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Observing Report: SkyScanning on Mount Baldy

September 5, 2020

Backstory: from NEOWISE to Jupiter to the stars

Since I write a monthly column for Sky & Telescope, I can’t ever just quit observing (this is a good thing). But I do go through dry spells where I only observe enough to feed the column. Other times my observing ticks up, usually when something comes along to prod me into getting out more. In July it was comet NEOWISE, then last month it was seeing Jupiter and Saturn so big and bright in the southern sky, with Mars coming along close to midnight. At the same time, I was doing some unrelated sorting and straightening in our home office and I rediscovered some unfinished logbooks for observing projects–the Binocular Double Star and Galileo program logbooks for the Astronomical League (available here), and logbooks I put together for myself for Stephen James O’Meara’s Hidden Treasures and Secret Deep. One of the Galileo club projects is to observe Jupiter’s moons for 17 nights in a row, and use those observations to determine the orbits of the moons. This is a good time of year for such a survey, because we’re pretty much guaranteed 17 clear nights in a row.

For the Galileo club, there is no limit on aperture but there is on magnification: to count, observations have to be made at 20x or lower. My longest focal length eyepiece is the 32mm Plossl, so any scope with a focal length over 640mm is out. In practice that only disqualified the XT10 dob (1200mm) and Apex 127 Mak (1540mm). The C80ED just slipped in–with a focal length of 60mm, it gives 18.75x with the 32mm EP. In the end I made a few of the observations with that scope, and a few more with the little SV50 that I mounted side-saddle with the Apex 127, but my most-used scope for the Galilean moon survey was my serendipitously-purchased and much-modified SkyScanner 100. I didn’t have time for a big observing session every night, but I could grab the SkyScanner with one hand, plop it on the hood of the truck, and be on target in about as much time as it took to compose this sentence.

During this period I was also periodically faffing about with London’s 60mm Meade refractor, and also with the 80mm “reflactor” I nicknamed the Ferret (see this post). I need to do a full writeup on that scope soon. But the point for now is that over a span of about three weeks, I was using most of the scopes in my arsenal:

  • Apex 127 for high-power views of Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon, and Mars
  • C80ED, for the same targets
  • London’s 60mm Meade, for the same targets
  • SkyScanner, for low-power observations of Jupiter’s moons
  • SV50, for the same
  • the Ferret, for evaluation purposes

About the only scopes I didn’t haul out during this period were the XT10, Bresser AR102s, and Tasco/Vixen 9VR. The upshot is that I had the opportunity to compare the SkyScanner to a lot of other small scopes, of varying designs, apertures, and focal lengths. I kept coming back to the same thoughts:

  1. The SkyScanner pulls down a lot of light; 4″ is a formidable aperture for a 6-lb scope (with mount!) that is easily carried in one hand.
  2. The focal length is short, so magnification is limited, but the images are bright and the field of view is wide.
  3. With the collimation dialed in, and at the low magnifications I was using, the images were very sharp and contrasty.

Then I realized a few more things:

  1. These are all the same attributes I love about the Bresser AR102s–which is, for its aperture, the finest deep-sky scope I’ve ever owned–but in an even smaller package, capable of even wider fields.
  2. In four years of owning the SkyScanner, I’d mostly used it for quick peeks at bright stuff from the driveway, and I’d barely used it on the deep sky at all.
  3. Despite all my yapping about small scopes (exhibits A, B, C, and D, for starters), I’d never done a serious observing program with one.

Clearly, I needed to get the SkyScanner out to a dark site and spend some time chasing DSOs. A Messier survey seemed like just the ticket, to get a handle on the capabilities of the scope, and to ease myself back into deep-sky work. Also, although I look at the best-and-brightest Messiers almost every time I’m out, the lion’s share of my Messier observations have been made in the spring, in preparation for or during a Messier Marathon. It would be nice to reacquaint myself with those objects at a different time of year.

A Perfectly Imperfect Start

Normally for deep-sky work I’d head to the desert, someplace like Anza-Borrego Desert State Park or Afton Canyon if I wanted super-dark skies, or Owl Canyon or the Salton Sea for convenient, decently-dark skies. But it’s hotter than two hells in SoCal right now–out at Owl Canyon this weekend, it’s still going to be 86F at midnight. Even here on Mount Baldy the nighttime low was supposed to be 75F, but that’s at least doable, and I’ve done plenty of observing from Cow Canyon Saddle and Glendora Ridge Road. It would work. Except that when I got up there last night, Glendora Ridge Road was closed because of the extreme fire danger, because of the extreme heat and the fact that it’s the middle of our dry season.

Oh well, no worries, I know of a couple of turnouts that are deep enough that I could set up 50-100 feet from the road, and put the scope on the far side of the truck to block most of the headlights. So I went to one of those and got all set up: SkyScanner on a tripod, binoculars to hand, charts and logbook on a folding table, plenty of water and snacks.

Then the moon came up.

Normally for deep-sky work I’d head out near the dark of the moon, but the fact is, I was impatient. So I decided to go out last night, knowing that the waning gibbous moon would rise at some point, but figuring that between the transparent mountain air, local hilltops and ridgelines to put me in shadow, and the fact that moon is waning, I’d be okay. Then I spent too much time messing around at the house, and I didn’t actually get set up on the mountain until 10:15, about 3 hours after sunset and a full hour and a half after astronomical twilight. The moon was already lighting up the ridgeline to the west, and before midnight it had crested the ridge to the east, and was falling directly on me. I could almost read the charts without a flashlight.

I had to laugh, because my very first observing session using a SkyScanner was with Doug Rennie back in 2012, when we’d been out 3 nights after the full moon. It was the same this time, almost to the minute: the full moon had been at 10:22 PM on September 1. But I was also encouraged, because Doug and I had a great time then chasing DSOs under a bright sky with a small scope. Would I be able to replicate that success?

Aside: Training the Eye vs Stressing Over Gear

Also, in general, my observing philosophy is “go for it”. Amateur astronomers can be a neurotic lot, agonizing over setups and field of view and light throughput and a thousand mechanical and behavioral minutiae to squeeze every last photon out of every last carefully-deployed dollar of gear–I know, because that’s what about half the posts on this blog are about. But there is also freedom in setting all of that aside, being grateful for optics that Galileo or Messier would have eaten their own legs off to get hold of, and just looking. So the conditions are imperfect. So your optics are suboptimal, cheap or small or chintzy or some combination of the above. What’s better, observing, or not observing? The astronomy police aren’t going to come lock you up for doing it wrong. Some of my most memorable observing sessions have happened with suboptimal gear under suboptimal conditions, which raises the question of what “suboptimal” even means in this case. Did you see stuff in the sky? Did you have fun, or find the experience educational or rewarding, or get to share it with another human being? Good enough.

Before someone misunderstands my point, I’m not saying just run out and buy any old things. As I’ve said about choosing vs using binoculars, there are loads of things you can and should consider when you purchase an observing instrument. But if you’re going out to observe, use whatever you have to hand. Don’t worry about its quality, get out there under the stars and let it show you what it can do.

A couple of quotes come to mind here. One is something I read some time ago on Cloudy Nights. I thought I had it saved somewhere, but to my immense irritation, I can’t find it at the moment, so I don’t know who said it or when. Nevertheless, it went something like this:

“I realized that most serious observers go after objects that are near the limits of their instruments. Even for a small telescope, that is hundreds or thousands of objects. And I’ve been happily pursuing small-scope observing ever since.”

EDIT: Of course, within about an hour of posting this, I’d found the quote–in one of my own previous posts! The post of mine is “Big fish with light tackle“, the quote was from CN user blb, originally posted here, and here’s what he actually wrote, quoted at a bit more length:

“No matter what size telescope you use, it seems that you are looking at objects that are on the limits of what can be seen with that size scope. Once I realized this and read, some years ago now, what Jay Reynolds Freeman had to say about his observations, I came to realize there were way more objects to be seen in a small telescope than I would probably see in my lifetime. Having come to this realization I made a list of the galaxies that could be seen in a small scope. I included all the Messier, Caldwell, Herschel 400, those listed in Stephen O’Meara’s books, and a few more that others said were possible to see and you know what? Given dark skies and good dark adaption using averted vision, tube tapping, heavy breathing and all the tricks a good deep sky observer uses, there were well over 600 galaxies that could be seen. Now that does not include globular clusters, open clusters, planetary nebula, bright nebula, reflection nebula and dark nebula. What about double stars? There are over 10,000 that can be seen in a 4-inch telescope, most of which are seldom observed. Now add to all that the ease of portability, setup, and use, you see why I have used primarily these two small telescopes the past couple of years.”

The other is from Stephen James O’Meara’s introduction to Walter Scott Houston’s Deep Sky Wonders:

“Scotty had a light touch and avoided being distracted by technical details. You don’t find any invidious comparisons of different telescope or eyepiece brands in his writing or much about the nitty-gritty of equipment at all, because Scotty knew that the most important piece of equipment was the eye, and its training the most important activity; all else was trivial by comparison. Time wasted arguing the virtues of one eyepiece over another was time not spent honing your observing skills.”

Heck yeah. Let’s go misuse a telescope!

The SkyScanner Messier Survey, Part 1

So there I was, set up on a dusty highway turnout, bathed in moonlight, about to go chase Messier objects with a scope that actually would fit in a breadbox. I didn’t want to mess with my whole eyepiece case so I’d just taken five:

  1. a 32mm Plossl for max field of view;
  2. a 28mm RKE because it’s my favorite;
  3. a 17mm Kellner I found in a box of miscellaneous astro-junk and have been evaluating;
  4. a 12mm Plossl that is wonderfully clear and sharp;
  5. and a Celestron 8-24mm zoom.

However, very quickly after I started observing I narrowed down to just two: the 28mm RKE, which gives 14.3x and a true field of just over 3 degrees, and the 12mm Plossl, for 33x and about 1.6 degrees. I don’t have a magnifying finder for this scope, and the moon was wiping out a lot of the dimmer stars, so my usual program was to use a green laser pointer to get the scope on a bright star, then star-hop from there.

And now, finally, on to my observations, mostly verbatim from my logbook. Times are indicated here and there, whenever I remembered to check. Scorpius and Sagittarius were still up when I started, but squarely in the light dome over the Inland Empire. I’d scanned them with 7×50 binos and seen nothing, and I didn’t try with the scope. Instead, I turned to the west, to catch some things before they set.

M13 – an easy catch at 14x, didn’t try at 33x. (10:45 PM)

M92 – same.

M57 – visible in averted vision at 12x with 32mm Plossl, a bit easier at 14x in 28mm RKE, easy and with a hint of donut-osity at 33x with 12mm Plossl.

M56 – visible at 14x, better at 33x.

M71 – barely there at 33x. Suspected in 28mm RKE, though. (11:20 PM)

M27 – easy in 28mm RKE even in these skies. Need to do some comparison tests from home.

M29 – easy catch in downtown Cygnus.

M39 – very easy.

Then I got up, walked around, drank some water and some caffeine, and sat on a boulder to eat a snack. Breaks like that are important in a long session. When I got back to the scope, it was time to head north.

M52 – suffering under this moonlight. Suspected at 14x, confirmed at 33x.

M31 – MUCH reduced, basically down to just the core, but the core was easy.

M32 – suspected as a fuzzy star at 14x, confirmed at 33x.

I didn’t even try for M110, it really suffers under any light pollution, including that of the moon. Instead, I tried for M76. I got to the right field, but I could see nothing at 14x. I suspected it at 33x, barely, maybe, but not enough to count it. We’ll have a rematch under better conditions.

M103 – surprisingly easy at 14x, but still not a nice as nearby NGC 663.

Here I spent some time using the Double Cluster, Trumpler 2, and the Alpha Persei Association to star-hop to M34.

M34 – big, bright, detailed, easy, even at low magnification.

At that point I’d gotten all the easy northern ones. The Pleiades were not quite up yet, on account of a close hill to the east. Instead, I turned south.

M11 – probably the worst view of it I have ever had, but it was there, at both 14x and 33x.

M15 – dead easy at 14x, even with the moon behind me shining right into the eyepiece when I move my head.

M2 – bright, easy, maybe even easier than M15. Have I been neglecting a great glob just because it’s kind of a pain in Messier Marathon season? I repeated the star hop from M15 to M2 with the 7×50 binos and again thought that M2 was a little easier catch. Definitely going to have to spend more time with this object. (1:15 AM)

On the star-hop from Sadalsuud (Beta Aquarii) to M73 and M72, I stopped at NGC 7009, the Saturn Nebula. It was visible at 14x but I had to go up to 33x to confirm that it was non-stellar.

At 1:30 I happened to be glancing at the ridgeline to the west when I saw a very bright meteor going past Saturn, from northwest to southeast. It was a fireball, and as I watched it visibly broke up into a handful of gradually-diverging chunks that individually flamed out and went dark. It was easily the best meteor I’d seen in years.

M73 – kinda stupid, since it’s just 4 stars, but not that hard. Spotted easily at 14x, but had to go to 33x to confirm that it was non-stellar.

I tried hard to get M72. I was dead on and using every trick in the book, including cupping my hands around my observing eye to bock stray light and breathing deeply, but I could only barely suspect it at 33x, and not well enough to count it. It was way down in the murk over LA and the Inland Empire. I could see the mag 9.3 star next door, but not the mag 9.4 cluster. Sometimes visibility hinges on such tiny increments (that, and the fact that the cluster’s light is distributed across its face, leading to an even lower surface brightness).

M30 – could not see it at 14x, then it was easy at 33x, and then when I went back to 14x it was tough but doable; I just needed to know where to look.

I went after M75 and after star-hopping across literally the entire constellation of Capricornus I found that it had just set–I missed it by 2 degrees, or 8 stinkin’ minutes.

Enough chasing tough stuff in the southern sky. Taurus and Auriga were up, so…

M45 – awesome, even in these bright skies. Nicely framed at 14x.

M38 – same story as M30. Could see nothing at 14x. At 33x, the cluster was not just easy, but partially resolved, with its characteristic duck’s-foot shape. Once I knew exactly where to look, I could catch it at 14x–barely.

M36 – obvious, big, even partly resolved at 14x. Great at 33x.

M37 – faint but there at 14x, as a hazy patch. Wonderful at 33x: partially resolved in direct vision, with many more stars momentarily popping into view in averted vision.

M35 – very large. Not super-obvious at 14x, but it was there. Highly resolved and quite beautiful at 33x.

Tried for M1, could not get it at any magnification. (2:49 AM)

Spent some time looking at the Moon and Mars. Mars was a tiny bright dot at 33x, with no details visible, but I didn’t feel like getting a more powerful eyepiece. The Moon looked great. I love moon-gazing at low magnification, when the whole disk fits in the field of view with plenty of space around it. It looks like a world–which, of course, it is.

The Stingray asterism, which includes the open cluster Collinder 65, traced on chart 7 from the Beginner’s Star Atlas; the latter is a free download here.

I went back to the Pleiades for what was going to be my last look before I packed up, but then I noticed that Orion was very slowly climbing over the ridgeline to the east. I cruised along the local horizon and observed Bellatrix, the Orion OB-1a association (in the vicinity of 21, 23, and 25 Orionis), Meissa, and the Stingray asterism I wrote about in the January 2018 Binocular Highlight column. Which reminds me, I should blog about a few things: Allan Dystrup’s “Classic Rich Field” posts on Cloudy Nights (here), the Beginner’s Star Atlas (here), and about the asterisms I’ve written up for Sky & Tel (uh, in the pages of Sky & Tel).

While I was waiting for Orion’s Sword to come over the hill, I got up to walk around a bit and get some circulation going. Coming back I was startled to see a large animal move out into the moonlight just 50 feet away. It was between me and the Moon, so it was just a pool of black shadow casting a smaller black shadow on the ground, but it was big. I froze. There are bears on Mount Baldy, and mountain lions. I tensed, preparing to either run for the car or at least grab the folding chair to defend myself. I needed to know what this thing was. I reached up and flipped on my headlamp, which goes red first, then to bright white light if you keep pushing the button. The red light came on and I saw two red eyes shining right back at me. Gulp! Then the white light came on and I saw that it was just a deer. Whew! My heart was still pounding. I switched the light off to stop inconveniencing the deer. It didn’t spook, and in fact it spent a few minutes just walking around out in the open, stopping to nibble a tuft of grass or a low bush now and then. The wind had died down for a moment, and the night was so quiet that I could hear its hooves softly clattering on the rocks as it walked. I felt an utterly unexpected rush of embarrassment–not because I had gotten scared, it’s perfectly sane to be alarmed when you realize there is a large animal close to you in the dark–but because I was suddenly aware that I was on the deer’s turf. It was supposed to be there, I was the interloper. So I stayed still until it wandered off.

The sky had still been turning overhead while I watched the deer–or, more accurately, the Earth had been spinning eastward, carrying me with it–and Orion’s Sword was almost over the ridgeline. I sat down at the scope and did something I can’t remember ever having done before: I watched through the eyepiece as the Orion Nebula rose over the local horizon, at 3:20 AM. The wind had come back up, and the seeing was particularly ragged in the east. I could only get 3 members of the Trapezium at 33x. I checked and I was seeing M43 as well as M42. I tried for M78 but it was a no-go. I went back to the Belt and Sword for one last look, and shut down.

Taking Stock

I set up at 10:15 PM, started the Messier observations at 10:45, and continued in that mode for 5 hours, including breaks. During that time I logged an even 25 Messier objects. I got to the right field for five others–M76, M72, M110, M1, and M78–but couldn’t see them under the conditions I had. Along the way I also observed 3 meteors, the Moon, 3 planets, 7 double stars, and 14 non-Messier DSOs, for a total of 53 objects. It was my longest observing session since the Messier Marathon in April, 2019.

The SkyScanner rocked. When I couldn’t see certain objects, I knew it was the skies, not the scope. Many objects looked fantastic despite the moonlight–the open clusters M34, M35, M37, and M45 stand out. I had never before caught the dwarf galaxy M32 in such bright conditions. Yeah, the moon was a pain, but that just meant I had to push my observing skills a little, and it made the tough catches that much sweeter. I found a few new things to write about for Sky & Tel, saw a fantastic meteor, and had a close encounter with the local wildlife. All in all, a wonderful observing session, good for the mind and the soul.

I’m going to finish the Messier survey with the SkyScanner. It’s a splendid Messier hunter–easy to use, wide field of view, and sharp enough to dial in on the tricky ones. It’s one of my favorite scopes, and easily the one I’ve recommended the most times to people thinking about a first scope. For 100 bucks you get a capable, convenient instrument. If you hate it, at least you gave observing a fair shake, and you’re not out much (compared to other available options). If you love it, it can keep you busy for a long time–potentially for a lifetime, depending on your interests–and it’s a great grab-n-go scope if you move up to a bigger instrument. It’s not perfect–I hacked the heck out of mine to make it work like I wanted it to–but I think it is probably unbeatable in terms of capability per dollar. I’m glad circumstances conspired to make me finally get one, and I expect to get many more nights of enjoyment out of it.

Until next time, keep ‘Scanning!

3 comments

  1. Terrific observing report! It’s often said the best scope is the one you use the most. A small, light and thus portable piece will often be grabbed quicker than it takes to set up the Big One. I miss an old 6″ f/8 that I used a LOT for more than 15 years.


  2. […] as Santa Fe, New Mexico. At home, I’d been stuck under groady, smoky, ashy skies since the Mount Baldy run at the start of the month, and even though I’d been on the road for 12 hours, I was craving […]


  3. […] the hardware and software gets, there will be times that I feel like heading out with nothing but a manually-driven scope or some trusty old binos for “unplugged” observing. But I’m going to try to not […]



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