September 19, 2014

“Trick-out” your Scope!

Our “Star-Party Special!” (All images by Author).

So, you’ve got that brand new Dobsonian or Schmidt-Cass, and you’re looking at making a few add-ons to assure your look isn’t entirely “stock”? Like digital cameras, one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in your life-time is the purchasing of a first telescope. True, the technology changes so quickly, today’s cutting edge instrument is tomorrow’s old tech. These days, some of said technology has even moved online, with programs such as Slooh and the like…  Still, you gotta buy one sometime, right? And the good news about telescopes is that the core of any instrument, the optics, will still be viable for decades. Scopes have come and gone here at Astroguyz HQ, but we have and still enjoy our basic Celestron 8” SCT we bought back in the 90’s.What follows is a brief list of add-ons, all less than $100 US, (and some free!) that we’ve built-into our repertoire to enhance our overall observing pleasure; note that the virtues of some of these items have been espoused in this space before; some are forthcoming!

A great “acquisition” eyepiece!

-A wide-field eyepiece: The Celestron 8” SCT’s of the mid-90’s came standard with a 26mm eyepiece. Not bad, but the GOTO systems of the day didn’t always place the target within the field of view. One of the first purchases I made was a 42mm wide-field eyepiece; this gives a generous 0.8° FOV, great for sweeping up faint objects just a little off-center. In fact, I’d say I use this eyepiece about 90% of the time, especially for target acquisition! True, you can spend almost as much as the cost of a new telescope for some eyepieces, but the standard Celestron/Meade Plossl 40+mm’s are a good, less than 100$ solution.

Telrad+Logo.

-Telrad: The Telrad finder may be the greatest invention in astronomy. I’ve wrote about the joys of their usage before; every scope I buy/build has a Telrad bracket on its tube. I’ve even seen them as indispensible gear on major university scopes. A x1 finder gives you a good “common-sense view” of the sky and where you are pointed at.

A simple camera piggyback mount.

-Piggyback Camera mount: Curiously, I do more astrophotography with the DSLR piggybacked on the scope than through the eyepiece. This enables you to do tracked exposures of the sky. I’ve even mounted video and the PST solar telescope (make sure the cover on the 8” SCT stays on!) on the piggyback adapter for tracking… this mounts right into the pre-existing screw points.

-Converted Webcam: back in 2004, I read an article in Sky & Telescope about an emerging movement; that of converted webcam astrophotography. Several of the big manufactures have since caught up with this trend and now offer readymade setups, but I still use the rig I built out of an off-the-shelf Logitech 4000 webcam that I got with rebate for 60$ about seven years ago. This is fine for lunar and planetary imaging and will catch some of the brighter double stars… if you’ve got a telescope, a webcam and a software program available for download such as K3CCDTools, you could be out imaging planets tonight!

A Homade field-stop.

-Homemade filter masks: An obscure hobby of mine; over the years, I’ve built homemade cardboard masks for everything from fine-focusing to field-stopping. Cut out an insert from a 30$ sheet of Baader solar paper, and you’ve got a safe white light solar filter. I’ve even made a working card-board interferometer! (More on that in an upcoming post!)

A SteadyPix SLR Camera mount.

-Afocal adapter: I received one of these camera bracket mounts some years ago for my birthday (Thanks, Hon!) and it’s still my preferred method to shoot lunar occultation videos through the eyepiece. This works with any point-and-shoot camera aimed at the eyepiece with a mount adapter, and has clamps for medium and over-sized eyepieces. Nowadays, you can even purchase an IPhone adapter for the setup!

A counterweight in the “zero-zero” position.

-Counter-weight assembly: An adjustable counterweight set will keep your tracking balanced as you swing that heavy load of gear around the sky. Generally speaking, you want to keep the weight close in and tight to the center of gravity. Some experimentation in the field is warranted to get the setting exact for a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope; practice makes astro-perfect!

-Barlow lens+filters: A 2x or 3x Barlow lens is an easy trick to double your effective eyepiece collection; we’ve used one from Antares (the company!) for years. Colored filters or even a filter wheel are another good add-on for bringing out subtle planetary detail. Just remember to be realistic in your expectations as what filters can and cannot do.

Ye ole’ Astro-Master!

…And future purchases? Well, we’ve played with zoom-in eyepieces, and wouldn’t shy away from one used in the <100$ range… we’ve also seen ad-hoc night sky video cams constructed out of low light security cameras to great effect. Another project of mine is to cobble together our prehistoric GOTO (yes, an Advanced Astromaster!) system to a program such as Starry Night for ASCOM and enhanced pointing capability… feel free to send us tales and anecdotes of your favorite telescope add-on or hack! Perhaps if enough reader interest is generated, we’ll create a Reader’s Best astronomy hacks, or a yearly telescope buying guide…

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