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MY EARLY YEARS OBSERVING, 1973


Left: An ad for a house model driven 8" F/8 Newtonian reflector with a 9mm
ortho and 25mm Kellner eyepiece plus a 12x40 finder for $750 in a 1973 catalogue.
Right: A 108mm F/15 Tasco refractor from the same catalogue on a driven mount, with 6 eyepieces and loads of extras.

It was during science class while attending St. Joseph's Separate School in Aurora Ontario I was first introduced to astronomy. Inside a green hardcover textbook titled "Science 6" was a section about the solar system, complete with full colour artists renderings and vivid descriptions of each of the 9 planets. While we were studying this section of the book, our class attended the McLaughlin Planetarium in Toronto. The show was good enough, and the class especially enjoyed it when they sped up the speed of the projector to make days pass in seconds. The Moon and the Sun would alternately fly by, with the Moon's phases and position changing accordingly until it had "caught up" to the Sun.

My first look through a telescope occurred around this time. My father had a small handheld 30x30 model. It consisted of a main section about 6" long coated with glossy grey paint. It had a 30mm objective lens and two smaller chrome steel tubes that slid inside the main one- a "telescoping" telescope. It had a fixed magnification of 30x, and my father used it mainly for outdoor use during the day, and sometimes brought it with him when our family went to my grandfather's cottage for the weekend.

I can't recall if it was at the cottage or at home in Aurora when he called me outside one night to look at the Moon. I had to rest one end on his shoulder and hold the other to keep the telescope steady enough to see much. At the time the Toronto Star occasionally printed a chart of the night sky in the paper, so we knew where to look for the planet Saturn. It was such a small target that it was difficult to locate, and it was hard to keep still enough to keep the image from dancing around like a fluttering moth.

Within a few weeks, my father had another telescope. It was the same size and type as his first one, but was glossy white in colour and had three small legs attached for table-top use; now we were getting somewhere. Once I learned to account for the slight shift in aim as I let go of the telescope after moving it, I became quite proficient at centering Saturn, and later Jupiter for viewing. Saturn was small and bright, but the ring system was clearly visible as a single band circling the planet. As far as Jupiter goes, I couldn't really see much detail on the planet, but it's four largest moons were prominent. The moon was fascinating to look at through this tiny scope. All of the major features were visible, and it was interesting to note how the same area on the surface would look different as the moon's phase and angles of illumination changed. I liked that little telescope, but it was nothing compared to what lay ahead.

My father took me to the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill one night. Allthough we got a tour of the observatory dome, for some reason the telescope was being used and was not open for public viewing. Outside in front of the main building however, several amateurs had set up their telescopes on the lawn. There were several Newtonian Reflectors on giant equatorial pedestal mounts, and one Celestron 5. I had never seen telescopes like these in person before, but had seen photos of them in "Astronomy" magazine. At that time Celestron was running an ad on the back of the magazine that showed pictures of their 5", 8", and 14" models, as well as photos that had been taken through them. I can still remember that magnificent full colour photo of the Orion Nebula, and another of Saturn, as well as one of a bird. I always dreamed of owning one of these Celestrons, but given the price of them they were well beyond my reach. That didn't stop me from reading those same ads every month when the magazine arrived in our mailbox. To this day, I still have thoughts about owning a 14" Celestron.

That Christmas I received what to me was the biggest present since that large, battery-operated yellow truck with the oversized wheels with red rims, and a trailer that could either be a flatbed with or without the included fencerails, or sheltered with the supplied wire U-frames and plastic tarp like a covered wagon. It was a REAL telescope- a Tasco 9TE. The classic glossy white tube had a 60mm main objective lens and a black dew shield, with a focal length of 700mm. The altazimuth mount was all metal, and the legs could be extended quite high to create the illusion of a much larger telescope. It came with a small finderscope, two .965" eyepieces, a 2x barlow lense, a sun and moon filter that each screwed into the eyepiece, and a 90 degree diagonal. By the time my birthday arrived in March, and after several trips to the now defunct Bredberg's Optical and Scientific store, my eyepiece collection included an H5mm, H6mm, H12.5mm, HM25mm, and one Tasco HM9mm that had a much wider field of view than the others (even though your eyeball almost had to touch the glass to see it all).

Back then I didn't even know that Cassini's division existed, and I can't recall ever seeing it while observing Saturn, but the spectacle of Saturn itself was amazing. The image was clear, and the planet's largest moon Titan was visible. The planet Jupiter was awesome. Not only were cloud bands visible, but I even managed to see the Great Red Spot several times. Nowadays the spot has faded in colour, so it is more difficult to see it today than it was back then (my eyes probably aren't as sharp as they once were either). It was neat to watch the placement of Jupiter's four largest moons change from night to night.

The moon was spectacular. The cheap moon filter brought the brightness down sufficiently enough to make viewing bearable at lower magnification, but it gave a strong green tint to the image. Still, it was great to aim the scope just ahead of the moon, then look through the eyepiece as the Earth rotated. The moonscape would gradually move in until it filled the entire field of view, then the craters, mountains, plains, and other features would just roll by, until eventually the moon would leave the field of view, leaving behind a few scant stars in the blackness.

My best friend Donny, who lived in a house near the school yard, shared my fascination with astronomy. Before long he had a telescope that was identical to mine except that his had a wooden tripod. I will always remember those days, when we would get up in the middle of the night to see Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, or a meteor shower. We looked at the Orion Nebula, and were even ignorant enough to try and find the Horsehead Nebula as well (which would have been impossible with those scopes visually). Aside from that, the Pleiades was one of the only other memorable things I observed, with 2 exceptions:

Donny once did a science project at school that involved a model of the solar system. He painted styrofoam balls of different sizes (some obtained by destroying bases from his Mother's old table lamps) and placed them on small stands. He also had a model of the USS Enterprise from the original Star Trek series. In the family room of their basement complete with it's orange deep shag rug, we would set up the planet models on a table space in front of the aquarium. The telescope would be at the other end of the room at the base of the staircase. We would take turns with one of us moving the planets in scientifically impossible arrangements, complete with the model of the Enterprise occasionally whizzing by and a vocal rendition of the show's theme, while the other looked through the telescope laughing.

The only other memory I have of viewing anything special through the telescope back then was my hunt for comet Kohoutek. The papers and astronomy magazines had been hyping it up for months, expecting it to be possibly the brightest comet of the century by the time it made it's closest approach to the Earth. Unfortunately, the comet wimped out, and wasn't even visible to the naked eye by the time it could be seen from my town. My father and I took the telescope to the intersection of Yonge St. and Stouffille Road. At the time it was in the middle of the country, and there was a clear view of the horizon in almost every direction. I scanned the horizon in vain on several nights where the comet was supposed to be, but never found it.

My love affair with my telescope lasted for several years. I had to replace the diagonal once when the telescope mysteriously fell over on the front porch one night while I was inside waiting for it to cool down. It survived that, but it didn't survive when I slipped with it on the driveway one winter on the ice. The finderscope was totally destroyed, and one side of the fork that held the telescope tube was snapped, and was made of a metal that could not be glued, soldered, or welded with any strength. At the time my financial flow was pretty low ( I didn't even have my first paper route yet), and replacement parts in those days would have been beyond my price range even if they could be found. I put the scope aside until I could save enough money to get it fixed.

Well, time went on and the scope just sat there. Donny still had his telescope, and I was content just sharing my eyepieces with him while we looked through his. Time passed, my interests changed, and for years that broken telescope did nothing but take up space in my Mother's basement, give dust a place to collect, and give spiders a nice place to spin a web in the dew cap. You would have thought that it might have been discarded long ago instead of being sentenced to uselessness in my Mom's basement, but I guess some things are just meant to be.
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