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inside milky way     beginners' notes - from scratch

Joanna & Wolfgang Bleier
Austria, September 2012

Geographic coordinates: Latitude 48.2666, Longitude 16.3166

Whether it is time, speed, distance or mass - cosmic dimensions are vast and far beyond anything humankind may ever fully understand. Everything up in the sky is so huge that we are unable to even vaguely imagine the universe in its entire magnitude. Thinking of the universe our imagination is stretched to its limits and we are much more overwhelmed with wonder rather than being able to understand what we see. To bring to mind that Earth and billions of other celestial objects are kept on their given orbits by mass and gravity even at such enormous, inconceivable dimensions between them is just amazing and makes us just more curios about the question "why is that?". Simply put, the fact that we can't understand the vast expanse, the immense periods of time and forces of gravity that determine the run of cosmic events fuels our fascination about the orbs in the night sky and the mysteries of the universe.

It may help to get an idea of cosmic dimensions if we remember that NASA's space probes Voyager 1 and 2 have started for their journey in 1977. In 2013, 35 years later, Voyager 1 was about to leave our solar system, entering the interstellar space. 35 years at a speed of approximately 17 km/s, during which they have just travelled a distance in the size of a grain of sand compared to the dimensions of the universe.

Leaving our everyday life behind us and wondering about how all of this came to existence and what was the master plan, our thoughts can easily raise into spiritual spheres. Our way of looking at things on earth may be put into the right perspective and our rivalries, big ones as small ones, appear ridiculous. Amidst such huge dimensions of space, mankind appears negligible and Earth like a mere particle that can disappear within the blink of a cosmic second. Relative to the universe as man believes to know it, Earth appears insignificant, and yet so precious as a lonely living planet. Floating intellectually in these celestial spheres we may start to understand that the greatest threat to life is the human race itself.

Bringing the orbs closer

A safe way to completely excite one’s interest in the universe is to buy a telescope and get out there, where the sky is dark enough to gaze at the stars.
Should you, however, search for answers to questions like “what is out there?” or “where do we come from and where do we go?” you may also buy a good book, brew yourself a cup of hot tea and curl up in your comfy chair. Why? Viewing the night sky through a good telescope with such fundamental questions in mind is a safe method to face just more questions and get fewer answers plus a runny nose once in a while. Go out for stargazing if you possess strong self control that you can stop and go home when it’s about time. Otherwise, if you like to get lost in space wondering about things you can’t understand, bring enough warm clothing, hot drinks and a couple of good friends who enjoy doing the same thing.

The chronology of our mistakes, flops, modest accomplishments until the first great viewings, starting from scratch on the learning curve, is considerable. For beginners there is a lot of good literature available, with useful, essential information, profound facts and details about astronomy. Those who consider buying a telescope to enjoy clear views of the deep sky should begin with a good book and perhaps with a binocular instead of an expensive telescope.

In July 2012 we've figured out a shop in Vienna selling Meade telescopes. Not knowing about the enormous variety of telescopes available for different purpose at different quality, performance and the wide range of prices, we thought we could go there and pick up a telescope straight from the shop. We were wrong. While listening to an experienced salesmen who explained to us in detail the pros and cons of Refractor telescopes, Newtons and Dobsons, we, the greenhorns, were constantly at risk to get ahead of ourselves. Not knowing everything ahead of us we finally ordered a universal 8 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, a computer controlled Meade LX90 ACF with GPS support and some important accessories. In short, we bought a quite good telescope, which should outlast many years of use. It’s kind of a “tell me what you want to see and I will deliver - telescope”, which, once it is understood, correctly set-up and aligned, is able to center 30.000 objects stored in its database, provided it is set in an ideal observing site and the sight is clear.

Meade LX90 ACF
Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope
Meade LX90 ACF-8
Clear aperture: 8" / 203mm
Focal length: 2000 mm, Focal ratio: f/10
Resolving power: 0.570 arcseconds
Optical Tube: (OTA D x L) 231mm x 425mm
Mounting: Cast-Aluminum fork mount
Viewfinder: 8 x 50mm with crosshair
Control: AutoStar GOTO, Automatic tracking system
GPS positioning, Database with 30.000 Objects
Weight: 15,0kg + 9,0kg

For transport we've purchased a solid, universal carrying case from JMI (USA), suitable for Meade LX90 and LX200 telescopes. It’s an important accessory to protect the telescope during transport and for storage if not in use. We've also picked up a 12V / 22Ah energy station made by Voltcraft to supply the telescope with power out in the field. Since the delivery of the telescope was postponed due to great demand in the Meade LX90 series, we had plenty of time to read literature about basics in astronomy one should know before using a telescope, and to look out for some interesting accessories, mainly eyepieces, which would be useful in the future.

In September 2012 the Meade LX90 has finally arrived in Vienna. It came well protected in a huge box, the tripod was packed in a separate box. Still in the shop we've made a visual check to make sure all parts ordered have arrived without damage. At home we have setup the telescope on the massive tripod that comes together with it and performed an initial setup and manual test. The motors whirred and the telescope was moving into the right directions. We were surprised by the enormous size of such a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. Some simple but important accessories were still missing in order to be successful in viewing stars and planets. A star map, a dimmable red LED flash light and a small aluminium suitcase to store eyepieces is the minimum that is necessary to get out in the fields.

In autumn 2012 the nights were mostly clear. One day there was an extremely beautiful moonrise, so for the first time all of us had to get out into the cold of the night. Observing the moon through a special moon ND-filter was great. The LX90 was perfectly tracking the moon in the center of the eyepiece. We were amazed by a large, crisp and detailed image of the crescent with lots of texture because of the sunlight throwing nice shadows on the moon's surface. After fixing a 2-inch eyepiece viewing was even much more relaxed than with the standard 1,25 inch prism and eyepiece. On that evening we decided to upgrade the telescope with a 2 inch diagonal prism and 2 inch eyepieces. It is important to use the original Meade Series 5000 2" diagonal prism on the 8 inch LX90, as this one will pass the fork mount when slewing the optical tube to a vertical position while other diagonal prisms may not pass, block and damage the drives of the telescope.

The autumn weather forecasts were promising for our first observation from a site outside Vienna, where we could go for the full program from a proper two-star alignment to a guided observation tour. In the meantime we have performed a reset of the telescope in order to eliminate some wrong settings eventually made during the initial setup a week before, have initialized the AutoStar controls once more and have set some useful options in the AutoStar menu. End of September 2012 we have placed the LX90 at site called “Am Himmel” outside the city in the Wienerwald north-west of Vienna. It was a nice and clear night, but of course the view was impaired by the light pollution of the nearby city. Anyway, it was the first good opportunity to extensively practice with the LX90, from alignment of the telescope to visual viewing. We've been unlucky insofar as the GPS fix has failed. In fact the GPS fix didn’t finish its job even after five minutes, as if there was no signal at all. In order not to waste time we have manually setup our coordinates and have centered the objects in the sky manually. The sidereal tracking rate of the LX90 was working fine and kept all celestial bodies perfectly centered. We had again a great sight of the moon and we could view Jupiter for the fist time, well enlarged and pretty clear. Very impressive indeed!
With a diameter of 142.800 km at a distance of 778 million km from our sun Jupiter is the fifth planet and one of the brightest objects on the night sky. Jupiter is a planet made up of gases, mainly hydrogen, helium and methane, and there is even a little water.

October 2012: God knows why I woke up in the deep of the night. So what you do if you feel sleepless while the sky is absolutely clear, knowing that the telescope is setup. Right, it's best to bring it to the garden and have good view of Jupiter and, for the first time, of some of its moons. Amazing! Until I got sleepy again I was also able to check the telescope's Collimation which seemed to be fine.

End of October Joanna has invited some of her friends to set up the telescope again at "Am Himmel" in the Wienerwald. This time we were patiently waiting until the telescope has completed its GPS fix, which took well ten minutes. This is way too long time, which, however, seems to be a problem of this particular location. Anyway, it was the first time we could manage a correct two-star alignment of the LX90, after which it has precisely centred the objects selected from the database. Again we could enjoy great views of the new moon and Jupiter later that night. Unfortunately we had to end our session before midnight because of too much fog and moist in the air, making the metallic surface of the telescope quite wet.
We let the LX90 dry over night and boxed it only the next day. It was our last stargazing in 2012 and definitely not enough, knowing that we were just at the beginning and that there is still so much more to learn about the things out there in the sky. Meanwhile was wintertime and simply too cold for us to bring the telescope out in the fields. Winter is the time to read books and to make progress in theory as well. Anyway, spring was to arrive soon and we would be out there where the night is darker than dark.

April 2013: The long Winter season, during which most parts of Austria were covered with snow, was ideal to study some literature and the Meade LX90 instruction manual in depth in order to improve our theoretical knowledge. Now it was springtime and the constellation of Sun, Earth and Saturn was quite good to focus the telescope on Saturn, the sixth planet from the Sun and second largest planet in our solar system. It is a gas planet and the most distant visible to the naked eye. Saturn is best known for its planetary rings that make it visually unique and a worthwhile target for observation. It takes Saturn approximately 29 1/2 years to make a complete circuit of the ecliptic against the background constellations, which means that it doesn't happen too often that Saturn is at or near opposition to the Sun.
After doing some dry runs during wintertime to improve our skills in operating the Meade LX90 ACF we were the first time able to initialize and align the telescope really fast. When the sky was clear we could meanwhile find Polaris in the north almost blindly by knowing our 48,15 degrees latitude here in Vienna and the GPS fix of the LX90 worked as it should. Mostly Arcturus and Vega are chosen by the telescope's computer among the brightest stars in the northern hemisphere for an "easy" two-star positioning and alignment. Within fifteen minutes we were ready to start viewing. Saturn was quickly selected from the AutoStar database and - voila - it was in the center of the eyepiece. What a gorgeous sight and wonderful experience to observe Saturn for the first time well enlarged. It is roughly 1,2 billion kilometers (or 7AU) far from Earth and we could nicely see the prominent planetary ring system that orbits around Saturn. By mounting a more powerful 17mm 2" eyepiece we've raised magnification to about 117 and later by an additional 2x Barlow lens to 235, which made Saturn completely unfold its beauty in the vastness of the universe.
During that time we had some very nice observation sessions, until spring was harshly interrupted by a quite cold and rainy period. While writing these lines in these cloudy nights we were waiting for better weather and good viewing conditions. We wanted get more of Saturn and and other planets of our solar system, before setting out for a more remote and really dark place to view some deep sky objects.

Later in June 2013 clouds and rain were gone and summer has finally arrived. Saturn was still here and fortunately the nights were more clear than before in spring. We have collimated the telescope for the first time, as we've learned that it is crucial for best performance of Schmidt-Cassegrain (and Newtonian) telescopes. Our collimation was successful and noticeably improved the viewing quality. Collimation is the precise alignment of the scope's secondary mirror with the primary mirror. As tricky as the procedure can be, it is most important to do it frequently since only a small misalignment due to vibrations during transport of the scope may decrease the viewing quality. The result was a more crisp view of Saturn and the Moon.

Searching for deep-sky objects seems hopeless when the telescope is set in the outskirts of a city like Vienna. One day, however, we accidentally picked Messier 03 and - wow - we could view a well defined star cluster in a distance of 33.000 light-years away from Earth. It's simply amazing! How much nicer the view must have been, if we had the telescope set in a really dark place.
Messier 03 is the third object recorded in the Messier catalogue. It's a cluster that consist of approximately half a million stars, of which 274 are identified as variable stars, and it can be seen during springtime halfway between the stars Arcturus and α (Cor Caroli) in the constellation of Canes Venatici. Meanwhile we know that most amateur astronomers consider Messier 03 one of the finest northern globular clusters. Another achievement of us greenhorns.

Stargazing can be very nice even without a telescope. The photograph below shows the night sky of Palmschoß in South Tyrol (Alto Adige) in Italy, where we stayed in the Rosalpina hotel 1.800 meters above sea level. To watch the sky in such a remote place with almost no light pollution was a rare opportunity to view thousands and thousands of stars half night long. It was the best view of the night sky we had so far in Europe, but by far not as impressive as the sky was above Lake Tharthar, a remote place in the deserts of Iraq north of Fallujah with no artificial light at all as far as one can see.

night sky in Palmschoß

Anyway, from Palmschoß our milky way was clearly visible with the naked eye. Since the telescope stayed in Vienna (what a mistake not to bring it with us) we took a series of photographs with a digital camera fitted with a 1:1.4/35mm lens and mounted on a tripod. During this 16 sec. exposure obviously an asteroid has crossed the image section and left its traces on the sensor.

What a nice coincidence, and what a beautiful night to wonder about the universe . . .

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