Sunday, November 21, 2004

Star Party Last Night

The Boise Astronomical Society (like many similar organizations around the United States), puts on educational efforts called "star parties," sometimes associated with schools, sometimes anywhere that we can find a decent place to set up our scopes. These are opportunities to get the general public to look through telescopes, and see the wonders of the night sky. I have done a few of these over the years, and it is always a good opportunity to get people to think about astronomy, and appreciate the beauty of the night sky. I have never done a star party in such frigid weather. It was 28 degrees when I packed up at 10:00 PM.

The event was at the Idaho Botanical Gardens, and we had a nice turnout--about seven telescopes set up, several big sets of binoculars on tripods (including some 30x100mm monsters), and perhaps 75 or more visitors who braved the weather. I took my Photon Instruments 5" refractor with the Aries Chromacor corrector--and it mightily impressed quite a few people. The guy set up next to me had a Televue Genesis, an older apochromatic refractor which is the predecessor to Televue 101. He agreed that the Photon/Chromacor combo was just about color-free--and I could hear a little envy at how little it cost, compared to a Genesis. (The Genesis still has some advantages with respect to weight, length, and astrophotography potential.)

One surprise to me is how many members of the general public are startled by what they can see through a small telescope. The gasp reaction from looking at the Moon at 286x power was quite predictable. I guess most people expect that you need an observatory scale of telescope to get this level of image; perhaps most people are used to looking through the crummy little refractors that places like Wal-Mart and Sears have traditionally sold.

One couple showed up with a Meade 4.5" reflector that they had bought several years ago. They have made little use of it, largely because they didn't have anyone to help them along, and have now joined the BAS. Everyone gathered around to help the newbies. My impression of this Meade telescope was that it isn't a leap up from the crummy little refractors that Wal-Mart sells. The mirror might be just fine, but it uses the Japanese eyepiece standard of 0.965", and the eyepieces that came with it were all Huygens--which is a fine eyepiece design--for the nineteenth century. Huygens eyepieces combine poor eye relief with narrow field of view, as you might expect, since the design is named for the seventeenth century astronomer who came up with it. Oddly enough, the focuser looked like it could be pretty easily converted to accept 1.25" or perhaps even 2" diameter eyepieces, if you had the right parts.

The equatorial mount was also an example of overly aggressive cost-reduction engineering. At first it appeared that the mount had so much slop in it that there was no way to make it work correctly, until I discovered that putting the counterweight shaft and weight on the mount corrected the problem. It's a weird design--but doubtless very cheap.

I get frustrated when companies with good to very good reputations for their serious telescopes, like Meade, sell stuff like this. Telescopes like this are only marginally more than toys, and probably turn 90% of budding amateur astronomers off the hobby.

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