Performing surgery is not for the faint-hearted.
Performing it on an emergency basis in the dark, with a dim red light providing the only illumination … that’s another matter entirely.
Putting a telescope “under the knife” turned out to be an impromptu service provided by one of the directors of the Table Mountain Star Party that descended on Robin and Pat Stice’s Eden Valley Guest Ranch last week.
The patient, thankfully, was not a living being (though it seemed to have taken on a life of its own).
Those who attend the star party have all levels of love for astronomy, and all levels of experience with telescopes and their associated accessories. Think of a classic car show, but for science geeks.
But getting started in the hobby can be difficult, especially with balky equipment. One family had brought with them a small telescope that they’d never quite been able to get working properly, one that was programmed to search out stars, planets, and galaxies at the direction of a computerized control panel.
Zach Drew, one of the TMSP directors I met when I swung through the star party last year, was set up with his own telescope next to the balky unit and offered to help conquer the little beast. He got a lot more than he bargained for, not only dealing with the computerized set up but the fact that the manufacturers hadn’t properly installed the telescope’s mirrors.
That’s switching the accelerator and brake pedals in your classic car, albeit with less hazardous consequences.
Probably 100 telescopes were set up in close quarters on the observing field; using anything but a red light to find your way around is an almost unforgivable sin. It takes awhile for the eye to become adapted to the dark, which is necessary to see “faint fuzzies” through a telescope that bear little resemblance to the ultra-Photoshopped images you see on the internet or TV news.
So, to avoid disrupting other observers’ viewing sessions, it was major internal surgery on an unfamiliar piece of equipment, in the dead of night by red light.
Zach and I had hit it off – he was the photographer that supplied the spectacular lightning strike photo we ran in the Gazette-Tribune from last year’s TMSP – and he’d invited me to spend the night viewing with his scope. Thanks to the crazy week before the star party (fires, storms, flash flood threats – most of our readers know the drill) I hadn’t been able to arrange for the transport of my own telescope to the site.
While Zach was poking his screwdriver amongst the delicate innards of the neighbors’ balky scope, I took his telescope (a reflector with a 12.5-inch mirror and a simple, manually operated “Dobsonian” mount) for a drive to share sights with the neighbors as they waited for the completion of Zach’s lifesaving surgery.
It was pretty satisfying to hear the exclamations of surprise at the views through his scope. Symbols and spots with arcane numbers on star maps came alive before their eyes.
M57 … a smoky ring floating in the midst of a starfield, the remnants of a star that had blown off most of its mass, leaving just its faintly glowing core at the center.
M13 … a sparkling ball of a thousand suns that you could just discern individually, other than at the very dense core of the cluster.
M17 … a bright smudge of gray shaped like a swan, complete with a few subtly-shaded “feathers.” In that cloud, though you can’t see it visually happening from our distant locale, stars are being born.
Speaking of stars … M31 … a galaxy similar to our own Milky Way, so distant that its light takes more than two million years to reach us. That’s actually about as close as it gets as far as galaxies go, and it is so big in the eyepiece that it overflows the field of view.
Finally, with surgery completed, Zach gave a quick lesson on the computer controls, and the excited “newbies” were on their own journey of exploration with their now functional little scope.
Zach and I spent the next two nights searching out some the lesser known, but no less unique, sights of interest of our own, some that one or the other of us had never seen before.
I only got to experience half of the five day TMSP, but it was filled with fresh discovery, new friends and a regained sense of perspective.
This is why we came.