Sunday, July 30, 2023


Issue #594: Telescopes I Have Known


Well, Doggonit, Muchachos. I very much wanted to finish up my review of the Digital Optica Bluetooth Adapter for Autostar. I intended to, as a matter of fact. I even set Charity Hope Valentine’s (for newcomers, Charity is a Meade ETX125PE) tripod up in the backyard. Not only was I gonna check-out the Bluetooth widget with Stellarium and other programs, I was gonna do a mini tour of the late spring sky.

Yeah, I know it’s not spring anymore. Admittedly, of late, Unk sometimes don’t know what day it is, but he still (usually) knows what season it is. Although spring 2023 is but a memory, and even summer is slowly fading, the marvels of spring are still on display. Hell, Coma Berenices and Canes Venatici are very well placed for early evening viewing (early evening being a must for your aged Uncle).

Alas, ‘twas not to be. Yeah, I’d set that tripod up about 5pm every day, just as it was slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to cool off this hellish summer. And, sure enough, in would come the clouds. Usually great big dark ones festooned with lightning. And the Moon, a fat post-First Quarter one, was back. And it was humid. And it was hazy. Sigh.

I will get to the Digital Optica adapter as soon as possible. Given what little use I’ve been able to give it, it has impressed me. It will not be used to revisit “The Tresses of Berenice” objects from Unk’s The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, of course. More likely, we’ll be doing late summer DSOs instead (if I’m lucky). Oh, well. So it goes here on the border of the Great Possum Swamp.

I have resolved not to let a month go by without an AstroBlog for y’all. What would I write about, though? I wasn’t sure. Then it came to me: “Telescopes I Have Known,” a rundown of the instruments I’ve used the past 30 (or so) years…something I thought y’all might find to be of at least passing interest. Nota Bene:  These aren’t every telescope I had in my hot little hands over the last three decades—for a while there, I was quite the gear addict—these are the ones that meant the most to me.

Coulter f/7 8-inch Odyssey

At the time I bought the Odyssey, Unk was recovering from a divorce and trying to save his pennies for a new C8. So how/why did I wind up with a telescope from the old Coulter Optical? I was paging through an issue of Sky & Telescope one evening after work when I came upon a new Coulter ad (surprising, since they had been running the exact same one for years). For a new scope, an 8-inch f/7 Dobsonian. I simply couldn’t believe it; they said would sell you a working telescope (with an eyepiece) for just over $200! Impossible! I was skeptical but couldn’t restrain myself from writing a check.

They could and did sell me a complete 8-inch Dob, and it didn’t even take that long to arrive (back in the glorious day, now-gone Coulter was notorious for horrendously long delivery times). The telescope wasn’t exactly pretty. She was awfully plain, in fact. Sonotube tube painted fire engine red, a focuser made from plumbing parts, and a rocker box made of particle board that appeared to have been cut with a chainsaw. That was about what I expected. Coulter kept costs down by cheapening their scopes year by year. Plain, she was. Would she be serviceable?

Indeed, she was, giving nice views of the Moon and planets. Maybe not quite as exquisite as I hoped for from an f/7 reflector, but certainly better than those of the other Coulter 8-inch, an f/4.5, I’d had the opportunity to try one night.  A star test revealed some turned-down edge, but not too bad, and wattaya want for 200 bucks?  The Odyssey did well on the deep sky from my club’s old dark site on the Mississippi line. 30 years down the road, I still recall how beautiful the Swan Nebula looked in the Odyssey one summer’s eve.

What became of Mabel (given that name in recognition of her plain yet solid nature)? My brother-in-law in Colorado was without a telescope, and all Mabel had done for years was gather dust in old Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault. So, way out west she went, where, I understand, she prospers and thrives to this very day.

Meade StarFinder 12.5-inch Dobsonian

Just when I had accumulated a few more dineros toward a C8, yet another Dobsonian turned my head. Meade’s new 12.5-inch StarFinder Dob was making a big splash in ads in the holiday issues of Sky & Telescope and Astronomy that yule of ’93. She certainly wasn’t 200 bucks, but she was still cheaper than any telescope in this aperture range I knew of other than Coulter’s 13.1-inch Odyssey.

One thing was sure, in the pictures at least, the Meade was a lot purtier than the Coulter 13.1. Lovely gleaming white tube and rocker box. A real rack and pinion focuser. A finder (the Coulter did not come with a finder). A real secondary mount and spider (don’t ask what the Coulter had). Once again, out the door went money meant for a new SCT.

After ordering the StarFinder from Astronomics (an upgrade package that included a couple of eyepieces and a 50mm finder), a long, long wait ensued. How long? When I ordered the scope, I was single and expected to stay that way. I wasn't e'en dating anybody. By the time the 12.5-inch arrived as August was running out in ’94, Miss Dorothy and I were planning our wedding at Chaos Manor South!

In fact, the StarFinder arrived shortly before we were wed, and I wasn’t able to get it under the stars until we returned from our honeymoon. When I did, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I’d expected optical quality in the neighborhood of what Coulter offered. One look at the Moon and Jupiter (followed by a star test) showed she instead had an excellent, outstanding primary mirror.

“Old Betsy,” as the scope became known far and wide, was with me many a long year and went to many a star party. She progressed from her original Meade body to a lovely truss tube configuration (thanks to ATM, Pat Rochford), and to a couple of upgrades—weight saving, better secondary, Sky Commander digital setting circles, super-duper primary coatings. She was always wonderful and I used her till I couldn’t, till she was too much for me and I passed her on. I shall say no more about Betsy lest I get choked up…

Celestron Ultima 8

I loved Betsy…but…she would not fit in my car when I finally upgraded to a grownup’s auto, a Toyota Camry. Oh, she would eventually, as above, be converted to a truss configuration, but that was for the future. I needed a scope to take to the 1995 Mid-South Star Gaze. One better than Mabel. It was time for another SCT.

The price for Celestron's top-of-the-line C8, the Ultima 8, seemed way high (hell, over two-THOUSAND dollars), but Miss Dorothy counseled me to buy quality. I did, and that paid off over the long run. She did need her drive repaired by Celestron shortly after she was delivered, but that was the only problem I had with her over more than 20 years of use. Quality was the word. Massive forks, Starbright coatings, super heavy-duty rubber-coated tripod, same wedge Celestron used for the 11 inch Ultima, PEC (whatever that was). Celeste had it all.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Celeste? She was the telescope that brought me home to astrophotography after a multi-year layoff. And man was she good at it, beginning with closeups and piggyback shots of Comet Hale Bopp. She went with me to the Texas Star Party in ’97 to take pictures, and she was the SCT who taught me electronic imaging with the Meade DSI and the SAC 7b.

What friends we were! I did eventually dispense with that huge fork and drivebase. As above, the Ultima had everything…EXCEPT GOTO. I wanted that, and I was sick of wedges. So, I deforked Celeste and we kept on trucking for many years with A Celestron ASGT CG5. Why did she leave? After I got the Edge 800 (below), Celeste was not being used. Heck, if I still had her, she still wouldn’t be used. I sold her and believe she want to a good home.

Celestron Short Tube 80

How the heck did Unk wind up with a short focal length Chinese achromat? Well, those telescopes, which were introduced to American observers by Orion Telescope and Binocular Center as the Short Tube 80, were all the rage in the late 90s. Pretty cheap as decent refractors went back then. Good optics for the price. Enormously wide fields.  The reason I wanted one, though, was mostly I needed a grab ‘n go.

"Grab ‘n go" is a cliché in these latter days, I reckon. But a scope I could easily get into the backyard and easily move around when I got there was a must for me at Chaos Manor South.  I had to have a telescope I could move around to peer up through clear spaces between the limbs of the Garden District's many ancient oaks.

I didn’t get the Orion, though. By this time, the Chinese maker, a little outfit called “Synta,” was selling 80 f/5s to all comers, and it turned out Celestron had one with a pretty black tube emblazoned with the Celestron logo. I figgered it would look right fine piggybacked on Celeste. But…it also came with a little GEM, an EQ-1 perfect for waltzing around Chaos Manor South’s backyard. Oh, and a couple of decent eyepieces. All the better? A Celestron dealer, Eagle Optics, was offering a special edition (their logo added to the tube) for an amazing—at the time—price of just under 300 bucks. You got scope, mount, eyepieces, and some other accessories for what Orion charged for just the tube alone.    

I had a tremendous amount of fun with Woodstock everywhere from the backyard of Chaos Manor South to the Great Smoky Mountains, as you can read here. I eventually passed the scope on (I acquired a 66mm ED refractor that was frankly mucho better). But I have no complaints about the little scope some have looked down upon then and now. I still remember watching a double satellite transit on Jupiter, and then me and Woodstock being back in the house and enjoying a glass o’ the Rebel Yell in five freaking minutes.

William Optics 80mm Fluorite Zenithstar

Gosh, by the time I finally got my paws on a genu-wine APO refractor, they had been the rage for a long time. Unk was not any sort of a refractor guy back in the first years of this new millennium, having been Schmidt Cassegrain CRAZY for a long time. Suddenly everything changed; a beautiful little refractor made a believer outa me. Oh, I didn’t give up SCTs for visual use and planetary imaging…but as the years rolled on, I got to where I didn’t want to use anything but APO refractors for deep sky picture taking. 

It wasn’t just the William Optics scope’s exquisite optics. I named the scope Veronica Lodge in recognition of her high-toned build quality. This 80mm f/7 was the heaviest 3-inch scope I’d ever lifted. Tube, cell, dew shield, focuser (especially), just everything, reeked of high quality and convinced me it does make a difference. Great optics, not so great everything else…and you cannot have a great scope.

But, yeah, while the little 80 has amazed me with what she can do visually from my suburban backyard, it’s imaging where she excels. At f/7, the image scale is good, but the focal length is still short enough that guiding is easy. Assuming you even need to guide. Ronnie is the only telescope I have ever known where imaging isn’t just “easy”…she almost seems to take pictures by herself. I still have and love this telescope.

Celestron NexStar 11 GPS

By 2003, I was more than convinced goto was the way to go. The way I wanted to go, anyway. I had been following the revival of Celestron heralded by its release of the new goto NexStars, and, finally, the NexStar 11 GPS. I came into some unlooked-for money from an inheritance, Dorothy said “do it!” and I did. Soon enough, an enormous box was on the front porch.

At first, I was afraid of Big Bertha. She was so humongous I despaired of getting her safely on her tripod, even in alt-AZ fashion. It took a little practice for me to become confident mounting the scope, but I did get confident, and could finally admire her:  huge fork, beautiful CARBON FIBER tube, futuristic NexStar hand controller, and a giant 2-inch diagonal on her rear port.

I loved Bertha from the beginning. She was perfection itself. The first few days after she came to live with us at Chaos Manor South, I went around mumbling “I have a C11…I have a C11…I have a C11.” Miss Dorothy sure did look at me funny. Bertha's GPS-fueled goto was amazing—she would put any target I requested from horizon to horizon on the tiny chip of my Mallincam Xtreme. Visually, she was just terrific. I can still see in my mind’s eye all the wonders she presented to me at her first dark sky outing at the Chiefland Astronomy Village one long-ago spring.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Maybe the most notable thing about her? She was the telescope that allowed me to conquer 2500+ Herschel objects, to view all the wonders discovered by William and Caroline Herschel. And to do that in just a few years. Stationed under a dark Chiefland sky, Xtreme on her rear port, she’d easily bring home a hundred (or more) faint fuzzies in an evening. She wasn’t the only telescope I used for the Herschel Project, but she was the one I enjoyed using the most for it (including visually).

As my 60s wound down, alas, Bertha became a problem. She was just too much. Getting her to the club dark site became not just laborious but dangerous. She nearly messed up one of my knees when I was lugging her down the front steps of Chaos Manor South in her humongous case one afternoon. I deforked her and put her on a nice Celestron CGEM…but eventually that was too much, too. Her beautiful OTA now lives with my friend Charles, a talented observer over in New Orleans. I sometimes miss her, but realize, she would just be gathering dust here.

Celestron Edge 800

I was having a ball with Celeste on her CG5. If Bertha delivered the lion’s share of Herschel Objects, that doesn’t mean Celeste didn’t make her contribution to the Project, including visually. However, in 2013 I retired, and thought I deserved a retirement gift from myself, a treat. What could be more of a treat than updating the CG5 with Celestron’s new Advanced VX, and the Ultima 8 OTA with Celestron’s new Edge 800 (reduced coma/flat field) C8?

What a lovely scope she has been (mostly). And what fun we had on her first deep sky outing to the Deep South Spring Scrimmage 2013 (sans her defective AVX which had to be replaced by Celestron). I had come to laugh at the idea an SCT’s images could be described as “refractor like,” but Mrs. Emma Peel, my new Edge, changed my mind.

Ten years down the road, the replacement AVX mount Celestron quickly got to me has been great, guiding amazingly well and delivering many astrophotos that have pleased me. Mrs. Peel? Mostly good, but one big problem. Several years ago, I found the paint on the interior of her tube was failing. I had to repaint her myself (I had no intention of shipping her to Celestron at the height of the covid pandemic). A pain in the butt, but I believe we are good to go with her excellent optics for many years to come.

SkyWatcher 120 APO

When I let Bertha go, I was really quite sad. My sadness was assuaged by this big SkyWatcher 120. This is the sought-after one these days. I believe it is still available but is certainly not the bargain it was when I got mine pre-covid. This is the one with the beautiful and color-free FPL-53 doublet. I named here “Hermione” because she is magic.

She was and is beautiful. Her build quality is not up there with what you’d get from William Optics but her price at the time was much more doable than what a 5-inch class WO would have cost. No, her focuser isn’t a monster, but it doesn't slip with my DSLR on it, even when I am pointed at zenith. From her first big astrophotography outing at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, she has delivered the goods easily. Nota Bene:  While she was initially on my CGEM, I quickly replaced that with a far more manageable (for me) Losmandy GM811!

Zhumell 10-inch Dobsonian

And so, we come ‘round to "simple" again. Zelda is not really much different from the StarFinder and Odyssey of yore. Why did she come here? I missed the aperture of Bertha and Betsy and thought I might be able to handle this 10-inch GSO-made Zhumell Dobsonian. Certainly, when I bought her in 2015 her low price—about 500 bucks delivered with 50mm finder, two speed focuser, two eyepieces, laser collimator, and cooling fan—was attractive. I soon had a new telescope in the house.

Zelda is a cut above the old StarFinder in several ways. While her mirror is comparable in quality to that of the Meade, she has a beautifully finished steel tube, an excellent 2-inch Crayford focuser, butter-smooth lazy Susan azimuth bearings, adjustable altitude balance, and a REAL mirror cell (don’t even ask about the old Meade’s primary cell or what passed for one).

I can still handle Zelda without much trouble, and 10-inches of aperture really helps in suburban light pollution. She has been to the club dark site a few times, but I am thinking she deserves some real dark-sky time. I have been ruminating about doing the Deep South Regional Star Gaze this autumn, and if I do, I think I want to do it simply…no computers, no motors, just a manual Dob and a star atlas…and that is just how Zelda rolls.

And we are out of space and time this Sunday. I really should have mentioned the StarBlast. Certainly, Miss Valentine should be in there. How about my beloved 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher? Well, nothing says there cannot be a "Part II." Anyhow, thanks for indulging me in this trip down memory lane, and I swear I will get out and do some actual observing soon. I hope….  

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