Archive for March 2nd, 2012

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The SkyWatcher 90 Backpacker on the moon and some birds

March 2, 2012

Fate smiled on me yesterday and early this morning, and I was able to get some pictures with the SkyWatcher 90 mm Backpacker. If you’re impatient you can scroll to the bottom of the post for the photos.

I should stop here and say that I ultimately intend to test the whole kit–scope, mount, and accessories–as a system, because whether you use it as-is or mix-and-match components, it is sold as a system and is at least theoretically supposed to function as one. However, between teaching, taking a statistics class, and wrangling ostriches, I just haven’t had time to mess with the mount. My primary concern has been to assess the optical quality of the scope–and now I actually have some information.

I got in a brief observing session between responsibilities yesterday afternoon. I was plinking around the yard, looking at birds. For these observations I started out using the included 90-degree prism diagonal and 25mm Plossl eyepiece. I first looked at a couple of obvious birds silhouetted against the sky in treetops, and they looked fine. Then I went after one hidden in the leaves and branches of one of my neighbor’s trees, and in those dimmer conditions I noticed something unnerving: the eyepiece view was very soft and didn’t snap to focus, as if I was observing with a very short focal ratio scope like an Astroscan. Also, there was some ghosting of the image in the eyepiece, and the edge of the image was poorly defined. In short, it was very, very different from the crisp, sharp, detailed images that Maks are renowned for, and not in a good way. I was just having a “Hey, what the–!” moment when I remembered where I had seen these kinds of problems before: in scopes using cheap prism diagonals instead of mirrors.

Without moving the scope, I went to the garage and pulled the Astro-Tech dielectric diagonal off my Apex 127, and swapped that out for the prism diagonal. I held my breath as I put my eye back to the eyepiece–were the problems all in the diagonal, or had I gotten a lemon of a scope?

Sweet relief–even in the dim light amongst the leaves and branches, the view was razor-sharp and contrasty. It was like someone had run a very good image-sharpening algorithm on the eyepiece view. Suddenly details that were invisible before were popping out all over the place. Leaves that had been too fuzzy to invite close inspection were etched with delicate networks of veins. The whole view just looked more real.

I decided then that I would try to find out just how good or bad the prism diagonal is, and under what conditions.

After that quick peek I didn’t get another chance to use the scope until about 10:00 last night. The first quarter moon was still fairly high in the west, but the seeing was not good. The air just roiled over the moon, and every star I looked at scintillated with fast-moving rays of light. Not good conditions for testing a new telescope, because it’s hard to push the magnification up and tell if the results you’re getting are because of the scope, the seeing, or both. But I went ahead and put the scope through it’s paces anyway. The thing about seeing is that from time to time it does settle down a bit, at least momentarily, and in those instants the amount of additional detail that is visible is sometimes shocking. So the longer you look and the more patiently you observe, the more likely you are to catch those rare moments of steadier air and see something really remarkable.

For eyepieces I used a 32mm Sirius Plossl from Orion and the 12.5mm and 6.3mm SkyWatcher Plossls that came with the scope. I took all of the pictures in this post afocally with a Nikon Coolpix 4500 hand-held to the 32mm Plossl, and with the camera optically zoomed enough to eliminate any vignetting.

The moon looked surprisingly good with the Astro-Tech diagonal in place. It was fairly swimming in the turbulent air, as if being viewed under a thin stream of moving water. But if I focused on a particular crater or feature for the space of a minute or two I would catch a patch of calmer air and see perhaps double the detail in those brief glimpses. Small craters that were otherwise just spots would pop into focus with dark rims and bright floors. The 12.5mm eyepiece had tighter eye relief than I am used to in that focal length; I have long-ish eyelashes and they were occasionally brushing the eye lens, something I don’t remember ever happening with the 12mm SkyWatcher Plossl that I got with Shorty Long, my 80mm f/11 achromat. That 12mm looks identical to the Orion Sirius line, whereas the eyepieces that came with the Backpacker have smooth silver barrels and no rubber eyecups, so even though they are both branded SkyWatcher they might have somewhat different guts. Also, I’ll have to look more closely the next time I’m out, but the 12mm felt like it had a narrower apparent field of view than the 32mm, which shouldn’t be possible if they are both Plossls, which typically yield a 52-degree apparent field. Could be that the short eye relief was playing tricks on my perceptions. Anyway, with the 12.5mm EP in the scope was working at 100x and I was still seeing plenty of few detail in the still moments.

I put the 6.3mm EP in just for the heck of it. I wasn’t expecting much, both because of the punk seeing and because that magnification–200x–ought to be pushing on the edge of what this scope can do. A commonly used rule of thumb is that a good scope should be able to handle 50x per inch of aperture. At 3.5 inches, any of these 90mm Maks ought to be good up to at least 175x. But I have to point out that the 50x/inch “rule” is often broken and not only by premium scopes. David DeLano has had his 114mm reflector up to 400x (89x per inch), and the other night I took my Apex 127 to 514x (103x) to split a close double star that was not split at 257x. I’ll just note that those are both relatively long focal ratio scopes, about f/8 for David’s reflector and f/12 for the Apex, and maybe that has something to do with it; such gently-tapering light cones are certainly easier on eyepieces and so on. Anyway, at 200x with the 6.3mm EP I was still getting glimpses of considerable detail. I can’t say for certain because of the lousy seeing, but I think this scope can handle 200x. I hope I get a still night soon to test that.

Okay, so far so good with the Astro-Tech diagonal. I swapped it out for the stock prism diagonal and went back to the 32mm Plossl. YUCK! I almost could not focus my eye on the moon, because there was a moon-sized ghost image floating around in the field of view that looked like it was probably some kind of reflection of the primary mirror or maybe even the corrector. It was a big white donut with a dark hole in the middle, anyway. I’ll stress that this ghost image or whatever it was was not there with the Astro-Tech diagonal. I have never seen anything quite like it before, and given the controlled conditions of time, place, observer, scope, and eyepiece, I feel confident blaming the prism diagonal.

I tried the two other eyepieces. The ghost didn’t show up in either of them. The 12.5mm was merely okay, producing a slightly softer view in the prism diagonal than in the Astro-Tech. The 6.3mm was very noticeably softer; this time going from 100x to 200x looked and felt like empty magnification.

I also looked at Belelgeuse and Mars with all combinations of diagonals and eyepieces. Betelgeuse was sparkling in the Astro-Tech diagonal, but at least the scintillating rays of light were sharp. In the prism diagonal it was a fuzzy mess. Betelgeuse was down near the horizon, though, and Mars was very high, so I hoped to see at least some detail on good old Barsoom.

Mars really required the 12.5mm EP; at 39x it was a bright orange BB, too small to see detail on, and at 200x it was a big orange smudge. At 100x with the prism diagonal I could only suspect the polar cap, and that might have been because I knew it was there to be seen. I had started that run with the Astro-Tech, and in steadier moments the polar cap was a well-defined white patch with a hair-fine black border. In brief flashes I also saw dark markings on the face of the planet’s disk. So despite the lousy seeing, the little scope lived up to the Maksutov reputation as a fine planetary instrument.

I did see some off-axis glare from Betelgeuse and Mars, but only in the 32mm Plossl. I am going to do some more testing to see if that is a scope issue or, as I suspect, an eyepiece issue. Also, getting the scope on target using the 8×20 straight-through finder was not difficult but it was uncomfortable, and usually required me to move my chair, squat behind the scope, and go back and forth between sighting down the tube and squinting through the finder. It’s doable, it’s just not fun, and something like a 6×30 RACI should be a high-priority upgrade if you get one of these.

This morning before work I got some photos of neighborhood birds, using both the Astro-Tech dielectric diagonal and the prism diagonal that came with the scope. Be aware that that both my camera and my photographic method are primitive. The camera is a 4-megapixel job more than a decade old now, and while its rotating barrel design is convenient for digiscoping, it just can’t keep up with the better modern cameras. Also, hand-holding the camera to the eyepiece means that I’m usually the most mobile link in the system, so any fuzz or blurring in the photos is possibly caused by my minuscule shakes rather than by the optics. To try to eliminate that factor as best I could, I took several exposures of each target and picked the sharpest from each set for the comparison images. In all of the comparisons between diagonals, the photo through the prism is on the left, and the dielectric photo is on the right. Other than having been put into the same image for comparative purposes, the photos are completely unprocessed: no sharpening, no levels or curves, no rotation, and I didn’t even flip the photos through the star diagonal, which are reversed left-to-right. Click each image for the original, full-resolution version.

The moon last night. The view through the dielectric diagonal was markedly sharper and more contrasty, and these unprocessed photos, taken just minutes apart, bear that out. The full-resolution dielectric photo shows a very thin line of purple chromatic aberration around the limb of the moon, but I couldn’t see it at the eyepiece despite being on the lookout for it.

This fellow was sitting a tree that I have paced out at about 70 yards from my driveway. Again, the dielectric photo (right) has better contrast, and look at the difference in the color of the background sky. This is the same bird and I took the photos about 2 minutes apart.

This dove was quite a bit farther way. I haven’t paced it out, but this powerline must be well over 100 yards from my driveway. Notice the scale of the bird in the photos and the pronounced drop-off in detail compared to the little songbird above. Detail is probably a wash here, but the dielectric photo has better contrast and again the background sky is more blue.

One more point to make is that I hardly ever post raw images. Almost every photo can benefit from a little processing with Unsharp Mask and Curves (I use GIMP, which is free–see details on what I do to each photo in this post). Here are the best dielectric photos of the moon and the songbird, with the unprocessed photo on the left and the lightly processed version on the right (this time I did rotate the moon and flip it to its correct side).

So, what did I learn from all of this? The SkyWatcher 90 Backpacker is a decent little scope. I couldn’t see any optical problems, and I was impressed to see details on Mars at 100x with the included 12.mm Plossl and the Astro-Tech diagonal. Views of birds are as good as those I used to get with my Orion Apex 90. But the supplied diagonal is not good, and really limits the views the telescope is capable of providing. If you get one, replacing the diagonal with even an inexpensive mirror diagonal should be a top priority. Let me put in a plug here for the Astro-Tech dielectric diagonal. It consistently throws up a great image–it’s the diagonal I used when taking the Apex 127 to 514x for that double star split–but at $69.95 for the 1.25″ version it is no more expensive than some ‘entry-level’ mirror diagonals.

The supplied prism diagonal does have one potential use: if you have an old binocular laying around, you can disassemble it and use one of the objective lenses to make a proper finderscope, and if you include the diagonal it could even be a RACI. Mounting a bigger homemade finder to the scope will take some ingenuity, but I figure anyone who likes to tinker enough to build a finder in the first place can be trusted to come up with a mount as well.

So I now feel confident enough to recommend the scope, at least, although the mount is still a question mark and the diagonal and finder are troublesome (as expected). I don’t know how the scope performs compared to the Celestron C90, which is also on sale, because I haven’t had the chance to test them side-by-side. But with a little luck I may get that chance soon.

Hopefully this weekend I’ll have time to get the mount up and running. Stay tuned.