Date: December 26, 2009

Title: Confessions of a Christmas Trash Scope


Podcaster: Richard S. Wright

Description: The dreaded “Christmas Trash Scope”, the bane of amateur astronomers worldwide! Shoddy optics! Wobbly mounts! Dangerous solar filters! Misleading advertising! Heaven help us! But wait… could someone REALLY get a decent start to a lifelong and rewarding hobby with such an abomination? Indeed, it might just kick start a career to boot. Hear how one man’s childhood dream to own a powerful telescope taught him to turn lemons into lemonade… and opened up the wonders of the night sky, despite all advice to the contrary.

Bio: Richard S. Wright Jr. is a Sr. Software Engineer for Software Bisque, and teaches 3D graphics programming at Full Sail University in Orlando Florida. He is the lead author of the OpenGL SuperBible, a book about graphics programming, and was the lead developer of Software Bisque’s “Seeker” Solar System Simulator. He has also written astronomy software for the iPhone, and enjoys lunar and outdoor photography and hanging out at Star Parties.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Gabriele and Scott Udell for their son Nate, future astronomy nut, who loves to bop out to the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast theme song–“Fah fah away!”


Confessions of a Christmas Trash Scope
Richard S. Wright Jr.

Hi, this is Richard S. Wright Jr. I’m a software engineer for Software Bisque, where I help create the worlds greatest astronomy software. I have six telescopes in my shed, and am an avid amateur astronomer, and part time lunar photographer. But not always…. I have a little confession to make to my friends in the astronomy business, and one that may bring a little encouragement to anyone who just got their first new telescope recently.

It’s the day after Christmas, and it’s a sure bet that more than a few of you, either this year or in years past, have gotten standard Christmas gift #138. This is of course from the standard Santa’s Christmas gift catalog, volume 2, issue number 9. Yep, right there on page 57. A big shiny beautiful red telescope.

Every single Christmas as a boy (with one notable exception that has to do with a five speed bike), all I wanted for Christmas was a telescope. Between the TV show “Lost in Space”, the Apollo missions and a spellbinding school trip to the planetarium in the first grade, I knew somehow science and space was my destiny. I’d often daydream of myself as an adult with a small dome in my back yard with my glorious monster telescope tucked away inside, oh, how the mysteries of the universe would be mine! In the mean time, I would have to settle for laying in my yard staring up at twilight watching the stars come out one by one. I’d lay and watch the moon and dream of the moon bases that would be there by 1999. Alas, I’d be in my 30’s by then… probably too old to survive a ride on a rocket.

My dreams of a mighty telescope remained only a dream for many years. It was 1985 when my fiancé at the time took note of my unhealthy obsession with space, and would patiently allow me to drool over the telescopes at the department stores we’d visit. These were usually in the camera department, and she had a camera after all.

It was that Christmas when she presented me with a gift box that was heavy, long and slender. Tearing away the paper revealed the dream of my dreams, and hope beyond hopes! It was red and shiny! It had it’s own stand with precision slow motion controls! It had it’s own little “finder scope” attached, and best of all it was marked 450X! It even had a special dark filter for the eyepiece that would allow me to look at the sun!

Yes friends. What I have just described in the dreaded “Christmas Trash Scope”. The bane of amateur astronomers world wide each and every Christmas. Astronomy magazines and books are full of articles warning you about this dreaded monstrosity. The mounts are wobbly and useless. The optics are cheap and produce “rainbow” star images. Those eye piece solar filters are downright DANGEROUS (“You’ll put you eye out!”). And of course the maximum useful magnification is actually more like 40 power, not 450. “Do not purchase such as scope”, the commentators lament. “They will lose interest in astronomy and get frustrated”, they say. “Buy them binoculars instead”, they recommend. Bzzzt… Binoculars?

Now, it has been my observation over the years that most of the people who offer such advice have 20” reflectors and the roofs of their garage slide off at night. (snooty voice) Such an instrument is simply unworthy of the discerning and more refined tastes of… oh, never mind.

A piece of advice here; any child (regardless of age) who asks for a telescope and receives binoculars instead is going to be sorely disappointed (you might as well had bought them a sweater). No amount of coaxing will get them to appreciate the utility of a pair of binoculars. Every school child knows that you need a telescope to look at the stars, not binoculars! We – um, they – want to see the moon and planets, through a real telescope, don’t even try to pawn off a pair of binoculars on me buster… I want the real thing!

Now, there is something magical about actually having a telescope that suddenly turns astronomy from being an interest to being a bona-fide hobby. Which means now I would start reading about telescopes and how to use them. For some strange reason very few of us actually do that first. It took me less than a week to discover that my bride to be had just “thrown her money away” on a useless instrument that would bring me nothing but frustration and inadequate views of anything I tried it on. Images would be color distorted, stars would glare, high power views would be impossible, and I would never be able to position the scope on anything with the poorly constructed stand supplied.

In the interest of her remaining my bride-to-be, I decided against the “Thanks honey for the effort, but you really should have gotten me binoculars” approach and decided to make the best of it.

My first night out, I was determined to get a look at Jupiter’s great red spot. Jupiter was high in the sky at sunset and very bright. It was much later at night when I finally took my new scope outside in the cold of a January night in Kentucky. It was midnight and I looked to where Jupiter had been before and I saw a bright star in roughly the same place (so I thought) now. I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but at the time I didn’t have enough of a grasp on things to know that Jupiter had long set by the time I went out. I was actually looking at the star Sirius.

It was 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and I found a dark place behind my mom’s garage to set up. I had big thick gloves on which made it difficult to work the “slow motion controls”, but I persevered. I immediately selected the highest power eyepiece and paired it with the included 2X barlow lens. Then I began trying to center the scope on what I thought was Jupiter. I finally figured out that I should start with the lower power eyepiece and then once centered, switch to the higher-powered eyepieces. My first break through. The problem was that even with the lower powered eyepiece I could not get Jupiter, um, Sirius, in my field of view. Occasionally, I’d get some faint smudge of brightness, but it was out of focus. I wheeled the focus knob all the way out and back in, but never saw anything. I finally decided to focus on a neighbor’s porch light and discovered that even that could not be found, only darkness. All this took… what seemed like an hour or more. I removed the eyepiece and was going to quit for the night in despair when I noticed that screwed into the eye piece was the dark green solar filter I had been playing with earlier when I unboxed the scope. Revitalized, I again attempted what I thought was Jupiter. I did in fact eventually manage to get Sirius centered in the low power view, but it looked more like an airplane from a distance with multi-colored lights on it than a single star. The view was also never really in focus I thought…. I looked at the front lens and discovered that my misadventures thus far had taken long enough that it had frost on it and was mostly blocked by it. Perhaps my breath, which I could see colliding with the glass in the cold air wasn’t helping.

Over the years that followed, I slowly learned how to get the most from my so called “trash scope”. I never did see the great red spot on Jupiter with it, and I learned that stars by themselves were on the whole uninteresting, and the brighter they were the worse they looked. But I also found that some of the dimmer stars were actually double stars, and that my puny little scope would split many doubles very well. I found that some star charts had double stars marked, and that finding them and seeing the two components was actually quite challenging and fun in itself. With the aide of my poor trash scope I was learning to use a star chart and learning my way around the night sky like I never had before.

I still remember the first time I found the great Orion Nebula (exploded star guts as I described them to my cousins) I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was like finding a microscopic universe in the middle of the sky. It had been hanging over my head all my life and I had never known it was there. I marveled at Saturn’s rings. Jupiter showed me two brown bands and orbiting moons that changed nightly. I began to keep a journal and sketch in the positions of the Galilean moons and any background stars I thought I might see near Jupiter. Once under ideal conditions I even saw a polar cap on Mars’ otherwise featureless disk. M13 in Hercules took repeated tries from a lighted apartment complex parking lot, but once I found it I felt like a “deep sky pro”.

But the moon was my favorite quarry. The moon is different each and every night, and you can wander the surface of the moon endlessly. I found that my “flawed” optics actually did a fair job on the lunar surface as long as I didn’t push the magnification too much, and even then I still could see enough detail to identify features in a lunar atlas. I discovered by accident that you could even project the moon’s image on a white T-shirt through the back of the telescope with no eyepiece in place. Soon I was using an index card behind the telescope to trace the lunar disk. I even used this projection technique during a couple of partial solar eclipses to show friends the dragon biting into the sun.

Finding and tracking an object was quite a challenge. To keep the scope steady, I even occasionally tied an old tennis shoe to the tube to weigh it down to reduce backlash. I became keenly aware of light pollution, and found that neighbor’s porch lights were often the worse culprits. I would frequently sit in an outside closet to keep stray light from interfering, and would put a jacket over my head and the scope. A useful trick to this day.

Even with such a poor trashy instrument I discovered the tricks of averted vision, that dark adaptation was important, and that the longer you looked at something, the more detail would appear over time. I took my small telescope everywhere. I took it to darker skies near Fort Knox Kentucky, I took it to my wife’s aunts house in Tennessee when we were on vacation (where she thoughtfully “surprised” me by turning on the outside flood lights because she felt sorry for me out “there in the dark”).

I don’t see as many trash scopes at the department stores anymore. Now I see brand names that grace my shed today. I see reasonably advertised powers of 40x and 50x, with pictures on the box in black and white, not from the Hubble, but more representative of what might actually be seen. This is a good thing I think. Still, I occasionally come across the 700X telescope that can see for a hundred thousand trillion miles. I wonder how many other budding science enthusiasts they have ruined?

I did eventually trade up from my poor trash scope. Some years later, my family was growing, my career taking off, and we moved from Kentucky to Florida. A trip to the beach ruined a camera, and a trip to a camera repair shop introduced me to my next telescope. There in a corner with “used” equipment stood a white 4.5” Edmund Scientific reflector. It was on consignment, with no eyepieces and a primary mirror that looked like somebody had to scrape the leaves off it before bringing it in out of the rain. A burned out clock drive completed the ensemble. For 50 bucks I took it home. I found that if I wrapped enough electrical tape around the eyepieces from my old red trash scope, I could make them fit in the bigger focusing tube of my new reflector. Oh the joyous nights that lay ahead!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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