Last touched 2002 March 29
Originally published in M-111, the Newsletter of the Richland (Ohio) Astronomical Society
Reflections in the Eyepiece
by Robert Bunge
The little brown telescope had sat dusty and unused - without any sort of verbal complaint, mind you - in the corner of several apartments over the course of past years. A good part of the time it had been covered by an Australian flag... fitting because the homemade 6-inch F/5 telescope had been there and many other places in earlier days. Finally, it was dusted off, mirrors were cleaned, screws and knobs adjusted and it was generally checked over for any form of state of disrepair that might in even some minor way reflect on its abilities to glance deep into the cosmos.
In those past years, it had traveled thousands of miles and viewed hundreds of objects - in both hemispheres - before it had been superceded by a 10-inch F/5.6 dobsonian-boppian. But, after the travels were over, the use of sixteen, seventeen, twenty inch and finally the 31-inch telescope came along and doomed it to the apartment corner. It was just the wrong sized telescope for the period. On the lower end of the scale, a smaller, more compact 4.25-inch F/4 telescope had found its way into the back of my car as a permanment part of my observing gear to serve as an easy-to-set up last resort or "fun" telescope. So the little brown 6-inch just didn't fit in anywhere.
However, now, like a National Guard Reserve unit, it was being recalled to duty. The 31-inch was hundreds of miles away. An unfinished 12-inch dobsonian-boppian was temporary home to parts stripped from the original 6-incher replacement, the 10-inch dobsonian-boppian.
So with the 6-inch scope in the backseat of the car, I set off to a new observing site somewhere west of Baltimore for my first completely outdoor observing session in several years.
Of course, I have been observing from the great outdoors all these years, but domes and observatories tend to grow slowly on you. I can clearly remember the loss of the night sky when I first started to observe with the 31-inch at Warren Rupp. Inside a dome, the vast sky shrinks to a narrow strip of stars. The sounds and smells of the night are masked off and replaced with the hum of computers, the grind of drive gears and wiff of carpet cement. Gone too, is the weather sense. Dew and wind disappear as problems. More times than I can remember, I didn't know lake-effect clouds from Lake Erie were rolling in until the object I was viewing faded from sight in the eyepiece.
Not that I don't like observatories. How many times did I point the slit away from the biting north wind to gaze off into the depths of space. Or use the dome as a shield from 20 or 30 mph winds that threatened to blow small telescopes outside off their sturdy - or not-so-sturdy - tripods. Once I remember it was so windy that a couple of folks set up small telescopes under the 31-inch and observed out the slit just so they could avoid the threat of tumbling telescopes.
Then there are the little things you never think of and soon take for granted. A place to arrange your charts... away from the wind and dew. A place to set your eyepieces so they are within an arm's reach from the telescope focuser.
However, the impact of standing for hours under a complete, slowing rotating dome of stars was something I had not forgotten but yet not remembered. I had also forgotten the thrust of cold wind and snow under feet. But, for the moment I shoved aside the signals of pain from my freezing toes and just stared up. To look even further up, I stared down... into the eyepiece of the little brown 6-inch. So with the little brown 6-inch, I started in the west and worked east, sometimes in huge leaps and bounds dredged from memory as I looked at least 40 Messier objects without having to consult a star chart. Such observing is impossible with the 31-inch because of the complex issues of moving the telescope, rotating the dome and driving the Mit-E-Lift to the proper location.
So, I simply wandered the sky in search of things to look at. When I exhausted my star hopping memory of objects that I didn't need a chart for, I used Dave Levy's method of letting the telescope do the searching. Pointing somewhere to the west, I moved the telescope slowly as I looked into the eyepiece. Sometimes faint smudges of light... galaxies at the edge of the limit for the 6-inch would drift into view. Other times better known Messier or bright NGC objects moved into sight. At one point, I stumbled into the Virgo cluster of galaxies. What a trip. You're right Dave. It is a great way to observe!
Something that has always captured my attention while I'm observing is my surroundings. During my last observing session with the 31-inch in December, I was thrilled to hear the cry of a screech owl that was somewhere off in the distant trees while loading up the car just before leaving. It certainly was a good way to end a great session. I will also never forget the night that I climbed eleven stories to gain my observing post beside the bridge of the USS America.
Armed with charts, the little brown 6-inch (which really was black at the time) and other such stuff, I was ready for a couple hours of great observing from the middle of the Indian Ocean. The telescope never made it out that night. For that one night, the ocean had decided to out-shine the gloriously dark sky. Millions, if not billions of tiny plankton were shining bright green wherever the surface of the water was disturbed. After watching from up high for awhile, I walked to the fantail of the big aircraft carrier. There, from under my location, four huge twenty foot diameter screws strained to push the mighty ship through the water. Here, everything was reflecting the bright green light emitted by the plankton. That night the railing around the fantail of the ship were full of green faces. It was a form of light pollution I will not complain about.
That night west of Baltimore, as I navigated the heavens, it became apparent that I wasn't the only critter in the area doing some stellar navigating. Like a gaggle of old ladies having tea and taking in the local gossip, I could hear, but not see geese flying north for summer that were passing a hundred feet over my head.
I could just image the conservation.
Marvin: "Frank, do you know were you are going?
Frank: "Sure Marvin. We fly 303,152 flaps with the bright orange star in the grouping that looks like a human over our left shoulder, then turn right until a lake shaped like a wing appears. Hey Mary, how many?"
Mary: "152,234. Or was that 152,233?"
Well, you get the picture. But hearing geese also reminded me of another story. Somewhere not too far west of Warren Rupp, perhaps 40 years ago, an amateur was surprised if not shocked to see a "V" formation of lights heading toward him. Was he really seeing a UFO? No, Leslie Peltier decided to be a sciencist and observed the situation before declaring that the world was about to end. As the light came closer he realized the lights of nearby Delphos was reflecting off the bottoms of the geese!
As the call of the geese faded, I realized I was quite tired. A glance at the watch showed it was well past 1 a.m.. Perhaps the cold was sucking the strength from me, so I packed up and headed home. Since then, been out several times, each time without the benefit of an observatory. The ten inch has been placed back into operation and most recently the 12-inch mirror has been delivered to the coaters for that ever magical coating of aluminum.
Of course, this means the little brown 6-inch has once again found itself in the corner of an apartment. It still isn't complaining. For it knows what it has done.
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