Monday, 7 May 2012

Tales From A Frustrated Astronomer

In June 2010 I received a marvellous present for an important birthday, a Meade ETX-125 telescope. I had an interest in astronomy decades ago in my youth partly inspired by early ‘Sky at Night’ programmes seen  at my uncle and aunt’s home late on Sunday nights but my interest lapsed over the intervening years. What  a great opportunity to rekindle my interest, I thought!
Paul's Meade ETX-125 telescope  

Well, two years on I can report on a great deal  of frustration, setbacks but eventual success until the last few weeks of inclement weather. Yes, of all the places to start this hobby, I chose the west of Scotland with its rain and lack of summer darkness!

 A few months after getting the telescope, once we had a few clear dark nights, we enjoyed wonderful views of the moon, Jupiter and Saturn with its renowned rings.  But what I couldn’t  do was to set up the telescope so that I could use  the handset with its ‘Goto’ facility which enables you to select the object that you wish to view and get the telescope to point to it and then track it across the sky. The latter is very important since the telescope came with just one lens yielding 73 times magnification which results in objects moving quickly out of view because of the earth’s rotation unless the telescope is set up (aligned) correctly.

I trawled the internet for the solution and tried all manner of ideas. I spent 15 minutes at the start of each observation session trying to get the base and telescope horizontal with a spirit level and trying to point the telescope at precisely due north but to no avail. The solution turned out to be to manually set the latitude and longitude of Strathyre rather than use the default setting of Edinburgh. Most of the Meade telescopes are sold to the US market and if you’re located in the US then you can enter the zip code which pinpoints where you’re located reasonably accurately but in Europe the simple set up process simply asks you to specify the nearest city.

Having got over this hurdle, I was eagerly looking forward to an evening’s observation one Thursday night in April 2011  when the telescope began to misbehave badly and in an entirely unpredictable manner. We arranged a mad dash down to the shop in Stockport where the telescope had been purchased, left it for repair and spent  a couple of nights with friends in Burnley before returning home. A few days later I received a telephone call:
‘We’ve hooked the telescope up to our own power supply and it works fine.’
‘Were you using rechargeable batteries?’ ‘Yes.’
‘Did you mix two different types?’ ‘I’ll just go and have a look – yes and two different voltages.’
‘That’s your problem then’.
The telescope was then posted back to me and during the glorious weather of the 2nd half of April 2011 and early May I enjoyed some fine evenings’ observations.

Autumn 2011 and I managed to snap a battery contact. This led me to find an interim solution involving a bent paper clip. This was courtesy of a wonderful character called ‘Doug Dickens’ with a fascinating life story which you can read here . His early years were reminiscent of Steinbeck’s novels.  The permanent solution was a ‘Power Tank’ which is basically a highly packaged (and priced!) rechargeable 12 volt battery. But if I hadn’t broken the battery contact, then I’d never stumbled across Doug with whom I’ve exchanged a few emails.

Next problem was that I messed up the pre-loaded night sky tours with which the telescope came. This turned out not to be my fault but an incompatibility between the software used to maintain the telescope and the firmware in the handset. The solution was eventually provided by a guy in Melbourne who had developed some very clever software of his own designed for people doing photography and needing very accurate tracking for long exposures. He’d extended the software to do other things including maintaining these tours. It was worse than I’ve indicated because I couldn’t get his software to work either but sent him all the details of my set up and location and got a reply within 24 hours identifying the problem in his software and an easy and effective work-around.

  This winter I’ve had great fun finding my way around the night sky and observing open clusters and nebulae in particular. The cold was yet another problem with ice on the telescope on more than one occasion and a frozen sloping garden making life even more interesting. I started wearing apparel that I’d last used in anger during my many treks in the Himalayas in the 1990s in  a previous life. I was tempted to carry a hip flask with a warming single malt but alcohol and a sophisticated telescope together with icy conditions a good mix do not make!

  So that brings us up to date with me hoping for some clear skies before the light summer nights intervene. Given the infrequency of clear night skies here I’m not promoting astronomy weekends or similar but I am very happy to set up the telescope for interested guests when conditions permit especially if a late breakfast is acceptable!

LETI: Partners Paul Holt and Mal Dingle run Rosebank House,  a pet friendly bed and breakfast in Strathyre.   Their accommodation in Perthshire and The Trossachs is popular with British and European holiday makers whether they wish a relaxing break,  a stopping point at the gateway to the Highlands or an ideal base for walking, biking and other outdoor activities near Scottish lochs and mountains. 

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