Archive for the ‘Dark Skies’ Category

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Deep in the Dark of Texas: the Three Rivers Foundation Messier Marathon

March 28, 2017

This story starts with Jeff Barton, Director of Astronomy at the Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts and Sciences (3RF). Jeff sent me a Facebook message on January 27, inviting me to come speak at the 3RF Messier Marathon star party, for which 3RF would pay my travel expenses and provide food and lodging.

I did not get this message until February 19, because I suck at Facebook. Fortunately the offer was still open. So last Thursday I flew to DFW, rented a car, and drove out to the Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus, a little west of Crowell, Texas.

3RF is an educational foundation and Comanche Springs is the North American astronomy wing (they also have scopes in Australia for public education and outreach). It’s out in rural Texas ranchland, and as you drive up the first thing your eyes will light on is the big silver observatory dome.


Inside the dome is a 15″ refractor with DGM optics, an OMI tube, and a monster Astro-Physics mount.


There are several roll-off roof observatories on the campus, with more to come in the near future. This one holds two imaging scopes, a big Ritchey-Chretien on the left and a big SCT on the right, both on Software Bisque Paramounts. These are set up for remote observing – in the near future, schoolteachers will be able to tie into these telescopes and collect images with their students.

Irritatingly, I didn’t get any pictures of the big roll-off roof observatory which holds one of 3RF’s 30″ Obsession dobs, and where they park the two 20″ and one 18″ Obsessions when they’re not in use. That’s right, four 18″ and larger Obsessions in one place. They have more stored in town, waiting for more observatories to be built, and another gaggle of Obsessions in Australia.


In lieu of a picture of the Obsession shed, here’s a view of the north end of campus, looking east. From left to right you can see one of the four or so bunkhouses in the background, the ‘new’ classroom/mess hall, the equipment shed where the binocular chairs are stored, and the restrooms, and one of the observing fields in the foreground.


Here’s one of the motorized binocular chairs. You sit in the padded seat and drive yourself in altitude and azimuth with the joystick on the right armrest, while the Fujinon 25×150 binoculars deliver 6″ of unobstructed light-gathering to each eye. There’s another chair with a more modest but still impressive 100mm bino, and I believe a third chair that wasn’t out during my visit.

The tagline “Deep in the dark of Texas” is not my original, I got it from the back of a 3RF t-shirt. It’s true. The skies at Comanche Springs are dark. Seriously dark. You drive through a section of open range to get there. I had to get a picture of this brown cow sitting by the side of the road – this cow refused to be fazed by anything. I grew up in rural Oklahoma and in my experience, free-range cattle are highly correlated with dark skies. The skies at Comanche Springs are Bortle 1 or 2. The only places I have been under skies this dark are Afton Canyon, the All-Arizona Star Party, and the remote desert of southern Utah. More than 200 miles west of the DFW metroplex, and 20 miles from the nearest town of more than 1000 people, there are no light domes on the horizon – none.

I roomed with these fine gentlemen. You may know Robert Reeves from his several books on astrophotography (see this page) and from his “365 Days of the Moon” on Facebook, which has now been running for more than two years. David Moody is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (yes, the one in London, co-founded by Herschel) and one of the authors of Astronomical Sketching: A Step-by-Step Introduction. Lonnie Wege is a sales manager at Celestron and brought the door prizes, which were donated by Celestron.

To be in the company of such experienced observers and imagers was a real privilege, but it was only intimidating for the first 30 seconds or so because they’re all so nice. In Seeing in the Dark, Timothy Ferris describes hanging out at the Winter Star Party: “I listened to the elders talk – a mix of astronomical expertise and self-deprecatory wit, the antithesis of pomp.”  That’s what it was like for me at the 3RF star party – just a bunch of regular folks, all equally willing to share and learn, all equally excited for nightfall.

I got in Thursday evening but didn’t do much observing. It was cold and windy, and then cloudy. I did spend a few minutes out in the lee of one of the bunkhouses cruising the sky with binoculars, and I figured out an easy hack for hanging my red headlamp over my bunkbed, but that was about it. Incidentally, my headlamp is already red, but like almost all red-light accessories marketed toward amateur astronomers, it’s still too darned bright. Usually I have a layer of masking tape over the front to knock down the brightness, but for some reason I pulled it off recently. Fortunately they had plenty of red taillight tape in the 3RF coffers, so I got it back into fighting trim.

On Friday I visited the elementary and middle schools in nearby Quanah, Texas, with 3RF’s Director of Education, Townly Thomas. Townly visits schools in a 100-mile radius from Quanah to bring enhanced STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) activities to kids. I know she’s popular because I heard one student call to her as we walked down the hall: “Mrs. Thomas, when do we get to do STEAM again?” I went in my capacity as professional paleontologist and brought some fossil casts for the students to see. Pictured above are the thumb claw of Saurophaganax, a big allosauroid from Black Mesa in the Oklahoma panhandle (more about that here), and the skull of Aquilops, a little ancestral horned dinosaur that I got to help name in 2014 (ditto). Many thanks to my friends and colleagues at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History for making the casts available – I’ve had fun introducing them to lots of schoolkids.

After the school visit, I got on the road back to Comanche Springs – I didn’t want to miss the talk by Robert Reeves on his lunar imaging. Here’s a  handful of the many things I learned from Robert:

  • He uses a 180mm SkyWatcher Mak to get his moon images these days. Runs his camera at 50 frames a second for 100 seconds to get 5000 frames, stacks and saves only the best 500, and then does a LOT of careful, thoughtful processing.
  • Lunar shadows are jet black, not gray. If you see gray shadows in someone’s moon images, they need more processing.
  • The lunar Bay of Rainbows is Sinus Iridum, not Sinus Iridium – no third ‘i’. I have been misspelling and mispronouncing it for a decade.

Now, this was a Messier Marathon star party and there were rules and checklists and everything – more on that later in the post. I think that originally Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights were all fair game for the contest, but Friday night turned out to be suboptimal. We did get a lovely sunset, as you can see above, but those clouds were pushed on through by a strong, cold wind. Instead of setting up scopes ourselves, many of us retreated inside the dome to observe with the 15″ refractor. We also had a group of 15 or 20 college students visiting, so we all took turns looking through the big refractor. They’d already been going for a while when I got inside. The first object I saw myself through the big scope was the globular cluster M3. Then we looked at M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, and then Comet 41P.

I haven’t blogged about the comet yet, but it is easily visible in binoculars under dark skies, and with any luck it may get naked-eye visible in the next week or so. I haven’t checked to see if it’s visible from Claremont – I was too pooped after I got home last night. I saw it every night in Texas, but I haven’t sketched it yet. Hopefully I’ll get that done soon. In the meantime, Sky & Tel has a good finder chart that will carry you through the end of April here.

After the comet, we looked at the galaxies M102, M82, and M104, and the globular cluster M13. I might have missed an object or two – I popped outside to call home, and spent some time in the attached classroom warming up and getting to know some of my fellow stargazers. I know we went to Jupiter at some point, and we back to Jupiter at the end of the session to catch the start of an Io shadow transit.

I slept in on Saturday and did some final tinkering on my talk. David Moody gave a talk before dinner about visiting the Royal Astronomical Society library and getting to see first editions of books by Copernicus, Newton, Bode, Bayer, and more.

After David’s talk we had dinner and door prizes in the mess hall. Here Jeff Barton (right) is pointing past Fred Koch, who was drawing names, to accuse Lonnie Wege (left) of something. It was all in good fun and there was plenty of laughter, especially when Phil Jones won the grand prize – 15×70 SkyMasters, just like mine – in absentia, having been out setting up his imaging gear. When he came in, Lonnie told him that all he had won was the case, and the binos were going to someone else. Well, binos did go to someone else (whose name unfortunately escapes me), but he had already won 10×50 binos so he kindly donated the 15x70s to Phil. This is Phillip L. Jones of VisualUniverse.org, by the way – you’ve probably seen his photos in books and magazines.

I won a door prize myself – a rechargeable hand warmer. I ran over and plugged it in after dinner so it would be ready to go by marathon time. I was very glad to have it later on.

Saturday night was looking much, much better. There were a few clouds low on the western horizon, but everyone who had come to Comanche Springs to observe or image was getting ready. Here are Glenn Winn in the foreground setting up his 17.5″ Discovery dob, and Jim Admire in the background with his XT10g. Just out of the frame on the right was Jay Ellis and his own XT10.

I set up just south of Jay, and the four of us were the biggest group of visual marathoners. Phil Jones had his imaging rigs set up about 100 feet south of Glenn. There were more imagers on the south observing field, by the Obsession shed, and at least two serious visual observers: Tom Monahan and Russ Boatright (there may have been more, but Tom and Russ are the two who came to the awards ceremony on Monday).

I don’t remember what scope Tom was rolling with, but Russ impressed the hell out of all of us by going super-minimal: he did a naked Messier Marathon from Memory. Not naked as in unclothed, but naked as in, not even with a list of the objects. In a regular M-cubed the observer is allowed no charts – they have to find all of the objects from memory, hence the name. In a naked M-cubed, the observers is not even allowed a list to remind them what to look for, it’s just them and their instrument. Russ ran his naked M-cubed with Canon 18×50 image-stabilized binoculars.

Saturday night’s marathon was great. There were clouds low in the west again, and none of us got M74. But the clouds blew through quickly and after that it was clear, dark skies all night. I was rolling with the Bresser AR102S Comet Edition and Fujinon 7x50s I had borrowed from 3RF. I’d actually flown in with my own binoculars, the Bushnell 10x42s that I had out at Santa Cruz Island last June, but the 7x50s gave a wider, brighter image and were more in line with my current fascination for low-power, wide-field uber alles. I would have brought the Bresser 7x50s that came with the Comet Edition package, but I ran out of room in my backpack – the Bushnell roofs take up about half the space.

And speaking of space in my backpack – I managed to fly with carry-on luggage only. A red duffel bag held the Bresser OTA, Manfrotto tripod, DwarfStar alt-az head, and big dinosaur claw, with my clothes wrapped around everything as packing material. My backpack had a couple more shirts, my laptop, travel paperwork, notebook, Pocket Sky Atlas, binoculars, boxed Aquilops skull, shaving bag, and Bob King’s new book Night Sky With the Naked Eye, which I’d gotten specifically to read on the plane (expect a review soon). Both bags were stuffed nearly to bursting, but they were both within carry-on allowances and the backpack still fit under the seat in front of me.

Oh – rules. There were five categories: Young Astronomer, GoTo Telescope, Non-GoTo Telescope, Binoculars, and Highest Aggregate Score. No-one has ever gotten all 110 objects in one night at a 3RF marathon, so the highest aggregate goes to the person who gets the most over the course of two nights. If there’s a tie in the number of Messier objects, the bonus points kick in. Herschel 400 objects were worth two points apiece, and there was an ascending scale of more difficult dim objects, including Hickson Compact Groups of galaxies.

Here’s my log from Saturday night. Although I missed M74, I tried to make up for it by nailing as many H400 clusters in Cassiopeia and Perseus as I could. By the time I took my first break at 10:15, I had 27 Messiers and 16 H400s. I took several short breaks over the course of the evening to get snacks and caffeine and chat with people. It all went pretty smoothly until just before dawn, when I was trying to catch M30. I star-hopped down from Deneb Algedi (aka Delta Capricorni) to the right vicinity and found myself looking at trees. They were only small trees, and probably 200 yards from the observing field, but they still obscured those last few crucial degrees above the horizon. I’d picked a bad spot.

What I should have done is pick up the binoculars and walk south until I could see the target star with no trees in the way. What I actually did was pick up the scope and chair and run south and set up where I thought I’d be in the clear, only to star-hop down again and see other, different trees – I’d gone too far south. So I moved everything yet again, and by the time I got on target, the sky was getting bright. Fooey. Still, I got 108 objects, tying my personal best from 2013, which was actually the last time I’d even attempted a Messier marathon, so I couldn’t be too unhappy.

As it happened, I tied with Glenn Winn that night. He’d missed M77 in the early evening, but gotten M30, so his list of 108 objects was slightly different than mine but came to the same total.

Anyway, I went to bed happy. Got up for lunch on Sunday, then slept some more, then got up for another talk by Robert Reeves. Robert’s second talk was also on the moon, but focused less on his imaging methods and more on the processes that have shaped the moon, and the moon’s changing appearance under varying conditions of light and shadow. It was incredible stuff – I took a whole page of notes to guide my own future moon-observing.

Sunday night we had clearer skies than Saturday, but it was colder and a brisk north wind was blowing not long after dusk. None of us got M74. Down at the Obsession shed, folks were looking for it with even bigger scopes and failed to see it, so I’m confident it just was not visible that night. Possibly that was atmospheric, but the zodiacal light certainly didn’t help – it was a broad dagger of light stabbing up vertically from the horizon all the way to the Pleiades. I have never seen it so bright.

The other thing that shaped my Sunday night plans was the fact that Glenn did get M77, bringing his aggregate Messier total to 109. All of my bonus points from H400s would only help in the event of a tie, and the only was I could tie him was to get M30. And without M74, there was no chance for me to achieve my personal goal of getting all 110 Messiers in one night. So I needed to be up before dawn to try for M30, but there was no point in subjecting myself to a whole night of observing in the windy cold. I packed up the scope and moved into the lee of Jeff Barton’s camper and switched over to binoculars. I was still using the 3RF Fujinon 7x50s.

It was another Fujinon binocular that would provide the most memorable views of the evening: the 25×150 motorized bino chair. 3RF volunteer Gary Carter had set up the bino chairs and was touring people around the sky on Saturday evening, but I was too busy marathoning to partake. Sunday night I hopped in the big chair, Gary got the binos adjusted, and I was off.

In a word – WOW. I have been fortunate to get to observe with a lot of big telescopes, but I am not exaggerating when I say that using that bino chair was my favorite observing, ever. I just sat there comfortably in a padded chair and drove myself around the sky with the joystick, while enjoying hands-down the brightest, most immersive, most enjoyable views of the night sky that I have ever had. Six inches is a lot of light-gathering per eye. I don’t know the AFOV of the eyepieces but it is wide. It’s hard for me to even believe that the magnification was only 25x – everything subjectively seemed much bigger, because it was so much brighter and more detailed than I am used to. When I was cruising over to look at the Double Cluster, I kept getting distracted by all of the little open clusters that dot the Milky Way in and around Cassiopeia (I was coming in from the north). M78, near Orion, was so big and bright that at first I thought I had the wrong object.

In summation, observing with the Fujinon bino chair was a transformative experience – it changed my perspective on what observing could BE.

I knocked off a little before midnight with 60 Messiers in the bag, and went to get some sleep. I didn’t get up until 5:30, and I wasn’t back out on the observing field until 5:45.

I have read many accounts from observers under dark skies who said that when the summer Milky Way rose, it was so bright that they mistook it for a cloud. I had not previously experienced that for myself. But Monday morning I was headed out of the bunkhouse and I saw a bright, white cloud in the eastern sky. We’d been fighting the occasional cloud every other night, so when I saw that cloud out of the corner of my eye I thought, “Aww, crap, I need clear skies to get M30”. But when I turned my head to see how big the cloud was, and how extensive, it turned out to be the Milky Way in Sagittarius and Scutum. I should have known better anyway – Comanche Springs is so dark that actual atmospheric clouds aren’t bright, but dark. They show up as blank spaces in the starfields.

I didn’t get M30. I got the scope correctly placed this time, and I got to the target star, and I spent about 15 minutes alternately adjusting the zoom eyepiece and staring into the darkness. A couple of times I thought I saw something, but I couldn’t even hold it in averted vision, so it could well have been a case of averted imagination. Anyone who has pushed their gear to its limits in the search for faint fuzzies will know the feeling. There are the things that you see repeatably in the same place, with the same orientation, that you log as detected – and then there are things that never swim up out of the minor variations in background darkness that your retina throws up when confronted with a blank slate. M30 never surfaced for me.

Ah, well. I did get 25 more Messiers with the 7x50s between 5:45 and 6:05. It helped that I had seen them all the previous morning with the telescope, so I knew exactly where to look. I probably could have gotten a few more, like M2, if I hadn’t been so fixated on M30. But 85 Messiers in one night with 7×50 binos is not a bad total at all, especially not when I got a 5.5-hour break in the middle.

I was too keyed up to go right back to sleep, so I went into the observatory classroom, made myself a Frito pie with a microwave bowl of Dinty Moore Beef Stew – which was awesome, by the way – and copied my results over from my personal log to the 3RF competition forms. Then I went back to sleep for a couple more hours.

We all reconvened in the observatory classroom around 10:00 for the final tally and presentation of awards. Here’s the scoreboard:

The highest aggregate total went to Glenn Winn, with 109 objects over the two nights. I got second in the Non-GoTo category, behind Glenn, and also got second in the Binocular category, behind Russ Boatright. In his naked M-cubed with the 18×50 bins, Russ got a staggering 90 objects. Color me impressed – very impressed. Jim Admire got 91 objects with his XT10g, and that was without pushing through dawn, so he won the GoTo category. Tom Monahan wasn’t even going to turn in his sheet, figuring that his 47 objects from the first half of Saturday night would not qualify him for anything. But a lot of people who signed up didn’t turn in any results, so Tom got the pleasant surprise of third place in the Non-GoTo category. I think the Young Observer awards went unclaimed, as no actual youngsters participated in the marathon.

Here’s a shot of the winners’ circle. From left to right are:

  • Jeff Barton, our host and the competition judge;
  • Glenn Winn with his 1st place medal and aggregate score trophy;
  • Russ Boatright;
  • Jim Admire;
  • yours truly, and;
  • Tom Monahan.

Many thanks to 3RF volunteer Gary Carter for taking the photo, and for permission to use it here.

A good time was had by all, and plans are already being laid for next time. Turns out that Jeff Barton is a fan of double stars, and he visibly lit up when I brought the idea of a Double Star Marathon to his attention. Something like 80 globs are visible in the fall during fall Messier Marathon season, so some kind of glob marathon may be in the offing in the near future as well.

I learned some things about my gear, too. The Bresser/Manfrotto/Dwarfstar rig was utterly uncomplicated, as I suspected from my test run at the Salton Sea the previous weekend. Rarely have I had more effortless and trouble-free observing. And I’m proud to have gotten 108 objects in one night with a 4″ scope – I don’t think there’s any shame in losing to a 17.5″ reflector, nor to an observer as experienced and friendly as Glenn. I might even have ‘sold’ a few of the Bresser Comet Edition packages, as there was a lot of curiosity about the scope among the star party attendees. I think Jeff Barton may have ordered one yesterday morning.

Is a 4″ reflactor enough scope for a Messier Marathon? It wasn’t this time. I’m not hurt about not getting M74 – if people with 17″ and 18″ dobs couldn’t see it, then conditions were just not right for it to be seen, period. M30 is more troubling. I know for dead certain that I was pointed at the right place, and I tried every trick in the book – averted vision, tapping the tube, slowly sweeping – and still couldn’t get it to pop out, and this was from its rising onward. But I know it was visible in bigger scopes. Sure, it will be a few degrees higher by the end of the month, but M74 will be a few degrees lower, too.

Now, I know that people have gotten all 110 Messiers in one night with even smaller scopes. According to this analysis by A.J. Crayon, hosted at the SEDS Messier site, it has been done with a 60mm refractor. That is darned impressive. So theoretically, yes, under perfect conditions, a 4″ scope is more than enough. But your chances improve with bigger scopes. Still, even a 17.5″ scope wasn’t enough to get all 110 this time, at this site. And it is worth noting that I’ve now done just as well with a 4″ scope as with my Apex 127, having gotten 108 objects in one night with both instruments.

Flying with the Bresser Comet Edition turned out to be surprisingly easy. I got scope, tripod, alt-az head, and clothes for five days into a standard duffel bag. The likelihood of this scope racking up more airline miles in the future is very high. And the 28mm RKE and 8-24mm Celestron zoom were all the eyepieces I needed. I didn’t use a finder of any kind – I didn’t take my green laser pointer for airport security reasons, and I forgot to borrow one from Jeff (who did offer) before the marathon started Saturday night. But it was okay, I just did my dead reckoning trick and didn’t even think about it after the first few objects. On the flip side, I did wish for a different atlas. I really need to suck it up and take the Jumbo PSA next time. At 4:00 in the morning when my eyes are tired and I’m trying to read by the dim light of a red headlamp, the writing in the standard edition is just too small.

I have new ambitions about gear – mainly, that I gotta get me some big binoculars. Frequent commenter and sometime observing buddy Doug Rennie has 20×80 bins that he mounts on one of these – that would be a potent and enjoyable combo for a very reasonable outlay (although I see that the price has crept up from the $65 or so it was going for last year). And my new no-holds-barred, price-is-no-object dream observing rig – which I may never achieve – is a motorized chair with 150mm binoculars. It was that good.

But ultimately the star party was not about gear, it was about experiences. I had a fantastic time at Comanche Springs, saw amazing things in the sky, learned a lot from my fellow amateurs, and most importantly made a lot of new friends. Many thanks to Jeff Barton and the whole 3RF crew for their hospitality and for making my trip possible. I don’t know when I’ll be back out there, but I’m already looking forward to it.

For more about Messier Marathons, including log sheets, links, and observing reports from previous marathons, see this page.

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

February 26, 2017

ar102s-at-dawn

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).

28mm-rke-in-ar102s

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.

ar102s-set-up-for-observing

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.

ar102s-at-mecca-beach

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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SkyScanning in Utah – and Claremont

July 25, 2016
SkyScanner in classroom

Everyone should have one of these.

I’ve been interested in Orion’s SkyScanner 100 tabletop Dob ever since 2012, when I got to look through the SkyScanners owned by Terry Nakazono and Doug Rennie. In particular, the evening I spent stargazing with Doug up in Oregon that October is in my short list of all-time favorite observing sessions. See that observing report here, and be sure to check out Terry’s guest post on the SkyScanner 100 here.

After spending literally years contemplating the purchase, what finally tipped me into SkyScanner ownership was my own forgetfulness. On July 3 I was driving to Utah to spend 10 days hunting dinosaurs with friends and colleagues. I knew I’d want some dark-sky time so I packed my C80ED, eyepiece case, sky atlas, and binoculars. About the time I hit Barstow – just too far to turn around and go back – I realized that I’d forgotten to pack a mount and tripod. So my choices were to roll with binos only, or come up with Plan B on the fly.

The number of dedicated telescope stores on the direct route between Barstow and Moab continues to hover near zero. However, I was already planning to pass through Flagstaff, which has the Lowell Observatory, which has a gift shop. I called ahead: did they have any telescopes in stock? Why, yes, the Orion XT8 and SkyScanner 100, and both were 10% off as part of a holiday weekend promo. Not long after, I had a SkyScanner in the back seat of the car and a song in my heart.

Matt with SkyScanner 100 at July 2016 PVAA meeting

Demonstrating how the SkyScanner can ride on any tripod with a 1/4 or 3/8 bolt.

I spent that first night in Bluff, Utah, after having driven through Monument Valley, which I’d never visited before. Bluff is truly remote – the nearest towns with more than 5000 people are Moab (5046), 100 miles north, and Kayenta, Arizona (5189), 68 miles southwest. So the skies are inky dark. I rolled in pretty late and I really needed to get some rack, but there was zero chance that I was going to pass up first light for the SkyScanner under those jet-black southern Utah skies. I drove about five miles outside of town and pulled over on a dirt road.

The sky was just incredible, even better than out on Santa Cruz Island back in June. Again, the Milky Way looked like an astrophoto and the Messiers in Scorpio, Scutum, and Sagittarius were almost all naked-eye visible (minus a few of the minor globs). I did look at a handful of things with the SkyScanner, and they all looked fine, but honestly I spent more time with my 10×42 binos and even more time than that just staring around with my naked eyes. In skies like that, a telescope can almost be a distraction.

Still, I’m glad I got that first light session in on the evening of the 3rd, because opportunities would be thin for a while. I did set up the scope on the 4th of July, on the trunk of the car in the driveway of my friends’ place in Moab, and we looked at a few things, but everyone was pretty pooped after a day of hunting dinosaurs and partying so we didn’t push very late. And after that, the sky was at least partly cloudy for most of a week.

Finally on the evening of July 10th we got nice, clear skies. I drove out southeast of Moab on the La Sal Loop Road with a couple of new friends and we spent a very pleasant couple of hours rocking through the best and brightest. The SkyScanner performed like a champ.

Howard Karl and Matt at July 2016 PVAA meeting

Karl Rijkse (center) shows his heirloom German binoculars to Howard Maculsay (left) and me.

I’ve only had it out a couple of times since betting back to Claremont, both times for quick peeks. As a grab-n-go scope it is, as far as I’m concerned, unparalleled. With an assembled weight of just over 6 lbs, it is the definition of a one-hander. The tabletop tripod works great, very smooth, and the rubber feet provide a good grip even on the precarious edge of a sloping car hood. And it goes on my Manfrotto tripod (3.5 lbs) for a 10-pound setup that’s perfect for a long session seated or standing.

As you can see from the photos (kindly provided by Terry Nakazono), I took the SkyScanner to last Friday night’s meeting of the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers, where it drew a lot of interest. I was going to set up the scope outside after the meeting so we could all have a look at Saturn, but the night sky was almost completely blocked out by smoke from the wildfires and the air quality was terrible, so we packed it in. I think I’ll get in the habit of taking the scope to meetings so we can do a little observing after – it’s always seemed to me that an astronomy club should have at least one working scope at each meeting.

Here’s my number one thought regarding the SkyScanner 100: how extremely stupid of me not to have gotten one sooner. If you’re interested in this scope and you’re on the fence, just do it. Heck, if you’re shopping for a big scope and you’re not sure what you want, get a SkyScanner to keep you busy in the meantime. It’s an insane amount of scope – and mount – for a little over a hundred bucks.

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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.

IMG_6988

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.

IMG_6987

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.

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Observing report: Deep and dark in Big Bear

October 12, 2015

Big Bear Lake

This past weekend I was up in Big Bear for a few days’ vacation. The proximate reason was the PVAA tour of the Big Bear Solar Observatory on Friday, Oct. 9 – more on that in another post. London and I went up Thursday evening with Steve Sittig, who runs the Hefner Observatory at the Webb Schools here in Claremont. Thursday evening Steve took us out to one of his favorite dark-sky observing sites a few miles east of Big Bear. (I didn’t get any pictures from the observing site, so you’re getting pictures of London and me hiking instead.)

We had hoped to get an early start but a succession of minor things kept us from getting set up and going until about 10:15 PM. By that time astronomical twilight was long over. There was a noticeable light dome from the LA metro area but it only badly affected the last 15-20 degrees above the local horizon, and only in the southwest.

Oh, speaking of the ‘local horizon’ – the site is in a shallow bowl with low hills fairly close on three sides and a bit more distant on the fourth. We could occasionally see lights from vehicles on a bend in the road about a mile off, but other than that, no artificial lights were visible from the site. None. The altitude is around 6700 feet.

The combined effect of this was that the sky was dark right down to the horizon. There was none of the usual near-horizon crud that obscures objects for the first 10 or so degrees after they rise. The seeing was worse near the horizon but the transparency was still excellent. We looked at Orion virtually as soon as it was up, and although we really had to pour on the magnification to split the Trapezium, the nebulosity was already very extensive.

A word about gear. Steve had his ETX 125, a 5-inch f/15 Mak on a motorized base with a hand controller. London had his Orion 20×50 compact spotting scope – I have been regularly kicking myself for not snapping up one of those for myself while they were still available. I had my C80ED refractor on the SkyWatcher AZ4 mount (= Orion VersaGo II), as well as my trusty old Celestron UpClose 10×50 binos. The choice of the C80ED was driven by two things: my space on the drive up was limited, so it was either the C80ED or the Apex 127 (which would have basically duplicated Steve’s rig), and I knew I’d want to do some wide field, low power observing, which is the one thing the Apex 127 can’t do.

For eyepieces, I spent most of the night using the 24mm ES68, which in the C80ED gives 25x and a sprawling 2.7-degree field. When I needed more power – which is much less often than I had anticipated – I bumped up to the 14mm and 8.8mm ES82s (43x, 1.9-degree field, and 68x, 1.2-degree field), and on a couple of tough double stars, the 6mm Expanse and 2x Shorty barlow. Unusually for me, I didn’t even mount a finder. With a 2.7-degree field, I can usually get the scope on target just by sighting down the tube. On those occasions when I needed more accuracy, I could lay my green laser pointer into a couple of shallow v-shaped notches on the tube ring and just move the scope until the laser was pointing where I wanted to go.

London Big Bear hike

Within moments of hopping out of the car, we could see loads of detail in the Milky Way with our naked eyes. The Double Cluster and the Andromeda Galaxy were both easy as well. Later on, we also spotted the excellent open clusters M35 and NGC 752 without optical aid. I logged the seeing as 4/5 and transparency as 5/5.

Our first few observations were “best in class” objects – the Pleiades, the Double Cluster and Stock 2. At low magnification under dark skies, the Double Cluster looks not so much like a pair of isolated objects, but rather a couple of thickenings or condensations in an incredibly rich Milky Way starfield. So it was that evening. Seeing that far above the horizon was rock steady and even at low mag, the C80 focused the stars down to tiny pinpoints of brilliant light. One of the clusters has a pair of red giants near its center – these were visibly brighter and more yellow than the rest of the cluster stars, even at 25x.

After that I turned west to catch M13 before it got too low. Going up to 68x revealed tantalizing hints of resolution – not bad for an 80mm scope.

M57, the Ring Nebula, was an arresting sight. At 25x, I could get both of the ‘corner’ stars that mark that end of the Lyra parallelogram, with M57 as a small but crisp circle of nebulosity floating in inky dark space. Although we also looked at the nebula with more magnification, I found that lowest-power view delightful. It reminded me of spotting the Ring at 12.5x in the TravelScope 70 three years ago – the view that first infected me with refractoritis.

We didn’t try to split Epsilon Lyrae until a bit later, when it was lower in the sky. The seeing there was only so-so and I had to push the scope to 200x, using the barlowed 6mm Expanse, to get a clean split, although both pairs were visible elongated at much lower magnification.

We stayed out long enough to catch the leading edge of the Big Dipper rising. One of the best views in that part of the sky is the galaxies M81 and M82 in the same field of view. They are close enough to be nicely framed in the same field even in the 8.8mm ES82. At that magnification (68x), M82 was starting to show tantalizing hints of structure.

London and Matt hiking above Big Bear Lake

The most memorable observations of the night were of the Auriga Messier clusters and the other Local Group spiral galaxies. Auriga clusters first – M38, M36, and M37 (from west to east, in the order that they rise) are seasonal favorites and fun to compare. We swept them up easily in binoculars and then scrutinized them in the scopes at progressively higher powers. I had a good laugh at M36 – at the orientation we saw it in this weekend, it looked like a short, fat stick figure, the bobble-head version of the Stock 2 stick-man. But M37 was my favorite, just an incredibly dense swarm of tiny pinpoint stars.

Fairly early in the evening we had a look at the Triangulum galaxy, M33. I was tracing out the constellation Triangulum with the GLP when we noticed a naked-eye glow that turned out to be the fine open cluster NGC 752. Neither of us could make out M33 with our naked eyes but it was dead easy in binoculars, and at 25x in the C80ED it showed considerable structure in averted vision, including what both of us independently took to be one of the spiral arms. Incredible.

We closed the session with another great view of a local galaxy. All through the three-hour session we’d been saying that we’d look at Andromeda, and then one thing or another would capture our attention and we’d get sucked into some other part of the sky. We finally got around to M31 and its companion galaxies a little after 1:00 AM. By that point they were basically at the zenith. Even with the tripod extended as high as it would go, we had to kneel to look in the eyepiece. But when we did, the view was astounding. M31 stretched all the way across the field, with only the very outer edges clipped by the eyepiece’s field stop. The little companion galaxies M32 and M110 were dead easy, of course, but what amazed me was that we could both see structure and detail with the main galaxy. I’d never seen those dust lanes in anything smaller than a 5-inch scope.

We knocked off after three solid hours of observing, exhausted but giddy. It was one of those transcendent nights that makes my heart sing, and also makes it really hard to go back to observing from suburbia. The most surprising thing for me was how much observing I got done with the 24mm ES68. “Small telescope at low power” does not scream satisfying deep sky observing, but under sufficiently dark, clear skies, I rarely needed anything else. I’m already looking forward to the next run.

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Observing Report: All-Arizona Star Party 2014

October 30, 2014

 

AASP 2014 - loaded for bear

If it’s late October or early November, it must be time for the All-Arizona Star Party. London and I headed out for it this past Saturday, Oct. 25. As in 2012, we were joined by the indefatigable Terry Nakazono. Here Terry and London pose for the obligatory “look how much crap we crammed into the car!” photo.

We arrived at the site about an hour before sunset, plenty of time to set up camp and chat with the neighbors. As usual, we set up not far from Darrell Spencer and AJ Crayon, but irritatingly I failed to get a picture with Darrell, my first such lapse.

AASP 2014 - setting up in the shade

When we arrived the sun was still well above the horizon and temperatures were in the mid-90s. London and I set up our scopes on the east side of the car so we could sit in the shade. Here London is tinkering with his AstroMedia 40mm “plumber’s telescope”, which we just built last week. More about that scope in a future post. The scope behind London was another AASP newcomer.

C80ED newly arrived 1600

This is my new Celestron C80ED. This scope originally retailed for about $500. Celestron donated all of the remaining stock of the spotting scope version to Astronomers Without Borders, and AWB sells it for $350 with free shipping. Vicki got me one for our anniversary last week (and I got her some leather boots–in both cases, the choice of gift was, ahem, heavily influenced by the recipient). The package arrived on Thursday about half an hour before the partial solar eclipse was to start, so I just had time to take this photo before I ran out the door to London’s school.

I got this scope because it filled a hole in my lineup. My Maks have sharp optics but can’t do wide fields. The TravelScope 70 can do wide fields but still has limitations, even after its tune-up. And the C102 is a wonderful scope but not exactly small, and although its chromatic aberration is minimal it is still there. I figured a small ED scope could be a grab-n-go that could deliver wide fields like the TS70, take magnification on planets and double stars like the Maks, in a more convenient and false-color-free package than the C102. Plus I’d just always wanted to try an ED scope. I was going to get an AstroTech AT72ED but they are out of stock and have been for ages. The C80ED offered a small but significant aperture boost for less dough, so I bit–or rather, encouraged Vicki to do so.

I was going to bring both the C102 and the C80ED, but as the date got closer I decided that what I really wanted to do was put the C80ED through its paces under those dark Arizona skies, and another scope would just be a distraction. I had briefly set up the C80ED on Friday night to make sure the scope didn’t have anything seriously wrong. It didn’t–in fact, it star-tests as well as any scope I’ve ever owned.

AASP 2014 - refractor city

Turns out we were all rolling with small refractors. From left to right they are the C80ED, London’s 60mm Meade refractor, Terry’s Orion Short-Tube 80, and London’s 20×50 Orion spotting scope (reviewed here). Terry had been going to bring a 4.5-inch reflector but the Clear Sky Chart said that conditions were iffy. Also, like me he had been interested to see how deep he could push a small refractor under dark skies.

Incidentally, after bringing my XT10 to the AASP in 2010 and 2012, I brought the Apex 127 last year and now an 80mm refractor this year. At this rate, in a couple more years I’ll be down to bringing just a finderscope. (I jest, but I have had a longstanding interest in going to a dark site with only the SV50 or GalileoScope to see how many things I could see with a small scope under dark skies–so far, greed for photons has always won out, so this project remains unattempted).

AASP 2014 - moon in C80ED

Our first target of the evening was the waxing crescent moon. I got a few shots with the iPhone shooting through the C80ED. Here’s the best one. All I did was crop it and flip it left to right–other than the orientation change, the actual pixels have not been tinkered with at all. Note the absence of false color. I also put the scope on Vega early in the evening and could not detect any false color–very impressive.

On the drive out, Terry asked me if I had any plans or goals for the evening. I did have a few:

  • above all, spend some time observing with London;
  • look at some familiar objects to get a feel for the scope;
  • track down some southern objects, since I’d be at a dark site with a clear and dark southern horizon;
  • to the extent that I could, test the scope on challenging targets like globular clusters and close double stars.

And that is more or less what I actually did.

A word about the sky conditions before I get into actual observations: they were not fantastic. Seeing was lousy the whole night, with the stars twinkling visibly all over the sky. Transparency was good in the early evening but around 9 or 10 a very light haze set in across the whole sky. It wasn’t ghastly, but it noticeably knocked down the contrast–where the Milky Way had blazed overhead at 8:00, by 10:00 it was just sort of there, visible but not nearly as prominent. In my notebook, I rated the seeing at 2 out of 5 and the transparency at 3 out of 5.

I only used four eyepieces for most of the night:

  • 24mm ES68, which in the C80ED gives a magnification of 25x and a true field of 2.7 degrees
  • 14mm ES82 (43x, 1.9*)
  • 8.8mm ES82 (68x, 1.2*)
  • 6mm Expanse (100x, 0.67*)

I did use a 32mm Plossl to drop the power down to 18.75x to see if Polaris could still be split (it couldn’t, but read on), and I used a Barlow once. Other than that, it was just these four, and out of these four, I used the 24mm and 8.8mm EPs significantly more than the other two. I had planned to use the 8-24mm Celestron zoom, but in testing the scope Friday night, I could tell that the Explore Scientific eyepieces were noticeably sharper. Good heavens, I think I’m turning into a refractor weenie and an eyepiece snob.

After the moon we visited Mars, but it was tiny and featureless and fairly burning in the bad seeing. Then I swung next door to Sagittarius and got my first surprise of the evening: the big glob, M22, was partially resolved even at 25x with the ES68! I love globs–they are one of my chief joys in observing with the XT10, and I expected them to be dim, featureless cottonballs in the C80ED. That I was getting partial resolution on one in a small scope at low power was pretty arresting. I had a quick look at M28, M8, and M24, and then helped London get his 60mm on target on M22, M28, and M8. London was interested in seeing a double star so we wheeled the scopes around and had a look at Mizar and Alcor. Then we looked at M13, M57, the Pleiades, the Double Cluster, and Stock 2 in his 60mm.

AASP 2014 - our camp

Highlights of the Evening: M13, M57, M27

After all that, London went to lie in the lounge chair and watch for shooting stars–he got 17 before he went to sleep around 10:30. I went on to M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, and had my socks knocked off. Like M22, it was partially resolved even at 25x, and much better at 68x and 100x. It wasn’t fully resolved, of course, and the XT10 will blow away the C80 on this or any other glob, but it was at least a ball of many, many stars and not just a fuzzy blob. Here’s one of the nice things about widefield eyepieces and short focal length scopes: you get huge fields even at reasonable magnifications. At 68x in the 8.8mm ES82, I could park M13 comfortably inside the field stop and watch it drift across the field of view for more than four minutes. Even at 100x in the 6mm Expanse, I could watch the cluster drift across the center of the field for a bit over two minutes. I commented to Terry that if I hadn’t had other things I wanted to see, I could have kept watching M13 all evening and been very happy.

Lyra was still pretty high overhead so I went there next. Epsilon Lyrae was shimmering in the bad seeing. It was elongated at 68x and almost split at 100x, but I had to Barlow it up to 200x to get a clean split. You may recall that under better conditions, the TravelScope 70 split the Double-Double at 133x, and I know that it is often split at well under 100x by high quality small refractors. So the high magnification required for the split here reflects more on the quality of the seeing than on the quality of the telescope. I’m looking forward to seeing how the C80ED performs on Epsilon Lyrae on a better night.

M13 was probably my favorite view of the night, but a close runner-up was M57, the Ring Nebula. It was clearly ring-like at 68x, but I liked it even better at 25x–the expansive 2.7-degree field of the ES68 showed the nebula nicely framed between Beta and Gamma Lyrae (the stars that mark the south end of the constellation stick-figure) and their attendant stars. It reminded me of the view of the Ring at 12.5x in the TravelScope 70 back in 2012, which is what got me into refractors in the first place.

After that I spent a few pleasant minutes rocking through the Lyra-Cygnus-Sagitta axis, observing M56, Albireo, Brocchi’s Coathanger (Cr 399), M71, and M27. Interestingly, the view of the M27 was very similar to the one I had through the C102 at the Salton Sea last year: I could not only see the “apple core” extensions, but also some of the “football” nebulosity between those extensions. That is a lot of nebulosity to pick up in an 80mm scope. I wonder what I could see on a night with better transparency.

By now it was about 8:50 and I knocked off the serious observing for a while. First I went to hang out with London, and while he watched for shooting stars, I used the 15×70 bins to sweep up many of the same summer showpieces I’d just seen in the telescope: M57, M56, Albireo, Cr 399, M71, M27, M13, the Double Cluster, some of the nice NGC open clusters in Cassiopeia. Then some folks from the other end of camp stopped by and we chatted for a while. Darrell came over and had a look at M13, and London and I went down to the center of camp to get some hot chocolate. When we got back, London sacked out. I had a quick look at M11 before it set, and tracked down the asterism DeLano 1 just to make sure it was still there. Then, at Terry’s suggestion, I tried M15, the big glob off the nose of Pegasus. Here are my unedited notes:

M15 – tough nut to crack. Starting to look grainy at 100x. Also pretty grainy at 68x in 8.8mm ES82. Even though it only gives about 2/3 the magnification of the 6mm Expanse, I think the 8.8mm ES82 shows almost as much. It’s just a superior piece of glass. Another ES82 or 68 in the 3-5mm range should be priority.

Now, this idea that the 6mm Expanse is maybe not 100% awesome–hold onto that thought, we’ll revisit it at the end of the evening.

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Go South, Young Man

Ever since my incredible Salton Sea run with David DeLano last fall, I have been painfully aware of how much I’ve neglected the southern sky. So from 10:45 to 12:30, that’s where I went. My first southern target was NGC 7293, the Helix Nebula. It was dead easy to see once I got there, but it took me an unusual amount of faffing about to get on target. I was using the 6×30 straight-through correct-image finder that came with the C80ED. I’m normally a RACI man so using a straight-through finder took some getting used to. But I kinda like it, now that I have the hang of it.

After that it was onto some galaxies and planetaries: NGCs 55, 300, 288, 253, 247, 246, 720, and 779. NGC 288 and NGC 253 were nicely framed in the same field. NGC 288 is a globular cluster circling our own Milky Way galaxy, about 29,000 light years away, whereas NGC 253, the Silver Coin galaxy, is 11.4 million light years away, almost 400 times farther, and rivals our own Milky Way in size. So that pair has a bit of the M97/M108 ‘odd couple’ thing going on.

The not-quite-edge-on galaxies NGC 720 and NGC 779 were my only new objects for the evening. Both of them are on the Herschel 400 list, and bring my H400 tally to 175. I am starting to wonder if I will ever finish the Herschels–the only new ones I’ve notched in the past couple of years have been bagged at the All-Arizona Star Party. I gotta get out in the spring more. I’ve just about exhausted the fall Herschels, but there are hundreds of spring galaxies to observe in Ursa Major and the Virgo-Coma Cluster.

C80ED AASP 2014 2000

Orion and Points North

After almost two hours of faint fuzzies, I was ready for a change of pace. I turned east, toward Orion. The view was pretty great–the Trapezium was split into four components at only 25x, and the nebulosity seemed to go on forever. And yet, the subtle gradations in the nebulosity did not seem as pronounced as I had observed on other nights. Terry noticed the same thing observing Orion through his ST80. He thinks that the poor transparency was leaching some of the contrast out of the view, and I am inclined to agree.

Without a doubt, the strangest observation of the night was of NGC 1980, the field of nebulosity around Iota Orionis. When I looked right at the nebula, it was steady, but when I looked back at M42/M43, NGC 1980 would flicker in my averted vision like a bad fluorescent bulb. At first I thought maybe it was just my eyes, but I called Terry over and he reported seeing the same effect.

Now, I don’t think that the nebula was actually flickering. I suspect that through some quirk of eye/visual system physiology, it only seemed to flicker in averted vision.

Just to rule out the obvious distractors: we were parked on the very east end of the airstrip so there was probably no-one between us and Phoenix. Neither of us were using flashlights or any electrical gear at all while we were observing in Orion. Our nearest neighbors were about 50 yards to the NW and SW, and they’d all turned in for the night. So I’m about as certain as I can be that it wasn’t some terrestrial source that just happened to be shining into the eyepiece or objective lens. Also, we only noticed the flickering on NGC 1980, and not on the extended “wings” of nebulosity from M42, which were of similar brightness at their extremities.

Has anyone else seen anything like this, either for NGC 1980 or other DSOs? If so, I’d love to hear about it–the comment thread is open.

After Orion’s Sword I bounced around a few northern Messiers–M78, M1, M35 with NGC 2158 just starting to resolve behind it, M81 and M82 in the same field, and M97 and M108 in their own field. Midway through that tour I stopped to split Polaris. It was continuously split at 24x in the 24mm ES82, not split at 18.75x in the 32mm Plossl. This illustrates just how seeing-dependent double star splitting is–Friday night from my driveway, the seeing was even worse, and that evening Polaris was not continuously split at 25x, but it was a 43x in the 14mm ES82, and even at 28.5x in the 21mm Stratus. As indicated above, the seeing out in Arizona Saturday night was not awesome. One of my quests with the C80ED is to see how low I can go, magnification-wise, and still get clean splits on some of the classic double stars. Watch this space.

M97 and M108 were my last DSOs of the evening. After that I turned to Jupiter, and even at 68x I could see at least 4 belts. The Galilean moons were spaced about evenly, two on each side of the planet. Terry and I compared views of the planet through the C80ED and his ST80. We could get similar magnifications with our favorite short eyepieces: the 8.8mm ES82 gave 68x in the C80ED (FL = 600mm), and the 6mm Expanse gave 67x in the ST80 (FL = 400mm). So how did the scopes compare? Well, obviously the ST80 was throwing up a lot of false color, but I could detect the same four belts that I could in the C80ED, albeit not quite as crisply. More informative was the comparison of eyepieces. Terry had a 6mm Expanse clone from AgenaAstro.com. While were swapping all of these eyepieces between the two scopes–the 8.8 ES82, the 6mm Expanse, and the 6mm Expanse clone–I noticed something I had never spotted before: the 6mm Expanse threw up a huge circle of glare around Jupiter. Perfectly circular, like a lens flare, centered on Jupiter, and spanning out to the outermost moon on each side. The glare circle was there in the 6mm Expanse in both scopes. It was not there in either scope in the ES82, nor in the AgenaAstro Expanse clone. These are the Agena Enhanced Wide Angle (EWA) 6mm, which goes for $45 (you can find it here), and the 6mm Orion Expanse, list price $68, street about $59. So if you’re in the market for a 66-degree EP, you can save about 25% and get noticeably better performance from the Agena version. I’m tempted to get one myself, and hock the Orion EP. Until now, the 6mm Expanse has been one of my most-used EPs, but now that I can see its faults…like I said, eyepiece snobbery is taking hold.

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Settling Up

After one last look at Jupiter in the ES82 at 3:00 AM, I shut down and went to bed. The next morning, London and I went on our customary “bone hike”, and we did find several bones, including a couple of cow limb bones, and the jackrabbit lower jaw shown in the photo. More exciting were the Western diamondback rattlesnake and the horned lizard that we found.

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My final tally for the evening was 45 telescopic objects:

  • 2 planets (Mars and Jupiter)
  • 22 Messiers
  • 13 other NGCs
  • 2 asterisms (Brocchi’s Coathanger, DeLano 1)
  • 1 other catalogued DSO (Stock 2)
  • 5 double/multiple stars (Mizar/Alcor, Albireo, Epsilon Lyrae, Trapezium, Polaris)

…plus a couple of meteors.

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Irritatingly, I realized later that I had completely missed out on some real gems. I never once pointed the scope at the Andromeda galaxy or its satellites–detail in M31 would have been a good test of the C80’s optics. And I skipped the nice open clusters in Auriga–M36, M37, and M38–which maybe more than any other set of clusters give that “diamonds on black velvet” feeling in a sharp telescope. We set up early enough that I could have rocked through all of the Sagittarius Messiers instead of the handful I actually saw, but I deliberately traded that time away to help London find some things, so I don’t feel bad about that particular omission. The others are a bit galling.

Even with those omissions, I still met all of the goals that I had set for myself: I got in some good observing time with London, I had fun touring the southern skies, even if most of the things I saw there were revisits, and I both got a feel for how the scope performed on average targets, and got to push it on some challenging ones. The biggest revelation to me was that an 80mm scope would start to crack open some of the bigger globs. M13 and M22 didn’t just look good, they looked stunning. I wish I was observing them right now.

In sum, a great night of stargazing, and a pretty thorough field test for the C80ED. I think I am going to have a LOT of fun with this scope.

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Observing report: Night of the Refractors

October 14, 2013

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London and I were back at the Salton Sea this past Saturday night (Oct. 12-13). It was our first time there  since my accidental Messier Marathon back in March. In between times it has been too darned hot to go camping in the desert. It was good to be back.

C102 at Mecca

The  big news was that I was rolling with a new scope: a Celestron C102 f/10 achromatic refractor, one of the “screaming deal” scopes from this post. I put it on the SkyWatcher AZ4 (= Orion VersaGo II) alt-az mount where my Apex 127 Mak usually rides. The included dovetail on this scope is too small and too far forward to balance well with an optical finder and heavy eyepieces, so I sprung for the Explore Scientific tube rings and dovetail kit. That was a pretty darned good deal; tube rings alone for a 4-inch scope run $30-40, and a decent-length dovetail is another $15-20, but the ES kit has both for $45, plus a very convenient carry handle opposite the dovetail bar. With the rings in place I could mount my StellarVue SV50 as a finder, and I was ready to go.

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I also brought along the Apex 127 in case I felt like a change of pace, and because it takes up almost no room (which is one of the reasons I got it in the first place). But I was having too much fun with the C102 and the Apex 127 never made it out of the case. At some point I’ll have to do a detailed comparo between the two scopes, but Saturday night I was just out to have a good time.

We also had along the Celestron Travel Scope 70, which London is using in the photo above. I had completely disassembled and reassembled that scope, and after London went to bed at 10:00 I divided my time about equally between the C102 and TS70. Partly I wanted to put both scopes through their paces, and partly I just wanted to hop around the sky, checking in on friends new and old.

C102 1st quarter moon 2013-10-11

I will have to do a full-on review of the C102 at some point. For now, suffice it to say that it is a very nice scope. Image brightness and contrast are both excellent; for someone who has spent most of his time observing with reflectors and catadioptrics, this does not feel like a 4-inch scope. On most objects I could have been fooled into thinking I was looking through a 5- or even 6-inch mirror scope.

Grain of salt: I didn’t actually go back and forth between this scope and 5- or 6-inch mirror scope, although I plan to do that in the future. I’m just saying that as someone who has spent a lot of time looking through smallish Newts and Maks, this scope felt like it punched above its weight. I was worried that I would feel like I was missing out by taking such a small scope as my main instrument. But I was having so much fun with it that I stayed up nearly to dawn–there were always two or three more things I wanted to check out.

The photo above is not from Saturday night but from my driveway on Friday night, when the moon was exactly at first quarter. I flip-flopped it left to right and lightly sharpened it in GIMP, but didn’t fiddle with the brightness or color. There is some false color, most notably along the limb of the moon and on bright planets like Jupiter, but I didn’t find it objectionable. YMMV.

Salton moonset composite 2013-10-13

I think this is my new favorite moon scope. The image is so contrasty, details just pop. I would put in the 6mm Expanse (167x), watch the moon drift across the field of view, and pretend I was an astronaut. I also sketched a really nice catena (crater chain) in the northeast quadrant of the crater Deslandres. You can see it on the right in this LPOD image, opposite the smaller crater Hell that sits in the western part of Deslandres. If this catena has a name, I haven’t discovered it yet; feel free to enlighten me in the comments.

The moon set precisely at 1:00 AM. As you can see from the above composite, the seeing was not fantastic, especially near the horizon. Stars were visibly twinkling below about 45 degrees elevation.

After the moon set, it was like a whole new sky. The Milky way fairly blazed, and the sky was so full of bright stars that it was almost overwhelming. I was about as happy as I have ever been.

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I spent some time observing near the zenith. This can be a pain with a long-tube scope like the C102. You can extend the tripod legs to put the eyepiece at a convenient height, but then you’re futzing with tripod legs all night long, which I loathe doing (another reason I got the Apex 127 was that I can go from horizon to zenith at one tripod setting). I remembered David DeLano saying that he often sits on the ground to observe at high angles, and that led to some experimentation. I found that my range of comfortable sitting eyepiece heights overlaps with my comfortable kneeling eyepiece heights, so I put out a camp pad for my knees and a folding chair for my elbows and voila. Someday I will build or buy an adjustable observing chair, but until then, this will do.

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I have a couple collapsible camp chairs. They are great for stashing eyepieces when I’m really rolling, because I don’t have to worry about them falling over and rolling off onto the ground like I would with a table. I keep my eyepiece case on a picnic table, well back from the edge, so there’s no real opportunity to knock it over.

Now that I have some nice Explore Scientific widefields, I have become a bit of an eyepiece snob. Early in the evening I was sharing views with London and people from a nearby campsite so I started with my “second string” of Orion Stratuses and Plossls, just in case. Sound like a jerk move? Just wait until some kid–or a grown-up relative, in my case–says, “Hey, do I look here?”, and stabs the eye lens of your favorite eyepiece with a greasy fingertip.

But I guess the joke’s on me because the views through the second string EPs were so good that I never got around to hauling out the ES models. My lineup for Saturday night included:

  • 32mm Plossl (31x, 1.7 degree true field of view) for lowest magnification and maximum true field in a 1.25″ EP (I don’t have a 2″ diagonal yet so my 38mm AstroTech Titan, which would go even lower and wider, stayed home);
  • 25mm Plossl (40x, 1.3 degrees);
  • 21mm Stratus (48x, 1.4 degrees)–comparing this to the 25mm Plossl illustrates one of the nice things about widefields: you can get higher magnification (bigger image scale) and a larger true field (more actual celestial real estate) at the same time;
  • 13mm Stratus (77x, 0.88 degrees);
  • 12mm Plossl (83x, 0.63 degrees);
  • 6mm Expanse (167x, 0.40 degrees).

You would think that the Stratuses would put the 25mm and 12mm Plossls out of business, since they give basically the same or better magnification and a bigger true field. But the Stratuses are quite a bit heavier than the Plossls and required rebalancing the scope. So I was either in Stratus mode or Plossl-and-Expanse mode, and over the course of the evening, the cheap eyepieces won out in terms of convenience.

Also, frankly, f/10 is a pretty forgiving focal ratio. With a light cone that shallow, practically any eyepiece is going to do well. The only reason to prefer widefields is for their actual wide fields, and not to help control aberrations from the scope itself. I did note that the difference in apparent field of  view was immediately obvious when I bounced from the 52-degree Plossls to the 68-degree Stratuses. Oddly, I never noticed it with the 6mm Expanse (66 degrees), but I think that’s because I only used the Expanse to power up on the moon, planets, and double stars, where I was always fixated on whatever was at the center of the field.

My favorite observations of the night, in rough chronological order:

Double Cluster and Stock 2

I have waxed poetic about the Double Cluster before (you can find it here). It’s pretty close to a larger, sparser cluster called Stock 2, which is shown is most atlases, including the Pocket Sky Atlas. But I had never noticed the chain of bright stars that connects Stock 2 and the Double Cluster, and I had also not picked up the stick figure in the center of Stock 2. Here’s a photo by Doug Scobel of the University of Michigan Lowbrow Astronomers (borrowed from here) that shows what I mean (lower image GIMPed by me):

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I revisited the Double Cluster periodically throughout the night. Right after dark it was the second thing I looked at, after the moon, and it was my last object before I packed up at 5:40 AM. Probably my best view was at 3:00 AM, when I wrote:

Nicely framed, mesmerizingly beautiful. I see at least two red stars in more easterly cluster, NGC 884. NGC 869 is at end of chain to Stock 2. All at 31x.

I still do plan to get into astronomical sketching, and when I do, I reckon the Double Cluster will be one of my first targets, if not my very first.

Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and satellite galaxies (M32 and M110)

Also about 3:00 AM, immediately before the Double Cluster observation above:

With 32mm Plossl (31x), all three galaxies fit in field, with dust lane popping in and out in averted vision.

I should mention that M31 itself was too big to fit into the field of view of my lowest-power eyepiece; with the core of the galaxy centered in the field, the edges of the spiral arms went out of the field in both directions. M31 is so darned big that unless you have an instrument with a 3-degree true field, you just can’t see all of it at once. Corollary: if you can fit the galaxy into a smaller field of view, then you’re not seeing all of it, which is sadly the case under even moderate light pollution. The core will punch through even vile city lights, but the spiral arms just die out.

Jupiter

Best view was at 5:00 AM, with the 12mm Plossl (83x):

Bands not quite lined up with moons. NEB [North Equatorial Belt] seems narrower and better defined than SEB. Several distinct belts to north, single broad ?temperate belt to south. Max detail at this mag–at 187x, seeing is too mushy.

Zodiacal light

I stopped about 5:10 for a biology break. Walking back to the telescope, I was stopped in my tracks by what seemed to be a second Milky Way: a broad band of light stabbing up from the eastern horizon, past Mars and the Beehive (M44) and reaching almost to Jupiter, which was by then high in the sky. It took me a minute to realize that this was the zodiacal light: the cumulative effect of sunlight reflecting off of countless grains of dust in the ecliptic plane of the solar system. The name “zodiacal light” comes from the fact that this light is always found along the zodiacal path traced by the sun, moon, and planets, as it must be, since almost everything in the solar system orbits in roughly the same ecliptic plane (comets excepted–they can come in from any angle, and the fact that they do so was one of the first clues to the existence of the Oort Cloud).

The Gegenschein, which I saw at the 2010 All-Arizona Star Party, is another manifestation of the same phenomenon. Basically, the Gegenschein comes from “full” dust grains exactly opposite the sun in the sky, and the zodiacal light comes from “crescent” or “gibbous” dust grains at other angles. Apparently under the very darkest skies, the Gegenschein can be seen as a bright patch in an arc of zodiacal light that stretches overhead from horizon to horizon. I have not seen that, but it’s on my bucket list.

Anyway, given how bright the zodiacal light was Sunday morning, I think I must have seen it many times before and simply not recognized it. I will keep my eyes peeled in the future.

M81 and M82

Anytime I’ve got more than one bright galaxy in the eyepiece, I’m a happy man. These two were nicely framed in the 32mm Plossl (31x). Using the 12mm Plossl (83x), the gravitationally-tortured M82 showed some hints of detail in averted vision.

The Odd Couple–M97 and M108

Probably my favorite pair of Messier objects. M97, the Owl Nebula, is a planetary nebula, a single dying star, about 2000 light years from Earth–right next door, cosmically speaking. M108 is a spiral galaxy in the Ursa Major galaxy cluster, about 46 million light years away, roughly the same size as the Milky Way and containing perhaps half a trillion stars. So one of these things is 23,000 times farther than the other one, and several hundred billion times more massive. If M97 was a ping-pong ball held at arms length, M108 would be a frisbee half a mile wide, located 8.5 miles away. But they look about the same in the telescope in terms of size and brightness, and you can frame them in the same low-power field of view, as I did at 5:27 AM on Sunday.

(Incidentally, I just discovered that Google will convert megaparsecs to light years–handy!)

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After visiting M97 and M108, I had a quick peek at Mars. The red planet is very distant right now, on the opposite side of the sun from us, but it was visibly a disk and not just a point even at low magnification. The disk was most clear at 83x in the 12mm Plossl, but the planet was just flaming in the lousy seeing and I couldn’t make out any details.

Speaking of Mars, our rover Opportunity landed in January, 2004, and is therefore more than nine-and-a-half years into its 90-day mission. Not bad.

After Mars I briefly revisited the Double Cluster, but I could tell that my eyes and brain were no longer operating at anything like peak capacity. So I closed everything down and got a couple of hours of rack. The photo above shows my super-fancy telescope protection system. There are dedicated protective covers for telescopes that will work in rain, sleet, and hail, but hell, if conditions get that bad I will pull the scope inside the car. I didn’t just pack it up because I wanted to do a little birding with it in the morning.

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We  did spend some time birding, and then while London got the campfire going, I started packing up. I do have a nice padded case for the telescope en route from Amazon–this one, recommended by David DeLano–but it’s not here yet so I used the trash bags and the packing materials the scope came in.

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London stayed busy with the Travel Scope 70, which had gotten a workout overnight on the moon, Jupiter, and the deep sky. I have another post coming about the reborn TS70–stay tuned.

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One last thing: Reese’s peanut butter cups make fantastic s’mores, and if you have any left over, they are great in pancakes, too.

All in all,  it was a fantastic night, one of my best–and longest–nights of stargazing of all time. At 3:30 I stopped observing to sit at one of the picnic tables and eat a banana. The stars were so bright and the sky was so full of stuff to look at. When I got back to the telescope, I scrawled in my notebook, “Nights like this make me wonder why I bother to observe anywhere else.”