University Lowbrow Astronomers

Tiny Telescope: A Step into the Past.

by Norbert Vance
Printed in Reflections: May, 2009.

Celestron FirstScope

The April meeting of the Lowbrows was a quiet night with elections and equipment swap shop on the agenda... plus it was a clear, moonless night outside. What to do? A few opted to head directly to Peach Mountain instead. I went to the meeting with checkbook in hand not knowing what I’d find. John Kirchhoff would bring a number of temptations over from Rider’s. So there I am buying a spare 2-inch diagonal on the cheap. A few days before he had sold Bob Justin and me his last two in-stock Celestron “First Scope” Newtonians so he asked that day if I would bring my new toy over to Dennison for show and tell. I gladly complied and set it up front for all to see.

This little table top Newt on a rugged Dob mount pretty much mimics the scale of Newton’s original reflector (which had a speculum mirror of course and even smaller in aperture). It also sits on a contemporary mount, but, you get the idea. Firstscope is Celestron’s concurrent answer to the Galileo refractor scope fad marking the 400th anniversary of the telescope. The tube is adorned with famous names in astronomical history. We’re talking $59 for a 3-inch reflector on a decent little mount with no finder and two cheesy Huygenian 1.25-inch eyepieces (25mm and 4mm). Magnification minimal, expectation factor—low. It does sport a respectable focuser so it was no wonder folks chuckled at my use of this mini-me scope the night before with a Televue Ethos 13mm eyepiece while at Sherzer. Never mind that the Ethos costs more than 10 times as much as the telescope and weighs as much as the scope itself, there was more concern the whole contraption would fall over. It didn’t and better yet, it worked. I was surprised how nice the Orion Nebula looked, with more detail than expected. A 5mm Radian brought out the rings of Saturn, albeit tiny even with that muscle. It even managed a couple moons beyond Titan. I had fun looking at things as though I were rediscovering them through my 4.5-inch Tasco (granted my Tasco never had eyepieces like these!). I am, however, not quite ready to trade in the 10- inch apo. Not yet.

After the meeting, off I go from Ann Arbor to... hey, why not... Peach Mountain. I am armed with a telescope after all. I arrived to find Mark, Jim, and Mike with their mega Dobs aimed high. Yasu andYumi were also stationed nearby while Jason wandered in between. Here I am with a 3-inch Dob under reasonably dark skies. Ooooh, stand aside everyone! I apologized to Mark as I set up nearby hoping not to block his view, ha! All I had was the small box to set the scope on and a cloth bag upon which to kneel. The scope soon caught the attention of Yasu who seemed impressed at the sight of Saturn via the underachiever. Before you know it he’s off to the races. He grabs some of his best eyepieces to enhance the views. I gladly step back and let him at it since I’m sure his back is healthier than mine and... he’s giggling. Somebody’s really having fun with this thing! You know, it’s nice to watch an adept observer at work. If only we paid folks with such skills Tiger Woods-like salaries. They’ve certainly honed this talent with the same time and dedication over as many years. The Pleiades and Beehive are gathered up quickly. Nice bright stars. Yasu manages M81 and M82 directly overhead in seconds. What a nice wide field! Off to the Leo Trio. Yup, there’s NGC 3628 next to M65 and 66. Who would have guessed it could be seen with such a marginal scope? OK, nothing beats the views from Mark’s 18-inch next door but it’s the idea of looking through a 3-inch to see them anew. Ah, then M51, the Whirlpool. Could it be... structure? Maybe our senses are tainted with experience from larger scopes? It is certainly brighter than I would have expected. It also helps that the galaxy is pretty much at zenith. But the view brought out yet more chuckles and disbelief.

Perhaps this is best testament to the quality of today’s eyepieces and the need for such. Yasu would then trounce on more galaxies in the Virgo Cloud and Mizar/Alcor. My turn; we marvel at the splitting of Gamma Leonis. Not bad. Over in the east was old friend M13. I stoop down with all the indignity of Dr. Smith from Lost in Space to hunt for it. My back you see, my back... oh the pain. My hefty C11 proved too much to lift one night a few years ago, ouch. Was it worth yet another look in so small a scope? There she is, a bright smudge with her two stellar guardians either side. Am I seeing stars resolved? Well... yes! It’s not my imagination. Just on the edge we pick a few off. OK, so Mark pulls in a hoard of stars along with NGC 6207, the small galaxy just north of M13 moments later with the giant cousin. Color me jealous. But it precisely this that makes one speculate just how Newton, Galileo, Cassini and the others viewed the night sky and pondered the discoveries they made. Imagine the awe they would have felt at the eyepiece of the 18-inch. This more than anything makes having the 3-inch scope worthwhile.

(See also “This Little Scope” by Yasuharu Inugi. Printed in Reflections: June, 2009.)


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