As a child I had wanted to be an astronomer. Instead, I became an author and a theologian. But I’ve never lost my love of astronomy.
My first telescope was made of plastic; it was a reflector and was supposed to be a replica of something that Isaac Newton had built. Thinking back on it, I have my doubts about that. Although I enjoyed putting it together and playing with it, it never really quite worked right. I think I managed to see the moon through it once.
Later, when I was a little older, my parents gave me a 3 inch reflector telescope with a wobbly tripod and a sort of ball joint alt-azimuth mount. It too, never worked very well and was terribly difficult to aim. I was lucky to see the moon through it once or twice. The same can be said of a small 2.4 inch refractor they gave me some time later. It also came with a wobbly alt-azimuth type of mount. Like the previous reflector, it was always difficult to use and I never saw much more than the moon with it. My experience with those three telescopes taught me a lot, however. For instance, one thing I learned was that the sort of mount a telescope has is very important. I promised myself that I would never, ever buy a telescope with an alt-azimuth type of mount again.
Despite all the trouble I had with relatively inexpensive telescopes over the years, I never lost my love for astronomy. So, about five years ago, I bought myself a small telescope that did not have an alt-azimuth mount. Specifically, I found a Meade 3.5 inch Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope on sale for about half its normal price. I thought it was a good deal. It came with two eyepieces, a 26mm Plossl and a 6mm. It has a yoke-type equatorial mount with a clock drive. But it came with only a tabletop tripod. A field tripod was an option that I didn’t purchase at the time. Since it was a small telescope, the idea was that if you also had a small tripod it would be easy to pack up and carry with you; it came with a nice little carrying case. Its portability was certainly unmatched, and I took it with me whenever I traveled, but in practice I found the tabletop tripod made the telescope a pain to use. If I put it on the ground, then I had to lie on my belly to peer through it and that was not always particularly comfortable. If I didn’t want to lie on my stomach, or crouch in a weird position, I had to find a table. That usually proved to be a problem. Often times, for instance when I was camping, there simply were no tables around. After all, portable tables, such as folding card tables, are rather bulky and defeated the purpose of having a small, easily transportable telescope. Worse, portable tables tend to be a bit wobbly and wobbly is the enemy of any telescope since wobbles in the table are magnified to the degree that images in the telescope are magnified. It was hard to really see Mars or Jupiter when they bounced around like burning billiard balls every time I happened to brush against the table.
So, about four years ago I finally sprang for a field tripod for my little telescope. It is solid, it is well-made, and it does not wobble. And the tripod folds up nicely and turns out to be much easier to carry with me than a card table. For the first time in my life I now have a telescope that is actually fully usable.
On the first Saturday after getting the field tripod, I took my little telescope outside, carefully set it up so the equatorial mount was aligned properly, and took a look through the eyepiece. I was able to see several things besides the moon. Jupiter on that particular evening was a late evening object, arising around 11 PM that particular night four years ago. (Tonight, if you go outside and look east before midnight, the brightest thing you’ll see in the sky–besides the moon or a passing airplane–will be Jupiter).
What was especially interesting about Jupiter that first night I used my scope after getting the new tripod, was that on that evening Jupiter’s position made it remarkably easy to also see the planet Neptune. In fact, it was positioned near Jupiter on that night very similarly to the way Galileo saw it in 1609 when he was looking at Jupiter. Although recently some scholars have suggested that Galileo might have realized he was seeing something other than a star, that seems unlikely. Certainly there is nothing in any of his documents that have survived indicating that he paid any attention to the dot he drew, along with some other stars, around Jupiter on the nights he observed that planet. Therefore, Neptune wasn’t officially discovered until 1846 by Urbain Le Verrier.
So, on that Saturday, besides seeing Jupiter, I also saw Neptune for the first time in my life. The 5th-magnitude star Mu Capricorni was 1/4° north-northwest of Jupiter, and the 7.8-magnitude Neptune was 1/4° north of that. I could also see all four Galilean satellites scattered around Jupiter and a bit of banding on the planet. Neptune was just a bluish dot that looked just like a star–but unlike Galileo I knew what I was seeing.