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Astronomy

Partial Eclipse of the Setting Sun



On 14 December 2001, Gay and I invited family and friends to meet us by the side of the road at Paynes Prairie at sundown, to view a the partial eclipse of the setting sun. It was cloudy, but clouds often break up at sundown in Florida.

I set up the Pronto with its solar filter, a piece of glass that fits on the front and reflects back 99.999% of the sun's light. Obviously, the top of my head reflects back a certain amount, too.

We saw the sun off and on through the clouds, and I got a couple of pictures through the telescope that were keepers. I like the one above best, with the sunspot group peeking out between the two clouds, just before sundown.

Lots of people showed up, not just the ones we invited -- mostly people who didn't know there was an eclipse, but had come down to walk along the edge of the swamp, looking for alligators and birds. We saw a great pair of bald eagles, who had a nest about a mile away. The telescope showed them clearly, long after the sun was down.

The Pronto is especially good for this sort of thing. It's a simple design, externally, and doesn't intimidate people. Its modest optics -- 80 mm f/5.6 -- are very nearly perfect, but come in a small package, easy to tote around. The image is bright and easy to focus.

My other small telescope is a Questar, the classic Maksutov that for fifty years has been a kind of Rolls Royce for amateur astronomers. When I sold a movie some years ago, I figured I'd never again have enough disposable income, so I bought one, and it's been my pride and joy ever since. Absolutely perfect, mechanically and optically.

The picture here is of Judith Clute peering at the sun in my sister-in-law's beach house driveway. Would you rather have a beach house or a Questar? (Both! Both!)

One reason I got the Pronto was to have a portable telescope to take to public events, so as not to expose the Questar to kids with peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, dogs running amok, and so forth.

I have two larger scopes that are temporarily in mothballs, because they're too heavy for me to lift -- since January '02, a rotator cuff injury has pretty much grounded me from picking up anything with my left hand heavier than a beer bottle.

The big white one is a 12.5" Meade Dobsonian (which refers to the simple mounting design) Newtonian reflector. It doesn't do too well in my back yard, where this picture was taken, because it's a "light bucket" and likes clear dark skies. My sky is never dark except during a power failure -- the university and town of Gainesville to the east, and a huge mall to the west.

(We're a stone's throw from the supposed city limits, and when I bought the house the sky was deliciously dark. Then the mall came in, and then developers razed the quiet forest to the north of my property line and put in cheesy houses with security lights.)

The Meade has been impressive, the half-dozen times I've had it under dark skies. Nebulae and galaxies and star clusters, oh my! It has a little computer that helps you point it to obscure places, but I usually just point it by eye, using a Telrad finder, not shown. Also not shown, the considerable bracing I've added to make the cheap mount more sturdy in transport, and an exhaust fan to cool down the mirror.

The other too-heavy telescope is a Meade 7" Mak on a Losmandy German equatorial mount. Can't find a picture, so I'll add some stuff about that later.