Monday, June 20, 2022


Issue 581: The Thirty-Seven-Year-Old Telescope Redux


I could have called this one “The Fifty-Year-Old Telescope” or maybe “SHE LIVES!” Perhaps even “Sometimes You Haven’t Moved on After All.” What in tarnation is Uncle Rod goin’ on about now? Has somebody been spikin’ his Geritol with Rebel Yell? 

All shall be revealed, muchachos, all shall be revealed…you just have to exercise a little patience with your increasingly addled old Uncle.

Anyhow, I wanted to get a June 2022 issue of the blog up, but it was clear now was not the time to try to continue one of my two current observing projects, “Urban Astronomer” and “The New Herschel Project.” Why? You know how it’s been in most of the country in mid-June—hot, and I do mean h-o-t-t hot. It’s probably been bad enough in your part of the USA, so you can imagine what it’s been like way down here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp.

If you can’t, I’ll spell it out for you: “Feels like 95F (plus) way after sunset.” Oh, and that light pollution-scattering haze from stagnant high-pressure systems? Lookin’ up at the sky has been like seeing stars immersed in a bowl of milk. So, it ‘peared it would be “No blog for you!” Till early one hot evening I was walking back to the main house from my radio shack/workshop, the vaunted Batcave.

It can be boring out in here suburbia if’n you’re retired…well, unless you have an amateur radio license (your ol’ Uncle Rod has had one since 1969). There is no shortage of things to do on hot days and hazy nights if you can get on the air. Especially if you can do so from the air-conditioned comfort of a shack like the Batcave, which I had a contractor finish-off about four years ago (it began life as a detached garage). Anyhoo, having pulled the Big Switch on my beloved Icom IC-7610, I was heading back to the house to inventory the Rebel Yell <ahem>, when my eyes lit upon the Thirty-Seven-Year-Old Telescope.

I wrote a blog entry about this old instrument some 14 years ago. If you’re interested, read the story of the telescope that began life as a mirror kit I received as a graduation gift in 1971. Ol’ 37 was a good telescope, and I used her purty frequently for six years. But then she met her near demise.

Miss Dorothy and I decamped from legendary Chaos Manor South for the suburbs following my early retirement at age 59 in 2014.  Ol’ 37, of course, went with us, but I never quite found a place for her. She spent some time in the not-yet-finished Batcave. And she spent some more time in a corner of the sunroom. Until…

I’ve made no secret in these pages I had a difficult time adjusting to retirement. Very difficult. I went from 30 years as an engineer working plenty of 12-hour days to “Well, whatta I do now?” I won’t say more about that today, since I’ve mostly come to terms with it, and you’d just find the details boring. Be that as it may, 2015 was a particularly tough year for your old Uncle…

One afternoon in the summer of that misbegotten annum, I nearly knocked Ol’ 37 over in the sunroom. At the time, I had very little patience for anything, had had enough of the scope being constantly underfoot, grabbed her up, took her to the carport, and stashed her on a shelf. A shelf open to the elements, though, of course, partially protected in the carport.

Operating Position Number One at W4NNF...
By the time 2016 was half over, your correspondent was beginning to feel better, but I kinda forgot about the scope. Oh, I’d see her when l’d drive in, and sometimes I’d think, “Really ought to do something about poor Ol’ 37,” but usually I looked right through her. The only good? On that day in ’15 I had at least exerted some effort to seal both ends of the tube with plastic sheeting and masking tape. And the shelf was, yeah, somewhat protected. But… Nearly seven years passed with my old friend sitting on her dusty perch.

Then, just a few days ago, as above I was walking back to the house from the shack and my eyes lit upon the scope as they often did. Something was different this time, though. I began to think about the wearyingly long years the poor thing had sat on that wretched shelf waiting for a taste of starlight that never came. I was suddenly overcome with remorse and the resolve to do something about it. I grabbed a step ladder, got her down, and brushed some of the thick layer of dust and grime off before heading to the ‘Cave with her.

As you won’t be surprised to hear, after seven years the plastic and masking tape sealing the tube had deteriorated to the point it all crumbled when I began to carefully remove it. Frankly, I was afraid of what I might find. Would I be years too late to save her?

Nope…looking down the tube I could see the primary mirror was dusty and badly in need of a bath, but not far gone at all. The same was true of the secondary. I removed the primary and the secondary from the tube by the simple expedient of pulling the whole spider assembly (a nice curved one that produces no diffraction spikes) and primary cell. I stashed ‘em in the kitchen for cleaning after I did something about that horribly grimy tube.

I didn’t take a picture of the tube in “before” condition, campers. Frankly, I was embarrassed to share that with you. The dust of years…spiderwebs…bug poop… It was so bad the only way to attack it was with a garden hose and rags and a bottle of Dawn dishwashing detergent. As you can see, she cleaned up rather well. Oh, the girl will never look as good as she did in just-painted condition, but is fine.

I could grab a can of Krylon and repaint the tube. However, I have decided against that…maybe it’s best to let the OTA be and serve as a cautionary tale for your old Uncle concerning being too hasty. I should have stopped, counted to ten, and returned Ol' 37 to the Batcave rather than exiling her to the carport.

Would the optics live again? I cleaned them carefully with water and a little Dawn and, yes, they would. They are no longer pristine. There are a couple of spots on the secondary. And on the primary too. There’s also a “sleek” that’s actually more of a scratch on the periphery of the main mirror. However, that has been there since the mirror returned from the fricking-fracking coater, Spectrum, who put it there. Luckily, it affects nothing.

On the operating table...
What else? The focuser was in surprisingly good shape, though the nice rubber friction-strips on the knobs had long since rotted away and fallen off. Focus action was as smooth as ever. A couple of the eyepiece setscrews were a mite rusty, so I blasted them with a staple in the shack, DeOxit, and they were, if not like new, at least better.

Finally, I mounted a Synta-style finder shoe on the tube with double-sided tape. Yeah, there was a Telrad base on the OTA already, but I was surprised to find I no longer have a working Telrad (!). I’ve switched over to Rigel Quick Finders and didn’t have an extra base (I could locate) for one. I figured a Synta red dot sight would be enough for goto alignments.

Time to get the old gal’s optics reinstalled. Assembly was easy enough…though it was a minor struggle to get the wooden primary cell back in the not quite round tube and screwed down. Nothing a few minutes and a little patience couldn’t see to, though. Naturally, after removing and reinstalling both primary and secondary mounts, the scope would need to be collimated. I went up to the main house and fetched my Celestron combo Cheshire/sight-tube. And stopped dead in my tracks.

It had been a long, long time since I’d collimated a Newtonian that needed anything more than a minor touch-up. My single other Newt, Zelda, a 10-inch GSO Dobsonian reflector, holds her collimation remarkably well. Since we haven’t traveled to any star parties or even the local dark-site since Covid began, she hasn’t needed any attention at all. So…to my embarrassment, I realized I’d kinda forgotten what to do. Embarrassing, yes, but I recalled I’d done a detailed article on collimating in these very pages years ago. My own words would see me through.

Indeed, they did. The secondary was only off a mite. And the same was true, rather surprisingly, for the wooden primary cell. In about five minutes collimation was done and it would be possible to get the old girl under the stars and see how she might fare. Frankly, even after rereading the above article on ol’ 37, I didn’t have much memory of what her images were like. So, I was curious to say the very least.

When would I satisfy that curiosity? Why, the very next evening. I had initially intended to wait till late afternoon to set the scope up, but knew if I did, it might not get done at all. The heat and humidity at the tail-end of a Possum Swamp afternoon would be just too much for your increasingly feeble Unk. Now, when I was a boy, setting up a telescope early was usually a recipe for disaster. I’d get distracted by a TV show, and when it was over, I’d be reluctant to walk out into a completely dark yard for fear of what might be waiting with the scope. Better to assemble the Pal Junior in early evening and stick by her side as the shadows lengthened.

Not lookin' bad at all...
In these latter days, though? Neither TV, nor the Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II, nor Mothman, nor Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolfman has a hold on me. That’s one benefit of getting older, I suppose—if magic of any sort, good or bad, going away could ever be a good thing. So, up went Ol' 37 on the cusp of a morning that wasn’t yet violently hot.

No, it wasn’t terribly not, not yet…but it was hot enough I went for “easy.” My beautiful Losmandy GM811G ain’t tough to get set up, but nothing (well, no goto-equipped GEM) is easier than the Advanced VX. So, the Celestron mount it was. In addition to the ease of erecting it, it has the advantage I know its hand control and its quirks in general so well I can practically align it with my eyes closed. On a hot and breathless evening like the one sure to come, I didn’t want to fool around with remembering which button to push. OK, mount up, Ol’ 37 on mount…a little balancing, and we was done.

Well, almost. I hopped down to Publix on this warm Sunday morning for a 2025 button cell battery for the SkyWatcher red-dot finder and a couple of shower caps to serve as Ol’ 37’s aperture covers. That accomplished, I had to admit she didn’t look half bad. No, not bad at all. But the only proof in the astro-pudding is an evening under the stars. I’d wait for that before getting more excited about the old telescope’s apparent resurrection.

And wait Unk did. This time of year, it’s almost 2100L before it’s dark enough to begin a goto alignment. “Oh, well, maybe it’ll have cooled off by Astronomical Twilight.” Nope. Walking out of the house was like walking into that proverbial steam bath. But I did persevere, for a while anyway.

How did it go? I’ll give ya the good and the bad…

The Good…

As above, I honestly didn’t have a clue what to expect of this old mirror begun by moi and finished by talented ATM, Pat Rochford. But it was just fine. No, more than fine, darned good as a matter of fact. As is strangely often the case down here of late, the seeing wasn’t really great despite the high pressure we were under. Advancing front? I dunno, but near as I could tell, the star test was pretty good.

The focuser worked as well as it ever had, easily coping with a 35mm TeleVue panoptic. Due to the quality of my alignment (below), I figgered I’d better stick with a low-powered finding eyepiece.

Maybe best of all? Being on the field with a white-tube Newtonian telescope brought a flood of memories rushing back. Ol' 37's aperture was larger than that of the Pal Junior and the mount far more sophisticated, but all-in-all, the experience was much like what I remember of that long-gone eve in the Swamp.

The Bad…

The SkyWatcher BB gun red-dot sight was nowhere. I could only get it adjusted roughly, so it barely coincided with what was in the eyepiece. And the more I fiddled with it, the worse it got. With sweat dripping into my eyes, I decided a “good enough” goto alignment was, well, good enough.

She lives!
It had been a long time since I’d used a Newtonian on an equatorial mount, and, good God, those changing eyepiece positions are a pain. Yeah, I could rotate the tube in its rings, but the rather plebian Synta-made tube-rings on Ol’ 37 mean doing so is a recipe for disaster. The tube will want to slide out of ‘em and I will want to kick the tripod in the process, ruining my goto alignment.

The collimation could stand a touchup, but I wisely decided this miserably close night was not one for essaying that.

Did I mention it was hot and humid?

Which doesn’t mean I didn’t see a couple of cool things. While the haze was growing steadily, both M13 and M3 were nice. Going from the 35mm Panoptic to the 8mm Ethos (once I figured out I’d need an extension tube for it to come to focus) delivered some rather convincing resolution, even of tight M13. Certainly, I’d have been thrilled to see the ball of stars actually looking like a ball of stars on the long-ago night recounted in the link above. Going from 4-inches, even to include a 4-inch refractor, to 6-inches really does make a difference.

M13 viewed for a fair length of time, I decided to pull the Big Switch. Observing is supposed to be fun, after all, and I was beginning to feel miserable. Inside with a cool sarsaparilly, I recovered and planned what’s next for the old telescope.

"Next" is order a Quick Finder base (from Scopestuff, my usual source for such things). That will make a huge difference. When will I give Ol’ 37 another chance? I won’t wait for cool weather—which might be a long time coming—but I will wait for better than this.

Terrific story Rod!
Good to hear your voice again, Uncle Rod. Real good. Takes me back to a time when I personally had more time for the night sky. And is a good reminder that I need to make more time.
So glad you are writing again! I’ve been resurrecting an 8in LX90 on a wedge— all the expected problems — just pulled the trigger on a pristine bargain CPC series 11 inch (not exactly grab and go) still love/hate ‘em? You are an institution.
Great work on getting her nursed back to health. We've been lucky with the weather in the northeast this year, but it still hasn't been that great. Can't imagine how hot it's been down by you. Hoping for a cool, clear fall.
Hope for a good year 2023:)
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