April 20, 2015 – Holy NEAF, Batman!

I went to the Northeast Astronomy Forum’s annual conference in Rockland County on Saturday, and all I can say is:

Wow!  Just WOW!

Well, of course I have more to say that that.  It was a complete and total astronomy nerdgasm.  I have never in my life seen a collection of huge and totally cool telescopes as I did there.  It was almost overwhelming.  Some of the scopes were absolutely ENORMOUS – as in hundreds of pounds enormous.  And I’m not just talking about the mounts either.   Here are a couple of the bigger ones:

This was a 24-inch monster!
This was a 24-inch monster!  Look at that mount!
And here's a 20-incher.
And here’s a 20-inch truss dob with a light shroud.

The Questars were nice, of course, but not $40,000 nice!  That’s what a brand-new Questar 7 goes for.  Maybe if I sell off my little girl.

This too can be yours for the low, low price of $40,000.
This too can be yours for the low, low price of $40,000.

I saw a 7-inch refractor from one of the main refractor vendors, which I didn’t think even existed.

Not a 7-inch, but still a monster.
Not a 7-inch, but still a monster.

I also saw some new and different Maks for me to drool over and dream about getting someday.  iOptron didn’t have their 6-inch model out, which I thought was the only one out there (except for some Russian models) that had a 2-inch back.  Wrong!  Skywatcher USA has just introduced – for the first time in the US – both a 6-inch and 7-inch Mak, both of which have 2-inch backs.  The 7-inch is the same Synta Mak as the Orion 180, but Orion’s doesn’t have the 2-inch back; Skywatcher’s does, and lo and behold, not only is it better, but it’s 50 bucks cheaper, to boot. (Orion has a knack for charging insanely high prices for the same stuff others sell for less; and usually, much less.  The Apex 127 OTA is a prime example of this – same price as my NexStar 127, and no mount, motor, handset – just the tube.  And how about the Orion Expanse?)  By my calculations, with a low-powered 2-inch EP, the Skywatcher will give the same 1 degree field of view I get currently with my 5-inch Mak.  Something to think about for my next scope, because it’ll go almost a full magnitude deeper, and boy do I need that extra magnitude here in Manhattan.

Even Explore Scientific had a 6-inch Mak that had a 1900mm focal length, a silvered secondary, a carbon-fiber tube, and a two-speed focuser on the outside – no moving mirror.  Oooh, nice.

"May I wipe that drool off your chin, sir?"
“May I wipe that drool off your chin, sir?  We don’t want it getting on the optics.”

Anyway, it was all incredibly impressive.  Some over at Cloudy Nights are complaining that there weren’t as many vendors, that there weren’t as many people – even complaining about the food.  Who cares!  I just flat-out enjoyed it.  It was great talking the talk with a few of the guys there.

I also enjoyed the speakers.  There was a great presentation about solar observing, where the speaker, Matt Penn of the Kitt Peak National Solar Observatory, made a terrific pitch for his Citizen Cate project.  Working with vendors, they intend to spend a bit more than 100 grand to get identical equipment, including an 80mm refractor, videocam, and laptop, into the hands of 60-100 astronomers living along the path of the 2017 eclipse.  In this way, they can get photographic studies of 90 continuous minutes of the inner corona as the eclipse moves across the US, from Oregon to South Carolina.

Matt giving his talk about the Citizen Cate project.
Matt Penn giving his talk about the Citizen Cate project.

Fascinatingly, THIS HAS NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE.  It seems that there haven’t been too many total solar eclipses that have passed over populated land masses recently, and the technology has gotten good enough to permit something like this to happen at a relatively inexpensive price.

Interestingly, this is actually important science, because coronagraphs block out almost a full solar radius on either side of the sun.  The only times they get to study what’s going on with this normally hidden inner corona, closest to the sun, is during total eclipses, and that’s just a couple of minutes at a time, twice a year or so.  And nowadays, they don’t sponsor astronomers to make those flights all around the world to Fiji or Timbuktu to observe eclipses anymore, so the data they’re getting is inconsistent.  Because all of the equipment along the path of the eclipse will be identical, the video of the corona will be identical as well.  They are hoping to see a coronal mass ejection occur during the 90 minute window.

Latest coronograph image from the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) .  The white circle represents the size of the sun; the red circle around that is the area, three solar diameters wide,  that blocks out the glare of the sun.
Latest coronagraph image from the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) . The white circle represents the size of the sun hidden behind the coronagraph, which is the red circle, almost three solar diameters wide, that blocks out the glare of the sun.  The white streamers are the sun’s corona.

They had a giant solar party on the lawn outside.  There had to be at least 20 scopes, and never much of a wait to see the sun.

Solar party!
Solar party!

Although I’d used a white light filter to see sunspots a number of times, I had never seen the sun in H-Alpha.  I had to pick my jaw up off the floor as I did.  Wow!  The prominences and flares along the edge of the sun were dazzling.  It was insane! If you’ve never seen the sun like this before, run, don’t walk to someone who’s got one of these H-alpha solar scopes.

Not a picture from NEAF, but yeah, it looks just like this, including the prominences on the edge.
Not a picture from NEAF, but yeah, it looks just exactly like this, including the prominences on the edge.

Boy, do I really want a solar scope now.  But not for $500.  That’s waaay too steep for me just to be able to observe one object; I can just pay the $25 for next year’s NEAF and see it again.  Out on the lawn, I had a nice talk with Gary, of garytheastronomer.com, about John Harrison and the invention of the first accurate clock to be taken onboard ship in the early 18th century to allow navigators to accurately calculate longitude for the first time, while he showed me how to shoot the sun with a sextant.  That was pretty great, too.

I also had a good talk with the guys at the Rockland Astronomy Club’s annual Summer Star Party booth.  The SSP is a 10-day long campout star party held in the northern Berkshires.  It must have what I can only imagine must be incredibly dark skies, well away from the light pollution dome of New York, and 25 miles away from Pittsfield as well.   They were telling me how they get some guys there with enormous telescopes who are only too happy to let you look through them as they tell you about them.  Verrrrry tempting.  I do have a friend with a cabin in East Otis, MA, about 40 miles and over an hour’s drive away.  Hmmm.

I also had a great talk with the guys at the Classic Telescopes booth.  I spoke with the owner of a gigantic 4-inch Unitron refractor that dominated over all of the other scopes there.  It was equipped with a manual clock drive that was insanely cool.  It was operated by the power generated by a falling weight, like a clock itself, and the mechanism was encased in see-through plastic so you could see all the gears turning and whirring away.  That thing was mesmerizing.  When I was observing as a teenager, there wasn’t any way to use a clock drive out in the field, and by in the field, I literally mean the empty field directly across the street from my house.  This was an elegant solution to such a problem.

The clock drive mechanism and weight on the 4-inch Unitron.
The clock drive mechanism and weight on the 4-inch Unitron.

They also had some other scopes from the Sixties and Seventies, including a bright pink 10-inch Newtonian, and a giant old orange tube C-14.  They had a Cave Astrola 8-inch Newt from the early Seventies that very much resembled my Meade 826 from just a few years later.

The "pink panther" in the middle, with the Cave-Astrola to the right, and the orange C-14 at the right-hand side.
The “pink panther” in the middle, with the Cave-Astrola to the right, and the orange C-14 at the right-hand side.

This was right next to an ancient gray Criterion 6-inch scope from the early Sixties that didn’t much resemble my first scope, a Criterion RV-6 that I had in the late Seventies.

The old gray Criterion from the Sixties.
The old gray Criterion from the Sixties.

Mine had a white tube, and was very differently configured.  Instead of a four-vaned spider, the Criterion had a metal loop to hold the secondary.  While this obviously eliminated the diffraction spikes, it must have introduced something else, or else it would have caught on.

Check out that, um diagonal?
Check out that, um diagonal?

All in all, it was entirely worth the cost of admission for any of the above, let alone for the whole event.

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4 thoughts on “April 20, 2015 – Holy NEAF, Batman!

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