Of course I’ll still have the telescope after this (this is a “lifetime telescope” after all) but I imagine this will be the last chapter in the “I finally get a telescope and must share every obsessive detail” part of the story.

So after Thursday’s initial test drive, Saturday was a chance to take another crack at a nice clear night, with as much prep and observing time as I wanted, complete with learning how to use the Intelliscope computer. Although it was clear, the moon was out and at first quarter, and very bright in the early evening when I’d be out, so I did have to contend with that. Just so you understand, the moon is awful pretty and all, but it is ungodly bright compared to everything around it and more or less washes out almost anything nearby that you want to look at with a telescope. I also had a good chance to play with the Starry Night software the telescope comes with. It’s a little clunky usability-wise but still pretty fun to play with. It’s easy to see what’s coming up in future weeks and months and years. I even fast-forwarded to August 21, 2017, and got a preview of the solar eclipse scheduled for that day.

Anyway, my primary goal was to get a shot at observing Jupiter, which is visible at the moment, but only just barely, as it can be seen very low in the southwest just after sunset. From my backyard, it was low enough to have trees as a problem, and the later I would be able to get outside to observe it the worse it would be. It will only start lower each night too, until the fall, when it will start rising at night again.  So this was my last shot for a while. I got the telescope set up early, before sunset, and hung around with K trying to figure out how to time dinner while waiting for it to get dark enough. In the end I just barely got to see it. I did get a quick look, mostly like a sneak preview of things to come, but it was too low to really be an easy target and further, we ended up having some dinner-making hijinks that kept me preoccupied (the short version of the story is: recipes from Cook’s Illustrated are wonderful but insanely precise in their timing and required attention). Oh well. I’ll have a better chance in the fall when it rises again.

I got back out later on in the evening after it was fully dark and no food was burning on the stove, and had some quality time with the scope. K came out for a while too, and I got to show her some good things, but we were mostly thwarted by bright moonlight washing out some of the dimmer things to see. Plus there are no planets up right now so all in all it wasn’t a great night for showing off, so she went back into the warm house while I tinkered.

One goal, to learn to use the computer, was met. It’s actually a pretty clever little device and not at all hard to use once you get the hang of it. Biggest issue at this point is that simply sticking it to the base with velcro is not a great solution. The velcro comes off and the cord gets tangled. It’s certainly workable, but maybe a holster and a wireless link would be ideal (it just so happens they sell a holster – thanks, Orion, for not including the actual useful part in my $1300 purchase – but the wireless link is probably asking for a pretty huge step up that would probably just be overkill). It generally worked fine though in its primary mission, though, which was to tell me where stuff was. I’m not sold on its ID function thus far, though I’ll play with that more. The idea is that you can point at anything in the sky and it will identify it. I’m not sure it was working, and anyway it relies on the object being one of the things in its database. Considering there are millions and millions of things in the sky, but only thousands and thousands of things in the database, you’re going to have a lot of misses. One nice feature was the Tour: I took the February Tour, which hit on most of the highlights. It has a pre-programmed tour for each month where it cycles you through some interesting things to see. It focused on a few star clusters and nebulae, although the nebulae were generally not visible with the ambient light.

So at two observing nights completed, I’m happy with the scope. I’m learning (or re-learning) a lot about the sky and using a telescope and what it’s like to have access to a nice toy like this. I think I got a good scope for me overall – I could have saved some money, but I think I would have probably just been wishing I’d have gotten more had I gone with a smaller device. Unfortunately I have been spoiled by some very nice telescopes and observing opportunities in my life. But I think this will keep me happy. I traded some features like easy setup and a tracking motor for a larger mirror, but I think that’s really what I care about the most, so I am pleased. Mostly at this point, I *love* feeling in touch with what’s going on in the sky again: having a sense of what phase the moon is in, where planets are, what constellations are visible, and when all that will change, and having a good tool to witness it.

Last point of discussion: my backyard. Is this really going to work for most observing? With some qualifications, I say yes. Now, it’s not great. B-/C+ probably.

Good:

  • It’s MY yard, and right outside my door, and near my kitchen where I have snacks. For a telescope as big as this one, convenient location wins.
  • Best view is to the south, which is really where you want to be looking anyway.
  • If I get the telescope in the right spot in the backyard, I have privacy and no visible streetlights (though they are around and do contribute to some light pollution, certainly–I just can’t see the bulbs).

Bad:

  • Downtown is also to the south, so there’s a fair amount of ambient light low in the sky.
  • Very limited view to the north or west, thanks to tall trees.

In short, I could be doing a lot worse for backyard observing, but I could also be doing a lot better, and once in a while I’m going to be forced to drive somewhere darker or with a more complete view of the sky.

Anyway, I’m excited for a lot of upcoming observing. Saturn will be visible in the early evening hours before too long, and this first year with the telescope should be a lot of fun as I get to plan to see all the major hits as they cycle through the sky during the year.

Telescope obtained and assembled, and now used a few times.

Telescope parts

Before

Finished telescope

After

Assembly took all evening Monday and some additional time Tuesday. The implication being: if you expected to open the box, attach it to the tripod and get right outside with it, this would not be the telescope for you. No, this took about four total hours of assembly time. All in all it wasn’t that difficult or confusing. I actually enjoyed doing it. But, that’s the kind of person I am. I sometimes think I should have a business where I assemble people’s furniture for them because I believe that I dislike doing that less than others. (It’s probably not viable because I’d have to charge enough to make it worth my own time, which would subsequently raise the total cost of the item up to where it would make more sense for people to just buy some higher-quality, already-assembled furniture. Anyway.) So of course I naturally had the thought that I should contract out to build people’s telescopes for them, but that also fails as a business model because the kind of people that buy $1300 telescopes are the kind of people that like to do the building themselves. (They are also generally the kind of people that think it might be awesome to buy a Klingon Empire flag and attach it to their house.) Like me.

We’re in the middle of a really clear stretch of weather so I got to exercise my obsession immediately. Thursday I got it out despite having no idea how to use the computer control. My feeling was, I still know how to point a telescope at stuff. The moon was really nice. Bright enough through the telescope to wash out your retinas and ruin any darkness adjustments your eyes have made to that point. But really nice look at crater details and such. I got K out to have a look, though I failed to show her the view through the more powerful eyepiece. She went back in because it was cold, but I stayed out to check out the Orion Nebula and a few stars (i.e., things I could find with the naked eye). I tried to figure out how to use the computer but that turned out to be pretty amusing for the computer, I’m sure. Definitely need to read the manual. So all told, I wasn’t out too long, but it was productive and a nice first run.

Things I learned:

  • This telescope is heavy. To get it outside I can either break it down properly and haul it out in four components, or take a shortcut and just do two heavy ones. Of course I did the latter just to prove how manly I am and do things the brute force way rather than the smart easy way, but now that there are no questions about my mettle I’ll probably try to make a habit of doing it the smart easy way from now on.
  • Clomping around and hauling large telescope pieces out a door I usually don’t use scares the hell out of the cats.
  • The finder scope requires a bit of alignment but that’s pretty easy to do.
  • It’s fairly straightforward to find visibly bright objects in the sky without computer aid. If I wanted to take the time to find things manually I could do that. Maybe for fun, on occasion. (Yes, I sad “fun.”)
  • My scope is well-designed for hand-slewing. It smoothly moves around with moderate force and will stay stable as long as you don’t bump it. However, I’m already missing a motor control that will keep objects in the field of view automatically.
  • My backyard is not the greatest for astronomical observing, but it’s certainly workable. More discussion on this later.
  • The attached computer will take at least some rudimentary education to learn to use, rather than just my trying to figure it out on the fly.

I got out again for a longer observing session last night. Will post that update soon.

The crazy storms in the midwest that messed up half the country’s work, school, and flight schedules did not disrupt the trek of my telescope from California to North Carolina via UPS, so as far as I’m concerned, that storm was of no real consequence. It arrived Monday. Therefore I spent Monday evening putting it together. I had a chance to get outside Thursday and had a little bit of good viewing. I’m definitely excited about it, and obviously that’s the whole reason I got the thing. However, more on that soon, with some pictures of the assembly process. First, I had some leftover thoughts about the decision-making process and what went into this particular purchase.

Stuff I knew already (I did learn SOMETHING with my astronomy degree, although that’s yellowing and the emphasis was definitely not practical observational stuff):

  • The obvious telescope buying tips. There are two big things here. First, people have a common perception about what telescopes look like, and those kinds further turn out to be relatively inexpensive and available in any department store, but those telescopes (i.e., refractors) are generally terrible for astronomy and should not even be in a serious purchasing discussion. Second, for whatever reason, “magnification” is a specification that sounds important, but actually isn’t. Cheap scopes can easily do things to boost magnification, but that’s actually not what’s important when doing astronomy. Magnification necessarily reduces the brightness of what you’re seeing. Rather…
  • The number one factor in seeing a lot and seeing it well is aperture diameter. The bigger it is, the more light-gathering power. I’ve spent time looking through 8-inch diameter telescopes, as well as an observatory-quality 16-inch. There’s a big difference there, but things get expensive fast. I knew I wouldn’t consider going less than 8, and I probably wanted more.
  • The decision came down to a Dobsonian-style scope, which gives you a huge aperture per dollar but are more unwieldy, or a more classic Schmidt-Cassegrain or something similar, which were a bit more expensive for a similar size, only the overall design was more compact.
  • I was going to be mostly backyard observing. It would be unrealistic to make bold plans to spend a lot of time driving out to dark spots and setting up for long nights of telescoping.

Stuff I learned whilst doing research:

  • Back to the “obvious tips” point above, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this kind of thing was easily found online. Someone with an interest but without experience would learn these things quickly if they were paying any attention at all. It occurs to me that if someone bought a telescope without doing a lick of reading they would probably get themselves in trouble by what they thought they knew. So for any other major purchases I may make in the future in which I don’t know much about the topic (this includes nearly everything else on Earth) I should remember this and know that I can probably improve my standing even with just the most basic research.
  • Good optics are also very important. Some companies have a better reputation for high-quality lenses and mirrors than others.
  • Internets have lots of personal telescope-review websites, only they were built in 1997 or so. Finding articles in Sky and Telescope or Astronomy or another actual publication is a better route. Fortunately I am a science librarian and have access to such things.
  • If you’re mostly just hanging out in your backyard in suburbia, mirrors beyond about 12 inches supposedly don’t add much extra versus the cost.
  • There is a decision to be made about whether you’re going to be mostly just looking at stuff, or trying to take pictures (meaning you need better optics and have to spend more).

Decision points:

  • Had to be honest about my expected behavior. I loved staying up observing when I was 20. Now I am 34 and when it’s 10pm I generally want to be in my bed where it is warm and where my wife is comfortably sleeping. Often I do not even have a choice in the matter. Most weeknights I’m tired enough by 10 to be nonfunctional. Also this sometimes turns out to be true on weekends, too. Being up until 2am or later is out of the question probably 362 days a year. Packing the scope up and driving somewhere dark is less unlikely, but still rare. Unless I come home soon to find a giant pile of cash in my driveway, doing away with my need to continue full-time employment, or start aging backwards, none of this is likely to change.
  • My backyard isn’t great. It’s in the ‘burbs so there’s a fair amount of ambient light. There are a number of tall trees so I don’t have any view to the north (though that’s the boring direction, stargazing-wise). Nevertheless, it can be acceptably dark and it has the advantage of being, you know, MY backyard.
  • I was willing to spend some good money, but (a) there is diminishing rate of returns beyond a certain level of quality, (b) I’m not planning on doing any astrophotography.
  • I have no issue with having to set the scope up or do some manual work, because assembling a telescope is a very nerd thing that I like.

In the end:

I ended up going with this one, which is kind of a monster but high on the aperture-per-dollar scale. It has about the biggest mirror you can get. I sacrificed a bit on ease of use here. The other one I thought a lot about would have had a lot less setup time and effort. I had a feeling the latter would have left me feeling underutilized. I would have wanted a bigger scope and would have been willing to do more work to get it up and running. That would have been a good purchase if I thought I’d be more interested in driving myself to a dark location or if I didn’t want to spend a lot of time tinkering with it.

Over the weekend I decided that instead of a substantive amount of money, I would like to have a ridiculously awesome telescope. Actually this was not an impulsive decision, but the culmination of several years of longing and the internet’s remarkable ability to let you spend as much money as you have as quickly as possible.

Some background. Once upon a time I was an astronomy major, trading in the lucrative and highly employable field of computer science for something cooler that I thought I’d like better that I would ultimately bail on just one year into a PhD program, leaving myself floundering for an adult identity for years and years. In fairness, astronomy’s lack of an appealing career path was not the fault of the HR diagrams and globular clusters I was studying, but the fault of an oppressive and fiercely competitive academic environment I didn’t dig nearly as much as the diagrams and clusters. So I didn’t stick with it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it or wouldn’t miss it.

I certainly wanted to have a good telescope even when it had some tenuous relation to my field of study (yes, tenuous: modern professional astronomers don’t exactly spend their nights in the backyard with flimsy paperboard star charts). Only, as a college student, it was a few thousand dollars out of my grasp. Instead of the necessary $1200 or so, I had more like $12. In astronomy courses, they teach you about orders of magnitude. A worthwhile telescope was two orders of magnitude too expensive for the likes of me. The mindset of “this will happen some day” was established.

So: years later, I have a house and a real job. Despite a rigorous morning routine of grousing and whining about having to get up and go to work, I understand I am lucky to have navigated a recession and have a job to go to, and I want to keep it, so I go. A result of such is that I had accumulated a bit of savings. The financial barrier to telescope ownership was broken down. And…nothing happened. Because the “some day” mindset persisted. A number of times this winter, K and I have gone for our evening walk and I would say something like how great a night it would be to have a telescope. She would contrast staying up late and standing out in the cold to use it with not having it and getting to be in a warm bed inside and shrug, but at least give me the supportive wifely, “Yeah.” Then for some reason last week it just clicked. What the heck am I waiting for? This could happen!

I had enough residual knowledge of telescopes to narrow the search quickly. I generally knew I wanted something of pretty high quality and had some basic specifications in mind. It was just a matter of deciding how much I was willing to spend and to do some research. With the obsession switch kicked on, this took relatively little time.

BEHOLD!

Excitedness has achieved CONDITION RED. Here is a brief rundown of the conditions:

  • Blue: You are surprised when it was delivered because you forgot you even ordered it.
  • Green: You know it’s coming at least but aren’t too worried about it. It’ll get here eventually.
  • Yellow: You are aware of the scheduled delivery date and are on the lookout for it. You would be mildly disappointed if it doesn’t show on time.
  • Orange: You leave work a few minutes early hoping to be home for delivery. If you miss it, you are willing to go pick it up from UPS/FedEx during the 30 minute opportunity window in the middle of the night.
  • Red: You refresh the tracking site hourly. You take the whole day off on the scheduled delivery date and sleep by the door the night before just in case of early arrival.

Condition Red has been achieved only twice before: when I bought a particularly exciting new computer once, and when I got the drum kit for Guitar Hero (I dunno, I just got really wound up after playing around with it at Best Buy). UPS currently reports that a shipping label has been created but they do not yet have possession of my shipment. So I’m guessing I’ll see it Friday or Monday.

Anyway, this has gone on long enough but I’ll keep you posted. Next time: scope specifics.