Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Time To Go

There comes a point where you find yourself looking around and realizing that perhaps a change is needed. That's exactly the situation I find myself in at this moment. Because so much has happened this summer in my regular day-to-day existence, I now find it necessary to change locales. To that end, I am returning to West Palm Beach fairly soon. The downside is an increase in light pollution. The upside, though, is an area that is far more open to the brand of astronomy that I practice.
I don't plan on staying in West Palm Beach permanently. But for now, it's needed. There will be one last Vagabond Astronomer event here in Jacksonville, and I will post the when and where at that time. My way of saying goodbye to my hometown, as only I can.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

50mm Memories

They say that you never forget your first. I certainly won't. Since 1973, I had owned a pair of K-Mart 7x35 binoculars, my first astronomical instrument. They served me well (and in fact still do, three decades later). But I wanted a real telescope. As an adolescent, there was no way I could afford what I really wanted; a 6"/150mm Newtonian on an equatorial mount. At least I could dream.
When I graduated high school in 1981, my friend Scott Spooner and I ended up over my friend Scott Moots' house one night after a party. He had to go back to his bedroom for something, and we just tagged along, carrying on a conversation (probably about my fixation on the Electric Light Orchestra). In his room, I noticed a telescope tucked into the closet. Just a small one. I asked Moots about it, and he responded, "oh, yeah, it's yours!"
And with that, I became the owner of a Tasco 50mm telescope.
It wasn't great. The biggest problem was really the tripod... what there was of it. It was a table-top tripod, not good for anything really. I had a spare camera tripod, so I modified the little telescope to fit on that. It had two eyepieces, a 20mm and what I think was a 5mm... that got tossed in no time, as it was unbearable. The diagonal was the old standard .965", so there were still some additional eyepieces I could get. Instead, I chose to stick mainly to the 20mm.
My first night with it was memorable. I chose to watch Saturn. With a 20mm eyepiece in a telescope that had a focal length of 600mm, I knew that I'd be looking at only 30x. Still, I was startled. Even at that low power, it was clear that Saturn had rings. I was hooked big time.
I followed that scope with a 70mm, which served me well. But the 50mm was used quite a bit for the next decade. In fact, it outlived the 70mm, as I sold it when I found myself penniless in 1987. Sometime in 1991, the 50mm finally gave up the ghost and was disposed of; it had been dropped and the objective broke.
Still, it was that small scope that gave me my first steady views of the heavens. I'm an advocate of small telescopes. My smallest telescope, "Lil' Bernie", is 57mm, though I do have a classic three draw 35mm, "Hans", that I use for some experimentation (it is optically a nice little scope). Small telescopes have advantages, namely in portability and costs. I've heard it said often that once you graduate from binoculars and want a larger instrument, you should really save up and buy something with a minimum of a 4"/100mm aperture. That's good advice, but for some, that outlay might still be used elsewhere in their lives (for, say, food, clothing and shelter). Small telescopes, 3"/76mm and down, might be a better alternative for them. It's just important that they are steered towards good manufacturers.
The 50mm has gotten scarce these days, being replaced by the 60mm. Tonight, though, I spent half an hour looking on eBay for 50mm telescopes (there are a number of new manufacturers putting them out, but I tend to gravitate towards names I recognize). Nowhere did I see the familiar white tube that marked the Tasco telescopes of that period. I hope one day to replace that scope. I might have instruments many times larger and far more capable. But you never really forget your first. Besides, I can probably find a way to justify it.

Just discovered a review of the same telescope at "Cloudy Nights", "Tasco Model 6TE-5 50 mm Refractor". Yes, that was my telescope!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

More Experiments In Cheap Digital Photography

I just couldn't leave well enough alone.
I decided that I had to try photographing the Moon one more time with the little Mercury point-n'-shoot digital camera. However, this time I chose to use one of my home made neutral density filters. This time... success... sort of.
Most of my image editing is done on my PC, an HP Pavillion running Windows ME. The problem is that computer is currently down; it runs for about ten minutes and then goes unstable, possibly due to some bad RAM (near as I can tell). So, I have to use what image editing software I have on my Macintosh G3 Blue & White, "Alcyone" (yes, I name my computers, too). While Macintoshes are superb graphics machines, I lack the funds to buy the proper software at this time, so I am forced to use some free alternatives, namely Futurepaint 2.1 (running in Classic mode under 9.2), NIH Image 1.63 (which is actually very nice for black and white image processing, also under Classic mode) and Preview in OS X.
Still, the results weren't bad. The first image was taken with "Bianca" (my 60mm) through a 20mm Kellner.

Using Futurepaint, I resized the image and did a little sharpening. After I did that, I used Preview to change the image's attributes, though I should mention that the image is still a mirror image Moon, much as you would see through an eyepiece. I'll correct that later. The results weren't too shabby.
The next image was taken with the addition of a 2x Barlow.

This time, I chose to use NIH Image for the processing alone. The results weren't bad at all. However, you can't really save images in NIH as JPEG's, so again Preview was used to convert the image. I should mention that I have used NIH Image before for grayscale image processing, and the results were always great (In the next month or so, I should have another computer set up specifically for image processing running Ubuntu and Gimp).
There are a lot of ways to record your astronomical adventures inexpensively. Certainly, the day is coming when I will be asked to write a webpage on my methods. Until then, I will always share the fruits of my labors.