Is a CAT for Me

SCTs are good. They can do a lot and do it easily. But, is one the right scope for you? You

Are the only person who can answer that question, but the following should help. The SCT may be your scope if

• You have not specialized in a particular "branch" of amateur astronomy and do not intend to. You are an amateur astronomy dilettante. One night it is lunar observing, the next galaxy hunting, the following evening you are taking pictures of Jupiter. If this is you, then you are a prime candidate for an 8-inch or larger SCT.

• "Just looking" is okay, but what you really want to do is take pictures of distant, beautiful, DSOs. You do not want to or cannot spend a lot of money to do that, either. An SCT, especially one mounted on a GEM (a German equatorial mount), will allow you to play celestial Ansel Adams without breaking the bank.

• You do most of your observing from the backyard, but you like to travel to dark sky sites occasionally. You do not want to give up computerized pointing and other niceties, though. You also want to be able to pack a feature-laden scope into the family's Japanese sedan. An 8-inch or 10-inch SCT is just right for you.

• Your long-held dream is a personal observatory. You want to place a powerful scope in a dome, and you intend to leave it there. The SCT's compact tube in

12-, 14-, or even16-inch apertures allow the size of an observatory to be kept relatively small and helps the dream become an affordable reality.

• You are a geek. You love gadgets and electronics and computers and would no more buy a telescope without go-to than you would an automobile without satellite radio. The top-of-the-line telescopes from Meade and Celestron are not just techno-heavy; they sport features even you will probably never get around to trying.

• You are physically challenged. A 6-inch Dobsonian is too much to move around, even into the backyard. You need a scope that can be broken down into small, easily manageable pieces. Not having to contort your body around a tube to find objects would also be a big help, and sitting while observing is a must. Go-to-equipped CATs are available in ultraportable 6-, 5-, and 3.5-inch apertures.

An SCT may not be for you if

• All you care about is looking. You do not want to take pictures. You do not want to measure stars. You just want to see DSOs the best they can be seen without any technology getting in the way. You do not care if you need a huge truck or trailer to transport the telescope; you just want to see as much as possible. You want a large Dobsonian, not a CAT of any kind.

• You are an advanced CCD imager, and you are particularly interested in wide-field shots. You want perfection—and have the money to pay for it. You could still be happy with a top-of-the-line SCT equipped with a focal reducer or perhaps an SCT on a large third-party GEM mount, but you will probably be happier with a big, short focal length refractor.

• You do not like computers, and they do not like you. In fact, you are not fond of electronic gizmos of any kind, and the thought of hauling batteries and computers onto damp observing fields gives you the willies. Your motto? "Simpler is better." You will be happier with a 6- to 10-inch Dobsonian than with a microchip-infested SCT.

Still having trouble deciding whether a Schmidt Cassegrain is the telescope of your dreams? Even if you are pretty sure you do want a CAT, you should get out and see (and use) some in person. Most cities and towns in the United States and Europe have active astronomy clubs. If not, there is likely one within driving distance. Find the local club and join immediately. You will be able to look through members' SCTs at club star parties—group observing sessions—and just as important, you will be able to ask your fellow amateurs questions that will help in your decision. In fact, most amateurs will consider it their personal mission to help you select the right scope. There probably will not be any lack of SCT owners at your club, and you can bet they will be willing to offer their opinions on their instruments—and maybe even offer to let you play "copilot" during the next observing run.

No club? There is always the Internet. True, the Internet is renowned as a source of misinformation as well as information. There are, however, some reliable and friendly venues on the Internet for amateur astronomers. Some of these gathering spots devoted entirely to CATs and SCTs are listed in Appendix 2 of this book. Just like nonvirtual astronomy clubs, these online groups are inhabited by knowledgeable amateur astronomers who are eager to help.

What is next? The following couple of chapters present some history about SCTs and other CATs and how they perform the optical magic that brings the distant universe home.

CHAPTER TWO

What allows a Schmidt Cassegrain telescope (SCT) to make distant objects bigger and brighter? Optics: Lenses or mirrors or a combination of the two are the heart of any scope. Everything about a telescope, including its capabilities and its price, is determined by its optical design. Before we find out what makes SCTs tick, let us go back to basics with the simple instruments of Galileo and Newton, the refracting and reflecting telescopes, respectively. The SCT—and the other members of the catadioptric telescope (CAT) tribe—are optical hybrids that combine aspects of these two simple designs, so understanding them is the key to understanding the catadioptric.

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