Looking at the Stars....

Those who have been reading this blog for any length of time will probably have worked out that I am a tad space-obsessed. I have been ever since I was a small boy, and I suspect that I always will be. Living in the heart of a big city, I could only content myself with books, or with the internet once it came about, but now that I live out in the country, a new option has presented itself - I could buy a telescope, and see the wonders of the universe for myself. I’ve been thinking about this for months, on and off, but last month I decided to take the plunge.

The first decision I made is that I would buy not one telescope, but two. The first was to be a ‘take-it-out-and-use-it’ telescope, the second larger, more expensive, and more involved; the first would also serve as a testbed to determine whether my interest in the pursuit would persist, and I made the decision that I would not buy the second telescope until I had got in twenty hours’ observing - and given that is summer and the nights are short, I rather suspect that would take a while. (As I write this, I am on ten hours, with some hopes of increasing that tonight. I never realized how many clouds there were before…)

Naturally, I didn’t want a telescope that I would only use during this period - I wanted one that would hold its own, and that would be useful in its own right. I also wanted something that would be low-maintenance, and that suggested a refractor rather than a reflector; I figured that a larger-aperture reflector would be telescope two. I did my homework, bought a few books and spent some time on the internet, and eventually opted for a Sky-Watcher Evostar 90, a three-and-a-half-inch refractor on an alt-azimuth mount.

The scope arrived within a day - thank you, Amazon - and I spent most of that day looking outside, hoping that the clouds would clear. The forecast was somewhat less than favourable, but miraculously, as everything began to go dark, the clouds vanished with the Sun and it was a perfect night. I set the telescope up outside, pointed it at the largest star I could see, and was rewarded with...a faded, blurry image. Even after I managed to get the focus right, all I saw was a featureless disc, and I thought I was looking at Jupiter.

Then, after ten minutes, I turned the scope up to another star, and realized I had made a big mistake. I had been looking at Venus, not Jupiter - and this time, the four Galilean moons snapped into position, and at the best magnification I could manage - only x90, that night - I could just make out faint outlines on the surface. Before I realized what had happened, I’d been outside for an hour. Then, Saturn rose, and I turned my telescope on the planet, and saw the distant world and its rings, hovering in the lens. After a couple of hours - with midnight upon me - I packed up and went inside.

The first thing I did was order some more lenses. I’d known in advance that the ones supplied with the telescope weren’t that great; I figured that primarily they only had to do for my first viewing, and that I could buy more right away. Also, they’d be useful with my second telescope as well - so this was going to be a decent investment. In the end, I opted to buy a kit, the Revelation Astro Eyepiece Kit, from Harrison Telescopes - which gave me five new lenses, as well as a Barlow lens to augment the power of the others. It also gave me five filters, about which more later. (I’ll say now that Harrison Telescopes was excellent.)

It was four more frustrating nights before I could go out again, but this time I was equipped with my new lenses; the old ones would remain unused. The new set consisted of Plossl lenses, higher quality, though I learned later that there were two more in the set (which I have since purchased.) This time I knew what I was looking for, and could pick out the phases of Venus, and was able to operate at much higher magnifications. Not too high - for a start, my telescope is only good up to x180, and there is rarely need to go very high in any case, but the difference it made to look at the planet at x150 was amazing. The phase was quite clear, though it remained featureless.

I should say at this point that something else I invested in was a Revelation Star Diagonal; the telescope had come with one more suited for terrestrial than astronomical work - again, something I knew going in, but it was reflected in the price. I can recommend the telescope to anyone starting out - aside from some niggles with the finderscope, I’ve had no problems with it. Not now I worked out how the locking mechanism worked; it took me three nights to get that right!

Jupiter was a treat. I could see two bands going across the planet, and the moons were once again quite clear, though in a different position. For the present, I remain an astronomical dilettante; I spend my time darting from star to star, though I am aware that better observations are possible if I focus on a single object. Saturn was as before, though I didn’t get a good view of it on my second night due to a neighbour’s house been in the way. If I’d had a bulldozer on hand, I’d have been tempted to use it!

Then came the Moon. I hadn’t been able to see it on my first night, but this time the crescent rose, and I roved across its surface - initially at far too much magnification to be able to recognize a thing. The shadows in the craters, the glimpses of the great dark seas, even the Straight Wall - I spent an hour just staring at it, looking at every detail, though I admit that I had no ability to put names to features - something I am slowly working on. That was night two, every bit as exciting as night one.

It was clear at that point that telescope two was going to happen. Since then, I’ve had five more nights, each of which was similar to the first, both in terms of what I did and the wonder I felt. I’ve had no luck viewing stars so far, not in tracking down any double stars or galaxies, partly because of my poor knowledge of the constellations but also because it just isn’t getting dark at the moment - and for another month, that’s going to get worse rather than better. I figure that by the end of July, things will start to seriously improve in that quarter, but for the present, most of the constellations just aren’t clear. The moon was full last night, and beautiful as it was, it did provide quite a glare! Fortunately, the planets are my primary interest anyway.

I’m getting more comfortable with the telescope now - I even named it ‘Hengist’, with ‘Horsa’ to follow - and last night I broke out the filters, interested to see if I could make something out of Venus. I had heard that under different colours, the planet is no longer featureless, and details could be seen - not of the surface, but of the upper atmosphere. I have to admit that until last night, I didn’t believe it, but I threw in a yellow-green filter (#11, for those interested) and under the new light, I could make out darker patches, near the middle of the planet. I thought it at first a trick of my eyes, but two others looked through and saw the same thing - without any prompting from me about what they were looking it. Until this point, I hadn’t seen the merit of the filters; this morning, I purchased three more to give me a wider range of options. (I also got lucky and scored a high-quality orthoscopic lens as well - which should be an improvement over the admittedly-excellent Plossls for planetary work, and filling a gap in my magnification options.)

What is to come? Well, on this blog, some reviews - I’ve got a lot of books and a lot of kit now, and that’s definitely something to write about. I’ve pretty much decided what ‘Horsa’ is going to be - an eight-inch reflector on an equatorial mount, and that will be purchased some time next month, whereupon I will likely freeze my equipment for a while. More to the point, I want to do some more serious observing, specifically of the planets. Even more specifically, the gas giants. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, all three are within range of the eight-inch, and each is almost a system of its own, in its own right. (Neptune will be visible - just - but doing any detail work at all is rather a stretch.) I need to learn the Moon, and I need to do some star observations. In short, I need an observing program, and once my twenty-five-hour training period is over (twenty with Hengist, five with Horsa) I intend to set out on one. (Venus is now moving into interest as well as of last night...and potentially Mars, though that is difficult from this latitude. I have seen it twice now, by a miracle, but neither time with any detail at all.)

Oh, and Alamo 13 as well. I expect to start that on Monday; look for it some time towards the end of July...

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