OT: Amateur Astronomy

Back in 1997, when the Mars Pathfinder bounced down on Mars on July 4, releasing the little Sojourner rover to move around the Martian surface, I became interested in Astronomy. I was living in an apartment in Foothill Ranch, California, stuck in an area with quite a bit of light pollution. After doing some research on how to get into the hobby on a proper basis, I bought a pair of pretty decent astronomical binoculars to get started. These were a pair of Celestron Ultima 8×56 binoculars, which have served me well for many years. Using these binoculars, along with my naked eyes, I was able to start learning the constellations, which is really the best way to get started in Astronomy.

After about six months, I was ready to buy my first telescope. I had bought a number of books, and I had subscribed to both Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines. I had also joined the Orange County Astronomers club, going to meetings and to a few local Star Parties. Because of all this preparation and support, I did not make the common mistake of buying a cheap, department store refractor (which is what most lay people think of when they visualize a telescope). Instead, I bought an 8” Celestron Starhopper Dobsonian telescope. Dobsonian telescopes are reflectors that use a simple, alt-azimuth mount of a design popularized by John Dobson.

8 inch Starhopper

The idea was that you could use very cheap materials, such as particle board for the mount, and a thick cardboard sonotube for the barrel of the telescope. This made it pretty easy to have a relatively large mirror, such as a 6”, 8”, 10”, etc. in a large aperture telescope, that could gather a lot of light for not very much money at all. This type of telescope is often called a light bucket. Dobsonian telescopes are very easy to learn how to use, provided you know your way around the sky. They are not suitable for photographic use, since they don’t have equatorial, motorized mounts (although some newer Dobsonian mounts do have Goto systems). I added a TelRad finder scope, a few eyepieces and filters, and I was having a lot of fun. Then I moved to Colorado in 1999, and I ended up using that big Dobsonian scope less and less. It was partly due to the weather, where it was colder at night, and also more frequently cloudy at night. I think is was also because I was more reluctant to pack up the Dobsonian and take it somewhere dark.

After a number of years of being idle in the hobby (and forgetting a lot of what I had learned), my interest in Astronomy has been reawakened. I discovered a very nice local telescope shop called S&S Optika, in Littleton, CO. After a little research, I bought a brand new Celestron NexStar 6SE Schmitt-Cassegrain telescope (SCT). This scope does not have the same light gathering capacity of my old 8” Dobsonian, but it is much more compact. Plus, it has a nice little computer GoTo system. This is definitely an entry level SCT, not really suitable for astrophotography. Still, I am having fun with it so far.

I have also discovered and joined the Denver Astronomical Society, which is an old and very active astronomy club that does a lot of outreach to the public. They operate the historic 20” Chamberlin Telescope that was built in 1894 a few blocks away from the University of Denver Campus, where they have Public Nights every Tuesday and Thursday, along with a monthly Open House. Now that I am getting back in the hobby, I plan to start working on some of the observing clubs from the Astronomical League, such as the Messier Club.

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