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Returning to my first love.

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Greetings from Teesside.

I've been learning a lot from reading the posts here for a couple of weeks, so the polite thing would be to say thank you and introduce myself. I'm new here, but not to astronomy.

I first got involved in the late nineties when I looked up one cold October night and realised I wanted to know more about the universe. I knew one specific cluster of stars went by the name of the "little plow", but even that was wrong. I'd been looking for years at The Pleiades!  A week later, armed with "The Night Sky" by Collins, I went out each clear night to look up in wonder.

I'd try to learn a different constellation each night, and try to recognise previous ones without looking them up. It's not that difficult to quickly be able to navigate around, and that's when the enjoyment kicks in. Seeing me get up early in the morning to look at the sky, my wife commented that I was obsessed. She was right, but I'd still argue it's a good obsession.

Everyone knows that the constellations change across the seasons, but seeing them move week to week and understanding why is much more interesting. Discovering that Venus was both the evening star and morning star blew me away, and lead me to learn about the planets, the ecliptic, the Earths axis etc. That's the fascinating thing with this hobby, there's always more to learn. As the months rolled by I decided that summer sucks, and found myself yearning for cold, clear winter evenings. Eventually I was welcoming back Orion, Auriga and the Pleiades like old friends. November and December always bring those early feelings of wonder back.

After a year of just learning the sky and squinting through an old pair of 10x50 bins I'd picked up for a tenner at a car-boot sale, I decided I needed a telescope. Forgive me friends, I committed the cardinal sin and went out and bought a department store telescope in my ignorance. The Bresser Stellar 11750 was quite impressive with it's massive 70mm objective and those wonderful plastic 0.965 eyepieces. But knowing no better, I stiffened up the tripod and added some threaded rod to stop it spinning like a drunk at the slightest touch, and got stuck in. Even with such a modest telescope, I was smitten. Who wouldn't be, laying on a piece of tarp on the ground like a sniper, neck cricked, peering through a tiny eyepiece at Saturn. It didn't look like the coloured pictures on the box, but at least I could see its "ears". I stuck with it for a year, and using the splendid book "Astronomy with a Small Telescope" made around 50 observations, mainly the planets, moons, star clusters and the wider doubles.

In early 1999 I discovered CDAS (Cleveland and Darlington Astronomic Society) and started going to the meetings and observation evenings. The guys there were brilliant, letting me observe far more objects through their proper scopes, and helping me improve my star-hopping. I made some really good friends there, and really recommend newcomers visit or join an observing group. I also decided I needed a bigger scope.

With a family and mortgage we didn't have a lot of free cash, so I decided to home-build a "Dobsonion". I purchased an 8.75 inch mirror (f/7.3), a diagonal, a focuser and a 26mm Galileo Plossl for the princely sum of £270. During the summer and early winter I spent every weekend and evening in the shed cutting, sanding and painting plywood, making spiders out of hacksaw blades and learning about telescope optics. I also spent a bit of time swearing and revamping where the hole for the focuser should go. Over the years my scope would undergo a number of painful transformations (There's a couple of pictures below, including an initial disasterous attempt at an EQ mount) . She saw first light on 09/09/1999. I saw the transit shadow of Europa across Jupiter, split gamma Andromeda, and think I saw some galaxies using averted imagination (we don't have dark skies around here). But I was one happy guy - it worked!

For the next couple of years, my scope and a few more eyepieces satisfied me. I'd spend every clear evening outside, and often set my scope up on the front drive and grab passing people to look at the moon and planets. The vast majority appreciated it, and it never ceased to impress the kids, which I always hoped would catch the astronomy bug. But there was two problems: no tracking, and eager kids have a habit of bumping scopes out of position. I needed a driven scope.

Cash was still tight and what I wanted was well out of my price range, so decided to do more DIY. I came across a group of ATMers (Amateur Telescope Makers), who had a wizard method of creating a computerised scope using stepper motors, an old laptop and some custom electronics. One prominent member was Mel Bartels, who'd written some superb software to drive it all. Being a computer techie, this was right up my street (and relatively inexpensive). I spent the next 18 months revamping the mount, adding threaded plastic rod around the bottom and part of the alt circles, stepper motors reclaimed from a couple of 8" diskette drives, and learning about the intricasies of trying to do precision tracking on an alt-az mount. Mel kindly gave the software, his designs, and a lot of help, entirely free of charge and I'll be forever in his, and the other ATMer's debt. His software was amazing, converting ra/dec to alt/az, stepping and microstepping the motors to give speed control, correcting (to a certain extent) for inaccuracy in the geometry of the scope and unlevelness, periodic error correcting, ramping up/down the slewing... amazing stuff.

When I'd finally finished, I had a computerised scope that tracked fairly well (for visual) and did goto after a fashion. One of the happiest nights of my life was wandering around the Virgo cluster for hours one stunningly clear March night. But the price was having to carry a much heavier scope, a laptop, two car batteries, miles of wires and connectors, and spending half the evening babysitting the thing. When it worked, it was superb, but I did lose a lot of observing time setting up, calibrating and tinkering with it, and got a somewhat frustrated. (The problems were due to my work, not any shortcomings in Mel's system).

After a few months I lost heart carting it around, stripped it back to a basic Dob and reverted to star-hopping. Shortly after that we had some family stuff happen, work went manic and I had to put astronomy on the back-burner, where it languished for far too long. My poor old dob didn't fare too well in a shed for nearly two decades.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. The kids are now grown up, the mortgage paid, and I have an excuse (my 60th) to treat myself. I've bought a good second-hand Celestron 925 evolution, some toys to go with it and I'm raring to get cracking with visual astronomy again. It's been a long time and I've really missed it. The 925 had her first light last week. All my favourite celestial objects have been faithfully waiting for me, so it's time to revisit them and discover lots of new ones. This time the emphasis will be on observing more, and building less (as much as I enjoyed the learning experience).

For the first time in years, I'm really excited about astronomy again, and it feels good!

Thanks to everyone who has posted here over the years, I've already learned a tremendous amount from you all. Hopefully that will continue and I'll be able to contribute back in some way.

All the best. Mark

PS: Car-boot sale binoculars can be made into cracking finders with a piece of pipe and some duct tape!


Equitorial mount.jpg

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Was that ever a fun read and,  it reminded me so much of my own story in this most noble and fascinating of hobbies. A big welcome to SGL! we look forward to hearing from you, stay safe!.

Edited by Sunshine
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