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By sonofed
November 20, 2002

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TJ's meteor post got me thinking about my brush with astronomy...

A while back, I was wandering through a local mall thinking how I hadn't bought any toys for myself in quite a while. As it happened, that day the science store in the mall was closing up shop and was doing whatever it could to liquidate its remaining inventory. I had gone in to pick over the remains when I saw it... there in the corner was a beautiful 8" Celestron Nexstar 8 telescope, complete with motorized star finder, an array of lenses, and a tripod. But how could I get that one past management? My wife would not be amused if I came home with an expensive piece of scientific equipment that I didn't really need, and didn't really know how to use. I mean, not only didn't I really know anything about astronomy, but my track record with buying complicated toys (tools excepted) had not been stellar (no pun intended). Visions of the lecture I would get from my wife when the telescope ended up in the basement next to the mostly unused exercise equipment, the snow cone maker, the salsa maker, and the piles of other purchases that seemed like a good idea at the time danced in my head. I ignored them. The telescope was too compelling. After all, it was on sale, and really it was for the children. Didn't we want our kids to be knowledgeable? Didn't we want only the best for them? Wouldn't this telescope help them gain a broader understanding of the universe and our place in it? How could you put a price on that?

I bought it...My wife was not entirely amused. However, I do sales for a living, so I used all the skills I have developed over my past 7 years in the private sector to convince her why this was a smart purchase. It didn't work. I only managed to move her from "not entirely amused" to "openly skeptical". Well, you win some, you lose some...

Undeterred, I brought it home and set it up to try it out. The cool thing about this telescope was that it had the automatic star finder. No hunting around looking at star charts for me. Nope, just type in the name of the star or planet I wanted to see and viola!, there it is. At least that's what the brochure said... See, there was this little problem with aligning the thing - you needed to know your GPS coordinates and exactly where North was in order for the auto-align to work. Hmm, I thought, now what? I had a rough idea where North was and I knew the approximate Lat/Long of Hartford, but Hartford was 10+ miles away from my house. I knew that any error in the initial setup was going to be amplified pretty dramatically as I gazed out over several light years. What to do...What to do... I remembered that the science store also had a hiking compass on sale. The store wasn't quite closed, so I drove over there and picked it up.

Now I had one problem solved - there was North, plain as day! I set up the telescope, pointed it North, typed in a estimate for my lat/long based on being 10 miles SE of Hartford (and people say that my pilot training experience was a total waste! Hah!), and kicked off the auto-align process. Into my field of view came Arcturus, the first star I needed to align to complete the process. Wait a minute, I thought, is that Arcturus? I don't actually know what Arcturus is supposed to look like. I looked at the enclosed star chart... no help. Oh well, I'll just have to assume it is Arcturus - after all, how far off could I really be? I completed the process with the second alignment star and was ready to go.

Hmm, Jupiter is supposed to be stunning to look at. The pictures in the manual certainly seemed impressive. Let's see, type in J-U-P-I-T-E-R, and hit "find". The telescope skewed around and pointed at my target. I looked into the eyepiece, excited to see the gas giant up close. Hmm, that's strange...I always thought Jupiter would be bigger. Wait a minute, I thought, that tiny little dot can't be Jupiter... damn telescope must be misaligned.

Okay, I started from scratch. Point the telescope North... enter your geographic coordinates... hit align. Find Arcturus... Damn, it look like it did the last time. Okay, find Rigel again... Okay, everything looks okay. Type in J-U-P-I-T-E-R, hit "find", wait for the skew. Look in the eyepiece...still no Jupiter. Now I'm suspicious... Did something happen to Jupiter? Should I call NASA?

Suddenly, my wife appears. Her seemingly innocent "how's it going" sends chills down my spine. "Great", I answer, "Really cool." I should have know better...her response was "Really, let me see". Damn....Double Damn... Think, Think, Think....Then it came to me. "Hold on one second honey, I was just getting it focused". As quickly as I could, I manhandled the telescope around to point at the largest object in the sky - the Moon. I checked the eyepiece, relieved to find that the moon was there and triumphantly showed the results to my wife. She was impressed. Impressed enough to go back in the house, anyway. Which was fortunate because the rotation of the Earth and the orbit of the Moon conspired to rapidly pull the moon out of the telescopes line of sight. Apparently, when you manually move the thing, it doesn't have a way to fix the target in the center of the view. Thank God it was Winter and my wife doesn't like the cold. The cold also gave me an excuse to execute a strategic withdrawal and regroup for another attempt some other day. I packed the telescope up and put it in the garage rather than the basement. Best to maintain the illusion that it is ready for use at any time.

In the end, I determined that my problem was that my coordinates just weren't accurate enough. The solution - A personal GPS receiver. Well, that's the optimal solution anyway. There was no way I'd be able to slide that one through the system on top of the Godforsaken telescope. So I settled for now on just seeing really clear views of the moon. I have a buddy who just got a GPS receive and he'll be coming over soon to give me a more detailed set of coordinates for my house. Once I have those, I'll be back in business.

I'll let y'all know if Jupiter is still there.

Steve


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