I have seen a lot of people here on CN who, like me, started in astronomy a long time ago and then lost interest, only to pick it up again years or decades later. I'm always interested in hearing stories and posts about this. There seem to be a lot of us here. I came back to astronomy a year ago, and I'm really enjoying it again. I figured I'd share how I got involved in the hobby again and how its all playing out. Maybe some of you will do the same.
It was around this time last year that I seriously started thinking about observational astronomy for the first time in decades. I spent years doing backyard astronomy when I was very young, but I gradually lost interest in my later teen years, and for whatever reason I never returned to it. To be sure, I'd looked at the sky as an adult from time to time with unaided eyes. One can't miss the moon and bright planets from a car window, or an unexpected sighting of Orion on a dark winter night. What's more, I had kids now, and I found myself talking to them about the night sky on many a night.
Still, it took the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in December of 2020 to really re-light the spark. I started looking at telescopes online in the weeks leading up to the event. I was amazed at what was out there. Highly portable four inch refractors for $300? Wow!! When I was a kid, a four inch refractor was a thousand dollar instrument at least, and the whole apparatus weighed about a hundred pounds. There were a lot of new choices, a lot of new questions, and a lot of options that didn't exist when I was a kid.
Of course, I quickly learned that telescopes were sold out everywhere, and that my chances of picking one up quickly were non-existent. The Jupiter-Saturn conjunction came and went, and my chances of seeing the two planets together in an eyepiece evaporated.
It didn't matter though. I'd caught the bug, and I started going out on cold winter nights and looking up at the sky. Despite living in a suburban cul-de-sac, my skies were reasonably dark and I wondered what I could see. I found an old pair of 7X35 binoculars and added them to the mix. My night vision had always been very poor (more on that later) but I resolved to get out and reacquaint myself with the night sky again.
How I started observing the skies.
My first telescope came in 1979, when I was nine years old. It was a Selsi 60/700 achromatic refractor (probably manufactured by Towa, from what I've learned on CN). It came with 20mm and 5mm Huygens eyepieces, and a completely useless barlow lens. I did much of my viewing through my bedroom window. By 1981, I became more serious about observing, and I was gifted a C90. The summer of 1981 was a great time to observe from my suburban southern California location. Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus were all well placed in the sky. I think I spent almost every night out with the C90 that summer. Two years later, I traded in both of my scopes (along with saved, gifted, and borrowed money) for an Orange Tube C8.
Thanks to a combination of good optics and good observing conditions, I had great luck with my C8. My family had moved to a “high desert” location at a little over 3,000 feet in elevation. The setting was rural, with only dirt roads and a few houses interrupting the rolling juniper/sagebrush woodland. There wasn't a store or a streetlight for miles around. I spent night after night under dry and cloudless skies during the warmer months of the year, when the planets were out. I encountered dew very rarely (and this was without a dew shield). My observing process was usually to set up just as the sun was going down, or even earlier, as I often started with terrestrial observations. (I had a treeless line of sight to mountain ranges on the horizon, and they made fantastic daytime targets.) I learned a lot about how to use the scope effectively, even learning how to collimate the scope by reading the manual after a couple of nasty bumps on the way outside.
The stock 25mm Kellner and 2X barlow that came with the C8 were the best eyepiece and barlow I'd used up to that time. I did most of my planetary observing at 160X with this combination. I saw wonderful detail on Jupiter and a crisp Cassini division on Saturn most nights. The views were head and shoulders above anything I'd had with my previous scopes. My other eyepieces were Huygenians and Ramsdens that I'd obtained for my smaller scopes years earlier. I bought a $3 adapter to use them in the 1 1/4” diagonal when I got the C8. I could go as high as 400X on the moon with those funky little .965” eyepieces, and my scope and seeing actually supported this with some frequency. I had far less success with the planets at these high powers for all the usual reasons, and also because finding and tracking planets in 30° AFOVs was almost impossible. Still, the elements occasionally came together for views that left lasting impressions. I put in a great deal of time and effort, and I learned a lot with what I had.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is what I WASN'T looking at. I spent many hours on dozens of nights looking at the moon and planets as well as double stars, and I loved the hobby for that alone. However, I have been affected by “night blindness” all my life, and deep sky was something I viewed as pretty much impossible. Just making out the constellations was very challenging (not that I was very meticulous in my dark adaptation). The narrow fields and small exit pupils in all my scopes didn't help.
I can actually remember coming home very late on one fall night after a long and dark car ride, and seeing Orion blazing overhead in a dark and transparent sky. I had never seen it so well. I ran inside and brought out the C8. I used the 25mm Kellner (my lowest power and widest fov eyepiece – haha!) and quickly found the belt stars. I looked and looked for M42, for what must have been over an hour. I knew exactly where to look, for I'd seen it in star charts and pictures for years, but I never found it.
As I aged into my teen years, a lot changed in my life. I became less interested in astronomy, taking the scope out only occasionally by the time I turned 16 or so. After a while, it lived full time in the lovely trunk that came with it. Astronomy became something of a distant memory for me. Sometimes I wonder if I'd have stuck with it if I had joined an astronomy club back in those days. The hobby was always kind of solitary for me, and though I occasionally had a friend or two who went observing with me, but I was always the "expert" in those situations. I never really had a more experienced person to learn from.
A return to the skies and why I chose the telescope I did.
Back to the present (or more recent past)! By January, 2021, I'd discovered Cloudy Nights, and I was spending at least an hour on any clear night looking up from a patio chair in my snowy backyard (or driveway) – finding Orion, Castor and Pollux, Auriga, and others. I managed Megrez with unaided eyes at magnitude 3.33 as the big dipper started rising in the eastern sky. This, believe it or not, was a personal best for me and my crazy night vision. (I've managed a few fainter stars since then, but nothing as low as mag 4. My eyes are no better, but no worse, than they were when I was a kid) I used a pair of 7X35 binoculars laying around the house to have my first ever view of the Hyades and the Pleiades. I was breathless with delight and wonder (despite the fact that my eyes see the Pleaides in 7X35 binoculars as exactly seven stars and no more.) I wasn't sure how “much” I'd see, but I knew that I wanted to “do” deep sky observing, even if I could only do it in a limited way.
Of course, I was still looking for a telescope, but everything was backordered. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Were it not for this supply shortage, I would have bought impulsively. I'd have had a lot less time to learn and re-learn the night sky with my eyes alone, and I'd probably have chosen a telescope that wasn't right for me. Thanks to CN and many other sources, I learned all about spherical vs parabolic mirrors, chromatic aberration, eyepiece characteristics, exit pupils, and a wide variety of other things. This helped me to make good decisions.
Not knowing how long my new fascination with astronomy would last, and having limited space and a limited budget, I slowly made my way to the 130mm – 150mm tabletop dobs. These seemed like the most capable instruments that would get me back in the game without taking up too much space or money. As this was intended as a gift for my family (and admittedly, myself), my sister graciously agreed to chip in, in return for a few views of the night sky. I didn't have any interest in goto or push to, or computer assisted anything, so that helped keep costs down.
It took nearly two months for it to arrive once we'd ordered it, but on March 2nd, my manual Starblast 6 arrived.
I've heard a number of criticisms of this scope that are probably perfectly valid, but they have not caused me to have any real regrets. Some of these criticisms were as follows:
-The scope will only accept 1 1/4” eyepieces. TRUE, but the first time I used 1 1/4” eyepieces was with my C8. They still seem big and comfortable to me, and I am now getting the widest FOVs I've ever had. Almost every target I seek fits inside the 25 mm stock Plossl that came with the scope, and finding and tracking targets is easier than it's ever been for me. Better yet, with a 5mm exit pupil as a default finder eyepiece, I'm seeing starfields in a way that I never did with my previous scopes, which were really better suited to lunar and planetary viewing.
-You need a table to put it on. TRUE, but I kind of view this as the price of portability. If I'm really being an optimist, I'd say that this adds to the versatility. I have two different surfaces that I use for the scope, often depending on the type of targets and how close they are to the zenith. I WILL concede that easily available round top tables seem to be exactly 18 inches in diameter – precisely the same as the spread between the feet on the dob base (and thus unsafe for use without modification), so there's that...
-Collimation is tricky and frequently required at F5. TRUE, but I learned how to do this at the age of 13 with an SCT, and I don't mind doing it more frequently now. The scope comes with a collimation cap, and it seems to work just fine. The procedure takes a couple of minutes. I am NOT a handy person. I can't assemble a piece of furniture purchased from a big box store without a thousand swear words and three leftover parts that I didn't know what to do with when I was putting it together. If I can collimate, anyone can!
-There is coma at F5. TRUE, but I don't notice it very much until I take a smartphone photo through the eyepiece. My observing at low power has reminded me that I have mild astigmatism, so there's that, but I can't blame the scope for that one. The coma really doesn't bother me.
-It is hard to get high powers with a short focal ratio scope. TRUE, but it is not THAT hard. If I were stuck with the 5 and 6 mm Huygens and Ramsden eyepieces that I once had, I'd be worried, but modern eyepieces allow short focal lengths with good eye relief and wider fields at bargain basement prices. The 50 degree AFOV of an ordinary Plossl eyepiece is wider than anything I used in the past. I wear gas permeable contact lenses rather than glasses so this helps with eye relief. My 10mm Plossl and $50 Svbony zoom eyepiece are just fine for FOV and eye relief to my eyes.
-No slow motion controls. TRUE – I was actually terrified of this, and I almost stayed away from any kind of Dob mount as a result. Once again, though, my experience came through for me. Nudging the scope to track planets at high power with my existing eyepieces is really no harder than it was with my fork mounted C8 at 160X with slow motion controls. This was probably due to my lousy attempts at polar alignment back in the day, but regardless of the reason, tracking seems easy to me.
There is a common thread running through all of this. I have been out of the observing game for SO long that I almost feel like a time traveler when it comes to equipment – even though I don't use goto or anything like it. As a result, I am happily impressed by the entry level eyepieces, free phone apps, and other very standard equipment of 2021.
BUT, what about that focuser? Ok, you've got me there. A cheap and imprecise focuser with an F5 scope is a chore. This is my only genuine complaint about my scope. I do spend a lot of time futzing with focus. I may try to do something about this one day. Still, it is really just part of my observing process at this point, and I eventually find fine focus, even though it takes time. I'm dealing with a number of other challenges anyway. Freezing cold weather, frequent clouds, neighboring lights, moisture in all seasons, and frequent poor seeing and transparency are all things that differ from the rather rosy observing conditions of my youth. I'm not complaining. In the past 9 months, I've probably logged about 50 observing sessions and 100 hours with my SB6, and I have found it all to be truly rewarding. I have seen a lot.
I took a look at my observing logs last month and I have found 21 Messier objects and another dozen or so “other” deep sky objects (NGCs and also things like the Alpha Persei cluster). This is not much compared to many people here, but it is SO much more than I ever saw in my observing past. I've seen most of these objects multiple times. There are a number of “new” things I didn't have in my youth that have helped me a great deal – Stellarium on my phone, online articles, the ability to take smartphone photos through the eyepiece, weather and seeing apps/websites, and of course, CN. All of this has greatly enhanced my observing experience. My star hopping has become pretty effective, particularly in light of my night vision. Sometimes when I'm outside and trying to dark adapt, my seven year old daughter will step outside of a well lit house, and begin counting stars that I still can't see after sitting in darkness for half-an-hour. I am truly thrilled that neither of my kids didn't inherit the night blindness from me, even if my repeated attempts to get them interested in looking through the eyepiece have borne very little fruit. There is a lot I can't see that most others can but I'm seeing more than I've ever seen before, and I'm having a great time doing it.
Even when I'm doing lunar and planetary observing (and I've done a lot of it over the past 9 months) I often see “more” than I used to in many ways. My C8 was somewhat more capable for lunar and planetary views, and I am reminded of this from time to time. However, what I have improved upon greatly is my own abilities as an observer. I am amazed at how much more I see now than I did just six months ago, and I notice this with almost object that I view (and re-view). Averted vision, star hopping, splitting doubles, and fining small features on planets and faint details in DSOs only gets better with more time at the eyepiece.
The more I do this, the more I recognize that my knowledge, skill, and experience as an observer, affect the quantity and quality of what I see far more than equipment, conditions, or any other factor. I still have a long way to go before I max out what I can see with a six inch tabletop dob in a suburban cul-de-sac. There's an awful lot out there, and it gives me a lot of room for growth in this hobby. I am truly happy that I came back to it, and I'm thankful for the this site and the people here. You are all an amazing resource.
Edited by CBM1970, 06 December 2021 - 11:51 PM.