Sunday, June 26, 2011


Travels with Snoopy

With apologies to John Steinbeck, whose book about traveling the U.S.A. with his cantankerous poodle, Travels with Charley, ought to be on everybody’s reading list. Well, what the heck is Unk going on about now? “Snoopy” is my 60mm ETX refractor, maybe the first really good travel scope I owned, muchachos.

Travel scope? Yeah, you know, a small, portable telescope you can throw in the trunk of a car or maybe even take as carry-on luggage on an airplane on non-astronomy vacations (yes, there are such things). If your travels take you somewhere where you might be able to observe, especially somewhere where there are better skies than there are at home, why not take a telescope with you?

I’ve long been in favor of being prepared to observe on vacation. When I was a sprout I carried the finder from my Palomar Junior with me on the family’s big cruise to Nassau in the Bahamas. Little Rod still didn’t know much about astronomy, but he did know two things: Nassau was at a latitude of 25-degrees north, and there was this cool-sounding constellation, Crux, the Southern Cross, that would be visible from there.

I wish I could definitely say I saw the Cross with my teeny scope, but it turned out that every inch of our aged cruise ship, the Bahama Star, was brilliantly illuminated. Not only that; yes, Crux was at culmination in mid June in mid evening, but even at 25-degrees latitude it was right on the horizon in the clouds and mess down there. I convinced myself I’d seen the surprisingly small constellation, but today I am not so sure. One thing is sure: a 23mm telescope was not a whole lot of help. I’d have been better off with my 77 cent toy binoculars.

Which must have sunk in. That was the last time I took a telescope with me on vacation for dang near 30 years. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t do any observing on the non-astronomy trips I made over three decades, it means I used binoculars.

Back in the 70s, when I was an Air Force G.I., I'd acquired both a small “interim” telescope and a pair of 50mm binoculars from the Base Exchange. These 7x50s were Tascos, but back then Tasco was importing some awfully good stuff. These glasses were so good, in fact, that I’d probably be using them still if my consarned brother hadn’t dropped them at a consarned Foghat concert and broken their frame. They provided literally mind blowing views of legendary Comet West.

Pisgah skies.
Binoculars became my optical aid of choice for vacations. They don’t take up much room in the car or in luggage, they are as useful for bird watching as star watching, and can be enjoyed and used by the whole family. The downside? You get somewhere really good, and all the binocs are is a tease.

So it was in 1996. I had finally got around to replacing the Tascos with a pair of Simmons 10x50 “Redlines” in preparation for the coming of Hale Bopp. They did wonderfully well on the Bopp, and when I set out with my new wife Dorothy and her daughter Beth for one of their fave vacation destinations, the Pisgah Inn on top of Mount Pisgah on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, I naturally took the glasses along.

I loved the Pisgah Inn: it offered a scenic down-the-mountainside view for every room, excellent dining in the old mode, and an attentive staff composed mostly—just like in the old days—of college boys and girls on summer vacation. But I didn’t much like the views. Oh, the sky should have been good, since the Inn is well away from city lights, but they call those mountains the “Smokies” for a reason. Every evening fog would roll in. Well, except for one night when the sky opened up to an astounding degree. The 10x50s did fine, but then I couldn’t help thinking how much more I’d have seen with a real telescope.

It was near ten years before we made it back to the Pisgah. In the interim, I’d collected several grab ‘n go scopes, foremost of which was my Celestron Short Tube 80 refractor. I’d taken it on brief beach get-a-ways to Destin and Fort Walton Beach, Florida, but I hadn’t really seen a lot with it, nor was I enthusiastic about it as a vacation scope.

The problem for the 80 and similar refractors, like the once uber-popular 66mm ED jobs, is that they don’t do well on a camera tripod. While their tubes are reasonably short, they are still long enough to make balance a big headache on a camera or video tripod. Sure, you can put ‘em on a small equatorial mount—I used my ST80 with a Synta EQ-1—or one of the new alt-az astronomy mounts, but then you begin to fill up the trunk with astro-gear, something I don’t like to do for my “civilian” vacations.

It was a few years before our next Pisgah vacation that I finally found a vacation scope I really liked. As I outlined rat-cheer, I glommed onto a Meade ETX-60, which was a 60mm f/5 achromatic refractor mounted on a computer controlled (via Meade’s Autostar computer) fork mount.

Graveyard Falls
Frankly, the little thing amazed me. Not only were its go-tos more accurate than I thought they had any right to be, the views through the odd little thing, which focused by moving the objective back and forth, were not bad. Not on the deep sky, anyhow. I was gobsmacked one evening at our in-town observing site to find the scope, which I’d begun calling “Snoopy” because of his long-snouted look, showed the supposedly tough Owl Nebula, M97, easily. Yeah, I had an OIII filter in, but still, for a less-than-200-buck 60mm I bought from Cotton-picking Walmart that was still purty good.

The little scope would also do an OK job on the Moon and produce recognizable images of the planets. Most of the problem wasn’t really its optical quality, but its short focal length. It was hard to produce enough magnification to see much of the Solar System. At the highest power it was easy to produce via Barlow stacking, Mars was a pinhead. But that was OK. I didn’t plan to be doing any serious planetary observing on holiday, anyway.

Then came the odd and disastrous hurricane season of 2005. We didn’t know Katrina was on the way, of course, but by August Miss D. and me had had enough of the storms that preceded her and, most of all, of the terrible, oppressive heat. One August day when the thermometer again reached triple digits, Miss Dorothy and I looked at each-other. We had the same thought: “The Mountains, where it is COOL.” D. immediately made reservations at the Pisgah.

Remembering how good the skies had looked on that one night, I began thinking astronomy. I might bring along the 10x50s, but I was going to bring a real telescope, too, sort of, Snoopy. I figured his wide-fields and his ability to produce at least medium-low magnifications might make him a real winner if the Smoky Mountain weather cooperated.

Snoopy in his cardboard shipping box—I hadn’t got around to getting him a case and still haven’t—was small enough, about the size of an overnight bag, not to be a nuisance. I had solved the ETX tripod problem, too.

Snoopy shipped without a tripod. At first, I adapted him to a wooden one from an EQ-1. That seemed way too bulky and hard to pack, though. One of my favorite Astro-retailers of the last decade, Scopetronix (now long gone) had a solution for me, a metal adapter that screwed onto the ETX’s drive base and allowed it to be used on any camera tripod. My light but sturdy Manfrotto was perfect. Not only was it more than sufficient for Snoopy and his mount, it could be collapsed into a size that took up almost no room in the trunk. Off we went.

The mountain temperatures were near perfect; we went from “high today 101, feels like 120,” at home to “chilly tonight with temperatures in the lower fifties” up on Skyline Drive. Alas, the skies were about the same as before: foggy and misty after Sundown. Me, Dorothy, and Beth had a lovely time hiking, relaxing, eating at the restaurant, wading in Graveyard Falls, and watching the color TV that was now a feature of all Pisgah’s rooms in a bow to modernity (still no phones). But no observing could I do. Till, like the previous time, one evening when the sky magically opened up for a few hours.

While the balcony of our room gave a pretty good view to the south, down the mountainside, and off into the distance, I figured I’d better move to the strip of lawn between the Inn and the mountainside in hopes of seeing enough of the sky to do a good go-to alignment. I hoped without tangling with the local wildlife.

At least the numerous skunks were gone. The skunk is the unofficial mascot of the Pisgah Inn; lured by goodies tossed by guests they promenade up and down on the grassy strip where I wanted to observe. Not seeing any the previous couple of days, I asked the front desk about the skunk exodus: “Well, we think the bears that have moved into the area have chased ‘em off.” Rut-roh!

Snoopy and his Manfrotto tripod were light enough to carry outside in one piece, and I reckoned that if a black bear or bears made an appearance, I could grab him and head for cover in a hurry. Anyhoo, I got Snoopy set up, did a two star alignment, and started in on a sky that was looking more beautiful by the minute. The summer Milky Way hovered over the distant mountains and seemed to illuminate them with unearthly brilliance. I got my Palm IIIxe PDA out of my pocket, connected it to Snoopy, fired up Astromist, and began touring the late summer sky.

What did the summer deep sky objects look like in my tiny scope? Naturally, the smaller objects looked, well, small, but I could pump the power up enough to tease out a few details in the medium size DSOs, and, given the excellent skies, I was seeing things I didn’t think a 60mm could show me. Like M16, and I don’t just mean the star cluster, but the cotton picking Eagle Nebula. I even convinced myself that I was seeing a few resolved stars in M13 when I pushed Snoop-doggie-dog to his limit. Any way you slice it, I saw more in the few hours before the fog rolled in than I would ever have seen in 10x50s. Was I glad I’d brought a telescope with me? Was I ever.

As amateurs always do, however, I soon began dreaming of the More Better Gooder, and when I latched on to my ETX-125 girlfriend, Charity Hope Valentine, I imagined turning her loose on a good night on Mount Pisgah. Alas, Miss Dorothy and I have yet to make it back to the Pisgah in, and, given my workaholic nature, haven’t taken more than a few days at the beach in quite a long while.

So, do I take Charity on our weekend beach vacations? Nope. I don’t take Snoopy, either. I usually do most—or really all—my observing from a hotel-room balcony; Charity or Snoopy would not have a chance to shine. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to get them decently go-to aligned, and either would be more trouble than they would be worth for our brief getaways. For a while, I was back with binoculars, albeit kicked up a notch with my beloved Burgess 15x70s, but then Travel Scope Number Two fell into my hands.

I told the story of the coming of Stella, a nearly thirty-year-old Celestron Orange Tube C90 90mm Maksutov Cassegrain, over here, but, to summarize, I found myself in possession of one of these classic but sometimes derided CATs when one of Miss Dorothy’s colleagues’ father decided he had to sell his.

Equipped with either an adapter to allow me to use standard SCT accessories or a hybrid .965-inch – 1.25-inch diagonal in the little scope’s “Japanese standard” back, the C90 has amazed me with her optical prowess. What also helped was a sturdy tripod/mount, my Synta AZ-4. The C90’s bad reputation stems not from poor optics, but from the MCT’s focusing method. You focus the original C90s by twisting the barrel. If the scope is on too light a mount, which is what most folks tended to use, focusing causes so much shaking it’s difficult to get the scope in perfect focus, leading the uninitiated to think the C90 has punk optics.

I know that with good eyepieces my Stella does a very nice job. And by “good eyepieces” I don’t mean the 27mm Panoptic I rigged her up with on a lark. Any half-way decent ocular will do a super job at the (original) 90’s slow focal ratio of f/11.

Stella is now far and away my favorite travel scope. It comes down to the what-you-gonna-look-at-factor. We always seem to hit the beach when there is a Moon in the sky, and that is the main target. She does OK on the planets, too, far better than what poor Snoopy could deliver. One thing she has over the ETX-60 or the Short Tube 80 is that, given her relatively long focal length, it is easy to produce higher powers. Beyond the Solar System Stella will do pretty well on brighter DSOs, with the main limitation being that 3.5-inches of aperture.

Stella really is a good little telescope. Not only was she able to show at least hints of Cassini’s the other night at Pensacola Beach, she delivered excellent afocal lunar images for a magazine article I am working on.

I do make one compromise with Stella when we hit the road. I leave the AZ-4, which is really perfect for the little scope steadiness-wise, at home. Too big, too bulky in the trunk. Instead, Stella rides a camera tripod. One is entirely sufficient for her, especially when it is equipped with one of the photo-tripod slow motion thingies camera and astro merchants sell. If I had to use the AZ-4, Stella would likely just stay at home.

Sound good? I think so. A small MCT is portable, very portable, easy to mount, should deliver good images, and can give the nice views of the planets and deep sky objects appropriate for casual vacation astronomy. Which 90? Obviously you won’t be getting one like my Orange Tube girlfriend new. They do turn up with some regularity used, as do Stella’s immediate successors. Celestron made nearly identical black and rubber-armored C90s all the way up to the mid 90s, and they are as good as Stella if not as elegantly dressed. Another nice choice is a used ETX, maybe a nice 90mm Spotter version. But what if you want to buy new?

While 90mm MCTs haven’t exactly taken over the small-scope/grab-and-go market, there are plenty to choose from, starting with the new C90. Celestron/Synta has offered several replacements, imported Chinese replacements, for the 90 over the years since the original was discontinued, but none have impressed till now. The current C90 has good optics, and once you dispose of its atrocious correct image diagonal, the spotting scope version, which is what you’ll probably want, will please you.

It’s strange Synta, Celestron’s parent company, does not sell their own 90mm MCT under the Celestron name, but it’s easy enough to get the Synta 90. In the U.S. it’s sold as the Orion Apex. Orion also offers several telescope/mounting packages for the 90, but if you’re like me, you’ll get the spotter version and solve the mount problem yourself in a way appropriate for you.

Those aren’t the only 90mm Maks; you can lowball it with Bosmas and highball it with Questars, but I think either the C90 or the Apex will suit most of y’all best as a throw-it-in-the-trunk vacation scope. Who wants to worry about a Q3.5 getting pilfered out of the Best Western room when they are down on the beach having fun?

My rules for vacation scopes

Normally, you will want to keep the aperture down to four inches or smaller. There might be the occasional exception—when I go back to Pisgah, I swear I am taking Charity with me. But much larger than “four” means the scope will take up too much space and you will resent lugging it around.

Forget go-to. If all you have is a go-to scope, sure, take it. But typical catch-as-catch-can vacation circumstances may make it difficult to get an alignment, and you ain’t gonna be hunting PGC galaxies anyway. Exceptions? If your vacation getaway is a trip to a dark campground with (this is the hard part) an open space for observing, yeah, bring as big a go-to gun as possible.

Leave the Ethoses at home. You won’t need them. I limit myself to two humble eyepieces, a 26mm Plossl and a 12mm Plossl I put in the case with Stella. You won’t want to haul an enormous case of Naglers and Ethoses around, and you will live in fear of them being stolen from your motel room if’n you do.

Remember why you went there. A family vacation is a family vacation. Don’t let astronomy take it over to the annoyance of family members whose vacation it is, too.

Flying with a Scope

This used to be a no-brainer before 9/11. The only consideration was that the scope fit in an overhead bin. But we are now living in a different time, and don’t even think about flying with a telescope unless you have your ducks in a row. Certainly the scope must still fit. The restrictions on that are tighter, and free carryon luggage is becoming a thing of the past. But that is no longer the main concern. That is the TSA.

The telescope itself is rarely a problem. Be prepared to easily and rapidly remove it from its case and demonstrate to one of the gate-guards that it is what you say. To that end, have an eyepiece packed with the telescope—I leave one in Stella’s diagonal in her case ready to go. The big problem is the mount.

Anything that might be used as a “weapon” is verboten, and what constitutes that is entirely up to the people at the gate. Don’t rely on statements on the TSA website that so-and-so is OK. I put my tripod in checked baggage. Yes, it is possible it will be stolen by baggage handlers—though I’ve never had a thing taken despite many flights to distant star parties—so make it a cheap one, if possible. I have a Velbron I got from K-Mart when their blue light was still shining that is sufficient for Stella, but which I wouldn’t be overly sorry to lose.

Want to chance putting things like Questar tabletop legs in your carryon? Be my guest, but have a plan of action in case the gate agent decides you are a BIG FIBBER and those are really nunchucks. If you are carrying something that might be iffy, have an extra checkable on hand that will accommodate the item, and if it is rejected, put it in that bag and check it. That’s a hassle, but better than having the item confiscated and disposed of or missing your flight.

Again, remember: what the TSA website says doesn’t necessarily mean PEA TURKEY in the real world. The final authority on what can and can’t be taken onboard an aircraft is the TSA employees onsite. The good news? Despite the stories you have read and heard, I have yet to encounter one of these folks who was not professional and helpful.

Some of my most memorable views have been unexpected ones on trips where I threw in the scope as an afterthought, muchachos. So, before you and hubby or wifey and the younguns head for the Redneck Riviera this summer, pick a little guy out of your massive telescope arsenal and bring him along. You will be glad you did.

Next Time: Unk does some actual observing (maybe).

I have one of those Astro C90 Orange Tubes, clock drive still works! Circa 1978 eBay find in almost new condition.
I use a Antares hybrid diagonal with my Brandon Eyepieces I was extremely suprised by the quality of the view these scopes are real sleepers. Mine gets used when I don't want to risk using my Questar 3.5 the views are similar , the C90 gives a slightly wider view.
Performance is good on brighter deep sky objects with LPR filters.
Good blog Unk keep it up.
Gary (AKA Satman on Cloudy Nights Classic Telescope forum)
The trouble with checking a tripod in the baggage (in a tripod bag) is that the kind of portable tripods you are likely to take (extruded aluminum) will get crushed by someone else's suitcase thrown on it by the typical baggage handler. I found that the ubiquitous extruded-aluminum tripod fits diagonally in the ubiquitous clamshell hard-sided Samsonite suitcase that I like to take anyway. I thing that amazed me travelling with a telescope on planes (a 150mm Mak) is that most security people I met (US and non-US) knew right off what it is, and some actually asked casually how the skies were.
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