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Binocular Highlights: what I’m rolling with

July 23, 2016

I just turned in my sixth Binocular Highlight column for Sky & Telescope. While I had everything out for the write-up, I thought people might be interested to know what sources I make use of.

Here’s the stuff I use pretty much every time:

  • S&T’s Pocket Sky Atlas and Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas. I usually take a full-size clipboard and Interstellarum out with me to observe, so the Jumbo version is no added hassle. Consequently – and perhaps counterintuitively – I tend to use the Jumbo version for nearby excursions, and the classic for desk reference and travel. This is usually my first stop.
  • interstellarum Deep Sky Atlas: Desk Edition. Despite the name, my primary ‘deep’ field atlas. Goes out with me practically every time, unless space is really at a premium. Also sees heavy use indoors for planning sessions and following up on things.
  • Chandler Night Sky planisphere. Hands down, my most-used tool – it goes out with me every session no matter what, and I frequently refer to it indoors as well.
  • Chandler Sky Atlas for Small Telescopes and Binoculars – particularly useful for the Milky-Way-centric chart that shows the galaxy as a flat band with the celestial coordinate grid deformed around it. Useful for thinking about where things are with respect to the disk of the galaxy, for quick looks, and for the object list.
  • SkySafari 5 Pro app on my iPhone. Astounding amount of information. Usually my first source for looking up distances, separations, etc., although I always confirm with some other source.

Sources I turn to often, but not always:

  • Glenn LeDrew’s atlas of the Milky Way in The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, 3rd Edition. I already had the 2nd edition – it was one of the first books I picked up when I first got into amateur astronomy back in 2007. I got the 3rd edition primarily for the Milky Way atlas, and I was not disappointed. The identification of OB associations is particularly useful.
  • The Cambridge Double Star Atlas. Super helpful for checking on double stars, and a handsome and useful atlas all around. Also, kind of an insane steal at $22 on Amazon.
  • Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. Not my first stop for astrophysical data, but it’s nice to get some historical perspective and Burnham excels at this.
  • O’Meara Deep-Sky Companions series. Useful for astrophysical info, historical persepctive, and visual impressions from one of the world’s foremost observers. Crucially, O’Meara usually describes how objects look at varying magnifications, including naked eye and binocular appearances, so although the books are grounded in telescopic observations they are still quite useful for binocular observers.
  • Uranometria, All Sky Edition. Always nice to have the big gun in reserve, although I find Interstellarum more useful for most practical applications.

To get the latest astrophysical data I turn to the web. Particularly helpful sources are the SEDS Messier database, non-Messier NGC/IC/etc page, and Interactive NGC Catalog, the NGC/IC ProjectSIMBAD, the NASA Extragalactic Database, and if all else fails, Google Scholar and ArXiv.

For inspiration I’m quite omnivorous. Gary Seronik hit the Messiers pretty hard for the last few years, so I’m avoiding them for the time being, both to avoid duplication and to force myself to go find new stuff. The Astronomical League’s Deep Sky Binocular observing list (free), the Irish Federation of Astronomical Societies Binocular Certificate Handbook (free), James Mullaney’s Celestial Harvest, Phil Harrington’s Touring the Universe through Binoculars, and my own notes compiled over the past 8.5 years all serve as jumping-off points. Tom Price-Nicholson’s Binocular Stargazing Catalog (free) looks like a useful source as well, although I haven’t had a chance to explore it thoroughly yet. More often than not, I go out to find a particular object or to survey a set of objects (open clusters in Cygnus, for example) and end up discovering new things. So far I’ve been generating many more possible topics to write about than I actually can, so it seems unlikely that I’ll run out of subject matter anytime soon. We’ll see!

If you know of something I should be using that’s not on the list, please let me know – the comment field is open.

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A little piece of Mars

July 21, 2016

Mini Museum no 3614 DSCN1469

This is my Mini Museum: a collection of tiny samples of rare and interesting specimens from the history and prehistory of Earth and the solar system. There’s a lot of stuff in here that is very satisfying as both a paleontologist and an amateur astronomer. Highlights for me are the preserved woolly mammoth meat, the fiberglass casts of Diplodocus bones used as the Krayt Dragon skeleton in Star Wars: A New Hope, and, above all, the tiny piece of the Martian meteorite Zagami. It’s labeled “Martian atmosphere” because the meteor is known to contain tiny bubbles of Martian atmosphere in pockets of melted glass (Marti et al., 1995).

The specimens are embedded in a single block of acrylic that is 5 inches tall, 4 inches wide, and 1 inch thick. At $299 it’s not cheap, but it’s a pretty astounding collection of objects at any price. There is also a smaller, 10-specimen edition for $99. It doesn’t include Zagami or the Krayt Dragon, but it does have asteroid fragments, Stegosaurus plate, woolly mammoth meat, fulgurite, and the moon tree sample. These will sell out at some point, so if you’re interested in picking one up, don’t tarry.

Reference

Marti, K., Kim, J.S., Thakur, A.N., McCoy, T.J. and Keil, K., 1995. Signatures of the Martian atmopshere in glass of the Zagami meteorite. Science, 267(5206), p.1981.

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My 9.5-pound observatory

June 27, 2016

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In the last post I introduced my new small scope, the PICO-6 60mm Mak-Cass. After having a positive first light, I decided the scope was good enough to be the center of a new travel observing kit. Here’s the scope mounted on a Universal Astronomics DwarfStar alt-az head and a Manfrotto CXPRO4 Carbon Fiber Tripod.

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Here’s the kit broken down. The case is an AmazonBasics Medium DSLR Gadget Bag, which Doug Rennie helpfully put me on to. The Pocket Sky Atlas and small Night Sky planisphere go in the back pocket. In front of the bag from left to right:

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Here’s everything packed away. This was just a first pass. The final arrangement I came to is as follows:

  • The left-hand slot holds the DwarfStar head with the handle removed and stowed separately, as shown here, and the 6mm eyepiece in its cardboard box, wrapped in a small piece of bubble wrap.
  • The middle slot holds only the PICO-6 OTA, just as shown here.
  • The right-hand slot holds the 32mm Plossl and the 8-24mm zoom eyepiece on the bottom, both of them in the beige metal cases that the zoom eyepieces come in (I had a spare). The tops of the two cases form a horizontal shelf which holds the diagonal, wrapped up in a small drawstring bag.
  • Finally, a piece of bubble wrap goes across the tops of all three slots and gets tucked in at the edges and corners.

Oh, the vertical dividers in the case are held in with velcro so they can be adjusted or removed as needed.

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For flight, the tripod can go in a backpack or in checked luggage, and the AmazonBasics case goes as my carry-on “additional item”. The tripod weighs 3.5 lbs, the fully-packed case weighs 6. For a total of 9.5 lbs, I have a full-size tripod, a smooth, variable-resistance alt-az head, eyepieces giving magnifications of 22x, 29-88x, and 117x, a scope which will show the Cassini Division and split Epsilon Lyrae, a planisphere, and a mag 7.6 all-sky atlas.

Oklahoma dig

This past week I was out at Black Mesa, at the northwestern corner of the Oklahoma panhandle, to dig up dinosaurs. I took the whole kit, and I used it. On Sunday night I showed half a dozen people the moons of Jupiter, the ice caps of Mars, the rings of Saturn, a couple of double stars, and the full moon. Monday night I was too pooped for stargazing. Tuesday I spend a couple of hours observing with my parents and a couple of other visitors who were also staying at the Black Mesa Bed & Breakfast. We looked at the same run of stuff as I had Sunday evening, plus a couple more double stars, the open clusterM7, and the False Comet Cluster in southern Scorpio, which is a visual amalgam of the open clusters NGC 6231 and Trumpler 24. After that, we were clouded out for the rest of the week, but it was still more than worth it to have the little scope along.

Verdict: an amazingly flexible and capable setup. I look forward to many more adventures with it.

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Here’s one more shot from the road. Nothing telescopic – on Thursday morning the rising sun was accompanied by a pair of sun dogs. This is a raw shot with my iPhone 5c. The best sun dogs I’ve ever seen in my life.

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Small telescope quest reloaded: the PICO-6 60mm Maksutov

June 26, 2016

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This came a couple of weeks ago. I got it from Kasai Trading in Japan – here’s the link. They market both a 60mm Maksutov-Cassegrain, which is the PICO-6 shown here, and an 80mm Mak-Cass called the PICO-8. These appear to be the same scopes as those sold in Europe as the Omegon MightyMaks, which are available through Astroshop.edu (here) and Amazon.co.uk (here).

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It’s been a while since I posted about small scopes, and after getting the little SV50 refractor nearly six years ago, I declared my small telescope quest complete. But the SV50 turns out to be a more satisfying finder than stand-alone scope, even for air travel. For deep-sky work when I’m traveling, I’m usually happy with binoculars (most recently on the Channel Islands), but sometimes it’s nice to check on the planets, too, and the SV50 just doesn’t have the reach.

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I thought this little Mak might be just the ticket. As you can see, it is tiny. It weighs just a bit over 1 pound. Here it is with a regular-sized beverage bottle and my largest eyepiece, the 2-inch 32mm Astro-Tech Titan.

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And here it is next to the SV50. The SV50 has a focal length of 210mm and a focal ratio of f/4.2. The PICO-6 has a focal length of 700mm and a focal ratio of f/11.7, which makes it roughly equivalent to the 60mm refractors sold by any number of astro vendors. I actually tested the PICO-6 side-by-side with London’s 60mm f/11.7 Meade refractor. The refractor threw up a brighter image – no shock there, since it’s unobstructed and has no mirrors to reduce light-throughput. But much to my surprise, the PICO-6 was a hair sharper: it could resolve fine details and split close doubles beyond the reach of the refractor. The differences weren’t dramatic, but they were there.

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The PICO-6 comes with a dovetail bar and a brass compression ring in the visual back. Both required a bit of work. You can also see two of the three collimation screws in this photo.

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I could not get a diagonal to seat in the visual back. After some investigation, I found that the brass compression ring could not fit neatly down into its groove. It had been poorly made, and had an extra flange of metal in two places that made it wider than the groove. It was the work of 5 minutes to grind down the extra width with my Dremel, but it’s still pretty disappointing. I don’t know how these things are made, but it seems unlikely to me that anyone could have seen this and not known that it was a problem.

Also, on the Kasai Trading “Dear Customers” page (here), under the heading “Quality Inspection” it says (courtesy of Google Translate):

Astronomical telescope of our handling is through the “Jisshi inspection” all by Kasai will be shipped to the customer. This is a test carried out by actually seen the night of stars, most practical-world, but the one that is adopted for performance is a test, it takes time and effort, also takes place on the night of good clear weather of seeing because it can not be accurate inspection unless, depending on the weather will give sometimes can not keep our promise of delivery date. Excuse me, please understand that effect.

That makes it sound like all of the scopes are star-tested before they go out to customers, but that clearly is not the case, because the scope I received was unusable until I fixed the visual back.

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The dovetail bar is also a bit wonky. It’s a couple of millimeters narrower than the Vixen/Orion/Celestron standard, so it will fit into a standard dovetail slot, but you really have to trust the thumbscrew because it will be the only thing holding the scope into the mount. I solved this by putting the scope on a dovetail shoe for the pistol-grip ball head shown here – by design or coincidence, that shoe is a good fit for standard Vixen dovetails. With the help of that shoe, I was able to use the scope with my Universal Astronomics DwarfStar alt-az head. More on that soon.

Now, it may sound like I am down on this scope. I’m not. I wish the quality control was a little higher, but the problems were not unfixable. At least for me, with almost nine years of experience tinkering with telescopes – I can’t recommend this scope for anyone who isn’t prepared to do some work on it. And optically it’s okay. It arrived out of collimation, but with a little help from Polaris I was able to get it tuned up enough to catch Saturn’s Cassini Division and split Epsilon Lyrae cleanly into all four components at 117x. After the mechanical difficulties with the scope, that was a welcome surprise.

Then I flew with it, but that’s a story for the next post.

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Mt Wilson photo tour and a brief observing report

June 5, 2016

Mt Wilson 1 - Geo on the 60-inch

Last night the PVAA had the 60-inch telescope booked at Mt Wilson. It had been ages since I’d been up there – my only other trips up were in 2009 and 2010 (observing reports here and here). So it was very satisfying to be back. It is amazing to look back and realize that in 2010 I was only 3 years into what has now been almost 9 years of stargazing.

The last two times I went up, we didn’t have time for a tour of the grounds, so about all I saw were the parking area, the 60-inch dome, and a few odds and ends in the distance. This time we got a nice long tour from Geo Somoza – most of the rest of this post is a photographic tour of part of the observatory. We didn’t have time to go through the museum up there, or see the solar telescopes – guess I’ll just have to go back again to catch those (which is no bad thing!).

I rode up with Ron Hoekwater, Laura Jaoui, and Gary Thompson, who kindly drove us. We left Claremont early and got up there about 6:00, well in advance of the planned 6:30 start time for the tour. While we were chatting outside the gate, we saw something ominous: a tower of smoke going up from the mountains to the west. This would come back to haunt us.

Mt Wilson 2 - Einstein bridge and the 100-inch

Here’s the dome of the 100-inch Hooker telescope – world’s largest from 1917, when it eclipsed the 60-inch telescope on the same mountain, until 1948, when it was eclipsed in turn by the 200-inch Hale telescope on Palomar Mountain. It is a bit staggering to realize that from 1908 to 1993, when Keck 1 went online on Mauna Kea, the three consecutive world’s largest fully-functional telescopes were all within 92 miles of each other in southern California. (The 240-inch Soviet BTA-6 saw first light in 1976, but it suffered terrible thermal stability and seeing problems and never performed anywhere near its full potential.)

This bridge is nicknamed “Einstein’s bridge” because Einstein paused here for a famous photograph during a visit to Mt Wilson in 1931 – see that historical photograph here.

Mt Wilson 3 - the 100-inch

Here’s the scope itself, the same machine that Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason – a former mule-driver who worked his way up to master observer – used to chart the expansion of the universe. I was scheduled to go up and observe with the 100-inch last year, but I got very sick the day before and couldn’t make it. So that is still on the bucket list.

Mt Wilson 4 - the 100-inch mirror

A view into the back of the mirror cell of the 100-inch telescope. The green champagne-bottle glass of the primary mirror is clearly visible. If you click through to the full-size version you may be able to see bubbles in the glass. The 14-inch-thick mirror had to be made in three separate ‘pours’ of molten glass, and bubbles from the first two pours were trapped by the layer above. The people at Mt Wilson were so concerned about the bubbles interrupting the figure of the mirror that at first they refused to work with it, but St Grobain Glassworks was unable to pour a better one and eventually George Ellery Hale ordered his people to grind and polish this mirror, which turned out to be fine at the optical surface after all.

Mt Wilson 5 - 100-inch eyepiece

In the old days, to observe visually with the 100-inch you had to go down a narrow hallway to a tiny room where light from the scope was bounced to the Coude focus. That was pretty unsatisfying so a few years ago the telescope was modified for more intimate visual observing. Now the primary mirror at the bottom of the scope bounces the light to a secondary up in the upper cage, thence to a tertiary at mid-tube which directs the light out to a quaternary mirror in the diagonal housing at the top of the black tubular assembly on the left of the scope in the above photo, thence down to a quinary mirror at the bottom of the black tube, then into the white refractor that is pointing down and to the right. A diagonal sitting nearby can be placed into the refractor to put the eyepiece into a convenient orientation when the scope is tilted.

Mt Wilson 6 - 100-inch controls

The control board of the 100-inch, with at least three separate control systems lined up right to left in order of age. Most interesting is the old table on the right with the clock and the two periscopes. The periscopes allowed the telescope operator to see the telescope’s setting circles. Nowadays, the scope is controlled by the computers on the left.

Mt Wilson 7 - 100-inch dome

Excited amateur astronomers lingering outside the dome of the 100-inch. We got to walk around on the walkway you can see on the outside of the dome. The entire dome rotates, walkway included. It’s a fearsome engine indeed.

Mt Wilson 8 - CHARA array and 60-inch domes

On the left is one of the six domes of the CHARA array, I believe still the world’s longest-baseline optical interferometer. It has enough resolving power to image the discs of nearby stars. On the right is the 60-inch dome.

Mt Wilson 9 - lightspeed test site

Geo shows us the concrete pier used during the speed-of-light experiments in the 1920s. More on those in a sec.

Mt Wilson 10 - lightspeed test plaque

For decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Albert Michelson conducted a series of experiments to measure the speed of light. In a series of famous tests in the 1920s – almost two decades after Michelson earned his Nobel Prize – a beam of light was bounced from this pier on Mt Wilson to a mirror on Lookout Mountain, one of the foothills of Mt San Antonio, better known to locals as Mt Baldy – the mountain at whose base I live. The concrete pier on Lookout Mountain is still there and it is apparently an easy hike. It’s on my to-do list.

Mt Wilson 11 - LA and smoke from wildfire

Sunset over LA. On the left, the marine layer of fog is moving in over the city. On the right, a tower of smoke is going up from a wildfire near Calabasas, about 40 miles to the south and west of Mt Wilson, and spreading out over the LA basin. For a while the smoke was going southeast from the fire, and it looked like it might miss us. But by the time it was getting dark, the wind had shifted and was carrying the smoke directly toward the observatory.

Mt Wilson 12 - going up to the 60-inch

As darkness fell, we trooped into the dome of the 60-inch telescope.

Mt Wilson 13 - Edison bulbs

Here are the controls for the dome’s shutter, which has to be opened for the telescope to see out, and closed again to protect the telescope during the daytime and in inclement conditions. The three light bulbs on the upper left of the console are original Edison bulbs – they have been working without ever being replaced since 1907 or so.

Mt Wilson 14 - control board and mercury tank

Our telescope operator, Christopher Burns, checks something on one of the computers in the control center, while beyond him Geo stands by the mercury tank in which the 60-inch telescope floats. Don’t worry, it’s fully sealed now. In the old days, it was open, and mercury would sometimes splash on the floor as the telescope rotated.

Mt Wilson 16 - Jupiter with blue filter

Our first target was Jupiter. As usual, the photo completely fails to do justice to the naked-eye view. The seeing was imperfect and I think the smoke from the fire might already have been affecting the views. The north and south equatorial and temperate belts were visible, and the Great Red Spot was prominent, but I could see little detail beyond that. I have seen much better on other visits, and indeed in much smaller scopes (see for example the two previous Mt Wilson observing reports linked at the top of this post). But I won’t complain too much – part of the joy of observing with the 60-inch is in the process, not the outcome.

Mt Wilson 15 - 60-inch lit by laser

After Jupiter we moved on to the globular cluster M3, and then the Sombrero Galaxy, M104. M3 was already looking a bit dim – certainly not as bright as it appeared in Ron’s 25-inch scope from RTMC last weekend – and about this time the smell of smoke became pronounced in the dome. We had a hurried look at M104, but it was just a dim smudge of light and I couldn’t even make out the dust lane.

After M104 we had to shut down early to protect the telescope. If ash from the fire was allowed to fall on the mirrors, it would combine with moisture in the air to produce acids which would eat away the coatings. In the photo above, Geo is shining a laser up through the optical train to check for ash on the mirrors.

Mt Wilson 17 - Matt with the telescope

It was a bummer to have to shut down early, but we had an awesome tour and it was fun to observe again with the 60-inch, even if only briefly. Geo and Chris were great hosts and everyone had a good time. We’ll get to reschedule our night on the scope, since we only got about an hour and a half of observing in, so the club’s investment is protected. It’s a shame about Mars, though – we won’t have another opposition this close for some time, and the planet will be noticeably more distant, smaller, and dimmer by next month already. Still, into every observing career a little rain – or ash – must fall, and I’ve been extremely fortunate. Two eclipses (2012, 2014), a Venus transit, and a Mercury transit in the last four years, and not one of them clouded out. Mars will be back, and I’ll be ready.

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Small, medium, large – observing near and far in the last two weeks

June 4, 2016

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Preface – Running with the Red Queen

I’ve just finished maybe the busiest spring of my life. January and February were largely sunk into day-job work – time-consuming, but necessary, interesting, and in fact rewarding. Then the last three months have been taken up with travel and public lectures.

  • In March I went to Oklahoma for 10 days of paleontological research in field and lab, and I gave a talk at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History titled, “Dinosaurs versus whales: what is the largest animal of all time, and how do we know?”
  • In April I did a two-day trip to Mesa, Arizona, for more paleo work. No talk on that trip, but I did participate in the “Beer and Bones” outreach at the Arizona Museum of Natural History.
  • In early May I was in Utah for another 10 days of paleo research, and I gave a talk at the Prehistoric Museum in Price on, “Why elephants are so small”. My colleague Mike Taylor and I took one day off from dashing through museums to tour Arches National Park, which is where Mike took the photo at the top of the post.
  • Last weekend I was up at RTMC, where I gave a Beginner’s Corner talk on, “The scale of the cosmos”.

I’m not complaining – far from it. It’s been exhilarating, and the collaborative work I have rolling in Oklahoma and Utah will hopefully be paying off for years. And planning and executing all of the work has been satisfying. Particularly the RTMC talk, which deserves a whole post of its own. And ultimately this is all stuff that I chose to do, and if I could do it all over again, I would.

BUT there have been consequences. Most frustratingly, I haven’t had enough uninterrupted time to get anything written up for publication – not the sizable backlog of old projects I need to get finished up, and not the immense pile of new things I’ve learned this year. I haven’t gotten out to observe as much as I’d like, and I’ve barely blogged at all.

And it’s not over. In two weeks I leave for a week of paleo fieldwork in Oklahoma, then I’m back for a week, then I’m off to Utah for about 10 more days of digging up dinosaurs. In between I’ll teaching in the summer human anatomy course at WesternU.

But I’ve had a nice little pulse of observing in the last couple of weeks – two weekends ago up at Arroyo Grande, near San Luis Obispo, last weekend at RTMC above Big Bear, and this week at Santa Cruz Island off the coast. No time for separate observing reports, so I’m combining them all into one.

Observing Report 1 (Medium): The Planets and Moon from Arroyo Grande

I was fortunate to be part of a great, tightly-knit cohort of grad students at Berkeley. Of the people I was closest to, some are still in and around the Bay Area and some of us have been sucked into the gravity well of the LA metro area. Occasionally we get together somewhere halfway in between, either up in the Sierras or near the coast. I usually take a telescope, because almost everywhere is darker than where I live, and when I’m traveling by car there’s simply no reason not to.

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This year we met up for a couple of days and nights in Arroyo Grande. We hiked in the hills, went down to Morro Bay to watch ocean wildlife and buy seafood, played poker, and generally got caught up on work, family, hobbies, and life. Our first night was wonderfully clear. I had along the trusty C80ED, which has become my most-used scope. It’s mechanically rugged, optically damn near perfect, and compact enough to not require much time or thought when it comes to transportation and setup. On Saturday, May 21, we spent some time with Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn were as they always are: beautiful and surprising in their immanence. I cannot look through the telescope at either of them without being forcefully reminded that they are as real as I am, that as I go about my days full of busyness and drama, they are always out there, hundreds of millions of miles away, go about their own business whether I or anyone else pay them any attention or not. One of my friends had never seen the rings of Saturn with his own eyes, so that was an added bonus.

Mars was the real treat. Using the Meade 5mm 100-degree EP and a Barlow I was able to crank up the magnification to 240x. The dark dagger of Syrtis Major and the white gleam of the north polar cap were both obvious. It is always arresting to see details on this world that has loomed so large in the human imagination, from ancient mythology to science fiction to current and future exploration.

The next night we sat out on the patio, eating oysters and watching the sun set. I didn’t have any of my own binoculars along, but a friend had brought a couple, and after it got dark we watched the still-mostly-full moon rise through the trees on the ridgeline to the east.

It was all shallow sky stuff (solar system, that is), but it was all spectacular, and I’m glad we did it.

Observing Report 2 (Large): Going Deep at RTMC

Last weekend I was up at RTMC, finally. I’ve been wanting to go since I got to SoCal, but in the past it’s fallen on the same week as our university graduation and I’ve been too wiped out. I didn’t make it up for the whole weekend. We went up as a family to stay Saturday and Sunday nights. I went up to RTMC early Sunday morning to look around, give my talk, and hang out. Ron Hoekwater, Laura Jaoui, Jim Bridgewater, Ludd Trozpek, and Alex McConahay of the PVAA were all there and we spent some time catching talks and jawing about skies and scopes. I also chatted with some folks from farther afield, including Arizona and NorCal.

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I took off in the afternoon to spend time with London and Vicki, then went back up after dinner. All I had along were my Celestron 10x50s (yes, those), but Ron had his 25-inch Obsession dob, and he was content to use it as the centerpiece of a group observing session. We looked at the planets, or at least Jim Bridgewater and I did – Ron had checked them out the previous night and didn’t want to blow out his dark adaptation. That was a smart call, as the Obsession gathers a LOT of light and the planets were almost blown out. We could have put in a filter, but ehh, we had other things to be getting on with.

We started with globular clusters. M3, M5, M53, NGC 3053, and one or two other distant NGC globs. The close ones were explosions of stars that filled the eyepiece. The distant ones shimmered out of the black like the lights of distant cities. Then we moved on to galaxies. M81 and M82 were bigger, brighter, and more detailed than I had ever seen them. M51 was just stunning – the spiral arms were so well-defined that it looked like Lord Rosse’s sketch.

M51 sketch by Lord Rosse

As nice as those were, the Virgo galaxy cluster was better. There were so many galaxies that identifying them was a pain – there were so many little NGCs in between the familiar Messier galaxies that my usual identification strategies kept getting derailed. It was kind of embarrassing, actually – I did just write an article about this stuff. But also incredible. NGC 4435 and 4438 – the pair of galaxies known as “The Eyes” – were so big, bright, and widely separated that I didn’t realize I was looking at them until the third or fourth pass.

We finished up on planetary nebulae. The seeing was good but not perfect – the central star in the Ring Nebula was visible about a quarter of the time. The Cat’s Eye, NGC 6543, was a fat green S with a prominent central star – it looked like it had been carved out of jade.

An evening under dark skies with a giant scope is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you get to see so many unfamiliar objects, and so many details in familiar objects, that are beyond the reach of smaller scopes. A curse because by the end of the session you may find yourself thinking, “Sheesh, why do I even bother with my little 3-, 5-, and 10-inch scopes?”

Fortunately another observing experience, one that would remind me of the joys of small-aperture observing, was right around the corner.

Observing Report 3 (Small): A Binocular Tour of the Spring Sky

My son, London, is finishing up fifth grade at Oakmont Outdoor School, one of the half-dozen or so different elementary schools in the Claremont Unified School District. We were fortunate when we moved to Claremont to land just a couple of blocks from Oakmont – we would have been happy to land within walking distance of any of the schools, but if we’d had our choice we would have picked Oakmont anyway, since we wanted to raise London with as much exposure to the outdoors as we could.

Oakmont’s slogan is, “Learning in the world’s biomes”. The major activities of each grade are organized around a particular biome, and so is the end-of-year field trip. In third grade, the kids went to Sea World. Last year it was the desert by Palm Springs for a 2-day, 1-night trip. This year it was Santa Cruz Island, in Channel Islands National Park, for a 3-day, 2-night trip. Parent chaperones are needed and I’ve been fortunate to get to go every year.

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The island was amazing. We saw dolphins, sea lions, and petrels on the boat ride out – I took the photo above from the prow of the ship – more sea lions, seals, pelicans, cormorants, gulls, and red pelagic crabs at the shore, and dwarf island foxes, ravens, and the occasional hawk inland. On the final evening, June 2, we hiked up to the top of the cliffs to watch the sun set over the Pacific, which was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d see something even more beautiful just a few hours later.

I had binoculars along – Bushnell 10×40 roofs that I got specifically for daytime use, and which I had used a lot on the trip already to watch wildlife. When we got back to camp, a few of the teachers and hung back and started talking about the planets, bright stars, and constellations. I started pointing out a few of the brighter targets and passing around the binoculars, and we ended up having an impromptu binocular star party. (The kids and a fair number of the adults were all exhausted from a full day of hiking, and sensibly went to bed.)

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What followed was one of the best and most memorable observing sessions of my life. The only permanent residents of Santa Cruz Island are a couple of National Park employees, and they turn their lights off after dark. We got a little light pollution on the eastern horizon from Ventura and Oxnard, some 20 miles distant, but for the most part the sky was darkAfton Canyon dark, Hovatter Road dark – what I typically refer to as stupid dark.

We roamed all over the sky, looking at targets large and small, near and far, bright and dim. I didn’t keep track as we were going, but I wrote down a list yesterday morning on the boat ride back to the mainland (we went through a fog bank and only saw a handful of dolphins, so I had plenty of time).

In the northern sky:

  • Polaris and the Engagement Ring asterism
  • Mizar and Alcor
  • M51 – yes, it was visible in the 10×40 bins
  • The 3 Leaps of the Gazelle

In the western sky:

  • M44, the Beehive – easily visible to the naked eye, and just stunning in the binos
  • Leo
  • Coma Berenices star cluster
  • Virgo/Coma galaxies – identifications were tough, but a few were visible

In the eastern sky, Lyra had just cleared the trees when we started observing (at 9:15 or so), and all of Cygnus was above the trees when we finally shut down at 12:45 AM. In addition to tracing out the constellations, along the way we looked at:

  • Epsilon Lyrae, the Double-Double star
  • Albireo
  • Alpha Vulpeculae (the subject of my Binocular Highlight column in the ### issue of Sky & Telescope)
  • Brocchi’s Coathanger (Collinder 399)
  • Sagitta (just traced the constellation)
  • M27, the Dumbbell Nebula
  • Sadr and its surrounding ring of stars in the heart of Cygnus
  • NGC 7000, the North American Nebula – this and the Northern Coalsack were easily visible to the naked eye once Cygnus has risen out of the near-horizon LP

…and we just cruised the Milky Way from Cygnus to Cepheus, not singling out individual objects but just taking in the rich star fields.

But the southern sky was the best. Looking south from Santa Cruz Island, there’s only open ocean, broken here and there by other, distant islands and ultimately by Antarctica. It reminded me of looking south from Punta del Este in Uruguay, only I was in a valley instead of on a beach. The ridgeline to the south did cut off a bit of the sky, but we were still able to see all of Scorpio, including the False Comet, made up of NGC 6231 and Trumpler 24, which was one of the highlights.

It was trippy watching the Milky Way rise. I usually look at the summer Milky Way when it is higher overhead. I usually have to do that, because the objects aren’t visible in the near-horizon haze. But from Santa Cruz Island, things were not only bright but obvious as soon as they cleared the ridgeline to the south. It’s almost pointless to list them – we saw every Messier object in the “steam from the teapot”, from M7 and M6 in the south to M11 in the north, plus a lot of NGCs, plus star clouds and dark nebulae almost beyond counting. They were all great through the binoculars – M7 was a special treat, like a globular cluster on a diet – but honestly the best views of the night were naked-eye.

I realized that I am just never out observing the Milky Way at this time of year. My regular desert observing spots are all too hot in the summer, and when I do go there is often at least some light pollution to the south (El Centro from the Salton Sea, Barstow from Owl Canyon, etc.). I do most of my deep and dark observing in October and November, when the southern Milky Way is setting, not rising.

So I was completely unprepared for how much detail would be visible to the naked eye. When the Milky Way rose, it didn’t look like a band of light, it looked like a galaxy. I searched through a lot of photographs of the rising Milky Way to find one that approximated the naked-eye view, and this is the closest I got:

I am not exaggerating – the bright and dark areas were that defined. The Great Rift was visible from Cygnus to the horizon, and its southern border was notched by distinct deep sky objects from Aquila onward. The Scutum Star Cloud, M16, M17, M24, M23, M8, M6, M7, NGC 6281, and the False Comet were all easily visible to the naked eye as a chain of luminous patches against the dark dust lane of our own galaxy. In fact, I noted NGC 6281 with my naked eyes first, thought, “What the heck is that?”, and had to look it up. We also caught M4, M22, M23, and M25 in the bins, plus a bundle of dark nebulae that I’d never noted before and didn’t bother keeping track of.

Longtime S&T contributor Tony Flanders (now retired but still writing occasionally) is active on Cloudy Nights, and his sig file reads:

First and foremost observing love: naked eye.
Second, binoculars.
Last but not least, telescopes.
And I sometimes dabble with cameras.

Until fairly recently I would have listed my own preferences in reverse order, from telescopes to binos to naked eye. That may sound odd for a “bino guy”, which I guess I am since all of my ‘professional’ astro-writing has been binocular-based. But it’s true – as much as I love binoculars, I would have picked a telescope first. But I am – gradually, belatedly – waking up. In some ways, it would have been great to have a scope, any scope, along on the island trip. I’m sure that even the C80ED would have taken us crazy deep, considering what we could see with a pair of low-end 40mm roof-prism bins. But it would also have come between us and the sky, and I would have spent more time futzing with eyepieces and less time just looking up.

This was a surprising and welcome realization, coming so shortly on the heels of a frankly astonishing session with Ron’s 25-inch dob at RTMC. I was worried that big-telescope observing might spoil me, but that fear turned out to be unfounded. All I need to be happy is a dark sky. If I have some people to share it with, even better. Anything more is just cake at the end of an already long buffet.

Let’s eat.

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My talk at RTMC 2016

May 19, 2016

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Noted astronomy author and speaker Ken Graun kindly asked if I’d be interested in giving one of the beginners’ talks at this year’s Riverside Telescope Makers’ Conference (RTMC), which will run from next Friday, May 27, through Sunday, May 29. My talk, which will run from 10:00-11:30 AM in Bose Lodge, is titled, “The Scale of the Cosmos”. It will be about using popular observing lists like the Messier Catalogue to understand the universe and our place in it. If any of you will be at RTMC, I’ll look forward to seeing you! You can learn more about the conference and register here.

Image borrowed from here.

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