Archive for the ‘Binoculars’ Category

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Finally – the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition at the Salton Sea

February 26, 2017

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Sometimes life is cruel.

(Did I say cruel? I meant ridiculously First World cushy, where a grown man can afford nice toys and has the time to play with them and blog about it. But within the context of this grown man’s play-time blog, sometimes life is cruel.)

To wit: my Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition (still sans snappy nickname) arrived on Sunday, January 29, just a few hours late for the new moon observing run at the Salton Sea that Terry Nakazono and I went on the night before. Since then it’s been mostly cloudy here, with poor transparency on the nights it hasn’t been totally socked in, so I’ve been misusing the scope on bright stuff like the moon and Jupiter. And waiting not-so-patiently for a chance to get out to dark skies and do some wide-field, low-power scanning.

I actually did get about 45 minutes of semi-dark time with the scope a week ago. I was on dawn patrol up in the foothills and I spent some time in the summer constellations before the sun came up. The views were bright and contrasty, but all it did was whet my appetite.

Friday night I finally got the scope out under decent skies, for a decent amount of time. I decided pretty late to go to the Salton Sea – originally we had other plans, but Vicki and London were wiped out from a long week, and the forecast said that Friday was the last clear night for a while, all over SoCal. I didn’t leave Claremont until almost 7:00 PM, and with set up time after I arrived at Mecca Beach, I didn’t start observing until 10:00.

Gear

I was rolling pretty light. I wanted to test the Bresser reflactor/bino set as a package, so I used the AR102S on the came-with mount and tripod. I essentially always have binos out while I’m observing, so I used the 7x50s that came with the scope. That was a novel experience – I usually roll with 10x50s or 15x70s. This was my first time using 7x binos for serious deep-sky observations.

The only way I broke with the Bresser package was with eyepieces. I did use the included 20mm 70-degree a few times early in the evening, and I briefly tested the 10mm 70-degree that just came in, but my most-used set for most of the evening consisted of the 28mm Edmund RKE, both natively (16.4x) and with a 2x Barlow (33x), and the 8.8mm ES82 (52x and 104x).

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A word about the 28mm RKE. It is simply the most comfortable eyepiece I’ve ever used. There are several factors that play into that. One is the long eye relief. Another is the magical floating stars effect, which is real, and impressive. Finally, there’s the wide exit pupil it gives, which in the AR102S is 6.2mm. That’s probably wider than my pupils go these days (same is true of the 7mm exit pupil of the 7×50 binos). Using binos or eyepieces with exit pupils wider than your own will go is usually not recommended. The extra light falls on the muscles of your iris, not on your retina, so your pupil becomes an aperture mask, stopping down the system to a smaller working aperture. You could get just as much light delivered to your brain using a smaller instrument or eyepiece. But there is one positive effect of using a “too-wide” exit pupil: you can move your eye around a bit within the light beam, without any falloff in illumination. So “too-wide” exit pupils are very bright – maximally bright – and very comfortable. And if a bit of light is wasted, oh well, it’s not like the cops are going to come for you.

One nice effect of swapping the 28mm RKE for the 20mm 70-degree is that they have close to the same true field of view of 2.9-3.0 degrees, but the RKE gives a much sharper image with fewer aberrations. Unsurprisingly, since it’s bending light from the same true field into a much smaller apparent field. Normally, a 45-degree AFOV would feel downright claustrophobic to me these days, but for some reason the 28mm RKE doesn’t bother me. I think it’s the magical floating stars effect – most narrow-fields (okay, anything south of 50 degrees) feels tight, like looking through a soda straw, because so much my field of view is taken up by the inside of the eyepiece barrel. But with the 28mm RKE, there is no visible eyepiece barrel, so although the AFOV isn’t actually that big, it feels much more expansive.

I did have one minor gear screw-up: I forgot my laser. I haven’t installed a finder on the AR102S. Same with the C80ED, except for one or two nights early on. When I really need help I lay a laser finder along a straight edge and use it to point to things in the sky. On the C80ED, there are a couple of buckles on the tube clamp that together form a de facto trough like the one I built for the SkyScanner 100. On the AR102S, the finder bracket serves the same purpose. But I forgot my laser. So I did what I usually do, just dead-reckoned it. I’ve gotten to the point where I usually don’t even have to sight down the tube, I can just sort of look up and aim the scope and get the target within a 3-degree circle. The AR102S will go wider than 3 degrees – a 32mm Plossl or 24mm ES68 will give 3.6 degrees, and my 32mm Titan 2″ will go to 4.88 degrees. But none of those eyepieces do their thing with the same panache as the 28mm RKE – at least in this scope. I did get out the 32mm Plossl just in case I needed a wider ‘finder’ eyepiece, but it never made it into the focuser.

Goals

I had a program in mind. Long-time readers will know that I’m a big fan of Jay Reynolds Freeman’s astronomy essays, especially “Refractor Red Meets the Herschel 400”. More relevant to this post is “Messier Surveys”, in which Freeman relates his habit of running through all the Messier objects with every instrument he gets his hands on, from 7×50 binoculars to a 14-inch SCT. Despite my Messier Marathon attempts, I’ve never kept track of which Messiers I’ve seen with which instruments. I’m certain I’ve seen them all with the XT10, and I’ve seen almost all of them with my 15x70s, but beyond that, I have no idea. So I decided that the best way to properly test the Bresser would be to start a Messier survey with it.

To be clear, I had no intention of attempting an off-season or mini Messier Marathon. I decided to just go until I got tired. I also was not a purist – I looked at plenty of non-Messiers along the way, including some I had never seen and wasn’t planning to observe when I started.

And in fact, I started with some non-Messiers.

Perseus

When I started observing at 10:00, plenty of good stuff was getting perilously low in the west. The western reaches of Cassiopeia were already down in the Palm Springs/Indio light dome. I started with the Double Cluster and Stock 2 – my first time looking at them with the AR102S. They were spectacular as always. Then I swept up through the Alpha Persei Association and followed the eastern ‘arm’ up to NGC 1528. The cluster was fully resolved at 33x, but I thought it was prettier at 16.4x, when the dimmer stars trembled just at the threshold of resolution. I also checked in on NGC 1545, which is a much less impressive cluster and a much tougher catch since it is dominated by a bright foreground star. But my favorite observation in this area was another OC, NGC 1513. I tried this one at a variety of magnifications and it always ‘popped’ a little more in averted vision, as previously unresolved stars swam into visibility. Not one of the sky’s stunning showpiece objects, but delicately beautiful if you have the time to tease out its secrets (and the skies – it’s not bright).

I hit M34 on my way out, and of course I stopped at the Pleiades, which were very nicely framed at 16.4x.

Orion and Vicinity

After all of that, I realized that I had to get a move on if I wanted to catch M79, the glob in Lepus, before it set. I hopped over to snag it, and visited Hind’s Crimson Star while I was in the neighborhood. It was a tiny red spark in the 28mm RKE.

The whole sword of Orion fits into the field of view of the RKE. The Trapezium was nicely broken out into four stars at 33x with the Barlow. I had a quick look at Sigma Orionis and scanned the Belt and the big OB association just off Orion’s western hip. M78 was delightful. Even at 16.4x, the two foreground stars were visible and distinct from each other and from the background glow, and the western edge of the nebula showed a more abrupt cut-off, which lent the whole object the feel of a comet.

Binocular Tours

Up to this point I had been using the 7x50s to trace my star hops in advance, but now I really started to run ahead. One thing about writing my deep-sky tour articles for Sky & Tel – I usually remember all the stops and I can run through them quickly anytime I’m out. In this case, I started at Sirius and followed the path of my December 2015 article down through Canis Major, across Puppis – with a side trip down to Vela that was not in the article – and into Hydra (for M48). Then I picked up where my tour from this March started, running northwest through Monoceros and northern Orion before ending in Gemini. Running through both tours took about 10 minutes, and I saw a lot and missed a lot more. Seriously, that stretch of the winter Milky Way is just ridiculous. You can swing your optics over it again and again and not pick out all there is to see.

Then I had a long break to rehydrate, eat a snack, and get into my cool-weather getup. I’ll have to write a whole post about that sometime.

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After the break I went back through almost all of that with the telescope, in part just to see it all with more than 50mm of aperture. I noticed some Herschel 400 objects in Puppis that I had never observed, namely the open clusters NGC 2479 and 2509. Both were dim swarms of faint stars that were still not fully resolved at 52x, but very pretty. I had not noticed them in the binos, but after catching them in the scope I was able to see them when I went back with the 7x50s. I was comparing the two clusters in the binos when a meteor flashed through my field of view, which is always a cool sight. I spent about half an hour trying to catch the planetary nebula NGC 2440, and even hauled out Interstellarum to help me get on target, but I never got a definite sighting. I’m going to have to study that one and come back another time.  I did catch NGC 2438, the planetary nebula that is superimposed on M46 but only about half as far off as the cluster. It was obvious at 52x but I couldn’t separate it from the glow of the cluster at 16.4x. Needless to say, it didn’t show in the binos.

Roaming

By the time I was finished retracing my winter Milky Way tours, the Auriga Messiers were getting low in the west, so I hopped over to check them out. After that I hit M44 and M67 in Cancer. M44 was just perfect at 16.4x – everything nicely resolved, but still compact enough to look like a coherent object. The stars in that cluster always seem to fall into geometric patterns to me, as if they were laid out using a grid system that got erased the morning after creation. I can’t think of anything else in the sky that gives me the same impression.

I also popped up north, past Iota Cancri and over the border into Lynx, to check on NGC 2683, a surprisingly bright and easy Herschel 400 galaxy that I had previously only observed with binoculars. (Want to know more about this galaxy and its neighbors? See the April 2017 Sky & Tel!) Since I’d seen it with smaller-aperture binos under worse skies, naturally it was an easy catch for the AR102S.

After that I turned south, to Omega Centauri. Although I haven’t written about it yet, when Terry and I were at the Salton Sea last month, I spent a long time looking at the monster ‘glob’ – actually the exposed core of a dwarf galaxy that was cannibalized long ago by the Milky Way. It’s a favorite spring target of mine when I have a good southern horizon. From Mecca Beach there is a definite light dome from El Centro and usually some near-horizon haze in the southwest – directly over the water. But Omega Centauri culminates between that particular Scylla and Charybdis. Last month I spent nearly an hour checking it out, using naked eyes, binoculars, and several levels of magnification with the C80ED. I could just get the outermost stars to resolve at 120x, albeit in imperfect seeing. This time was worse – about the same lousy seeing, and slightly worse transparency. I didn’t get any actual resolution, but I could make out pronounced differences in brightness across the face of the cluster. I also had a look at NGC 1528/Centaurus A, the famous radio galaxy. I think it should be naked-eye visible under optimum conditions, but my conditions were not optimum. It was obvious in the binos and showed some detail in the scope.

Then it was on to Corvus to check in on M104 and M68. I also observed the planetary nebula NGC 4361, I think for the first time. It’s bright but small, and it turned out that I could see it at 16.4x, I just didn’t recognize it – I had to go up to 52x to confirm that it was nonstellar. I also visited M83 while I was in that neck of the woods. What a wonderful galaxy, so big, bright, and obviously elongated even at low magnification.

By now it was almost 3:00 AM and I was getting pooped. I finished in Lyra, with Epsilon Lyrae and the Ring Nebula, M57. I couldn’t split the Double Double. That might have been the scope, but it might have been the skies – by this point there was a steady breeze blowing right in my face when I looked east. I have had other nights where the seeing was so bad that Epsilon Lyrae would not split. I did notice some CA around those stars at high power, which probably didn’t help.

I decided to finish with M57, which was fitting since it was a chance observation of that nebula with the TravelScope 70 a few years ago that got me hooked on refractors. I wanted to recreate the feel of that surprising low-power observation so I left in the 28mm RKE. The whole southern end of the parallelogram fit very nicely into the 3-degree field, with M57 showing as a pale little dot. Then I realized that I had stopped the scope down to 60mm while I was playing with the double star and had forgotten to take off the aperture mask. So I got to do one of my favorite tricks – reach up and pull of the mask while I’m observing, and watch the sky get brighter in a hurry, as if all the lights out there suddenly turned on. The nebula had been obvious at 60mm – at full aperture it was so bright it almost looked stellar.

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Tally

I ended the night having observed several double stars and 46 unique DSOs with the telescope, of which only 22 were Messier objects. Three were Herschel 400s which I believe I observed for the first time – those were the open clusters NGC 2479 and 2509 in Puppis, and the planetary nebula NGC 4361 in Corvus.

I’ll have a more complete review along soon, but the Bresser Messier AR102S lived up to its middle name – it is a superb Messier-catcher. Every Messier I attempted was not just visible but easy at 16.4x. Will be interesting to try it on some of the smaller, tougher objects like M76. I think this will be my Marathon scope this year.

Don’t take this as a full-spectrum endorsement. When I do post a full review of the scope, I’ll have both good and bad to report. It’s not a good all-rounder, not a good first or only scope. But what it’s built to do, it does quite well.

The biggest surprise for me was how much I could see with the 7×50 bins. I didn’t catch everything, but of the 46 DSOs I observed telescopically, 34 were also visible in the binos, and some of the rest I simply forgot to check (the galaxy NGC 2683 comes to mind). There were more DSOs that I saw in the binos but didn’t take the time to log, including shedloads of clusters in Monoceros. I don’t know if I will be able to complete a Messier survey with the 7x50s – I reckon some of the smaller planetary nebulae will prove my undoing – but I’m at least going to make the attempt.

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My article in the March 2017 Sky & Telescope

January 27, 2017

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This is one was an easy write-up, because it had been in my head and in my notebook for a long time. Way back when I first got tapped to write for S&T, I pitched a tour of the winter Milky Way from Puppis to Gemini. I’d never written for a magazine before and I had no idea how much sky it would take to fill 1600 words. Turns out, all I got through on the first attempt was Canis Major, Puppis, and a couple of odds and ends like M48. That was my article in the December 2015 issue.

Right after that came out, I pitched the unfinished second half, and now it’s out. Like that first article, it’s a tour of the winter Milky Way pitched at binocular users, but hopefully useful for telescopic observers, too. This piece runs from Monoceros through northeastern Orion to southern Gemini. The March issue of Sky & Tel is probably hitting newsstands this week. If you get a copy, I hope you enjoy the article.

If you’re thinking that Gemini is a pretty arbitrary place to stop cruising the Milky Way, you’re not wrong. I can say no more for now, but stay tuned…

Update: whoops, I originally put January in the post title instead of March! This is, of course, the March issue, it just came out in January. Sheesh.

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Impromptu binocular digiscoping

January 18, 2017

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I grew up in Oklahoma, on the Great Plains. The plains have a wild, forlorn beauty, but I have always craved seeing mountains. When I was a kid, that meant waiting for a family vacation to the Rockies or the Black Hills of South Dakota. I have been very fortunate that since moving to California in 2001, I have essentially always lived within view of mountains. In Santa Cruz and Berkeley it was the coast ranges, which are really more like ambitious hills. In Merced it was the Sierra Nevadas, which are legit, but not particularly close to Merced. The mountains were only visible as a low line on the eastern horizon, and only when the air quality was good, which was not often. Fortunately that was just one year.

Since 2008, I’ve had the privilege of living at the feet of the San Gabriels and especially Mount Baldy (formally Mount San Antonio, but universally ‘Baldy’ to locals), which looms directly north of Claremont like a slumbering god. So I get to see proper mountains – the San Gabriels are still rising fast so they are impressively steep, and Baldy tops out at 10,064 feet (3068 m) – pretty much every day that it’s not raining and there are no nearby wildfires. In the winter the mountains are often snowcapped, although never continuously so, it’s just too warm here.

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A couple of days ago I was out running errands and the mountains looked so good that I had to drive up to the top of the First Street parking garage downtown to get some unobstructed photos. Off to the northwest, 22 miles distant, I could just make out the gleaming white domes on Mount Wilson. Then I remembered that I had my 10×50 binos in the car, so I got them out and spent a few pleasant minutes scanning the whole northern skyline, from Mount Wilson in the west to mount San Gorgonio, above Big Bear, 51 miles due east.

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Then I got to wondering – if I held my iPhone up to the binos, would I be able to get a recognizable photo of Mount Wilson? It was worth a try. I had to prop the binos on my sunglasses to get the angle right, and the raw shot is vignetted because getting the camera-to-eyepiece distance correct is a little hairy, but hey, there are the domes.

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Here’s a cropped, tweaked, and labeled shot. Except for the CHARA Array, an optical interferometer using six 1-meter telescopes in small domes that started work in 2002, all of the historically important installations are visible from 22 miles out.

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I also got some shots of the nearby peaks, especially the higher foothills of Mount Baldy. This shot is a pretty good match for the last photo in this post, which was taken through a different instrument at a different time of day in a different season, but focused on the same peak. This peak is 10.5 miles from my house, as the crow flies, so about 10.25 miles from the Claremont parking garage where the photos in this post were taken.

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Cropped and tweaked. Not too bad for 10×50 binos that cost less than $30.

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Binocular Highlights: what I’m rolling with

July 23, 2016

I just turned in my sixth Binocular Highlight column for Sky & Telescope. While I had everything out for the write-up, I thought people might be interested to know what sources I make use of.

Here’s the stuff I use pretty much every time:

  • S&T’s Pocket Sky Atlas and Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas. I usually take a full-size clipboard and Interstellarum out with me to observe, so the Jumbo version is no added hassle. Consequently – and perhaps counterintuitively – I tend to use the Jumbo version for nearby excursions, and the classic for desk reference and travel. This is usually my first stop.
  • interstellarum Deep Sky Atlas: Desk Edition. Despite the name, my primary ‘deep’ field atlas. Goes out with me practically every time, unless space is really at a premium. Also sees heavy use indoors for planning sessions and following up on things.
  • Chandler Night Sky planisphere. Hands down, my most-used tool – it goes out with me every session no matter what, and I frequently refer to it indoors as well.
  • Chandler Sky Atlas for Small Telescopes and Binoculars – particularly useful for the Milky-Way-centric chart that shows the galaxy as a flat band with the celestial coordinate grid deformed around it. Useful for thinking about where things are with respect to the disk of the galaxy, for quick looks, and for the object list.
  • SkySafari 5 Pro app on my iPhone. Astounding amount of information. Usually my first source for looking up distances, separations, etc., although I always confirm with some other source.

Sources I turn to often, but not always:

  • Glenn LeDrew’s atlas of the Milky Way in The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, 3rd Edition. I already had the 2nd edition – it was one of the first books I picked up when I first got into amateur astronomy back in 2007. I got the 3rd edition primarily for the Milky Way atlas, and I was not disappointed. The identification of OB associations is particularly useful.
  • The Cambridge Double Star Atlas. Super helpful for checking on double stars, and a handsome and useful atlas all around. Also, kind of an insane steal at $22 on Amazon.
  • Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. Not my first stop for astrophysical data, but it’s nice to get some historical perspective and Burnham excels at this.
  • O’Meara Deep-Sky Companions series. Useful for astrophysical info, historical persepctive, and visual impressions from one of the world’s foremost observers. Crucially, O’Meara usually describes how objects look at varying magnifications, including naked eye and binocular appearances, so although the books are grounded in telescopic observations they are still quite useful for binocular observers.
  • Uranometria, All Sky Edition. Always nice to have the big gun in reserve, although I find Interstellarum more useful for most practical applications.

To get the latest astrophysical data I turn to the web. Particularly helpful sources are the SEDS Messier database, non-Messier NGC/IC/etc page, and Interactive NGC Catalog, the NGC/IC ProjectSIMBAD, the NASA Extragalactic Database, and if all else fails, Google Scholar and ArXiv.

For inspiration I’m quite omnivorous. Gary Seronik hit the Messiers pretty hard for the last few years, so I’m avoiding them for the time being, both to avoid duplication and to force myself to go find new stuff. The Astronomical League’s Deep Sky Binocular observing list (free), the Irish Federation of Astronomical Societies Binocular Certificate Handbook (free), James Mullaney’s Celestial Harvest, Phil Harrington’s Touring the Universe through Binoculars, and my own notes compiled over the past 8.5 years all serve as jumping-off points. Tom Price-Nicholson’s Binocular Stargazing Catalog (free) looks like a useful source as well, although I haven’t had a chance to explore it thoroughly yet. More often than not, I go out to find a particular object or to survey a set of objects (open clusters in Cygnus, for example) and end up discovering new things. So far I’ve been generating many more possible topics to write about than I actually can, so it seems unlikely that I’ll run out of subject matter anytime soon. We’ll see!

If you know of something I should be using that’s not on the list, please let me know – the comment field is open.

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Small, medium, large – observing near and far in the last two weeks

June 4, 2016

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Preface – Running with the Red Queen

I’ve just finished maybe the busiest spring of my life. January and February were largely sunk into day-job work – time-consuming, but necessary, interesting, and in fact rewarding. Then the last three months have been taken up with travel and public lectures.

  • In March I went to Oklahoma for 10 days of paleontological research in field and lab, and I gave a talk at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History titled, “Dinosaurs versus whales: what is the largest animal of all time, and how do we know?”
  • In April I did a two-day trip to Mesa, Arizona, for more paleo work. No talk on that trip, but I did participate in the “Beer and Bones” outreach at the Arizona Museum of Natural History.
  • In early May I was in Utah for another 10 days of paleo research, and I gave a talk at the Prehistoric Museum in Price on, “Why elephants are so small”. My colleague Mike Taylor and I took one day off from dashing through museums to tour Arches National Park, which is where Mike took the photo at the top of the post.
  • Last weekend I was up at RTMC, where I gave a Beginner’s Corner talk on, “The scale of the cosmos”.

I’m not complaining – far from it. It’s been exhilarating, and the collaborative work I have rolling in Oklahoma and Utah will hopefully be paying off for years. And planning and executing all of the work has been satisfying. Particularly the RTMC talk, which deserves a whole post of its own. And ultimately this is all stuff that I chose to do, and if I could do it all over again, I would.

BUT there have been consequences. Most frustratingly, I haven’t had enough uninterrupted time to get anything written up for publication – not the sizable backlog of old projects I need to get finished up, and not the immense pile of new things I’ve learned this year. I haven’t gotten out to observe as much as I’d like, and I’ve barely blogged at all.

And it’s not over. In two weeks I leave for a week of paleo fieldwork in Oklahoma, then I’m back for a week, then I’m off to Utah for about 10 more days of digging up dinosaurs. In between I’ll teaching in the summer human anatomy course at WesternU.

But I’ve had a nice little pulse of observing in the last couple of weeks – two weekends ago up at Arroyo Grande, near San Luis Obispo, last weekend at RTMC above Big Bear, and this week at Santa Cruz Island off the coast. No time for separate observing reports, so I’m combining them all into one.

Observing Report 1 (Medium): The Planets and Moon from Arroyo Grande

I was fortunate to be part of a great, tightly-knit cohort of grad students at Berkeley. Of the people I was closest to, some are still in and around the Bay Area and some of us have been sucked into the gravity well of the LA metro area. Occasionally we get together somewhere halfway in between, either up in the Sierras or near the coast. I usually take a telescope, because almost everywhere is darker than where I live, and when I’m traveling by car there’s simply no reason not to.

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This year we met up for a couple of days and nights in Arroyo Grande. We hiked in the hills, went down to Morro Bay to watch ocean wildlife and buy seafood, played poker, and generally got caught up on work, family, hobbies, and life. Our first night was wonderfully clear. I had along the trusty C80ED, which has become my most-used scope. It’s mechanically rugged, optically damn near perfect, and compact enough to not require much time or thought when it comes to transportation and setup. On Saturday, May 21, we spent some time with Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn were as they always are: beautiful and surprising in their immanence. I cannot look through the telescope at either of them without being forcefully reminded that they are as real as I am, that as I go about my days full of busyness and drama, they are always out there, hundreds of millions of miles away, go about their own business whether I or anyone else pay them any attention or not. One of my friends had never seen the rings of Saturn with his own eyes, so that was an added bonus.

Mars was the real treat. Using the Meade 5mm 100-degree EP and a Barlow I was able to crank up the magnification to 240x. The dark dagger of Syrtis Major and the white gleam of the north polar cap were both obvious. It is always arresting to see details on this world that has loomed so large in the human imagination, from ancient mythology to science fiction to current and future exploration.

The next night we sat out on the patio, eating oysters and watching the sun set. I didn’t have any of my own binoculars along, but a friend had brought a couple, and after it got dark we watched the still-mostly-full moon rise through the trees on the ridgeline to the east.

It was all shallow sky stuff (solar system, that is), but it was all spectacular, and I’m glad we did it.

Observing Report 2 (Large): Going Deep at RTMC

Last weekend I was up at RTMC, finally. I’ve been wanting to go since I got to SoCal, but in the past it’s fallen on the same week as our university graduation and I’ve been too wiped out. I didn’t make it up for the whole weekend. We went up as a family to stay Saturday and Sunday nights. I went up to RTMC early Sunday morning to look around, give my talk, and hang out. Ron Hoekwater, Laura Jaoui, Jim Bridgewater, Ludd Trozpek, and Alex McConahay of the PVAA were all there and we spent some time catching talks and jawing about skies and scopes. I also chatted with some folks from farther afield, including Arizona and NorCal.

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I took off in the afternoon to spend time with London and Vicki, then went back up after dinner. All I had along were my Celestron 10x50s (yes, those), but Ron had his 25-inch Obsession dob, and he was content to use it as the centerpiece of a group observing session. We looked at the planets, or at least Jim Bridgewater and I did – Ron had checked them out the previous night and didn’t want to blow out his dark adaptation. That was a smart call, as the Obsession gathers a LOT of light and the planets were almost blown out. We could have put in a filter, but ehh, we had other things to be getting on with.

We started with globular clusters. M3, M5, M53, NGC 3053, and one or two other distant NGC globs. The close ones were explosions of stars that filled the eyepiece. The distant ones shimmered out of the black like the lights of distant cities. Then we moved on to galaxies. M81 and M82 were bigger, brighter, and more detailed than I had ever seen them. M51 was just stunning – the spiral arms were so well-defined that it looked like Lord Rosse’s sketch.

M51 sketch by Lord Rosse

As nice as those were, the Virgo galaxy cluster was better. There were so many galaxies that identifying them was a pain – there were so many little NGCs in between the familiar Messier galaxies that my usual identification strategies kept getting derailed. It was kind of embarrassing, actually – I did just write an article about this stuff. But also incredible. NGC 4435 and 4438 – the pair of galaxies known as “The Eyes” – were so big, bright, and widely separated that I didn’t realize I was looking at them until the third or fourth pass.

We finished up on planetary nebulae. The seeing was good but not perfect – the central star in the Ring Nebula was visible about a quarter of the time. The Cat’s Eye, NGC 6543, was a fat green S with a prominent central star – it looked like it had been carved out of jade.

An evening under dark skies with a giant scope is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you get to see so many unfamiliar objects, and so many details in familiar objects, that are beyond the reach of smaller scopes. A curse because by the end of the session you may find yourself thinking, “Sheesh, why do I even bother with my little 3-, 5-, and 10-inch scopes?”

Fortunately another observing experience, one that would remind me of the joys of small-aperture observing, was right around the corner.

Observing Report 3 (Small): A Binocular Tour of the Spring Sky

My son, London, is finishing up fifth grade at Oakmont Outdoor School, one of the half-dozen or so different elementary schools in the Claremont Unified School District. We were fortunate when we moved to Claremont to land just a couple of blocks from Oakmont – we would have been happy to land within walking distance of any of the schools, but if we’d had our choice we would have picked Oakmont anyway, since we wanted to raise London with as much exposure to the outdoors as we could.

Oakmont’s slogan is, “Learning in the world’s biomes”. The major activities of each grade are organized around a particular biome, and so is the end-of-year field trip. In third grade, the kids went to Sea World. Last year it was the desert by Palm Springs for a 2-day, 1-night trip. This year it was Santa Cruz Island, in Channel Islands National Park, for a 3-day, 2-night trip. Parent chaperones are needed and I’ve been fortunate to get to go every year.

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The island was amazing. We saw dolphins, sea lions, and petrels on the boat ride out – I took the photo above from the prow of the ship – more sea lions, seals, pelicans, cormorants, gulls, and red pelagic crabs at the shore, and dwarf island foxes, ravens, and the occasional hawk inland. On the final evening, June 2, we hiked up to the top of the cliffs to watch the sun set over the Pacific, which was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d see something even more beautiful just a few hours later.

I had binoculars along – Bushnell 10×40 roofs that I got specifically for daytime use, and which I had used a lot on the trip already to watch wildlife. When we got back to camp, a few of the teachers and hung back and started talking about the planets, bright stars, and constellations. I started pointing out a few of the brighter targets and passing around the binoculars, and we ended up having an impromptu binocular star party. (The kids and a fair number of the adults were all exhausted from a full day of hiking, and sensibly went to bed.)

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What followed was one of the best and most memorable observing sessions of my life. The only permanent residents of Santa Cruz Island are a couple of National Park employees, and they turn their lights off after dark. We got a little light pollution on the eastern horizon from Ventura and Oxnard, some 20 miles distant, but for the most part the sky was darkAfton Canyon dark, Hovatter Road dark – what I typically refer to as stupid dark.

We roamed all over the sky, looking at targets large and small, near and far, bright and dim. I didn’t keep track as we were going, but I wrote down a list yesterday morning on the boat ride back to the mainland (we went through a fog bank and only saw a handful of dolphins, so I had plenty of time).

In the northern sky:

  • Polaris and the Engagement Ring asterism
  • Mizar and Alcor
  • M51 – yes, it was visible in the 10×40 bins
  • The 3 Leaps of the Gazelle

In the western sky:

  • M44, the Beehive – easily visible to the naked eye, and just stunning in the binos
  • Leo
  • Coma Berenices star cluster
  • Virgo/Coma galaxies – identifications were tough, but a few were visible

In the eastern sky, Lyra had just cleared the trees when we started observing (at 9:15 or so), and all of Cygnus was above the trees when we finally shut down at 12:45 AM. In addition to tracing out the constellations, along the way we looked at:

  • Epsilon Lyrae, the Double-Double star
  • Albireo
  • Alpha Vulpeculae (the subject of my Binocular Highlight column in the ### issue of Sky & Telescope)
  • Brocchi’s Coathanger (Collinder 399)
  • Sagitta (just traced the constellation)
  • M27, the Dumbbell Nebula
  • Sadr and its surrounding ring of stars in the heart of Cygnus
  • NGC 7000, the North American Nebula – this and the Northern Coalsack were easily visible to the naked eye once Cygnus has risen out of the near-horizon LP

…and we just cruised the Milky Way from Cygnus to Cepheus, not singling out individual objects but just taking in the rich star fields.

But the southern sky was the best. Looking south from Santa Cruz Island, there’s only open ocean, broken here and there by other, distant islands and ultimately by Antarctica. It reminded me of looking south from Punta del Este in Uruguay, only I was in a valley instead of on a beach. The ridgeline to the south did cut off a bit of the sky, but we were still able to see all of Scorpio, including the False Comet, made up of NGC 6231 and Trumpler 24, which was one of the highlights.

It was trippy watching the Milky Way rise. I usually look at the summer Milky Way when it is higher overhead. I usually have to do that, because the objects aren’t visible in the near-horizon haze. But from Santa Cruz Island, things were not only bright but obvious as soon as they cleared the ridgeline to the south. It’s almost pointless to list them – we saw every Messier object in the “steam from the teapot”, from M7 and M6 in the south to M11 in the north, plus a lot of NGCs, plus star clouds and dark nebulae almost beyond counting. They were all great through the binoculars – M7 was a special treat, like a globular cluster on a diet – but honestly the best views of the night were naked-eye.

I realized that I am just never out observing the Milky Way at this time of year. My regular desert observing spots are all too hot in the summer, and when I do go there is often at least some light pollution to the south (El Centro from the Salton Sea, Barstow from Owl Canyon, etc.). I do most of my deep and dark observing in October and November, when the southern Milky Way is setting, not rising.

So I was completely unprepared for how much detail would be visible to the naked eye. When the Milky Way rose, it didn’t look like a band of light, it looked like a galaxy. I searched through a lot of photographs of the rising Milky Way to find one that approximated the naked-eye view, and this is the closest I got:

I am not exaggerating – the bright and dark areas were that defined. The Great Rift was visible from Cygnus to the horizon, and its southern border was notched by distinct deep sky objects from Aquila onward. The Scutum Star Cloud, M16, M17, M24, M23, M8, M6, M7, NGC 6281, and the False Comet were all easily visible to the naked eye as a chain of luminous patches against the dark dust lane of our own galaxy. In fact, I noted NGC 6281 with my naked eyes first, thought, “What the heck is that?”, and had to look it up. We also caught M4, M22, M23, and M25 in the bins, plus a bundle of dark nebulae that I’d never noted before and didn’t bother keeping track of.

Longtime S&T contributor Tony Flanders (now retired but still writing occasionally) is active on Cloudy Nights, and his sig file reads:

First and foremost observing love: naked eye.
Second, binoculars.
Last but not least, telescopes.
And I sometimes dabble with cameras.

Until fairly recently I would have listed my own preferences in reverse order, from telescopes to binos to naked eye. That may sound odd for a “bino guy”, which I guess I am since all of my ‘professional’ astro-writing has been binocular-based. But it’s true – as much as I love binoculars, I would have picked a telescope first. But I am – gradually, belatedly – waking up. In some ways, it would have been great to have a scope, any scope, along on the island trip. I’m sure that even the C80ED would have taken us crazy deep, considering what we could see with a pair of low-end 40mm roof-prism bins. But it would also have come between us and the sky, and I would have spent more time futzing with eyepieces and less time just looking up.

This was a surprising and welcome realization, coming so shortly on the heels of a frankly astonishing session with Ron’s 25-inch dob at RTMC. I was worried that big-telescope observing might spoil me, but that fear turned out to be unfounded. All I need to be happy is a dark sky. If I have some people to share it with, even better. Anything more is just cake at the end of an already long buffet.

Let’s eat.

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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.

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Observing report: Dark nights at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

February 18, 2016

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 6 - crescent moon

Back in November, 2014, London and I visited the Palomar observatory and then went camping at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. At the end of my Palomar post, I teased, “Next up: crazy-dark skies at Anza-Borrego. Stay tuned.”

Obviously, that never happened. I find that with my observing reports, I need to get them done and out quickly or they never happen.

I was back at ABDSP this past weekend and I got in some very enjoyable stargazing, so now I’m going to try to kill two birds with one stone.

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 1 - camp Wedel

When London and I stayed there together back in 2014, we camped at the Palm Canyon campground, which is basically the headquarters campground of the park. It’s a nice developed campground down on the desert floor, right next to the town of Borrego Springs. The state park is a pretty isolated patch of SoCal, in terms of light pollution, and Borrego Springs is the only International Dark Sky Community in California. There are no stoplights in town (there is one roundabout, and enough stop signs), and all of the businesses use low (but sufficient!) outdoor lighting, and mostly turn the lights off when they’re not needed. As a result, I can see more stars in town in Borrego Springs than I can in some rural areas elsewhere. Happily, the locals are aware of how much of a draw the dark skies are, and they actively promote Borrego Springs as a place to come stargaze (for example).

So the skies are pretty dark even in town, and once you get outside of the town they get very dark. One of the highlights of the November 2014 trip for me was getting my first really good look at NGC 2371 and 2372, two halves of a planetary nebula in northern Gemini. Always before the nebula had just looked like a dim blob, but that night I could see both halves very clearly as separate arcs of nebulosity.

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 4 - finder

London was rolling that night with his XT4.5, which he’d just gotten a couple of weeks earlier for his 10th birthday. In the gift shop at Palomar he spent some of his birthday money to get a planisphere and a constellation guide. At the campground he drove his scope by himself, and found Andromeda, the Double Cluster, the Pleiades, and Orion without any help from me. It was a milestone observing session for him.

I spent a lot of time in Orion that night myself. Orion always looks pretty good – the total object – but under very dark skies it looks amazing. There was so much detail in the nebula, swirls and knots of gas and fine gradations in the sheets of light that you just don’t see in even minimally light-polluted skies. I got a special treat around midnight – I saw a satellite drifting through the field of view as I nudged the scope along to follow the nebula.

To be visible that long after dark, a satellite has to be far enough above Earth to not fall into the planet’s shadow, so I knew right away that this was a geosynchronous satellite. I stopped pushing the scope and sure enough, the satellite just sat there, rock solid, while the nebula and starfield drifted past. I’d seen exactly one of these before – Steve Coe had shown one to Darrell Spencer and me at my first All-Arizona Star Party back in 2010 – but this was my first time catching one on my own. What’s particularly cool about geosynchronous satellites is that you don’t have to do anything to track them. Just leave your scope pointed in the same place and they’ll be visible until you decide to look at something else. So you can swap eyepieces without worrying about losing the object, you can take a break to get a snack and go to the bathroom – I did all of these things – and when you come back, the satellite will still be there, serenely sitting as Earth’s rotation carries the background stars past in an endless parade.

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I was back at Anza-Borrego this past weekend for the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists annual meeting. It was a one-day regional conference held on Saturday, February 13. I gave a talk and I wanted to look presentable, so instead of camping the night before I got a hotel room. But I planned to camp Saturday night, after the conference – there was a banquet after the meeting and I didn’t want to drive home in the middle of the night. Especially if by staying out I could get in some good dark-sky time.

I had originally planned to drive around to one of the Salton Sea campgrounds – Borrego Springs is on the western side of the sea. I preferred to stay in the state park, as it’s 600 feet above sea level instead of 200 feet below, like the seashore campgrounds, and those 800 feet mean thinner air, less humidity, and darker skies. But I figured that with the holiday weekend all of the campsites would be taken.

I was wrong! In the State Park visitor center – which is awesome and has some cool fossils from the park on display – I learned that the many undeveloped campgrounds in the park do not require reservations and that not all of them were likely to fill up. In particular, the ranger recommended Culp Valley Campground, which is about 8 miles west of Borrego Springs and at an elevation of 3000 feet. I drove up Friday night after dinner to hike it out and do a quick binocular tour of the winter best and brightest. One of the fun spin-off benefits of having written the Canis Major and Puppis binocular tour for the December Sky & Telescope is that now I am compelled to run through those objects anytime I am out observing. It only takes a couple of minutes if I’m in a hurry and it’s always rewarding.

The conference on Saturday was great, my talk went well and I had a great time talking to colleagues old and new. After the banquet I drove up to Culp Valley, found a spot, and got settled in. My plan was to go right to bed and get up in the morning for dawn patrol, but – predictably – I was not able to pass up another quick turn around the sky, which evolved into half an hour of fun binocular observing. I did manage to get up at 4:30 for another productive half-hour run. The sky was so dark that I when I got up off my cot and looked to the east, I saw a bright cloud and said to myself, “What the heck is that?” It was the Scutum Star Cloud, and in binoculars it glittered with hundreds of barely resolved stars and the combined glow of thousands more. It wasn’t even that far above the horizon – I can’t wait to see what it looks like from there this summer, when it’s riding high in the south.

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Did I mention that all of the undeveloped campgrounds in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are free to camp in? You don’t need a park pass or a day use fee or anything. Totally, completely, free. I had to have the ranger explain it to me twice. I have nothing against supporting our state and national parks – quite the contrary – I’m just not used to having any of them be free. That said, if you go stay at one I encourage you to stop by the park visitor center and leave a few bucks in the donation box – even undeveloped campgrounds require some upkeep.