First Telescope

By Stan Honda |

Earlier this year member Bhaswan Kurra posted a curious photo on the AAA Astrophotography Google Groups email list. Five young men with serious, if slightly unsure looks on their faces, posing with what looks like a telescope. It turns out it was a refractor telescope built by this group of 15-year-olds in their hometown of Avadi, India.

Even today, 35 years later, Bhaswan remembers the view. “From what I can recall, we focused on the moon, for the most part identifying its parts but also excited about being able to see craters, especially with a partial moon, and then looking at constellations and resolving double stars. I distinctly recall Mizar and Alcor in Ursa Major in this regard.”

His brother Shankar recalls even more details. “I remember seeing a lot of chromatic aberration around the limb of the moon. Also, how we reduced the aperture by sliding a card with a small round opening to try and fix the optical imperfections of the prime lens. It was all very like Galileo in the sense that it was a very crude instrument and yet the joy it brought is still fresh in my mind.”

Photo courtesy Urban J. De Souza

Bhaswan Kurra, Urban J. De Souza, Tarun Mathur (standing, left to right), Shankar Kurra and Kevin A. De Souza (kneeling, left to right) with their reflector telescope in Avadi, India.

The five boys, Bhaswan, his brother Shankar, Urban J. De Souza, Kevin A. De Souza and Tarun Mathur were classmates in Avadi, a small town in the south of India about 23 km from Chennai. The father of another classmate, Natasha Oza, introduced the group to astronomy. Then it was off to the library to read astronomy books by Patrick Moore and Robert H. Baker including Baker’s “An Introduction to Astronomy.”

At some point, the group decided to build a telescope, and thanks to recycling, they did.

“The tube was a postal tube that we found and repurposed. The lamp stand was from our living room. We decided to decapitate the shade and remove the socket to serve as a tripod base for the telescope. The local optometrist just happened to be our only source for a lens, and he obliged with

a 1.5 diopter circular convex lens with one flat side and the other convex. I forget what we paid for the lens but it was certainly modest,” said Bhaswan. “Then we `borrowed permanently’ an eyepiece from the microscope in the biology lab at school, and I created the swiveling mechanism that you see in the picture for altitude and azimuth or declination and right ascension.”

First light was the moon. “The vision was a magnified lunar surface with lovely peacock-colored fringe artifacts around the limb!” Shankar said. “The first vision of the craters of the moon and Mons Apenninus along the terminator was exhilarating, so amazing that I could not wait for nightfall so that I could get the lamp stand-mounted telescope out! I would get my sketch book and draw the features of the moon while seated on a folding chair in the garden staring through the ‘lamp’ telescope.”

In a Facebook posting, Urban J. De Souza, who found the photo, described their youthful endeavor as “an astronomical achievement!”

Bhaswan also recalls that “the night sky where we were was less polluted, so we could see a fair number of stars.”

The year was 1982 and these were some of the astronomical highlights: in January, the first lunar meteorite was found on Earth. All nine planets aligned on the same side of the sun on March 10, and on Oct. 14, Halley’s Comet was spotted after a 70-year absence.

Over the years the small telescope was lost, but Bhaswan more recently has upgraded his equipment to a Nexstar 6” SCT along with a Panoptic 24 mm eyepiece, Celestron StarSense Auto-align and Celestron Wifi Adapter in addition to a Celestron Skymaster 20×80 binoculars. He describes his first AAA outing in 2009: “I lugged my 6” SCT all the way to the Great Lawn in Central Park on one very freezing cold December night to watch the moon and the peach-colored fuzzball that was Mars next to each other. The AAA folks who showed up were extremely knowledgeable and gave me tons of advice on where I could go for darker viewing and what I should do with my eyepiece. They also showed me Andromeda through their scope.

“More recently, as a result of my interest in photography in general, I joined the AAA astrophotography class and discovered a whole new universe of possibilities. First, the astrophotography group is one of the most advanced I have come across with people across the full range of the spectrum – folks who grew up with telescopes from when they were six years, folks practicing serious, state-of-the-art astrophotography in an area as light-polluted as New York City and getting results that are just out of this world! Second, the people in the group are extremely friendly and are happy to share their experiences with gear and techniques in a truly selfless manner. It feels like a convergence of several areas coming together: astronomy, science, optics, physics, mathematics and photography!”