University Lowbrow Astronomers

Do You GoTo?

by Doug Scobel
Printed in Reflections: January, 2005.

I’m glad I’m not just now entering into the astronomy hobby. With the bewildering array of equipment that’s available in today’s marketplace, trying to choose a telescope and accessories would be a little daunting. Take a look through a recent issue of Sky and Telescope magazine and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll see a lot of very high-end equipment showcased there, with corresponding high-end price tags. And the amateur-produced astrophotos in the back rival those created by the world’s largest observatories as little as 15 years ago. When I was a fraction of my current age, most folks had either a 6-inch f/8 reflector (that they likely made themselves), or a 60mm refractor. Larger and more capable instruments were few and far between. Things sure have changed since then!

Unfortunately, today’s environment can sometimes elicit one of two responses. The first says “Gee, I can’t afford all that. Don’t you need a $4000.00 apochromatic refractor, with a GPS-equipped, motorized, go-to mount that can locate one of 10,000 celestial objects with the push of a button? Oh, yeah, and don’t you also need a handful of those ultra-wide angle, multiple element eyepieces that cost more money and have more glass in them than some entire telescopes, and would break your foot if you were unfortunate enough to drop one on it? And don’t forget the filters, sky charting software, the laptop computer on which to run it, and the CCD camera. I’ll never be able to enjoy the night sky, or create such images, as those guys. What could I possibly do on my meager budget?” Some of these folks get intimidated and decide that perhaps amateur astronomy is not for them.

Perhaps worse, some folks, often the old-timers like me (did I really just call myself that?), wonder if those lucky few who can afford such equipment are somehow “cheating,” that they haven’t really “paid their dues,” and that astronomy done the “old fashioned way” just doesn’t measure up in this day and age. “Why, in my day, we had to observe in the snow, barefoot. We couldn’t afford eyepieces, we just cut the bottom out of a Coke bottle and looked through that. Our telescopes didn’t have a tube or even precision mirrors, we had to prop a shaving mirror against a fence post. Why, we were so poor we didn’t even have stars! And we were thankful!”

OK, maybe I’m going to extremes, but some folks do get a little rankled about how “easy” it is today. I’ve seen plenty a post to the online forums on this very subject. Some actually think it’s somehow bad for the hobby.

Now, I would say that it’s neither good nor bad - it just is. People have more disposable income now, and so at the high end you’ll see the results of those who have the most to spend. But in no way does that take anything away from those who have to do everything with less. In a sense it’s true our results depend on what we spend, but it has little to do with money.

Like me. All of my equipment is home-made, the 6-inch f/8 (w/ homemade primary) I made while in my teens, the 13-inch f/4.5 dob that I’ve used now for nearly 20 years, a homemade barn-door camera platform, and the 8-inch f/8 (also with homemade primary) I just completed a couple summers ago. No drives, no equatorial platforms, no thru-the-scope long-exposure photography, no go-to, no digital setting circles, all visual. Yet I’ve logged nearly 800 deep sky objects (not counting double stars), observed all the planets, observed sunspots, observed lunar and solar eclipses, observed, sketched, and photographed several comets, made several observations and sketches of Mars, photographed auroras, done wide-field sky photography, and finished the Herschel 400 list using only finder scope and star charts. And I’m sure that there are many of you reading this that have done as much, if not more.

But does someone posting fantastic photos made with expensive equipment that they purchased rather than made somehow diminish what you or I have done by more modest means? No way. Yes, they can do things that I can’t do, but I can say the same about them. Frankly, I enjoy immensely the amateur images seen recently in Sky and Telescope they are truly amazing in many cases!

At the same time, while I have to admit that the “new school” methods are often “easier,” I’m not sure that they are therefore invalid. After all, all of us stand on the shoulders of the giants who went before us. I certainly didn’t figure out how to make a precision mirror by myself. I didn’t draw up my own star charts. When I was making my first six inch scope, my dream was to someday own a 10-inch. Today my 13-inch is considered mid-size at best. None of us figured out how to do all this by ourselves. We all have Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leon Foucault, Jean Texereau, Wil Tirion, John Dobson, Al Nagler, and countless others (including some Lowbrows!) to thank.

Truth be told, when my financial situation is such that I can choose to afford more advanced equipment, then I’ll be “moving up” myself!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that no matter the era in which one starts, the state of the art is what it is. No one suggested to me when I made my first mirror that I ought to make it out of speculum metal or it’s not real mirror making!

I think there’s room in this hobby for everyone - old or new school. It’s still the same subject. And I think that’s good!

Old School Telescope Design

Old School - circa 1984

The Lowbrow 24” telescope on Peach Mountain imagined as 24” f/4 Newtonian. It would need a 5” minor axis diagonal, a field corrector, and a CCD camera, considering the eyepiece position.

New School Telescope Design

New School - circa 2004

A 14” space-based ultraviolet imaging telescope, which also has an inaccessible eyepiece position. Designed in Solid Edge, software from a UGS company. The tools move on, thanks in part to Doug. -Ed.

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This page originally appeared in Reflections of the University Lowbrow Astronomers (the club newsletter).
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