Last touched 2001 December 4
Originally published in M-111, the Newsletter of the Richland (Ohio) Astronomical Society
Reflections in the Eyepiece
by Robert Bunge
"Won't you like to look through my telescope.
The Milky-way's a fine sight to see.
All around our universe we try so hard to view, what's new.
Make a trip down to Sagittarius.
And take a spin by some nebula.
I hope the sky stays clear for us tonight...goes on so far,"
Mike Oldfield Saved by a bell
During the past five or so years, I've been one of the most privileged amateur astronomers of recent time. For the most part, I've had free use of one of largest and certainly one of the best visual amateur telescopes in the world. I believe the 31-inch F/7 telescope is the best instrument of its type ever made. As a visual observer, I couldn't ask for a better telescope.
When the 31-inch first saw first light at Warren Rupp in 1986 I didn't need a motor drive, computer setting circles or a CCD camera. All I needed was an eyepiece, an operational dome and mit-e-lift and a star atlas. When Sky Atlas 2000.0 wasn't good enough -- I would point the 31-inch at a plotted galaxy and almost always see more than one galaxy -- I teamed up with another Columbus amateur and started our own atlas. Before we would finish, Uranometria 2000.0 came about and the problem was solved.
So I used the 31-inch. I learned to navigate the universe. From exploring the inter-regions of the great nebula of Orion -- countless hours looking for Alvan Clark's 'G' star and Barnard's 'H' star. Only the G star was seen, see Burnham Vol II, pg. 1328 -- to a detailed three night study of galaxy cluster Abell 426 (near Algol).
Once, Brent Archinal and I located the brightest galaxies that make up the core of a cluster of galaxies that is a BILLION light years away. Later I navigated to a quasi-stellar object in Ursa Major that is trillions of light years away.
I was lucky in other ways too. One of the first telescopes I used was the 32-inch Cassigrain at Perkins Observatory near Delaware, Ohio. Later I used 40 and 30-inch telescopes in Virginia. Once, I managed to get a night on the 26-inch Alvan Clark refractor at Leander McCormick Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. The common thread is that all of those telescopes were harder to use than the 31-inch -- even with the mit-e-lift.
I've often heard amateurs say they believe the mit-e-lift is too hard to operate. With practice, it's no harder to drive than your car. The best thing to do is to go up in the daytime and take it for a drive.
But, before a person can use the 31-inch, someone has to maintain it, upgrade it, clean it, paint it, scrub the rust off it, check the water levels in the mit-e-lift's batteries, fix little things that go wrong and generally baby the big blue beast.
We've been blessed with two very dedicated individuals who have spent countless hours solving my little problems, responding to my requests, improving an already good thing and all the while often paying for it out of their own pocket. I will never be able to thank Barrie McConnell and Warren Walker enough. Thanks guys.
For the last five years, there has been very few conflicts when it came to using the telescope. Perhaps this is because few people seem interested in using own their own. That's always amazed me, but I finally decided that the size of the telescope and the mit-e-lift scare many potential observers away.
Don't let it! Never in history have amateurs had so much. Unless amateurs in the Mansfield region start an active light pollution battle -- which will take at least two or three years to make a difference -- the skies will continue to get brighter as they have during the last five years (The skies at Perkins, in my opinion, have a slower brightening rate and will be easier to darken than those at Mansfield). Don't let the best time in your astronomical "amateur" career pass you by.
With that said, I'd like to supply what I believe to be a working model for how the telescope should be used. The following is only a suggestion. While I think it is a good thing that basic guidelines should be written down, I'm not sure that concrete rules will work. Almost every case will be different and should be considered on its individual benefits:
Basic Guidelines for Useage of the 31-inch.
Total dictorship! The observatory director should have full say over the use of the telescope. If a person feels short changed, an appeal process can be taken up with the club's board of directors and officers. At the same time, the director is expected to be fair and follow these basic guidelines.
Priority for use of telescope:
1) Public observing;
2) Organized observing program (Club level - planetary patrols, etc);
3) Individual observing program - supernova patrols, astrophotography, CCD imaging etc;
4) Casual observing ... Hey, let's look at M-42.
Organized and individual observing programs should encouraged to conduct their work during off-peak demands for the telescope, like NOT after the club meeting but after midnight when most people have left for the night.
The director can temporarily change priorities if the need arises. This can be a touchy process. Example: what is more important, letting a hundred plus people see a bright comet in the telescope or letting the club astrophotographer take some pictures? Questions should be raised. Does the club rely on public donations- Does the photographer have a good purpose for taking the pictures -- ie, for science, an article on testing new films, or for their own living room wall?
In this process, the telescope can be reserved for a person or group by giving the director a call. It can be done months or hours in advance. This can be tough if it's a long distance call to the director's house and the observer is on a budget.
The director is also responsible to make sure that anybody using the telescope is checked out on it and any equipment they may be using. If not, the director needs to be there, or find a qualified operator who can be there. This will happen at Rupp because sometimes vacationing amateurs who only want to use the scope for one night will appear as the observatory becomes better known.
The director is expected to know the most about the telescope and the equipment, so he sets the check out procedure. In the case of the 31-inch, the telescope and equipment change too much to write it down... the telescope is always being updated.
Security. A good account of keys and rigid logbook procedures should work here. The director issues temporary keys, and informs the board of the issue of permanent keys. The board and director have the power to demand the return of keys or the changing of locks. A good logbook allows the tracing of who was using the telescope last for when things break or disappear. So far, we've been lucky, normally when something as disappeared it's because someone didn't put it away or took an eyepiece home to clean it.
One more note about public observing. Deep inside, I'm a true follower of John Dobson when it comes to showing the heavens to the public. This is one of the most important things amateurs can do for their hobby and science.
To improve open house nights, I think it would be a good idea for the club to look into purchasing a video camera similar to the one Don Parker had at Hidden Hollow '90.
At Hidden Hollow, on Friday night, it took about three hours for me to lift about 175 people up to the eyepiece. Later, with Parker's camera mounted and on Mars, about a hundred people got a good look at the red planet with the added benefit of Parker pointing out various features. It only took about 30 minutes to this.
I believe this will improve experience the average guest has during a open house. It will also speed the process up, which will allow the telescope to be pointed to more than one object for each open house.
In the end, I hope the 31-inch sees plenty of use in the coming months and years.
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