Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Department store telescopes can be good tools for learning

A recent post at Uncle Rod’s Astro Blog was about the dreaded DSS, also known as the Department Store Scope.

Such telescopes have been around for a while and usually are the introductory telescope kids get when they prevail upon their parents to give them a telescope so they can explore the heavens.

It is the type I got as a boy, when I decided I wanted to be an astronaut and figured I’d better get a good look at the stars and planets. For my Confirmation in sixth grade, I got a 60mm telescope with a set of eyepieces and other accessories.

I used it during the day – in those innocent days – to track the planes flying over the neighborhood on their way to landing at LaGuardia Airport in New York City, and even kept a log in a notebook. Today, the FBI and TSA would be visiting the house and questioning me and my parents; back then, it was harmless.

At night, I’d set up the primitive but very easy to use alt-azimuth mount and look at the stars, the moon and the planet Jupiter. In New York City’s light-polluted sky, that was about all you could see.

Of course, I had to track the objects manually, and at high power they moved quickly out of the field of view.

As an adult, after I left the Marines, I bought another, slightly higher quality DSS and got a vast amount of use out of it, including one memorable night just before I moved off Long Island. Way out east, near the north fork of Long Island, was an outfit called the Custer Institute. They were related to Gen. George Custer, who famously was defeated in battle in 1876, and they were into astronomy, with an observatory.

I went out there sometime in late 1985, looked through the big telescope, and then used my own, but I was getting a bad case of aperture envy. This was around the time when Comet Halley was scheduled to return, and telescopes were a big deal. I even went to a telescope store, but the telescopes there looked impossibly complicated and expensive.

In January 1986, I moved to Florida. I had subscribed to an astronomy magazine and knew that the state of the art was pretty advanced and that I wanted a “good” telescope now that I had the money – and a credit card – to afford one. I parsed the ads closely, and once I was settled in my job and apartment finally decided that I was ready to take the plunge.

I suppose it was seeing an old Sky and Telescope from that time frame, and seeing the ad that I actually responded to, that brought back such fond memories.

I decided on a Celestron C-8 with Starbright coatings, and with a German Equatorial Mount (aka, a “GEM”) as opposed to the fork mount.

I didn’t get the motor control, though, and the advent of the GoTo system was a couple of decades in the future.

In those days, you didn’t have the web, so you had to call an 800 number to place your order. I called Orion Telescope, which I have since bought many other items from, and ordered my new toy. A few weeks later, UPS delivered some boxes to my apartment, and I dragged them in the house. It was my new telescope!

I finally got it assembled, and used it but soon realized that while the slow-motion controls could be manually used, a clock drive was better. Still, it was a cool-looking telescope and I got much use out of it.

Eventually, I bought more eyepieces, the motor drive, a cord to connect to my car to power the drive and a Telrad finder, but eventually stopped buying stuff. I got plenty of use out of the telescope in the ensuing years, and it and its boxes followed me all over Florida.

I still have the mount, which has since been supplanted, but after I moved to Vero Beach in 2001 people sometimes wanted to buy my mount: the old wooden-legged tripod was a rarity, I was told.

I became vastly more active in amateur astronomy after I lost my job in September 2008, and suddenly had nights and weekends to participate in astronomy activities. I didn’t buy anything but still got the Orion Telescope catalogs.

In fact, before being laid off I had laid out plans to buy a GoTo mount and the means to adapt my C8 to it, but had decided at the last minute to wait. Still, I bought a power supply that I used to power the clock drive instead of using the cord from the car.

I met a couple at an astronomy event who were looking for someone to show them how to use a telescope that the wife had bought for the husband for his birthday. It was a Celestron NexStar with a Newtonian reflector, and I quickly found its documentation online and learned about the GoTo system.

But when we tried to use it, we had a terrible time getting it to work. It turned out that the mount was defective, and they eventually got a new one under warranty and have reported that it works great.

I had said I didn’t want a GoTo system, but the fact was that my mount’s clock drive wasn’t working all that well, and I thought it was time to enter the modern age. Still, without a job I didn’t want to start spending on frills.

In April 2010, I landed an OK job with an online news site and, confident because I was working again, decided to spring for a GoTo mount. This time, I decided on the Celestron CG-5GT mount, which could carry my C8 tube. I also bought the hardware to adapt the tube to the mount.

This time, I placed the order with another company, not Orion, and got a good deal on the mount. It finally arrived via UPS and I assembled it, but then I learned that I would need the GPS module and a few other things to really exploit its full potential.

I spent some more money and soon had the system working fairly well. Eventually, I spent more money — after I got my job in Gainesville – on a few other items, including a larger power supply, a 90-degree finder, more eyepieces and a cord to connect my laptop to the hand controller.

On a recent day, I was online at the local CVS that just opened near where I live when I saw a box on a low shelf with a DSS. For $19.99, you could buy a 40mm refractor with a rudimentary mount. I’ve seen the old tried and true 60mm refractors, even from Celestron, for less than $100, and for less than $500 with a GoTo mount.

I suppose the DSS with a GoTo might be a good deal for someone just starting out.

The key thing with a telescope is that when it comes to beginners it should be easy to use, but also useful enough to be used a lot. I think that nowadays – with the Internet and all the free help out there – a beginner can get a lot of use out of even a simple telescope.

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November 8, 2011 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny | , , , , , , ,

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