Funny enough, the blank Anton is using is actually one I attempted to grind my first mirror with and abandoned when I chipped the edges (long story). The two big chips, however, are almost exactly 120 degrees apart and thus will be invisible under the retaining clips in the scope’s mirror cell.
Anton grinding his 6” f/5 mirror.
Lance ~~~~, 17, has been working on his 12” f/5 plate glass mirror for some time now, and likes to point out that he’s done 100% of the work on a machine, and when completed it’ll be the largest mirror ever ground by a teenager (until Logan finally finishes up his 16” f/3, at least). Lance already has the shroud, mirror cell and several other components nearly ready to go for the scope - once he’s got the mirror polished out and has the exact focal length determined, he’ll be starting construction. It’ll be one heck of an upgrade from his abysmal PowerSeeker 127EQ and the 20x80 binoculars he has now.
Lance with his 12” mirror.
Another friend of ours, Hunter (17), has just ordered a 6” mirror kit to make an f/8. It will not only be his first homemade scope, but his first scope, period, like homemade 6” f/8s used to be for countless beginners.
And who says you’ve got to make your own mirror to be a telescope maker? I’ve only ground one mirror, myself. Jordanne Brisby (17), Winslow Barnwood (15), and Hasan Khalil (18) are building 11” f/7, 8” f/6 and 6” f/5s respectively with pre-made mirrors. Jordanne wants a big planet killer to complement her ED80 astrograph and C8, Winslow wants a grab n’ go scope he can use while imaging with his 70mm quadruplet or 8” Newtonian, and Hasan wants a travel/rich-field scope that can be potentially converted to an astrograph to complement his C9.25. Hasan’s scope has a fiberglassed Sonotube tube, Winslow’s is solid wood, and Jordanne’s is (thankfully) a truss. All three scopes are in the early stages of fabrication at this time. Winslow’s primary mirror was taken from a commercial Dob, while Hasan and Jordanne’s mirrors are homemade ones that I acquired from friends.
Winslow with his tube.
Hasan with his current telescope and work-in-progress 6” OTA and mirror.
Jordanne with her 11” primary mirror, and her current progress on her scope’s lower tube assembly.
There may only be nine of us right now, but I know of at least a few of our other friends who are at least considering grinding a mirror or building a scope. Additionally, there are literally dozens of (by my counts, maybe even close to a hundred) teenagers doing some form of amateur astronomy and astrophotography - and tons of folks in their 20s and 30s who are interested in telescope making as well. And I hope that our posts and this article serve as encouragement for even more.
At least three of the US-based folks I’ve mentioned here (not to mention myself) are going to be entering scopes in the competition atop Breezy Hill at Stellafane this year - potentially even six - from all across the East Coast - and Logan is flying in from Australia with a scope or two as well. And we’re not the only ones. My hope is that this article, the excellent new Sky & Telescope ATM articles by Jerry Oltion, and our other ongoing efforts will inspire scores of people, young and old, to get out there and make something and look at the universe with an instrument you’ve crafted yourself. The legacy of Porter, Dobson and the great innovators and educators who came before us lives on.
- PhilH, paul, BarabinoSr and 32 others like this