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The cold nights were the best.
You get the clearest shot on cold nights. Water vapor in the atmosphere holds down the heat like a blanket, but those twinkling in the stars just mean hazy view to an amateur astrophotographer.
My dad and I sometimes took the Schmidt-Cassegraine telescope into the backyard to see the moon. But when we got serious, we hauled that forty pounds of steel and glass deep into the dark countryside. An eight-inch aperture makes for one amazing light gathering eye. That's all the telescope was to us: a big, telephoto lens. It gathered five hundred times as much light as the human pupil, and still we'd have to keep that shutter open for up to three hours on 800 speed film to see if it developed into anything clearly. Sure, we could mess around with 1000- or even 1500-speed, but the grain always appeared too heavy in the print.
This was 1984.
Dad and I, we bought the telescope together by print catalog. I waited in the winter when snow sparkled three feet deep, hoping for the UPS man to arrive. The telescope he brought us cost me $800, with another $800 kicked in by my dad. That's a lot of money when you're 14 years old and earning $2.50 an hour. It was well worth it to see the stars up close…an earthbound witness to His glory across the heavens.
I already had my own 'scope. A Jason. Nice for a kid, but even at 32X magnification, images appeared coarse, not to mention dark. Magnification spreads the light, darkens the view, and the Jason had a lens only about 3-inches wide.
Still, with it I saw mountains on the moon that classmates did not believe existed. I could get a sense of the rings of Saturn, assuming I braved the mosquito bites at dusk. I counted fifty of those in bed one night. But I mostly used it to watch the girls over at Creamland serving up soft cones from their window. It’s fun to be a spy when you're a kid, but I wanted more. I wanted nebulae. I wanted galaxies.
So we got the Schmidt-Cassegraine with a camera mount. We shot with a Nikon on Kodak film, and we set the exposure not for seconds, but for hours. Gathering light. Eating it up like celestial candy.
You can't just point a telescope that powerful and hope. That's where coordinates come in. "Right ascension" and "declination" plus date—in a 4D plane, time changes everything. Just imagine longitude and latitude on earth, but pull them into the sky and you understand ascension and declination. It's about knowing where to look, even when your target remains too dim to see.
The Earth turns, and you must keep up with that as well for a long exposure of the heavens. That’s why every ‘scope has a motor. Swiss tuned, worm-gear drive to avoid vibration that could ruin an image, it moved precisely with the Earth’s rotation to keep time with the stars. A joystick (like that of my Atari 2600 if you go back far enough) allowed for minor corrections.
“That star is drifting,” Dad would say. “Nudge it one o'clock, north by northeast!”
Bzzzzz went the motor at my command.
“Good, that's enough.”
All in fun. We shivered at 3am under an absent moon when the sky is darkest. This is when I developed an early taste for coffee. Hot, black, and plenty of sugar. No matter how deep the night, the sun would invariably rise. A glow to the east. Rabbits grazing the dewy grass. The flap of birds low in the descending sky. We’d pack up at the crack of dawn. I'd sleep the whole way home with my head against the window of the truck, its vibration playing tricks on my ear. No digital photography back then: we’d have to wait for the photo lab to know how our pictures turned out.
A missed shot of starry darkness? Or a perfect view of Andromeda with her flotsam wings? An easy shot at the Orion? Or difficulty with the obscure Horsehead?
Dad and I would smile either way, plan again to fix that right ascension and declination from Polaris and a binary star in Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. You could see these stars on almost any night.
Always, the cold nights were the best.