Sunday, May 31, 2009

 

The Mother of All Chinese Scopes


Well, not really. As astronomically oriented and creative as the Chinese people have always been, it’s not a surprise to learn the telescope was introduced to that country back in the 17th century, not long after it made such a big splash in Europe. By “mother of all Chinese telescopes” I mean amateur telescopes, muchachos.

I don’t mean the Tasco imports that began hitting our shores from Taiwan in the 80s, either, I mean The Little Telescope That Could, the one that showed amateurs “Chinese telescope” was no longer synonymous with “cheap junk.” When this 80-mm refractor burst onto the amateur astronomy scene in the mid 90s, it was the herald of good astronomical things to come from the East. Yep, you called it; I am talking about the ubiquitous Short Tube 80.

A little refractor, a 3-inch f/5, seemed way too humble to give birth to a burgeoning telescope industry, yet that’s just what it did. This short focus achromat clued-in us rank and file Kats and Kittens that there was, or shortly would be, gold coming out of those mainland and Taiwanese telescope factories.

The situation was a wee bit analogous to what it was with Japan in the 70s and 80s. Previous to that time, most of us had been suspicious of any scope stamped “made in Japan.” That was despite some incredibly fine Japanese instruments being imported into the U.S. of A. during the 60s and even 50s—see my entry, “The Good Tasco,” for a few words about Gotos and Royals. What finally got the message out on the fineness of Japanese scopes was the coming to the U.S. of Vixen under the wing of Celestron. This 80 f/5 did the same for Chinese telescopes in the 1990s with the help of Orion.

I suspect a lot of the credit for the Short Tube’s success should go to the founder and former owner of Orion (the U.S. Orion, "Telescope and Binocular Center"), Tim Giesler. He was no doubt searching for a new product to keep him ahead of the pack in the go-go days of amateur astronomy marketing of the 1990s, and hit upon a Chinese company, Synta, who were pushing this fast achromat.

In retrospect, a product like the ST80 looks like an obvious winner, but that wasn’t so obvious just then. Not that amateurs hadn’t been offered telescopes of this sort before. There was a reasonably popular forerunner to the ST80 on sale as far back as the mid-80s, a 60-mm f/5 imported during the Comet Halley craze by Tasco, Celestron, Meade and others and sold under names as varied as “Comet Seeker,” “Cometron,” and “9VR.”

Quite a few seasoned amateurs liked these li’l scopes (made by Mizar and at least one other Japanese manufacturer), and they were point-and-shoot heaven for the tyros out to hunt down Halley. I have little doubt more cash-strapped novices actually saw the comet through their Cometrons than their more well-heeled brothers and sisters did with brand spanking new f/10 SCTs.

Why didn’t these little scopes become more a fixture of amateur astronomy? Perhaps they were just swept out with the detritus in the wake of Halley. As with more expensive instruments during the comet’s reign, their quality varied. Or maybe the time was just not right. Maybe it took a few more years of the big Dob revolution to make Joe and Jane Amateur aware that f/5 could be a sweet thing compared to f/10. Like me, lots of observers back then were still scratching their heads at the idea of an RFT (richest field telescope). How was I gonna count craterlets on the floor of Plato with a thing like that?

Whatever. Orion and Giesler correctly divined that the time was ripe in amateur astronomy for a wide field and inexpensive refractor. In 1996, Orion’s multi-page color extravaganza catalogs began to feature full page spreads on the 80 f/5 that shouted its virtues to high, high heaven. Sure, like Unk, a lot of amateurs were suspicious of a fast Chinese scope, but at the price, about $250.00 for an OTA, quite a few boys and girls were willing to take a chance.

And soon the word began to spread. This was a quality scope that, within the limits imposed by a small, fast, achromatic objective, delivered outstanding images. Most frequent comment on sci.astro.amateur? (what came before Cloudy Nights, y'all)  “YOU GOTTA GET YOU ONE!” Turned out that even Unk, who was quite a refractorphobe in those days, was not immune to the siren song of this Visitor from the East.

Refractorphobic? Uncle Rod? Who reputedly loves all telescopes? You betcha. I’d done little more than take quick glimpses through lens-scopes at star parties for the past 30 years, and then only at the strong prompting of their proud owners. Even the incredible refractor resurgence that began in the 1980s and came to full flower in the 1990s thanks to Uncle Roland and Uncle Al left Unk cold. Why? I was slightly traumatized by a refractor in the 1960s. My memory had been seared by a Unitron. And not in a good way.

In 1968, a neighbor boy, a good friend of mine (though we'd drifted apart soon after I finished Junior High), Eddie, had achieved that holy grail of old time amateur astronomy. His affluent Dad (compared to those of most of us neighborhood kids) had bought him a Unitron, a 60-mm on an alt-azimuth mount.

What Eddie got was a beautiful scope with a long, gleaming white tube perched on an attractive and sturdy wooden tripod. Best of all was the Unihex rotary eyepiece holder mounted on the focuser. It sported oodles of eyepieces and looked like something that belonged on Captain Kirk's starship bridge. I was drooling at the very thought of this superscope. When I finally managed to cadge a look through this beauty one evening when its owner had it pointed at a gibbous Moon, I was prepared to be impressed. Looking at the full-page Unitron ads in every month’s Sky and Telescope had prepared me to be blown away. I pressed my eye to the eyepiece, focused up…and... “What the--?!”

After I pulled away from the Unihex, I was able to mutter a polite, “Looks great, congratulations!” but I had hardly been impressed. At about 50x, Luna was considerably dimmer than she was in my Palomar Junior, which I hurried back to. The disk had a noticeable warm yellow-orange tone, too, rather than the pristine pure white of my Pal. It wasn’t just the images that bothered me, though. The tube was beautiful. But the finder? Wasn't a 16-mm aperture finder just a wee bit small? Even for a 2.4-inch telescope? And that Unihex sure was cool, but, come on, .965-inch eyepieces (there was, I believe, room on this gadget for a single 1.25-incher, but the scope hadn’t come with one)?

If I’d given the little telescope more of a chance, it’s possible I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. As I learned in later years, this and other quality 60-mm achromats can produce impressively sharp images. But I didn’t get another chance with the Unitron. I never got to look through it again. Didn't want to, anyhow. It seems dumb to have condemned all refractors to perdition based on a single look through one, but that’s just what I did. Dumb, yeah; my one quick peep through a Unitron Model 114 caused me to avoid all refractors for the next three decades.

Nevertheless, strange as it seemed, one day at the end of the last decade Unk found himself contemplating spending a modest amount of inflated dollars on a rather small refractor. Why? By the end of the 1990s, I was in the midst of a grab ‘n go crisis.

Everybody needs a “g-n-g,” a telescope that can be stationed near a back door for use at a moment’s notice for a quick glimpse at the Moon or a bright DSO, to hunt down a little comet, or just to use to putter around in the sky on evenings when you don’t feel like maneuvering a "real" telescope into your light-polluted backyard.

Down here in The Swamp, those sorts of nights are frequent during the summer. It’s hazy, it’s hot, there are tons of mosquitoes, and the clouds are always at least incipient. It’s safe to say that if I didn’t have a grab ‘n go, I wouldn’t do much backyard observing from May through September. Unfortunately, in the late 90s, I found myself without a scope that could serve in that role, and was somewhat desperate for something easier to trot out than my 12.5-inch Dob or Ultima C8 Schmidt Cassegrain.

The ST80 was, I decided, IT. If Clara Bow was the It Girl, the Short Tube 80 was the It Telescope. But the question then became, “Which Short Tube 80?” By 2000, plenty of astro-vendors had noticed Orion’s success with the little guy, and thanks to Synta, who, back then, was ready to sell to all comers, we began seeing 80 f/5s wearing not just “Orion” and “SkyWatcher” badges, but “Celestron” and, believe it or not, even “L.L. Bean.” After some looking and cogitating I settled on an especially good deal being offered by a small merchant, Eagle Optics.

Eagle was a big name with the birding crowd (still is), and they made a too brief foray into astronomy just at the time I was hunting for an 80. They were offering a nice package that included a Celestron-branded Short Tube 80 and a small but serviceable EQ-1 GEM mount. This outfit was priced not much higher than what Orion wanted for just the OTA, and there were a couple of other advantages the Eagle had over the original as well.

Back then, Orion only sold the 80 with a correct-image diagonal that, while OK for birding and other terrestrial uses, was the pits for the sky, producing ugly diffraction spikes that emanated from bright objects. The Orion’s OTA mounting scheme was also questionable, a plastic under-tube block with a ¼ 20-tpi hole in it—something that proved to be neither stable nor durable.

The Celestron version came with a passable 90 degree astronomical diagonal, and, instead of the mounting block, genuine tube rings. The forward tube ring even sported a ¼-20 bolt for mounting a piggyback camera. But it got better. Eagle also included an adapter that allowed scope and rings to be mounted on any ¼ 20-tpi device. Remove the tube rings from the EQ-1 GEM, attach ‘em to the adapter via provided holes, and, voila, the 80 could ride piggyback on my SCTs or be attached to a camera tripod.

Probably the greatest plus for the Eagle package, though, was the included EQ-1 mount. You would think a scope as small as the 80 f/5 would be fine on a camera tripod. Not. Surprisingly, the wee one tends to overcome all but the largest photo-video tripods. Even on substantial photo tripods, balance is a real problem and motions are rarely very smooth, even at low powers.

A small GEM like the EQ-1 allows the 80 to be balanced easily, and the ability to track the stars with just the RA slow motion control means that even if this motion is not quite as smooth as what a fine fluid-head video tripod can offer, it feels that way. One of the modern alt-azmuth mounts like the ones sold today by Orion, William Optics, and Astronomics might be even better, but even the tiniest GEM is mucho better than any camera tripod for this scope.

I spent the next week or so in an agony of anticipation: Would this small REFRACTOR be worth even the modest amount I’d paid for it? Would it turn out to be just a toy like the then-current red-tube Chinese refractors from Tasco? I just couldn’t get over the idea that a darned lens-scope was on its way to me. Luckily, the agony of anticipation was relatively short-lived. I arrived home one 5 p.m. to discover a yellow note on the portal of Chaos Manor South. At first I thought, “Dang it, I missed it, and it’s too late to make a run down to UPS.” Fortunately, though, the the driver had left my package with the neighbors across the street.

I beat feet to Jim and Shelley’s. God only knows what they thought when they opened their door at my pounding to discover a wild-eyed Rod chanting “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme!” As I trotted the surprisingly big box—nearly 20-pounds—back to the Old Manse, I found telescope-jaded little ol’ me was getting excited at the prospect of a 3-inch refractor. Before long, I had the little feller unpacked and assembled (15-minutes, tops). Relieved? Heck, I was impressed.

The little telescope was cute, bordering on pretty. The white tube of the Orion version is nice, but I thought the glossy black of the Celestron was better. It would, I figgered, look sweet riding piggyback on my Ultima C8. In addition to the OTA and GEM, some other cool things came out of the box and put the Celestron miles ahead of the Orion (back then; these days Orion sells some very nice and reasonably priced ST80 packages).

For one thing, there was a decent if not perfect finder marked “6 x 30 L.E.R” on its objective end (“long eye relief” I guess). Despite the presence of a baffle that stopped down the finder objective, images were bright and sharp inside during the day and turned out to be much the same outside in the dark. There was also a single eyepiece hiding down amongst the Styrofoam peanuts, a 25-mm marked “Super-Modified-Achromat” or some such foolishness. In truth, it was a workable Kellner capable of fulfilling the role of “better than nothing,” I suppose.

All told, for less than 300 simoleons this was a nice outfit by the standards of the day. What is surprising a decade later is how much scope prices have continued to plummet. In 2009, Orion will sell you an ST80 and all the fixings at a price similar to what I paid all those years ago, but with a nice 40-mm finder, two genuine wide-field eyepieces (Synta Expanses), and a considerably better tripod than the somewhat flimsy wooden one my little scope's EQ-1 possessed.

As ALWAYS, the very act of your Old Uncle carrying a new scope into the backyard, even an humble Short Tube 80, brought a sudden and immutable flood of clouds, but  I was at least able to give the 80 a quick check-out. Lyra’s Vega and Double-Double were briefly in the clear in a sucker hole near the zenith.

First and best of all, it was obvious I could forget any trepidation concerning the EQ-1 mount. It was almost overkill for the Short Tube. At 120x, the shakes produced by a sharp rap on the OTA died out in a couple of seconds. Optically? The ST easily split the Double-Double through a sucker hole at just over 100x. Nice and sharp at that magnification, too. I did note, however, that one of my good 1.25-inch diagonals provided a substantially better image. The stock unit seemed prone to flaring on bright stars like Vega, a sure sign of misalignment. The 64 dollar question, however? How bad was the scope's chromatic aberration, the fearsome Color Purple?

Vega did, as I expected, show considerable in-focus false color, but, surprisingly it was not a distracting amount. A nice airy disk and diffraction rings were visible at 120x, and the in-and-out-of-focus diffraction patterns looked quite acceptable.

Dislikes? Other than the punk diagonal, not much. With a bit of adjustment the focuser was smooth and easy enough, though it certainly couldn’t compete with the JMI Crayfords I was so fond of  in those days.

In just a few minutes this little Short Tube 80 refractor gave me a great deal of joy. If nothing else, it was clearly a grab ‘n go champ, perfect for waltzing around the backyard hunting breaks in the trees (and clouds). After even this limited amount of observing with the refractor, one thing was sure: this was not a toy. This was a real telescope capable of real work.

I still didn’t have a good idea what the 80 could do on the sky, though, and was right anxious to find out. Naturally, the week passed with no clear skies. Until Friday night, when, also naturally, I was otherwise engaged. That year, my dear step-daughter, Beth, was in her high school's marching band, and Miss Dorothy and I spent every Friday night at the Big Game. And what a nice night this Friday was. Bizarrely enough for down here in October, a cold front had passed through, moderating temperatures and cleansing the sky.

By the time we returned home it was 11 p.m., and good ol’ Jupe was well up in the east, Saturn was tagging not far behind, and there was a real and unmistakable hint of fall in the air. If you think I grabbed my new scope and ran for the backyard, you are right. This was what grab ‘n go was all about. It was late and I was tired, but the Short Tube 80 was so easy to get set up that there was no way I wouldn’t do a little observing.

Shortly, I had my little bird pointed at Jupiter. Due to my diagonal diagnosis on first light night, I used a good Celestron prism star diagonal this time, the 1.25-inch that came with my ‘95 Ultima 8. Still, I didn't know what to expect. When pointed at a planet would the little refractor sing that Jimi Hendrix moldy-oldie “Purple Haze”?

Well, yeah, there was some color, but it was genuinely unobtrusive. At 133x (6mm Circle T Orthoscopic, 2x Barlow), much detail was on display. Including, by 1 a.m.--could it be?--the Great Red Spot. The GRS, pale as it was at the time, was noticed more as a "hollow" until it rotated well onto the planet, but it was easily recognizable.

Earlier, I'd watched a shadow transit of Io, and was just blown away to realize that not only could I see the shadow of the moon, a hard, black little pimple on Jove's saturnine face, but also Io’s disk as she crossed a cloud band slightly darker than herself. At modest magnifications the other Galilean moons showed as tiny but visible disks. I hadn't expected a heck of a lot on the planets from an inexpensive 80mm f/5 achro, but I was seeing a very respectable Jupiter. And the 80 had done it from the get-go. No cool-down or warm-up wait for this baby.

On to Saturn. Sharp. Cassini's Division was easy (the rings were nice and open that year), with some banding on the planet obvious. I could also see other detail—like brightness variations across the rings--when the seeing steadied down. I soon found I could pick out one or two other satellites in addition to Titan when I bumped the power up. How did she take magnification? Fairly well. Saturn seems to always allow a little more power than Jupiter, but at 150x I thought the 80 was starting to pant a bit, and at 200x (achieved by stacking Barlows), it was clear the small, short refractor was about ready to drop with exhaustion. But that was OK; I’d told myself before I’d forked over the bucks that I’d be satisfied if the ST80 could at least do 100x on the Moon and planets, and it was clear that would not be a problem.

On the planets, yeah, but how about the Moon? Luna was getting over into the west, but still a good target, so we went there. Verdict? Good. Not great, but good. As on the planets, color was not a problem. Yes, there was a thin line of spurious color on the limb, but the terminator was essentially perfect. I’ve seen far more color in a 4-inch f/10 achromat, which yielded purple shadows along the terminator. Even at over 100x, the Short Tube produced black crater and mountain shadows.

If the small scope had faults where Lunar observing was concerned, they were mainly that the disk away from the terminator was not as sharp and detailed, I thought, as what a similar aperture long focal length reflector might deliver. Also, like I found on Jupiter and Saturn, push much past 150x and the image got mushy and a little ugly, even with good eyepieces. No, I wouldn’t be gawking at Plato’s floor at 400x, but it was clear the Short Tube was more than usable for casual Moon touring.

Before I knew it, it was 2 a.m. and I was feeling a mite weary. As a last treat, I turned to M45. How wonderful to find all the Pleiads perfectly framed in one field and shining like hard and perfect sapphires. A look at an open cluster also helped me assess some of the 80’s other optical characteristics. Edge sharpness was more than adequate, especially considering the f/5 speed of the scope. Contrast also seemed good, though, of course, I didn’t even suspect the Merope nebulosity from the Garden District’s sodium pink skies.

I won’t lie to ya’ll: I wound up staring at the Seven Sisters for at least another half hour before calling it a night. And calling it a night with this grab ‘n go sure was sweet. That consisted of collapsing the EQ-1’s extendable tripod legs, putting the aperture cap in place, and carrying the whole shebang in through the back door in one go. Time between last peek at M45 and first sip of Rebel Yell? Maybe 2-minutes.

The Short Tube 80 wasn’t just a Grab ‘n Go scope, though; it was a Richest Field Telescope, too. I was all antsy to see what it could do from my good buddy Pat’s dark (a decade ago) back 40. First moonless night I could, I grabbed the 80, threw it in the backseat and hauled butt across the bay to see what it the scope would do on the brightest and the best DSOs.

M22: This fantastic, large globular star cluster was getting awful low, so this was me and Pat’s first stop. The cluster looked nice at our finding power of 25x, but, while that provided a beautiful wide-field vista, there wasn’t much in the way of resolution, with the glob being nothing more than a blob. However, boosting the 80 to a bit over 100x with a 7-mm Orthoscopic and a 2x Shorty Barlow provided definite resolution in the form of plenty of teeny-weeny stars around the edges.

M13: The Great Glob is the prize for late summer observers, right? The big guy was still nice and high at this fairly early hour. How was it? So-so. M13 was bright and easily visible in the 80 f/5 and even in her small finder scope, but it was was just a bright blob no matter how much power we poured on or how we squinted. It was attractive in its own way, but its tighter nature (M13 is of Shapley - Sawyer Class V) as compared to M22 prevented the 80mm from showing even a hint of resolution under Pat’s skies. And from the other skies I later tried the scope from. Oh, under the good—not great—skies of the Peach State Star Gaze I was able to maybe pick out a star or two in M13 at 150x, but that was dicey.

M11: The Wild Duck (galactic) Cluster was simply outstanding. I looked at it for a very long time, my little bird of a telescope seeming to flap along with those distant fowl, Woodstock flying with the eagles. What made M11 so nice in this scope was that the ST80’s wide field nature showed off both sides of the cluster’s nature. At low power with a 26-mm Plössl, it took on that famous triangular “flight pattern” shape. At higher magnifications it assumed the appearance of a loose globular, with the reddish star at the heart of the cluster very prominent.

M27: What a treat the Dumbbell Nebula was. The apple core shape was blatantly obvious at 15x, and a terrific view was provided by a Barlowed 15-mm Plössl. An OIII filter worked very nicely with this combo as well. Have you heard folks opine that an OIII “won’t work with a small scope”? They don’t know pea-turkey.

M31: Was climbing now, so away we went. Not bad, not bad at all. The less than black skies at Pat’s, e’en a decade ago, prevented the Andromeda Nebula from showing anything close to its full extent, but there was a lot of galaxy visible at 15x. Companion M32 was extremely prominent. I even convinced myself I could see dimmer satellite galaxy M110 at this magnification.

Double Cluster: Stupendous! Looked best in a 15-mm Plössl. I thought a long focal length eyepiece for once actually provided too much space around the pair.

M57: Looked much more like a smoke ring than it had in the city, OIII or no OIII. It was as easy to pick out the donut hole, I thought, as it normally was in my Palomar Junior 4.25-inch.

M15 in Pegasus is a tightly-wound glob with a strange, bright core. And it looked good in the 80. Not surprisingly, no hint of resolution, though.

Naturally, these nice wide field views whetted my appetite for RFT glory in Short Tube style. Henceforth, I began taking the ST along anytime I headed to a dark site star party. It would not be an exaggeration to say that if I hadn’t done this I would have missed some of the best views of my life.

The first was at our “home” star party, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, a few years ago, when its southern Mississippi site was still relatively dark (we've since moved to a better location). One of my most wanted objects had always been the North America Nebula, NGC 7000. I’d convinced myself I’d seen it a time or two over the years through binoculars and my SCTs at very low power. With binocs, however, it was hard to distinguish this great nebular complex from the gauze of the Cygnus Milky Way. In my (unfiltered, back then) scopes, I sometimes thought I picked up the brightest area of the nebula, the Gulf of Mexico region, but I was not at all sure, suspecting I was using as much averted imagination as averted vision.

I didn’t expect too much, then, when I turned the 80 toward Deneb. My fellow observers thought I’d gone nuts from the way I was suddenly hopping up and down and yelling, but there was a reason for that. At 16x in the ST80, the NAN wasn’t just visible or “suspected,” it was obvious, with the North America shape being clear. Bumping up the power and adding an OIII filter made it near spectacular. Later, I found that NGC 7000 wasn’t much of a challenge with the scope even from not-perfect skies, since I was able to see it almost as well from some only semi-dark paper company land back home.

My other “most memorable” observation came at a Peach State Star Gaze back in the days when that excellent star party was still held at the Indian Springs State Park in central Georgia. Being just outside the metro Atlanta light dome didn’t stop the 80 from doing a real job on M31. With the power just high enough to frame Andromeda perfectly, the monster galaxy for once really looked like a galaxy. One dark lane was starkly visible and the other wasn’t hard. M32 burned away, and M110 wasn’t just seen, it took on form and substance, with fleeting details shimmering near the nucleus. I even thought I glimpsed the great star cloud NGC 206, which lurks in M31’s southwest arm. If so, that’s quite a catch for an 80-mm, as it generally takes about 4-inches to see that. What helped? I had the 80 piggybacked on my Ultima C8, and the uber-stable platform and excellent drive helped the ST80 see a few things it normally couldn't. As above, though, still not many/any stars in M13.

Whatever became of my Short Tube 80? Nuttin honey. Unlike some of y’all, Unk rarely sells/trades gear on the Astromart. Heck, the last major doohickey I sold there was a Starlight Xpress MX516, so that oughta tell you something. Yeah, I’m a gear pack-rat and sometimes that is a Good Thing. I will admit the ST80 was eclipsed by a far more capable 80, a William Optics Megrez 2 fluorite, but the ST80 kept a place in my heart.

The Short Tube does have its strengths, and that is why it still comes out of its case regularly. Most of all, the 80 is useful for more than just quick looks. I’ve used it regularly as a guide scope with my Atlas mount. My William Optics 66 had been doing well in that role, but I got to wondering if the good, old Short Tube might not pull in a few more guide stars. Sure enough, she did. Lately, I’ve been using the 80 every single day. I’ve got interested in monitoring the Sun (not that there is much to see, lately), and have a nice Thousand Oaks filter I bought for the 80 one afternoon at a star party when I was bored.

It’s not just that I keep findin’ things to do with my Short Tube 80 that keeps him at my side; it’s also that the little scope, who I long ago dubbed "Woodstock," became an old friend. After almost a decade of thick and thin observing it’s hard to imagine not having the ST80 along at dark sites, be that the Tanner Williams club field or the Texas Star Party.

Yeah, there is More Better Gooder around today, muchachos. You can get a 66-mm ED from WO or Astronomics that costs less than 350 bucks and will show almost as much (likely more, frankly) than the ST80. On the other hand, you can get a Short Tube 80 for about a hundred dollars less than that, and that will include a GEM little mount, a finder, even a couple of decent eyepieces. And, like Unk, if you are prone to practicing spur of the moment “guerilla astronomy” from "unusual" locations on occasion, you may find the inexpensive and rugged ST80 more suited to that than a lovely ED/APO. However you observe, you may, like me, also come to love the little telescope. It’s a timeless classic, humble and lovable, and I think every working amateur still needs one.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

 

Home Dome: Stars on the Ceiling

Naw, I ain’t talking about observatory domes. I do hope to fulfill my dream in the next few years and have a dome of my own in the backyard, but that is not what is on my mind (such as it is) this morning. I’m thinking about “dome” as in “planetarium dome.” Well, not really a dome, more like the ceiling of Li’l Rod’s boyhood room. Yep, stars on the ceiling.

Just because I promised I’d leave the Pal Junior alone for a while, don’t mean I’ve given up on astro-nostalgia. As I said last time, I think about the good old days of the 60s – 70s frequently of late, as I suppose is natural for someone of my increasingly advanced years to do. OK, OK, alright already! The subject for the day is a forgotten facet of the amateur astronomy (for kids anyhow) of the 1960s, home (toy) planetariums. You know, the Spitz Junior, the Nova, the Sky Zoo, and other alluringly named gadgets that are still fondly remembered by more than a few middle-aged amateur astronomers.

The story of these fascinating gizmos is mostly the story of one man’s, Armand Spitz’s, passion for astronomy, and is an interesting one. If you want a well-written and detailed account, I commend to you Conrad Goeringer’s article, “Stars on My Ceiling” in the July 1992 issue of Sky and Telescope. Course, I do know a few of y’all weren’t even around in 1992, and if’n you were, unlike Unk, not ever’body maintains untidy and dusty stacks of countless old astronomy rags. So here’s the story in a nutshell: Armand Spitz, Director of Education for Philadelphia’s Fels planetarium wasn’t just passionate about astronomy; as you might expect for somebody with a job title like his, he was also passionate about astronomy education. One thing bothered Mr. Spitz, and became ever more a concern as the Space Age dawned in the late 40s and early 50s: most kids hadn’t a prayer of visiting a planetarium. With a Zeiss projector costing hundreds of thousands even way back when, that was no wonder. Outside the big cites few kids (or adults) were able to experience the wonders of the indoor sky.

Spitz set out to change that, and, in 1945, formed his own company, Spitz Labs, to do so. By 1947 he was demonstrating a projector, the “Model A,” he’d cobbled together that, while far less fancy than one of those monstrous and beautiful Zeiss dumbbells, worked well. No, it didn’t have a spaceship bridge control console or razor sharp projection lenses—it didn’t have any lenses at all as a matter of fact, using simple pinhole projection for its stars. It didn’t even have a real star ball; instead of expensive globes, Spitz used a single weird-looking but easier to produce dodecahedron assemblage of flat pentagon-shaped panels (a shape suggested by Albert Einstein, which shows you the sort of company Armand kept) for the projector’s single “ball.”

Your high school gym wouldn’t suddenly become the Griffith planetarium with the purchase of a Spitz, no, but the thing was functional and had a big advantage in that almost any school or museum could have a Model A. Many soon did. Armand’s company continued on to greater and greater glory even after he sold out in the 60s and retired. Today, Spitz is still around and going strong, boasting that it is a world leader in planetarium technology. It’s now more focused on things like video projection systems than traditional projectors, true, but it’s nice to see the name and business live on.

The history of Spitz’s company is really incidental to our subject, though. What is important for us is the chance meeting between Armand Spitz and the chief of a company called “Harmonic Reed.” Harmonic Reed, as you might not be surprised to learn, was vested in producing toy musical instruments and, especially, harmonicas. When its chief executive happened to sit in on one of Spitz’s demonstrations of his Model A, however, history was made. This dude, Thomas Leveridge, had an idea that turned out to be a brilliant one. Spitz's projector was basically a very simple device. Why couldn’t a toy be produced on the same general principles, but even simpler and cheaper?

The eyes of the nation’s kids were ever so slowly beginning to turn to the skies as NACA and the infant space program ginned up, and everybody was downright captivated by the spacemen and space monsters that danced across 50s movie screens and newfangled TV sets. It seemed to Mr. Leveridge that a toy planetarium projector would be a natural for a company that wanted to branch out from harmonicas and toy organs, something that wasn't exactly a growth industry any more.

Armand Spitz apparently thought this was a capital idea, and agreed to join forces with the harmonica bunch to produce a toy planetarium. There was one immediate stumbling block, though. Leveride thought, probably correctly, that a round star ball would be more attractive and appealing to kids and parents than the strange soccer-ball like assemblage of flat pentagons that was the Model A. Unfortunately, that was easier to say than do. Creating a molding machine that would form a perfect hemisphere while punching hundreds of star-holes into it turned out to be a daunting task.

Nevertheless, Harmonic’s machinist, Hans Lingenfield, persisted. Despite his persistence, however, by the time the annual New York Toy Fair, an insanely significant event for toy-makers, arrived he’d been able to fabricate a grand total of two Spitz “Juniors,” the initial name for the little projector. These two examples caused, if not a stir, at least some interest at the shindig, and when Hans cracked the star ball code shortly after, Junior went into production, where it continued for the better part of two decades to the tune of over one million projectors.

The finished product was both beautiful and functional (and today looks breathlessly retro-attractive). Yes, Tom was right about the star ball. The 7-inch glossy black (later blue) hemispheres were joined by a rubber gasket, giving Junior a futuristic Saturn/flying saucer look. The initial projector, which was powered by AC current, was equipped with a rheostat to simulate the coming of dusk and dawn, a little lighted arrow pointer for the “lecturer” to use while showing off wonders, and, possibly best of all, a 30+ page richly illustrated booklet written by Armand Spitz himself. How much for all these Good Things? Aye, there’s the rub. When Junior debuted in 1954, the price was $14.95. Depending on how you do the math, that’s roughly equivalent to $115.00 today, downright extravagant back then, escially for those of us in the lower middle class. Despite this hurdle, the Spitz Junior sold well enough that the company began to add other astronomy related products.

One of these was the Moonscope, a Gilbert reflector lookalike (prettier, though), but that is a story for another Sunday morning. Planetarium-wise, not long after the Spitz Junior hit the streets, Armand Spitz and Harmonic Reed came up with a follow-on projector, the legendary “Sky Zoo.” Rather than a star ball, the Zoo featured a sky globe emblazoned with constellation pictures. These were of the proper size to be projected over the Spitz Junior’s constellations when the Sky Zoo was set up next it.

Couldn't afford both? As an alternative to a complete Sky Zoo projector, Spitz offered just the constellation picture globe, which could be mounted on Junior in place of the star ball. Naturally, Harmonic strongly suggested parents buy the complete Sky Zoo instead. Alas, the Zoo was a humongous bust, selling no more than a couple of thousand units at best (which is why they are such collectors' items today) and was quickly discontinued. That didn’t mean you couldn’t enjoy the funky little pictures of Cassiopeia, Sagittarius and the rest, though. Following the cancellation of the Zoo, Harmonic added a little-bitty constellation picture projector and slides to the Spitz Junior. This small plastic unit fitted over the illuminated pointer in place of the arrow.

Amazingly enough, given the somewhat outré nature of the toys as compared to Slinkies or even chemistry sets, the failure of the Sky Zoo didn’t stop Harmonic and Spitz from introducing new planetarium products. One very impressive addition was an upgraded Spitz Junior aimed at schools. This advanced model featured a standard Junior to which had been added a motorized drive for the star ball and a dome illuminator. For that dome illuminator to be of any use, you naturally had to have a dome, and Spitz provided one, a 10-foot aluminum and canvas rig. At 150 smackers, the complete outfit was definitely aimed at educators; not us rugrats.

Spitz/Harmonic Reed did produce one more popularly priced variation on the Junior as the 1960s came in, the The Spitz Junior Portable. This was a somewhat simplified projector powered by D batteries rather than AC, which lacked both the rheostat (there was a “bright/dim” switch) and the constellation picture projector. It did come with a somewhat functional AA powered arrow pointer. The advantage? No AC meant it could be used anywhere, mom and pop didn’t have to worry about Bud and Sis electrocuting themselves, and it could sell for considerably less.

And that’s the way it was until the late 60s, when the changes began to come thick and fast. The stories of Spitz Laboratories and Harmonic Reed are intertwined and a little confusing, but what happened more or less is as that Armand Spitz retired in 1969, selling his company to McGraw Hill. After the Main Man’s departure, Harmonic Reed chose to spin-off the “science” part of their company. But that was not the end of their planetarium projectors. Hardly.

Not only did they continue selling the toy, which was now being called the “Nova Home Planetarium,” they came out with some much fancier projectors for sale to secondary schools, culminating in the famous Nova III, which sold for far less than anything Zeiss (or even upstart Japanese Goto) offered and did almost as much. Our little friend the Junior—err, “Nova Home Planetarium”? He struggled on until the early 70s and faded away. Why? The tenor of the times, I reckon. Following the end of Apollo and the Vietnam Hangover, most Americans, kids and adults, had had enough of space for a while. An “expensive” pinhole star projector? No way, dude. Hip 70s youth preferred pet rocks and mood rings.

My experience with the Spitz Junior goes back to the early 1960s. Oh, I may have noticed it in the Sears Wishbook (Christmas catalog) or similar a time or two in the late 50s, but it hadn’t made much of an impression. The first time I laid eyes on one and it made sense to me what the danged thing was good for was one sunny afternoon at Gayfer’s. Back in the 60s and into the 70s, almost every city of any size had a home-grown department store.

Those have long since been gobbled by the big chains, but back then our premier store, occupying a substantial portion of a block of downtown real estate, was the locally owned Gayfer’s. Mama liked to do her clothes shopping in this borderline hoidy-toidy outfit on those occasions when she could afford to—it was a little upscale for the likes of us. When she was able to visit the Big Store, she tended to park me in the toy department (perfectly safe in them days). Gayfer's collection of toys was small, e’en ‘round Christmas time, but, like the rest of the store, it was quite an upgrade compared to Woolworth’s and Kress. Well I remember staring longingly at a beautiful and gleaming Schwinn Jaguar bicycle and almost convincing myself I could have one for Christmas (I was lucky to get a Sears bike that year).

At some point, Gayfer’s had begun to display a few “science toys” in a corner. There wasn’t a Gilbert reflector, alas, but there were some mighty fancy chemistry sets. And the Spitz Junior. I suppose what initially attracted my attention was the insanely gaudy box, but the projector itself was fascinating too. Scanning Armand’s little book, which was laid out beside Junior, I finally had an epiphany: This thing would project the stars on the walls and ceiling of your room. Somehow that just seemed cool. Not only would it be outasight, I thought, to turn the Spitz on and “fly” my toy Mercury capsules around in deep space, maybe I could actually learn the names of stars and constellations with the aid of the funny looking contraption.

This was a while before the events of Stephanie’s Telescope, and I had yet to set my sights on a scope of my own, but knowing the stars and constellations seemed a worthy pursuit. Only problem? The price tag. Junior had begun at $14.95, but the price had begun to creep up before long, goin’ to $19.95 by the end of the 50s (albeit with constellation, satellite, Saturn, and Solar eclipse slides included) and topping out at 30 dollars at the end of the 60s. I don’t know what the fare was that afternoon in Gayfer’s, but it was enough to eliminate it as a birthday gift, and make it very dicey even for Christmas. Not that I didn’t put it on my list, but Sears was apparently not selling the Spitz Junior at the time, and if it didn’t come from Sears (where you could put stuff on lay-a-way, a time payment plan) Mama, Daddy, and Santa said Forget About It.

There things might have remained but for the kindness of one of my teachers. Or, actually, not one of my teachers. Miss Atkins taught at Kate Shepard Elementary, but I was not in her class, which was both fortunate and unfortunate. The teacher I had that year, Miss Stinson, was far younger and, I thought, considerably more glamourous. Unfortunately she was also a more down to earth sort than Miss Atkins.

Miss A., I understood, was, almost unbelievably, like me, obsessed by the Great Out There, and routinely treated her students to extensive space and astronomy “units.” Miss Stinson, on the other hand, was more obsessed by The New Math. I admittedly found things like “sets” purty darned fascinating, but not as fascinating as outer space, for gosh sakes. Anyhoo, one day Mama arrived home from one of her Church Circle meetings bearing a sizable box, “Miss Atkins thought you might like to borrow this for a while. She bought it for her son, but he’s off to college now.” Oh. My. God. The box festooned with its near psychedelic vistas of starry-eyed boys and girls could only contain one thing, a Spitz Junior!

Off to my room I went. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but hoped for good things. I was not disappointed. Even with the room fairly bright despite me snatching my blanket off the bed and tucking it over the windows, a flick of the switch and the stars showed up purty as could be. That was just the beginning. While I now had the Tasco 3-inch, and was beginning to be able to pick out star-patterns with some alacrity, there is no doubt the little toy helped me round-out my constellation knowledge. But that warn’t the real fun.

The real fun was writing and producing planetarium shows for the folks and my buddies. I had never been to a real planetarium, mind you, but I’d seen the Griffith scene in Rebel Without a Cause and thought I had an idea what one should be like (I did finally get to a real dome a few years later, Miami’s Space Transit Planetarium, which sported, yes, a Spitz Laboratories projector). When I was closing out the folks’ house after Mama’s passing, I hoped against hope to turn up some of my laboriously typed “scripts.” No dice, but I remember them well enough; especially what I considered my greatest triumph, The Coming of the Stars of Winter: “Behold, boys and girls, the majesty of the great hunter Orion rising in the east.” I don’t know if family and friends actually enjoyed my shows, but at least they pretended to.

It was a sad time, you betcha, when Miss Atkins finally (months later) asked for the return of Junior. I wasn’t crushed, though. I now had that other Junior, the Palomar Junior, to focus on, and contented myself with the thought that the little Spitz had served its purpose. It had helped me finish learning the sky and I had sure had a lot of fun with my shows. Oh, I did try to recreate the Spitz myself using plans for a “tin can planetarium projector” I found in Patrick Moore and Percy Wilkin’s How to Make and Use a Telescope. Cain’t say how well that might have worked (Armand Spitz made one for his daughter, I understand), since Li’l Rod, lazy then as now, gave up shortly after punching/drilling the holes for Ursa minor in the end of a coffee can. As for Spitz and company, I can’t say I thought much about ‘em over the next 30 or so years, except maybe to note that the little projectors had suddenly disappeared from Edmund’s catalogs and the toy store shelves. It was not until I had a space crazy kid of my own that I began to think of stars on the ceilin’ again.

I don’t know if she’ll ever be a real amateur astronomer (whatever the hell that is), but my daughter Lizbeth has enjoyed observing with me over the years, and went through a phase when she was about ten when, just like her old man at that age, she was fascinated by the constellations and the myths that go with them: “Daddy, my favorite constellation this week is Lyra. Do you know what a Lyre is?”

One afternoon, as Lizbeth and I were wont to do, we were inventorying the shelves of Toys ‘r Us, probably looking for one of the Polly Pockets sets which Lizbeth still enjoyed, when she emitted a very definite “DADDY, I WANT THAT!” “That” turned out to be the Space Theatre Planetarium. It was about 25 bucks, but I decided “What the hell?” Lizbeth rarely asked for expensive toys; 25 bucks was a lot less than the Spitz had been that day in Gayfer’s; and, well, just because I could. I gotta say the sight of that box showing kids and parents in ecstasy over stars on the ceiling sent a wash of memories over me not to be denied.

Lizbeth was at least as thrilled with her planetarium as I’d been with the Spitz. Me? I couldn’t help making comparisons. The Johnny-Come-Lately’s biggest shortcoming as far as I was concerned was its lack of a star ball. Instead, it used barely convex top-mounted slides to project stars that, unlike Junior’s, were displayed mostly on the ceiling. The projection admittedly looked pretty good, but not as realistic as the Spitz’s room-filling sky. As simple as the Spitz Junior was, it projected brighter stars, too. The surface of the ball was larger than that of Lizbeth’s slides, allowing the Junior’s pinholes to be somewhat bigger, letting more light through. The Space Theatre did have one significant advantage in that its slides could be changed for others—which showed, for example, only the stars of summer, etc. Not a bad little toy, but I was surprised it wasn’t better than my old friend 40 years down the road.

I slowly became aware that, far from being dead, the home planetarium, at least as a toy, seemed to be making a comeback. I began to keep my eye out for new projectors on the shelves at Toys ‘r Us and the (late, lamented) Discovery Channel Store and Ebay, even picking up a few whose price wasn’t too outrageous. One thing I noticed immediately was that while there were quite a few star projectors on sale, very few were true planetarium projectors. Most were more in the nature of celestial globes with illuminators at their centers allowing them to project black stars on a white sky. Not realistic, no, but not necessarily all bad. These projectors tend to be quite useable in less than perfectly dark rooms, and their surfaces are often emblazoned with extras like constellation labels, the ecliptic, the Celestial equator, and even a few clusters and nebulae. My example, the Star Theatre, even sports glow-in-the-dark stars and a built in compass on its base, and is quite useable as a (small) celestial globe.

I wasn’t satisfied, though. I wanted a home planetarium. For a couple of years it appeared I’d best forget that. Then the Japanese planetarium craze began. I don’t know what prompted the Japanese consumer to become interested in home planetariums, maybe the fact that from places like Tokyo it’s impossible to see all but the brightest stars and the Milky Way is forever invisible. Anyhoo, Japanese companies, and particularly Sega, began producing home projectors that are anything but toys.

Sega's Homestar series almost takes the home planetarium into the 21st century, and some models definitely take it beyond the toy category. Models? Yep. These things are so popular in the East that the company has produced at last count five distinctly different projectors, including one that floats in your bathtub and produces a starry sky to soothe you during your ablutions (!). The Sega planetariums top out with the Homestar EX(tra), which is designed for use in schools or, Sega says (don’t ask me why), in nightclubs. The EX goes for 800 dollars U.S., a rather daunting price, yeah, but the less expensive Homestar and Homestar Pro are now available to U.S. consumers for reasonable amounts thanks to that undying force in the toy bidness, Uncle Milton (the antfarm folks), with the base model projector costing just above 100 bucks.

Are these units better than the old Spitz? In some ways, yes. The Pro, for example, uses a superbright LED for projection, makin’ it much brighter than a Junior running with the rheostat pegged. They also offer niceties such as motorized sky rotation, shooting star projection, and interchangeable star slides that enable the user to see the sky with or without constellation stick figures. That’s nice, but the slides are also the weakness of these units. Like Lizbeth’s humble Space Theatre, the use of slides means the virtual sky is only on the ceiling. If you can live with that, though, you might be right happy with a Sega. It is light-years ahead of the Spitz in many ways. The stars are focused with a lens, making them oh-so-much sharper than pinhole stars, and the number of stars projected makes the Junior’s “almost 400” laughable. Including the Milky Way (yes!) the base Homestar projects 10,000 stars; the EX (not yet for sale in the U.S.) kicks that up several notches to 140,000 .

Would I spend a C-note plus on one of the Homestars? I’ve thought about it, but it seems I’ve satisfied my home dome lust in a way that probably makes me happier than even the EX would. I was browsing the eBay one afternoon as I sometimes do, and ran across a mint Portable Junior for a surprisingly reasonable cost—less than 50 bucks. When I first began to see Spitz Juniors on the ‘Bay, they was outrageously priced, but luckily for us planetarium fans, vendors soon realized toy collectors weren’t overly interested in these obscure things and prices dropped sharply.

When my unit arrived, I found that, for once, the eBay ad had been accurate. Save for a little corrosion on the battery terminals, it was near mint and beautiful. I wasted no time getting it into a dark room, just like on that long ago 1965 afternoon. A flip of the switch, and…it might be too much to say I was in ecstasy, but I was impressed all over again. Maybe it’s that I live where the sky is terrifically light-polluted and blocked by too many trees, but, if anything, the ceiling sky was even more magical-seeming than it was Back in The Day. You’ll prob’ly be relieved to know I’ve been able to exercise some restraint and have not made Miss Dorothy sit through (too many) of my still corny planetarium shows. Lizbeth and I, however, have amused ourselves many a time with productions that include a recreation of The Coming of the Stars of Winter.

How shall I continue to satisfy lust for the Indoor Sky? I hope the Homestar EX will soon arrive on our shores at a more manageable price. And I’ll continue to hope somebody, someday will market an affordable widget that will project Stellarium and my other computer planetariums on the ceiling. But till one of those things happens, I’ll just continue my quest for a cheap and good (non portable) Spitz Junior; one with that prized Sky Zoo attachment. Whatever comes down the pike, rest assured that on any given cloudy Possum Swamp evenin’ you are likely to find your Old Uncle relaxing and reminiscing under stars on the ceiling.

If you’re as obsessed by these old toys (and home planetariums in general) as Unk, why not jine-up with my Spitz Junior Yahoogroup? Despite the name, discussions of all home planetariums old and new are more than welcome. Another excellent resource for stars on the ceiling fans is the HPA, the Home Planetarium Association. Want to ogle an amazing collection of pro projectors? Stroll through the Planetarium Projector Museum. Check 'em out, muchachos.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

 

How Much is that Kitty in the Window?

“Used scopes” seems to be on lots of folk's minds of late. No doubt because of a recession that makes even those of us lucky enough to still be gainfully employed skittish when it comes to spending lotsa bucks for a new SCT. If we can save moola by buying a CAT only used once a year by a little old lady from Pasadena, we will save that moola.

There’s no doubt there’s a slew of used SCTs available; unfortunately all too many amateurs find themselves in financial straits ranging from “concerning” to “dire” and decide they must sell a beloved scope. Shame, but when it comes down to feeding the kids and paying the mortgage, there is really no decision.

What follows is my advice on the used gear game, adapted and expanded from the short checklist at the end of my (free) Used CAT Buyer’s Guide. Like the checklist in the Guide, this is aimed at catadioptric buyers, but most of it is general enough in nature to be a help to prospective purchasers of used scopes of any design.

Before we get started, let me address a concern I’ve heard expressed more than once of late, the morality of buying used right now. Isn’t it wrong to take advantage of someone’s misfortune by buying their telescope for a song? As above, it’s a shame when someone has to part with their gear to make ends meet. And certainly I would hope these folks will get a fair price for their stuff. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with buying used telescopes in economic hard times. If your purchase of that LX200 means the person in question has another month’s grace with their mortgage, I’d say both y’all benefit. As for fair price? I don’t see many out and out steals. Prices are down, but telescopes ain’t being given away. Anyhoo, it’s up to the seller to set a price she/he thinks is fair or to accept an offer made by a buyer—or not.

The first question, of course, is where do you buy used? The best answer is always “locally” and especially “from a fellow club member.” By purchasing locally, you will get to examine the telescope in person, which is almost always a Good Thing. Most people are not gonna set out to cheat you, but it ain’t unheard of in this ol’ boy’s experience for somebody’s idea of “near mint” to be closer to his idea of “fair.” Even better than buying locally is buying locally from a fellow amateur.

The scope being sold by a deceased amateur’s relative or by the person who thought they wanted a telescope but really didn’t may be fine, but don’t expect these people to be able to tell you much about it. They may remember when that Super C8 was bought, but forget things like, “Does this NexStar have the user-upgradable motor control board?” Best is a fellow club member. Not only should this person be able to tell you anything about the scope in question, you may have used it yourself on more than one occasion at club star parties and be very familiar with its pluses and minuses. Also, a fellow club member knows they will be seeing you every month at meetings and star parties, so it’s unlikely they will intentionally rook you.

One other big plus for buying locally is the telescope will not have to be shipped. That means you won't have to pay today's astronomical shipping prices or worry that the seller has packed the scope sufficiently to survive the tender mercies of the Brown Truck Guys.

What if your city doesn't have a club, you don’t know any fellow amateurs in town, or none of them or anybody else has the C8 of your dreams for sale? The alternative is the online astronomy classifieds. Astro-classfieds have been a popular feature of the amateur astronomy landscape for at least three decades, starting with a little paper called The Starry Messenger. This monthly pulp magazine was nothing but amateur astronomy want-ads. Oh, how we loved The Messenger back in the 80s! Oh, how we waited for it every month so we could jump on them hot deals. Problem was, seemed like everybody in the dadgummed U.S. of A. got their copy before us here in Possum Swamp. Every time I responded to an ad for a “mint Cave 12-inch, $750.00” the response was the same: “Sorry, sold yesterday.”

The Internet astronomy explosion changed all that. By the mid-90s there were online astro-fieds that I could see as soon as somebody on the left coast could. The death knell for The Starry Messenger was sounded by Astromart, which cracked the code for what amateur astronomy online buying and selling should be.

Today, Astromart is not alone; there are, for example, classifieds on Cloudy Nights and Astronomy Mall (a site that is a real old timer in online amateur astronomy; happy to see it still survives). Still, when most folks think of used astronomy gear, they think of Herb York’s Astromart. There are a number of reasons for that. The website URL is easy to remember, “Astromart.com;” it’s simple to get to the ads; and, most of all, Astromart is safe, or as safe as any service of this kind can be. Can you get cheated on The Mart? You can, but it is far less likely than it could be thanks to the tireless efforts of Herb, his colleagues, and more than a few volunteer monitors. This is not to say other astronomy ad services are not necessarily “safe;” just that I know how much (day to day) effort that goes into keeping Astromart a good place for buyers and sellers both.

How about eBay? There is good and bad. With Paypal you do gain some protection, and some of our amateur astronomy vendors sell there. B-U-T…in my opinion, when you come right down to it, eBay can be a crapshoot. Fraud aside, you will likely be dealing with someone who knows absolutely nothing about astronomy and telescopes—witness all the images of 4.5-inch Newtonians with their mirror cells pointed at the sky. I’ve bought more than a few small astronomy-related items on the ‘Bay, and I have never been cheated. Not completely. I’ve always received my item, anyway. It ain’t always been in exactly the condition indicated by the ad, though. A time or two it’s not even been the exact item I’ve bid on.

Further eBay advice? Save yourself some money. Decide in advance what you want to pay for the telescope in question. Place a bid for that amount and do not place a new bid no matter what happens. If you lose the item, you lose it. I guarantee, there will be another one soon, and you will eventually get what you want. Get caught up in the bidding race and you will wind up paying way too much, defeating the purpose of buying used.

Before you even dream of shopping for a new CAT anywhere, the first thing to do is educate yourself. What kind of drive did the Meade 2080 LX3 have? Which finder shipped with the LX6? Did a hand control come standard with the Celestron Powerstar IV? Identify the models you think you might potentially be interested in and learn everything you can about ‘em. That’s easy in the Internet era. One place to start is my aforementioned Used Guide. Another is the Telescope Bluebook web site. I refer to it frequently and it has saved my bacon more than once. Yahoogroups are another good source of info. Almost every popular old scope has had a Yahoogroup established for it, and even if a given group is not very active, the archives will likely be mucho informative. Finding out all you can about a scope is doubly important if the person you are buying from—the Widder Jones down the street or some Goober on eBay—doesn't know much about SCTs.

Whether you’re bidding on the ‘Bay or buying from Elmer down to the club, what do you look for and out for in a used CAT? Naturally, you will not be able to check these things if you are buying off Astromart, but you will be able to use the following to at least formulate a set of questions for the seller.

Indoor/Daytime Checks

Overall Condition

First off, a general assessment. Is Miss Telescope in reasonable physical condition? Is the paint on the OTA and mount more-or-less intact? Is any rust minimal? When you loosen the locks on dec/RA does the mount move smoothly? Physical condition will, of course, be related to the age of the scope. You can’t (always) expect an Orange Tube C8 to look as good as a two year old ETX 125. If you’re buying a Meade with one of their chrome-plated tripods, expect some rust on the legs. The only way that (initially) pretty tripod will be free of orange spots is if it was rarely outside. And that’s the thing. A scope that has been used frequently and shows some normal wear may be a better prospect than the poor Super C8 Plus that was bought for Halley, used once or twice, and has been in a closet ever since. The scope that got outside likely has a knowledgeable owner who has kept the scope in good shape where it counts. I’d much rather have a Super C8 with a few paint nicks but a good optics set than I would one with spots of fungus on the primary from being stored in a damp utility room for years.

Mechanics

Unless the maybe-scope-of-your-dreams is a recent Celestron, it will have slow motion controls on both axes. Exercise these to ensure they operate smoothly. Remember, in the case of fork mount telescopes, you will have to have the declination lock at least partially engaged and the RA lock as least partially disengaged before you can move the mount with the slowmos. Never turn a powered-up LX200's slow motion controls; that can cause damage. A non-go-to GEM will often have manual clutches that will need to be engaged before using the slow motions (I’m not talking about the main RA and declination locks; those should be locked).

Carefully and thoroughly check the OTA/mount’s other mechanical functions. Does the focus knob turn easily and smoothly (if this is a Meade LX200 GPS or other recent Meade scope, make sure the mirror lock is disengaged before you start twiddlin’ the focus control)? Exercise any other mechanical fittings on the OTA and mount as well. If there is a wedge, does it have fine altitude and azimuth adjusters? Do they work right? If a wedge isn’t included with a non-go-to fork mount scope, by the way, insist on a hefty discount. The scope will not track without a wedge. Are the tripod fittings OK? All screws and bolts and nuts there and tight? Accessory tray present if there is supposed to be one? Leg extension locks operational and leg extensions un-dented (if they are, the locks were tightened down too tightly at some point, possibly compromising firm locking)?

Electronics

Whether the CAT in question is a computer heavy NexStar or LX200 or just an old warhorse with an AC synchro drive, power it up to make as sure as possible the drive functions as per normal. If this is a go-to scope, I urge you (or the owner) to do a “fake alignment” indoors. Run through the alignment process just as you would under the stars. Does the scope slew normally? No pauses or other hiccups (expect some scopes and mounts to be surprisingly noisy, especially the Meade go-to forks and LXD55/75 and the Celestron CG5 GEMs)? When doing the fake alignment, just accept the alignment stars the scope requests. When alignment is complete, do a fake go-to to an object which you know is above the horizon and for which you know the current location, roughly. If the telescope points in generally the correct part of the “sky,” it passes.

How about a non-go-to scope? Exercise whatever features and functions it has. You’ll have an idea of what these are if you took my advice and educated yourself about the model(s) you are considering before beginning to shop. If the scope offers faster-than-sidereal slewing speeds, for example, test them all. What if the telescope, an Orange Tube C8 for example, does not have any slewing speeds at all, only sidereal tracking? Make sure it tracks.

Keep in mind, of course, why they call it a “clock drive.” At sidereal rate, the scope will move very slowly; it will take 23-hours, 56-minutes, 4-seconds to revolve completely on its RA axis. So how do you know if the motor is workin’? Fasten the RA lock and power up. In half an hour, tube movement may be obvious. Better, some kind of marks on fork assembly and drivebase (maybe made with masking tape) will show-up movement sooner. Don’t use the RA circle as a reference; in most scopes it is driven to keep the current Right Ascension under the pointer as the telescope tracks. If you stick your ear up to the base, you may be able to hear the motor running, but don’t depend on that—nor on idiot lights. Make sure.

Optics

Aye, and there’s the rub: a used scope may have been meticulously cared for, but if it’s got punk optics, so what? What’s the most important thing a used CAT buyer can do to avoid buying a pig in a poke optics-wise? Refuse to buy any SCT made between about 1986 and 1990 without testing the optics thoroughly. We refer to these poor kitties as “Halleyscopes;” they were built during the huge Comet Halley Craze and its aftermath in the 1980s.

Celestron and Meade wore out their tools and workforces trying to ship as many telescopes as they could when Mom and Pop America was clamoring for SCTs to view the spectacular visitor (ahem). QA fell by the wayside and many (but not all) these scopes are optically sub-par. It took at least till the beginning of the 90s for the two companies to get their optical houses back in order. This is very important for the used consumer; by eliminating the Halleyscopes, you eliminate at least 90% of the optical dogs. Will viewing terrestrial objects tell you much about optical quality of a scope? Unless the CAT's optics (or collimation) are truly putrid, viewing terrestrial objects, especially given daytime "seeing" over the heated earth, ain't gonna be too informative. Looking at the Sun through a Solar filter? Maybe minimally more revealing.

As for the physical condition of a candidate’s optics, let us review what not to do first: the dadgummed flashlight test. What I mean is looking at the optics of the scope in a strong oblique light—sunlight, a flashlight shone down the aperture, whatever. Any telescope’s optics will look horrid if you do that. Even the smoothest and best coated mirrors and lenses will scatter some light across their surfaces and every tiny dust mote and imperfection will stand out in stark relief.

What should you do? View the optics in normal light. The coatings should be in good shape, no fungus or other suspicious spots on corrector or secondary or primary, and reasonably clean. What’s reasonably clean? The internal surfaces should be clear of everything but a small amount of dust. What if there’s more than a little dust on the corrector’s inside surface? Quite a few Meades from the 80s have an icky film on the corrector inside from some kind of outgassing, apparently.

If you’re confident around a CAT you shouldn’t turn down a scope because the inside of the corrector needs cleaning. You can do that job in 15 minutes. The surfaces of the mirrors? That’s another story. Sure, you can clean ‘em, but you always run the risk of damaging the coating when you clean a first surface mirror. The real show-stopper? What caused a primary or secondary to get so dirty? Usually only bad things like the scope being stored for long periods with the rear port open or the corrector plate being removed and left that way for a long time. I’d turn down a CAT with a grungy primary or secondary unless it was almost bein’ given away.

One last optical caveat is the secondary on the Meade LX3. For a little while, Meade offered “MCSOG” optics as an option on these 80s scopes. That stood for “Multi-coated SILVERED optics group.” The secondary mirrors on the telescopes so equipped are not aluminized but silvered. Alas, as I coulda told ‘em would happen, those silver-coated secondaries, while wonderfully reflective, deteriorated in a relatively short time. Meade was replacing the secondaries on these scopes for free under their Lifetime Warranty for quite a while. Now? And for someone not the original owner (though I doubt Meade knows pea-turkey about who the original owners of cotton pickin’ LX3s were this far down the road)? Don’t count on it. How do you get a good look at the secondary, by the way? If the reflection of it in the primary is not overly informative, just pop off the rear port cover and take a peek up the baffle tube.

A very few Celestron scopes in the early 80s were equipped with StarBright primaries that were silvered. These scopes are not common (Celestron soon changed the StarBright formula) and their silver seems to have held up better than that on the LX3 secondary. Bottom line? Any pitting on any scope mirror means “no way.”

Outdoor/night-time Checks

Unless the SCT in question belongs to a fellow amateur, it probably ain’t gonna be possible to give it a test run under the stars, but if that is possible, that is the best way of guaranteeing you get a scope to your liking…

Mount Operation

If we’re dealing with an old-fashion non-go-to scope, all you need to know is that it tracks accurately when decently polar aligned. If you’re new to this stuff, though, please remember that if the mount is not precisely polar aligned, which it likely won’t be, not unless you do a drift alignment, objects will drift in the field in a north/south direction. If the RA axis is at least pointed at Polaris, though, that should be slow enough to show the thing is tracking. Not sure? Center an object at high power and shut the drive off. NGC Umptysquat will dash out of the field quick enough to make your head swim.

If the mount offers faster than sidereal slewing speeds, try them. (Did you know many old Celestrons offer a higher “centering” speed? Hold down an east or west button on the hand control and mash its opposite number.) For motorized slow motions to work, both RA and declination locks must be locked, of course. What else? Check anything that couldn’t be vetted by daylight—polar scope and finder illuminators, for example.

If the scope under test is a go-to model, check it thoroughly in every part of the sky for acceptable accuracy. What’s “acceptable”? A modern scope like a CG5, an LX200 GPS, or a CPC should put anything you request in or very close to the field of a low power eyepiece at f/10. An older scope like an Ultima 2000? At least close on deep sky objects (see the Guide for some words about the Solar System and these old scopes).

What if the scope does not seem sufficiently accurate? What if it’s missing targets by large amounts? Don’t be too quick to condemn it. Was the go-to alignment done correctly and carefully? If the owner did it for you, did he seem to know what he was doing? If the scope hasn’t been used for a while, he/she may have missed a step; that’s why it pays to educate yourself about your candidate scopes and their operation. Sometimes the quality of a battery or AC power supply is the culprit. Or a failure to set backlash characteristics (Drive Training for Meades, use of up and right keys for final alignment star centering for Celestrons). Anyhoo, I’d be suspicious at least of a recent go-to that can’t be made to land on targets.

Optical Performance

Determining how optically good a telescope is is often difficult and sometimes nearly impossible. Yeah, you can try the consarned star test, but you will need good seeing for that and you will need to be able to interpret the results, something that’s not always easy if you are new to scopes in general or, especially, CATs. As I’ve often said, the best optical test for an SCT is probably the way a planet looks at high magnification under good seeing. The problem is that you need good seeing and a planet above the horizon (Jupiter, Mars, or Saturn). If the telescope’s images don’t look quite right given acceptably steady seeing conditions, check the SCT’s collimation. If it is “off,” request the owner either adjust it or allow you to do so. I wouldn’t buy a telescope that exhibited poor images even if I were 99.9% sure collimation was the problem.

Other than image quality, what to look for? Mainly focus shift. Due to the telescopes’ moving mirror focusing system, SCT images move a small amount in the field when the focus control is adjusted. A little shift should be expected. How much is “a little”? For a modern scope, maybe 45-arc seconds to 1-arc minute. About the width of Jupiter in other words. Some older scopes may have more, but sometimes that can be improved upon. If Miss CAT has not been used in a while, racking focus to both ends of its travel to redistribute grease on the baffle tube may help a lot. Sometimes the focus shift can be further improved by adding a little (and I do mean “a little”) grease to the baffle tube in a very thin coat if the scope is old and dry. Sometimes fiddling with the focus shaft after loosening the screws on the focuser assembly can help as well (I can send you the procedure if you are interested), but if redistributing the grease by moving the mirror to both ends of focus a few times didn’t help, expect to have to live with whatever amount of shift remains. Can you?

Other Stuff

That good ol’ SCT checks out fine, you reckon? There are a few miscellaneous considerations to ruminate upon before you whip out the checkbook. First is age. For some telescopes “newer” equals better. That is surprisingly not the case with the earliest CATs. I have a 1973 Orange Tube that works just as well as it ever did. The same is true with early Meade 2080s. They are simple telescopes with little to go wrong. If they’ve been stored indoors and/or cared for by somebody with a modicum of sense, there’s not much to deteriorate. Their “electronics” consist of an AC power cord and a synchro motor (“motors” in the case of early Celestrons). When you get to mid 80s scopes, though, scopes like Powerstars and LX5s, circuit boards enter the picture. Even if they are simple, the electronics are there and their failure will disable the clock drive. When you start talking older comput-o-scopes, the Compustar, the LX200, and the Ultima 2000, “used” is often spelled t-r-o-u-b-l-e.

Why? It’s not because these SCTs are inherently failure prone. Some folks will tell you early LX200s, for example, are better built than their GPS descendents. The problem is two-fold. First, their circuitry is more complex than that of later telescopes. As time went on, Meade (and Celestron) was able to accomplish the same tasks with greatly simplified circuitry. “Simpler” almost always equals “more reliable.” More importantly, just a few years after the end of production both companies typically stop supporting their old SCTs with parts and service. To their credit, Meade kept going with the LX200 for well over five years after the GPS came out. Alas, it appears support for the LX200 from Meade has finally dried up.

You might not be able to fix a malfunctioning go-to scope or someone else might be able to fix it for you, but that is not assured, especially if critical and custom parts like some IC chips are no longer available. These telescopes (Meades and Celestrons) will eventually have problems. That might not happen for a long time—quite a few early LX200s are still cooking—but it will happen. If the electronics survive the first 12-hours of powered up condition, yes, they will likely last a right long spell, but not forever, muchachos, not forever.

There’s one obsolete scope to always avoid, and it ain’t got no electronics: The Criterion Dynamax. These SCTs, made in apertures of 4, 6, and 8-inches initially, competed with the Celestron Orange Tube in the 1970s, and, when the company was sold to Bausch and Lomb, were an alternative to Meade and Celestron SCTs through the mid-80s. What do most of the Criterions and B&Ls have in common? Very poor optics. You can read the whole sordid story in the Used Guide, but, suffice to say, if you are confronted by any of these scopes (other than the fairly nice B&L 8001 Pro), RUN LIKE THE WIND!

If you are considering an obsolete scope, you must also take the accessories into consideration. If they are not present, you may not be able to replace them. That can be particularly debilitating in the case of a hand control, and almost as bad with something like the non-standard visual backs a few of the very earliest scopes sported. One common problem is drive correctors. If you have a desire to take pictures with the “new” 2080 or Orange tube, you will need a “drive corrector,” a variable frequency inverter, to guide it during long exposures by adjusting the speed of the AC motor. If one is not furnished with the scope, well, good luck finding one today.

OK, OK. You’ve considered the ramifications of buying an orphaned CAT, have avoided Halleyscopes and Dynamaxes like the plague—or at least star tested them—and are ready to buy. How much should you pay? Negotiating a fair price is between you and the seller, but there are a few guidelines. Firstly, don’t pay more for that old SCT than it’s really worth. For example, zillions of C8 Orange Tubes were made. It’s a classic, sure, but with a small C. Given their numbers and the prices of modern go-to scopes, an Orange Tube shouldn’t sell for more than about 500 bucks in good condition. Mint with some sweet accessories? Maybe a little more.

Usually the prices asked by working amateurs are pretty reasonable. Overinflated prices tend to come from folks who’ve inherited the scopes (“This is my Granpa’s EXPENSIVE SCIENTIFIC INSTRUMENT!”) or who bought the scope, put it away shortly thereafter, and have an exaggerated memory of its worth (“I am sure I paid three thousand dollars for this Super Polaris C8, even if it don’t got no clock drive.”). The best you can do in these situations? Pass ‘em by. There are plenty more where they came from. If you are in need of a baseline idea of what a particular scope should cost, a survey of old and new Astromart ads will help.

Don’t get the idea I am trying to scare you away from buying used with my tales of Halleyscopes and cautions about obsolete and too expensive used CATs. I just want you-all to be aware of the possible pitfalls and aggravations inherent in pursuing an old(er) SCT. Me? I’m not afraid to hack into an LX6 OTA or drivebase, but even I would be wary of an old LX200 or Ultima 2000. Which doesn’t mean one might not be a good scope for you as long as you are aware of the possible perils and are prepared to deal with ‘em. On the other hand, I would not have the slightest hesitation in buying a (non-Halley) non-go-to scope. In fact, as the years pass, I seem to have an ever greater desire to replace my foolishly sold Orange Tube C8 or to acquire one of the legendary Blue and White Celestrons I stared at in the Sky and Telescope ads of the 60s, but, of course, couldn’t dream of affording in the days of my misspent youth.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

 

My Old Friend


My old friend
You make me feel young again.
My old friend
You're just as pretty as you were back then.

--John Hiatt

P.J. ain’t the ’57 Les Paul of telescopes, muchachos. That would have to be a Unitron or a Cave, I reckon, but my old friend, my humble 1966 Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior, is every bit as beautiful in my eyes and under my hands as that guitar or those beautiful telescopes must be to their lucky owners.

If you ain’t quite sure what Unk is yakkin’ about now, let me refer you back to the story of my second telescope. Go read that. I’ll wait. For the rest of y’all? Yeah, I know I keep going on and on about this subject. Maybe that’s a consequence of getting older. 43 years later, the days of Gemini and Star Trek (the REAL Star Trek) and, yes, Edmund Scientific are deliciously nostalgic. ‘Course, that requires conveniently forgetting what went on in the Mekong Delta, what happened to Vernon Dahmer, and what Richard Speck did. There was plenty of bad stuff going down in 1966 and much more to come, but at my advanced age them rose-colored glasses work better and better.

Humor me, y’all, and I promise we’ll leave My Pal in the past for a while after this. Anyhow, what I wanna talk about today is different. I don’t want to talk about how I got my little 4.25-inch reflector, or how much fun we had for years; I’d like to update y’all on what finally and recently has happened to the little feller. With the aid of my buddy Pat Rochford, some very nice people on the Cloudy Nights Classic Telescopes forum, and a few brain cells Unk thought he had burned out long ago, PJ is back.

Let's back up just a wee bit, though. As I recounted in “Me and My Pal,” I was shocked to discover the condition of my old friend when I returned to Possum Swamp in 1980. Mama had apparently gone through another of her periodic THIS HOUSE IS FULL OF JUNK AND I WILL NOT HAVE IT episodes a couple of years previously. Not only did she exile quite a bit of the Old Man’s ham gear to the carport utility room (don’t ask me how he managed to get an entire BC-610 transmitter past her and into the house in the first place), she soon locked her steely gaze on the Palomar Junior positioned in the middle of my old room. Rather than face her wrath, no doubt, the OM and my brother duly moved the scope to a corner of the carport.

I want you to understand that Mama did not do this out of malice. She was a thoughtful woman in those days. Surprisingly so, given her way-out-in-the-country upbringing. Hell, she was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club for years and years and was instrumental in turning me on to SF (if the real credit for that belongs to my 4th grade teacher, who insisted I read Rocketship Galileo). Despite this, Mama just didn’t get my obsession with astronomy and telescopes, and no doubt reasoned that since I was not around, there would be no reason not to exile Junior to the carport. It would be just fine there, I’m sure she believed.

Speaking of SF, have you ever read one of the stories that takes advantage of Einstein’s Twin Paradox? You know, an astronaut goes on a deep space mission in a craft that attains a significant fraction of the speed of light. When he comes home ever’thing is definitely not A-OK. His twin brother, his galfriend, everybody he knew, is either senile or six feet under while he remains obscenely young. That’s just the way I felt when I saw the shape my ol’ Pal was in.

The OTA didn’t look that bad. Well, except for the focuser. Its beautiful black finish had been obscured with a shade of electric blue. The mount was the sad thing. Its wonderful gray “crackle” finish was all gone; it was now that weird blue, too. Worst of all, though? Lookin’ into the tube aperture (which was not in the least protected by the remnants of an old plastic dry-cleaning bag), there was more bare glass than aluminum on the primary. Maybe there were a couple of quarter sized spots that was still shiny, but that was it. The finder? It was still there, now painted the same shade of blue as the focuser, but exposure had corroded the chrome focus-barrel at the objective end of its tube. A glance through the dirty eyepiece showed no sign of crosshairs.

Was I P.O.ed? You bet. Did I have a hissy fit? Naw. What would the point have been? It was clear what had happened and there was no going back. The Pal and its optics had been somewhat protected for a while. But then the plastic cover I’d fashioned for the scope got removed and lost or used for something else, the aperture covers disappeared, and generations of spiders began to call it “home.” Just before my return, the OM had tried a limited rehabilitation, repainting the mount and focuser in misguided but well-meaning fashion. What a shame, but as I mentioned in “Me and My Pal,” I now had a nice Orange Tube C8 and quite a few other things—like getting started in an engineering career—to occupy my mind over the next seven or eight years.

By the late 80s, though, I had more time on my hands, and the discovery of a manila envelope chock-full of the Moon pictures the OM and I had taken back in the 60s provided the impetus to finally do something about PJ. I hauled the little telescope out of storage, gave it a quick once-over cleaning, pulled the primary and secondary, and sent them off to be recoated. The finder looked hopeless, so I replaced it with a 6x30 single-ring job I bought from Old Man Novak--y’all remember Kenneth Novak, doncha? He was the king of telescope parts from the 60s all the way through the 80s. The mount? It still, almost unbelievably, moved more-or-less smoothly, so I left it alone. Same with the rack and pinion focuser. With the application of a little lube to the gears it worked well enough despite its odious color.

In due course, my little primary returned. Man, oh, man. The body might be in sorry shape, but the heart, the tiny 4.25-inch mirror, looked as good as ever. I got it back in its nice, adjustable cell and got PJ outside for a quick look-see. Takin’ into account that the street where my (ex) wife and I lived was streetlight and security light hell, the telescope did well. My basic impression was that despite conditions much worse than what they’d been from the folks’ yard back in the 1960s, I could see more with My Pal than I ever saw back then. No, I still couldn’t pick-out many/any stars in M13, and M57’s donut hole was hard to see, but even under the poor skies M22 gave up sparklers and M8 looked far more extensive than back in The Day. In part maybe because I had 20 more years observing experience under my belt, but mainly because the eyepieces I was using, Kellners and Orthoscopics from Orion’s old Explorer Series and Celestron’s Circle Ts, were light-years better than the primitive and uncoated Ramsden and Kellner that came with the scope.

Did I use Junior? Oh, hell yeah. For the next three or four years gobs of photons went down the OTA on a regular basis. The then-Editor of my club’s newsletter asked if I’d do a column for him, and I hit on the idea of a series that demonstrated what could be seen of the deep sky from light polluted areas, including with small scopes like My Pal. That series of columns, which I called “From City Lights to Deep Space,” became the basis for a book a decade later, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. I used bigger and “better” scopes for the observations that went into Urban Astronomer, too, but there’s plenty of Pal in there. It would, in fact, not be out of line to say the book would not have been written without the little Edmund.

Most of those Pal Junior observations were culled from my logbooks from the late 80s, though. By the mid 90s the little scope had gone back into hibernation, now in Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault upstairs. Last time I remember using it was at a club public star gaze on the occasion of a Lunar Eclipse. I was between grab ‘n go telescopes at the time, so PJ stepped into that role (though you couldn’t grab that pedestal mount and go very fast with it) on an evening that was Sucker Hole City.

And that was that until I started thinking about my poor ol’ scope again last year. What turned my mind down that dusty corridor was a blog entry I wrote that concerned another old telescope of mine, the Tasco 11-TE I used for a while when I was in the Air Force. I mentioned the Palomar Junior in that piece, and as is the case lately with quite a few things from the old days, the little Pal began to be increasingly in my thoughts. That culminated in the complete article about PJ. At the end of that entry, I mentioned I intended to completely restore the telescope in 2009. I had thought about doing that quite frequently, but didn’t seem able to resolve to get to work till I put it down on paper. I then felt committed to what I was nevertheless afraid might be an overwhelming task.

Step One was an assessment of what needed to be done. One rainy weekend afternoon (we’ve had a lot o’ them lately), I opened the door to the Vault, carefully navigated the towering and teetering stacks of old Sky and Telescopes, and eventually maneuvered my way to the dark corner where My Pal had been sitting for better than a decade. When I removed Junior’s protective trash bag, I was pleasantly surprised. My memory told me the Edmund was a mess, but my eyes saw different. The paintjob on the OTA was actually pretty good. Oh, it would need a new one, but the OM had done well, and it wouldn’t require a crazy amount of sanding. There were quite a few holes in the OTA that would need filling—holes drilled by me or the OM at various times over the years for installation of handles, auxiliary finders, and other stuff. Yes, the focuser was painted that odd blue, but the paint had been applied lightly and evenly and the crackle finish beneath was still prominent. I figgered a thin coat of black and it would be as good as new.

More difficult would be the replacement of a focuser knob. One of the last times I’d had the scope outside, one of the knobs had literally crumbled to dust in my fingers. The finder could probably be reworked, but I thought replacing it might be best and easiest. If I could find a replacement, which I doubted I could. A peek at both the primary and secondary mirrors showed their surfaces looked good after 20 years since their last trip to the coater’s and would be fine.

PJ’s GEM mount was still functional, but would need considerable work. Not a trace of the lovely gray-crackle finish remained on mount or pedestal. It had obviously been heavily sanded prior to the coat of black gloss spraypaint. I assumed that was because the mount had become badly corroded after a few years in the folks’ uber damp carport (where pore Junior rode out the notorious Hurricane Frederick). I further noted that some parts that shouldn’t have been painted had been and would need cleaning. Some bare metal parts that had not been painted showed some rust and/or a thick layer of grime and would need a large helping of elbow grease. Finally, something was wrong with the declination setting circle, but I could not figure-out what. It was mounted at the lower end of the dec housing and was upside down. It appeared, though, that it would be impossible to move it to the scope-cradle end of the dec shaft where I seemed to recall it used to be, as in that position it would interfere with the RA circle. I’d have to think that one over.

As I always do before undertaking any kind of ATM project, I consulted with my best buddy, Pat, before doing a blamed thing. He had just completed a similar restoration of his first scope, a 60-mm Sears (“Circle T”) refractor. I told him I’d like to do the same thing with my second scope, the Palomar Junior. Not only did Pat allow as how he thought that was a good idea, he was enthusiastic to get to work on the Pal. Pat is one of those creative and talented individuals who simply cannot abide being without a project of some kind. He’s lucky to have me as a friend, as I for sure send plenty of work his way. I am handy enough at things electronic, but when it comes to mechanical issues and paint, expect disaster. The first step would be for me to see if I could acquire the parts—a focuser knob or two and a replacement finder. I warned him this would probably take a while if it were successful at all. I imagined I’d spend weeks and months scourin’ the danged eBay and Craig’s List and spendin’ way too much moola.

Little did I know salvation was only a few mouse clicks away at Cloudy Nights. As most of y’all know, the Cloudy Nights website, which used to mainly be notable for its scope and gear reviews, also has a full array of astro forums. Actually, these days the CN Forums are probably even more popular than the site’s reviews. Among the topics of these numerous and excellent groups is “Classic Telescopes.” What you will find on this Bulletin Board (that shows how long I’ve been in the online astronomy game) is continuous discussion of old telescopes, with a slant toward the 60s and 70s and to refractors, especially small and famous refractors of Japanese origin made by Unitron and others. But there is considerable talk about old reflectors, too, including even small ones like My Pal. More important than the “what,” though, is the “who.” Classic Scopes is inhabited by some of the friendliest, smartest, and just gull-derned nice folks it’s ever been my pleasure to be associated with in amateur astronomy. There are never flames nor backbiting; just good folks sharing their love for classic telescopes, often the scopes of their youth.

I wasn’t overly hopeful given Classic Scopes’ orientation to refractors, but I posted a holler for help anyway, saying I was desperate for a Palomar Junior focus knob and finder. Almost immediately, I got not just advice, but multiple offers to give (not sell) me the parts I needed. It seemed impossible, but in just a little while I had those knobs in hand along with a replacement pinion gear and the washers to go with it “just in case.” And not long after, a box arrived in the mail with a near-pristine 6 x 23 Palomar Junior finder inside. All else I needed to get started was paint.

That, it became obvious, would be the next problem. I found out the spray paint companies had discontinued the crackle/crinkle finish gray paint that was the Pal mount’s trademark. I talked this over with Pat, and we decided that—for now at least—the thing to do would be to paint the mount with a layer of the “texture finish” spray paint that’s now in vogue and overcoat that with gray. Paint and parts in hand, it was time to deliver my charge to Pat, who’d begin to work his magic.

Once Mr. Pat gets started on a project, he goes full bore. Still, I was a mite surprised to hear from him barely a week later: “Finished!” We made plans for me to come out and take First Light the next evening, Sunday. Naturally, Sunday dawned to blue skies that slowly began to cloud to near full overcast by early afternoon. Such is life in The Swamp. Pat called wanting to know if I was still coming out and to make a confession. With a nice moon hanging in the sky Saturday night, he couldn’t resist takin’ a peep with PJ. I wouldn’t say Pat had been a doubter when it came to my tales of Junior’s optical prowess, but I think he was maybe jus’ a mite skeptical.

There was a tinge of awe in his voice now, though, “Rod, that little mirror is damned good.” I wasn’t surprised; that’s what I’d remembered. The outfit that made Edmund’s primaries, Upco Optics (they made Criterion’s Dynascope mirrors as well), was renowned for quality, and they’d lavished plenty even on this little spherical mirror. It has a very good figure and is quite smooth indeed. I was pumped to hear somebody besides me praise PJ, though, and told Pat that clouds or no clouds, I’d be over to his place before sundown for our Half-Moon Star Party.

Why “Half-Moon Star Party”? There’d be a nice gibbous Moon hanging in the sky, and also in homage to the Cloudy Nights Classic Telescopes forum’s famous Full Moon Star Party of yore. No, we wouldn’t have any hulking Goto refractors (the Japanese company, not a go-to computer scope) or luscious Unitrons, just PJ and Pat’s Sears. Still, I expected it would be a lot of fun and a real blast from the past. As I headed east across Mobile Bay, I even began to muster a little hope we might actually see somthing. Yeah, the clouds were pouring across the sky like some dark and deep river flowing to a stygian sea, but they seemed to be mostly north of my destination, Fairhope. It was clear we wouldn’t be able to try the little scopes on the deep sky, but the Moon for sure. Maybe. And if I was truly lucky, Saturn perhaps. That would be a real coup, since the ringed wonder was one of the first objects I observed on the Pal’s real First Light night. It seemed like more than mere coincidence that on that evenin’ in 1966 the planet’s ring system was nearly edge-on, just as it would be again on this night.

When I arrived at Pat’s Stargate Observatory, I found he had the scopes ready to go, setup outside on the grass. Upon seeing the vista imaged above, I had to stop for a minute. If there’d been somewhere to sit, I would have had to sit. It was as if the intervening 43 years had all been swept away. The world was young again, a world where Americans dared to make dreams real, where young men aimed for the Moon with new rockets and youngsters like Little Rod dreamed of takin’ their place someday. Did I shed a tear? I’ll leave that to your imaginations. Once I got a grip, I took a close look at both scopes, starting with Junior, of course.

Pat had done a beautiful job. There would need to be a couple of little extra touches, I thought, but the scope was 99.9% of the way there. The Sears 60-mm? It just looked incredible, almost as if it had come off the factory floor yesterday. You’ll note that Pat refinished his ol’ pup in black and white instead of the scope’s original teal (?) and blue. He told me he had never liked the color of the scope, and who are we to gainsay that in the name of historical accuracy? These little telescopes are not antiques. Not yet, anyway. What’s important is not how closely you mimic their original condition, but how closely you reestablish the link they once had with your heart, and Pat had done a hell of a job of that with both telescopes.

That was how they looked. How did they work? The clouds had more or less moved out of the way by Sunset, and I wasted no time getting PJ pointed at the Moon. Despite some haze, Luna was beautiful. Incredibly sharp all across the field and very contrasty from terminator to limb. Yes, it’s a spherical mirror, but at nearly f/11 it’s able to perform incredibly well. With modern eyepieces, Pat’s TeleVue Plössls, the little scope was likely delivering better images than it ever had.

One other thing that no doubt helped was that the mirror was now center-dotted thanks to Pat, who’d also cleaned it. Yeah, at this focal length dead-on collimation is not as critical as it is in faster scopes, but every little bit helps. I didn’t bring any of my own eyepieces out, so I’ll be interested to find out how Junior does with something like a 16-mm UWAN. I still have both the ½-inch and 1 inch Ramsden and Kellner oculars (no danged metric system back then, little pards) that came with PJ, but haven’t located ‘em yet. Some months back, I put ‘em somewhere where they wouldn’t get lost, and, naturally, now I can’t remember what that place was.

Hows about PJ's GEM? After Pat’s rework, mostly cleaning and polishing the declination and RA shafts, the mount’s motions were every bit as smooth as I remembered them being in the summer of ‘66. The only slight downer now as then was the lack of tube rings. Point at certain areas of the sky, and the eyepiece ends up at weird angles. What to do? Just what I did way back when. Move the polar axis off north, use the thing as a “mutant-alt-az,” and just keep on trucking. I noticed the scope seemed less vibration-prone than I remembered. Did Pat’s TLC help that, or am I maybe just getting a mite more forgiving in my old age? Little of both, I reckon. If necessary, I believe it will be possible to position Celestron’s vibration suppression pads under the pedestal leg tips.

On to the Sears. This little refractor is a “Sears,” of course, only in the sense that they sold it. It was actually made by the well-regarded Japanese optical firm Towa. Like Tasco, back in them days Sears (and Montgomery Ward) were importing some excellent, well-made telescopes. One look through Pat’s baby showed it to be no exception. Despite the fact that there was a between-the-elements smudge in the little 20-mm eyepiece (likely the Canada balsam used to cement ‘em together was givin’ up the ghost after 40 years), the Moon was mind-blowingly sharp. I can’t wait to try the scope with the pair of good “Diamond Z” .965-inchers I’ve got squirreled away for the day when I am able to replace my long lost Tasco 11-TE.

The Towa folks didn’t just slap a good objective in a cheap department store body, though. The Sears’ mount was a real eye-opener. Though it is EQ-1 sized (EQ-2 at a stretch, maybe) the difference in quality between this and today’s small Chinese GEMs is flat-out amazing. The motions are butter-dripping smooth, and the slow motion gears are oh-so-silky. Also amazing are the sweet little touches nobody would think of putting on a 60-mm refractor today. The RA and Declination slow motion cables, for example, have different shaped knobs on their ends, so you know which is which in the dark. Before this night, I was a confirmed 60-mm skeptic. Back in the day I thought ‘em “too small.” In this latter age, I’ve looked askance at the claims for their optical and mechanical quality I’ve read on the Cloudy Nights. After an evening with Pat’s 60, though, I’m a member of the amen chorus, brothers and sisters. These old scopes can be both a surprise and a joy. The quality is there.

‘T’warn’t long, unfortunately, before that cloud river changed course to run straight over our heads, blotting out even the Moon. No, I didn’t get a glimpse of Saturn, but that will come. Back home, with the Pal on display in the living room, I just sat and gazed at that long white tube and gray mount for half an hour, reliving our many happy times. The more I looked, though, the more something seemed wrong.

The declination circle just couldn’t go where it was. You’d have to stand on your head to read it. I pulled out a reference photo of a PJ I’d printed off, natcherly, the CN Classic Telescopes Gallery, and tried to figure out what the hail was going on. A little head-scratching and it became clear what the problem was. When the OM had reassembled the mount after its paintjob all those long years ago, he’d put it together with the declination housing upside down. One end of this housing is longer than the other, you see. He had the short end up instead of vice-versa. I took the mount back apart, flipped the dec housing around, put everythin’ back together, and there was now clearance for the dec setting circle to go in its proper place as seen in the photo. I also spent a little time cleaning the dec and RA shaft endcaps down to bare metal, their original condition, and fabricating an ersatz Pal Junior showercap/dustcover using a picture found on the CN (of course).

What comes next for Unk classic-scope-wise, muchachos? Well, I intend to keep my eye out for a Tasco white-tube 4.5-inch reflector, but there’s no hurry there. I find I’m just as anxious to do a lot of looking through the Palomar Junior as looking at it. I don’t know that I’ll get my old friend out every clear night (my CATs demand their ration of photons), but I know I will be outside with PJ a lot this summer, just like the hallowed summer of ’66, those innocent days just before the distractions of girls, cars, and rock and roll music when My Old Friend and I spent every sultry night wondering and wandering by starlight.

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