Archive for August 23rd, 2009

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Observing Report: Lehi, Utah; or, When Binoculars Beat a Telescope

August 23, 2009

As you will soon tire of hearing, I have a little telescope that I got to take on trips. It’s a StarMax 90 Maksutov-Cassegrain from Orion, and the tube is just slightly smaller than a 2-liter soda bottle. It comes with a nice padded case with lots of pockets and padded velcro “attic” for eyepieces, a finderscope, and–if one is willing to play a little telescope-packing Tetris–a small alt-az tripod head. I stow a light tripod in a bigger but still carry-on-able bag. The whole kit weighs less than 10 lbs, and it’s already racked up several thousand miles by plane and car. Under the very dark skies of rural Oklahoma, where my parents live, the little Mak has given me better views of some objects than I have ever gotten from light- and air-polluted SoCal, even in much bigger scopes.

But sometimes even so light and compact a travelscope is just too much. I’m writing this from a hotel room in Lehi, Utah, where I am staying for a quick overnight trip. One night is not enough to justify bringing a telescope. For one thing, my luggage for the trip consists of a light backpack and a small duffle, so the scope case would add half again to my kit and push me over the carryon limit. For another, if it’s just one night there is too great a risk of getting clouded out to make hauling a scope worth it. So I brought my binoculars instead, and Gary Seronik’s neat little book, Binocular Highlights.

BH collects 74 of Gary’s columns of the same name from Sky & Telescope, covering a total of 99 celestial objects for binocular observers. Each one-page entry has a detailed star map and a short writeup, and the little star maps can be correlated to four seasonal all-sky maps that fold out from the book’s endpapers. Best of all, the book is spiral bound to lie flat in your lap when you’re out observing. Since small scope users tend to go for the best and brightest that the heavens have to offer, BH is also a  great observing guide for use with a small telescope. I’m on my second copy, having given one away already, and I don’t plan on ever being without one again.

My binoculars, by the way, are a humble pair of Celestron UpClose 10x50s. One of the things I’m going to strive to avoid on this blog is repeating the generic (and generally good) advice that one can find anywhere on the ‘net and in books. One of those pieces of advice is that if you’re new to stargazing, buy some inexpensive but serviceable binoculars and a planisphere and spend a little while learning your way around. By near-universal consensus, 10×50 binoculars are just right for stargazing: enough aperture and magnfiication to pull in rewarding views, but not so heavy or so zoomed in that you can’t hold them steady or can’t hold them, period. The UpClose 10x50s can be had from Amazon for around $30, and you could do a lot worse.

Anyway, when I got into Salt Lake City this afternoon the sky was littered with clouds but not totally socked in. Hope stirred in my chest. But as darkness fell the clouds settled in for what looked like an extended stay, and I holed up in the room to read. I went out for a late dinner at 9:00, and on the walk back to the hotel I noticed that the clouds had cleared out enough to reveal at least half the sky. Would I get to observe? I ran upstairs to grab binos and book, and by the time I was back outdoors the sky was almost completely clear.

The next problem was finding a spot to observe from. Hotels off interstate access roads are not noted dark-sky observing sites. Lights from gas stations, billboards, and housing additions lit the whole area like the Vegas strip. Okay, maybe not quite that bad, but bad enough to keep my eyes from getting dark adapted. Fortunately this development is relatively new and I could see inky blackness about a quarter mile away, so I started walking. Some forward-thinking civic planner had put in a sidewalk beyond the point where one was actually needed, and more to the point, beyond all the annoying lights. After a quick 10 minute hike I found a nice slope falling off to the west, lay down on my back on the cool concrete, and started scanning the skies.

How was it? In a word, phenomenal. The skies here are not as dark as they once were, and not as dark as they ought to be, but they’re a darn sight darker than what I’ve got within easy reach in LA county (yes, I know, Joshua Tree is just an hour and a half to the east, but this blog is written by and for people with kids and jobs; “easy reach” means roughly “within ten minutes”). I started out with the Summer Triangle and its associated constellations: Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila. In Cygnus I stumbled across an open cluster, M29, that I’d never observed before. It was the first of several “firsts” for the evening. Traipsing down the sky to the “teapot” of Sagittarius I found two more: the brilliant globular cluster M22, and the Lagoon Nebula, which was simply stunning even in my 10×50 binoculars.

The longer I observed, the better dark-adapted my eyes became, and the fainter the targets I could pick out. I tried repeatedly through the observing run to bag M51, a spiral galaxy just below the handle of the Big Dipper, but it was too far north, lost in the light dome over Salt Lake City. The big score was picking out the Ring Nebula, M57, in Lyra. It wasn’t the brilliant lake of green that it was in the Mt. Wilson telescope, or even the crisp gray smoke ring I see in my backyard scopes, just a fuzzy dot that I could barely pick up even with averted vision. But it was thrilling nonetheless–the difficulty of the chase added spice to the eventual capture.

I feasted on easier targets as well–Mizar and Alcor; M13, the great globular cluster in Hercules; Albireo, a pretty double star in Cygnus; and of course the Galilean moons of Jupiter, standing out in a proud little string like the Von Trapp family singers.

When my arms got tired I would set the binoculars on my chest, stretch my arms out to either side, and just look up. It’s great when you have a safe, dark spot where you can lay down and look straight up and get every terrestrial object out of even your peripheral vision. When the sky is all you can see, it seems more vast and deep and at the same time more intimate. If the clouds hadn’t eventually rolled back in, I’d probably be out there still, which would certainly put a crimp in my workday tomorrow.

Walking back to the hotel was a bit of a downer. As soon as I was back over the hill my eyes were assaulted by all the lights of civilization, which are slowly but surely pushing back the night sky and its treasures. I felt sorry for the Utahans who are busy destroying their fabulous dark skies with strip malls and burger joints. I thought of Esau, who traded his inheritance for a bowl of soup.

But enough of that. The world is a big place and there will always be parts of it beyond the din and glare of civilization. Grab a pair of binoculars and get out there–even walking over a hill from your next hotel may be enough to put you alone with the cosmos.

Oh, one more thing: when I set the binoculars down and just looked up, I could see the Milky Way.

A good night for me, and good night to you.