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Street Lights they are a’ changin’. How will telescope light pollution filters adapt?

For the hobby of astronomy, the biggest obstacle of all time is light pollution. Hands down. The more lights in yiour area, the less you will see.

We try to fight it when we can. Petition for lights that reduce upward glare, maintain some dark sky locations, and advocate for limiting new lighted areas. But on an individual level, there is only so much we can do to fight light pollution.

One of those things is to employ a light pollution filter.

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Repost: So you got a new telescope for the holidays – A new telescope owner’s primer

This is a repost of our usual post-holiday telescope primer for new telescope owners:

So you got a new telescope for the holidays: A Quick Primer for new telescope users.

Be it X-mas, Hannukah, Kwanza, Solstice or Giftmas this is the season for getting telescopes as gifts. Sadly, many of these scopes might be rushed into usage and some critical steps might be 016skipped. This can result in a frustrating experience for a budding young astronomer who may give up their new hobby prematurely. This can be avoided if you only take the time and a few precautions to make certain you get the baby steps out of the way without too much tripping and falling.

1) Do as much as you can during daytime first!

I can’t stress this too much. Many folks assume they can assemble their telescope right out of the box at their chosen viewing spot – in the dark. Suffice it to say this is not a good idea. Assembling out of the box at the viewing site might be an extreme example but you should certainly try working your scope and getting the ‘feel’ for it during the daytime as much as possible. Take your telescope outside during the daytime and point it at a nearby tree or other object (the object should be at least 1/4 mile away). Use this object to align the finder scope (see below) as well as test how the eyepiece focuses. Try changing your eyepieces between the low and high powered ones to see how that works as well. Move the telescope in large movements as well as using the slow motion controls as well. When you do these things in the daylight you can get a much better feel for how they should work than if you try them at night. Also if you drop an eyepiece or loosen a screw you have a decent chance to find it. Get your mistakes out of the way when the sun is up.

2) Assemble your telescope properly

This should go without saying, but it is amazing how many folks skip a few steps or don’t attach parts, or don’t read the instructions properly. We’ve seen telescopes in for “repairs” just after the holidays that were just put together wrong, or some critical final steps were ignored (slow motion controls not attached, counterweights not placed). Most of the time, there are very few non-critical elements of a telescope’s construction. So be sure to follow the assembly procedure carefully. Allow yourself a couple of hours as well (maybe three hours for certain models of dobsonian telescopes) for the assembly. Don’t assume you can just put it together a 1/2 hour before you plan to head out and view.

3) Align your finder scope. Align your finder scope! ALIGN YOUR FINDER SCOPE!

Get the point? Many folks ignore this step until the last minute and we can tell you that trying to work a telescope without an aligned finger is very,very, very hard. Even the lower 084magnifications on a short focal length telescope only see a little under 1 arc degree of the sky. This is a tiny portion of the sky so hoping to find an object with just the eyepiece is really hard to do. There is a reason why almost all telescopes come with a finder scope. So make sure to align it (During the daytime per suggestion #1) . If your telescope comes with a red-dot finder instead of an optical finder scope, be certain to carefully align that as well during the daytime – and don’t forget to switch it off! A dead battery in a red dot finder is nobody’s friend.

4) Did you get an Equatorial mount? Figure out how it moves!

An equatorial mount has some great advantages over a regular altazimuth (altitude-azimuth) mount. It can track, be motorized, and the larger ones can even be used with setting circles to locate objects in the night sky. But these are only true if you take advantage of the equatorial mount’s features and set it up properly. During the daytime (suggestion #1 again!) try a rudimentary set-up of the equatorial mount. This does not have to be super accurate as some telescope’s instruction manuals may require, just enough to get mostly accurate tracking for a little while. Perhaps more importantly, get a feel for how the telescope moves – you are used to moving things in an up/down left/right fashion. Now you need to get used to moving the telescope in declination and right ascension. Try moving the telescope from one target to another using the mount properly during the daytime to get a better sense of it. One thing to keep in mind is that the counterweight is there for a reason – it shouldn’t be pointing down all the time.

If you have a larger Equatorial mount keep in mind that you can use the setting circles to help find objects in the night sky with the help of a star atlas. But this means you have to learn to use it. Read your instruction manual carefully. You might also consider downloading a Sidereal Time app for you smartphone. You’ll see why once you figure out the details of using your Equatorial mount.

5) Choose your first targets wisely!

Many folks go out with their telescope and just point it at the brightest thing in the sky. This is fine if the brightest object is a planet or the Moon, as there is lots to see. But very often at this time of year the planets might not be out until very late and the brightest thing in the sky is the star Sirius. Problem is, Sirius is just a star and stars appear as just a point of light even when magnified through your telescope. This can be a very boring target and can be disappointing if it is the only bright object. So make certain before you go out for your first night’s viewing that you know what will be up! Most telescopes these days come with some rudimentary planetarium software that can show you what the sky will be like on any night. Failing that there are online websites that do the same thing (sometimes better). Planispheres can also be used, and if you have a Smartphone or pad you should download a planetarium app like Google Sky (its free). Depending on what time of the month it is, the Moon may not be up during evening hours. Since we suggest the Moon as a great first target for your telescope you might want to wait for it. Failing that, try to look for the brighter planets.

6) Got a computerized telescope? Take advantage of free smartphone apps to make it much easier to set up!

We’ve been kind of ‘meh’ about computerized telescopes in the past, and are still a bit wary of a telescope where 70% of the cost is in the computer andGoogleSky motors and not the optics. But we have softened a bit since they have become a bit easier to use – and not because they changed, but rather our phones did.

Computerized telescope makers kind of make it seem like a computer means your telescope will magically find things in the night sky. All you need to do is toss it into your yard and enjoy the viewing. But that is not how they work. To set up the telescope’s computer you need to point it at two named stars so it can calculate where everything else in the night sky is located. This used to mean that to set up the telescope you had to have good knowledge of the night sky to find those stars -which kind of defeated the purpose.

But now smartphones are ubiquitous these days and there are plenty of planetarium apps out there for free that will help you identify those stars. Smartphone planetarium apps are not super-accurate (they can be off by as much as an hour)  but they will help you spot and identify bright stars that you need to aim your telescope at to orient the computer.  This makes the computer orientation much easier to do than trying to learn to use a planisphere or star map on the fly.

7) Learn, learn learn!

There’s a host of information for astronomy newbies on the internet and in books. Amateur astronomers are very keen on sharing their knowledge and experience with you. Check out the major magazines online websites such as Sky & Telescope or Astronomy. There are a zillion astronomy websites with forums as well you might wish to peruse. Even on this blog we have a collection of Telescope Tips you should check out for helpful advice. Also consider joining or at least contacting your local astronomy club – you can find all kinds of help from them, as well as many other benefits from membership (such as loaner equipment).

If your first night with your telescope is a good one, then you’ll have a much better time with the hobby. But always remember a little planning goes a long way!

Happy New Year!

Interested in buying telescopes?

www.spectrum-scientifics.com

REPOST: The Spectrum Scientifics Telescope Buyer’s Guide

The holidays mean less time for blog posts and more people looking into buying their first telescope. With this in mind we are reprinting our telescope buyer’s guide for the season:

Spectrum Scientifics Telescope Buyers Guide

There are several telescope buyers guides available on the Internet, some good, some not so good. At Spectrum we are writing from our experience with customers and hope to make this simple and helpful.

Towards that end, the first and in some ways only rule of telescopes is:

Aperture is King!

Aperture is the diameter of the main lens or mirror of the telescope. The bigger it is, the more light the telescope gathers. Do not judge a telescope by its magnification, and stay away from any brand of telescope that sells itself on excess magnification claims (300x!, 600x!, etc.). This is sure sign of poor quality.

More light gathering means better, brighter images, assuming all other things being equal. Decent commercially sold telescopes usually start about 60mm in size (about 2.3”) and go to 20” diameter or more. Roughly speaking, every 2 extra inches of aperture doubles the light gathering capacity of the telescope.

The big problem with getting more aperture is that it increases the size and weight of the telescope. Having a huge, giant telescope with lots of light gathering power has little benefit if it is so heavy you never want to take it out and use it! A minor, but critical caveat to the ‘Aperture is King’ rule is that the small, portable telescope that gets used all the time is more powerful than the giant telescope that never gets moved out of the garage.

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The Long Life and Sudden Death of the Edmund Astroscan Telescope

Few telescopes in this world are as….distinct as the Edmund Astroscan, I mean, _look_ at it:

astroscan

The Astroscan may hold a record for the longest running mass-produced telescope on the market, possibly only beat out by some of the classic Cassegrain models. It is also was one of the most controversial telescopes made (at least that wasn’t an outright scam or waste of people’s money). A simple search for the Astroscan in Astronomy forums reveals that the little red telescope has many detractors, and many defenders:

“I’ve never seen one that was in collimation”

“I love it! It is so easy to use!”

“Its an old design that should have been put to rest a long time ago, there are much better models in that size and price range!”

etc…

The back and forth actually reminds me more than a little bit of of the old Mac vs. PC wars on newsgroups, where PC advocates objected to people buying things that might not have been as  powerful or economic as what they used and Mac advocates vehemently defended their choices with rabidity and dared to be a fraction of the marketplace. Of course, in this case the scale was much smaller.

So what was the story behind this little telescope? Why was it so different than other telescopes? What happened to it? Why was it so loathed and loved? I shall try to answer these questions with my limited experience of having worked for Edmund Scientific for the last couple of years that the Edmund family owned the Scientifics division (The Edmund family still owns the Industrial Optics portion of the company).

In The Beginning

In 1976 the Edmund Scientific company started developing a telescope that would be its flagship model. The idea was to make something that was easy to use, easy to transport, and wouldn’t look out of place in a 1970’s Living Room. Given that in that era almost all commerically sold telescopes were tripod mounted things that took up a lot of real estate when set-up this was bit of a sea change. The optical system was developed so that the customer would not have to do any maintenance (or collimation) that reflectors often required. It was also designed with an optical window so that dust and other debris entering the tube would be minimized. The body was developed out of ABS plastic to be as durable as possible, and was smooth enough so that it would ‘roll’ on its base without being so slippery as to move with a hard breath.

Some decisions were made for its contruction. It initially did not have any aiming mechanism as it being a rich field telescope was assumed to be good enough to along (it wasn’t). The problem was mostly aesthetics: Any aiming mechanism would spoil the clean lines fo the Astroscan’s body. Eventually a sheet metal aiming deveice was developed that helped. Later models, as shown in the above picture, had a red-dot finder added for aiming.

The Astroscan was aimied squarely at novice users and this was both a help and hinderance. Hardcore amnatuer astronomers were grumpy that so much effort was put into a telescope that wasn’t aimed at their needs, and didn’t address what they felt was ideal in a beginner telescope. The validity of their arguments continues to be debated to this day.

A harder barrier for the Astroscan to overcome was its low-power. Being a rich field telescope with only 1 eyepiece included it had what seemed like an anemic 16x magnification. This was in an age where retail department store telescopes were sick with ludicrious claims of unattainable magnification (640x!!!!). Edmund had hoped to have their new telescope sold by wholesale as well as through their famous catalog, and seeing this stylish but-low-powered telescope next to the fake claims of cheaper telescopes was a hinderance to those long-term wholesale plans.

Other features of the Astroscan were controversial: To reduce costs the focuser used a rubber wheel (as opposed to a rack and pinion system) that would press against the eyepiece’s base and move when the focuser knob was turned. But this wheel would develop ‘flats’ that made for a bumpy focusing experience, and in very cold weather it could shrink and not ‘grab’ the eyepiece properly. That said, some people loved it, including the founder of Orion Telescopes, Tim Geisler.

Other features of the Astroscan would be introduced later, mostly as accessories: A threadable solar projection system, a moon hook that would allow the Astroscan to be mounted to classic Equatorial mounts, a camera-style tripod that was designed especially to allow the Astroscan’s base to thread onto it, an image inverter, and a few more items were developed.

The Astroscan did well as telescopes sales go. The exact numbers are unclear but in its lifetime it is assumed to have sold around 90,000 units, making for around 2400 units per year, which is good numbers for a company that does not exclusivelty sell telescopes.

The Mid Life Crisises-es-es

The Astroscan had been planned on being sold below $100.00 and much of the developement issues were based on that cost limit. But this was to cause a few growing pains for the Astroscan. For one, the 70’s were an era of major inflationary pressures and keeping costs down just was not possible. At some point in the 80’s a decision was made to move production to the less expensive Japan. Production began in that nation after many, many, many long meetings and trips by the senior brass from Edmund.

Japan’s production, like most things in the Astroscan’s history, was polarizing. Some considered the Astroscans of that era to the worst ones ever made (even calling them ‘Astroscams’) while others declared Japan’s attention to optical details produced some of the best models made. In any case, production costs in Japan rose steadily over the years to the point where, when combined with the overseas shipping costs, it was no longer economical to produce the Astroscan in Japan. Production was returned to Barrington, NJ in the USA.

By this time, the Astroscan had quite a number of years since its development and was starting to look a little long in the tooth. It hadn’t had much attention paid to its design in years (the last major changes happened when the production was moved to Japan). There were other issues:  The Astroscan screamed 70’s design, but not loudly enough to provoke nostalgia. It’s cost had also risen to over $350 Much higher than optically similar models), the product copy hadn’t even been rewritten in what seemed liked decades (dated-sounding references to ‘Space-Age design’ were still present as of the 1999 catalog).

Other issues were a problem. Edmund had introduced a series of lower-cost beginner telescopes to work as a fleet with the Astroscan as the Flagship, but none of them garnered much success. The wholesale program became a morass as other retailers undercut Edmund’s pricing, or even broke up the telescope into its component parts and sold them individually to get around any Minimum Advertised Price policy Edmund might introduce. The wholesale program also did not account for retail inventory needs, so telescopes were often shipped out to other retailers when Edmund’s own retail telescope sale needs were not fulfilled.

Even worse, the patent on the design was due to run out in 2000 and a slew of imitators came in. The most visible of which was the Bushnell Voyager

voyager

The Voyager was not as sturdy as the Astrscan, having a coated styrofoam body instead of ABS, but it had a cost of $199 vs the Astroscan’s $360. Other imitators soon popped up, such as the Orion Funscope:

funscope

Other, ‘interesting’ Astroscan imitators appear courtesy of Edmund’s Chinese agents. The most internally infamous of which was a model (one never developed for the consumer) which was just straight optical tube shoved into a painted metal ball. It was immensely heavy compared to a traditional astroscan and had just a piece of colored tape to cover the seam between to the tube and the ball. The telescope famously used the rack end of a zip-tie for its focuser rack. Oddly enough the optics in the telescope were not bad!

Still, it seemed like something needed to be done:

The New Astroscan that never was.

In 2000, plans and committees were set up at Edmund to help revitalize the aging Astroscan. Message boards were inquired, costs assessed, ideas explored, et cetera. Among those plans it was decided to do an ‘almost-overhaul’ of the Astroscan. The optics would be changed to more modern and less costly counterparts. A mechanical engineer was sourced to develop and improve the focuser. Sourcing parts from Asia was explored to reduce cost while still keeping the production in the USA. Eyepiece changes were considered and it even variations on the body color (a star pattern on black was considered, not uncommon today but radical for the time) were considered, as well as a possible oversized (6″ mirror) version! The overall plan was to get the Astroscan competitive in the new playing field, to answer as many of its criticisms as we possibly could, and overall revitalize what had become a dusty corner of the world’s telescope offerings. How much would the new Astroscan differ from the old one? We’ll never know.

In 2001 it was announced that Science Kit & Boreal Lab would purchase the Edmund Scientific. All work on the New Astroscan Project ceased. Edmund continued to produce the Astroscan for SK&BL while they consolidated the move to their facility, but eventually they set up production of the Astroscan in China. The quality was a bit more concerning and the classic RKE eyepieces were replaced with generic Plossl eyepieces (partly because the Edmund family still claimed the rights to the RKE eyepieces and sold them in their Industrial Catalog for years afterwards).

Under SK&BL or one of the other administrating companies the Astroscan continued to be sold until 2013, when disaster struck.

What’s in a Mold?

Its not clear what happened, but somewhere someone dropped something shouldn’t have, or something wore out, or …well anything. The mold used to produce the Astroscan body broke. That is all we know at this point. It could have been wear & tear, having been used to produce at least 90,000 telescope bodies.

Molds are costly, and while developing a new model could have been done it would have required new machining, new engineer work, and a host of other aspects. ScientificsOnline decided to not produce a new mold. Instead they introduced the Astroscan Millenium, a mini Dobsonian with similar optical characterisics.

astroscanmill

Oddly enough, this ‘new’ design solved all the issues that critics had complained about with the Astroscan: it had different eyepieces, you could now collimate it, etc. Of course it lost its classic design and character in the process, and if that design looks a bit familiar it is because other companies have been producing for over a decade:

009

It essentially a red version of the Orion Starblast Mini-Dob. The irony here is that the StarBlast was designed to match the optical features of the Astroscan. Welcome to your closed circle.

The Aftermath

Although not as rage-inducing as the PC/Mac wars, there definitely was an element of form vs function with the Astroscan. Yes, they did go out of collimation despite the claims, and it was very hard to get them back. That said, I have seen ones bought in 2nd hand stores on the cheap that were perfectly collimated – everything else was messed up, however.

The simple fact is that Edmund Scientific was not really poised to become a full manufacturer of telescopes like Meade, Celestron, or Orion. They had a great contender with the Astroscan, but all of their other models were not as able to support their costs of development. While some of the telescopes  Edmund made in the 60’s were classics, they would not be able to compete in the modern market.  Edmund did not develop an import line of telescopes the way other major telescope brands did. This is not a surprise as the Edmund company found there was more money to be made developing industrial optics than there was in the telescope market.

The Spirit of the Astroscan is not gone forever, either, Astronomer Norm Sperling, who actually worked on the original Astroscan design ran a Kickstarter Program to develop an Astroscan inspired telescope.  In fact, it is essentially the Astroscan made by more modern methods and suppliers. The kickstarter has ended, however, and it is unknown if production will continue.

www.spectrum-scientifics.com

 

10 Naming, Classification & Observation Controversies of our Solar System

For a long, long time it seemed like the parts of our solar system were pretty well fixed and decided. Since the discovery of Pluto not much was changed. Sure, we discovered more moons around Saturn and Juptier when various probes flew around them, and discovered less prominent rings around gas giants not named Saturn, but for the most part things did not change. That is, until we started discovering a bunch of trans-Neptune objects and a lot of conventions went out the window: Pluto was demoted to Dwarf Planet status and despite people holding popularity contests to re-instate it as a planet it has remained a Dwarf Planet

But this sort of thing is actually nothing new. In fact the history of Solar System astronomy from Galileo to the present day is riddled with odd controversies like naming conventions, egoism, nationalism, lost chances, new classifications & credit-stealing  that have dogged the history of local astronomy. Here are just 10 incidents or controversies to make realise that the reclassification of Pluto wasn’t anything new.

10) Nationalism rears its ugly head: Uranus was discovered in 1781 and its discoverer, Herschel, wanted to name it after King George III. So he

"Named after a mortal King? How gauche!"

“Named after a mortal King? How gauche!”

termed it ‘The Georgian Planet’. English sky almanacs listed it this way for decades, but needless to say it was not a popular convention outside of England. Other suggestion made were to name it after Herschel, or call it Neptune(!). The final decision was not made until 1850 to name the planet Uranus.

9) Egoism rears its ugly head: Neptune, the furthest planet from our Sun (now that Pluto is a Dwarf Planet), was discovered by astronomer La Verrier in 1846 (he did not actually first observe it, he did the

"At least you were named after a King!"

“At least you were named after a King!”

calculations as to where it could be found). Once discovered, La Verrier wanted to name the planet after himself. To support this naming convention, France released almanacs that listed Neptune as La Verrier and Uranus as Herschel. This did not placate England (who felt that their astronomer, Adams, deserved credit – more on that later) much less the rest of the astronomy world. The name Neptune was suggested, and Laverrier as a planet name lasted only a short time (Georgian Planet, however, lingered).

8) I’m a planet! No, I’m not! Pluto’s demotion is not a new thing. The asteroid Ceres was discovered

"I feel your pain, Pluto".

“I feel your pain, Pluto”.

in 1801 and was quickly classified as a planet. But less than a year later more asteroids were discovered and classifying them all as planets was problematic. It took a while for the convention ‘asteroid’ to be accepted and Ceres was listed as a planet for decades. Now with the new classification of Dwarf Planet, Ceres has been promoted from an asteroid to a Dwarf planet as it fits all the criteria given for that designation.

7) Almost got it! Galileo almost discovered Neptune. In his notes he observed the distant planet while observing Jupiter. The two planets were very close while he was observing. However, Neptune was undergoing its retrograde

"I wonder if...nah.."

“I wonder if…nah..”

motion (where the planets go backwards in the night sky because of the motion of the earth around the sun) and appeared motionless. Galileo considered it to be a fixed star and ignored it. His telescope was not good enough to show details that might indicate it was not a star. Centuries later, an examination of his notes and diagrams was done because someone realized that when Galileo was observing Jupiter when it was in Conjunction with Neptune. Sure enough, it turned out that Galileo was the first human to view the distant planet due to some pure luck, but he couldn’t determine what it actually was.

6) Credit where credit isn’t due: La Verrier wasn’t the only astronomer to lay claim to discovering Neptune. English astronomer Adams also claimed that his calculations led to its discovery. This of course

"Curse You Dennis Rawlins!"

“Curse You Dennis Rawlins!”

caused butting of heads between English and French nationalist astronomers. Finally it was agreed that they would share credit as co-discoverers. However, over a hundred years later, serial credit denier Dennis Rawlins claimed that Adams did not deserve credit for co-discovery as his calculations were way off and almost more harmful than useful (The actual poisition of Neptune was 1 degree from where LaVerrier claimed and 12 degrees from where Adams claimed). It turns out that Rawlins was correct in this case. International astronomers examined the evidence and found Adams should not deserve credit for the discovery. LaVerrier is now considered Neptunes sole discovered. This decision was not made until the late 1990’s.

5) “But, we’re not of Greco-Roman Origin!” The planets are named after Roman gods, which where stolen wholesale from the Greek gods. But Greco-Roman culture did not permeate the entire word. What about Asia? Africa? Native Americans? Indians? Arabs? Well, on the bright planets all of these cultures have their own names. But when it came to the outer planets they were surprisingly clever at adhering to the naming convention. Most cultures, for example, name Neptune after their own historical sea-gods. If they didn’t have a sea-god they would name them after sea monsters. Uranus was a bit trickier as it was a sky god and many cultures do not have such a equivelant diety, so names like ‘Sky King Star’ or ‘Sky God Star’ become the convention.

4) Vulcan, the non-planet (No, we are not talking about Star Trek): When an odd pattern in Mercury’s orbit was discovered in 1859, Newtonian physics could not explain the problem. A solution was suggested that another planet between Mercury and the sun existed that was exuding gravitational force on Mercury. Did we mention this was suggested by LaVerrier, the Neptune discoverer? He suggested this planet be named

"Just get used to me. "

Just get used to me.

Vulcan and requested astronomers search for it. Soon after this was proposed many folks started claming to see this theoretical planet either transiting the sun or with direct observation. Most of these observations were unfounded or unreliable, but one done by astronomer Lescarbault was enough to satisfy Laverrier and he announced its discovery in 1860. Many astronomers were skeptical, and there were many false alarms with sunspots being mistaken for Vulcan. But the problem of Mercury’s orbit remained. Laverrier died and the search for Vulcan waned. In 1915 Einstein solved the problem as being an effect of the strong gravitational effect of the sun having a relativistic effect on Mercury that was much diminished on further planets.

3) Canals on Mars: In the later 19th century, several astronomers reporting seeing ‘channels’ or ‘canals’ on the surface of Mars. Some of them were even mapped. It was even suggested that these channels were artificially Lowell_Mars_channelsdug canals that showed intelligent life on the red planet. As telescope optics improved it was noted that reports of canals dropped off. It turns out that seeing canals on Mars was actually an optical illusion that was an artifact of lower-grade optics. A few adherents stuck with these old canal reports until Mariner 4 mapped the martian surface and showed no such features.

2) Planet X: LaVerrier (again!) noticed some oddness in the orbit of Uranus in the 19th century, this was confirmed by several other observations. It was proposed that a large planet, designated ‘Planet X’ existed past Neptune that was causing this

"I'm not Planet X, but I have a heart!"

I’m not Planet X, but I have a heart!

orbital issue. When Pluto was discovered it was hoped that it was the answer, but Pluto turned out to be too small. Several other searches for Planet X were made but turned up nothing. Some crazies got a hold of the idea and imagined it was doing ludicrous things like hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Eventually the Planet X hypothesis was abandoned when space probe data revealed the error in Uranus’ orbit was caused by a overestimation of the mass of the planet.

1) Phaeton & Titus-Bode Law: You doubtless know of Newton’s Laws of Gravitation, and have probably heard of Kepler’s laws of Planetary Motion. But have you ever heard of of the Titus Bode-Law? (someties just called

"Everything is fine so fa....awwww"

“Everything is fine so fa….awwww”

Bode’s Law). This was a Law that stated that each planet orbiting the sun will be approximately twice the distance from the previous planet. So Venus will be twice the orbit of Mercury, Earth twice the orbit of Venus, etc. This Law got a boost when it was used to find Ceres, which filled the gap between Mars and Jupiter. Since Ceres was not an impressive planet, some proposed it was actually part of a broken or exploded planet they dubbed Phaeton (and idea still suggested by pseudo-scientists today). The discovery of more asteroids lent hope to this idea, but the total mass of the asteroids later found was not enough to make a ‘real’ planet. Bode’s Law got a boost with having an approximate location of Uranus, but flopped badly when used for predicting Neptune’s location.  The Law is now obviously discredited.

www.spectrum-scientifics.com

 

 

Telescope Technology – why it seems so far behind sometimes?

Every now and then we get someone asking the question ‘Why can’t a computerized telescope do ‘x’?’ Usually ‘x’ is ‘find things in the night sky without me having to work at it’.

3111

The answer, as is often the case, is complex.

When computerized telescopes first started being mass marketed (many computer systems existed as add-ons or on high-end telescopes and as early as the 80’s) they general impression given by their marketing was that they did everything for you. No aligning the finder, no two star alignment system. Just toss the telescope onto the grass lawn and start watching. This was pretty much a lie, and many folks soured on telescopes as a result. The marketing tried to be a bit more clear as other companies added different computer options, but what most folks wanted auto-alignment and tracking. So what went wrong?

  • 1) What people are comparing it with is not exactly accurate

Many folks are stumped by how they can have a planetarium program on their smartphone (or tablet) that gives them googleskymapscreena good idea of what they are looking at in the night sky. What they don’t realize is how innacurate those programs are. They give you a general idea what is up there, sure, but the next time you use it look at just how far off it actually is. The programs can be as much as an hour off, and when you telescope is cranked up to 120x and is looking at 0.05 degrees of the night sky a miss is as good as a mile. Your smartphone does an approximation based your location, the time, and how the tilt sensors are reading. But those sensors aren’t perfect  and the GPS positioning can go awry very easily. Some advanced astronomer  may use planetarium programs by having Pads or phones attached to their telescope, but these are used as more of an adjusting, high detailed star map than as a direct guard

  • 2) The Telescope Manufacturers aren’t exactly rolling in loads of research cash

GPS companies, smartphone manufacturers, Pad manufacturers all have one thing in common: They aren’t small companies. Apple is a mutli-billion dollar company, Google (who developed the droid system) isn’t exactly poor, Samsung, LG, etc. Even when these companies are having hard times they aren’t exactly small. And they spend tons of money trying to stay on top.

Telescope comapnies, by comparison, are on the smaller side. A telescope company that has more than 100 employees is probably a bit bloated. Development and engineering crews are probably in the single digits, with some outside contractors being hired as needed. So this means telescope manufacturers aren’t going to have bleeding edge tech to work on and with. Even when they do get a good idea, it can take a long time to develop & bring to the market.  And it will probably use up a large amount of the research budget. An example would be Celestron’s SkyProdigy series, which while it would have been much more expensive to develop 10 years ago was still probably not an easy developement cycle. And this bleeding edge tech does not ensure success. The SkyProdigy is fairly expensive (smaller models were dropped some time ago), and may not work as well as claimed.

The thing is, almost all of us carry some kind of cell phone, if not a smartphone so the market is huge (even then some phone makers have embarrassing failures). But with telescopes the market is limited, there is no ability to take loss leads on the telescopes becuase the customer will subscribe to an astronomy plan. If a product comes on the market it needs to earn its way in sales and margins.

  • 3) That said, there is some seriously backwards technology on telescopes

Pretty much all computer guided or controlled telescopes include some sort of hand-controller. This usually connects with an ethernet cable to the telescope itself. No problem, ethernet cable is still well in use, even in an age of everything being wireless. But suppose you want to RS232run the telescope from your laptop using a planetarium program like Starry Night or something? You’d need a cable to run that, sure, but what kind? You’d probably think some kind of USB cable, and probably one of the bigger sizes like USB.

Nope.  Odds are you have to connect to your laptop using a RS232 cable. That’s right, old pin and socket tech from the 90’s. These are connection systems that started to go out of style in computer design with the introduction of the first iMac and yet even some of the most modern of telescopes has this connector. Keep in mind that laptops got rid of this connector as soon as they could (pin connections are a big space waster).

Even on less computer gadget features, inconveniences can rule the day. Most reflector telescopes designed after 1999 usually have easy-to-handle knobs on the back of the optical tube for aiding in collimating the telescope’s mirror.

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These knobs are convenient, have a nice grip, and are much easier to turn. But here is the back of a computerized telescope that, while modern in design, uses an off-the-shelf tube that has an older screw-based collimation system.

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Le sigh.

www.spectrum-scientifics.com

 

5 Tips to use an Telescope with an Equatorial Mount (the easy version)

In past entries in this blog we have discussed the merits Equatorial Mounts vs Altazimuth mounts on telescopes, but we never actually went into much 016detail on how to properly use one of these mounts. Here are some basic hints for a beginner first trying to use an equatorial mount. Note that this are not hints for precision alignment – they are strictly for the beginner so they do not get overwhelmed! Speaking of which

1) Keep you mount setup as simple as possible at first.

Look at telescope instructions for equatorial mounts and you’ll see a lot of information on adjusting setting circles, using a polar axis scope, and other heavy duty details. Here’s a hint: If you don’t plan on doing astrophotography or long, long viewing sessions you don’t need all of that setup! Here is what you need to do:

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