My talks at RTMC this year

May 24, 2017

Quick note: I’ll be at RTMC again this year, and I’m giving two talks. On Saturday morning at 10:30 I’m giving a Beginner’s Corner talk on “Exploring the Universe with Binoculars”, and on Sunday morning at 10:00 I’m giving a Main Hall talk on “Observing the Scale of the Universe”. There are loads of other great speakers, including Mr. Eclipse himself, Dr. Fred Espenak, and plenty of cool events going on, so come on up and hang out with us. I hope to see you there.


Dammit, WordPress

April 17, 2017

GRRRR. In the good old days, when I loaded an image into a post draft, the default setting was that the image display at column width but be linked to the full-size image file. Hence statements like “click through for the full-size image” in many of my posts.

To my dismay, I only just discovered that sometime in November, 2015, WordPress stopped having that be the default. Since then, the default setting has been for the image file to link to nothing. So all of my “click through for the full-size image” directions have been pointless since mid-November, 2015, because clicking on the images caused nothing to happen – they weren’t links.

I am fixing this now, but it’s going slowly, because I have to open up every post, click on each image to edit it, and set the image link from ‘none’ to ‘media file’. And I have about a year and a half of posts that require this treatment, and life has not stopped to allow me to tune up old blog posts. So I’m working through them while I’m watching TV or stuck on conference calls, etc.

In the meantime, if you click on an old image and nothing happens, try right-clicking and opening in a new tab. The URL will go to an image file with “?w=450&h=338” (or whatever the dimensions are) tacked on after the end of the filename. Delete the question mark and the width and height limitations and the images will display at full size. It’s stupid and time-consuming, but it works.

Why anyone thought making this change and not warning bloggers was a good idea is quite beyond me. On one hand, I don’t have a ton of room to complain, since WordPress offers such a powerful and flexible platform for free. On the other hand, WordPress brags about running 27% of the internet (you see this on the login page right now), so it’s maybe not asking too much that they not break stuff that used to Just Work.

Update: everything newer than February 7 of this year is fixed. Just 15 months to go!


3 Ways of Seeing the Cosmos:

April 13, 2017

An Unending – But Necessary – Observing Project

There are some things I don’t blog about because they are too small. Others go unmentioned because they are too large. What I am writing about now is something that started out as an uncomfortable feeling that I was missing out on something, then grew to become an interest and a motivation, and has finally come to be the framework in which I think. Only hints and reflections have made it into my writing so far, whether on this blog or in the pages of Sky & Telescope. The first time I explained it to anyone else was with my friend and fellow observer Steve Sittig about a month ago, and the second time was in the talk I gave at the Three Rivers Foundation star party last month. This is my first attempt to put it into written words – we’ll see how it goes. I’m illustrating this post with slides from my 3RF talk.

This is where we all start out. By necessity – there is nothing else to talk about if we can’t locate things in the sky. But crucially, at this stage to “locate things in the sky” means to figure out how to point at them in the sky as seen from our position on Earth. If we’re talking about a specific object, like M11, the Wild Duck Cluster, then it’s just an address on the surface of an imaginary sphere: RA 18 51, Dec -06 16. That’s important – it’s the basis for an entire science, that of spherical astronomy – but it’s only a start to understanding the structure of the universe and where we are in it.

This stage is what I’ve referred to as “shattering the bowl of the sky” – learning the distances to celestial objects so that we can see space as space, not just a dome with lights over our heads.

An important clue that this is something I should be thinking about came when I first observed M97 and M108. Here are two objects of roughly equal brightness, easily framed in the same field of view in binoculars and telescopes, that are in fact at vastly different scales and distances. We think of M97 as being “out there”, but it’s practically right next door to us in our own galaxy. If the Milky Way is 100,000 light years across – and it is at least that big – then M97 is only 2% of the way across the galaxy from us. It’s right next door. From the perspective of any observers in M108, looking across the intervening 46 million light years, the distance between our solar system and M97 would be unresolvably small.

Here’s an extended example: the major stars and Messier objects of the constellation Lyra. If you’ve been observing for long, you probably know your way around the triangle and parallelogram asterisms, and how to use them to find M57 and M56. It’s natural for us to think of these things as belonging together, because we use them as signposts to guide us when we navigate this part of the sky.

Adding the distances reveals some things. At only 25 light years distant, Vega is in fact closer to us than it is to any of the other stars or DSOs in the field. The other two stars in the triangle are about equally far away, roughly 160 light years, and the other three stars in the parallelogram are ranged between 600 and 1000 light years distant. M57 is a bit further, but M56 is way further out, almost a third of way across the galaxy. Even from M56, our own Sun and all the stars of Lyra would blend into the faint background of field stars that saturate the Orion Spur.

I was really proud of myself for starting to think about my observing targets on this level, and this view of the sky formed the basis for my article “Twelve Steps to Infinity” in the December 2016 S&T.

But it’s not enough. I’ve come to think of this as “army ant observing”. When they are foraging, army ants go out from their bivouacs in straight lines, eating everything they can catch along the way, and come back the same way, just like an observer looking at Lyra. If all we learn about objects in the night sky is how to find them and how far away they are, then we’re still trapped in an Earth-centric view of the universe. We don’t know how the objects relate to each other, any more than a colony of army ants knows that the lizard they devoured on Tuesday hatched out of the same clutch as they one they caught on Friday.

To return to the example of M11, it’s 6200 light years away. That’s pretty darned far for a bright open cluster – the average for Messier and Caldwell open clusters is 3000 light years. We might suspect that to be so bright and so rich at that great distance, the cluster must have many, many stars, and indeed it does, a whopping 2900 of them.

There’s at least one more level of understanding: to hold something of the true 3D structure of cosmos in our minds, and understand how celestial objects relate to each other, without reference to Earth. I illustrated this with a map of our galaxy laser-etched into a cube of crystal. To hold the structure of space in my mind and be able to turn it over and around, view it from all sides, like someone turning that crystal over in their hands – that’s what I aspire to.

I’ll never get there, really. It’s an impossible project. There’s just too much stuff out there. But that’s okay. As a paleontologist, I’m familiar with the problem of envisioning other worlds based on incomplete information. And everything I do learn, every step up the long road to the stars, deepens the experience of observing for me.

Back to M11. It’s a rich cluster, and it’s situated in the constellation Scutum (as seen from Earth…), not far from the center of the galaxy in Sagittarius. But in fact it has nothing to do with the central bulge of the Milky Way galaxy. The galactic center is 27,000 light years away from us, and M11 is only a little over 6000, a bit over one-fifth of the way. Instead of being part of the galactic center, M11 is one of the clusters that marks the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way, which is the next arm inward, between us and the galactic center. M11 is still out in the burbs, with us, not downtown. In contrast, the globular clusters in Sagittarius, Scorpio, and Ophiuchus actually are related to the galactic center – they are swinging by it, like comets sweeping past the Sun, on incredibly long, elliptical orbits that carry them tens or hundreds of thousands of light years out into the galactic halo.

Next Steps

So here’s my ambition. We have loads and loads of observing guides, like NightWatch and Turn Left at Orion, based on Level 1. Again, that’s not a bad thing, and it’s of necessity. We all have to stand and walk before we can run, and finding things in the night sky is the first step. But as a community, we have people on this already, not only in the vast majority of existing observing guides, but also in the observing features – including most of my own! – published in astronomy magazines, blogs, and online fora.

There are also resources that address Level 2. Stephen James O’Meara’s books live there – they address not just where to find things in the sky, and what they look like, but also what they are, how far away they are (and how their appearance relates to their distance from us), and even, in some cases, how they relate to other nearby objects.

Things get better – a bit – when we get beyond our own galaxy and observe others. The Astronomical League has an observing program for the Local Group and galactic neighborhood, for example. And lots of observing guides and articles on the Virgo Cluster include some basic astrophysical data, including the fact that M87 is a monster elliptical and the central galaxy of the cluster.

A diagram I drew to help get my head around the shape of the galaxy and our place in it. Based on images and data from NASA.

What we don’t have many of, and what those of us who aspire to Level 3 desperately need, are observing guides that address the relationships of celestial objects within the Milky Way. I want an observing guide to the clusters and nebulae of the Sagittarius arm, for example, something that will tell me that M11 is not just 6200 light years away, but that it’s related to M16 and M17 because all three objects are in the same spiral arm of the galaxy. I want a guide to the Perseus arm, and another to the Orion Spur and Gould’s Belt. One of the reasons I’m so excited by Allan Dystrup’s “Classic Rich Field” thread on Cloudy Nights is that Allan has provided a wealth of information on easily-observable OB associations in the nearby reaches of the galaxy.

There is one book that does address the internal structure of the Milky Way, albeit more from an astrophysical than observing perspective. It’s The Guide to the Galaxy, published in 1994 by Nigel Henbest and Heather Couper. A couple of decades on, I assume that at least some of the information in the book has been superseded by new discoveries. But it’s still an interesting and useful resource, and with used copies going for just over two bucks on Amazon, a low risk for anyone who wants to investigate (I have a copy already).

UPDATE April 17: This is what I get for posting in the middle of the night. Several commenters reminded me of resources that do address Level 3 that I forgot to mention. Among them are Craig Crossen’s books Binocular Astronomy and Sky Vistas and Bill Tschumy’s resources at ThinkAstronomy.com, including his program “Where is M13?” and his essays “Milky Way Rising” and “Escape From Plato’s Cave“. The oversight was particularly dumb since I have Crossen’s Binocular Astronomy on the bookshelf next to me, I’ve corresponded with Bill Tschumy before and he’s been very generous with his thoughts, and in “Escape From Plato’s Cave” he lays out basically the same manifesto as I have in this post. Chalk this up to tiredness – I certainly meant no slight to the other observers and authors who have trod this path before me.

Parting Shot: Bricks and Boards

It may seem like I’m being dismissive of observing guides – or observers! – that prefer to work at Level 1 or Level 2. That’s not my intention. As far as observing goes, I like Uncle Rod’s dictum that there’s no wrong way to do amateur astronomy. As long as you’re out soaking up photons, or letting your equipment soak them up for you, good on ya. May a thousand gardens grow. I started as a purely recreational observer, and stargazing for no more noble purpose than personal aesthetic enjoyment still occupies a lot of time out under the stars. It also, eventually, fired the curiosity and the hunger for a more informed and encompassing view of the universe. I see these approaches as complementary rather than conflicting. I would never have desired to learn the secrets of celestial objects – their relationships, the processes that shape them, their origins and fates – if I hadn’t fallen in love with them in the first place.

As far as observing guides go, here’s my thinking. The God’s Eye View of the cosmos is an edifice of the imagination. Each of us that wants to understand the structure of the cosmos on this level will have to build our own mental model to play with and learn from. And we need raw material. Those observing guides, books, and articles that never get beyond Level 1 or Level 2 are still good and useful things: they’re bricks and boards that we can build with. We may have to dig into online databases and astrophysical literature to find the connections we’ll need to join them, but we’ll get farther if we don’t have to invent everything from scratch. Everything is potential grist for the mill.

I have recommended the monthly Evening Sky Map to countless people as a way for them to learn the sky. I wonder how much progress I could make if I learned the distances to all of the targets on each month’s lists, and looked for connections among them?


The small telescope quest revolutions: my Tasco/Vixen 9VR

April 11, 2017

Now this is deeply satisfying. I have been wanting one of these little beauties for a while. This is the 9VR, a 60mm f/5 achromatic refractor sold by Tasco in the 1980s, but manufactured by Vixen in Japan. These Vixen scopes came out under several brands, including Celestron. It’s basically a “Short Tube 60”, and the spiritual and possibly the actual ancestor of the Short Tube 80s that started taking the world by storm not long after. In fact, there was also a Vixen-made 10VR that basically was the original Short Tube 80, so that evolutionary line may have been real, and direct.

If you can’t already make it out, click through to see the embossed VIXEN on the objective lens cell.

It is a truly tiny scope. At 9.5 inches, a little longer than the PICO-6, and maybe a smidge heavier. I should get them together for a side-by-side comparo.

So how does it work? Optically and mechanically it is very sweet. This is my first experience with Japanese-made gear, and it does not disappoint. I haven’t done extensive optical testing, but the scope shows plenty of detail on Jupiter despite having only 60mm of aperture and 300mm of focal length to work with. It’s fast at f/5, but chromatic aberration is somewhere between “unobjectionable” and “is it even there?” It is, but you really have to look for it; the image is surprisingly clean.

The bottom of the scope, showing the tripod mounting block and the loooong focuser drawtube, with a helical-cut rack. The focuser is so smooth it’s uncanny. I’ve never had a problem with the rack-and-pinion focusers on the mostly low-end scopes I own, but I did not know what I was missing because I did not know that a focuser could be this smooth.

The scope came in a little suitcase-style case with a big block of styrofoam with cutouts for the OTA and a horde of accessories. I haven’t gotten around to taking a glamour shot of my own scope in its case, so this one’s lifted from the web. One of those accessories is a slow-motion alt-az adapter, visible in the middle on the right side. I’ve owned and used similar units by Orion and Celestron and they were fine, but again, this Vixen adapter is so smooth it makes the others look downright crude by comparison.

If you want one of these, it’s like most vintage gear: you can (1) just pay more now, (2) be patient, or (3) be lucky. You can almost always find someone unloading one for $150 or so, but if you wait and keep an eye on Craigslist and Shop Goodwill you can sometimes find one for half that. I have wanted one of these for a while but never enough to get dedicated about the search. Then in around the end of February (yes, I’m getting this posted late) I saw a classified ad on CN for an ‘astro garage sale’ with something like two dozen items on sale. There were no photos of the ’60mm Vixen spotting scope’ but I had a hunch so I wrote to the seller to inquire. He sent some pictures, I sent some money, and here we are.

There is one important point to beware of if you go seeking one of these – Tasco muddied the waters a bit with the serial numbers of this scope and its successors. The original, made-in-Japan, 60mm-working-aperture scope is the 9VR, shown here. When these Vixen-made scopes were gone, Tasco followed them with two more, superficially similar scopes, the 99VR and the 999VR. Both of those scopes were made in China, not Japan, and crucially they have an aperture mask right behind the objective that stops them down to a working aperture of only 30mm or so. The photo below shows the difference clearly, with the stopped-down 99VR on the left and the full-aperture 9VR on the right – the smaller rings inside the 9VR are baffles, farther down the tube and properly spaced to not cut into the light cone (photo used by kind permission of CN user Steve_M_M):

Stopping down the objectives cuts down their chromatic, spherical, and other aberrations, which are apparently much more pronounced than in their Vixen predecessors. I’ve read of people taking apart the scopes to remove these aperture masks, but at least some folks have found the results yucky enough that they put the masks back in. The 99VR and 999VR have a reputation for being fairly sharp as daytime spotters, where light-gathering is less important, but I have to imagine that they suffer quite a bit at night with only 1/4 the light grasp of the 9VR.

The 99VR and 999VR are odd beasts to me. On one hand, they shipped with very desirable accessories, including a nifty tabletop tripod with the 999VR. But the pricing on them seems to me to be all wrong – a lot of people online are offering them for almost as much as you’d expect to pay for a 9VR. That’s a lot of dough for what is basically a glorified 30mm finder wrapped up in a lot more metal and glass than is actually needed. Maybe I’m off here and people are simply charging what the market will bear. I suspect that at least a few buyers haven’t done their homework, though, and get a 99VR or 999VR when what they really wanted was a 9VR. I guess it just rubs me the wrong way that Tasco knowingly sold a whole telescope that was stopped down to half of the apparent aperture.

Another comparo, again with the 99VR on the left and the 9VR on the right, also courtesy of CN user Steve_M_M.

I don’t know how the timing of all of this relates to the demise of Tasco as a desirable brand, whether the 99VR and 999VR were heralds of the approaching decline or symptoms of advanced rot already in progress. That probably sounds harsh – please take it with a big grain of salt if you own and love a 99VR or 999VR. I’m not slagging off the instruments so much as the designers/marketers that thought 30mm scopes masquerading as popular 60mm scopes were a good idea. And with all of that said, if I ever run across an affordable 999VR I will pounce on it just for the tripod. You can learn more about how the 99VR and 999VR compare to the original 9VR in this CN thread and this one.

One other thing to be aware of – the 9VR and both of its successors use 0.965″ eyepieces. If you want to use the standard 1.25″ EPs, you’ve got a couple of options. You can get a hybrid diagonal – 0.965″ in, 1.25″ out – or you can get a 1.25″ adapter that screws into the drawtube. I got one made by Vixen and sold by B&H Photo Video (link). In the above photo, my 9VR is set up for birding with the Celestron 8-24mm zoom, and that is a potent and flexible combination. I have not one but two ‘traditional’ 60mm spotting scopes, and they may both be looking for new homes soon.

I’m glad this came my way. It’s a cool little scope, amazingly well-built considering that it’s a ‘humble’ 60mm and from the stubby end of the gene pool to boot. I wish that these things were still being made – there seems to be a niche there that is not currently filled by anything under about $400.

(About the post title – how else do you follow “Small telescope quest reloaded“?)


Observing report: Saturday night stargazing on Mount Baldy

April 2, 2017

Waxing crescent moon, afocal shot by Eric Scott with Samsung Galaxy S6, shooting through Orion XT10 reflecting telescope.

London and I went up Mount Baldy last night with our friends Thierra Nalley and Eric Scott. Marco Irigoyen and Leandra Estrada joined us up on the mountain. We went up to look for comet 41P, but that didn’t pan out.

Since we went ostensibly to look for the comet, I brought the XT10 for firepower, and lots of binoculars. We got set up at Cow Canyon Saddle at about 8:30. Our first target was Orion, before it could sink into the light dome over LA. Second targets were the Pleiades and the Double Cluster. The Double Cluster in particular looked magnificent. I’ve been on a small-scope kick for a while so the XT10 hasn’t been out much, and I tend to forget what a potent instrument it is, especially under dark or semi-dark skies.

The skies on Mount Baldy last night were definitely semi-dark. Even three days shy of first quarter, the waxing crescent moon was bright enough to throw shadows and rather seriously degrade the darkness of the sky.

I tried for the comet but just couldn’t see it. I had the chart, knew where to look, and swept the area repeatedly with binoculars of all sizes and with the XT10, and I got bupkiss. This was after catching the comet easily in 7×50 binos every time I looked for it in Texas last weekend – but I wasn’t fighting any moon then. I think the comet is so big and diffuse that the surface brightness is low, and therefore it is easily swamped by moonlight. It certainly was not evident last night.

While we were in the neighborhood of the Big Dipper, we had a look at Mizar and Alcor, the famous double star in the dipper’s handle. Then for comparison we checked on Sigma Orionis, and then Marco wanted a look at Jupiter. After Jupiter we went on an extended tour of the deep sky, in which we observed:

  • M81, M82 (interacting galaxy pair)
  • M97, M108 (planetary nebula and galaxy in same field)
  • M3 (globular star cluster)
  • M37 (open star cluster)
  • M35 (open star cluster)
  • M104 (Sombrero galaxy)

In addition, we also saw three more open star clusters with our naked eyes and/or binoculars: the Hyades, M44, and the Coma Berenices star cluster.

We finished up on the moon, and then Jupiter again. We spent quite a bit of time getting pictures of both with Thierra’s and Eric’s phones. By coincidence, they both have the Samsung Galaxy S6, which has a very full-featured slate of camera options. Leandra is a pretty talented photographer and she was able to coach us on what settings to use. I think the results are pretty astounding, for handheld shots using phones. Here are the two best images of Jupiter, captured by me using Thierra’s phone and Leandra’s advice:

Here’s a composite of Jupiter and the Galilean moons – the planet was overexposed in the original to get the moons to show up, so I replaced it with the better of the two shots above.

And here’s a comparison screenshot from Sky Safari Pro 5 identifying the moons – from left to right in the above image they are Callisto, Europa, Io, and Ganymede.

As usual, the view at the eyepiece was about an order of magnitude more detailed than what the photos captured. One thing that I had never seen before with one of my own scopes was a band of ruffled white clouds within the north and south equatorial belts (the prominent orange-brown stripes on either side of the equator). The barest hint of this survives in the photos. It was a pretty mesmerizing view. For eyepieces we used a 32mm Plossl (37.5x), 28mm RKE (43x), 24mm ES68 (50x), 14mm ES82 (86x), 8.8mm ES82 (136x), and 5mm Meade MWA (240x). The most used were the 28mm RKE, 14mm ES82, and 5mm MWA. If you’re wondering why we used both a 32mm Plossl and a 24mm ES68 – since they give the same true field of view – we used the Plossl during the afocal photography because it gives a wider exit pupil, which is easier to keep the camera’s aperture centered inside.

Even though we missed the comet, I was pretty happy with what we did see – at least one of every major class of deep-sky object, including all of the stages of the life cycle of stars. In the disk of the Milky Way, new stars are born from vast nebulae of gas and dust, like Orion. In time, heat and light from the newborn stars push away the remnants of their birth clouds, leaving behind only the stars themselves, as open star clusters (‘open’ as opposed to globular). Over time, the stars in open clusters drift apart to become ‘field stars’ like the Sun, no longer gravitationally bound to their siblings. When the run out of fuel, stars blow themselves apart in supernovae if they are 8 times the mass of the Sun or larger, whereas smaller stars blow off their outer layers of gas to form planetary nebulae like M97. Whether stars die suddenly in supernovae or slowly as planetary nebulae, the matter blown out by dying stars enriches the galactic gas and dust clouds, and in time it will be incorporated into new generations of stars and planets. We are products of this process – all of the elements in our bodies other than hydrogen were born by fusion in the hearts of stars, and seeded into the galaxy’s spiral arms when those stars died.

Farther out, globular clusters like M3 orbit the core of the galaxy on long elliptical orbits that are not flat, but come looping in from all directions. The stars in globular clusters are typically very old, 12 billion years or more. We know very little about how and why globular clusters formed, and how they came to have such weird orbits. Probably they are some kind of developmental leftover from the formation of the earliest galaxies in the first billion years after the Big Bang – astrophysical fossils, if only we knew how to interpret them.

All of these processes are going on in other galaxies as well, especially spiral galaxies like M81, M104, and M108.

To put all of that into context, here are all of the objects we observed again, this time ranked from closest to farthest:

In our solar system:

  • moon – 240,000 miles or 1.3 light seconds
  • Jupiter – 370 million miles or 33 light minutes (currently – Jupiter is about 5 AU out from the sun, but right now we’re on the same side of the sun so it’s only 4 AU from us)

In our spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy (the Orion spur):

  • Mizar and Alcor (double star) – 83 light years
  • Hyades (open star cluster) – 151 light years
  • Coma Berenices cluster (open star cluster) – 280 light years
  • M45 (Pleiades; open star cluster) – 440 light years
  • M44 (Beehive; open star cluster) – 577 light years
  • Sigma Orionis (multiple star) – 1255 light years
  • M42, M43 (Orion nebula; star-forming region) – 1344 light years
  • M97 (planetary nebula in same field as M108) – 2030 light years
  • M35 (open star cluster) – 2800 light years

In the next spiral arm out from the galactic center (Perseus arm):

  • M37 (open star cluster) – 4500 light years
  • NGC 869/884 (Double Cluster; open star clusters) – 7500 light years

In the galactic halo of the Milky Way:

  • M3 (globular star cluster) – 34,000 light years

External galaxies:

  • M81, M82 (interacting galaxy pair) – 11 million light years
  • M104 (Sombrero galaxy) – 31 million light years
  • M108 (galaxy in same field as M97) – 46 million light years

That is very satisfying to me, to take in such a menagerie of celestial objects, at so many scales and distances, in the space of a couple of hours armed only with a comparatively inexpensive telescope and an idea of what’s out there to be seen. I can’t wait for next time.

Saturday night astro crew. Left to right: Marco Irigoyen, Leandra Estrada, London Wedel, Matt Wedel, Thierra Nalley, Eric Scott. Photo courtesy of Eric Scott.


Two binocular comets and a small-scope supernova

March 31, 2017

Comet 41P brightens – photo by Hisayoshi Kato, from Sky & Tel’s 41P news page.

This is a shorty, just posting links to some current events for easy reference:

  • Comet 41P is bright and easily visible in binoculars from dark skies for most of the night from mid-northern latitudes (link).
  • Comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy – the sixth comet discovered by Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy – is up just before dawn, near the ‘nose’ of Pegasus (link).
  • Supernova 2017cbv in the spiral galaxy NGC 5643 is visible in Lupus in the middle of the night – it’s a few degrees north and about an hour east of Omega Centauri, so it transits the meridian around 3 AM right now (link).

Go see some fun stuff.


Deep in the Dark of Texas: the Three Rivers Foundation Messier Marathon

March 28, 2017

This story starts with Jeff Barton, Director of Astronomy at the Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts and Sciences (3RF). Jeff sent me a Facebook message on January 27, inviting me to come speak at the 3RF Messier Marathon star party, for which 3RF would pay my travel expenses and provide food and lodging.

I did not get this message until February 19, because I suck at Facebook. Fortunately the offer was still open. So last Thursday I flew to DFW, rented a car, and drove out to the Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus, a little west of Crowell, Texas.

3RF is an educational foundation and Comanche Springs is the North American astronomy wing (they also have scopes in Australia for public education and outreach). It’s out in rural Texas ranchland, and as you drive up the first thing your eyes will light on is the big silver observatory dome.

Inside the dome is a 15″ refractor with DGM optics, an OMI tube, and a monster Astro-Physics mount.

There are several roll-off roof observatories on the campus, with more to come in the near future. This one holds two imaging scopes, a big Ritchey-Chretien on the left and a big SCT on the right, both on Software Bisque Paramounts. These are set up for remote observing – in the near future, schoolteachers will be able to tie into these telescopes and collect images with their students.

Irritatingly, I didn’t get any pictures of the big roll-off roof observatory which holds one of 3RF’s 30″ Obsession dobs, and where they park the two 20″ and one 18″ Obsessions when they’re not in use. That’s right, four 18″ and larger Obsessions in one place. They have more stored in town, waiting for more observatories to be built, and another gaggle of Obsessions in Australia.

In lieu of a picture of the Obsession shed, here’s a view of the north end of campus, looking east. From left to right you can see one of the four or so bunkhouses in the background, the ‘new’ classroom/mess hall, the equipment shed where the binocular chairs are stored, and the restrooms, and one of the observing fields in the foreground.

Here’s one of the motorized binocular chairs. You sit in the padded seat and drive yourself in altitude and azimuth with the joystick on the right armrest, while the Fujinon 25×150 binoculars deliver 6″ of unobstructed light-gathering to each eye. There’s another chair with a more modest but still impressive 100mm bino, and I believe a third chair that wasn’t out during my visit.

The tagline “Deep in the dark of Texas” is not my original, I got it from the back of a 3RF t-shirt. It’s true. The skies at Comanche Springs are dark. Seriously dark. You drive through a section of open range to get there. I had to get a picture of this brown cow sitting by the side of the road – this cow refused to be fazed by anything. I grew up in rural Oklahoma and in my experience, free-range cattle are highly correlated with dark skies. The skies at Comanche Springs are Bortle 1 or 2. The only places I have been under skies this dark are Afton Canyon, the All-Arizona Star Party, and the remote desert of southern Utah. More than 200 miles west of the DFW metroplex, and 20 miles from the nearest town of more than 1000 people, there are no light domes on the horizon – none.

I roomed with these fine gentlemen. You may know Robert Reeves from his several books on astrophotography (see this page) and from his “365 Days of the Moon” on Facebook, which has now been running for more than two years. David Moody is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (yes, the one in London, co-founded by Herschel) and one of the authors of Astronomical Sketching: A Step-by-Step Introduction. Lonnie Wege is a sales manager at Celestron and brought the door prizes, which were donated by Celestron.

To be in the company of such experienced observers and imagers was a real privilege, but it was only intimidating for the first 30 seconds or so because they’re all so nice. In Seeing in the Dark, Timothy Ferris describes hanging out at the Winter Star Party: “I listened to the elders talk – a mix of astronomical expertise and self-deprecatory wit, the antithesis of pomp.”  That’s what it was like for me at the 3RF star party – just a bunch of regular folks, all equally willing to share and learn, all equally excited for nightfall.

I got in Thursday evening but didn’t do much observing. It was cold and windy, and then cloudy. I did spend a few minutes out in the lee of one of the bunkhouses cruising the sky with binoculars, and I figured out an easy hack for hanging my red headlamp over my bunkbed, but that was about it. Incidentally, my headlamp is already red, but like almost all red-light accessories marketed toward amateur astronomers, it’s still too darned bright. Usually I have a layer of masking tape over the front to knock down the brightness, but for some reason I pulled it off recently. Fortunately they had plenty of red taillight tape in the 3RF coffers, so I got it back into fighting trim.

On Friday I visited the elementary and middle schools in nearby Quanah, Texas, with 3RF’s Director of Education, Townly Thomas. Townly visits schools in a 100-mile radius from Quanah to bring enhanced STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) activities to kids. I know she’s popular because I heard one student call to her as we walked down the hall: “Mrs. Thomas, when do we get to do STEAM again?” I went in my capacity as professional paleontologist and brought some fossil casts for the students to see. Pictured above are the thumb claw of Saurophaganax, a big allosauroid from Black Mesa in the Oklahoma panhandle (more about that here), and the skull of Aquilops, a little ancestral horned dinosaur that I got to help name in 2014 (ditto). Many thanks to my friends and colleagues at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History for making the casts available – I’ve had fun introducing them to lots of schoolkids.

After the school visit, I got on the road back to Comanche Springs – I didn’t want to miss the talk by Robert Reeves on his lunar imaging. Here’s a  handful of the many things I learned from Robert:

  • He uses a 180mm SkyWatcher Mak to get his moon images these days. Runs his camera at 50 frames a second for 100 seconds to get 5000 frames, stacks and saves only the best 500, and then does a LOT of careful, thoughtful processing.
  • Lunar shadows are jet black, not gray. If you see gray shadows in someone’s moon images, they need more processing.
  • The lunar Bay of Rainbows is Sinus Iridum, not Sinus Iridium – no third ‘i’. I have been misspelling and mispronouncing it for a decade.

Now, this was a Messier Marathon star party and there were rules and checklists and everything – more on that later in the post. I think that originally Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights were all fair game for the contest, but Friday night turned out to be suboptimal. We did get a lovely sunset, as you can see above, but those clouds were pushed on through by a strong, cold wind. Instead of setting up scopes ourselves, many of us retreated inside the dome to observe with the 15″ refractor. We also had a group of 15 or 20 college students visiting, so we all took turns looking through the big refractor. They’d already been going for a while when I got inside. The first object I saw myself through the big scope was the globular cluster M3. Then we looked at M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, and then Comet 41P.

I haven’t blogged about the comet yet, but it is easily visible in binoculars under dark skies, and with any luck it may get naked-eye visible in the next week or so. I haven’t checked to see if it’s visible from Claremont – I was too pooped after I got home last night. I saw it every night in Texas, but I haven’t sketched it yet. Hopefully I’ll get that done soon. In the meantime, Sky & Tel has a good finder chart that will carry you through the end of April here.

After the comet, we looked at the galaxies M102, M82, and M104, and the globular cluster M13. I might have missed an object or two – I popped outside to call home, and spent some time in the attached classroom warming up and getting to know some of my fellow stargazers. I know we went to Jupiter at some point, and we back to Jupiter at the end of the session to catch the start of an Io shadow transit.

I slept in on Saturday and did some final tinkering on my talk. David Moody gave a talk before dinner about visiting the Royal Astronomical Society library and getting to see first editions of books by Copernicus, Newton, Bode, Bayer, and more.

After David’s talk we had dinner and door prizes in the mess hall. Here Jeff Barton (right) is pointing past Fred Koch, who was drawing names, to accuse Lonnie Wege (left) of something. It was all in good fun and there was plenty of laughter, especially when Phil Jones won the grand prize – 15×70 SkyMasters, just like mine – in absentia, having been out setting up his imaging gear. When he came in, Lonnie told him that all he had won was the case, and the binos were going to someone else. Well, binos did go to someone else (whose name unfortunately escapes me), but he had already won 10×50 binos so he kindly donated the 15x70s to Phil. This is Phillip L. Jones of VisualUniverse.org, by the way – you’ve probably seen his photos in books and magazines.

I won a door prize myself – a rechargeable hand warmer. I ran over and plugged it in after dinner so it would be ready to go by marathon time. I was very glad to have it later on.

Saturday night was looking much, much better. There were a few clouds low on the western horizon, but everyone who had come to Comanche Springs to observe or image was getting ready. Here are Glenn Winn in the foreground setting up his 17.5″ Discovery dob, and Jim Admire in the background with his XT10g. Just out of the frame on the right was Jay Ellis and his own XT10.

I set up just south of Jay, and the four of us were the biggest group of visual marathoners. Phil Jones had his imaging rigs set up about 100 feet south of Glenn. There were more imagers on the south observing field, by the Obsession shed, and at least two serious visual observers: Tom Monahan and Russ Boatright (there may have been more, but Tom and Russ are the two who came to the awards ceremony on Monday).

I don’t remember what scope Tom was rolling with, but Russ impressed the hell out of all of us by going super-minimal: he did a naked Messier Marathon from Memory. Not naked as in unclothed, but naked as in, not even with a list of the objects. In a regular M-cubed the observer is allowed no charts – they have to find all of the objects from memory, hence the name. In a naked M-cubed, the observers is not even allowed a list to remind them what to look for, it’s just them and their instrument. Russ ran his naked M-cubed with Canon 18×50 image-stabilized binoculars.

Saturday night’s marathon was great. There were clouds low in the west again, and none of us got M74. But the clouds blew through quickly and after that it was clear, dark skies all night. I was rolling with the Bresser AR102S Comet Edition and Fujinon 7x50s I had borrowed from 3RF. I’d actually flown in with my own binoculars, the Bushnell 10x42s that I had out at Santa Cruz Island last June, but the 7x50s gave a wider, brighter image and were more in line with my current fascination for low-power, wide-field uber alles. I would have brought the Bresser 7x50s that came with the Comet Edition package, but I ran out of room in my backpack – the Bushnell roofs take up about half the space.

And speaking of space in my backpack – I managed to fly with carry-on luggage only. A red duffel bag held the Bresser OTA, Manfrotto tripod, DwarfStar alt-az head, and big dinosaur claw, with my clothes wrapped around everything as packing material. My backpack had a couple more shirts, my laptop, travel paperwork, notebook, Pocket Sky Atlas, binoculars, boxed Aquilops skull, shaving bag, and Bob King’s new book Night Sky With the Naked Eye, which I’d gotten specifically to read on the plane (expect a review soon). Both bags were stuffed nearly to bursting, but they were both within carry-on allowances and the backpack still fit under the seat in front of me.

Oh – rules. There were five categories: Young Astronomer, GoTo Telescope, Non-GoTo Telescope, Binoculars, and Highest Aggregate Score. No-one has ever gotten all 110 objects in one night at a 3RF marathon, so the highest aggregate goes to the person who gets the most over the course of two nights. If there’s a tie in the number of Messier objects, the bonus points kick in. Herschel 400 objects were worth two points apiece, and there was an ascending scale of more difficult dim objects, including Hickson Compact Groups of galaxies.

Here’s my log from Saturday night. Although I missed M74, I tried to make up for it by nailing as many H400 clusters in Cassiopeia and Perseus as I could. By the time I took my first break at 10:15, I had 27 Messiers and 16 H400s. I took several short breaks over the course of the evening to get snacks and caffeine and chat with people. It all went pretty smoothly until just before dawn, when I was trying to catch M30. I star-hopped down from Deneb Algedi (aka Delta Capricorni) to the right vicinity and found myself looking at trees. They were only small trees, and probably 200 yards from the observing field, but they still obscured those last few crucial degrees above the horizon. I’d picked a bad spot.

What I should have done is pick up the binoculars and walk south until I could see the target star with no trees in the way. What I actually did was pick up the scope and chair and run south and set up where I thought I’d be in the clear, only to star-hop down again and see other, different trees – I’d gone too far south. So I moved everything yet again, and by the time I got on target, the sky was getting bright. Fooey. Still, I got 108 objects, tying my personal best from 2013, which was actually the last time I’d even attempted a Messier marathon, so I couldn’t be too unhappy.

As it happened, I tied with Glenn Winn that night. He’d missed M77 in the early evening, but gotten M30, so his list of 108 objects was slightly different than mine but came to the same total.

Anyway, I went to bed happy. Got up for lunch on Sunday, then slept some more, then got up for another talk by Robert Reeves. Robert’s second talk was also on the moon, but focused less on his imaging methods and more on the processes that have shaped the moon, and the moon’s changing appearance under varying conditions of light and shadow. It was incredible stuff – I took a whole page of notes to guide my own future moon-observing.

Sunday night we had clearer skies than Saturday, but it was colder and a brisk north wind was blowing not long after dusk. None of us got M74. Down at the Obsession shed, folks were looking for it with even bigger scopes and failed to see it, so I’m confident it just was not visible that night. Possibly that was atmospheric, but the zodiacal light certainly didn’t help – it was a broad dagger of light stabbing up vertically from the horizon all the way to the Pleiades. I have never seen it so bright.

The other thing that shaped my Sunday night plans was the fact that Glenn did get M77, bringing his aggregate Messier total to 109. All of my bonus points from H400s would only help in the event of a tie, and the only was I could tie him was to get M30. And without M74, there was no chance for me to achieve my personal goal of getting all 110 Messiers in one night. So I needed to be up before dawn to try for M30, but there was no point in subjecting myself to a whole night of observing in the windy cold. I packed up the scope and moved into the lee of Jeff Barton’s camper and switched over to binoculars. I was still using the 3RF Fujinon 7x50s.

It was another Fujinon binocular that would provide the most memorable views of the evening: the 25×150 motorized bino chair. 3RF volunteer Gary Carter had set up the bino chairs and was touring people around the sky on Saturday evening, but I was too busy marathoning to partake. Sunday night I hopped in the big chair, Gary got the binos adjusted, and I was off.

In a word – WOW. I have been fortunate to get to observe with a lot of big telescopes, but I am not exaggerating when I say that using that bino chair was my favorite observing, ever. I just sat there comfortably in a padded chair and drove myself around the sky with the joystick, while enjoying hands-down the brightest, most immersive, most enjoyable views of the night sky that I have ever had. Six inches is a lot of light-gathering per eye. I don’t know the AFOV of the eyepieces but it is wide. It’s hard for me to even believe that the magnification was only 25x – everything subjectively seemed much bigger, because it was so much brighter and more detailed than I am used to. When I was cruising over to look at the Double Cluster, I kept getting distracted by all of the little open clusters that dot the Milky Way in and around Cassiopeia (I was coming in from the north). M78, near Orion, was so big and bright that at first I thought I had the wrong object.

In summation, observing with the Fujinon bino chair was a transformative experience – it changed my perspective on what observing could BE.

I knocked off a little before midnight with 60 Messiers in the bag, and went to get some sleep. I didn’t get up until 5:30, and I wasn’t back out on the observing field until 5:45.

I have read many accounts from observers under dark skies who said that when the summer Milky Way rose, it was so bright that they mistook it for a cloud. I had not previously experienced that for myself. But Monday morning I was headed out of the bunkhouse and I saw a bright, white cloud in the eastern sky. We’d been fighting the occasional cloud every other night, so when I saw that cloud out of the corner of my eye I thought, “Aww, crap, I need clear skies to get M30”. But when I turned my head to see how big the cloud was, and how extensive, it turned out to be the Milky Way in Sagittarius and Scutum. I should have known better anyway – Comanche Springs is so dark that actual atmospheric clouds aren’t bright, but dark. They show up as blank spaces in the starfields.

I didn’t get M30. I got the scope correctly placed this time, and I got to the target star, and I spent about 15 minutes alternately adjusting the zoom eyepiece and staring into the darkness. A couple of times I thought I saw something, but I couldn’t even hold it in averted vision, so it could well have been a case of averted imagination. Anyone who has pushed their gear to its limits in the search for faint fuzzies will know the feeling. There are the things that you see repeatably in the same place, with the same orientation, that you log as detected – and then there are things that never swim up out of the minor variations in background darkness that your retina throws up when confronted with a blank slate. M30 never surfaced for me.

Ah, well. I did get 25 more Messiers with the 7x50s between 5:45 and 6:05. It helped that I had seen them all the previous morning with the telescope, so I knew exactly where to look. I probably could have gotten a few more, like M2, if I hadn’t been so fixated on M30. But 85 Messiers in one night with 7×50 binos is not a bad total at all, especially not when I got a 5.5-hour break in the middle.

I was too keyed up to go right back to sleep, so I went into the observatory classroom, made myself a Frito pie with a microwave bowl of Dinty Moore Beef Stew – which was awesome, by the way – and copied my results over from my personal log to the 3RF competition forms. Then I went back to sleep for a couple more hours.

We all reconvened in the observatory classroom around 10:00 for the final tally and presentation of awards. Here’s the scoreboard:

The highest aggregate total went to Glenn Winn, with 109 objects over the two nights. I got second in the Non-GoTo category, behind Glenn, and also got second in the Binocular category, behind Russ Boatright. In his naked M-cubed with the 18×50 bins, Russ got a staggering 90 objects. Color me impressed – very impressed. Jim Admire got 91 objects with his XT10g, and that was without pushing through dawn, so he won the GoTo category. Tom Monahan wasn’t even going to turn in his sheet, figuring that his 47 objects from the first half of Saturday night would not qualify him for anything. But a lot of people who signed up didn’t turn in any results, so Tom got the pleasant surprise of third place in the Non-GoTo category. I think the Young Observer awards went unclaimed, as no actual youngsters participated in the marathon.

Here’s a shot of the winners’ circle. From left to right are:

  • Jeff Barton, our host and the competition judge;
  • Glenn Winn with his 1st place medal and aggregate score trophy;
  • Russ Boatright;
  • Jim Admire;
  • yours truly, and;
  • Tom Monahan.

Many thanks to 3RF volunteer Gary Carter for taking the photo, and for permission to use it here.

A good time was had by all, and plans are already being laid for next time. Turns out that Jeff Barton is a fan of double stars, and he visibly lit up when I brought the idea of a Double Star Marathon to his attention. Something like 80 globs are visible in the fall during fall Messier Marathon season, so some kind of glob marathon may be in the offing in the near future as well.

I learned some things about my gear, too. The Bresser/Manfrotto/Dwarfstar rig was utterly uncomplicated, as I suspected from my test run at the Salton Sea the previous weekend. Rarely have I had more effortless and trouble-free observing. And I’m proud to have gotten 108 objects in one night with a 4″ scope – I don’t think there’s any shame in losing to a 17.5″ reflector, nor to an observer as experienced and friendly as Glenn. I might even have ‘sold’ a few of the Bresser Comet Edition packages, as there was a lot of curiosity about the scope among the star party attendees. I think Jeff Barton may have ordered one yesterday morning.

Is a 4″ reflactor enough scope for a Messier Marathon? It wasn’t this time. I’m not hurt about not getting M74 – if people with 17″ and 18″ dobs couldn’t see it, then conditions were just not right for it to be seen, period. M30 is more troubling. I know for dead certain that I was pointed at the right place, and I tried every trick in the book – averted vision, tapping the tube, slowly sweeping – and still couldn’t get it to pop out, and this was from its rising onward. But I know it was visible in bigger scopes. Sure, it will be a few degrees higher by the end of the month, but M74 will be a few degrees lower, too.

Now, I know that people have gotten all 110 Messiers in one night with even smaller scopes. According to this analysis by A.J. Crayon, hosted at the SEDS Messier site, it has been done with a 60mm refractor. That is darned impressive. So theoretically, yes, under perfect conditions, a 4″ scope is more than enough. But your chances improve with bigger scopes. Still, even a 17.5″ scope wasn’t enough to get all 110 this time, at this site. And it is worth noting that I’ve now done just as well with a 4″ scope as with my Apex 127, having gotten 108 objects in one night with both instruments.

Flying with the Bresser Comet Edition turned out to be surprisingly easy. I got scope, tripod, alt-az head, and clothes for five days into a standard duffel bag. The likelihood of this scope racking up more airline miles in the future is very high. And the 28mm RKE and 8-24mm Celestron zoom were all the eyepieces I needed. I didn’t use a finder of any kind – I didn’t take my green laser pointer for airport security reasons, and I forgot to borrow one from Jeff (who did offer) before the marathon started Saturday night. But it was okay, I just did my dead reckoning trick and didn’t even think about it after the first few objects. On the flip side, I did wish for a different atlas. I really need to suck it up and take the Jumbo PSA next time. At 4:00 in the morning when my eyes are tired and I’m trying to read by the dim light of a red headlamp, the writing in the standard edition is just too small.

I have new ambitions about gear – mainly, that I gotta get me some big binoculars. Frequent commenter and sometime observing buddy Doug Rennie has 20×80 bins that he mounts on one of these – that would be a potent and enjoyable combo for a very reasonable outlay (although I see that the price has crept up from the $65 or so it was going for last year). And my new no-holds-barred, price-is-no-object dream observing rig – which I may never achieve – is a motorized chair with 150mm binoculars. It was that good.

But ultimately the star party was not about gear, it was about experiences. I had a fantastic time at Comanche Springs, saw amazing things in the sky, learned a lot from my fellow amateurs, and most importantly made a lot of new friends. Many thanks to Jeff Barton and the whole 3RF crew for their hospitality and for making my trip possible. I don’t know when I’ll be back out there, but I’m already looking forward to it.

For more about Messier Marathons, including log sheets, links, and observing reports from previous marathons, see this page.