Archive for the ‘Dark Skies’ Category

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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.

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

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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.

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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.”

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Observing Report: All-Arizona Star Party 2012

October 17, 2012

The 10MA crew at AASP ’12. From left: me with my XT10, David DeLano with his SkyWatcher 100T, London with his AstroScan, and Terry Nakazono.

Last Saturday night London and I were out in Arizona for the 2012 All-Arizona Star Party. We’d been to the 2010 AASP–one of the finest nights of stargazing of my life–but we missed it last year, so it was great to get back out there. Terry Nakazono went with us. It was our third time observing together after a couple of Mt. Baldy runs this summer, and our first time under truly dark skies.

Happiness is a new scope under dark skies!

The big news for us was meeting frequent 10MA commenter David DeLano for the first time. David and I have been email pen pals for a couple of years now, and he’s written a couple of guest posts (sun funnel and diagonal comparison) but we’d never met in person before this weekend. He’s not unusually happy in this picture–in my admittedly limited experience, his grin is as much a feature of his face as his moustache. But he is pretty darned happy, because he was rolling with his dream scope this weekend, a 4″ f/10 SkyWatcher triplet apo that he’s owned for just a couple of months. This was only his third or fourth time using it, and the first time under dark skies.

Terry’s new Celestron NexStar 102GT–a.k.a. the Costco Scope. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

As luck would have it, Terry was also rolling with a new “big gun”, and it was also a 4″ f/10 refractor. His is an achromat, the Celestron NexStar 102GT, which he acquired even more recently. He calls it the “Costco Scope”, because apparently this particular package of scope and mount is only available in Costco stores. It’s a 4″ long-focus achromat on a fully motorized GoTo mount for $200 even, which is probably one of the best deals in telescopes right now. Terry showed me Barnard’s Galaxy and IC 342, another faint galaxy, through this scope, and I can confirm that it both pulls down the photons and gives a nice crisp view.

Loaded for bear. The padded grocery sack on the left covers the end of the XT10 so it doesn’t get dinged when I close the hatch. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

With Terry’s new scope and tripod–not to mention his tent and the rest of his gear–London’s AstroScan, my XT10, assorted camp chairs and sleeping bags and backpacks and water bottles and so on, our Mazda 5 was packed pretty full. Terry snapped this pic when we stopped for gas in Blythe.

The AASP was not just a chance to hang out with new friends but also to catch up with an old one. I hadn’t seen Darrell Spencer (on the left here, checking out David’s SkyWatcher) since the 2010 AASP, although we’d emailed back and forth a few times. It was great to see him again–and kinda funny, too. Not much had changed. He was rolling with his 11″ Celestron SCT and I had my XT10, just like last time. He was working on the Herschel II list and I was chasing Herschel 400 objects, just like last time. He’s closer to finishing his list, though, with only 25 or so objects left. Meanwhile I’ve just barely passed the 150 mark on the Herschel 400.

Darrell was already set up when we rolled in, and he invited us to set up to the south of his camp. Next to him was Jimmy Ray (just visible here between Darrell and David), who quickly hit it off with our crew. Darrell and Jimmy also shared their experience with us, which was a real boon, especially for Terry as he was still learning the ropes of his first GoTo scope.

Oh, about that GoTo scope. Up until now Terry has been working almost exclusively with tabletop Dobsonian reflectors. His first scope on getting back into astronomy in the past couple of years was an Orion Funscope, and his most-used scope is his SkyScanner 100 (see his review here). With the SkyScanner 100 and more recently a StarBlast 4.5, he has logged over 400 deep-sky objects, mostly galaxies. To put this into perspective, in five years of stargazing I have observed perhaps 350 deep-sky objects, mostly with a 10″ scope. So it’s quite an achievement, and one I hope I can convince Terry to write up as a guest post.

Anyway, my point is that going from small reflectors with no electronics to a big GoTo refractor is quite a change of pace. I asked Terry how it came about and he pointed to two major factors. First, the scope is a heck of a deal and he was curious about it. Second, and more importantly, after logging 400 DSOs by starhopping with small reflectors, he felt he had earned a break. I couldn’t agree more.

A few low clouds skirted the western and northern horizon around sunset, but they didn’t last, and the skies were cloud-free all night long. Transparency was good but not incredible. Jimmy said he could see the Gegenschein and pointed it out to Darrell and me, but neither of us was fully convinced. I’m not saying Jimmy didn’t see the Gegenschein, but I didn’t see anything I felt comfortable calling the Gegenschein. That could be inexperience on my part, and it could be imperfect vision, too. London regularly sees things in the sky that I just can’t make out. But it was also at least partly imperfect transparency.

(Now, I should qualify that by pointing out that the skies here in Claremont are essentially never as clear as the sky was at the AASP Saturday night. The transparency was only imperfect by the standards of the remote Arizona desert, where on the clearest nights it seems that there is no atmosphere whatsoever between you and the stars.)

The western sky was striped with delicate crepuscular rays after sunset (also just like last time).

One of my major goals for the night was finding and sketching comet 168P/Hergenrother, a dim periodic comet that unexpectedly brightened by a factor of 100 recently. It’s a tough catch from town–earlier this week I caught it from my driveway with the XT10, but only by waiting until it was high in the sky, knowing exactly where to look, and using averted vision. But under dark desert skies it’s dead easy, and shows a bright nucleus and wide tail even at low magnification. Comet Hergenrother is also moving at a decent clip–as the sketch shows, it moves visibly in the space of an hour.

I found the comet by sweeping northeastern Pegasus at low power, and sketched the field without taking the time to figure out exactly where I was. I thought I could work that out later, using Stellarium, and I was right. The right part of the above image is a screenshot from Stellarium, inverted and annotated in GIMP, to show the field of the comet. Hergenrother is still visible–check Heavens Above or google ‘comet Hergenrother chart’ for finder charts. Update: the best Hergenrother charts I have found so far are at Skyhound and AstroBob. The Skyhound chart covers more days, but the AstroBob chart goes deeper, and those dim little stars are clutch if you’re trying to find the comet under less-than-perfect skies. The Heavens Above charts are great but AFAICT they only show the position of the comet right now, so there is no provision for printing out a chart for this evening (and the comet will have moved in the meantime).

I chased the comet, I traded views with my fellow stargazers–including London, who found the Pleiades by himself with his AstroScan–and I hunted down a bunch of new Herschel objects. But my favorite views of the night were the unexpected ones.

First were the meteors. Holy smokes did I see a ton of them. I lost count around three dozen. One of the best came when Terry and London and I were walking David to his car–a brilliant meteor shot across the western sky and left a glowing trail that slowly faded. I almost missed the best meteor of the night, though. Around 1:30 in the morning I was looking down to check my charts when I saw bright light flashing in my peripheral vision. I looked up in time to see a fireball shooting straight down toward the northern horizon. It was so bright it cast shadows on the ground–something I had read about but never seen before. Update: David pointed out via email that the Orionid meteor shower peaks this weekend, and the meteors we saw last weekend were probably advance scouts from that swarm.

From midnight to 1:00 AM I took a little siesta. I reclined in the lounge chair with my 10×50 binos and split my time between dozing, scanning with the binos, and just looking up in wonder. The Milky Way shone from one horizon to the other like an arch supporting the dome of the heavens. But ironically it was the “dome of the heavens” I was trying to escape.

Shattering the Bowl of the Sky

I haven’t talk much with others about this, so I don’t know how common it is, but for me one of the hardest things about space is perceiving it as space. It is very, very easy to look up and see the sky as a dome set on top of one’s little patch of the Earth like a bell jar. It is much harder, for me at least, to keep in mind that it is three-dimensional, that the stars are not points stuck to the dome or to a celestial sphere but free-floating lights–no, impossibly distant suns–hanging unsupported in…nothing. In space, or in spacetime, which is harder to think about but amounts to the same thing.

One thing that I find helps me in trying to escape the tyranny of the spherical sky is to imagine that I am looking not up, but out, or even down. It works best if I lie down with my feet pointing south, and imagine that I am hanging off the side of the Earth like a picture on a wall. I used to do this in the front yard of my parents’ house, under radically dark rural Oklahoma skies, and to enhance the illusion I would dig my fingers into the dirt to keep from sliding off. When I tried it Saturday night I managed a mental 180: for a few minutes I fooled myself into thinking that I was hanging facedown, with the whole Earth above me like a great balloon tied to my back, staring down, down, down. Down forever into a great cosmic gulf in which the stars and clusters and galaxies were distributed at different depths, unevenly, like coral reef fish seen by someone snorkling at the surface. I wanted to let go, cut the balloon string, and fall into those distant deeps.

Eventually I came back down–or was it back up?–went back to the telescope, and got back to work. But the aftereffects of my perceptual voyage into deep space–really deep, fall-into deep–lasted like a slight electrical charge, a pleasant tingling in the brain.

The next time you’re outside under dark skies, try it and see where you go.

Morning panorama from the east end of the airstrip–click to enlarge

I pushed through to about 4:30 and then crawled in the back of the Mazda for a few hours’ rack. By about 8:30 it was too bright and hot to sleep anymore so I got up, got some badly-needed caffeine on board, and went about the day’s business. Which on the morning after a stargazing run with London means a hike.

A nice lineup of TeleVue refractors. From left to right, I think they are a TV-101, TV-85, TV-76, and TV-60. With mounts, this is probably $10,000 worth of equipment. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

On our way through camp we got to peer at other peoples’ scopes, in the manner of nosy neighbors. This lineup of TeleVue refractors was certainly droolworthy.

Of the many cool scopes we saw, my favorite was this homemade motorized binocular chair. The twin 6″ reflecting telescopes feed light to the eyepieces. The scopes can raise and lower as the observer raises and lowers his head, and the whole chair turns and reclines at the observer’s command thanks to a hand-held control paddle. Given my love of binocular astronomy, something like this might be my ultimate observing setup.

We didn’t have as much time for our hike as we did in 2010. Then we walked about five miles all told, over about three and a half hours. This time we had about an hour and a half, but we still managed to cover a lot of ground and see lots of cool stuff.

We used saguaro cacti as waypoints. This one seemed to be telling me something…

Back from a successful “bone hike”. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

At the 2010 ASP London was about a week shy of his 6th birthday. When we started out on that hike, he announced that it was going to be a “bone hike”. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that you can’t just decide to walk out into the desert and have any guarantee of finding bones. I figured we’d get what we’d get, and I’d break the tough news later if it became necessary. As luck would have it, it wasn’t–one of our first finds, just a few hundred yards from camp, was a big fragment of a cow tibia.

This time London knew going out that we’d probably get skunked, and it certainly looked like we would for most of the hike. But on our way back, within a stone’s throw of the closest RV, we started seeing the clean bright white of sun-bleached bone. We picked up a shoulder blade and parts of three vertebrae, perhaps from the same cow that lent us its tibia two years ago. We left behind a couple of ribs and another shattered vertebra for the next people to pass that way hunting for bones–possibly our future selves, if nothing turns up sooner on our next AASP morning-after bone hike.

I’ll end this post like I ended the last AASP observing report, with a photo of Darrell and London and myself, standing on a dusty abandoned airstrip in the exact middle of nowhere–a seemingly unremarkable spot that has become one of my favorite places on Earth. I’m already looking forward to my next Arizona star party. I hope I don’t have to wait two years to get back.

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Observing report: All-nighter on Mount Baldy

July 15, 2012

Whew! Last night rocked. Terry Nakazono was out from LA, and we had been planning for about two weeks to spend the night observing up on Mount Baldy. We had made a shorter, half-night run up the mountain back in June, Terry to chase faint galaxies with his SkyScanner and me to log a few Herschel 400 objects with the XT10. Last night was basically the same plan, but on steroids–the moon was rising later, and neither of us had anywhere to be today. My wife and son were both out of town, she on work and he on a sleepover, so I was released on my own recognizance.

We got up there about 8:45 and met fellow PVAA member Craig Matthews setting up his 8″ Dob. Former PVAA president Ron Hoekwater joined us a little later on.

Terry was rolling with his SkyScanner again, and aiming for galaxies in Ursa Major and Bootes. I decided to leave the XT10 at home and take the Apex 127 Mak instead. I’ve had that scope for about a year, but before last night I had not really tried it out under dark skies. It did go to the Salton Sea in February, but we were mostly clouded out that night. Five inches is a lot of aperture under dark skies, and I was anxious to see what the Mak could do. Mount Baldy is not stupid-dark like Afton Canyon or western Arizona, but it’s not bad at all. The Milky Way was prominent and showed a fair amount of detail, especially after midnight when a strong marine layer at lower altitudes effectively halved the light pollution to the south (Inland Empire) and southwest (Los Angeles). On light pollution maps Baldy shows as being in the Orange zone, Bortle Class 5, but between the altitude and the marine layer it is sometimes effectively Green (Bortle 4). Last night was such a night.

I also took along the Celestron Travel Scope 70, which I had otherwise only used for quick peeks from my driveway. I’ve been meaning to blog about that scope. Right now you can get the scope, finder, two eyepieces, a tripod, and a backpack carrying case from Amazon for about $70 shipped. The finder is a travesty–an all-plastic “5×20” unit that is in fact stopped down to 10mm right behind the objective. I stripped the so-called optics out of mine and use it as a naked-eye sight tube, in which role it performs admirably, and a heck of a lot better than it ever did as a magnifying finder. The tripod is a joke, the sort of thing that gives other flimsy tripods a bad name. It struggles to hold a point-and-shoot digital camera steady, let alone a telescope, so I donated it to a museum. But the eyepieces are serviceable, the carry bag is fine, and the telescope itself is okay–more on this in the next post–so for $70 it is a screaming deal. As with the Apex 127, I was anxious to see what it could do under dark skies.

It was not yet fully dark when we arrived so I spent some time jawing with Craig. It was cloudless and clear where we were, but we could tell it was raining in the Mojave Desert, because the northeastern sky flickered with distant lightning. And we knew it was far off because we never heard even a hint of thunder. The lightning was not reflecting off clouds but off of the sky itself. It was as if the sky was on the fritz, like a bad florescent bulb. It was a profoundly weird and unearthly effect.

I started my observing run by putting the Apex 127 on Saturn. In addition to observing with “new” scopes, I was also rolling with genuinely new eyepieces. Explore Scientific has been having a CUH-RAY-ZEE sale on their well-reviewed 68, 82, and 100-degree eyepieces, so I sold some unused gear and bought a few: the 24mm ES68, which delivers the widest possible true field in a 1.25″ eyepiece, and the 14mm and 8.8mm ES82s. The Apex 127 is my longest focal length scope at 1540mm, so those eyepieces yielded 64x (24mm), 110x (14mm), and 175x (8.8mm). I also have a 6mm Orion Expanse that gives 257x–that is my default high-mag eyepiece in any scope. The ES eyepieces had just arrived in the mail last week so last night was my first time to try  them out.

Anyway, the seeing was limiting, with the view shaky at 175x and downright ugly at 257x, but Saturn was crisp and jewel-like at 110x and I could see four moons even at 64x. I haven’t checked the charts to see for sure which ones they were, but Titan certainly, and Dione, Rhea, and Tethys probably. I have seen up to five moons of Saturn at once before, but that requires steadier skies than we had last night.

After Saturn I hit a few favorite Messiers, including the globs M13, M5, and M4, all of which were impressively resolved for a 5″ scope. My favorite view of the evening through the Apex 127 was of the galaxies M81/M82 in the same field at 64x, with tantalizing hints of detail visible in both.

Then I got to work, finding and logging Herschel 400 objects. I was chasing mostly open clusters in Cygnus and Cassiopeia. I logged NGCs 6866, 7062, 7086, 7128, 7008 (a planetary nebula) and 7790. I also tried for open clusters NGC 7044 in Cygnus and 136 in Cassiopeia, but could not locate anything I felt comfortable calling a definitive open cluster at the charted locations amid the rich Milky Way starfields. This was also an issue with several of the Cygnus clusters I did log—at high magnification they tended to disappear into the surrounding star chains and asterisms.

Getting skunked is no fun, and by that time I’d been working on H400s for about two hours. For a change of pace, I switched over to the Travel Scope 70 and started plinking at Messiers. With a 32mm Plossl eyepiece I got 12.5x magnification and a stunning 4-degree true field–more like a finder on steroids than a telescope. I started with the Double Cluster as soon as I saw it was over the horizon, then hit M31, but didn’t immediately see its satellite galaxies. Then it was on to the “steam” rising from the teapot of Sagittarius: M8, M20, M22, M24, M25, M23, M18, M17, M16—these last three all nicely framed in the same field—M26, and M11 up in Scutum. Then back to the “bottom” of Scorpio and Sagittarius to catch M6 (M7 had already set behind a hill to the south—bummer), M69, M70, and M54, then all across the sky for M51, M101, M102, M13, M92, M15, back to Andromeda for a nice view of M31, M32, and M110 all prominent in the same field, M52, M103, M33, M76, and M34. I’d seen all these things before, but for most of them this was the lowest magnification I had seen them at, given that my binocular observations of them had mostly been with 15x70s. One of my favorite views of the night was M103 in Cassiopeia with NGCs 654, 663, and 659 in an arc below in the same field.

A little after 3:00 AM it was time for another goal: tracking down the outer giants. I had looked up the finder charts for Uranus and Neptune on Sky & Telescope’s website and logged their positions in my atlas. I found Neptune first, in Aquarius, using the Apex 127. Neptune was a very blue spark, and required 257x to appear non-stellar. Uranus, farther east in Pisces, was obviously non-stellar even at 64x. I also ran up to 257x on it, but the most pleasing view was at 175x. I had seen both planets before, but never as well, nor spent as much time on them as I did last night. Very strange to see giant Neptune as a tiny point of light in the mind-boggling darkness and immensity of space.

After observing planets I went back to the TS70 to continue the Messier survey. Logged M57, M56, M27, M45—absolutely stunning in the center of the field at low power—M72, M73, M2, M30, M75, M71—and old adversary from my early days with the XT6, but dead easy at low mag under dark skies—and M77. I tried for the faint face-on spiral galaxy M74 and suspected something there but couldn’t be sure. For a few these objects, including M72 and M77, I had to go up in magnification to pull them out of the skyglow or make sure they were not stars, using the 25mm (16x) and 17mm (23.5x) Plossls. I tried the 24mm ES68 but it was too heavy for the long cantilever from the mid-tube dovetail to the extended focuser tube of the TS70.

The last big show of the night was an upside-down kite shape rising in the east, with Jupiter at the top, Venus at the bottom, the thin crescent moon on the left, and Aldebaran on the right. I looked at the planets with the Apex 127 at 64x—the near-horizon seeing was bad but Venus’s crescent shape was well-defined, and Jupiter showed a couple of cloud bands and of course the four Galilean moons. Update: Pictures of this conjunction are posted here.

And that was it. The sky was rapidly getting brighter in the east, so we didn’t need artificial light to pack up. We pulled out at 5:25, went to Norm’s diner for breakfast, and I dropped Terry off at his hotel and went home for some badly-needed rack.

My final tally for the night was 8 new H400s, including NGCs 654 and 659; 44 Messiers, 42 of which I saw in the TS70; and 5 planets, including all four gas giants and Venus. Favorite observations were the flashing sky from over-the-horizon lightning, M81 and M82 in the same field in the Apex 127, M31 and both satellite galaxies in TS70, my best-yet views of Neptune and Uranus, and the dawn conjunction of planets, moon, and stars. Between dusk and dawn I observed five of the seven planets visible in a 5-inch scope, missing only Mars and Mercury (both were achievable, it turns out, I just didn’t try for them). It was a heck of a good night.

How did all the equipment perform? Stay tuned for the next post!