Coping with the Scope of Death

The SOD, ready for a successful observation of
Mercury's transit of the Sun. No, the garbage can
isn't where the scope ends up when I'm done.

I own the Scope of Death, the telescope that nightmares are made of. It sits in my room, daring me to take it out on a clear, dark night. I swear it would whisper a hex on me and my new scope should I ever come to my senses and replace it. This is the story of an amateur astronomer gone mad, and his telescopic partner in insanity.

The SOD is a 60mm refractor, a department store telescope in every sense of the word. It bears the Focal brand name, manufactured in Japan and imported by K-Mart. I was not its first victim. No, some thirty years ago, another poor soul must have brought it home from K-Mart for the princely price of $49.97. The original tag says so. Maybe it was a gift to a child or family member. Maybe it changed hands several times. In red ink, the box bore garage sale markdowns to $15.00. Whatever its history, the SOD did not simply sit and gather dust. It was used--and abused--extensively by the time my dad traded a box of rocks for it in 1984 and presented it to his astronomy-mad 12-year-old.

Abuse--how else can I characterize it? The multiple bumps and bangs on the dew shield, the objective lens missing from the little fake finder, the stripped threads on the star diagonal, the missing mid-power eyepiece? Most of all, the once halfway-sturdy mount shows signs of unspeakable brutality that can never be healed. The azimuth axis is doomed to wobble and backlash, assuring the scope will always be a pain to use.

And yet I tried. I tried in spite of the rough-ground Huygens eyepieces, the lack of a usable finder scope, the marginal optical integrity of the whole system. I donít remember much about those early years: a few looks at Jupiter, Saturn, Halleyís Comet, double stars. ďAstronomy quizĒ time, when I asked my parents to try to find an easy object and pretended that I was the ďteacher.Ē I didnít know how cruel or warped I was back then.

High school came, and with it a move to the city. The SOD was relegated to taking up space in my room, the way so many similar scopes do on sets in TV shows. Yet, all the time it was planning its revival, its return. Four years later, when I moved back to the country for the summer, it only took a few days before I was staying up all hours of the night, hunting down deep sky objects with the SOD. You see, I had always had a mental block driven into me by childhood books. I believed my telescope wasnít good enough to show any but the brightest deep sky objects. I had only seen two galaxies (M31 and M33), a few globular clusters, two bright nebulae (M42 and M8), and one planetary nebula (M27). Most of my deep sky observing targets had been open clusters, because there were a lot of bright ones in the Messier catalog and because most of my observing was done in the winter. (Back in Jr. High days, I had to be in bed by 9pm most nights, even in summer when it wasnít dark yet.) Now, with all these bounds lifted and a certain mature confidence, I made my first extensive exploration of the deep sky and found nearly every object I looked for.

When I headed to college, the SOD stayed behind. The college owned a number of telescopes, all of which exceeded the specifications of my lowly refractor. Eventually, I got to use them, despite the rain and light pollution of Portland and the general low regard given to visual observing by head-in-the-clouds, butt-in-the-easy-chair academics. You wouldnít believe how easy it is to use a fork-mounted Schmidt-Cassegrain after youíve survived the Scope of Death.

I managed to hang on at the observatory for a while after I graduated, but I spent progressively more time with the SOD. After all, I could take it out to a dark site at any time. Cooped up in the city, I learned to appreciate the dark country skies even more. My experience with larger instruments allowed me to find fainter and fainter objects with the SOD. By 1997, I had two decent eyepieces and a new star diagonal. Then Hale-Bopp happened, and I bought a nice pair of binoculars to enhance my viewing experience. The binocs wouldnít entirely supplant the SOD, but the message was clear: Someday, Iím going to buy a bigger scope, and there wonít be room for both of you in the car. So, the binoculars will take over low-power, wide field duties.

At about that time, something funny happened. I was taking the scope to star parties, partly to show that you can see things with a small scope but partly to warn people away from SODs. But lots of people loved it. I got questions about price that I wasnít fully prepared to answer. If crowds hadnít been so large, I would have suggested potential victims try to find Jupiter with my scope. I have the patience and the magic touch that the SOD requires; most do not. In any case, I may have sent several people to their doom, and Iím sorry about that.

Currently, the SOD reigns supreme. Iím always looking at potential replacements, but havenít pulled the trigger yet. Iím worried that the gun might be pointed at me. [OK, I finally did it. I took delivery of a Discovery 10" Dob in January, 2003. It's been fun. The SOD still gets out for an occasional romp, but is seriously outclassed in most respects.] To seriously improve on the SODís capability (ease of use notwithstanding) will cost an awful lot of money. What if I get a lemon? What if the magic and drive isnít there when I start pushing a new scope? What if tragedies befall expensive accessories? What if I decide the telescope I really need is one I canít afford? Most of all, is that a sinister laugh I hear, coming from my closet right now?

Wes Stone

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