University Lowbrow Astronomers

A Philosophical Question.

by Bob Gruszczynski
Printed in Reflections: February, 2005.

After having purchased a new Orion StarBlast 4.5” f4 reflecting telescope as a “grab-n-go” to be used on nights when I’m too lazy to set up the PortaBall, I encountered an interesting set of situations to be pondered by deeper minds than my own. After getting back into the hobby a few years ago, starting with the purchase of a Meade ETX-70, Joni and I were slightly consumed with aperture fever, culminating in the purchase of a 12.5” Mag1 Instruments PortaBall. Along the way, the first upgrade from the ETX was a used Celestron CG5 5” SCT on a German Equatorial Mount. After several years, and a complete revamp of our scoping situation, we have the above-mentioned Orion 4.5” telescope. Here’s the question:

Is it better to have great optics on a difficult to use platform with very little knowledge of the sky, or to have just good optics on an “easier to use” platform with good knowledge of the sky?

Here’s the whole story as it plays out in my mind. It has been some 25 years since I had a department store telescope that wowed me with little views of Jupiter and Saturn and the Moon. I’ve got similar views in a new ETX go-to scope, that are less than impressive to my wife - a newbie to the hobby, but with great interest in the sky. She suggests a larger SCT might show better views. I purchased the Celestron and proceeded to try to get to know it better.

Firstly, there was the “used demo scope from Rider’s” issue where it took me 3 hours in 20 degree weather to figure out that the focuser had been cranked to look at things a lot closer than a billion light years away. Secondly, and here’s the heart of the first part of the question, was 2 hours in 10 degree weather scouring the “Realm of the Galaxies” trying to find one or two of those little suckers. Now all I have is Sky Atlas 2000 (the indoor version), a 5” f10 SCT, and the little 6x30 finder that comes with. All of this on a GEM that I know just enough about to be dangerous. I finally found what looked like a galaxy. I actually sketched the star field on a napkin to try to find out what it was. It turned out to be M100, my first-ever galaxy find on my own. I never did see another galaxy that night, and for many nights beyond. I had a lot of learning to do, both about the sky and about the telescope and mount.

Next, enter the Orion StarBlast. It has been several years since that fateful early time and my knowledge of the sky and of the equipment has grown immensely. I have since sold both the ETX and the Celestron, and have replaced them with the StarBlast. On the first night (temps in the teens), I actually managed to stumble across M81 & 82 while fumbling around with some of the quirks of the new scope. On the second night (also temps in the teens), however, with some work having been done to refine the telescope, I managed to find (not stumble upon) over a dozen galaxies in the Realm, along with M81 & 82 again. M100 was a piece of cake, along with M65 & 66. All in less than half an hour. I can’t say that the size or quality of optics is even close to the SCT, but, boy it was a whole lot easier finding the faint fuzzies this time.

How do I explain this phenomenon? I leave the answer as an exercise for the reader...

...and when you find it out, please feel free to let me know.


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