Having a telescope. Let me rephrase that.
Having a telescope that works!
Many consider it a luxury, and indeed, it is something cool to have. Even the most non-Astronomy person can’t resist looking through one when given the opportunity. Many people grow up without ever seeing the planets, or even the moon, through a telescope.
For a science nerd, let alone an astronomy buff, a really good telescope is a necessity!
How did I get my first scope? Well, read on below.
It was 1997. I was nine. I was highly interested in science, and was leaning toward Astronomy.
1996 and 1997 saw two great comets, Hyakutake, and the widely remembered Hale-Bopp.
Hale-Bopp was very well publicized because of how easy it was to spot, and was the only comet I remember that was visible all night when it was at its brightest. I remember it having two tails, and being able to see the comet “move backwards” in the sky, thus learning that a comet’s tail always points away from the sun.
Many people, like the Riverside Astronomical Society, would be in public places like parks or outside stores, inviting passerbys to look at Hale-Bopp through their scopes. Even my sister’s middle school science teacher had a telescope, and during an open house event was showing it off by letting us view Hale-Bopp.
Because of the two great comets occuring over two years, we became so accustomed to viewing bright comets that my nine year old self thought “oh, these happen all the time, so wouldn’t it be cool if we could have a telescope of our own when the next comet comes?”
I pitched the idea to my sister and she agreed, so we both approached my father together and said “this Christmas, we’d like a telescope as our combined gift.”
Dad said, “okay.” But little did we know that he wasn’t going to go for the cheapest and easiest one to buy, he wanted a serious piece of equipment.
Most people when they get their first scope tend to go for the refractors, especially the 60mm types with long and narrow tubes. They’re pretty cheap for telescope standards, and can often be found in toy stores or sporting good stores, and are often christmas gifts for nerdy children, which my sister and I both were.
Sure, they’re easy to set up and move around the sky to find things. But unless it’s on an equatorial mount, tracking objects and keeping the tube pointed at the object is a chore until it becomes second nature… or until the user gets bored, and it never leaves the box again, and the next time it’s seen is in a garage sale – with quite possibly some parts missing from the box.
Dad got ours from a camera store, and it was ~$350.00. That was 1997 dollars, so that’s the equivalent of around $500 today, which is way more than how much telescopes of that type are sold for today.
It was a Celestron 4.5 inch equatorially mounted Reflector. It may be considered “small” by telescope standards, but to us who were total newbies at having a telescope of our own, it was huge. When Dad got it, he liked the idea of being able to track the objects once he found them, and keeping them in view. It also came with a clock drive, and it seemed inevitable that this would have a high tech feel.
Sure enough, when we first used it, we could see the cloud bands of Jupiter and spot the 4 Galilean moons, the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus, and had great views of the surface features of the moon. Sometimes Mars would show a few features, other times it was just a pale red orb depending on its distance from Earth.
But that’s pretty much all we could see. Being in light polluted Riverside, California, there wasn’t much else besides a few bright stars.
Sure, there were many things that were “hidden” in the night sky, but there was one problem:
Dad never learned how to properly use the scope. He didn’t know that equatorially mounted scopes have to be alligned with the North Star before he could track objects in the sky after finding them. Many times, we’d watch him in frustration as he’d get the object in view and then lose it because of a slight knock or movement of the entire telescope.
And there were no comets!
At least none that had the same publicity and impact as Hale-Bopp did.
So unfortunately, the telescope laid dormant in the office of the house for nearly 10 years, only being brought out on special occasions. My interest in astronomy had reached a low point in the early 2000s, and it felt like “yeah we have a telescope, but who what? It hardly gets used.”
After the death of my oldest brother in 2007, I started looking towards the heavens again. The heavens in return gave me an incentive. Comet Holmes had an outburst in October-November of 2007, and it became a naked eye object… if we were under dark skies.
I simply decided on my own that in order for me to find it, I needed to learn my constellations to know my way around the night sky, and I needed to properly learn how to work the telescope!
As a result, it became “my telescope.” My knowledge grew fast, and my love for Astronomy got rekindled. Pretty soon, the telescope got new life, and because of my growing knowledge of constellations and where the deep sky objects are in the sky, it began to view star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies!
Even the clock drive, which was never used until I figured out how to install it, got used!
It got taken out to the desert on a regular basis, and anytime there was an event like a conjunction or an eclipse, it surely would be brought out, assembled, and be pointing at it. I became that guy in a public place talking to curious people and seeing them look through it.
It has been with me on numerous trips to my usual dark sky spot, as well as other dark places like the Hopi Reservation, and has showcased planets, stars, clusters, nebulae, and galaxies in the sky to family and friends, young and old; and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t chaperone me on a few dates as well.
And more than likely, due to it being smaller and easier to travel with, it will be used again to witness and help livestream the 2017 Solar Eclipse!