Rob Teeter with his 20
When I got back into astronomy in 2001 (in part looking for some peace after the 9/11 melee), I knew I wanted a telescope with a larger aperture than the 3″ scope I had growing up. Aperture is the width of the telescope’s main objective (which is sometimes a lens and sometimes a mirror). The larger the diamter of the objective, the more light lit collects. Magnification is not the key function of the telescope, but light gathering is. I was shooting for something in the 12″ range. As Ed Ting, the noted telescope reviewer said, a 12″ scope is the smallest of the big scopes. That sounded right for me.
Somehow I found Teeter’s Telescopes. Rob Teeter was just going into college then, I believe. He was way younger than me but energetic and full of ideas. His line of telescopes were called “Planet Killers” and in spite of the violent name, they weren’t designed to destroy anything. Rather they were meant for the appreciation of planets, with high quality, high contrast optics. It just so happened that Rob was selling his prototype scope, and the price was right. I drove down to New Jersey to Teeter’s Telescopes workshop, which I believe was the garage of his Mother’s house! We had a great conversation, Rob showed me the scope, and I went home with it.
Rob makes what are called by us nerds in the know, “truss tube telescopes” or some variation of that. They are also known as “Berry-Kreige” designs after two famous telescope makers who wrote a book on the style. It’s a variation of the Dobsonian telescope popularized by John Dobson, which is itself an adaptation of the classic canon mounting that you see on tall ships, with trunions (we call them bearings) that move the “canon” up or down and a lazy susan to turn it left or right. Again, the militaristic design converted to a more peaceful purpose. Traditionally, scopes were made out of a heavy cylinders of metal or wood. The truss tube replaces most of the tube with a system of poles and connectors. It makes the telescopes lighter, and able to be easily broken down into transportable parts. It’s a brilliant system and has been refined over the years.
Nine years later, I caught up with Robt Teeter at the Black Forest Star Party at Cherry Springs State Park, in the dark nothing of north-central Pennsylvania. We talked about how he got into astronomy, telescope-making, and a bit about the business side of amateur astronomy. Hope you enjoy it!
Welcome to Punkastronomy’s first interview. I’m sitting down this morning, on the last morning of the Black Forest Star Party with Rob Teeter, of Teeter’s Telescopes. Rob’s been making telescopes since…
And he has a successful business doing that. [Something crashes in the background as Rob’s wife, Heather, dismantles their display tent.] Rob, what’s your earliest astronomical memory?
Okay, that’s a good one, going back a little ways. There’s two of them actually, and they sort of overlap. One is Christmas Morning, opening up my first telescope, a little white tube, 60mm [refractor], what people usually start out with. And I didn’t care for it. I mean, I got it, I was excited, but I never used it. Didn’t really have an interest in astronomy. It was one of those things where I said, “Okay, that’s nice.” And that telescope just sat there…and it wasn’t until I actually got to a star party and saw views through a real big telescope that I finally went back to that first one that I got and said “Wow, there’s really good stuff there to see. And then I realized that that telescope was way to small to see any of that good stuff.
So the moment you had interest in that telescope, it was obsolete.
How did you get to that star party?
That was an odd coincidence. My father and I did a lot of camping and we had friends, a friend of mine from school and his father, and the four of us would go camping a lot, and we got this brochure in the mail, “Go to the Jersey Starquest: Camp out, bring your telescope and observe the night sky.” So we went purely for the camping aspect. And we dragged that little tiny telescope along with us. And we got there, and the place was just loaded with all these big cannons…we realized it was more of a stargazing event than a camping and hiking outdoorsy type thing, but that struck a chord with me, what you could see, and all the equipment.
So it wasn’t a concerted effort on your parent’s part to plot and get you into astronomy.
I think the telescope was just an interesting gift they were trying to get me. Not so much “Let’s get him into science.”
They were being good parents, throwing things at you and seeing what stuck, then following the child.
I really have to give credit to my father for helping, because he wasn’t really into the whole astronomy thing. But I got him into it, it was what he did. He drove me around to all these star parties. I got involved when I was 13 years old, before I had a driver’s license. So it was always me and him on the road, and he was the type who would go, “Show me M57.” And then the next night, “Show me something else, I saw that already, it doesn’t change.” And he’d go into the camper or work on the car. But just by his ability to get me out there, his caring, and his handiwork too, getting me into telescope building by teaching me how to use all the tools. While he wasn’t an astronomer in any sense of the word, he was the one who got me involved in this whole thing. Without him I wouldn’t have gotten involved.
What initially drew you into this, when you went to that first star party and were looking through larger telescopes, what kept you coming back?
The first object I ever saw was Jupiter, through a telescope. That was good, good that it wasn’t just a Messier Object or some distant galaxy that was just a smudge, but Jupiter had detail to it that I could see. The Great Red Spot was out that night we were looking, you could see the Galilean moons and it as just the amount of detail and the color, it wasn’t just gray. There was really a lot to it. I’m a very visually oriented person, and I love equipment, I’m an equipment junkie, so it just a real natural mesh. Just being able to see objects, and knowing how far away they were, how big they are, I like those big topics. They make my head spin sometimes.
What’s your day job?
I’m an environmental consultant. It’s a lot of regulatory compliance. As the government gets bigger, more regulations come out, we work with a lot of towns, and those towns have a lot of obligations for state and federal regulations, and we’re out there to help them make sure they don’t get fined.
You studied environmental policy?
Yes, six years.
And you grew up camping, being something of a naturalist. How has the astronomical component of your studies of nature, informed the rest of what you do? Has that had an impact on your perspective?
It has. I started out studying geology, actually, I had wanted to go more towards NASA, into planetary geology, which started with camping…then I hit calculus, and that didn’t really work for me. I went the other way, towards policy, which then meshes real nice with light pollution policy, so I bring that up as often as I can with my environmental consulting during the day. Make sure our civil engineers address those concerns.
We’ll get back to light pollution. You said you initially started with Jupiter, and it occurs to me that the first line of telescopes you made was called “Teeter’s Planet Killers.” Have you remained a ‘planetary observer’?
I would say planets…and globular clusters. And both objects are served well by long focal length telescopes where you can push the magnification higher. But I do, I always go back to the planets. You know, we’ll drive 5 hours to Cherry Springs and I’ll spend hours looking at Jupiter, something I could see from home! Where I should be looking at deep space stuff, which looks better from here. But I love Jupiter, and Saturn. Maybe someday you’ll go back to school for comparative planetary geology…when they actually offer it.
Maybe. As long as there’s no upper level math involved. Through your business, and through your own outreach activities, has it struck you, like it’s struck me, how little people know about the sky?
[Rob nods.] I think we’re in an age now where people are content to be inside. And be entertained. Go to the movies…and be inside. Stay home. The sky isn’t as bright [with stars] as it used to be, so you go out, and see a few stars, oh, point of light here, point of light there, there’s no excitement, until you get to a place like Cherry Springs, you can really see the whole universe. And people don’t get there, in the majority of places where people are. So we have to go to places where there aren’t people.
You grew up in New Jersey, but it was rural, wasn’t it?
We were down at the Jersey Shore. It was nice. I was glad that my parents choose to settle down there, because we had three acres and everyone around us had three or four acres, we always used to play baseball in the fields and ran around and had a good time and we weren’t really constricted. So you had access to the night sky growing up.
Yeah. I was lucky to get it at an early age, too. We had good skies.
Let’s get back to light pollution, which is hovering over this conversation. It’s why we come here, we consider this a special place because of a lack of something, which is lights. If you heard Terence Dickenson’s talk last night, he said that most people on the East Coast cannot see the Milky Way from where they live. National Geographic wrote last year that a fifth of humanity, which is over a billion people, can’t see Milky Way any more because of light pollution. There’s a lot of talk about solutions to this problem, but I’m curious: what do you think the impact of light pollution on people?
I think slowly that programs like NASA and the European Space Agency…governments will have the back ground to say, because there’s nobody really interested in this, nobody is coming up through the ranks in the colleges and universities who really care, who’ll really push, we’re just going to let it go away. It’ll be a shell of what it was. They always say you have to start from the ground up, get the kids involved. You can get them to star parties, here, but it’s better to get at them when they’re home. But there you have to battle with light pollution. Nothing good will come from light pollution. Maybe the whole energy thing that ‘s going on right now might help this, but you can’t really tell.
When I talk to the older members of our club, in Rochester, most of those people grew up in suburbs or in Rochester itself, but when you talk to them about their early experiences of astronomy, they were mostly home experiences. They weren’t going to a “dark sky site”, the club didn’t have a site until it became necessary. So they talk about being in their back yard, watching the first Sputnik go overhead as being the transformative event that really got them into astronomy, so with fewer and fewer people having access to that, well, it’s an interesting point you bring up, that might fewer and fewer people go into that field. You’re losing people that could get inspired. When you think long term, what do you see as that future of humanity on this planet and in space?
I think we’re definitely going to get back to the Moon, with manned space missions. I think we’re going to get to Mars. Eventually, we’re going to have to leave earth. I mean way down the line, but I think that’s what is going to happen, is that we’re going to have a lot of unmanned space probes that will go out, and we’re going to perfect that, and collect that data, but we may not get much past Mars for a long time, just the physics behind that, that would keep us tied down to earth. I think it’s going to be a lot unmanned craft, the next generation of space telescopes, and the search for extra-solar terrestrial planets, that’s another big thing. We want to lay that groundwork for that future generation of humans to…leave earth, once the sun gives up, you know, four billion years…
We have some time, but we have to make it until then.
Extra-solar planets are really interesting, you know, when we were growing up, astronomers would say, you know, “we believe there are planets around other stars, but we haven’t actually seen any”. And in the last decade or so that knowledge has gone from prediction to over 100 planets. And now they can say “We know there are planets, and there are probably a lot of them.” Do you think programs like SETI and and Terrestial Planet Finder might be successful in your lifetime?
It depends on the funding. Those programs are on the lowest rung now, but all it will take is a signal… But you have the interest and support from the amateur community, and a lot of people are involved in that.
Rob Teeter and his wife Heather (of Shrouds by Heather) at their boot at the Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF) in 2006
You’re not just an amateur astronomer, you’re also a small business owner and you’ve been making telescopes for ten years, how is the telescope making company an extension of your interest in astronomy?
It was sort of inevitable. I built one telescope for myself, an 8”, then I wanted to go bigger so I built a 12.5”, then I got to the point where I said, I can’t keep building telescopes for myself, eventually I’m going to run out of money, or make a telescope that I’m happy with, but I like the whole build process, so the natural step was to start building telescopes for other people. I did that for one customer at the beginning, and he gave a good review, that got out on the internet, it spread, and then the next order came in. It snowballed from there. It was something I needed to do. I always wanted to be working with my hands, I’m very project oriented. Once I got done with my own telescope, for myself, I always started thinking about the next one. You get to the point where you can’t…
How has the telescope making business changed over the years?
When I first began building telescopes commercially in 2002, the big rage, for me at least, was long focal length planetary optimized Truss Dobsonians. Nobody else was building 10″ f/7, 12.5″ f/6, 15″ f/5 or f/6 scopes. I stepped in and filled the gap in the market. Everybody was doing the same 15″ f/4.5, 16″ f/4.5 and 18″ f/4.5 in the mid-range apertures, but there was definitely a market for scopes with focal ratios of f/6 and f/7, especially when the central obstruction, or blockage of light from the primary mirror by the secondary mirror in newtonian reflectors, could be kept below the magic number of 20%. Its at that point, from a contrast standpoint, that reflectors begin to put up images like refractors. I began catering to the refractor-guys who were looking for bigger aperture, but still with pin-pointy stars and velvety-black backgrounds in the eyepiece. But, that seems to have been a “flash in the pan” since those orders have stopped coming in and within the last two years we’ve seen a big increase in quotes requested for f/4 and sub-f/4 scopes. Mirror makers are getting so good at their craft that they are producing f/4 and faster mirrors with almost as good results as they are for their slower mirrors. When combined with a high quality secondary mirror, a lot of good planetary observing can be accomplished using f/4 scopes because the mirrors are now that good.
What were the biggest developments or breakthroughs in the design and manufacturing of your scopes?
By far my biggest “claim to fame,” or breakthrough, has been the Dual Boundary Layer Cooling Fans that are now standard on all of my Truss Dobs. At this point, I’m the only commercial manufacturer who offers fans set up in this orientation. Some manufacturers don’t give you fans at all, while others do but they only blow on the back of the mirror. I’ve taken a different approach to the problem of thermal equilibration than other manufacturers. Rather than just cooling the mirror itself, I look at the problem as a whole and try to bring the entire environment of the Truss Dobsonian mirror box down to ambient temperature. I liken the Boundary Layer problem to heat-waves radiating off black-top on a hot summer day. What you see behind or around those heat-waves is distorted and shimmering. Imagine your primary mirror as the black-top surface and the boundary layer as the heat-waves. As star light enters the telescope, it must pass through those heat-waves, which distort the light, refract and bend it, and by the time it reaches your eyepiece and your eye, you’ve lost any crisp detail the telescope was designed to show. With our Dual Boundary Layer Cooling Fans, we use two fans to pull air into the Truss Dobsonian mirror box and blow it across the face of the mirror, disrupting the boundary layer. They are also “air conditioning” the inside of the entire mirror box to bring that down to ambient temperature.
There are a handful of small businesses that make truss dobs. How do you differentiate yourself?
Right, there are still several small businesses like myself all competing for this small niche market of premium Truss Dobsonian telescope buyers. In addition to our Dual Boundary Layer Cooling Fans, we’ve also begun to set ourselves apart with our signature “Cherry Scopes.” I have to give credit where credit is due, prior to 2004, all of our scopes were more of a natural wood color, similar to those from other telescope makers. But we then had a customer request that we use “as deep and rich a red stain color as you can find on my scope.” So we went out and did a lot of research…The custom cabinet shop that handles our Baltic Birch plywood purchases and other rough woodwork, heard of my searching and the owner went into his back room and came out with a can of cherry stain that was all dented and looked as if it had gone through a world war, and had done so several decades ago. It was covered in cob-webs, the label was torn, and drips down the side obscured almost all of the manufacturer’s name. I didn’t give it much hope…
We test stained a couple of the smaller components on the customer’s scope and Emailed him pictures, and he was floored, he loved the color, it was exactly as he had hoped. He was gracious enough to allow us to display his scope at the 2004 Northeast Astronomy Forum in Suffern, NY, where thousands of people stopped by our booth to see what, at that deep red stain color. People loved it! Since that point in 2004, we’ve built, I don’t know, another 45 telescope and only two have been stained with anything but our Cherry stain. When given the choice, customers love our Cherry stain, our brass hardware and black accents. To this day, 6 years after that first dented can modestly emerged from the dark back room at my cabinet shop, we’re still using the same product.
Rob and his 17.5
Is there a network and camaraderie between all the truss dob makers, or is there a sense of competition?
This is a great question! I’ll start by saying that I know my competition, but I don’t KNOW my competition, if you know what I mean.
I know who they are, and I’ve spoken to some of them personally, but we don’t call each other to say “What’s up? How have you been?” When I first got involved in astronomy, I used to participate in what’s called IRC, Internet Relay Chat. Prior to the popularity of the CloudyNights.com and AstroMart.com discussion forums, the internet newsgroup sci.astro.amateur used to be THE place to talk astro equipment and observing. To compliment the newsgroup, there was also a sci.astro.amateur “chat room” on IRC. This is where I first met Rick Singmaster, of StarMaster Telescopes, fame. These were the days before the big telescope boom of 1999, 2000 and 2001 and Rick had far fewer competitors, so he had more time available to log-on and talk ‘scopes. I used to pick his brain for hours at a clip, asking everything under the sun about telescope building. I consider myself lucky to have gotten that much of Rick’s time, he’s a busy man with a lot of people asking of his time nowadays.
Currently, I will say there’s a small sense of competition due to the small size of the market. We’re all vying for the same few hundred customers per year, which, unfortunately I suspect is growing smaller each year. So we have to strive hard to make sure our Truss Dobsonian as the customer chooses. But at the same time, I don’t really fear that another company will steal one of my ideas or marketing techniques. The unique thing in this niche industry is the lack of patent protection. We come up with new ideas, put them out on the market for all to see and there’s no fear that that idea will show up on another telescope. An idea may get innovated upon and made to be that manufacturer’s own, but there’s no outright theft. The best example I can come up with to illustrate this is our Dual Boundary Layer Cooling Fans. We introduced these in 2003, before anyone else did on a commercial Truss-Dobsonian, and nobody else has copied them. The observational evidence is out there showing their virtues, so it is sound technology, but none of the other Truss Dobsonian manufacturers have adopted them. I believe, or at least hope, that it’s because the other manufacturers recognize that this was a Teeter’s Telescopes innovation and they don’t want to infringe upon that. That’s a lot of faith in a niche industry where patents aren’t commonplace, but we’re all comfortable with the other guys’ respect for our designs.
Obviously very few people get rich off of selling telescopes, but when you think about it, do you see it more in terms of business or as a form of educational outreach, that you’re building telescopes that will open up…the mysteries of the universe to people?
The business is sort of two pronged-I make telescopes, and I also do a little bit of outreach, pure outreach, with libraries and elementary schools, so those are really good enriching programs, we go out, there’s 300 kids, 150 parents, 450 people there, we run planetarium shows and we have six or seven telescopes set up, so that aspect of it is very fulfilling. To see the kids come up to the eyepiece and oh and ah, to get the parents to oh and ah, too. The telescope making is also very gratifying, to get an email back from a customer saying “I looked at Jupiter, I looked at Saturn, and it was just incredible, I saw all these details…” And I know that the telescope works, and will get out and be used. And people are going to look through it, and that’s really neat.
My last question is about outreach, which is I write most about on punkastronomy. I’m always interested in ways that people do that. What objects do you like to show people? What sort of thoughts do you like to leave people with? What are really powerful views and ideas?
Big, bright objects are always good, the Moon, the planets, or if there’s a comet. While a comet might not be a great object to look at, you know some of them obviously might not be very bright, but people hear about them in the news, and just the pure fact that they’re seeing it in real time and that they’re seeing it with their own eyes, “oh this is the comet that was in the news, and we get to see it.” We had that happen at a couple of outreach events, and people love that, they eat it up, and you get to talk about comets, physics and all that.
And then you try to show them something like M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, from a light polluted area, it’s just this finger smudge in the eyepiece, and I’ve learned very fast that people don’t really like that. You get these responses from people like “Oh, [hangs head] all right. Okay, I guess I saw it.”
Put it back on the moon!
Yeah right! Let me swing it back to the moon. Oh! Ah!
As you move away from the near and concrete, the planets, that you can imagine, that are within a distance that you can at least wrap your brain around, and as you get farther and farther out and things get dimmer, it takes more imagination, and I find I need to talk a little bit more about the objects so that people can imagine them. Globular Clusters I find people like because you can describe them in a way that really sparks peoples imagination.
Globular clusters you mentioned as your other main observing interest. I wonder if you have any reflections on what those are, how they form, it seems to me that my astronomy textbooks have about a page on them, you know, “they’re some of the oldest stars in the galaxy” and they cluster together in these tight little balls, but I never see any speculation as to how they formed or why they are where they are. Do you have any ideas about that?
Nothing beyond the everyday explanation of what they are. And that by itself I think is enough to boggle the mind sometimes, just how many stars can compact in such a small area, and I always like to tell people at the outreach events that if you were on a planet around one of these stars, you know, you’d never have nighttime, there’s always a sun up, there’d always be a hundred suns up. And to be in this compact group and be orbiting around the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy, that would be quite an experience…
…and people like that.