Wednesday, May 15, 2013

First First Light

Lest anyone think that is a current star chart, let me assure, it isn't.
This is a chart generated from Night Vision for Java (a nice free planetarium
program), and if you look close enough, you'll see a date - 18th June,
1981 (1981/6/18, above the chart). It was on this night that I used my
first telescope, an older Tasco 50mm. It was a great little telescope that
had a pathetic little table top tripod. While I chose to keep the table
top tripod, I re-purposed a Woolco store brand tripod to take the
telescope as needed. That sky you see up there is what awaited me my first
night out with it, and as it turned out, its first light.
For my very first observation session, I set up in my front yard in the
Sandalwood neighborhood of Jacksonville. While we still had light
pollution, as well as the sweeping beacon from nearby Craig Airport, it
was not nearly as bad as it is now. You'll notice that two planets are
fairly close together, Saturn and Jupiter. That night, it was Saturn that
I chose for my primary target, the very first object to be observed. I
would sweep to Jupiter moments later, but once I got the focus on my
little Tasco set, the image of a small, elongated, yellow Saturn set my
heart racing. I do not remember what eyepiece I used initially. I think I
used Dr. Mike Reynold's advice and used my 20mm to locate the object and
then zooming in with the smaller eyepiece, what I think was a 6mm, with
horrible eye relief. Still, there was Saturn, clearly discernible, clearly
ringed, clearly Saturn.
While Saturn may be my favorite planet, I wasn't prepared for Jupiter.
With the smaller, higher power eyepiece in place, it was remarkable. There
it was, the somewhat flattened sphere that we all know and love, with the
Galilean satellites hovering close by. Now my pulse was racing.
As the months went by, I performed many sweeps with that little
instrument. The telescope lasted until at least 1989, when I took it apart
for cleaning and did damage to the objective lens.
The fact that I was able to see so many deep sky objects, as well as
Saturn and Jupiter, with such a small telescope blew me away. What's true
that many of those early astronomers had telescopes that weren't even the
equal of this modest little instrument, and they went on to define the
science so well, to lay the necessary groundwork that future generations
would work from.
Within the amateur astronomy community, you will frequently encounter
people of all sorts, and a good many of them will give you advice like
"stay away from department store telescopes." Those are wise words, but I
also think a bit hasty. Some of those department store telescopes can turn
out to be fine little instruments, if you understand their limitations.
On that summer night, so long ago, my little telescope didn't seem to have
(Edit - the date of my first light is wrong in this entry. It was a Sunday night, and my journal indicates it was 14 June, 1981. The wonder was there, nonetheless. - RL)

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