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About Andy69

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    Leyland, Lancashire
  1. Thank you for your comments, it's always nice to hear someone enjoyed reading these things. My other hobbies are pretty much as described. I have a couple of guitars and an amplifier that is really way too big and loud for home use. I doubt I'll ever be an accomplished guitarist but I do like to pick them up and play something every now and then. I have mastered Happy Birthday though and my son's 21st is coming up so may have to don a curly wig and climb onto the garage roof as a special surprise. Weather permitting of course. I do also have a selection of woodworking power tools which happily I'm slightly more competent with than the above blog entry may indicate. So far I've managed to keep most of my blood in my veins and still have a full compliment of fingers and thumbs.
  2. I originally wrote this one back in May last year and since it is time of the year relevant it make sense to post now. This one has a slightly nostalgic tinge to the usual mix of pop culture references and dubious facts wrapped around a vaguely astronomical theme. As we enjoy the longer days and the slightly warmer winter weather that here in the British Isles we optimistically call summer, it inevitably signals the end of what many would consider the astronomical observing season. Living so far north on our home world means we are fast approaching that period in our orbit when we don’t experience astronomical darkness and our view of many deep sky objects is denied to us. Oh, I know you can still spot the planets and in particular Saturn becomes visible at a less unsociable hour but many people choose to pack away their telescopes for the summer. Instead we spend our money on holidays in the sun, tasty bedding plants for slugs to consume and the obligatory barbeque whenever the temperature hits the high teens and Sol puts in a brief appearance. The other thing we do of course is look back on the winter recently passed and wonder (as we did last year) why we've invested many hundreds if not thousands of pounds on equipment that we've only managed to use a handful of times in the previous six months. The weather must surely be the most common frustration amongst the UK’s astronomy enthusiasts. Nothing seems to guarantee cloud like a once in a lifetime solar eclipse or a particularly spectacular meteor shower. Oddly enough given our national preoccupation with the weather it also seems to be the one thing we fail to consider when deciding that astronomy is the hobby for us. Much like we all remember long, golden summers from our youth we also only seem to recall winters being crammed full of cold and frosty clear nights. The reality of course is that for most of the year our seasons are a constantly disappointing temperature variation on a dreary grey theme of cloud and drizzle. Yet in the UK we have an uncanny optimism about the weather that flies in the face of all observable evidence and a lifetime of experience. Every year we imagine that this time we’ll have textbook seasons; a gently warming spring giving way to a glorious summer of warmth and activity before easing into a colourful autumn and a cold winter of frost and snow. For a nation that is so cynical about many things our unreasoned optimism about the weather is difficult to understand. Yet the evidence is everywhere from the sales of convertible cars to the popularity of golf. Let’s face it the only reason they recently put a roof on Wimbledon wasn't because of the weather stopping play but because the tennis was being overshadowed by what was fast becoming Cliff Richard’s annual London gig when it did inevitably rain. It is no wonder then that there comes a time for every astronomer when they seriously consider selling their equipment to fund a new hobby that doesn't involve a dependency on our unpredictable weather. Arguably the most famous example of this is Brian May who clearly got so fed up with his PHD taking so long to complete due to cloud and rain that he learned to play the guitar and became a rock star instead. There’s a good chance you too may harbour thoughts of musicianship being a more entertaining way to spend hundreds of pounds on equipment. Maybe you can picture yourself at family birthday parties standing on your garage roof playing a Hendrix style version of ‘happy birthday’ on a Stratocaster with a full Marshall stack turned up to 11. The reality of course with this being the UK is it will obviously be raining on any given birthday, particularly if some sort of outdoor activity is planned so fortunately for your neighbours that scenario is unlikely to happen. Not only will the weather put a dent in your rock star dreams but you’ll also quickly discover that your coordination isn't what it was when you were a teenager and more crucially you don’t have the uncounted hours of free time that you actually need to learn how to play a guitar with any degree of competency. Sure when you first buy that old six string you may very well play until your fingers bled but you’ll realise that you should really have learned to play in the summer of ’69 not when you are rapidly approaching that age. If it’s not music then you may decide that you've always wanted to make things out of wood and your sky at night magazine will be replaced by the screwfix catalogue with its many pages of power tools, laser measuring devices and power tools with integrated laser measuring devices. Your shed/observatory will be transformed into your workshop. The pier will now be home to a vice. The desk where your computer and books once resided will now be decorated with an array of saws and chisels and the walls where your moon posters were once pinned will now be covered in arterial spray because those saws and chisels are really, really sharp. Once you return from casualty you’ll probably decide that you need a nice, relaxing hobby that doesn’t involve sharp implements or ear splitting, vacuum tube powered amplifiers. Thinking about it you will recall those relaxing evenings spent under lovely, crisp, clear skies that you used to enjoy last winter and wonder why you ever decided to get rid of your telescope. Once you’ve reset your password on stargazers lounge and read a few postings you’ll whip out your credit card and spend a ridiculous amount of money on some new astronomy equipment. You will then spend the next few days filled with the kind of excitement you recall from a childhood Christmas when you were expecting to receive a shiny new bike. And much like that Christmas of long ago you will find the day your parcel of astro kit arrives it is pouring with rain.
  3. It's been a while since I posted anything here so to rectify that read on to discover why the moon is like Scarlett Johansson and along the way Galileo, Buzz Aldrin, ET and a drunken zombie all get a mention too. Any astronomer with any degree of experience will have a list of things they really want to see. Many, for example will have no doubt fantasised about seeing Betelgeuse going supernova perhaps while they happened to be looking at it. Or it might be watching a comet perform a death plunge into Jupiter and observing the resulting scars in its atmosphere, which would no doubt be an awesome sight to see. Maybe some people even secretly hope to discover an asteroid on a collision course with Earth that is big enough to send us the way of the dinosaurs. But when you first began your adventure in astronomy your list will be slightly more prosaic. For a lot of people their number one must see is Saturn in all its ringed glory. No matter how many times you see it, it is simply spectacular. Or perhaps it is Jupiter and its four largest moons that pretty much look the same today as they did when Galileo first observed them with his telescope four hundred years ago. And then of course there are old favourites like the Andromeda galaxy, the Orion nebula or the slightly disappointing Mars. For some it is simply going to a dark sky site and seeing more stars than you believed existed and being awed by the sight of the Milky way arching overhead. These are all worthy objects that appear in any astronomers top ten sights to see in the night sky. One thing a lot of people don’t have down as a priority though is the moon. This is surprising since it’s the most obvious thing people recognise in the night sky but also understandable for the very same reason. Everyone is so used to seeing it mooning at them all night and sometimes during the day that they feel they’ve seen it all before. Yes, people always marvel at the way it looks bigger when it’s closer to the horizon and everyone likes that bit in ET when Elliot and co. fly in front of a huge full moon, but give someone a telescope and it’s not usually the first thing they look at. There is some truth in thinking that the moon is so familiar that there is nothing new to see. Many features for example can be picked out with the naked eye and most people are aware that we only ever see one side of it so it is a bit samey from that point of view. But, and it is a big but, when you do finally swing your telescope around to the Moon you will stand in slack jawed amazement and say the only word your brain can push out of your mouth at such times which is ‘Wow!’. You might ask how is it possible to be so awed by something that appears so ordinary but the answer to that question can be most concisely summed up as “Magnificent desolation”. Those were the words of Buzz Aldrin when he hopped off the lunar lander and had a look around and when you put a high magnification eyepiece into your telescope and point it moonward you’ll know exactly what he meant. You will be quite simply astonished and wonder how you failed to realise what a beauty of an object it is. It is the astronomical equivalent of barely noticing the girl next door for several years and then one day bumping into her at the bus stop and realising she’s Scarlett Johansson. And in much the same way you will then spend a great deal of time late at night in your garden with some binoculars. The particularly brilliant thing about the moon though is the level of detail you can see. Let’s face it many objects that we spend time looking at can best be described as fuzzy and indistinct. Even the planets in the solar system reveal very little detail to the visual observer and when they do you are talking of features hundreds if not thousands of miles in size. The moon is different. Here we’re talking objects perhaps as small as a kilometre that can be resolved by even a modest telescope. Regardless of the power of your equipment though you will spend hours peering through your telescope discovering little gems of detail in the many craters and mountains you will see. You’ll crank up the magnification to ridiculous levels which you can get away with when the thing you’re looking at is so close and so bright. When the moon is full and with just the right eye piece you’ll be able to fill your field of view with the entire moon and it looks brilliant. The only down side to staring at the moon for the first time is that you probably won’t have the benefit of a moon filter and you will discover the brightness of la luna has left you temporarily blind in one eye. I’ve never tried looking at the moon through binoculars but presumably doing so leaves you stumbling around like a drunken zombie until the effect wears off. Luckily, if you’re the owner of a Newtonian reflector, particularly the Skywatcher variety there is a solution of sorts that comes free with your telescope. It could be described as the end cap, end cap. To explain, here's a picture of the end cap of my telescope, note the small end cap removed from the much larger one. Many people puzzle over the intended use of this little hole but one thing you can do is use it to cut down the glare when observing the moon. You simply leave the large end cap in place and remove the small one and voila light entering your telescope is reduced substantially and you can thus observe the moon without the usual temporary blindness. However the problem comes when you've finished your lunar observing and decide to have one more look at Jupiter before you pack up. ‘Hmm, that's funny’ you'll think. It’s very dark and really lacking detail and it looked brilliant earlier. You may swap out an eyepiece, check you've not got a filter on and in desperation you'll fiddle around with things that can't possibly affect your view. Bewildered you'll start to pack up your stuff and when you go to take the dew shield off the end of your telescope you'll notice the big end cap still in place with just the little hole open to the universe. Happily it will be dark enough to cover your embarrassment and you can pretend that you knew it was there all the time.
  4. This week the challenge of finding a good dark sky site is tackled. Unsurprisingly the answer is to meet up with your local astronomy group which in my case was CLASS. Whilst your group and members will have different names I imagine the cast of characters will no doubt be similar. Oh and Paul’s dog is actually called Tilly, the reason for pointing this out now will become obvious around the third paragraph but will only really make sense if you are familiar with certain works from Enid Blyton. There is something to be said for solo observing. Some nights you may just want to enjoy the peace and solitude you experience from staring at the glorious cosmos in the safety of your own garden. Just you, alone with your thoughts staring at the void and wondering if tonight will be the night, you’ll finally find Andromeda. I wouldn't argue against that at all. But, unless you are very lucky your garden will offer only limited views of the night sky and suffer from some degree of light pollution especially when next door let the cat out and it triggers their million watt security light. So unless you've become an astrophotography junkie and are therefore spending all of your evenings in your shed/observatory there will come a time when you’ll think about going out, beyond your garden gate. In theory it’s simple; you don’t live too far from the countryside so you imagine there must be loads of places you could drive out to where you can enjoy clear views and dark skies. But no, it isn't that simple. First of all anywhere that has a proper car park will fall into one of two categories. It will either have a gate with a padlock denying you access or the car park in question will be full of cars which, if you are lucky will only contain boy racers. So car parks are out. Next you’ll think a lay-by will do the trick but it’s the nature of a lay-by to be right next to the road and every now and then a young lad in a Corsa with all of his headlights on full beam will ruin your night vision. It all seems a bit doom and gloom but do not despair, what you need to do is take yourself along to a CLASS observing night. We are usually at one of two places. If it hasn't rained for a while we will likely be at the ‘tank site’. A secret location known only to the members of the society and a few farmers which is accessed from behind a World War Two tank parked at the side of a roundabout. It sounds like some sort of Famous Five secret den. This is quite appropriate really as there’s usually only five of us turn up and Paul sometimes brings his dog, who’s almost called Timmy. If we’re not at the tank site then we’ll most likely be at the slightly less secret, Brindle community hall. A location known only to members of the society, anyone who attended our stargazing live event and the entire population of Brindle and surrounding areas. Regardless of the location the usual suspects will no doubt be there. Paul, Rob and I after having looked at the same four objects that between us we can remember how to find (one of which is the moon) will be attempting to locate something new using a combination of smart phones, laser pointers and blind luck. In his seemingly ongoing quest to own more telescopes than Jodrell Bank Nigel will have brought along his latest Astronomy Buy and Sell purchase. Steve, if he hasn't broken himself in some way will be there with his truly awesome 12” GOTO Dobsonian, that looks and sounds like some sort of rocket launcher. If you’re not impressed with the physical object itself, the views through it will certainly blow your socks off. Assuming he’s in the country, Nick will have brought along his increasingly technical setup which I fully expect to evolve into a sort of Hal 9000/Terminator autonomous viewing machine that will one day break its programming and kill us all. Neville may be there to point us in the right direction. He doesn't use GOTO, as far as I can tell he uses the force to align a telescope. Stu will be working but, if we’re at the tank site he puts in an appearance later when he drives past in his train. Mary of course won’t be there as she’ll have used her usual excuse of living hundreds of miles away in rural Oxfordshire for not turning up. No commitment some people. You can be sure that you’ll see many things. Some strange, some exciting, some will be things you've never seen before and some will even be astronomy related. But before you can experience any of that you have to first overcome a couple of obstacles. The bigger of the two is of course the great British weather. As will often happen, the mystic met office having communed with their super computers will have prophesised an evening of clear skies and calm winds. However when you stick your head out of the front door you will take in a scene reminiscent of the beginning of The Wizard of Oz and quickly conclude there’s no place like home, shut the door and go back to watching Storage Hunters on Dave. The second obstacle to going out and meeting a bunch of strangers you met on the internet is that you are seriously considering going out and meeting a bunch of strangers you met on the internet. In a remote location. In the dark. Alone. It sounds a bit dodgy when you think about it but is met with incredulous looks from family and friends when you say those same words out loud. To be fair to your loved ones it does rather sound like the opening scene of a TV series called ‘Midwinter Murders’ or ‘Prime Suspect’. The best way to avoid this problem though is to get to know a few people by coming along to our monthly meetings in the very well lit, public venue of the Priory Club which also happens to be on holy ground. Although whether you only benefit from that supernatural protection if you’re a member of a specific religion I’m not sure. Regardless of whether you dip your toe in the monthly meeting at the Priory club or jump in the deep end and turn up to one of our observing nights you will find it is worth the effort. Astronomy is fairly flexible in that it can be both a solo and communal hobby and you don’t have to choose one or the other. Sometimes a quiet solo session in your garden is all that you want and other times it’s great to put your stuff in the car and meet up with some fellow enthusiasts particularly if you’re stuck in an observing rut or if there is something special to look for like the recent supernova. The only unfortunate thing is that we’re at the mercy of the great British weather which means the chances of getting a good run of crystal clear skies in the winter months are approximately the same as our favourite weather forecasters correctly predicting a barbecue summer.
  5. Wow, not sure which is more impressive the £10k spent (so far) or the photo of the plane. Good work on both though :)
  6. This article considers the financial perils of astro-photography, because while a hobby like Astronomy can at times leave you financially challenged, nothing is quite so fiscally ruinous as deciding it would be a jolly good idea to fasten a camera to your telescope. There are many reasons you might consider taking up astrophotography. Perhaps, as your eyesight slowly declines from the hawk like clarity of youth to Mr Magoo myopia in your advancing years, astro-imaging appeals as a way of extending your hobby into pensionerhood. Or it might be that you’re fed up of seeing things like the Andromeda galaxy and the Orion Nebula as greyish blobs and smudges and instead yearn to produce the same beautifully detailed, colourful pictures you see in the astronomy press. There is absolutely no doubt the images amateur astronomers produce are incredible. At first glance you’d think they had come from the Hubble space telescope rather than a man in a shed somewhere in Liverpool. They are impressive not least for the fact they may well have used a telescope much like the one you already own, so the equipment must surely be quite modest in its expense. Interesting word though ‘modest’. It makes it sound like it could mean fairly cheap. Not bargain basement certainly, but definitely somewhere around ‘affordable’. When it comes to the cost of astrophotography though ‘modest’ means cheap in much the same way a telescope like Hubble is ‘affordable’. It could be reasonably argued that the theory of black holes was dreamt up by someone bitten by the astrophotography bug to try and explain where all their money had disappeared to. Like all addictions it will start innocently enough. This one will start with a web cam. You might even buy a cheap one from Asda and modify it yourself for astronomy purposes saving a bit of money. This is your last chance to kick the habit before it really gets its hooks into you. Only if you fail to correctly modify that web cam and end up ‘fixing it’ with a hammer in a haze of red mist and frustration will you escape its clutches. Should you succeed and manage to get the thing working you will be lost. The web cam will last you a little while but once you've captured a picture of Jupiter that you’re really happy with you’ll begin to feel the itch of deep sky objects and to scratch that itch you’re going to need a second mortgage. Where to begin? Firstly you’re going to need a camera. As you are not quite fully in the grip of your astrophotography habit yet you’ll make the concession of buying a DSLR Camera. You’ll justify the expense by telling yourself you will be able to use it as a ‘normal’ camera and take holiday photo’s and pictures of robins on your bird table in winter. And you might very well start out that way but then you’ll read an article on disabling the infra red filter and that will be that for the sandcastles and robins. If you have a shed you’ll begin to think of it as your observatory and draw up plans to modify it to have a roll off roof. But to fit the rollers you’ll have to take the roof off and to fit the pier for the expensive new mount you’re going to buy, you’ll have to take the floor up. This will cause your shed to fall down so you’ll end up rebuilding it. However the new shed/observatory will be twice the size of the old one once you've added the essential warm room and kitchen area. So, you've built a new shed and installed a pier, bought the camera, and at least a NEQ6 Pro mount,. But it’s only just begun. You’ll need a guider scope, off axis guider, laptop, full set of colour filters with wheel, narrowband filters, light pollution filters, the list goes on. Then you’ll look at your telescope and decide you need a different one, which when it arrives you’ll modify, changing the focuser and adding a home-made cooling solution you saw on astronomy shed. If you are not an eccentric millionaire you’re now at the point where you need Bob Geldof to organise a charity concert to pay off your debts. So before you start your next round of upgrades you’ll do some imaging which will involve taking up permanent residence in your shed/observatory. There are two main reasons for this. First it’s where you now spend all of your waking hours fiddling with your equipment, taking many millions of exposures and practicing the dark arts of image processing. The second reason you’ll spend all of your time there is because your house has been repossessed and this is now your home. Finally, after the flats and darks have been taken, the data crunched and the final tweaking of levels in Photoshop has brought out the dust lanes in Andromeda just so, you’ll post your masterpiece online. The accolades from your peers will be justifiably fulsome in their praise and all the hard work and sacrifice will have been worth it. That is until some nit picking, pedant will point out a minor aberration in an unimportant part of your image. Once the twitching has subsided and your blood pressure has returned to a level no longer considered ‘dangerously high’ you’ll have no option but to reach for your credit card and buy some more kit. Let’s see now, £6000 for a proper mount, hmm, maybe I can sell a kidney.
  7. Originally I wrote this article in early January of this year so some bits may be out of date by now but I don’t think it really matters. Also if I were publishing these articles in the order they were originally written this one should be about astro-photography but given the recent comments by Brian Cox around his thoughts on the existence of extra-terrestrial life I thought while it was topical I might as well put forth my musings on the subject. The picture near the end of the article comes from wikipedia so I can’t say how accurate it is but I think it is close enough for the point it's trying to make. I'm also not entirely sure how the picture will come out but hopefully it will be legible. I wonder if this year will go down in history as the year mankind discovers that we are not alone in the Universe. With all the stuff we have going on at the moment you’d think we were getting close to an answer. The number of extra solar planets discovered has now reached one thousand and data from the Kepler spacecraft continues to redefine our view of how many earth like planets there may be lurking in our galaxy as well as just what the extent of a habitable zone around a star might be. Not only that but we also have NASA’s nuclear powered curiosity rover that was delivered to the red planet in a way that wouldn't have looked out of place in an episode of Thunderbirds. Although its primary mission isn't to look for life, having a rover the size of a Mini trundling around the red planet drilling rocks, analysing samples and vaporising bits of scenery with its laser will hopefully stand a good chance of proving whether life has ever existed there. Most recently we have the news that the Rosetta spacecraft has woken up on its way to chasing down comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in order to land a probe on it. It is all tremendously exciting stuff which you’d hope might just mean that this is the year we finally answer that cosmic conundrum. It really would be mankind’s most stunning scientific discovery if we could finally put that question to bed with a ‘no, we’re not alone’ answer and move on to more entertaining thoughts such as ‘What do our alien neighbours look like?’, ‘What sort of weapons do they posses?’ or even ‘I wonder how they’d taste with some fava beans and a nice Chianti?’ Discussing the possibility of extra terrestrial life though can be problematic because it sometimes leads to the sort of conversation that involves believing aliens are whizzing around our planet turning cows inside out and probing the kind of people that turn up on The Gerry Springer show or Jeremy Kyle. However that does I suppose help to frame the range of possibilities and their probabilities. So at one end you have simple organisms such as bacteria which could be very likely to exist on other planets or moons, to the other extreme of having technologically advanced, bovine bothering aliens whizzing around in spaceships which almost certainly do not. Personally I very much subscribe to the idea that there are alien life forms of some sort out there. I hope life turns out to be quite common in the universe as long as a planet’s star is capable of simmering a soup of water and organic chemicals for a few billion years. But the question of intelligent life is much trickier because while it may be that creating simple organisms is a fairly easy task, where things go from there is purely driven by evolution so it is both a slow and fairly random process. We know this for ourselves because if not for the fortuitous catastrophe of a huge asteroid or comet hitting the earth a few million years ago and helpfully wiping out the dinosaurs we almost certainly wouldn't be here now. While any discovery of extraterrestrial life would be exciting it is really intelligent life, perhaps one with a technology like ours or even greater than ours that most people find appealing, but what are the odds? Well, if we look at the Earth, current estimates put the number of species on the planet today at around the 9 million mark and that doesn't include bacteria or other micro-organisms. If you add in everything that has ever existed on earth over the eons I don’t think it unreasonable to add a couple of zero’s to that figure but we can say with some certainty that we are the only intelligent creatures to have evolved so far. Sure we are told dolphins are pretty smart but since they live in an ocean with only a pair of flippers and a tail to work with it’s difficult to imagine how they could ever discover fire, need to invent the wheel or experiment with electricity. And look at our closest relatives the apes. Practically identical to us at a DNA level and in possession of those handy opposable thumbs yet the height of technology that our simian cousins have developed so far appears to be using a stick to go fishing for ants. So it would seem that we are at the very least something of a billion to one chance. That does sound like pretty long odds, but given the vastness of our galaxy never mind the universe, astronomical odds would still suggest we are not alone in being the only intelligent, technological race out there. But if there are intelligent civilisations out there why have we not heard from them? After all we've been beaming them high quality entertainment in the form of radio and television broadcasts for years. Well, to put that into perspective check out the picture below that shows how far we've been spamming Dr Who and Downton Abbey to anyone with the antenna to listen. That tiny blue dot isn't the earth, it is in fact what a two hundred light year radius around the earth looks like in our Milky Way galaxy and it’s really not that impressive is it. No surprise then that we've yet to receive any communications requesting an answer to Who shot JR? It does really highlight the scale of the problem though. Distances within our own galaxy are so vast that even the speed of light is a bit sluggish if we’re hoping to detect stray radio emissions from another world. Still, it’s good to be optimistic and even though the odds may be very, very long, we might yet be lucky and pick up Rigel’s got talent sometime soon. Personally I think it will be more exciting when we put some technology into space that will allow us to observe the chemical signatures from exoplanets atmosphere with sufficient accuracy to determine the elements that are present and in what volumes and therefore infer the presence of biological entities. Having the capability to do that should allow us to detect signs of life on planets where the local wildlife exists but is either too stupid or too lazy to come down from the trees and kick off a technological revolution by making fire and inventing the wheel. Although it may just be that our extra terrestrial neighbours have been so traumatised by the attentions of intergalactic, joy riding aliens and their probes that they’re much happier to stay in the tree tops and hope the rest of the galaxy doesn't come calling.
  8. I totally agree. Personally I don't have a goto mount but I can certainly understand the attraction particularly in the UK when sometimes we're lucky if we get one decent nights viewing per month. I've found a laser pointer to be a big help in manual observing because if you shine it through your finder scope you at least have a good idea of where your telescope is actually pointing.
  9. There are a couple of things I’d better point out about this article. First off, I have no affiliation with Skywatcher or any other astronomy equipment manufacturer or distributor. While I’m doing disclaimers I should probably also say I have no connection to Argos or Ford either. Secondly, I appreciate that I have ignored a huge number of telescopes of various makes, models and technologies. Guilty as charged, but then this is not a particularly serious or comprehensive buying guide by any means. It is difficult to believe but there are people amongst us that will tell you quite seriously that you can’t see any of the planets from earth. Spend £400 on some metal, mirrors and glass however and you can show them things that will quite legally blow their minds. OK, it isn’t as satisfying as zapping them with a cattle prod but it does come a close second. It does seem amazing though that you can see Jupiter with your naked eye but it’s absolutely astonishing when you gaze through a half decent telescope and you can see the cloud bands and if you time it right, the great red spot along with any permutation of the four Galilean moons. If you’re really lucky you’ll notice a small black spot on the face of Jupiter and think it’s something on your lens. When it dawns on you that what you are actually seeing is the shadow of the moon Io cast on the surface of its parent planet you may blink a time or two as you feel your mind and horizons spontaneously expand. This is the reason that perfectly sane, well adjusted people choose to meet up in a field in the middle of winter with odd sized tubes and tripods. It is also the reason the number one top tip for buying a telescope is to get yourself out there with them before you spend any money. Now you may think that spending an evening with astronomers will be a bit like meeting a bunch of Gollum’s in woolly hats, jealously guarding their precious telescopes while muttering to themselves about the duplicity of hobbits. But this couldn’t be further from the truth as astronomers love to show off their equipment and besides, no one wears woolly hats anymore. Spend some time exploring the night sky with a bunch of us and you’ll feel like you’ve been let in on a huge cosmic secret but without the rolled up trousers and special handshake. The other thing it will do of course is make you want some equipment of your own. But what to buy? Let’s get the first big no-no out of the way. DO NOT under any circumstances think “I’ll just buy this telescope from Argos as its got a six hundred times magnification and is only £50”. You could be forgiven for thinking more is better when it comes to magnification but there are limits. In much the same way that you can only zoom into a digital photo so far before things get blurry and pixellated, it is the same with your telescope because the optics are only capable of capturing a certain amount of detail. Now consider the quality of the lenses in a £50 telescope from Argos will be somewhere between jam jar and milk bottle, bumping up the magnification to 600x will achieve nothing but disappointment. So you’re probably thinking OK if it’s not magnification what should I be looking for? Good question, but the problem is buying a telescope is a bit like buying a car. There are many makes and models that are suited to a wide variety of uses with an even wider variety of prices. Therefore the precise make and model you need is very much dependent on what you want to do with it and what you can afford. With a car it’s fairly easy to narrow things down as you’ll be reasonably sure whether you need a little runabout or if you must have something scarlet that will take you everywhere in a blur of scenery. A telescope is trickier because having no experience of one you don’t really know what you want to do with it other than ‘look at planets and stuff’. So where to start? You could buy some binoculars to get you going and this is a very sensible idea. Binoculars are a great introduction to astronomy as they’re relatively cheap, easy to use and there are many guides to things you can see with a pair of 10x50’s. But you want a telescope don’t you. So you will ignore this advice as well as the advice to meet up with actual astronomers because who needs to hear wisdom borne from experience when you have Google and this guide. So skipping past all talk of focal lengths and anything else a bit technical here, are some sweeping generalisations that any idiots guide would be proud of. 1-How big of a telescope should you buy? The answer is size matters with telescopes, especially if you’re interested in seeing the fainter galaxies and nebula so as a general rule bigger is better. But the pro’s and con’s can be summed up thus. Bigger = More expensive = Better views = Less portable. So while a 24” Newtonian will give you stunning views of pretty much anything you point it at, fitting it into your car to take to a field will seem like an exercise from world’s strongest man because that mirror will be very, very heavy. And when I say car, I really mean truck as a 24” reflector has the approximate dimensions of a scud missile. 2-What type of telescope should you buy? Well if we drop back into the car analogy many people buy Fords because they are relatively cheap, well made and do what most people need a car to do with little fuss. To my mind the Ford of the telescope world would be a Skywatcher Newtonian reflector. Sure there are BMW and Audi versions of these scopes and many other makes and models too, but if you don’t know precisely what you want to do with your telescope go with the Ford. The range looks like this. The KA would be a 4.5” tabletop telescope like the Heritage-114p Virtuoso. The Fiesta is the 5.1” Explorer 130P. The Focus would be a 6” telescope such as the Explorer 150P The Mondeo could only be the 8” Explorer 200P One of these will surely fit your budget. 3-What mount should I buy? This is somewhat easier to answer. If you want to do astrophotography you need to buy a motorised equatorial mount and a good one at that (read expensive) nothing less than a HEQ 5 but if you’re serious about it then the NEQ6 seems to be the mount of choice. If you just want to do visual observing then the mount doesn’t really make any difference. Dobsonians are easy to setup and use and don’t cost very much. Equatorial mounts require a bit more setting up and if you take it out to a field you will at some point kneel in a cow pat while attempting to polar align it. An Alt-Az mount is somewhere between the two but it’s all a personal preference really. 4-Do you need GOTO? This subject is covered in more detail in another article but the short answer is if you are a total novice and will mostly be observing alone in your garden then I’d say it’s a definite yes. Many of the objects you’ll want to look at are very faint and easy to miss even when you’re in the right area so if you don’t want assistance from some friendly humans buy the computer. In conclusion then, If the only thing you know about a telescope is that you really, really want one then just say no to Argos and buy one from the Ford (Skywatcher) range. Then take yourself down to an observing night with your local astronomy society and see what you really should have bought.
  10. I don't recall saying anywhere in this article that you won't learn the sky with a goto. I think you may have misunderstood the purpose of this post and my blog in general. In the intro to my first posting on Andromeda I tried to set the tone which is perhaps best summed up in the line "They are not meant to be a serious attempt to tackle any of the subjects with any sort of authority."
  11. Thank you for your comments. I wouldn't say I endorse GOTO mounts as such. There is an argument for them as much as against and it's really one of those things that is a personal preference. As a newbie astronomer there were times when it's been so frustrating trying to find something relatively easy (like Andromeda) that I really wished I'd had a bit of electronic help. But on the other hand when you do manage to find an object for yourself you do gain a degree of satisfaction from sticking with it. The other point is that GOTO isn't a magic fix for observing because even if you've set it all up correctly and the mount has slewed to a particular target you want to look at, if the conditions aren't quite right or you suffer from light pollution you still aren't going to see what you'd hoped. None of the entries in this blog are designed to offer any serious purchasing advice but if I was going to say something sensible it would be to check out your local astronomy society before buying anything. With a bit of luck they will be a friendly bunch who will be happy to show you a range of telescopes, mounts, eyepieces, etc.
  12. You have gazed up at the night sky for years thinking one day I’ll buy a telescope. You’ve caught the odd episode of the sky at night and have the whole series of Wonders of the Universe on sky+. Finally after watching stargazing live you’ve decided this is the year you buy one. After doing extensive internet research you have settled on a telescope, the only decision remaining is do you buy the GOTO option or not? The answer to this is YES! Let’s face it, you bought a sat nav for your car and after the man at Halfords fitted it, you were secretly amazed when you followed its instructions to your home and you now use it frequently to give you directions to places you’ve been to before. So if you need some computer assistance to find Birmingham then you are most certainly going to need it to find the Whirlpool galaxy because space as Douglas Adams famously observed is big. What he’d also have mentioned if he’d been writing a book on observing rather than hitchhiking was that most of the stuff you want to look at is practically invisible from your average light polluted garden. It does rather seem like cheating though. This is the conundrum, you like science stuff and you imagine that learning the constellations and stumbling across astronomical wonders will be a nice, relaxing way to spend an evening so you should resist the technological temptation. Now if you live in the south of France and do all of your observing in a t-shirt whilst polishing off a bottle of red on a warm summers evening then maybe you should go the old school route. The reality here in the UK though is that it’s far too light in the summer to see anything other than solar system objects. This means if deep sky observing is your thing then you’re going to be out in a field in the depths of winter, trying to locate something that could optimistically be called ghostly while you slowly develop frostbite in your extremities. It is at this point if you’ve bought the GOTO equipment you will be able to spend the little time you have before your core body temperature drops to dangerously low levels actually observing things you want to look at. Admittedly the rage and frustration your non-GOTO fellow astronomers will experience will keep them warmer for a bit longer but it won’t quite be long enough to find any of the things they had on their observing list before exposure takes its toll. Still not convinced? I know what you’re thinking; surely these setting circle things are used for navigation? Your mount has them and you’ve bought a sky atlas and read the chapter on right ascension and declination and you imagine with a bit of practice you’ll be able to manually find anything you like as well as any GOTO computer can. Well yes, but really, no. In theory with decent setting circles and a little time and patience then I’m sure you could successfully navigate around the night sky. In practice however the setting circles on your mount are at least ten times too small to be of any use and about a hundred times too small to be in any way accurate. But if GOTO still feels like cheating take heart because it isn’t the throw it together and the computer will sort it all out panacea that the brochure will have you believe. There is still a fair bit to learn so if programming a video recorder was a challenge for you then you’re really going to need to read the manual. Heresy I know.
  13. Thanks for all of the comments. Much appreciated. I'll post the next article very soon.
  14. This is the first of a series of articles I wrote for my local astronomy society (CLASS) newsletter that I thought I'd post here. They are not meant to be a serious attempt to tackle any of the subjects with any sort of authority. I was aiming more for an entertaining series of articles on the kind of trials and tribulations that are common to amateur astronomers. Or as I recently introduced one of my articles "It's the usual mix of pop culture references and dubious facts wrapped around a vaguely astronomical theme" O Andromeda, Andromeda, wherefore art thou Andromeda? One of the first things you're going to want to look at when you buy a telescope is the Andromeda galaxy. You'll have seen the photo's in the astronomy magazines or on the internet and be filled with excitement at the thought of looking through your new toy and gazing upon a beautifully detailed galaxy that will fill you with awe and make the several hundred/thousand pounds you spent seem like the bargain of the century. If only it were so. Let's first address the disappointing reality, you won't see anything like the images from the magazines, in fact you can simulate the actual visual observation of the Andromeda galaxy and avoid the frustrating search for it thus. Step 1. Sneeze on a window pane. Step 2. Observe the resultant mess through a plastic magnifying glass you won in a Christmas cracker whilst standing ten feet away in a fairly dark room. Congratulations that strange, blurry blob you can just about make out looks exactly like the Andromeda galaxy will if you can ever find it with your telescope. The problem with Andromeda is one of expectation. You've seen the pictures, you've read the article that says it’s actually three times the width of the full moon (or something). You will imagine therefore that you'll only have to point your telescope somewhere in the general direction and it will leap out at you in glorious Technicolor. What will in fact happen is this. You'll start by casting around in the general direction hoping to stumble across it. You'll continue with this method for a while and depending on how enthusiastically you swing your scope around you'll probably discover the double cluster in Cassiopeia. Congratulations this is the first step in finding this elusive galaxy. Not because Andromeda is really close to the double cluster but simply that the happy mistake of finding this beautiful object will sustain you through the dark, frustrating hours to come. Next you'll attempt the methodical approach of star hopping. Taking out your torch you'll shine it on a printout of the constellations and you'll work out where you need to look. Stare hard at the picture to burn it into your mind. Look up and try to orientate yourself as the details of what you're looking for leak out of your brain. Go back to the torch, stare hard, lookup. Repeat until you're certain you have hopped from star to star and you’re definitely, positively in the right place. You will be looking in the wrong place. Accept this fact now, it will save time. Due to light pollution in your garden you'll be at least one star away from where you should be. You'll look through the eyepiece anyway and it won't be there. At this point you'll wish you'd handed over more cash for the GOTO option you didn't buy because you thought it was cheating. You'll try and use the finder scope and see too many stars but without it you'll see too few. You'll wish you'd at least bought a red dot finder; they're only £20. You'll have another look at the double cluster as now you've stumbled across it once you can find it again easily and you'll calm down and resume your search for Andromeda. Many hours later you’ll manage to stumble across a strange blurry blob that will look nothing like the pictures in the magazines and decide you’ve finally found it. You’ll check the view through the finder scope and be able to see it clearly in there too and wonder why it took so long. You’ll look at where your scope is actually pointing compared to where you were originally looking and realise you were several stars and about a million light years away from the correct spot. And then the magic happens. You’ll feel a sense of achievement certainly but once that has passed you’ll think about what you’re actually looking at. OK it’s a fairly indistinct blob in your eyepiece but since you have seen the stunning pictures in the magazines you know precisely what you’re looking at; a complete other galaxy almost identical to our own made up of a trillion stars and many trillions of planets (probably). Some of those stars are just like our own sun and some just as old and standing there alone in the dark you’ll wonder if there’s someone on a planet somewhere in Andromeda struggling to find the milky way and deciding they need to start saving up for a GOTO mount too.
  15. It was good to see that the S@N had more of a tweak here and there rather a full on makeover which is what I think most people were worried about. As for the presenters, I agree some of it was a bit quirky but I liked that and we should remember that these people are professional scientists presenting a TV show which I think is much more preferable than the alternative of having professional TV presenters trying to be scientists.
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