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November 22, 2002--

I hope everyone's Thanksgiving was amazing back home in Michigan. We wish we could have celebrated it with you . . . down here of course. Enough of that disgusting cold weather. Even here today, though, it was in the 40's and windy . . . yuck!!! It was truly painful! I can't believe I'm in the Deep South. Obviously it isn't deep enough! But a nice meal, with kind folks and a view of the glorious night sky made it a fine evening.

The evening at the McLaughlin's was very nice. Great food, good people, and a gorgeous house. Melissa was asked earlier that week by co-worker Kim (daughter of the McG's) that if they brought their telescope to the festivities, annually held at the beautiful home of her parents at the southern tip of Wilmington Island, could I take a look at it and see what the problem might be? She and her husband got it for their eldest son Tyler last Christmas and after assembly couldn't see anything but black. They had an engineering (electrical) friend look at it and he couldn't do anything with it. I asked if it was a refractor or reflector and they didn't know. I figured that I could always take a look at it and if it was a reflector there was some possibility of me helping them out since I had one. A refractor though, its primary objective being a lens, would be problematic. I'd bring mine in case I couldn't be of any help and at least have something to have the kids look through.

Turns out it was a Bushnell reflector, 4-1/2" objective, pretty much the same telescope that brother Bill gave me, only not as ancient. And being only a year old it had never seen any real use. It was in great shape. After putzing around for a bit on the McLaughlin's back porch after a sumptuous meal it only took one look down the telescope's long tube to see that the problem merely was misalignment of the primary mirror. That and the finder scope was on backwards. After finding the mirror's adjustment screws (Ty found the access panel behind the mirror which I couldn't detect as it just pried off) I was able to bring the objective into alignment. There are three adjustment screws and you just keep turning them until the reflection of the diagonal mirror mounted up near the telescope's opening, near the eyepiece, becomes centered as you look down into the tube. With that quickly accomplished I hunted skyward through the backyard trees to spot a hopefully exciting deep sky object. I found the Pleiades, a beautiful open cluster of stars near the constellation Taurus the Bull. That looked pretty cool, and after focusing on that I let the kids peek. They were pretty amazed especially after waiting almost a year to use the instrument for its intended purpose. Then I tried to get the Andromeda galaxy into view, normally a very easy task. That would have been an impressive sight even though it would have only looked like a tiny faint oblong cotton ball. It is visible to the naked eye on a good night, and it even a great sight in a pair of binoculars. But I couldn't get the equatorial mount to view that particular region as it was pretty close to Zenith. Not even with my own scope could I accomplish this simple task of pointing directly overhead! An adjustment knob kept blocking the instrument's turn that far. After struggling with that for far too long while the kids waited patiently, playing amongst themselves in the dark, chilly, 50 degree evening, I thought I'd just find a nice bright colorful star to see (woo-hoo, viewing pinpoints of light!) and call it a night.

After finding an orange colored star to the East halfway between Zenith and the horizon I focused on it and discovered it had a bulge around its middle. Turns out it was Saturn! So we got a thrill looking at her with all her rings. It was pretty cool. The scope was pretty good for a beginner's. Viewing this planet isn't like looking at pictures shot from a professional's telescope. If one saw photos published by NASA (like those found on the Astronomy Picture of the Day web site -- see the link there of the archives) and expect to see similar brilliant colors and detail with a backyard observatory one would be sorely disappointed. A personal eye view of astronomical objects typically reveals little detail and the only colors are your basic white. The eye just can't process other faint emissions of the spectrum. It takes carefully developed film with which the glories of colors can be highlighted by chemically adjusting the film's emulsion (see this amateur photo from this web page But the thrill is being able to personally see the object. Especially viewing the rings of Saturn, or the moons of Jupiter, or details in the surface of the moon, or the phases of Venus and Mars, or some of the nebula and galaxies that even a small telescope can bring within reach. And thrilling it is indeed! One feels something of what Galileo must have sensed as he raised to the heavens one of mankind's first magnification devices.

Well, on that note, showing the kids Saturn as well as letting a couple adults view it, I turned the scope over to the owner (Tyler), telling him as much about the instrument as I could and showing him how to adjust the finder scope, track a star or planet with the adjustment knobs and how to point the equatorial mount to the North in order to follow the object in its transit across the turning sky. I think the kids got almost as big a thrill as I did using the instrument that Thursday night.

So that was a very worthwhile Thanksgiving evening, bringing the heavens down to that backyard on the salt marsh of coastal Georgia.

~ Comments or suggestions ~

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