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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.

DSCN0884

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.

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5 comments

  1. I’ve spotted the comet the last three evenings. I meant to get out Tuesday when the fresh crescent moon was near it, but missed the window to catch it. Wednesday and Thursday were very clear nights here in Phoenix, and I was able to catch the comet both nights in binoculars, and once I knew where it was, could spot it naked eye. This comet is brighter than I thought it would be, and quite a nice view. The naked eye view is nothing more than a glint, like the sun shining off an airplane or satellite, but it is there.

    Tonight was a bit rougher. I thought I was going to get clouded out. As even came, the clouds thinned somewhat, but not a clear view on the horizon. I was still able to spot the comet through a thin veil of clouds, and could still make it out naked eye (and no, I don’t have better than average eyesight – in fact it’s worse).

    I’ve been out anywhere from 7-8 local time. 7:30 is about the optimal time for catching it were the sky is dark enough, yet the comet still high enough to get over the tree line. Note that is AZ time and we don’t do DST, so adjust your viewing time accordingly.

    I have shown a half dozen people the comet through the binoculars. I’ve only had one person who couldn’t find it, but that was tonight with the veil of clouds.

    Recommended!!!!


  2. I just checked the Orion site, and the 20×50 spotting scope is listed at $24.99.


  3. I tried for the comet again tonight, but this time from home, and only naked eye. I may have caught it for a brief moment, but could not find it again. This view is looking down the street, and unfortunately has street lights in the vicinity of where the comet should appear.


  4. […] 2012. London was more excited than usual about the actual stargazing. We took along his Astroscan, 50mm spotting scope, and 7×35 binoculars, and he used them all. He was also curious about the Travel Scope 70 so I […]


  5. […] Terry’s Orion Short-Tube 80, and London’s 20×50 Orion spotting scope (reviewed here). Terry had been going to bring a 4.5-inch reflector but the Clear Sky Chart said that conditions […]



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