Archive for July, 2012

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The moon tonight

July 28, 2012

Afocal shot with Nikon Coolpix 4500 shooting through SkyWatcher 90mm Mak and Orion Sirius 32mm Plossl eyepiece, tweaked and flipped to correct orientation in GIMP. Eight-seven people saw the moon through this telescope tonight.

Thanks to everyone who has commented on the Suburban Messier Project. I will go forward with it at some point, but right now I am in the middle of my summer teaching and don’t have time for much of anything other than that. See you in the future!

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Suburban Messier project–gear? rules? company?

July 20, 2012

Part 1: Inspiration

I am contemplating a new observing project. It started back in May, when Doug wrote a long comment that ended with:

You know what we need? Really, really need. One of these guys: O’Meara, Sue, Tony Flanders, etc. to write a book complete with sketches, using a Real People telescope in a typical residential suburban setting. A Celestron or Meade or Orion sub-$500 scope from a backyard or driveway in Torrance or Sacramento or Cleveland and do all the Messiers . . . or whatever. Then you’d have something you really could use with goals you had a realistic chance of achieving.

Come to my house, or one like it and do all your observing here. For a year. Sketch what you see through the eyepiece of a real world scope in a real world setting. Then I can say “Ah, so THAT is the pattern I am looking for.” And will recognize when I see it….

Hey, Matt, YOU have real world scopes. And a backyard. So, maybe you?

And I wrote:

Your question inspires me. I had already been thinking about doing a Messier survey with a small scope, just to see what could be achieved. I may fire up that observing program one of these days. If I do, I’ll try my hand at sketching, too. It probably won’t be soon. Our skies here suck in the summer, with lots of haze and smog and not much wind to blow it out. And it’s too hot to go to the desert. But I might do some runs up Mount Baldy, which is acceptably dark but not stupid-dark like the Mojave.

So, at first I was just thinking of doing a small-scope Messier tour, from wherever, including Mount Baldy and the Salton Sea. But I think that would be of limited usefulness. The orange/yellow zone skies on Mount Baldy are something that a lot of folks would have to drive to get to. The blue/grey zone skies at the Salton Sea are way too dark to be useful for what Doug was describing. Not at all like what you’d get in “Torrance or Sacramento or Cleveland”. If it’s going to be a suburban Messier survey, it needs to be from in town–specifically, from my front yard and driveway (my back yard has a verdant canopy of greenery which is beautiful but not good for stargazing).

The other part of this is that I have never sketched deep sky objects. I have often sketched planets, very approximately, to show how many cloud belts and moons I could see, and I have been sketching my way through the AL Double Star Club observations, but c’mon, that requires drawing 2-4 tiny circles. I haven’t sketched DSOs, and I think it’s a skill I should cultivate.

My desire to learn to sketch DSOs has been intensified by observing with Terry Nakazono, who sketches, and by seeing the really nice sketches done by fellow PVAA member Justin Balderrama (who blogs here). Justin is in his teens, but you’d never know it to flip through his observing logbook. And these guys don’t make a big deal out of their sketching–it’s just part of their observing technique. I dig that. I’d like to do that.

Part 2: The Rules

Okay, so I’m going to observe and sketch all the Messier objects from my yard. Using what?

For a while I toyed with the idea of getting one of Orion’s $100 tabletop scopes, the SkyScanner 100 or GoScope 80, just for this project. But lately I’ve been cutting back on scopes–I just sold Shorty Long and Stubby Fats–and I’m loathe to turn around and start piling them up again. The scope is going to have to be one I already own.

My current lineup includes:

  • XT10 (10″ or 254mm)
  • Apex 127 (5″ or 127mm)
  • Skywatcher Mak (3.5″ or 90mm)
  • Travel Scope 70 (2.75″ or 70mm)
  • SV50 (2″ or 50mm)

Since this is a small-scope project, the XT10 is out. I’m throwing out the Apex 127, too. Using Doug’s original “sub-$500″ criterion you could buy the OTA, but you couldn’t mount it securely, not unless someone was having a ridiculous sale on mounts. And, fer cryin’ out loud, Uncle Rod uses a 5” Mak as his back-up deep-sky scope (which is one of the reasons I got one for myself), so I think it’s big enough to also be disqualified for a small-scope challenge.

On the other hand, the SV-50 is too small. Reeling in all the Messiers with it would be an interesting challenge from a dark site, but from town it would be straight-up murder. Plus, I doubt too many amateurs these days are starting out with a 50mm scope. Anyone who can afford a 50mm scope can probably afford 10×50 binoculars (currently $25 at Amazon for a decent pair), and those will frankly be a lot easier to use.

That leaves the 90mm Mak and the 70mm refractor. And here I’m just going to make a command decision and go for the 90mm Mak, for a lot of reasons. The biggest is comfort. If I’m really logging, sketching, and taking notes, I reckon I’ll need about a half hour per object. Multiplied by 110 objects means 55 hours of observing time, minimum, spread out over the next year or two. If I’m going to spend that much time with any one scope, it has to be comfortable for both eye and body. The optics on the Travel Scope 70–on my example, anyway–are swell up to about 20x, acceptable up to about 40x, and frankly pretty gross after that. In contrast, I’ve had the little Mak up over 200x regularly with no image breakdown, and it’s got a nice flat field that is essentially free of aberrations.

The “body” side of the comfort equation is why I’m not using my son’s Astroscan. For him it’s fine sitting on a folding chair or even on the ground. For me it needs a table, which is never as stable as a tripod, and more of a pain to move around late at night in the dark. And like the TS70 it is wonderful for bright, wide, low-power scanning, but runs out of magnification pretty fast.

My one reservation about using the 90mm Mak is the long focal ratio–1250mm, or two inches longer than the XT10 even–which means high minimum powers and a narrow field of view. The max true field in this scope is only a little over 1 degree (compared to a max true field of about 4 degrees for the TS70), which is not enough to fit in the largest Messier objects. I’m not worried about the Pleiades–I’ll just scan around to see them all–or M31, where I’m unlikely to see more than just the core from town. It’s M33, the Triangulum galaxy, a large not-quite-face-on spiral galaxy, that makes me sweat. It’s going to be hard enough to see from town in the first place, let alone in a scope that won’t fit the whole thing into the field of view at once. But no scope is perfect for every job, and I want this to have some element of challenge, so I’ll stick with the little Mak.

I’ve also decided to eschew fancy eyepieces for this project, and just use ordinary Plossls, probably my 32mm (39x) and the three that came with the scope: 25mm (50x), 12.5mm (100x), and 6mm (200x). I strongly suspect that the 25mm is all I’ll need for most objects. A lot of DSO hunters recommend a 1-degree true field for finding objects and a 2mm exit pupil for observing them. In the 90mm Mak, the 25mm Plossl gives almost exactly those values:

True field of view (TFOV) = Apparent field of view (AFOV)/magnification; in this case 52 degrees/50x = 1.04 degrees.

Exit pupil = aperture/magnification; in this case 90mm/50x = 1.8mm exit pupil.

As with the fancy eyepieces, using the nice Astro-Tech dielectric diagonal feels like cheating.  I sold the 90-degree prism diagonal that came with the scope–I couldn’t get it out of the house fast enough. That leaves either a 45-degree erect-image prism diagonal that I just discovered I had the other day (which is the only reason I haven’t sold it yet), or an $8 mirror diagonal I bought off Cloudy Nights. Either is probably a good match for what would come with a beginner scope, but I’m going to use the cheap mirror diag. More Maks are sold with prism diagonals, but whatever, I can’t put myself through that many hours of looking through a low-end prism, and I don’t think substituting a piece of gear that costs less than ten bucks will corrupt the replicated beginner experience.

Now, the big question: what finder should I use? At first I was thinking I would just roll with the 9×50 RACI. It’s my favorite and most-used finder, and observing with it would be a cinch. But I am reluctant to do that, for two reasons. First, I know how to find stuff with a 9×50 RACI. It’s not going to push me or teach me anything. Also, I think it sort of violates the spirit of observing with the stuff that Joe Newbie would have available. A 9×50 RACI is a big upgrade, close to half of what I paid for the 90mm Mak in the first place. That leaves other three finders that I have lying around that I could potentially use:

  • The 20mm erect-image finder that came with the scope. Gag me with a stick. I know that a lot of 90mm Maks ship with these things, but they shouldn’t. This finder is good for two things: gathering way too little light, and making people hit their face on the scope when they try to get their eye behind it (you can see a close call here). For the love of Pete, if your scope came with one of these and you can’t afford anything better, get over to Telescope Warehouse and get a 6×30 finder with a bracket for $18-20 or a dot finder for $14 (also, if you just flat need a scope, they have 70mm achromatic refractors for $22 and 90mm achromats for under $40, although you’ll have to rig a mount).
  • The 6×26 straight-through erect-image finder that came with the Apex 127. I forgot this existed until I found it in an unlabelled box when I was cleaning up the front room.
  • The red dot finder that came with one of my other scopes at some point, which I never got around to selling.

There are actually valid arguments for both the 6×26 and the RDF. Most entry-level scopes these days ship with RDFs, including all of the Orion tabletop scopes, so for replicating the beginner experience it is probably the most legit. With a max true field of 1 degree in the scope, though, it will make for some punishing star-hops. The argument for the 6×26 comes from Jay Reynolds Freeman’s essay “Finding deep sky objects rapidly”:

I use magnifying finders instead of unit-magnification ones because I need to see more than just naked-eye stars to point the telescope accurately, and the extra light gathered by magnifying finders provides them. I use straight-through ones because I can keep both eyes open and use the finder cross-hair as a reflex sight, fused by the brain with the view through the other eye.

I don’t know that trick, but I’d like to.

Both the RDF and the 6×26 will be irritating in that they’ll force me to get my head behind the scope, but I reckon it’s time I learned more than one way of finding so I’m willing to make the sacrifice. Anyway, I’m still undecided on which one to use, but maybe you can help me out with that.

Part 3: Audience Participation

Now, gentle reader, I have three questions for you. Before we get to them, let’s review the plan:

I will (1) observe–or attempt to observe–and (2) sketch (3) all of the Messier objects (4) from my front yard/driveway (5) using my 90mm Mak and (6) inexpensive eyepieces. I don’t have a fixed schedule in mind, but doing the whole list in a year does not seem prohibitively difficult or time-intensive; that’s only 2 objects per week, on average.

The one hang-up there is that the dimmest objects will probably have to be observed when they culminate (get as high in the sky as they’re going to from  your latitude), possibly after midnight when a lot of folks shut off their lights and the LP slacks off a bit, which dictates a particular season. For the big mess of galaxies in Virgo-Coma, that means springtime, when the weather is iffy. I have gotten several of the Virgo-Coma galaxies from my driveway with 15×70 binoculars, but I wasn’t sketching or taking extensive notes, which will eat up observing time. In some cases it might not be a matter of going on dawn patrol to catch ones I missed, because in a small scope under LP they might only be visible near the zenith, late at night, during a narrow seasonal window. I’m going to try to get it done in a year, but if it slops over into a second year I won’t be devastated.

Now, if you’ve managed to hang with me this far, I have questions for you:

  1. Following the discussion in the previous section, which diagonal and–especially–which finder do you think I should use? Do you care? Is your interest more in seeing the beginner experience replicated from top to bottom, or just in the descriptions of the objects through a modest scope under light-polluted skies, in which case the mode of finding doesn’t really matter?
  2. Can you think of any other rules or conditions that would make the survey more informative/relevant/legit/challenging?
  3. Would you like to join me?

I’m dead serious on that last point. If you’ve never seen all the Messiers before, feel free to use whatever scope you like, from whatever observing site you like. Or use your big scope from home, or your small one from a dark site, or whatever–set whatever conditions you like for your Messier project. Sketch or don’t sketch, although it would be cool if you did, because then we could compare notes.

I’m planning to set up a sidebar page for this anyway, and scan and post my sketches and observing notes. I’d be happy to host yours, too, if you send them to me. I get 3 gigs of space on this blog, and so far in all of my time here I’ve only used 1/12 of it, so I’m not worried about running out of space by hosting too many images or PDFs or whatever.

I’d like to set an arbitrary start date of August 1 for my own survey, but if you happen to stumble across this post a few months from now and want to join in then, feel free.

Any takers? If so, let me know in the comments.

Clear skies!

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The conjunction last Sunday morning

July 18, 2012

In the latest Mount Baldy observing report I described an awesome predawn conjunction of the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and the bright star Aldebaran. What made it so great was not just the close appearance of four bright objects in the eastern sky, but the almost perfect symmetry of their arrangement: not only did they form an almost perfect arrowhead shape, but the arrowhead pointed straight up toward the Pleiades. All in all, just about the most beautiful celestial sight I’ve seen with my naked eyes.

Just as the kite was flying up over the hill to the east of our observing site, a nice couple drove up and set up a camera. They were Robert and Elizabeth Preston, and they kindly send this photo with permission to post. Trust me, you’re going to want to click through to the big version.

Here’s a closeup of the four conjunction objects from a photo by Terry Nakazono. The moon, Jupiter (top), and Venus (bottom) are all unmodified. I had to crop out the area around Aldebaran (right) and boost the contrast to bring out the star.

I can’t imagine a better end to an observing run.

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Deep sky objects from Burnham’s Celestial Handbook now on the sidebar

July 17, 2012

Just a heads up, since new blog posts are probably more attention-getting than new pages: thanks to the kind offices of a fellow Cloudy Nights forum member and his friend, a list of the DSOs from the monumental Burnham’s Celestial Handbook is now available on the sidebar. That’s 1160 objects north of -30 declination (plus 6 Messiers that are just south of the cutoff)–out of the total of 1880 listed in all three volumes–plenty of goodies to keep a deep sky fanatic busy for a long time. Go check it out.

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Gear reports: Explore Scientific eyepieces, Orion Apex 127 Mak, Celestron Travel Scope 70

July 16, 2012

Apex 127 (left) and Travel Scope 70 (right) under dark skies on Mount Baldy. The Apex is on a SkyWatcher AZ4 mount, and the TS70 is on a Manfrotto CXPRO4 with a Universal Astronomics DwarfStar alt-az head. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

As promised in the last post, here are my thoughts on the scopes and charts I used up on Mount Baldy Saturday night. I haven’t had half of this stuff long enough for these to be considered true reviews, so I’m calling them “gear reports”.

Explore Scientific eyepieces–For  a long time my workhorse eyepieces have been 32mm and 12mm Plossls and the 6mm Expanse. The 24mm ES68 gives the same true field as the 32mm Plossl but with higher magnification and a larger apparent field–68 degrees versus 52. The 14mm and 8.8mm ES82s give me a nice pair of mid-to-high power options, without taking business away from the 6mm Expanse.

How important is all that apparent field of view? I’ve also had the opportunity recently to look through a few TeleVue Ethos 100-degree eyepieces, and here are my impressions.

  • Ethos: I could not quite see all of the field of view at once. I had to actually move my head around to see the field stop. It was nice–when I first looked in the eyepiece, at what was in the middle of the field, I could not immediately see the field stop in any direction. It actually was like looking through a window into space. I can see why people shell out big bucks for this experience (think $600 and up for the TeleVue Ethos models and $400 and up for the other brands).
  • ES82: I can see all of the field and the field stop at once, but it is so far out to the edge of my field of view that I am not really aware of it. Very comfortable, too, in terms of eye placement and eye relief.
  • ES68 and Orion Expanse (66-degree apparent field): ditto. For me, the jump from 52 degrees to 66 or 68 degrees is much more noticeable than the jump from the sixties up to 82–or back. I never went from one of the 82s to one of the sixties and thought, “oh, hey, where did my extra field go?”, which definitely does happen when I go directly from a widefield to a Plossl. My only explanation is that, at least for me, 66-68 degrees is over a threshold where additional apparent field makes little difference, until the I-can’t-see-it-all-at-once threshold I get with the Ethos.
  • Plossls (52-degree apparent field): I like Plossls. They’re good, solid workhorse eyepieces, that can handle a wide range of focal ratios and tend to be sharp and have good light throughput. They were my go-to eyepieces for years. But, like many, many stargazers before me, I am spoiled now. The fact is, after using 66-82 degree eyepieces (I’ve had a pair of 68-degree Orion Stratuses for a couple of years, and just not used them much), going back to the Plossls is like being struck with tunnel vision: I am acutely aware that a lot of my visual real estate is occupied by non-sky inside-of-eyepiece black nothingness. That said, the effect really only jumps out at me when I swap a widefield for a Plossl back to back in the same scope. Saturday night I would be observing with widefields in the Apex and then wander over to the TS70 with the 32mm Plossl and not notice the sudden decrease in field. So I’m not getting rid of my Plossls anytime soon. For one thing, they all weigh much less than their widefield counterparts, and so play better in small scopes and travel kits.

By the way, if you’re in the market for budget Plossls and Expanse clones, check out the Black Knight Super Plossls and Enhanced Super-Wides at OWL Astronomy.

Apex 127–Under dark skies, a potent deep-sky instrument. Its maximum true field of just a bit over a degree will frame almost all deep sky objects, except for the very closest open clusters (like the Pleiades and Hyades). Everything I tried for, I found–my problems with the two open clusters were not that I could not see them, but that I could tell exactly what parts of the rich Milky Way starfields were supposed to be the clusters–more on this farther down. It’s also a planet-killer and excellent double-star scope. One night this spring I was trying to split a particularly tough double with this scope. It refused to budge at 257x, so I Barlowed my 6mm expanse to give 514x, and finally saw that stripe of black sky between the two stars. That’s about 100x per inch of aperture, or twice the rule-of-thumb “maximum effective magnification” of 50x per inch. Which means it’s a damn fine scope.

Travel Scope 70–Four things about this scope, three good, and one not so good. The good stuff first.

  • It costs next to nothing. As I’ve pointed out in other posts, you can’t buy a 9×50 right-angle correct-image finder for what they’re charging for this scope.
  • It’s small and light. I think it would ride on the same tripod as my SV50 and the scope itself takes up hardly any more room, but 70mm gathers roughly twice as much light as 50mm (5*5=25, 7*7=49). It has the same focal length as the venerable Short Tube 80 but weighs about half as much. You could think of it as a Short Tube 70, but its focal ratio of 5.7 is a hair more forgiving. That combined with the slightly smaller aperture should knock down the chromatic aberration a bit, compared to the ST80, and indeed I’ve found the CA unnoticeable in casual use, even on the moon and  planets (that is, I’m sure it’s there if one goes hunting, but it’s never risen to the level of attracting my attention at the eyepiece).
  • The optics are wonderfully clear. The low-power views are really bright and contrasty. I noticed this the first night I had the scope. I was cruising the summer Milky Way from my driveway, trying the 12.5x view with the 32mm Plossl for the first time. Now, Lyra was dead overhead, and atmospheric problems are almost always minimized at the zenith, but still, the view was bright, and I found the Ring Nebula, M57, right away. I thought “No way, there’s just no way the Ring is that easy at 12.5x. Must be an out-of-focus star.” So I started working my way up in magnification, and sure enough, it was the Ring after all. I noticed the same thing again Saturday night. I couldn’t see much detail on most of the Messier objects at that magnification, but they just jumped out of the background starfields, even the smaller ones. If you like low-power scanning, this scope is a blast under dark skies and still a fun ride even under so-so skies.

Now, the not-so-hot:

  • It’s hard to push the magnification, and I don’t like the result when I do. A 12mm eyepiece gives 128x in the Apex 127, 108x in the 90mm Mak, and 100x in the XT10, but only 33x in this  scope. A 6mm eyepiece gets you to 67x, but it ain’t worf it. The scope starts to pant around 40x and anything north of 60x is just bad. I noticed this the first night out, looking at Saturn and the moon, and it was still true this weekend. I don’t know if its astigmatism or poor collimation or what, but trying to achieve focus on planets is maddening. Jupiter goes from a vertical fan of red light on one side of focus to a horizontal fan of blue light on the other, and only sort of flirts with being a clean disk in between those extremes, at an infinitesimally tiny point that the rack-and-pinion focuser tends to shoot right past. It’s actually really puzzling to me that a scope that gives such clear, contrasty images at low power goes to crap so fast as the magnification goes up. (In case you’re wondering, we used exclusively low-power eyepieces with this scope for the Venus transit.)

So in the end the TS70 is kind of a one-trick pony. It is awesome for scanning around at low power and surfing the Milky Way. That’s the one thing it can do that neither of my Maks can. But unless you get a much better sample than I did, forget about doing any serious work at even moderate magnifications. The 90mm Mak is a much more versatile tool–it can do almost everything except widefield scanning. So at least the two small scopes complement each other.

UPDATE: the TS70 performs MUCH better after having been disassembled and reassembled (details in this post). It’s not hard, all it takes is a screwdriver. Blackening the lens edges with a Sharpie improves the scope’s already decent contrast, and shaking the lens cell a little while the objective lenses are loose will improve the collimation. After doing only that, I can now take this scope up to at least 133x without the image falling apart. It’s like a whole new scope. That said, there are still better choices out there – see my astronomy wish-list for beginning stargazers for some suggestions.

Actually the awesome low-power views of the TS70 have inspired me. A small ED refractor like the Astro-Tech AT72ED ought to give equally good low-power views and be able to take magnification well, and could potentially put both the TS70 and the 90mm Mak out of business. I don’t know if it actually will, but I aim to find out. So I think one of those will be my next big astro purchase–once I save up for it.

In the meantime, since the TS70 performs like a superfinder anyway, I’m going to keep scheming on how to turn it into one. I’d love to have it mounted side-by-side with the Apex 127, so I’d have a rich-field scope and a planet-killer on the same mount.

Pocket Sky Atlas–Since I started out in astronomy, the PSA has been essentially the only atlas I’ve used. It has stars down to magnitude 7.6 and about 1600 deep-sky objects. That includes all the Messiers, all the Caldwells, and all the Herschel 400s, plus another thousand or so, so it’s covered my needs and then some. The only time I’ve printed up my own finder charts has been for hunting quasars. I haven’t felt the need to move up to a “deeper” atlas until very recently.

I started thinking about a deeper atlas after observing with Terry Nakazono last month. His most-used atlas is the Observer’s Sky Atlas, which covers the whole sky to mag 6 but also has enlarged charts to mag 9 for finding 250 deep sky objects, including all the Messiers. He also prints out detailed finder charts from the Tri-Atlas (a huge free atlas in three versions: mag 9, 11, and 13). He was surprised that I’ve gotten along as well as I have with just the PSA.

Part of the difference in preference probably has to do with the instruments that we use and how we get on target. Terry’s most-used scope is the SkyScanner 100, which has a red-dot finder. So he gets in the neighborhood–or closer, sometimes you can really bullseye things with an RDF–with the dot finder and then star-hops to his targets at the eyepiece. In contrast, I use a 9×50 RACI finder on whatever scope I am observing with (I only have one, and just move it around among scopes), and do almost all of my star-hopping with the finder alone. The 50mm finder does not go nearly as deep as the 100mm reflector–it simply shows fewer stars–so I often use the geometrical method of centering the finder on an unseen target (this is detailed by Harvard Pennington in The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide and by Stephen Saber in his post on “sharpshooting” deep-sky objects–search for it here). I hadn’t given this much thought before Terry brought it up, but my less-deep atlas suits my finder-driven navigation, whereas eyepiece starhopping really requires that you be able to see as many charted stars as possible to keep from getting lost. So we have each gravitated toward the atlas that best suits our observing style–or rather, I started with PSA and never had a reason to gravitate away.

Until now, that is. The problem is not that the PSA doesn’t show enough deep-sky objects. I’ve only seen about a fifth of its 1600 plotted DSOs. The problem, as Terry pointed out, is that it just doesn’t show enough stars, at least for some problems. In trying to track down some of those small open clusters in Cygnus and Cassiopeia, I found that the plotted symbol in the PSA covered a good-sized field that was striped and mottled with star chains and asterisms of the summer Milky Way. The geometrical relationships shown in the PSA just weren’t enough. I couldn’t go to “the” cluster of stars that made an equilateral triangle (or whatever) with the nearest guide stars, because there half a dozen plausible candidates (actually, this might be a not-enough-DSOs plotted problem as well as a not-enough-stars problem). I need to see some of the fainter stars in between plotted on the chart, to break up those rich starfields into manageable–and interpretable–chunks.

So, to make a long story short, I ordered the first volume of Uranometria 2000.0, a mag 9 atlas, and I’ll get the other two volumes as funds allow. Stay tuned.

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Observing report: All-nighter on Mount Baldy

July 15, 2012

Whew! Last night rocked. Terry Nakazono was out from LA, and we had been planning for about two weeks to spend the night observing up on Mount Baldy. We had made a shorter, half-night run up the mountain back in June, Terry to chase faint galaxies with his SkyScanner and me to log a few Herschel 400 objects with the XT10. Last night was basically the same plan, but on steroids–the moon was rising later, and neither of us had anywhere to be today. My wife and son were both out of town, she on work and he on a sleepover, so I was released on my own recognizance.

We got up there about 8:45 and met fellow PVAA member Craig Matthews setting up his 8″ Dob. Former PVAA president Ron Hoekwater joined us a little later on.

Terry was rolling with his SkyScanner again, and aiming for galaxies in Ursa Major and Bootes. I decided to leave the XT10 at home and take the Apex 127 Mak instead. I’ve had that scope for about a year, but before last night I had not really tried it out under dark skies. It did go to the Salton Sea in February, but we were mostly clouded out that night. Five inches is a lot of aperture under dark skies, and I was anxious to see what the Mak could do. Mount Baldy is not stupid-dark like Afton Canyon or western Arizona, but it’s not bad at all. The Milky Way was prominent and showed a fair amount of detail, especially after midnight when a strong marine layer at lower altitudes effectively halved the light pollution to the south (Inland Empire) and southwest (Los Angeles). On light pollution maps Baldy shows as being in the Orange zone, Bortle Class 5, but between the altitude and the marine layer it is sometimes effectively Green (Bortle 4). Last night was such a night.

I also took along the Celestron Travel Scope 70, which I had otherwise only used for quick peeks from my driveway. I’ve been meaning to blog about that scope. Right now you can get the scope, finder, two eyepieces, a tripod, and a backpack carrying case from Amazon for about $70 shipped. The finder is a travesty–an all-plastic “5×20” unit that is in fact stopped down to 10mm right behind the objective. I stripped the so-called optics out of mine and use it as a naked-eye sight tube, in which role it performs admirably, and a heck of a lot better than it ever did as a magnifying finder. The tripod is a joke, the sort of thing that gives other flimsy tripods a bad name. It struggles to hold a point-and-shoot digital camera steady, let alone a telescope, so I donated it to a museum. But the eyepieces are serviceable, the carry bag is fine, and the telescope itself is okay–more on this in the next post–so for $70 it is a screaming deal. As with the Apex 127, I was anxious to see what it could do under dark skies.

It was not yet fully dark when we arrived so I spent some time jawing with Craig. It was cloudless and clear where we were, but we could tell it was raining in the Mojave Desert, because the northeastern sky flickered with distant lightning. And we knew it was far off because we never heard even a hint of thunder. The lightning was not reflecting off clouds but off of the sky itself. It was as if the sky was on the fritz, like a bad florescent bulb. It was a profoundly weird and unearthly effect.

I started my observing run by putting the Apex 127 on Saturn. In addition to observing with “new” scopes, I was also rolling with genuinely new eyepieces. Explore Scientific has been having a CUH-RAY-ZEE sale on their well-reviewed 68, 82, and 100-degree eyepieces, so I sold some unused gear and bought a few: the 24mm ES68, which delivers the widest possible true field in a 1.25″ eyepiece, and the 14mm and 8.8mm ES82s. The Apex 127 is my longest focal length scope at 1540mm, so those eyepieces yielded 64x (24mm), 110x (14mm), and 175x (8.8mm). I also have a 6mm Orion Expanse that gives 257x–that is my default high-mag eyepiece in any scope. The ES eyepieces had just arrived in the mail last week so last night was my first time to try  them out.

Anyway, the seeing was limiting, with the view shaky at 175x and downright ugly at 257x, but Saturn was crisp and jewel-like at 110x and I could see four moons even at 64x. I haven’t checked the charts to see for sure which ones they were, but Titan certainly, and Dione, Rhea, and Tethys probably. I have seen up to five moons of Saturn at once before, but that requires steadier skies than we had last night.

After Saturn I hit a few favorite Messiers, including the globs M13, M5, and M4, all of which were impressively resolved for a 5″ scope. My favorite view of the evening through the Apex 127 was of the galaxies M81/M82 in the same field at 64x, with tantalizing hints of detail visible in both.

Then I got to work, finding and logging Herschel 400 objects. I was chasing mostly open clusters in Cygnus and Cassiopeia. I logged NGCs 6866, 7062, 7086, 7128, 7008 (a planetary nebula) and 7790. I also tried for open clusters NGC 7044 in Cygnus and 136 in Cassiopeia, but could not locate anything I felt comfortable calling a definitive open cluster at the charted locations amid the rich Milky Way starfields. This was also an issue with several of the Cygnus clusters I did log—at high magnification they tended to disappear into the surrounding star chains and asterisms.

Getting skunked is no fun, and by that time I’d been working on H400s for about two hours. For a change of pace, I switched over to the Travel Scope 70 and started plinking at Messiers. With a 32mm Plossl eyepiece I got 12.5x magnification and a stunning 4-degree true field–more like a finder on steroids than a telescope. I started with the Double Cluster as soon as I saw it was over the horizon, then hit M31, but didn’t immediately see its satellite galaxies. Then it was on to the “steam” rising from the teapot of Sagittarius: M8, M20, M22, M24, M25, M23, M18, M17, M16—these last three all nicely framed in the same field—M26, and M11 up in Scutum. Then back to the “bottom” of Scorpio and Sagittarius to catch M6 (M7 had already set behind a hill to the south—bummer), M69, M70, and M54, then all across the sky for M51, M101, M102, M13, M92, M15, back to Andromeda for a nice view of M31, M32, and M110 all prominent in the same field, M52, M103, M33, M76, and M34. I’d seen all these things before, but for most of them this was the lowest magnification I had seen them at, given that my binocular observations of them had mostly been with 15x70s. One of my favorite views of the night was M103 in Cassiopeia with NGCs 654, 663, and 659 in an arc below in the same field.

A little after 3:00 AM it was time for another goal: tracking down the outer giants. I had looked up the finder charts for Uranus and Neptune on Sky & Telescope’s website and logged their positions in my atlas. I found Neptune first, in Aquarius, using the Apex 127. Neptune was a very blue spark, and required 257x to appear non-stellar. Uranus, farther east in Pisces, was obviously non-stellar even at 64x. I also ran up to 257x on it, but the most pleasing view was at 175x. I had seen both planets before, but never as well, nor spent as much time on them as I did last night. Very strange to see giant Neptune as a tiny point of light in the mind-boggling darkness and immensity of space.

After observing planets I went back to the TS70 to continue the Messier survey. Logged M57, M56, M27, M45—absolutely stunning in the center of the field at low power—M72, M73, M2, M30, M75, M71—and old adversary from my early days with the XT6, but dead easy at low mag under dark skies—and M77. I tried for the faint face-on spiral galaxy M74 and suspected something there but couldn’t be sure. For a few these objects, including M72 and M77, I had to go up in magnification to pull them out of the skyglow or make sure they were not stars, using the 25mm (16x) and 17mm (23.5x) Plossls. I tried the 24mm ES68 but it was too heavy for the long cantilever from the mid-tube dovetail to the extended focuser tube of the TS70.

The last big show of the night was an upside-down kite shape rising in the east, with Jupiter at the top, Venus at the bottom, the thin crescent moon on the left, and Aldebaran on the right. I looked at the planets with the Apex 127 at 64x—the near-horizon seeing was bad but Venus’s crescent shape was well-defined, and Jupiter showed a couple of cloud bands and of course the four Galilean moons. Update: Pictures of this conjunction are posted here.

And that was it. The sky was rapidly getting brighter in the east, so we didn’t need artificial light to pack up. We pulled out at 5:25, went to Norm’s diner for breakfast, and I dropped Terry off at his hotel and went home for some badly-needed rack.

My final tally for the night was 8 new H400s, including NGCs 654 and 659; 44 Messiers, 42 of which I saw in the TS70; and 5 planets, including all four gas giants and Venus. Favorite observations were the flashing sky from over-the-horizon lightning, M81 and M82 in the same field in the Apex 127, M31 and both satellite galaxies in TS70, my best-yet views of Neptune and Uranus, and the dawn conjunction of planets, moon, and stars. Between dusk and dawn I observed five of the seven planets visible in a 5-inch scope, missing only Mars and Mercury (both were achievable, it turns out, I just didn’t try for them). It was a heck of a good night.

How did all the equipment perform? Stay tuned for the next post!

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Awesome video about Google+ Virtual Star Parties

July 13, 2012

A few months ago I posted about virtual star parties on Google+. At this year’s Google I/O, this video about the virtual star parties was part of the keynote presentation. The Gary Gonnella in the video? He’s a member of the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers–my club. He showed us this video, along with his eclipse and Venus transit photos, at tonight’s meeting. You’re doing us proud, Gary!

Go check it out.