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Exploring the Universe - Size Matters But it's Always a Compromise
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Exploring the Universe - Size Matters But it's Always a Compromise
by Mark Mittlesteadt
Maybe 50 years ago, back when light pollution didn't rob us of the glorious views we no longer have access to, as a child of the 60's I used to lay on my back out in the yard at night and just look up and wonder what was "out there". I watched with hypnotic interest on our old black and white TV the first humans land and set foot on the Moon. I was hooked. I even had models of the Apollo rockets, orbiter and lunar landing module and of course toys of all kinds that were about pretending to be an astronaut. My imagination was consumed with what was "out there" in the Universe. It was more of an obsession than interest.
My old 7th grade teacher invited a few classmates to look through his telescope and for the first time in my young, developing life I saw Jupiter and its moons and Saturn with its famous rings with my own eyes. Not pictures found in books, but I saw them in real time with quite a bit of detail even though they were 400 and 800 million miles away from us. While we have become quite jaded by the views provided by the Hubble and the Voyagers, this event was life-transforming to me. I have never lost my passion for what's "out there", but life happened and it would be about another ten or fifteen years before I bought my first telescope.
Over the past 30+ years in this hobby I've acquired and used so much gear. I've had reflectors, refractors and CATS mounted in all kinds of ways. My favorite objects to view have always been the Moon, Planets and brighter DSO's (Deep Space Objects like other Galaxies, Nebulae and Star Clusters). While I do enjoy scanning the night sky with fast, wide field scopes, trying to eek out views of those faint, colorless fuzzies (which is about the best they would look to me) they have never been quite as appealing, mostly due to haze and ever-increasing light pollution.
Of all the scopes I've owned I have two favorites that I sold long ago with much regret. One is my beloved Meade 8" LX-50 SCT (a type of telescope called a Schmidt Cassegrain that folds the light path into a shorter telescope). I never enjoyed the view more than when using that scope. Some of the views are still moments burned into my memory. I always dreamed of getting Meade's LX-50 7" Maksutov Cassegrain (a variation of the Catadioptric design, like an SCT, but with a lens in front that gave even sharper views). I saw photos of it in ads in Sky and Telescope and dreamed of owning a Mak (this was pre-internet). I just didn't have the money for one.
Years later I saw the Meade ETX line in person, in Discovery stores that sold all kinds of observing equipment (yes this was when there were actual storefronts for you younger people) and I was so drawn into the "Everybody's Telescope" lineup. This was Meade's entry level telescope supposedly for beginners, but not like the cheap, often horrible scopes and mounts most would find in department stores back then. They offered them in 90mm, 105mm and 125mm sizes (the lens/mirror in diameter), each size increase showing the views with more detail, but also costing more.
Something about them with their built-in electronically controlled mounts were appealing, yet I was also aware of the cheap, worthless scopes found in stores. They not only allowed you to electronically control the scope, but they even offered onboard computers that made the mounts "Go To" any object in the night sky so you didn't have to even look for it first. Seeing the Meade ads in magazines with the back to back pages showing the LX and ETX lineup just pulled me in. Then I had the chance on a great deal on a used ETX 105. Because size does matter to a degree, it was bigger than the 90, but smaller than the 125, and not having the cash for a 125 at the time I couldn't pass on finally acquiring one. This was when they were selling at their highest retail price and the height of their popularity.
I loved that ETX105. The optics were top notch and I used it more than any other scope for most of my 30 years of observation. I frequently went online and read through Mike Weisner's extensive ETX website and made a lot of contributions to it with all my mods and fixes for that scope. Of course anyone familiar with the ETX line knows how cheap and limited the plastic back-end of the scope was and the mounts were designed with a lot of plastic gears, clutches and such and so were quite problematic. If only Meade had designed the ETX mounts the same way as the LX line of mounts, they'd probably still be in business.
So after years of using my ETX 105 (with its excellent optics) and keeping it working, I sold it and began buying, selling and trading for reflectors and refractors on a semi-regular basis. I owned and used all kinds of scope and mounts, far too many to list here. If I kept every scope and mounts I ever owned, I could easily open and stock a store. I don't know if I just wanted to "explore" other objects, or it was just GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) that led me down that path. I'm a big-time DIY and modder, so it was fun to work on different equipment, always seeking to improve on a design somehow. Hey, what can I say? I've always loved to putz around and tinker with things. As a child I would tear apart cameras just to see how they worked, which is probably why I wanted to become a mechanical engineer. I never did become one, but that's a whole 'nother story.
I got into EAA (Electronically Assisted Astronomy, to aid in overcoming light pollution), and Astrophotography (like the Hubble photos that even an Earth-based hobbyists can take now) and I still did visual observing, and so I acquired all kinds of gear for that as well. For over 30 years I have really enjoyed this hobby. But over the years, I found myself going out and using my gear less and less. The older I got the earlier I went to bed. Not really the ideal situation when the best viewing is past my bedtime. LOL. So I bought, sold and traded a lot of gear, always trying to find a way to make it as easy as possible to at least get some viewing in before bedtime.
The idea of a grab'n'go setup (where I could just go out at a moment's notice with almost no setup time) became very important to me if I was going to keep pursuing this hobby. So I ended up with a lot of small, fast, lightweight, wide-field refractors (the design most people think of when picturing a telescope) that could be put on very simple manual Al-Az mounts (just manually point the scope wherever you want to look) that got me out more, even if it was only for a few minutes rather than hours (or all night when it was easier and I was younger). Of course every scope is designed with mostly a specific range of use, and these scopes were for wide-field viewing of DSO's, not high power, detailed views of the Moon and planets of which has always been my favorite nightly targets. It's always a compromise between what equipment works for what objects, but not a lot of thought typically goes into "what works for the observer". The right tools for the job. You want detail? Size matters. But with increasing size comes more effort, and I wanted to get out with the least effort, so I had to make some compromises.
But in the back of my mind, I still recalled the by-gone memories of watching Jupiter all night long with its short, 8 hour rotation where I could see it rotate, and watch its moon's going around it, casting their shadows on their host planet. Seeing the detailed cloud bands and the Giant Red Spot move across its face as it rotated over the hours passing by. The moon's were tiny little 3D orbs, not merely white dots. The details and color is something I will never forget. So I vividly recall that memory as one that transported me off this crazy ball of rock we live on that we call Earth and out into space where I could dream as I used to when I was a child lying on my back in the yard at night, wondering what was "out there".
Fast forward to today, and I am now the owner of an ETX 125 I always wanted. Of course this one has been heavily modded with the cheap mount and plastic back end replaced with a highly machined aluminum backplate, rotating focuser and mounted onto my 1979 classic Japanese made Vixen GP GEM (German Equatorial Mount) that I turned into the computer controlled "GoTo" mount. Gone is the stock back end and mount that plagued the ETX line. I now have what you'd either call a "poor man's" Maksutov or a rich man's ETX. Either way, I have something I always wanted.
Like my wife is always telling me...I always buy new scopes and mounts but seldom actually use them. Will I now get out more and once again look up and see the detailed views of the Moon and planets as I used to? Time will tell, although my time is running out as I age. I might be older and less inclined, but I still look up and out into the Universe and wonder "What's out there?"
Astronomy is for the most part, a lonely hobby. One person with a telescope, out under the stars, looking out into the Universe in deep contemplation. I've spent my life in deep contemplation, always seeking the meaning of life. Perhaps that's why I don't get out more. For as much as I love it, I want to share it and inspire others as my 7th grade teacher did for me.
My Meade LX50 8" SCT
- scottinash, jimegger, Jim Haley and 60 others like this
I really like this piece. Thanks for sharing!
It is such a personal journey that few appreciate its details!
In the hustle and bustle of today's technology hungry crowd, the simple questions are forgotten.
Stay curious and clear skies!
Thank you. I'm sure we all share somewhat similar stories that captured our imagination (if not our wallets. ).
" as a 60's child".......
In the 60's I learned all of the circumpolar constellations sitting on the counter by the sink looking out my grandmothers north facing kitchen window. The nearest light was the corner 100W incandescent streetlight the next block over. Now I live within a block of that house,
to see the same constellations, especially Draco, takes Binoculars, or looking thru some kind of LPR filter. My grandchildren don't see the big deal, "Its just a few stars". Until they saw saturn thru a good scope. It still has the power to WOW. Now one of them asks, where did all the stars go?
The curiosity still exists!
My grand children are almost old enough to be able to share it with them. I showed my daughter-in-law a view of Saturn a couple of years ago. First time she ever saw it with her own eyes through a scope. Her reply? "It's so small!" and I could see she was unimpressed with the view. I told her, "Well, it is about 800 million miles away."
A great read, I enjoyed the personal touches.
Similarly the fascination began with me as a kid “Why does the moon follow us in the car?”,“What else is out there?”, “How did we get here”, “Why are we here” and, “are we really alone?” Before long I was engrossed in every space program that came on PBS at the time. The objects we look at can be extremely dramatic, or faint and fuzzy. But it’s understanding what we’re looking at, the scale of this vast universe, and searching for answers to out insatiable curiosity that keeps us looking up. We are fortunate now to have to access to such a plethora of good equipment at affordable prices, technology has developed at such a rapid pace, It’s easy to get wrapped up in the equipment, the specs, optical performance, and photographic perfection. But as the man made lighting continues to eat up our sky with pollution we must remember that curiosity and why we have such equipment in the first place. We have it to look up, to see things we normally couldn’t, to take in the grandeur of the universe, and scratch that insatiable itch to deeply contemplate what we’re seeing, how, and why it exists, and of course continually wonder “Wow, what else could be out there?”
As a re-entering newbie to observational Astronomy I’m more excited than ever for the skies to clear, and to peek into this vast universe we all share while contemplating what it all means.
Thank you. I am decidedly an equipment "geek" (as my wife calls me). I like to tinker and putz around with it all, modify or enhance or improve it, etc. and as you say we have so much equipment to choose from these days, we're really blessed with an even greater capacity to study what's "out there".
I think sometimes we often forget we are "out there" too, as if we are here on a solid base, while everything else that exists is just floating above us. We are on a big ball of rock spinning like a top and going through space at speeds we cannot fathom.
I look at every tool we now have and wonder what was going on in the minds of the early explorers using instruments we now would probably sell for pennies at a garage sale. I imagine Galileo with his tiny little achromat he built himself discovering Jupiter and four of its moons in the 1600's, and what he would think of our discussions today over which scope is better than another. What perspective would he have about them? Would he be envious?
We are quite spoiled. Sometimes, just using my eyes alone and looking up at the night sky I envy his sky without light pollution.
Very nice piece and enjoyable read, thank you.
Enjoyed very much reading your journey. Nicely written and I suspect almost all of us here on CN share in common at least some of your experiences and thoughts about viewing and learning about the night sky and ourselves.
An honest account of your history in astronomy which is very similar to mine. Light pollution is a robber a thief that's grows as each day passes by. It is a shame I have to really on memories of what I used to see and can no longer see,even after spending thousands of dollars more than I ever spent years ago. No I have to rely on images I take for minutes to get even a decent view, the eyepiece to my eye is of no use now days. Sky glow is everywhere and I to at my age don't want to travel 70 to 100 miles to find a darker location, plus it's not safe.
Thank you for sharing!
Yes, memories are rich with wonder. I'm thankful I got into this hobby when I was young enough to haul out bigger equipment on a more regular basis and still get up for work the next day!
Thankfully we do have some technology on our side, but the experience is really not the same as it once was.
Although I am a young almost-65 (in a couple of months) and not retired, operate my clubs 22" reflector, and have a 20" F/3.7 mirror to build a scope for still, I am also working more with smaller scopes.
For reasons similar to those expressed here I have just acquired a Skywatcher 150mm Maksutov-Cassegrain for a "small scope" to use for planets (especially), the Moon, the Sun and double stars.
Regarding ever increasing light pollution, my one wish is for future generations to experience what I could view in the night skies 50+ years ago. The wonder of seeing large swaths of stars through a set of binoculars for the first time is forever ingrained in my mind. It was like opening the lid to a beautiful jewelry box.
With the rate of technological change accelerating, perhaps some means will eventually be discovered to enable this wish.
One of the most common refrains from observers who frankly don't know much is, "I don't want to get a big scope, my (light-polluted) skies won't support it! I live under some of the worst skies you can imagine, where a 4-5 inch scope will only show you planets and the very brightest deep-sky objects in minor detail, but I was thrilled the first time I saw the Veil nebula, in detail using an 11 inch SCT and an OXYIII filter. If you live in poor conditions, aperture is a must-have. Otherwise, you are perpetually confined to viewing maybe 30 objects.
I'd have the biggest scope ever made if I could, even with my light polluted skies. But I also have a wife, kids, grandkids and I'd like to keep it that way. I also deal with some physical and time limitations, so I'm more of a grab'n'go guy now. Always a compromise with something, be it location, health, relationships, disposable income, etc. nevermind the myriad of choices available and what compromises we might make between them all.
I've never tired of studying the Moon or planets, so my needs aren't geared towards DSO's. Although my Mak does show the brightest to good effect if I'm so inclined.
The thing is, the phrasing regarding the use of large scopes; "even" under light-polluted skies. Those are skies you need the largest aperture for. A 4 inch scope under good skies performs like a 10-12 inch under bad skies. A 10" scope will show you things, even in light pollution, it'll resolve globulars, show nebulas in some detail (with filters) and even show some galaxies. When seeing is good, it'll do planets real justice as well.
Do you want to haul that 10" scope out for me? 'Cause I'm not going to.
That's why I said..."Size matters, but it's always a compromise." And that is going to mean different things to different people.
Great read. Thank you for sharing your astronomy journey and enthusiasm in continuously asking the big questions.
Very interesting reading - most enjoyable. My earliest exposure was in the 1950s before light pollution got as bad as now. I saw Comet Mrkos in a neighbor's binoculars. Then once laying outside on a summer night feasting on the Milky Way was my next memory. But I didn't get hooked on astronomy until 1962 when I got my first issue of Sky and Telescope. Still getting those very month after 60 years.
After two home made reflectors of 6- and 8-inch aperture, I acquired others, some of increasing aperture: C-5, C-8, C-11 and a 10-inch Dob reflector. The 5- and 6-inch telescopes have been passed on to others. The 8- and 10-inch reflectors have digital setting circles, which helps my 76 year old body find my targets.
Recently my favorite telescope to use from my Bortle 4-5 skies is my old home made 8-inch reflector with DSCs. The 10-inch Dob is quicker to set up, but the 8-incher has tracking for ease of use. I'm usually good for 1-2 hours before I get tired. But the biggest impediment to observing is the frequent fog blowing in off the Pacific Ocean after a clear day. That's a bummer sometimes. But I do enjoy our temperatures, with a hot day getting up to maybe 75°F. No heat waves so close to the ocean.
I will likely fire up my go-to G-11 mount for planets later on this year with the C-11. But before then mounting my little AT115EDT refractor is easier to set up on that mount. As time goes by that little APO may end up being my telescope of choice.
Not having any children or grandchildren makes life less complicated. Together with my wife of 41 years, we each have our own hobbies and common interests. Along with gardening and bird-watching, astronomy is my life-long interest. We all just make do with our differing circumstances.
After raising 4 kids and now 4 grandkids, I now find myself having a little more free time. However, now that I'm older that "free" time eats into my sleep. LOL. What a hobby. It should be the opposite...start out with grandkids and then kids, and then as we get younger, we can have more leisure time and the energy to use it as we wish without as many compromises.
I've had a bad attack of "GAS" for years - your article has freed me from the associated guilt pangs! I had a 90mm ETX and your description of its basic design shortcoming was spot on. Meade actually sold a camera adapter to do astrophotography over straining those plastic gear train parts to know end. Meade's journey to oblivion was predictable - I warned one of their VP's about it but he assured me things were under control. Sigh
GAS is incurable, but it is treatable. Just buy more stuff, guilt-free of course!
Enjoyed the article. I too was inspired to get into this by the moon missions. I had just finished second grade when Apollo 11 landed and then I asked for a telescope for Christmas. I've been off and on with the hobby since. I'm retiring soon and decided to start it up again.
Your journey is similar to mine. I didn’t have a teacher like yours, but my interest was self generated at an early age. As I tell people, I didn’t choose to study astronomy, it chose me. I would say that it’s not so much of a lonely hobby because it can be shared, but it’s a personal hobby. We all get something different out of it, and it’s very difficult to explain to others, because it’s only important to ourselves. I get what I want out of it and you get what you want, but they are equally valid.
Thank you for your wonderful and personal essay. As a later life retired foray, back into a once frustrated and failed (pre internet rich 1980’s) Astronomy experience, I have been mentally struggling in finding the Goldilocks equipment just right for me.
Two years of isolating with home hobbies, while avoiding Covid, left me craving camaraderie, and outdoor activity. This led me to CN, active involvement with my local Astronomy club (Los Angeles Astronomically Society), and a third or more hand 8” Dob. These all have yielded a wealth of knowledge and enjoyment for the past 7 months
I have once again found myself “cutting my teeth” while entering this hobby. “NightWatch” by Terence Dickinson, CN deep diving, and my club activities have given me a basic fundamental knowledge of (and success with) Astronomy, which I totally lacked after my first telescopic endeavors in the 80’s. My Dob has given me a whole other skill set and educational experience into what I want and don’t want from my future equipment.
Your article and the many insightful following comments seemed to have channeled and put voice to my internal struggle with size, difficulty to transport-maneuver, viewing and aging eyesight. I don’t have all the solid answers yet, but I feel this thread has definitely led me further along the path to selecting that almost “just right” next scope. Let’s just hope that this isn’t the starting tumble into the throngs of the dreaded “GAS.” Yet at this point in life that too could be an enjoyable journey.
Thank you for the kind comments. I love this hobby, and equally as much...Cloudy Nights, for giving us all a means to hang out "virtually" together.