Beginning the Voyage With
STARGAZER STEVE'S SCOPE KIT
After a move to the country, an urban refugee rediscovers the night sky and builds his first telescope from a unique kit
BY SCOTT BARRIE
REMEMBER the first time you looked up into the starry night sky? I don't mean looking up to check whether it's a good night for a barbecue. I mean really looldng and marvelling at what's up there. Maybe rm one of the lucky ones, but I've been fortunate to experience that "first" twice.
A 108 mm reflector is an ideal starter scope for backyard astronomers of all ages. The author built his own in a day using the Stargazer Steve Telescope kit (inset), which provides the budget minded buyer with everything needed for a finished telescope
The first time was as a kid lying on a flat rock on the shore of Georgian Bay. It was a moonless night, light pollution was a term that hadn't been invented yet, and the sky, awash with thousands of stars, was spectacular. I was entranced for hours. But that was an isolated incident. I eventually found myself living in downtown Toronto, where it seemed that the only light in the night sky was of the mercury-vapour variety. I paid little attention to the stars. Then, several years ago, my wife Susan and I started to feel claus- trophobic. A postage-stamp back-yard wasn't what we had in mind for our kids to play in, and the changing technologies meant that we could work anywhere there was electridty and a phone. So we said good-bye to streetlights and sirens and moved to the country.
The Stargazer Steve reflector kit uses a simple but sturdy Dobsonian mount that allows smooth up-down and left-right motions. For entry-level telescopes, this style of mount is steadier and far easier to use than the often flimsy equatorial mounts supplied with many department-store telescopes.
Not long after that, I had my second "first" look at the night sky. It was a pleasant spring evening, and the Moon was nowhere to be seen. I walked away from the lights of the house and casually glanced up. Then it hit me again. For the first time since lying on that fiat rock years ago, I stared in awe at the stellar panorama overhead. I had no idea what I was looking at, but I knew I wanted to. I began to find my way around the sky with a battle-worn pair of 7x35 binoculars. The astronomy section of my bookshelf started growing. Soon, the desire to own a telescope became hard to resist. Choosing a First Telescope I found that deciding on a first telescope was not easy. While my adventurous side considered a computer-guided Schmidt-Cassegrain, complete with a 40,000 object database, my practical side leaned toward a more modest telescope. The ideal first telescope would be one that also demanded growth from me. I soon discovered what appeared to be just such a scope: Stargazer Steve's 108 mm (4% in) Newtonian reflector kit. I'd read the review of Steve's 75 mm (3 in) reflector (SkyNews, Nov./Dec. 1995)and found that model appealing. Steve's new scope seemed to have even more going for it. Its larger aperture would yield brighter images, and the $274 (Canadian) price tag didn't hurt. Even more appealing was that it came as a kit. Building the telescope that I would eventually use would go a long way toward de-mystifying the whole experience. Assembling the Kit The telescope arrived in two packages. One contained, among other things, the plywood and aluminum parts for the mount. The other included the optics and the tube components ingeniously packed inside the telescope tube itself. With the exception of a few hand tools and bits of metal for weight to balance the completed telescope, the kit provided everything necessary, right down to sandpaper. A 35-page manual and a 90-minute video detailed the construction every step of the way. The telescope consists of two main pans: the mount and the optical tube. The mount, made of high-quality birch plywood, was a snap to assemble. All the pieces were supplied cut to shape, and there was little more to it than making a few measurements and nailing the pieces together. Building the optical-tube assembly was equally straightforward. The primary mirror came already mounted in the bottom of the tube, so all that was required was to mount the secondary mirror, the focuser and the two gun-sight finder rings. Two openings had to be cut in the heavy cardboard tube, one for the focuser and the other to create a hatch for cooling the mirror. The locations were clearly marked, and the material cut easily with a utility knife. (Since I purchased my unit, Steve has changed the single-vent hatch design to three vent holes that can be closed by turning a sleeve inside the tube.) The most finicky part of the construction was gluing in the diagonal- mirror assembly. It must be accurately positioned in relation to both the focuser and the primary mirror. The operation was more intimidating than difficult, and the instructions provided tips to get it right the first time. The collimation of the telescope --a critically important alignment of the mirrors for the best optical performance --was easy and well documented. I'd estimate that most people could build the telescope in a few hours (excluding painting or staining), making it an ideal project for a parent and child to work on together. Using the Telescope The completed unit weighs 8.6 kilograms and stands 135 centimetres tall when aimed straight up, ideal for use by all but the youngest children. (An optional plywood platform raises the telescope another 12 cenrimetres off the ground for taller viewers.) The base contains a carrying handle for moving the telescope around. Setting up involves nothing more than placing the base on a fiat patch of ground and swinging the telescope into position. The mount turns smoothly in both directions, and once in position, the telescope stays put, even in a good breeze.
Construction involves no more than hammering precut boards together for the Dobsonian mount (left) and cutting holes in the thick cardboard tube (centre) for supplied fittings, such as the rack-and-pinion focuser (right). Owners can finish the mount and tube to suit their individual tastes.
The focal length of the main mirror is 1049 millimetres (f/10). As in other Newtonjan reflectors, the image is inverted, but that doesn't take long to to get used to. The 10 mm Kellner eyepiece included with the kit yields 105 power, making some sort of finding aid essential. Although the kit's rudimentary gun-sight-type finder took some practice to aim, it proved effective. The smooth-acting 1 I/4-inch rack-and-pinion foeuser allows for subtle focus corrections. Stars focus to sharp points of light. The telescope revealed dark bands on the surface of Jupiter as well as its four largest moons, strong out on either side of the planet like a strand of diamonds. M13, the globular cluster in Hercules, showed as a diffuse grey circle speckled with stellar pinpoints, giving it a three-dimensional quality. This was the first time I had found something in the sky that I couldn't see just by looking up--I felt a tremendous sense of discovery. The first time I viewed Saturn, I was so thrilled to see the rings that I didn't pay attention to anything else. The next night out, I saw two of its moons. While sweeping the Milky Way during another session, I encountered what looked like a faint puff of smoke. Not knowing what it was, I scribbled a rough sketch. Back inside the house, I checked the reference books and confirmed that I'd found the Swan Nebula (M17). Without question, the most impressive sight was the Moon. It more than filled the field, revealing detail that my son Alex accurately described as "awesome." Its craters and mountains provided enough interest to occupy hours of observing time. Unfortunately, the magnificafion that makes the Moon so spectacular can also be a source of frustration. To keep the kit cost down, Steve has chosen to provide a single eyepiece, one best suited for views of the Moon and planets. For most neophytes, a lower-power eye-piece that provides a wider, brighter field would make it easier to find faint objects in a sky we're still trying to learn. Given that most telescope owners will acquire additional eyepieces as time goes on, this is a minor criticism. In my case, I supplemented the standard eye-piece with a 20 mm Plossl that yields a modest 52 power. The more I've seen with my new telescope, the more I want to find. And that it would seem to me, is the most important function any first telescope could perform. O Scott Bartie is a Freelance writer and film-maker who lives in Speyside, Ontario. SKYNEWS November/December 1997
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