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Impromptu binocular digiscoping

January 18, 2017

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I grew up in Oklahoma, on the Great Plains. The plains have a wild, forlorn beauty, but I have always craved seeing mountains. When I was a kid, that meant waiting for a family vacation to the Rockies or the Black Hills of South Dakota. I have been very fortunate that since moving to California in 2001, I have essentially always lived within view of mountains. In Santa Cruz and Berkeley it was the coast ranges, which are really more like ambitious hills. In Merced it was the Sierra Nevadas, which are legit, but not particularly close to Merced. The mountains were only visible as a low line on the eastern horizon, and only when the air quality was good, which was not often. Fortunately that was just one year.

Since 2008, I’ve had the privilege of living at the feet of the San Gabriels and especially Mount Baldy (formally Mount San Antonio, but universally ‘Baldy’ to locals), which looms directly north of Claremont like a slumbering god. So I get to see proper mountains – the San Gabriels are still rising fast so they are impressively steep, and Baldy tops out at 10,064 feet (3068 m) – pretty much every day that it’s not raining and there are no nearby wildfires. In the winter the mountains are often snowcapped, although never continuously so, it’s just too warm here.

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A couple of days ago I was out running errands and the mountains looked so good that I had to drive up to the top of the First Street parking garage downtown to get some unobstructed photos. Off to the northwest, 22 miles distant, I could just make out the gleaming white domes on Mount Wilson. Then I remembered that I had my 10×50 binos in the car, so I got them out and spent a few pleasant minutes scanning the whole northern skyline, from Mount Wilson in the west to mount San Gorgonio, above Big Bear, 51 miles due east.

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Then I got to wondering – if I held my iPhone up to the binos, would I be able to get a recognizable photo of Mount Wilson? It was worth a try. I had to prop the binos on my sunglasses to get the angle right, and the raw shot is vignetted because getting the camera-to-eyepiece distance correct is a little hairy, but hey, there are the domes.

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Here’s a cropped, tweaked, and labeled shot. Except for the CHARA Array, an optical interferometer using six 1-meter telescopes in small domes that started work in 2002, all of the historically important installations are visible from 22 miles out.

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I also got some shots of the nearby peaks, especially the higher foothills of Mount Baldy. This shot is a pretty good match for the last photo in this post, which was taken through a different instrument at a different time of day in a different season, but focused on the same peak. This peak is 10.5 miles from my house, as the crow flies, so about 10.25 miles from the Claremont parking garage where the photos in this post were taken.

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Cropped and tweaked. Not too bad for 10×50 binos that cost less than $30.

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What’s in my eyepiece case

January 9, 2017

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In the 9.3 years I’ve been stargazing, I’ve had three eyepiece cases. The first was a Plano tackle organizer with a thin layer of bubble wrap taped into the lid, which held half a dozen 1.25″ eyepieces. After that I got one of the cool foam-lined purpose-built eyepiece cases that Orion and everyone else carry, but that one didn’t last long – probably less than a year. The problem was that although it did a fine job of holding the eyepieces, it didn’t have room for all the other stuff I wanted to cram inside.

Then in 2012 or so I got the eyepiece case that I’m currently using, and the one that I’ll probably be using for a long time to come. It’s not bespoke – it’s a $20 Craftsman toolbox I picked up at Orchard Supply and Hardware. I think this particular model has been discontinued, but there is something almost identical on the shelves today, and there probably will be from now until the end of time (or at least civilization). This one is probably the current incarnation, and hey, it’s only 10 bucks and has a better latch.

The exterior doesn’t deserve much comment. I put my name on it, and its contents, mostly to make it clear to anyone who might find it among my stuff if they’re going through the garage looking for tools of the terrestrial variety. I don’t fully trust the single latch so I keep a zip tie run through the hole where the lock would go. The zip tie goes in the top shelf when the case is open.

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The top shelf, which is removable, holds my red flashlight, Astro-Tech dielectric diagonal (previously discussed in this post), eyepatch, Barlow, and quick-look and outreach eyepieces – various Plossls, the 6mm Expanse, and the dreadful 4mm VITE that I haven’t yet thrown away. Not shown in the photo are a spare pen and a little Sharpie, both buried under the bag containing the diagonal. You can see that all of the eyepieces are still living in the boxes or cases they came in, and they’re held in place against rocking or tipping by a thick layer of bubble wrap taped into the lid of the tool box.

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Another sheet of bubble wrap sits below the top shelf and cushions the gear in the bottom of the toolbox.

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The bottom of the toolbox holds my ‘top shelf’ eyepieces and a lot of spare gear besides. The three Explore Scientific eyepieces came clamshelled in foam, and each one rests in the bottom half of its original clamshell. One of the top halves forms a bed for the 5mm Meade MWA. The two slots in the middle used to hold my Stratus eyepieces before I let them go – the ES models are smaller, easier to handle, and do a significantly better job. Now those slots hold the 32mm Astro-Tech Titan, my only 2″ eyepiece, the GoSky iPhone adapter I blogged about here, and a cord to hang my eyeglasses when I’m observing.

Around the edges I have all kinds of stuff crammed into the spare spaces. Clockwise from the top:

  • Contact info, just in case the case ever gets lost and found by someone decent. Has my name, address, email, and cell number.
  • Lens cloth, just in case.
  • Spare AAA batteries for the green laser, the red flashlight, and the laser collimator.
  • A ziploc. Never know when you’ll want a small waterproof bag. Sometimes holds spent batteries if I have to do a field swap.
  • Laser collimator. Reminds me, I need to blog sometime about how to collimate a laser collimator.
  • A set of hex wrenches for collimation.
  • Small pliers for the same purpose – I’ve swapped the hex bolts on a lot of scopes for standard hex-head bolts that I can tweak with pliers. Much better than farting around with hex wrenches.
  • Green laser. Super-useful when stargazing with newbies and old hands alike.
  • Tiny atlas – so I’m never without one. This is the Collins Gem Guide to Stars, which has little charts of the constellations and a short list of the most impressive DSOs for each one. Unlike Sky & Tel’s Pocket Sky Atlas, this thing truly is pocket-sized, and small enough to take up essentially no space or weight in the case. It has saved my butt a couple of times when I forgot all other atlases.

There is one other thing. In the third photo you can see a light blue bag through the intermediate layer of bubble wrap. I think that’s the bag the eyeglasses cord came in. Now I use it to hold a set of iPhone earbuds, which serve as a remote trigger when I’m taking pictures with the iPhone adapter, as shown and explained here.

That’s it – an inexpensive, sturdy, and above all roomy case for my eyepieces, with nooks and crannies for a whole lot more.

What’s in your eyepiece case?

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My new article in the December Sky & Telescope

November 2, 2016

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It’s late and my computer is almost dead, so I’m just going to link to the longer announcement/acknowledgment post on my paleontology blog. Enjoy!

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SkyScanning in Utah – and Claremont

July 25, 2016
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Everyone should have one of these.

I’ve been interested in Orion’s SkyScanner 100 tabletop Dob ever since 2012, when I got to look through the SkyScanners owned by Terry Nakazono and Doug Rennie. In particular, the evening I spent stargazing with Doug up in Oregon that October is in my short list of all-time favorite observing sessions. See that observing report here, and be sure to check out Terry’s guest post on the SkyScanner 100 here.

After spending literally years contemplating the purchase, what finally tipped me into SkyScanner ownership was my own forgetfulness. On July 3 I was driving to Utah to spend 10 days hunting dinosaurs with friends and colleagues. I knew I’d want some dark-sky time so I packed my C80ED, eyepiece case, sky atlas, and binoculars. About the time I hit Barstow – just too far to turn around and go back – I realized that I’d forgotten to pack a mount and tripod. So my choices were to roll with binos only, or come up with Plan B on the fly.

The number of dedicated telescope stores on the direct route between Barstow and Moab continues to hover near zero. However, I was already planning to pass through Flagstaff, which has the Lowell Observatory, which has a gift shop. I called ahead: did they have any telescopes in stock? Why, yes, the Orion XT8 and SkyScanner 100, and both were 10% off as part of a holiday weekend promo. Not long after, I had a SkyScanner in the back seat of the car and a song in my heart.

Matt with SkyScanner 100 at July 2016 PVAA meeting

Demonstrating how the SkyScanner can ride on any tripod with a 1/4 or 3/8 bolt.

I spent that first night in Bluff, Utah, after having driven through Monument Valley, which I’d never visited before. Bluff is truly remote – the nearest towns with more than 5000 people are Moab (5046), 100 miles north, and Kayenta, Arizona (5189), 68 miles southwest. So the skies are inky dark. I rolled in pretty late and I really needed to get some rack, but there was zero chance that I was going to pass up first light for the SkyScanner under those jet-black southern Utah skies. I drove about five miles outside of town and pulled over on a dirt road.

The sky was just incredible, even better than out on Santa Cruz Island back in June. Again, the Milky Way looked like an astrophoto and the Messiers in Scorpio, Scutum, and Sagittarius were almost all naked-eye visible (minus a few of the minor globs). I did look at a handful of things with the SkyScanner, and they all looked fine, but honestly I spent more time with my 10×42 binos and even more time than that just staring around with my naked eyes. In skies like that, a telescope can almost be a distraction.

Still, I’m glad I got that first light session in on the evening of the 3rd, because opportunities would be thin for a while. I did set up the scope on the 4th of July, on the trunk of the car in the driveway of my friends’ place in Moab, and we looked at a few things, but everyone was pretty pooped after a day of hunting dinosaurs and partying so we didn’t push very late. And after that, the sky was at least partly cloudy for most of a week.

Finally on the evening of July 10th we got nice, clear skies. I drove out southeast of Moab on the La Sal Loop Road with a couple of new friends and we spent a very pleasant couple of hours rocking through the best and brightest. The SkyScanner performed like a champ.

Howard Karl and Matt at July 2016 PVAA meeting

Karl Rijkse (center) shows his heirloom German binoculars to Howard Maculsay (left) and me.

I’ve only had it out a couple of times since betting back to Claremont, both times for quick peeks. As a grab-n-go scope it is, as far as I’m concerned, unparalleled. With an assembled weight of just over 6 lbs, it is the definition of a one-hander. The tabletop tripod works great, very smooth, and the rubber feet provide a good grip even on the precarious edge of a sloping car hood. And it goes on my Manfrotto tripod (3.5 lbs) for a 10-pound setup that’s perfect for a long session seated or standing.

As you can see from the photos (kindly provided by Terry Nakazono), I took the SkyScanner to last Friday night’s meeting of the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers, where it drew a lot of interest. I was going to set up the scope outside after the meeting so we could all have a look at Saturn, but the night sky was almost completely blocked out by smoke from the wildfires and the air quality was terrible, so we packed it in. I think I’ll get in the habit of taking the scope to meetings so we can do a little observing after – it’s always seemed to me that an astronomy club should have at least one working scope at each meeting.

Here’s my number one thought regarding the SkyScanner 100: how extremely stupid of me not to have gotten one sooner. If you’re interested in this scope and you’re on the fence, just do it. Heck, if you’re shopping for a big scope and you’re not sure what you want, get a SkyScanner to keep you busy in the meantime. It’s an insane amount of scope – and mount – for a little over a hundred bucks.

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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

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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.