Tonight I finally was able to try out my new Meade 12" f/10 LX90GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that arrived a few days ago. This was a present to myself, paid for by selling astro-related things (and, hopefully, the money returned to me from USBank giving it to someone else...). Because it's been cloudy, foggy, or raining, today was my first chance to try it out.
I've never had a go-to 'scope before, and I've always been leery of such. But I've recently returned to astrophotography, and this one really improves that with its built-in GPS setup! With other types of mounts, one has to align on the North Star, then offset the mount just a bit to find true north. Then there are the leveling issues, blah blah blah... basically, if you want to take astrophotos, you end up spending a good portion of the night just aligning your 'scope. With a GPS-powered mount, all you do is turn on the 'scope, and it automatically identifies where it is in the world (latitude), then what time it is, then adjusts for level (or not), then points at a couple of stars. All you have to do is center the stars in the eyepiece and give the instrument a little pat on the head, and then you're ready to go!
First up was Mars. Right now, the Red Planet is at its closest approach in many years, so get out there and take a look! (Click here to see where and how to find it
.) It's almost exactly overhead by midnight, and when the Moon is full this month, they'll be within a couple of degrees of each other in the sky. Pretty dramatic. You'll recognize it by its intense brightness and dramatic red color, and you'll be able to distinguish it from the other stars (such as Betelgeuse, also red) because it won't "blink" like stars do: Unlike stars that are essentially point objects - that is, you can't really magnify their size, so they might as well be single points - planets are made up of many points of light that form a disk. What makes stars blink is that atmospheric disturbance can literally turn off the light from a star, but all that'll happen to a planet's disk is that it might get a little bit darker.
Anyway, I made for Mars first. Using the very nice 26mm Plossl eyepiece that came with the telescope, Mars had sharply defined dark and light regions, not unlike the user-icon for this post. I've never seen it so gorgeous before in any telescope! It looked a bit small, though, so I tried an assortment of other oculars: 21mm TeleVue Plossl (about the same, but without the rubber eyeguard, I needed to shield my face from the neighbor's back-yard light... did I mention that I was observing in my back yard? *g*), 15mm eyepieces in a bino-viewer (I'm growing more and more unenthusiastic with bino-viewing, probably due to having astigmatism; anyone looking to buy a wonderful bino-viewer with two sets of eyepieces?), 5.1mm Orion ED (very large disk, but the magnification was a bit high for the night's increasing fog), back to the 26mm with a 3x Barlow (nicer than the other eyepieces, but I'm afraid that I must have exhaled on the Barlow, for it had a big fuzzy halo around the planet), and finally back to just the 26mm. The edges of the disk appeared to be a bit bluer, as if the Martian atmosphere were having a similar effect as does our own. Wow! I'd never seen that before! What a difference a couple of inches makes with a telescope.
Excited about the gorgeous view and wanting to share with y'all, I plugged my CCD imager into the USB port on my laptop (yes, I was surrounded by a maze of cables) and slipped it into the telescope's focuser tube. The laptop display showed Mars in real-time, refreshing about every second or two, growing sharper with each little twist of the focuser. Finally, I had it just about perfectly focused when the image went all snowy and then vanished. I unplugged the imager from the computer, plugged it back in - nothing. Then I shut down the software and re-started it - again, nothing. Harumph. After fiddling for a while, I gave up, shut down that equipment, and just returned to using my own biological imager. I watched Mars for another 20 minutes or so, noticing that it was growing hazier as time went on.
What's this? I wondered. I shone my little red-filmed pocket light - something I've used for astronomy since junior high - on the corrector plate at the "mouth" of the telescope and discovered that it was pretty much glazed over with frozen fog. Damn weather! Oh, did I mention that it's about 22 degrees F here in Kansas tonight? And foggy.
Not wanting to give up so early, I told the telescope to show me the Moon. Wow. A 12" f/10 set of optics seem to reveal about twice as many craters as I've ever seen... and this through a fine layer of frozen fog! Then I peeked at the Pleiades (not really visible with the Moon out and the fog), then Saturn (oops! Behind the house), then the Great Nebula in Orion (M42 - as WOW as ever, even in these conditions), and finally back to Mars, which seemed to improve with a bit of ice filtering its brightness.
Satisfied and freezing my heiny off, I shut down and put everything away.
I like my new telescope very much and look forward to nicer conditions in which to use it. And I'll be working on my CCD camera so I can show you some images, too!