Archive for March, 2013


Observing Report: Comet PanSTARRS by naked eye!

March 17, 2013

Last night London and I joined fellow PVAA members Ron, Joe, and Steve up on Mount Baldy to watch for the comet. We spotted it fairly late, at least compared to the other night in Claremont when I first saw it at 7:25 PM. Up on the mountain we didn’t see it until 7:45, but I think it was visible sooner, we were just looking in the wrong place. We didn’t see the comet sooner because we were looking too far south and too close to the horizon. On the other hand, that’s not a bad problem to have, because when did finally spot it, it was higher in the sky than any of us expected, so we got to watch it for a good long time before it got too low to see. We finally lost it in the murk over LA at about 8:15.

Some people go up to our observing spot just to watch the sun set, and last night was no exception. While we were waiting for the sun to set, I was able to show a couple of people the waxing crescent moon and Jupiter and the Galilean moons. Unfortunatelly our guests gave up and left just about 5 minutes before we spotted the comet. Still, they were very excited by the views of the moon and Jupiter. After the comet set, London and Ron and I spent a few minutes looking at bright Messier objects:  the Pleiades, the Orion nebula, and the  galaxies M81 and M82 in Ursa Major. We had another look at the moon and Jupiter and wrapped up at 8:40.

So it was a short session, but a good one. And, as the title indicates, once it got dark enough we could see the comet with our naked eyes. It wasn’t just a bright dot in the sky, but very slightly elongated, like a tiny dash or comma. In the telescope it was fantastic, with a bright, well-defined tail that stretched out for almost half a degree even in the twilight. I tried to get some pictures with my camera, but there not enough contrast between the comet and sky to get any decent results. I will sketch it one of these days.

The comet will only get higher in the sky (for northern hemisphere observers, anyway) in coming weeks and months. At the same time, it’s going to get dimmer–it’s at max brightness right now. But the light fall-off isn’t going to be crippling. Next month the comet will be a magnitude or so dimmer, but it will also be a LOT higher in the sky, and I think the latter effect will outweigh the former. So I’m expecting even better views of the comet in weeks to come.


Comet PanSTARRS, and other targets of opportunity

March 13, 2013

I had a short but very fun stargazing session tonight. I went to the top of the parking garage in downtown Claremont to look for Comet PanSTARRS. I knew that it would be horizonwards and a little right of the moon. I took the Apex 127/SV50 combo and my 15×70 binoculars. I got set up a little after 7:15 PM and started scanning the western sky, using the 15x70s and SV50 in alternation.

At 7:25 I spotted the comet in binoculars. It was down in the bright twilight glow, but it was surprisingly bright itself. Like a lot of things that you spot just as they’re coming out in the evening, once I’d found it I thought, “Dang, that’s bright, how did I miss it before now?”

Binoculars are pretty much guaranteed to be the best instrument for first picking up the comet, but it is big and bright enough to be a very rewarding telescopic target, and if you only see it in binoculars, you will definitely be missing out. Here’s a little trick for getting it in the scope: once you have it in the binoculars, scan straight down to the horizon–which ain’t far–and find a landmark. Go back up and relocate the comet, then back down again to make sure you’ve got the right landmark (I didn’t, the first time–I’d let the bins drift too much to the right on the way down). Anyway, once you’ve got the landmark, you’re golden: point the scope at the landmark and scan up to find the comet.

At 64x in the Apex 127, the nucleus seemed to be an extended object, not just a point of light. The tail swept straight up. I thought it was a little brighter and a little crisper on the north (right side in the sky, but left side in the scope). I wish I had sketched it–I’ll do that next time out.

Just a few minutes after I got the comet in my sights, a young couple pulled up and parked nearby, and invited them over to see the comet and the thin crescent moon. When the young woman saw the moon in the scope, she jerked back from the eyepiece, shook her hands, and said that the view had given her the chills. When people ask why I do sidewalk astronomy, I tell them about things like that.

Later on a family of five pulled up and I showed all of them the comet and the moon. So I had an astronomy outreach to a total of seven guests tonight. My favorite part: helping a 6-year-old kid get the 15x70s balanced on the side rail of the parking garage so he could see the moon.

If you’d like to see the comet, your best chances are in the next week or two. It will probably be bright enough to see with a telescope for weeks after that, maybe even months, but it isn’t going to get any brighter. Get over to Sky&Tel or just google “comet PanSTARRS”–the internet is falling over itself giving out instructions on how to find the comet right now.

By 7:50 all my visitors had moved on and so had the comet, lost in the hazy clouds over Los Angeles. I wasn’t done, though.

Urban decay

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before, I’m closing in on finishing two of the Astronomical League’s observing programs, the Urban Observing Club and the Double Star Club. If I’d gotten my rear in gear a month ago I could have finished them both easily by now, but my head was stuck in the Jurassic and I let too much time slip by. As of a couple of days ago, I only needed two more objects for each club: M77 and Algol for the Urban Club, and Alpha Piscium and 8 Lacertae for the Double Star Club. The trouble is, they’re all low in the western sky now, and in a month or  two they’ll be right behind the sun. So if I don’t get them pronto, I’ll have to wait a while before I’ll get another crack at them.

I got M77 Monday night from my driveway. I’d also seen it Saturday night on my Messier Marathon, of course, but that didn’t count; to be eligible for the Urban Club, the observations  have to made from someplace sufficiently light-polluted that the Milky Way is not naked-eye visible. Fortunately this galaxy has a crazy-bright core and I caught it with averted vision from the driveway even though it wasn’t fully dark yet. My time limit was set less by the sky and more by local geography: when I saw it, it was already in between the leafless branches of one of the trees in my back yard.

Algol is up in Perseus, still a good 25 or 30 degrees above the horizon at sunset, so it’s easy enough to see. That ain’t the problem. It’s the only variable star on the Urban Observing list, so I reckon I haven’t fulfilled the spirit of the thing until I’ve seen it go through one of its periodic brightness variations. These happen about every three days, which sounds great, except that they’re offset so most of them happen during the day, or when the constellation has already set. I need one of those minima to hit between about 7:00 and 9:00 PM, which is a pretty darned narrow window (why oh why didn’t I just see this thing a month ago?). I just missed one on March 7, when my head was still only in the Jurassic. The next one that is in my time window is on the evening of March 27, when I’m scheduled to be on an airplane between Texas and SoCal. The next good one after that isn’t until April 16. That one may just be doable–Perseus is far enough north that it sets pretty late from my latitude (from 40 degrees and points farther north, it doesn’t set at all).

Doing the splits can be painful

I have been kicking and kicking myself for not getting Alpha Piscium and 8 Lacertae in the past few months when they were dead overhead. I actually got Alpha Piscium in they eyepiece one night a week or two ago, but I couldn’t split it before it got lost in the trees. I found out why tonight: it’s a darned hard split.

After the comet and all my visitors had departed, I went straight to Alpha Piscium. It was already down into the near-horizon murk, which makes stars take on interesting shapes and colors that often have nothing to do with their normal night-sky appearances. At 64x it was just a dot. Same thing at 128x. Same thing at 257x, at least at first glance. But then the seeing steadied for a crucial moment and I was able to get the focus dialed in, and there it was: a double star. At high magnification in the Mak, each star is  surrounded by a neat little diffraction ring. At 257x, Alpha Piscium’s secondary component was sitting on the diffraction ring of the brighter primary, as if the primary  was sitting in the middle of a diamond ring. Like this, only I couldn’t see the diffraction ring around the secondary star so clearly. Anyway, it was a pretty sight and a righteous split.

That left me in the same place in the Double Star Club that I am in the Urban Club: 99 down, one to go. I thought that 8 Lacertae might just be possible, so I started star-hopping over that way. I almost got there, too, but just in time to see the lizard’s tail dip below the local horizon. I am pretty sure that if I try again in the next couple of nights, and go to 8 Lacertae before I  do anything else, I’ll be able to get it. It’s a nice wide multiple star, so it shouldn’t be a tough split, if I can just get on target before it sets.

Sunset birding

Another crazy good scope deal

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point this out: Orion has put their 20×50 compact spotting scope on clearance for $29.99. You can get it through the Orion site or this Amazon link. I am familiar with this scope–London and I gave it a test drive at the Orion store in Watsonville last summer, and on the strength of that encounter London asked for and received one for his birthday last November. We’ve had it out to the Salton Sea a couple of times now, so we’ve gotten to use it for daytime spotting and out under the stars.

How does it do? Well, it’s a 50mm spotting scope, and like most such devices, it basically is a finderscope and has no other finder or provision for one. Also, you’re stuck at 20x. So for nighttime use, you’re going to get binocular-esque views of the moon, planets, and a handful of the brighter DSOs (think Pleiades, Orion, Andromeda) and that’s about it. Also, it’s a short, fast refractor, so there is some false color on bright objects. To be fair, though, almost all spotting scopes are short, fast refractors (‘cept for the Maks), and other than the ED models that cost hundreds to thousands, they all show chromatic aberration. Even my beloved SV50 throws up some false color, and I don’t think the Orion spotter is noticeably worse in this regard.

Going handheld

It’s much more rewarding to use during the daytime. I don’t know why Orion is closing them out, but it probably isn’t image quality, because the two I’ve looked through have been nice and sharp. In addition to the zippered soft-side storage case, the scope comes with a velcro-tabbed, padded fabric wrap-around, similar to the weather-resistant ‘view-through’ cases on some high-end spotters (but offering less than total coverage). This has a padded hand-strap so you can take the scope off a tripod (not included, nor would you want any tripod they could include at this price point–trust me) and use it handheld. This is surprisingly effective, and London and I have taken to carrying his scope along on our morning hikes when we’re camping.

Any downsides, aside from the aforementioned false color? The helical focuser was a little stiff for the first few uses. The usual solution with sticky focusers is to twist them all the way in and out a few times to get the lubricant evenly distributed over all the surfaces. I did that with London’s spotting scope and sure enough, the problem went away. Focusing is a breeze now.


Raw, unmodified photo of some gulls at about 50 yards, taken afocally through the Orion 20×50 compact spotting scope using my Nikon Coolpix 4500.

So, long story short, I dunno why Orion is closing these out, because I think they’re fine little scopes. I haven’t noticed any lasting problems in several days and nights of field use, and if I didn’t already have a 50mm scope of my own, I’d be all over this. It’s a decent buy at $50 and a steal at $30. If you need a small spotting scope, period, or something to keep in the car for impromptu scenery- or wildlife-watching sessions, or something for that kid you know who is interested in nature and science, this thing ought to fill the bill. I’m tempted to get another one myself, to keep in the storage compartment under the back seat of the Mazda. But if you’re interested, don’t tarry–Orion is already out of the spotting-scope-plus-tripod packages, and I don’t imagine the scopes themselves will last long at this price.


Observing Report: the accidental Messier Marathon

March 11, 2013


Saturday night London and I went camping at the Salton Sea, and I took another stab at a Messier Marathon.

I did basically zero prep. I didn’t even think about checking the weather to see if camping was possible until noon on Saturday. Normally for a marathon attempt I have custom charts and checklists printed and I’ve been boning up on the positions and IDs of all the Messier objects for a few weeks. This time, nada. I have a laminated card with all the Messier objects plotted that I keep on my clipboard, and I took along Harvard Pennington’s The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide (which everyone interested in deep sky observing should own), but my object checklist was handwritten because we don’t have a printer at home and I didn’t have time to go find one. That pretty much tells you all you need to know about my level of readiness.


I was rolling with new kit this time. In fact, I’ve rolled with different kit every time I’ve attempted a marathon. In 2010 I used my XT6, which was still my biggest telescope at the time. For my first attempt in 2011 I used “Stubby Fats”, a 5″ f/5 reflector I sold last year. For my second attempt in 2011 I used the XT10, which is still my big gun. Oddly enough, I didn’t make a marathon attempt last year; I can’t remember why not.

Yes, that is an eyepatch hanging from the SV50.

Yes, that is an eyepatch hanging from the SV50.

This time I used my new tandem rig: my Apex 127 Mak with my SV50 refractor mounted alongside as a deluxe finder. This idea, of having a small rich-field scope mounted alongside a planet-killer, has been a gleam in my eye for a while. I toyed around with DIYing it, but the whole point was to get a rig that Just Works. My adventures in ATMing having convinced me that while some folks can build things that Just Work, I get that level of performance from someone else’s quality control. The first component was a set of 144mm inside diameter tube rings to hold the Apex 127 OTA. That let me rotate it so the finder dovetail faced straight sideways. The second part was a set of actual Stellarvue finder rings. These are crazy nice–the adjustment screws are metal, but with little nylon inserts at the tip so they won’t scratch the telescope tube.

I got this all assembled last year, but right at the end of my fall observing season, so I only used it once, which was the Oct. 20-21 Salton Sea run with David DeLano. Although I haven’t blogged about before now, I have actually gotten out a couple of times this spring, and so far I’ve been using the Apex 127/SV50 setup exclusively. I’m sure the XT10 isn’t out of a job–it can still pull down four times as much light as anything else I own–but the tandem rig is so convenient and flexible that I think it will probably be my default observing setup for the foreseeable future.

Evening Rush

The evening rush was a little stressful. Partly because I was rusty and I knew it, partly because I was worried about the weather, and partly because we were hungry. On the weather front, it was cool and cloudy here in Claremont and indeed all over southern California on Saturday morning. Weather Underground was predicting that it would clear off at the Salton Sea, but only just in time for nightfall, and I have seen things get foggy there fast. Happily the clouds did open up as we drove past Cabazon and out of the LA basin, and by the time we got to the campground there were just a couple of small stragglers left.

I was hungry because in keeping with the rest of the late decision to go and near-total lack of planning, we got to the sea just as it was getting dark, so we didn’t have time to get dinner on before I had to go catch the early-evening objects. I wasn’t so worried for myself, but I felt bad making London wait on dinner while I tried to track down faint fuzzies. Fortunately we had some snacks along to tide him over, and he’s pretty self-directed when he has free time and room to roam.

In the actual event, though, I did get all of the evening rush objects. The toughest were M110 and M74. M110 was tough because I’m not still not used to the upright-but-left-right-reversed view through the Mak, and it took an embarrassing amount of faffing about to find it. M74 is legendarily tough: a fairly faint galaxy that is the closest Messier object to the horizon during the spring marathon season. I did finally find it, thanks to the detailed finder charts in Pennington’s Field Guide, a lot of looking, all the dark adaptation I could muster on short notice, and strategic ue of averted vision. I finally spotted an extremely dim glow, but I couldn’t hold it even in averted vision. I noted the position of the suspected glow with respect to some field stars and switched eyepieces. I fine-tuned my aim, looked away from the target point, and caught the glow in the same spot in averted vision. That’s all I needed.

A Second Evening Rush

By 7:40 I’d caught the eight evening rush targets and bought myself some breathing room, so I knocked off for a bit. London and I cooked some hotdogs over the campfire and got our camp arranged a bit more satisfactorily. We’d pretty much just been throwing stuff around when we first arrived, so I could get set up and start logging objects.

My second session was short but extremely productive: between 8:36 and 8:52 I logged 17 objects. After a short break, I nailed M52 at 9:06, and bought myself a long break. Time for toasted marshmalllows, s’mores, and curling up together in the lounge chair to look for shooting stars and tell stories.

London with the Orion 20x50 compact spotting scope he got for his birthday. More on that scope in a future post (but if you're impatient, it's solid).

London with the Orion 20×50 compact spotting scope he got for his birthday. More on that scope in a future post (but if you’re impatient, it’s solid).

The Long Mid-Game

London sacked out a little after 10:30 and I got back to work. There were really only three notable mid-game events. First, it took me 17 minutes to get through the 16 galaxies in Virgo and Coma using only the scope–one more minute than last time, when I used only binoculars. Second, at some point in the early morning I got my first look at Saturn this year. The seeing was rotten, but it was still breathtaking. Third, a little after three I noticed that Centaurus was over the horizon so I grabbed the binoculars and swept up Omega Centauri, by far the largest of the Milky Way’s known globular clusters, which is atmospherically dimmed at this latitude but still a majestic sight.

Except for a couple of shortish breaks, I was observing pretty steadily from about 11:15 to about 3:45. I pushed much farther into the morning rush objects than I usually do before I took my siesta. When I knocked off at 3:40, I had 104 objects logged, so I was already in personal best territory (my previous record was 103, from late April, 2011). I figured I could afford 45 minutes of rest while the last few objects crawled over the horizon, so I set my alarm for 4:25 and got flat. As usual on marathon siestas, true sleep eluded me, but I did at least drift a bit.

Morning Rush

Aye-yi-yi. Somehow I always underestimate just how brutal the morning rush is. When I got up and got myself sorted, my first target was M15, which was dead easy. M75 didn’t put up much of a fight, either. But then I went into Capricorn, after M72 and M73. M72 is a glob, like M75, and theoretically it shouldn’t have been that hard, but no matter what I tried I just could not see it. Maybe the atmospheric extinction near the horizon was just worse than I thought, because I had the scope bang on the exact spot, but there was nothing in the eyepiece.

At 4:50 I noticed something alarming: the sky was getting noticeably brighter in the east. Not good! I popped down to M73 and got it easily. Then I started trying for M2, which was right behind a palm tree, so I started waltzing the scope around in what was now obviously getting on toward dawn. Fortunately M2 is pretty bright and it was an easy catch at 4:57. It was also my last catch. I did one last scan for M72 and took a token pass at M30, but neither were showing, so that was that.

March 2013 Messier marathon log


I ended with 108 objects. I logged 72 objects only with one or both telescopes, 19 with binoculars only, and 17 with both the bins and one or both of the scopes.

How do I feel about the outcome? Well, there is no question that I could have logged M15 and M2 earlier than I did, which would have left more time for M72 and M30. Maybe if I hadn’t felt rushed I could have brought the full suite of techniques to bear on M72 that I did on M74, but the fact is that I was in a hurry and scattered and just less methodical. Whether that would have helped or not, I don’t know. It certainly woulnd’t have hurt, but I seriously wonder if the sky conditions were good enough. March 9 is pretty early in the season for a marathon–according to Harvard Pennington, the very best chances are new moon nights between March 30 and April 3, which obviously don’t happen every year. This early in the season, all the evening rush objects are higher in the sky and therefore easier, but the morning rush objects are lower and therefore harder. (How much difference does that make? Well, there are 12 months in a year, so if I try again next month, everything will be 1/12th of the way around the sky, relative to the sun, from where it was this weekend. That’s a lot of celestial real estate.) I think M30 was probably impossible, this early in the season and given the imperfect near-horizon sky conditions–but I’d kill to have gotten on target for a try before the brightening sky made it a definite impossibility.

Still, I am pretty darned happy. I missed getting the full slate of 110, but I didn’t miss it by much, and 108 feels much more like Messier Marathon success than 103 did. Heck, the guys who invented the Messier Marathon were stuck at 108 for a year (1979) and then 109 for several years before they finally sealed the deal in 1985 (for more about that history, see Pennington’s Field Guide and this awesome page). I feel like I’ve graduated into the ranks of Marathoners who have only been beaten by the legitimately gnarly nature of the quest.

And I’m spoiling for a rematch. April 6 will be close enough to new moon as makes no difference, so if the weather is good, maybe I’ll get another crack at bagging the whole enchilada.

The tape stripe marks the balance point of the whole rig with eyepieces and without lens caps, so I can mount it correctly every time.

The tape stripe marks the balance point of the whole rig with eyepieces and without lens caps, so I can mount it correctly every time.

Gear, Redux

I used binoculars a lot less this year than in previous marathons. That’s down to two things. First, I forgot my 15x70s, so I was rolling with the old Celestron 10x50s that I now keep in the car on a permanent basis. They’re fine, they just don’t pull in nearly as much light as the 15x70s, and they lose some attractiveness for that reason. Second, having the SV50 mounted alongside the Apex 127 was like having a high-end binocular I could park. I was using the 23mm eyepiece that came with the scope, so only 8.9x, but I often could see things in the SV50 that I couldn’t see in the 10x50s, so as the evening wore on I gravitated more and more to using the SV50 and skipping the bins entirely. I’m super-happy with the tandem scope setup; it is working out exactly as I’d hoped.

Where You Been, Flake?

Not-quite-finally, I’m sorry to those of you who have commented or emailed lately and not gotten a response. Paleontology has kept me cuh-ray-zee busy this spring, as it did last spring–my coauthor Mike Taylor and I had a paper published last month (free to read here), we have another due out any day now, and we have two more due to the publisher at the end of this month. So that’s where I’ve been. I am sorry for going so completely AWOL and especially for falling behind on my correspondence. If you’re a regular, thanks for not giving up on 10MA while I’ve been on hiatus (and if you’re new here, welcome, and expect periodic delays!).

Welcome to the Club!

Really finally, there’s a new addition to the blogroll on the sidebar. The Thwarted Astronomer is the stargazing blog of my friend Fiona Taylor (spouse of the Mike Taylor I do dinosaur research with and blog with), who lives in England, in the village of Ruardean, near the border of Wales. I have been to Ruardean to visit Fiona and Mike many times, and I can attest that their skies are freaking amazing, when (operative bit) there are no clouds. Which is not often. So, long story short, Fiona has caught the astronomy bug, but the lack of observing opportunities is getting her down. Since we have some regulars here who probably have it even worse, like Doug Rennie up in Oregon, I was hoping maybe y’all could cheer her up.

All right, that’s it for now. See you back here before another month is up, I promise.