Archive for March, 2016


A new gig

March 28, 2016

I’ve kept mum about this, but now the official announcement has come out in the May issue of Sky & Telescope so I can blab. Gary Seronik is leaving S&T to go assume the chief editorship at SkyNews, the leading Canadian astronomy magazine. S&T needed people to take over Gary’s ‘Telescope Workshop’ and ‘Binocular Highlights’ columns. For ‘Telescope Workshop’ – now to be recast as ‘Astronomer’s Workbench’ and include other DIY astro tools alongside telescopes – they got Jerry Oltion, whose creative ATM projects have been featured in the column many times.

And for ‘Binocular Highlights’ they got me. I’ll try not to muck it up.

Actually it’s a very welcome thing, for several reasons. I’ve always been a pretty feckless observer – without an observing program to keep my focused, I just go where the wind takes me, and sometimes that means “nowhere”. The necessity of turning in a short but polished* piece on a different object each month will hopefully spur me to be more systematic about my observing. One or two close friends have wondered whether the monthly deadline will prove oppressive, but so far it’s been good, for reasons described below.

* Or at least polishable – I owe my editor, S.N. Johnson-Roehr, a big thanks for her thoughtful improvements to my pieces, and an even bigger thanks for the opportunity to write ‘Binocular Highlights’ for a while.

Also, doing more binocular observing lines up nicely with where my interests have been taking me in the last two to three years. After several years of semi-committedly chasing faint fuzzies with my dob, I’ve been getting more into low-stress, low-power, widefield observing, primarily with refractors. Last October’s observing runs up at Big Bear exemplify this trend. And if you keep going down the path of low power and wide fields, eventually you wind up with binoculars.

Finally – and somewhat to my surprise – I’ve really been enjoying getting out to observe by myself. Traditionally I’ve been a social stargazer, sometimes to the extent of not observing unless there’s someone else around to observe with. And I still love doing that. But when I first got started in amateur astronomy back in 2007 and 2008, almost all of my observing was solo, and there was something very peaceful about being all alone out under the stars. I have sometimes lost sight of that as my life has gotten busier in recent years.

But, hey, now I have an obligation to get out and observe – it’s my job! And with articles due to the magazine about four months before they’ll see print, the objects that will be well-placed in the evening sky when a given issue comes out are up just before dawn when that month’s article is due. So if I want to have one more look – to confirm previous observations and double-check that I haven’t missed anything – I have to go on dawn patrol, which is strictly a solo pursuit (given that my friends aren’t masochists).

I assume that writing the column will affect my blogging here, but I don’t know how much or in what ways. There are a couple of threats: first, that I’ll pour all of my creative energy into my writing for S&T and have nothing left over for the blog, and second, that I’ll use up all of my good material for S&T and let the blogging fall off to avoid duplications. My crystal ball is notoriously cloudy (remember the much-discussed, never-attempted Suburban Messier Project?), but I’m not too worried about either one. As far as exhausting my creative energy goes, writing the column simply isn’t that demanding. It takes a couple of days of thought and effort, but most months I’m either blogging here more often than that, or not at all, as time, mood, and opportunity allow.

And as far as using up all the good material for S&T and having no “spare observations” left over for the blog – forget about it. I was worried about this until my latest dawn patrol session. I was cruising in and around Cygnus and I spent a little over an hour making notes on a dozen or so objects. And I realized that if I only hit Cygnus once or twice a year for the column, that one observing run gave me enough material for 6 to 12 years. Things may change in the future, but for now the sequence is:

  1. Realize I need to find something good for the next Binocular Highlights.
  2. Go observe systematically in an area I’ve only hit opportunistically before.
  3. Find enough cool things that it would take a decade of columns to cover them.
  4. Get excited about all of those ‘extra’ things and feel compelled to blog about them.

Okay, so the fourth thing hasn’t happened yet, but hopefully it will in the next post, and in many posts to come.

One final note – I am acutely aware that Gary Seronik will be a tough act to follow. When JR wrote to ask me if I was interested in taking over BH, I wrote, “Assuming I don’t die of anxiety of influence, I’d love to do this.” It wasn’t hollow talk. Gary’s Binocular Highlights book was one of the booster rockets that got my observing career off the pad back when, and I still recommend it regularly. The legacy of work he’s already produced in other books, magazines, and at his website is already immense, and it will only grow with his chief editorship at SkyNews and his future projects.

Those are some mighty big shoes. I am not going to be able to fill them, so I’m not going to try. I wrote to Gary earlier this spring to thank him for the good work he’s done and ask his advice, and among the other helpful things he said, he basically told me to go have fun and develop my own voice. The first of those is fait accompli, and the second is, and will remain, a work in progress. I hope you’ll come along, and let me know how I’m doing and what I can do better. Clear skies!


My article in the April 2016 Sky & Telescope

March 8, 2016

SnT cover April 2016 - annotated

Getting this posted a bit belatedly, as this issue has been on newsstands for about a week already. When I wrote about my first S&T article last year, I said that my editor, JR, and I had “batted some ideas back and forth and quickly settled on the winter Milky Way”. The other ideas didn’t go away, they just got put off. This binocular tour of the Virgo Messier galaxies is one of those other ideas. Hopefully more will be along in the future – assuming I’m successful in bringing them to fruition, and that the staff – and readers! – of Sky & Telescope continue to be happy with them.

Incidentally, although I aimed the article at binocular users, it should serve as a perfectly cromulent guide for telescopic observations as well.

Have suggestions for how I can improve? The comment field is open.


Guest post: Celestron NexStar 6SE unboxing and first light report, by Doug Rennie

March 6, 2016

Regular commenter and sometime contributor Doug Rennie recently took possession of a Celestron NexStar 6SE Schmidt-Cassegrain with GoTo. He kindly sent some unboxing photos and this first light report. I’ve scattered the pictures through the text. Thanks, Doug! – MJW

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After unboxing and assembling by gorgeous new 6SE, I figured that it would be a good week, maybe longer before we had an actual clear night here in Western Oregon.

Didn’t turn out that way.

The “New Scope Curse” was SUPPOSED to happen according to the forecast, but I walked out back around 7 and looked up into a totally clear and even dark (relatively) sky. I hadn’t expected this, so had done no real SE6 prep work. Whatever, I hauled it out back and screwed around with the hand controller enough to set the time, location, etc and then did the Auto Two Star alignment, picking Betelgeuse and then letting the Nexstar find star #2, Mirfak.


The mount whirred, the OTA moved. Then it stopped.

I started punching in targets, starting with the Double Cluster. The scope talked some more as it moved up to where I know the DC is, then stopped again and I hesitantly looked in the EP. The DC was not centered, but I could see the top 10% peeking up across the bottom edge of the FOV, so I did a little pop on the direction arrow and——zip!——there it was, right in the middle. Beautiful, breathtaking, as always. Sharp and clear and bright. As good as any view of the DC as I’ve had.


Then I spent about 90 minutes punching buttons and just flying around everywhere. Some objects (M42, M34, M35, some NGCs in Cassiopeia were in the FOV, albeit in the lower third while others were just outside it to varying degrees but I was able in short order to move them inside it.

The views I had of the three Auriga open clusters——M36, M37, M38——were the best ever. Maybe a hundred stars in each, and M37 appeared to be bathed in this kind of soft-glow pale silver dust. Mesmerizing.


Kemble’s Cascade was the best catch for the go-to, smack dab in the center and just magnificent. I wanted to do a sketch but was too busy jumping around, reveling in my new found power to stick the landing wherever I wanted.

Other than the foregoing, a partial list also includes NGCs 129, 225, 457 (terrific image of the ET Cluster), the 663/654 “near double cluster”, 1027, 2244, 2169, 2264 the Christmas Tree (another absolute sparkler), IC1848.


Now there must be some way to “adjust” the Nexstar go-to when your object is not quite in the FOV; with the Meade system, once you manually center a new object, you hit “Sync” and the system fine tunes itself based on that object and subsequent objects are then centered. So I’m sure there is some way to adjust intermittently during an observing session to improve pointing accuracy. I guess I could, you know, maybe read the manual.


What a blast this was! I saw as many objects——some for the first time——in 90 minutes as I normally see in a month. And there were another dozen objects that the 6SE slewed to but were too low, blocked by the high rooflines to my south, southwest and west. I have since learned that there is a filter where I can set a lower limit, in my case probably about +20 degrees and the go-to will not seek objects below this. Which will save a lot of time as in the “too low dozen”, the OTA ended up pointing at a wall.

And the optics are excellent. On some objects, such as the DC and Kemble’s Cascade, I think the image sharpness was on a par, or close to it, with that in my refractors. On others, particularly those with a brighter large star or two (The sextuple star Struve 761 in Orion comes to mind), they were maybe a half-notch softer than in the refractors but still better than in a Dob.


Other than the few I mention above, the SCT doesn’t quite have that pure pinpoint quality on stars that my smaller refractors ES AR 102, SV80ED, C102) have. But I didn’t expect it to, and it’s certainly——and satisfyingly——close enough. Just a delightful scope to use, and it’s only going to get better once I am fully flight trained.

Also, part of the above SCT-refractor discrepancy could be that the 6SE had zero cool down time. I mean, I took it from the warm sun room right out to the patio and fired it up immediately.


Oh, and I had the f/6.3 focal reducer plugged in the whole time; this cuts down the 6SE’s f/l from 1500mm to 945mm. I will probably leave it in most of the time, removing it for planets and for lunar closeups and the dim deeper stuff. So with this focal reducer, I essentially have two different ‘scopes for the price of one.

I used mainly the ES 24/68 and ES 16/68 during this session.