Dark Hood The difficulty in seeing deep sky objects from urban and suburban sites does not come only from the general brightness of the sky but also from nearby lights that prevent the eyes from becoming even partially dark adapted. It's easy enough to rig up a series of light shields to protect the telescope from the glare of a neighbor's security light, but that is impractical—or at least annoying—if the telescope has to be moved around the yard to avoid trees and other obstructions. A good solution is a dark hood. This is a piece of black cloth large enough to go over the head and eyepiece and block stray ambient light. Picture the dark cloths old-fashioned photographers used on the backs of their "view" cameras to shield their focusing screens from daylight. Just trot down to the local fabric store and pick a piece of appropriate material. Nylon, for example, is nice and light and muslin "breathes" in hot weather. Cut to size and enjoy.
Binoculars No matter how good a go-to telescope's accuracy, binoculars come in handy. Scanning an area of interest with binoculars can give a good idea of the lay of the land before beginning serious observing. If the scope misses an occasional target, binoculars can help fine-tune its aim, especially if the onboard finder is a red dot unit that doesn't reveal dim objects. It's surprising, in fact, what binoculars can reveal. It's not that difficult, for example, to detect the dim galaxies M74 and M101 with 10x50 binoculars from dark sites. Binoculars can also be fun to use for real observing. At times, the comfortable wide-field view and informality they offer are a welcome break from several hours of hard core observing through a big, long, focal length CAT.
Warm Feet Most observers know they have to keep their heads warm in cold weather via a good hat or hood. The head is a prime avenue for the loss of body heat, and once the cold begins to seep in it will become impossible to concentrate on the dim deep sky objects the scope is delivering. Fewer observers, especially those from southern climes, know it is just as vital to keep the feet warm. One way to do that is by purchasing an expensive pair of ski boots or other insulated footwear, but unless the observing site is really and regularly cold, that is probably overkill. A piece of carpet to stand on or rest the feet on while seated can be almost as effective as expensive boots. An integral part of many an observing kit is a thick bathmat. The rubber covered bottom side of this mat keeps out moisture and helps insulate the observer from the ground. Couple this with the deep pile on the other side, designed to absorb bathroom moisture, and my feet rarely become cold. When it's bitterly cold, more active measures may be required in the form of electrically (battery) heated socks or the chemical warmers described below.
Warm Hands Hands are a problem for the astronomer. They get cold, but covering them with warm gloves makes it hard or impossible to delicately adjust focus or push a small drive corrector button. Removing gloves temporarily to manipulate the scope is not a solution; it becomes an extreme nuisance in a hurry. What's needed are the right gloves. Soft and supple gloves made from deerskin can keep the hands nice and warm but preserve manipulative ability. Even more desirable are gloves or mittens that open up to expose the hands without removing the glove and quickly and easily buttoned up against the cold again.
Also recommended are clever hand warming devices that can help as much or more than good gloves. Some of these are in the form of small, sealed packets that contain chemicals that, when mixed, generate heat. Remove the hand warmer from its plastic pack, shake to mix the chemicals, and it will begin generating a surprising amount of warmth. Most warmers will continue to generate heat for several hours. At the end of their life, the little (inexpensive) packets are discarded. Chemical warmers are available in a variety of sizes suitable for use as body warmers and foot warmers as well as hand warmers. Another alternative is warmers that don't generate their own heat. They are first heated in the microwave and emit this stored heat over several hours. Like the chemical warmers, they are made in a variety of shapes and sizes and are often sold for use by spectators at wintertime sporting events, so check sporting goods as well as outdoor equipment vendors for both types.
Warming a Hand Controller As temperatures approach freezing, the displays of telescope hand controllers become more and more cantankerous. Text becomes dim and scrolling messages slow to a crawl. One solution is to keep the HC in a pocket. That works but tethers the observer to the telescope. How to keep the HC warm? Kendrick sells an HC heater, but that costs money. An old sock costs nothing. Often that's enough to keep the controller warm enough for normal operation, since even modern and efficient electronics generate a little internal heat. In really cold climates, more will be required. The cheapest and simplest fix is the chemical hand warmers described above. Rubber-band one to the HC and away you go. In very severe conditions the combination of hand warmer and sock may be required to keep the HC happy. The only caveat is that these hand warmer packs have a finite lifetime. One that's been in the accessory box for a year will not generate much heat, even though it's been stored in its original package. Some people wonder whether these hand warmers get too warm and might damage an HC. Unlikely. Anything an observer's hands can stand, the hand controller can stand.
It's been a long road, but if you've stayed with us you are now prepared to enjoy the myriad wonders of the universe that your beloved CAT can show. You are skilled in the set up and operation of an SCT or other CAT. You know how to polar align and have at least an idea of what's required to take images with the telescope. You can even connect your CAT to a computer, moving the number of objects available to your eye and camera from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands or millions. But how do you keep your love for the night sky alive and fresh season after season and year after year?
I've been observing for close to forty-five years now, thirty-five of those with an SCT (Plate 84). A lot has changed over those decades. Actually, a lot has changed over the nine years since I wrote my original CAT book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. One thing that hasn't changed, unfortunately, is the CAT in the Closet Syndrome. Some people get all enthusiastic about astronomy, rush out, and buy a big, fancy SCT, use it a few times, and deposit it in a closet, where it remains until it's eventually sold. Other new amateurs get a hold of a scope, aim at the star,s and keep going year after year. How does one remain interested observing season after observing season?
One way is to never look on amateur astronomy as a mere hobby. To me it's always been much more than that; I've always approached it as my "real" vocation. I am employed in astronomy, writing and teaching, but I don't take this wonderful science any more for granted now than I did when I was "just" an 11- year-old amateur with a cheap 3-inch scope. Even then astronomy felt like a way of life rather than a pastime. Other than making the practice of astronomy an important priority, though, what else will keep the initial enthusiasm alive and refreshed over the coming decades?
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