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September 18, 2006

Star Struck

I'm turning 30 soon, and in a fit of parental generosity my mother asked if I might want a "special" birthday present. Usually I have a hard time deciding such things, because most birthdays just aren't special enough to warrant buying the toys I want. (Yes, I am five right about now.) But this year I was ready with my big request: "I want a telescope." Mom talked to Dad and he agreed to cover it. "Don't expect a present like this ever again," he joked. Actually, in retrospect I don't think he was joking.

Well, I may have spent all my parental capital, but it's here! This is actually my second telescope. The first one I got when I was ten or so. That would have been 1986, the year Halley's Comet came to town. The telescope was a Tasco refractor of the kind everyone's seen at Toys "R" Us. The top of the tripod sheared off on my first attempt to use it. Sadly, my father's bailing-wire repair failed to return it to status quo ante, and it resided in my closet until the day we put it in a yard sale. I remember seeing the comet with my dad in some binoculars one morning, rather than setting up the scope.

Fast forward to adulthood, whatever that is. The Hale-Bopp Comet of 1997 was an astonishing sight from the Shenandoah Valley where I went to school. I think the spectacle of that comet reawakened my interest in the subject. Over the past decade, I've learned the names of many constellations and can point to most of those in the sky. The Sweetness got me a green laser pointer last year for pointing at stars -- pretty cool in the boardroom, too, by the way. And now I have an Orion XT8 telescope, a serious astronomical tool.

The Orion XT8 is an 8" Dobsonian reflector. "Reflector" means it has a Newtonian design, where a hole in the top of the tube (8" in diameter on this one) brings in light to be focused by the mirror at the bottom. This focused light then bounces off the secondary mirror hanging near the top of the tube to enter the eyepiece at a 90 degree angle. In this design, everything you see is upside down, which takes some getting used to. "Dobsonian" means that, rather than sitting on a tripod, the telescope is mounted on what looks like a cannon emplacement. Incidentally, since the tube is 46" long, it pretty much looks like a cannon.

Seriously, this thing is huge. But it's fairly manageable. I've only had it for a few days, and it has been foggy or cloudy most of them. Still, I put it on the deck of my apartment and played explorer. So far I've seen a double star, a meteor, and countless pinpoints of light. This, mind you, was on a night when you couldn't see a star in the sky with the naked eye. I can't wait to see what it will be like on a good night!

Posted by The Greatness at 09:09 AM | Comments (0)