Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


Gear reports: Explore Scientific eyepieces, Orion Apex 127 Mak, Celestron Travel Scope 70

July 16, 2012

Apex 127 (left) and Travel Scope 70 (right) under dark skies on Mount Baldy. The Apex is on a SkyWatcher AZ4 mount, and the TS70 is on a Manfrotto CXPRO4 with a Universal Astronomics DwarfStar alt-az head. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

As promised in the last post, here are my thoughts on the scopes and charts I used up on Mount Baldy Saturday night. I haven’t had half of this stuff long enough for these to be considered true reviews, so I’m calling them “gear reports”.

Explore Scientific eyepieces–For  a long time my workhorse eyepieces have been 32mm and 12mm Plossls and the 6mm Expanse. The 24mm ES68 gives the same true field as the 32mm Plossl but with higher magnification and a larger apparent field–68 degrees versus 52. The 14mm and 8.8mm ES82s give me a nice pair of mid-to-high power options, without taking business away from the 6mm Expanse.

How important is all that apparent field of view? I’ve also had the opportunity recently to look through a few TeleVue Ethos 100-degree eyepieces, and here are my impressions.

  • Ethos: I could not quite see all of the field of view at once. I had to actually move my head around to see the field stop. It was nice–when I first looked in the eyepiece, at what was in the middle of the field, I could not immediately see the field stop in any direction. It actually was like looking through a window into space. I can see why people shell out big bucks for this experience (think $600 and up for the TeleVue Ethos models and $400 and up for the other brands).
  • ES82: I can see all of the field and the field stop at once, but it is so far out to the edge of my field of view that I am not really aware of it. Very comfortable, too, in terms of eye placement and eye relief.
  • ES68 and Orion Expanse (66-degree apparent field): ditto. For me, the jump from 52 degrees to 66 or 68 degrees is much more noticeable than the jump from the sixties up to 82–or back. I never went from one of the 82s to one of the sixties and thought, “oh, hey, where did my extra field go?”, which definitely does happen when I go directly from a widefield to a Plossl. My only explanation is that, at least for me, 66-68 degrees is over a threshold where additional apparent field makes little difference, until the I-can’t-see-it-all-at-once threshold I get with the Ethos.
  • Plossls (52-degree apparent field): I like Plossls. They’re good, solid workhorse eyepieces, that can handle a wide range of focal ratios and tend to be sharp and have good light throughput. They were my go-to eyepieces for years. But, like many, many stargazers before me, I am spoiled now. The fact is, after using 66-82 degree eyepieces (I’ve had a pair of 68-degree Orion Stratuses for a couple of years, and just not used them much), going back to the Plossls is like being struck with tunnel vision: I am acutely aware that a lot of my visual real estate is occupied by non-sky inside-of-eyepiece black nothingness. That said, the effect really only jumps out at me when I swap a widefield for a Plossl back to back in the same scope. Saturday night I would be observing with widefields in the Apex and then wander over to the TS70 with the 32mm Plossl and not notice the sudden decrease in field. So I’m not getting rid of my Plossls anytime soon. For one thing, they all weigh much less than their widefield counterparts, and so play better in small scopes and travel kits.

By the way, if you’re in the market for budget Plossls and Expanse clones, check out the Black Knight Super Plossls and Enhanced Super-Wides at OWL Astronomy.

Apex 127–Under dark skies, a potent deep-sky instrument. Its maximum true field of just a bit over a degree will frame almost all deep sky objects, except for the very closest open clusters (like the Pleiades and Hyades). Everything I tried for, I found–my problems with the two open clusters were not that I could not see them, but that I could tell exactly what parts of the rich Milky Way starfields were supposed to be the clusters–more on this farther down. It’s also a planet-killer and excellent double-star scope. One night this spring I was trying to split a particularly tough double with this scope. It refused to budge at 257x, so I Barlowed my 6mm expanse to give 514x, and finally saw that stripe of black sky between the two stars. That’s about 100x per inch of aperture, or twice the rule-of-thumb “maximum effective magnification” of 50x per inch. Which means it’s a damn fine scope.

Travel Scope 70–Four things about this scope, three good, and one not so good. The good stuff first.

  • It costs next to nothing. As I’ve pointed out in other posts, you can’t buy a 9×50 right-angle correct-image finder for what they’re charging for this scope.
  • It’s small and light. I think it would ride on the same tripod as my SV50 and the scope itself takes up hardly any more room, but 70mm gathers roughly twice as much light as 50mm (5*5=25, 7*7=49). It has the same focal length as the venerable Short Tube 80 but weighs about half as much. You could think of it as a Short Tube 70, but its focal ratio of 5.7 is a hair more forgiving. That combined with the slightly smaller aperture should knock down the chromatic aberration a bit, compared to the ST80, and indeed I’ve found the CA unnoticeable in casual use, even on the moon and  planets (that is, I’m sure it’s there if one goes hunting, but it’s never risen to the level of attracting my attention at the eyepiece).
  • The optics are wonderfully clear. The low-power views are really bright and contrasty. I noticed this the first night I had the scope. I was cruising the summer Milky Way from my driveway, trying the 12.5x view with the 32mm Plossl for the first time. Now, Lyra was dead overhead, and atmospheric problems are almost always minimized at the zenith, but still, the view was bright, and I found the Ring Nebula, M57, right away. I thought “No way, there’s just no way the Ring is that easy at 12.5x. Must be an out-of-focus star.” So I started working my way up in magnification, and sure enough, it was the Ring after all. I noticed the same thing again Saturday night. I couldn’t see much detail on most of the Messier objects at that magnification, but they just jumped out of the background starfields, even the smaller ones. If you like low-power scanning, this scope is a blast under dark skies and still a fun ride even under so-so skies.

Now, the not-so-hot:

  • It’s hard to push the magnification, and I don’t like the result when I do. A 12mm eyepiece gives 128x in the Apex 127, 108x in the 90mm Mak, and 100x in the XT10, but only 33x in this  scope. A 6mm eyepiece gets you to 67x, but it ain’t worf it. The scope starts to pant around 40x and anything north of 60x is just bad. I noticed this the first night out, looking at Saturn and the moon, and it was still true this weekend. I don’t know if its astigmatism or poor collimation or what, but trying to achieve focus on planets is maddening. Jupiter goes from a vertical fan of red light on one side of focus to a horizontal fan of blue light on the other, and only sort of flirts with being a clean disk in between those extremes, at an infinitesimally tiny point that the rack-and-pinion focuser tends to shoot right past. It’s actually really puzzling to me that a scope that gives such clear, contrasty images at low power goes to crap so fast as the magnification goes up. (In case you’re wondering, we used exclusively low-power eyepieces with this scope for the Venus transit.)

So in the end the TS70 is kind of a one-trick pony. It is awesome for scanning around at low power and surfing the Milky Way. That’s the one thing it can do that neither of my Maks can. But unless you get a much better sample than I did, forget about doing any serious work at even moderate magnifications. The 90mm Mak is a much more versatile tool–it can do almost everything except widefield scanning. So at least the two small scopes complement each other.

UPDATE: the TS70 performs MUCH better after having been disassembled and reassembled (details in this post). It’s not hard, all it takes is a screwdriver. Blackening the lens edges with a Sharpie improves the scope’s already decent contrast, and shaking the lens cell a little while the objective lenses are loose will improve the collimation. After doing only that, I can now take this scope up to at least 133x without the image falling apart. It’s like a whole new scope. That said, there are still better choices out there – see my astronomy wish-list for beginning stargazers for some suggestions.

Actually the awesome low-power views of the TS70 have inspired me. A small ED refractor like the Astro-Tech AT72ED ought to give equally good low-power views and be able to take magnification well, and could potentially put both the TS70 and the 90mm Mak out of business. I don’t know if it actually will, but I aim to find out. So I think one of those will be my next big astro purchase–once I save up for it.

In the meantime, since the TS70 performs like a superfinder anyway, I’m going to keep scheming on how to turn it into one. I’d love to have it mounted side-by-side with the Apex 127, so I’d have a rich-field scope and a planet-killer on the same mount.

Pocket Sky Atlas–Since I started out in astronomy, the PSA has been essentially the only atlas I’ve used. It has stars down to magnitude 7.6 and about 1600 deep-sky objects. That includes all the Messiers, all the Caldwells, and all the Herschel 400s, plus another thousand or so, so it’s covered my needs and then some. The only time I’ve printed up my own finder charts has been for hunting quasars. I haven’t felt the need to move up to a “deeper” atlas until very recently.

I started thinking about a deeper atlas after observing with Terry Nakazono last month. His most-used atlas is the Observer’s Sky Atlas, which covers the whole sky to mag 6 but also has enlarged charts to mag 9 for finding 250 deep sky objects, including all the Messiers. He also prints out detailed finder charts from the Tri-Atlas (a huge free atlas in three versions: mag 9, 11, and 13). He was surprised that I’ve gotten along as well as I have with just the PSA.

Part of the difference in preference probably has to do with the instruments that we use and how we get on target. Terry’s most-used scope is the SkyScanner 100, which has a red-dot finder. So he gets in the neighborhood–or closer, sometimes you can really bullseye things with an RDF–with the dot finder and then star-hops to his targets at the eyepiece. In contrast, I use a 9×50 RACI finder on whatever scope I am observing with (I only have one, and just move it around among scopes), and do almost all of my star-hopping with the finder alone. The 50mm finder does not go nearly as deep as the 100mm reflector–it simply shows fewer stars–so I often use the geometrical method of centering the finder on an unseen target (this is detailed by Harvard Pennington in The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide and by Stephen Saber in his post on “sharpshooting” deep-sky objects–search for it here). I hadn’t given this much thought before Terry brought it up, but my less-deep atlas suits my finder-driven navigation, whereas eyepiece starhopping really requires that you be able to see as many charted stars as possible to keep from getting lost. So we have each gravitated toward the atlas that best suits our observing style–or rather, I started with PSA and never had a reason to gravitate away.

Until now, that is. The problem is not that the PSA doesn’t show enough deep-sky objects. I’ve only seen about a fifth of its 1600 plotted DSOs. The problem, as Terry pointed out, is that it just doesn’t show enough stars, at least for some problems. In trying to track down some of those small open clusters in Cygnus and Cassiopeia, I found that the plotted symbol in the PSA covered a good-sized field that was striped and mottled with star chains and asterisms of the summer Milky Way. The geometrical relationships shown in the PSA just weren’t enough. I couldn’t go to “the” cluster of stars that made an equilateral triangle (or whatever) with the nearest guide stars, because there half a dozen plausible candidates (actually, this might be a not-enough-DSOs plotted problem as well as a not-enough-stars problem). I need to see some of the fainter stars in between plotted on the chart, to break up those rich starfields into manageable–and interpretable–chunks.

So, to make a long story short, I ordered the first volume of Uranometria 2000.0, a mag 9 atlas, and I’ll get the other two volumes as funds allow. Stay tuned.


Transit of Venus comic book!

June 1, 2012

This is awesome: the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in India has produced a freely-available 16-page comic book on the transit of Venus, and it’s already available 11 languages and will soon be translated into at least 10 more. (I know, they call it a graphic novel, and that’s fine, but my inner fanboy rebels at calling any single-issue comic of less than, say, 50 pages a ‘graphic novel’. Also note that the June 6 date listed on the cover is for the transit as seen from India–as noted inside, in the Western Hemisphere the transit will be visible on June 5.)

I just finished reading the fine nonfiction book The Transits of Venusby William Sheehan and John Westfall, which covers all of the observed Venus transits in exhaustive detail and includes data for the unobserved (so far as we know) ones in antiquity. With most of that information still in my memory, I was impressed at how much the author and illustrator–Niruj Mohan Ramanujam and Reshma Barve–of the comic were able to cram into 16 pages (actually more like 12 if you don’t count the cover, license page, and a couple of blank pages). The book explains what transits are, why they were important historically, why they’re still important, and how, when, and where to observe the upcoming one safely. It’s free and cool, go check it out.


Yet another target of opportunity: Deep Sky Companions: Hidden Treasures by Stephen James O’Meara

February 26, 2012

I do have bigger ambitions for this blog than just collecting deals on astronomy gear from around the web, but this one might not be around for long, so here goes.

The short version, if you’re in a hurry: Stephen James O’Meara’s Hidden Treasures, the third volume in his Deep Sky Companions series from Cambridge, usually $46, is currently on closeout for $18.40 at Amazon. As of this writing, there are only seven copies left at the reduced price.

The long version: Stephen James O’Meara is probably the most respected visual observer of astronomical phenomena of anyone alive. His achievements are legendary. As a teenager, he saw and sketched spokes in the rings of Saturn. Professional astronomers dismissed the spokes as an optical illusion, because the differing rotation speeds of the rings would disrupt and smear out any radial linear features. Then the Voyager probes got to Saturn and, lo and behold, the rings did have spokes–probably electrostatically charged dust floating above the rings and rotating at the same speed as the planet. For most of us the planet Uranus is a dim blue-green dot if we manage to track it down at all; O’Meara saw white clouds on Uranus and mapped their progress to make the first-ever determination of the planet’s rotational period, which was unknown at the time as no space probes had yet made it to Uranus. Voyager II later confirmed O’Meara’s estimate. The list goes on–there’s a pretty good mini-biography of O’Meara in Timothy Ferris’s Seeing in the Dark that describes more of his exploits and achievements.

O’Meara might just have the best vision of anyone alive–at least, when his vision has been tested, it has been sharper and more sensitive than that of any other person who has ever been tested. These tests, by the way, have included having O’Meara sketch faint stars and then comparing his sketches to long-exposure photographs taken with giant telescopes; frequently O’Meara has been able to see things at the eyepiece that no one else can confirm, even when he tells them exactly where to look. (That must be frustrating!)

By all accounts, O’Meara is not only a tremendously accomplished observer but also a darned nice guy. In addition to the Deep Sky Companions series and his other books, he has written observing columns for both Sky & Telescope and Astronomy (and probably others I don’t know about), and his writing is always full of wonder at the night sky and encouragement for his readers to get out and see these things for themselves. One might expect the world’s best visual observer to put on airs and tell the rest of us lesser mortals what deep sky objects really look like. But O’Meara takes the opposite course. He always emphasizes that visual observation of the night sky is an intensely personal experience, presents his impressions of deep sky objects as just that, his impressions, and encourages his readers to get outside, see for themselves, and form their own impressions.

The Deep Sky Companions series now includes four books: The Messier Objects (1998, 318 pages), The Caldwell Objects (2003, 500 pages), Hidden Treasures (2007, 602 pages), and The Secret Deep (2011, 498 pages). The Messier and Caldwell volumes cover the 109 objects on each of those lists in detail. The newer volumes also cover 109 deep sky objects apiece, in homage to the Messier and Caldwell lists, but don’t represent formal observing lists. Instead, the objects are chosen by O’Meara to help observers find and explore some of the lesser-known gems of the night sky.

I haven’t yet seen The Secret Deep, but of the first three volumes, each is better than the last. The Messier Objects introduces the basic format for the series: each of the 109 objects in the book is the subject a multi-page essay that includes its observational history, mythological history (if any), current astrophysical understanding, and visual telescopic appearance, plus a black-and-white astrophoto and an eyepiece sketch by O’Meara. I can’t remember if this is true of the Messier volume–I don’t own it but have only borrowed it from the public library–but the later volumes all have star maps that show the location of each object. The Calwell Objects follows the same format, but the essay for each object is longer and more complete and there is a nice series of appendices, including 20 additional objects readers are suggested to track down and a mini-biography of William Herschel. The Messier volume is a fine book on its own terms, but seems almost skimpy in comparison to its longer sequels.

Hidden Treasures is better still. The star charts are larger and more detailed, the essays are longer and more absorbing, and there is more reference material at the back, including a multi-page table that shows the overlap between the objects included in the book and those on several popular deep sky observing lists, like the Saguaro Astronomy Club’s 110 Best of the NGC.  The mini-biography at the back is of Caroline Herschel, whose formidable achievements in astronomy have been overshadowed by those of her brother William and nephew John. Once again there is a list of 20 bonus objects for readers who want to go beyond the 109 objects covered in detail. The book is a beast, 600 pages long and about 4 pounds. The paper is glossy and the reproduction of the photos, drawings, and maps is very good.

One point of particular interest is an introductory essay in which O’Meara explains how he chose the 109 objects to cover in the book. There were three main sources: O’Meara’s own list of personal favorites, objects combed from several popular “best of” observing lists, and–most interestingly to me–historical lists from the 1700s. There weren’t that many deep sky objects known before William Herschel started his all-sky survey in 1782, and all of them are relatively bright and easy to see in small scopes (otherwise they would not have been discovered in the scopes available at the time), so O’Meara included all of them that aren’t on the Messier and Caldwell lists in Hidden Treasures. Therefore, if you have those three books, you have eyepiece descriptions, up-to-date astrophysical data, charts, sketches, and photos for every deep sky object in the northern skies (i.e., above -10 degrees) known before 1782. That’s pretty cool.

One more point of continuity among the books: O’Meara used a 4-inch refractor from the slopes of Kilauea in Hawaii to observe, sketch, and describe the visual appearance of all of the objects in at least the first three books (except for a few Caldwell objects in the deep southern skies). So observations and sketches among books are directly comparable, having been generated by the same person using the same scope under the same conditions.

I find it interesting and encouraging that O’Meara chose a small telescope to make his observations. Now, O’Meara has the best eyesight of anyone ever tested; his scope, a TeleVue Genesis, is one of the finest refractors ever made; and Kilauea has some of the darkest skies left on Earth. Nevertheless, there are hard physical limits to what a 4-inch telescope can show. O’Meara is humble and forthright in reporting his observations, and when he couldn’t see something–a dark lane in a galaxy, known gas filaments in a planetary nebula–he says so. Anyway, if objects are visible and detailed in O’Meara’s Genesis from Kilauea, they should be observable in commonly available 6- to 10-inch scopes in the more average viewing conditions experienced by most amateur astronomers. So the books are not reports of observations impossible for average stargazers, but guidebooks to help average stargazers make exceptional observations.

I’m happy to recommend all of the books in the Deep Sky Companions series (although I haven’t seen The Secret Deep yet, given the quality of the others I’m prepared to recommend it on faith). If you’re interested in the books, getting Hidden Treasures for less than twenty bucks is an opportunity to test the waters without stressing your wallet. It’s an engaging read on a cloudy night, an enlightening look at how scientific and popular knowledge of celestial objects has changed over the last three centuries, and a genuinely useful guide to finding and observing a host of bright deep sky objects beyond the Messier and Caldwell lists. I ordered a copy when I saw the discounted price, and I’m very, very happy to have it.


Possibly my favorite book: Seeing in the Dark, by Timothy Ferris

February 22, 2012

I have a lot of astronomy books. Some are about astronomical phenomena, celestial objects, and other worlds, some are about telescopes and how to use them, and some of them aren’t really books in the traditional sense but observing tools packaged in book form (the Pocket Sky Atlas, for example).

But out of a couple of bookshelves’ worth of astro books, there are two that stand out in particular: Starlight Nights by Leslie Peltier and Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris. These two are personal favorites of mine. I’ve read them both over and over–in fact, I tend to reread them whenever my interest in astronomy goes through one of its periodic flares. The reason I keep coming back to them is that, alone out of all of the astronomy books I’ve ever come across, only these two capture the enchantment of what stargazing feels like.

Starlight Nights is a wonderful book and deserves a post of its own, which I hope to deliver someday. But tonight I want to write about the other book, Seeing in the Dark.

Ferris is a fantastic writer, capable of taking all kinds of complex ideas and relaying them in everyday terms so straightforward you can’t help but follow along and wonder. Coming of Age in the Milky Way is his Pulitzer-nominated magnum opus, a wide-ranging tour of the growth of astronomical science from prehistory to the end of the 20th century. It is a great book, in just about every sense of the word ‘great’, and one reason is that it never bogs down in dry storytelling. Ferris always has an eye out for the quirks, foibles, imaginative leaps, and lucky breaks that characterize science as a very human enterprise. But he also keeps the other eye fixed firmly on the big picture, our place in it, and how harnessing human passion to the cause of science has allowed us to determine those things. The tone of Ferris’s writing is light, which keeps the pages flowing past like water, and generates a calm into which his occasional profound observations fall like thunderbolts. Reading his books makes you glad to be alive; they are best read on rainy days and cloudy nights, because on sunny days and clear evenings they will make you want go outside and experience the universe firsthand.

Coming of Age is anything but stilted, but it is an ambitious work that only avoids the description of ‘scholarly’ because Ferris’s prose goes down so easily. Seeing in the Dark is a more personal book, an informal ramble through the history and present of amateur astronomy and through the author’s personal history as well. Many of the autobiographical passages make me smile with recognition (from page 22 of the paperback):

If you’re young and don’t know where you’re going, the highway is an excellent place to be. The police officers I met along the way would sometimes ask, “What’s the hurry?” but there was no hurry. A dedicated high-speed driver isn’t anxious to get somewhere; he’s already there, where he wants to be–at speed, with the car seemingly shrunk to the size of a motorcycle, or the motorcycle to something not much larger than his hands and wrists, screaming down a road that also has shrunk, to the thickness of one pounding vein, in which somehow there is always just enough room to get by, with nothing in his ears and mind but the scream of the engine and the sound of good strong music, bounced off the “ozone.” Endlessly flying up the road–and for some reason, late at night, two-lane blacktops always seemed to be leading upward–peering into the headlights’ yellow eclipse, I was as alone as some future astronaut adrift in the hard vacuum past Titan. But I never felt lonely. I was in just the right place.

Photo by Thad VSoke, from TWAN

Oh man does that bring back memories, of driving across Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, often at night, with the vast empty spaces of the American West lit only by the light of the moon and stars and the tiny almost hearth-like warmth of the headlights. I was also never bored and never lonely. Despite my being jacketed in a car, in a strange way those long drives were and are opportunities for me to commune with nature, to revel in the existence of places that are so big and old and profoundly unprofitable that even in the 21st century they are largely unmarked by hand of man–a yearning that extends smoothly and naturally into the night sky.

Seeing in the Dark is divided into three big sections. The chapters under the first heading, The Shore, deal with  astronomy, amateur astronomy, and amateur astronomers as things-in-themselves, and also with Ferris’s boyhood forays into astronomy, setting up spindly telescope on the roof of his parents’ Florida house to plumb the heavens and watch the occasional Space Race rocket launch. In Blue Water Ferris takes us on a tour of the solar system, from the sun to the comet belts, with each chapter focusing on one planet or class of object and the strange and often hilarious histories of their scrutiny by astronomers both amateur and professional. The final section, The Depths, takes us to the stars, the Milky Way, other galaxies, and ultimately to the edge and beginning of the universe. But Ferris isn’t done yet: the final 70 or so pages of the book include appendices to get one started in stargazing, notes, and a glossary. It’s a smart setup, and one I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else: by the time you finish the book, you’ll want to go stargaze, and right there Ferris gives you the tools you need to get started.

And, as I said, Seeing in the Dark captures that magical sensation, easy to recognize but almost impossible to describe, of what it is like to observe the night sky. From page 50:

I pressed a button on the steel control box, and the telescope glided toward the center of the nebula. I gasped  at the sight: Reefs of brick-red and pearl-gray gas clouds were parading by…. Their light had been traveling through intergalactic space for 180,000 thousand years, dissipating all the while as it spread out, but it was still bright enough to make me squint. I recoiled, and found myself gazing at a stream of light that spilled out from the eyepiece like a flashlight beam. Looking up, I saw that it projected a fuzzy, circular image of the nebula on the inside of the dome.

The night assistant’s voice crackled through the intercom. “Tim, you OK down there?” I tried to speak, but could find no words.

I could go on like this for days, quoting favorite passages from the book, and I probably will do just that in other posts. But for now I will just leave you with one more, and call it good (from page 64):

Stately, self-possessed, a murk of mingled stars and gas clouds presenting itself to the eye in hues of silver to charcoal to India ink, a galaxy is so commodious as to contain, I should think, more stories than anyone, anywhere, shall ever come to know. Although there was no sign of a supernova in this particular galaxy on this night, I lingered a moment before moving on, just to look. I felt absurdly happy, like the early French balloonist who, once aloft, refused to come down.


Observing Report: Messier Marathon at Owl Canyon

April 3, 2011

On the evening of Friday, April 1, I attempted my second-ever Messier Marathon. My first was last year, in February of 2010 (observing report here). That one was an out-of-season marathon, and only about 105 objects were visible, of which I observed 98. My goal this year was to break into the triple digits.

Owl Canyon Campground is a BLM public campground about 6 miles north of Barstow. It’s a great place for camping, hiking, and stargazing, but not a site one would usually choose for marathoning. The campground is down in the canyon, and the canyon walls raise both the eastern and western horizons, which cuts down the time available for fishing the early evening and late morning targets out of the twilight. But it’s close by, which was good because I couldn’t leave town earlier than 4:00 on Friday and needed to be to my destination and all set up by nightfall. And the forecast was a bit more favorable there than any of my usual haunts, which had clouds predicted for shortly after midnight.

I was there with my friend Andy, and both of us were using 5-inch reflecting telescopes and 15×70 binoculars. We were each armed with a checklist, a photocopy of the map from the Sky & Telescope Messier Card, and the S&T Pocket Sky Atlas. I also had Harvard Pennington’s Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide along, primarily for the detailed charts of evening and morning objects, although it wound up getting used much more than that. Andy got his first telescope last year (reviewed here) and had seen only some of the Messier objects before our marathon attempt; for him the night was primarily about exploration and working on his object-locating skills. My 6-yr old son, London, was also along on the trip, for the fun of camping and our traditional morning-after hike.

We got to the campground well before sunset, made a fire, and roasted hot dogs for dinner. The sun set a little after 7:00 and by 7:30 we were picking out stars and constellations. Our first Messier object, unsurprisingly, was the Pleiades (M45), which we needed as a signpost to get down to the galaxies of the evening rush. We missed M74 and M77–the high western horizon cut them off before the sky was dark enough to see them. We saw M31 and M32 at 8:22, and M110 at 8:38, just before Andromeda set. M33 was another no-show; both of us suspected a glow at about the right place, but it was right on our local horizon and we couldn’t be certain that what we though we saw was really distinct from the twilight skyglow.

After that, things got easier. We nabbed M76, M34, and M79 before 9:00, and then paused for a few minutes to roast marshmallows. We were back in action by 9:20, roaming through the nebulae and open clusters of Taurus, Orion, Canis Major, Puppis, Gemini, Auriga, and Cancer.

We soon fell into a comfortable rhythm. My goal was to find as many Messiers as possible, and Andy’s goal was to see them, and to get some experience using his scope under dark skies. He found many of the objects himself, with either his scope or the big binos, but for some of the less impressive specimens he cadged views through my scope. I set out a lounge chair and blankets for London so he could stay warm while he looked for shooting stars and satellites, and before long he was fast asleep under the stars.

For last year’s Marathon I had used a 6″ f/8 Dob, which I later sold when I moved up to a 10″ Dob. This year I was using a 5″ f/5 Newt on the Skywatcher AZ4 alt-az mount (also sold by Orion as the VersaGo II), and it was a pleasant combination. With a low-power eyepiece, the field of view was about 2.5 degrees, and 5″ is a lot of aperture under dark desert skies. Both of the trios of galaxies in Leo were easily seen in the same field of view, which allowed us to compare them during our brief study. Further to the east, Saturn heralded the rising of Virgo and the Realm of the Galaxies. The jewel of the solar system was spellbinding, as always, and both of spent some time lingering over her charms.

I had been somewhat dreading the Virgo-Coma “clutter” of galaxies. I found them all last year, but it took me about an hour and a quarter to slog through them. This year went much more smoothly–I started with M60 at 11:08 and finished with M100 at 11:31, and that was allowing time for Andy to look at each one before moving on. Later on in the evening he realized that he had forgotten to look at M100. I had already moved on, but was happy to return to M100 by the simple expedient of panning around western Coma until I spotted the broad dagger of stars next to that big, bright galaxy. That fast and lazy approach was my favorite object find of the night, but not my favorite view.

After finishing the Realm of the Galaxies, we turned north, to Ursa Major and Canes Venatici. My favorite view of the evening was of M97, the Owl Nebula, and M108, a distant galaxy, shining brightly in the same wide field. M51 showed hints of spiral structure and its companion, NGC 5195, was interesting for its bright, almost star-like core.

We ended the first session of the night in the east and northeast, sweeping up globular clusters in Hercules, Serpens, Ophiuchus, and Scorpio, and catching the open clusters of Cygnus as they crawled over the horizon. Our final objects were the globs M9, M62, and M19, about a quarter after 1:00 AM. We covered our scopes and went to bed, with an alarm set for 3:30 to get us up for the morning rush.

We rose on time, but so had the clouds. Starting about 11:00 PM we had seen high, thin clouds in the south, but they had not gotten very far overhead nor threatened to interrupt our marathon. By 3:30 it was a different story–the whole sky was fogged over, with only a handful of the brightest stars piercing through the gloom. We crawled back into our sleeping bags, and that was that.

Our total for the night was 80 objects. If we hadn’t gotten clouded out, I think we could have gotten into triple digits, although the high eastern horizon would probably have kept us from nabbing M30. But it was a fine night out under the stars, we both had fun and saw a lot of beautiful things, and we were well-rested in the morning, which almost never happens after a marathon.

Breakfast was pancakes and bacon cooked over the campfire, with the desert staying pleasantly cool as the sun ducked in and out of the clouds. London and I took our traditional morning hike and found many wildflowers, some beautiful volcanic rocks of almost every color, including green and purple, and a brave little lizard who let us get quite close before he rocketed away over the desert floor.

It was a heck of a lot of fun and a fine, rewarding night of stargazing, regardless of our total object count. I had time along the way to bag a couple of new objects for the Herschel 400. I think for Andy it was a bit of a breakthrough evening. He glommed on to The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide early in the evening and was soon zooming all over the sky, not just finding and viewing the Messiers on his own but also calling out their types and distances–one thing we both appreciate about the book is that along with maps and directions on how to find the Messiers, it has an eyepiece sketch, capsule description, and basic astronomical data on each one. It’s nice to know what you’re looking at.

It’s also nice to be reminded as you observe that the sky is not a dome over our heads but an inconceivably vast space, with objects scattered through it at all distances, “in which we float, like a mote of dust, in the morning sky” (in the words of Carl Sagan). The sun is 8 light minutes away; Saturn is about 1.5 light hours away; Sirius, the brightest nighttime star, is 8.6 light years from us; planetary nebulae (the gaseous shells of dying stars), double and multiple stars, and open star clusters are usually only a few hundred to a few thousand light years away in the neighboring spiral arms of the Milky Way; globular clusters are usually tens to hundreds of thousands of light years away in our galaxy’s halo; and the external galaxies of Messier’s catalog range from a little over 2 million light years away for Andromeda (M31) to a mind-bending 67 million light years for M109. And even this incredible gulf only gets us just barely to the edge of our local supercluster of galaxies, one of countless galactic superclusters strewn across the observable universe like stars across the arms of our own Milky Way.

Such is the span of space and time one can experience in one night during a Messier Marathon. I had a blast getting 98 last year, I had even more fun getting 80 this year, and I’m already looking forward to making a run on all 110 next year. Watch this space. And more importantly, just watch space.


Sauron was framed!

January 8, 2011

I suppose what I should be doing is putting up the by now more than a week late New Year post, in which I take an astronomical look back at 2010 and forward to 2011, and report on how I did with last year’s resolutions and propose some new ones.

But instead, you get more Tolkien. Following Mike’s lead–and at his suggestion–I’m recycling one of our old e-mail discussions for this post. Enjoy!


Mike: Sauron wants to enslave the people of Middle Earth and usher in a new era of darkness … but, but …  Well, had I been a ringwraith, I’d have been  longing to ask, “But why, O dark lord?”

Me: Allow me to float some possible answers for further discussion and/or debate.

1.  Sauron is afraid of getting his butt kicked.  And the only way he can see to avoid that is to enslave or destroy all the enemies that could possibly defeat him.  Sauron had been captured by the Numenoreans way back in the day, although he eventually turned that to their undoing; he had been defeated and cast into outer darkness by Isildur and the Last Alliance; and most recently he had been forced out of Dol Guldur by the White Council.  At this point, making war on men and elves may be a matter of mere survival.

2.  Sauron has a basic biological revulsion to the things that most good beings consider good.  He can no more tolerate elves and trees than elves can tolerate orcs and boils.  Nice things are yucky, and yucky things must be destroyed.  If you find this farfetched, try getting an adult female human to hold a snake or a spider.

3.  Sauron is not actually evil; he is a bit paranoid and has a self-actualization problem, but he is also the victim of repeated acts of aggression by Gandalf, Galadriel, and their toadies.  He should not, therefore, be villianized for his courageous acts of self-defense against Gondorian aggression.  It is very difficult to perceive this because all of the histories of Middle Earth were written by a militant pro-elfer who also happened to be an Ivory Tower old white guy.  (It would have been impossible for me to think that thought before I moved to California.)

4.  Sauron actually is an old white guy.  The Burning Eye is just a special effect to keep the troops in line.  Sauron is actually the Wizard of Oz.  He pulls some ropes and speaks through this megaphone and these other old white guys (who happen to be dead) saddle up and go do bad stuff on his behalf, or a bunch of orcs march from Point A to Point B and disregard campground regulations.  Seriously, does the big S. ever do anything?  Hell no.  He makes his lieutenants do everything for him.  That’s a sign of great leadership–or the sign of a big fat faker.

Next question:  okay, Smarty, then how has Sauron managed to stick around for thousands of years?  Answer the first:  Sauron has always been a big fake perpetrated by the Wizard of Oz, but the Wizard of Oz has been a migratory title, much like the Dread Pirate Roberts. Every time some orc captain starts stringing more than two thoughts together and gets suspicous, the current “Sauron” rattles the Mordorian saber and said orc captain gets to die gloriously on the outskirts of Lorien.

Answer the second:  The real Sauron died at the hands of Isildur, and no one heard a peep for, oh, about three thousand years. Then this “Necromancer” pops up in Mirkwood, gets driven out, and sets up shop in Mordor, claiming to be Sauron returned.  Gandalf and the elves have always been suckers for a nice big enemy they could use as an excuse to increase military spending and whip the populace into a frenzy, so they bought into it hook, line, and sinker. It’s obvious that the “Necromancer” was a small-time hood who saw an opportunity and took it.

Answer the third:  Sauron is Radagast.  Pretty odd how ole Rads was always lurking around when Gandalf needed a chat, but once the war started he was nowhere to be seen.  I mean, if he is really one of the caretakers of Middle Earth you’d think he could at least show up for the last battle.

5.  Sauron wants to bring the benefits of nationalized production to Middle Earth.  The capitalist pigs in Gondor want to stop him. Therefore they must be destroyed.

Here’s my “But why, O Mithrandir?”

Why does everyone go around talking as if the world will immediately and eternally fall into darkness if Sauron recaptures the ring?  He had it before and still managed to catch an a decisive beating.  Sure, maybe there are fewer elves around these days, and maybe the orcs really have been multiplying,  but that seems to me to be more of a tactical problem, so that maybe the question should be, “Do we have enough combatants and materiel to defeat Sauron if he gets the ring back?” and not, “Why don’t we all go die now in a possibly pointless diversion so that we’ll be spared the inconvenience of dying later if he gets the ring back and things immediately and eternally go to pot?”


Discuss! At some point I actually will return for the promised end-of-year astronomy post, but right now I am observing myself with horrified fascination to see how long I might put that off. It’s the Jane Goodall approach to procrastination.


Reading PDFs on the Kindle

November 29, 2010

About three weeks ago Vicki and I traded Kindles, as combination late anniversary/early Christmas presents. She’d gotten hooked on e-books using the free Kindle app on her Droid smartphone, and wanted to get something dedicated.

I’d been skeptical about e-readers for a long time. I’m a book guy; the second-best job I ever had was working in a used book store. I like curling up with books. I doubted that an another Damned Machine (the usual appellation for the electronic devices in my life) could offer the same cuddliness.

Well, I’m a believer now. The Kindle is lighter than hardbacks and even lighter than some paperbacks (I’m lookin’ at you, swollen fantasy epics), and a lot easier to read one-handed than either one. I topped up the charge when I got it, and it’s still at about a quarter of a tank three weeks later, so the promised month of battery life looks legit. I’ve taken it to the park and read in full sunlight, and it looked even better.

It is such a nice piece of kit that I have actually found myself reading more than I did before. At first I wondered if this was just infatuation with the new toy. But it’s been three weeks and I’m not only still reading more, period, but also more kinds of things. Right now on the Kindle I have:

  • about a dozen of my favorite essays, copied from the web into Word docs and sent to my Kindle wirelessly (and freely) using its dedicated e-mail address;
  • about 30 short stories, most of which I haven’t read, courtesy of and Cory Doctorow (also free);
  • a whole shedload of classic literature from the Kindle store, from the Bible to the Origin of Species (yes, I value them both) to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to the first five novels in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series (also free);
  • and a handful of paid-for novels that I really desired.

The Kindle is so small that my default now is to just take it wherever I go, and then if the mood strikes, I have a whole range of things on hand to choose from. I don’t have to decide in advance whether to take a book along, or which book to take; to a first approximation, whatever I might want to read, I have with me just about all the time.

One thing I haven’t put much of on the Kindle yet is PDFs. As a scientist I both produce (a little) and consume (a LOT) of scientific literature, and almost all of it these days is in the form of PDFs. Unfortunately the Kindle is not going to replace the PDF vault on my hard drive, or even a good fraction of it. I have something like 20 gigs of paleontology papers in PDF form on my laptop, and the Kindle has about 3 gigs of user-available space, so if I want to take it all with me I’m going to have to wait a couple of hardware generations (at least). Taking it all with me is attractive because I never know when I’m going to be in a museum basement, looking at the vertebrae of some weird dinosaur, and have a sudden and quite desperate need for a paper on Apatosaurus or Dicraeosaurus or whatnot.

For this very reason, my friend, colleague, and frequent commenter Mike Taylor asked me to test-drive a PDF on my Kindle. Thanks to some dumb rules at Amazon, he has a shedload of credit that is useless at, and a Kindle would be a convenient and possibly useful way to dump some of it. So I loaded up the 2007 paper in which he and Darren Naish described the new dinosaur Xenoposeidon, and took it for a spin. The rest of this post is basically copied and pasted from what I reported back to Mike.

It works surprisingly well. Just opening the PDF gives one entire page per screen. At that scale I have no problem making out the text, but it’s too small to be comfortable. The screen is 6″ on the diagonal, so that’s no surprise, and I don’t regard it as being either a pro or a con. The device is what it is.

Adjacent to the space bar is a button with two capital As, one larger than the other, that controls page size, contrast, and screen rotation (for PDFs; with Kindle format docs you can also choose among 3 typesets, 3 line spacings, more or fewer words per line [independent of font size], and text-to-speech [wherein the device will read to you if you have headphones on]). Page size options include fit-to-screen (the default), 150%, 200%, 300%, and actual size. Going to 150% lets me get a bit over half a page on the screen at once, so I can see a whole page with four clicks in portrait view, or just two, I’d reckon, in landscape view.  I set it to ‘actual size’ which turns out not to be far off of 150% and had a good close look at the specimen photos. Resolution was fine. I noticed some pixellation so I opened up the PDF to compare, and the pixellation I noticed on the Kindle is just what’s present in the PDF, and nothing worse. The one downcheck here is that the Kindle screen background is not white but a very subdued gray. I imagine that this is deliberate, to prevent eyestrain during marathon reading sessions, but it does noticeably decrease the contrast range for photographs.

Final analysis: (1) using the clicker button to navigate around on a zoomed in page is slightly less invisible than using a mouse, but only slightly, and I’ve only done the former for about 30 seconds so the device might disappear more from my notice with longer use; and (2) the contrast range is reduced which sucks some of the life (and information) out of illustrations.

Other than that, based on my exhaustive 5-minute trial, the Kindle makes an acceptable PDF reader. You couldn’t tote your entire collection, but you could load it up with a gig or two of stuff you’d most likely need on any given trip.

Getting back to books–and to the stated purpose of this blog–the Kindle is kind of a dead end, astronomically speaking. Few astro books are available, and astronomy is a very visual thing but most Kindle versions (of everything) have the illustrations stripped out. There are a couple of compilations of star maps but these terrible reviews. I did find a handful of older astro books–as in, 19th and early 20th century–but I haven’t had the inclination to check them out yet. If anything good turns up, I’ll let you know.