Archive for the ‘Deep sky observing’ Category


My article in the April 2016 Sky & Telescope

March 8, 2016

SnT cover April 2016 - annotated

Getting this posted a bit belatedly, as this issue has been on newsstands for about a week already. When I wrote about my first S&T article last year, I said that my editor, JR, and I had “batted some ideas back and forth and quickly settled on the winter Milky Way”. The other ideas didn’t go away, they just got put off. This binocular tour of the Virgo Messier galaxies is one of those other ideas. Hopefully more will be along in the future – assuming I’m successful in bringing them to fruition, and that the staff – and readers! – of Sky & Telescope continue to be happy with them.

Incidentally, although I aimed the article at binocular users, it should serve as a perfectly cromulent guide for telescopic observations as well.

Have suggestions for how I can improve? The comment field is open.


Observing Reports: two perfect imperfect nights at the Salton Sea

November 23, 2015

Apex 127 ready for stars 2015-11-14

The Saturday before last, November 14, I was at the Salton Sea with Terry Nakazono.

Terry Nakazono with Meade Polaris 114 2015-11-14

Terry was rolling with a new scope – a Meade Polaris 114. It’s an f/8.8 reflector – the 1000mm focal length makes it a bit longer than the 900mm, f/7.9 Orion XT4.5 (which London has). UPDATE Nov. 29: Terry writes, “It’s a standard 900mm FL, not 1000mm. A lot of the retailer ads have it wrong and says its 1000mm. I myself was intrigued when I first read about it, but later found out from looking at the PDF manual and those who bought it is that it is an F/7.9 of 900mm focal length.” So it’s not longer than London’s XT4.5, it’s essentially the same OTA.

This Meade is a pretty amazing deal. A lot of small intro reflectors have a short dovetail bar bolted to the side of the tube (like my old scope Shorty Fats), but this one has real tube rings and an EQ-2 mount. The three MA (Modified Achromat) eyepieces it comes with are nothing to write home about, but the focal lengths of 26mm, 9mm, and 6.3mm are at least useful and non-overlapping when doubled with the included Barlow. Terry shared a few views with me and I can confirm that it serves up a sharp, contrasty image, as you’d expect for a scope of this focal ratio. It would be a good deal at the list price of $170, but Amazon has it for $135 as of this writing, and according to Terry it can be found for even less if you look around.

Matt aligning finder on Apex 127

I brought the Apex 127/SV50 combo – I’m sighting on the moon here, to align the finder with the scope – and the C80ED.

Matt digiscoping moon

Here I am digiscoping the moon with the C80ED. I used the Apex 127 for tracking down some planetary nebulae and double stars, and the C80ED for photography and just messing around. It’s a crazy fun little scope. Unfortunately, none of my moon shots worked out this time.

The forecast called for clear skies most of the night, but clouds between 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM. We got set up before the sun set at 4:45, and pushed through until 10:40. Then it got too hazy to observe, so Terry and I sat and jawed about scopes, atlases, and observing projects until the sky cleared a bit at midnight. We got in about half an hour more before the sky clouded over completely about 12:40. We talked a bit more then turned in.

Jupiter and moons 0530 PST 2015-11-15

I got up at 4:00 AM to catch the morning planets – Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. I cannot get the iPhone to take a fast enough picture to capture any detail on Jupiter – it always comes out as a blank circle of light (with some glare from the iPhone, not the scope). But the moons show up nicely. I really need to get a better camera control app.

Clouds at dawn 2015-11-15

I was clouded out again at 5:15, and Terry and I sat up until 5:45 watching the approaching dawn. Then it started sprinkling! Weather Underground, the Clear Sky Chart, and my other weather app all missed that. We packed up quickly and drove out at 6:30. A hearty breakfast at the Coco’s in Indio put a cap on the expedition. Although the skies were less than perfect, we had a good time catching up, and we did see some nice things.

Waxing gibbous moon 2015-11-22

Back Again

As luck would have it, I was back at the sea just eight nights later. London and I hadn’t been to the Salton Sea since last November, and he has all this week off from school, so we went last night. He took his XT4.5, and I took my C80ED. The waxing gibbous moon was only three days short of full, so the skyglow was pretty bad. But the seeing was excellent, easily 8 or 9 out of 10. I could split the four main stars of Orion’s Trapezium wide open at 25x, and fleetingly at 19x with the 32mm Plossl.

I could have held that split more easily with a better low-power eyepiece. I had not noticed it before last night, but my trusty Orion Sirius 32mm Plossl, my go-to widefield and finder eyepiece for many years, has some astigmatism. Not a lot – it was only noticeable immediately after switching from my 24mm ES 68. I tried both eyepieces with and without eyeglasses to confirm that the aberration was in the Plossl and not elsewhere in the optical train, my eyeballs included (I tried both). Another case of getting spoiled by premium eyepieces. It’s fine, though – since the 24mm ES 68 gives the same field of view, I only pull out the 32mm Plossl when I want to drop the magnification even lower, or when I’m doing outreach.

Sigma Orionis sketch 2015-11-22

I spent a lot of time cruising the central part of Orion at 120x with the 5mm Meade MWA, which is now my preferred high-power eyepiece. Just three weeks ago I saw and sketched the multiple star Sigma Orionis for the first time. It’s funny – I’d been observing Orion regularly for eight years before that and I’d never seen it, but now I stop there every night I have a scope out. Even London’s little 60mm Meade refractor split the six main components wide open. But last night I saw a faint, seventh member that I’d previously missed.

I turned in relatively early, around midnight, figuring that I’d get up after the moon set and do a quick morning Messier hunt. And the sky was truly phenomenal after moonset. I was waking up about once an hour and having a quick look around, and it was a spectacularly clear, dark night. But the flesh was weak, and I overslept, only dragging myself out of my sleeping bag at 5:00. By that time the first glimmerings of dawn were lighting the eastern horizon, so I skipped the Messiers and went to Jupiter.


That planet above the scope is Venus, not Jupiter.

The view was jaw-dropping. The seeing was rock solid and I was able to Barlow the 5mm MWA up to 240x without the image breaking down. At that magnification I could detect at least three delicate brown belts north of the North Equatorial Belt, and the Galilean moons were little spheres, not just points of light. I tried taking some pictures but didn’t get any better results than I had the last time out, so I put the camera away and just stared. I must have spent 45 minutes just watching Jupiter drift across the field of view, mostly at 240x.

Last night I was definitely in aesthetic observing mode. I spent a little over two and a half hours at the eyepiece, entirely on four objects – the moon, Orion nebula and Trapezium, Sigma Orionis, and Jupiter. I had half-formed plans to look at other things, but I kept getting seduced into long sessions of fully immersed stargazing. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.


So, neither night had perfect observing conditions. It was hazy the first night, and the moon was out during the convenient observing hours last night. But I had a great time both nights, saw some cool things, learned a little more about my gear, and enjoyed the good company of Terry and London. Couldn’t really ask for more.


My article in the December Sky & Telescope

October 31, 2015
SnT Dec 2015 cover - marked up

Einstein has my article on his mind!

Here’s the exciting news I teased back in September: the December 2015 issue of Sky & Telescope, which is available online and should be hitting newsstands about now, has an observing article by yours truly. It’s a binocular tour of the southern stretch of the winter Milky Way, from Canis Major through Puppis to end in Hydra.

SnT Dec 2015 contents - marked up

The road that led here started back in December, 2014, when I got a very nice email from S. Johnson-Roehr, “JR”, the observing editor for Sky & Tel. JR had stumbled across this very site (possibly because I’d just recommended the newly-reprinted Caldwell Objects?) and asked if I’d be interested in contributing an observing article. We batted some ideas back and forth and quickly settled on the winter Milky Way. I had been through this area of the sky before but I wanted to give it one more pass, both to flesh out my notes and to road-test the star hops I had in mind. I made those observations this spring, wrote the article over the summer, and now it’s out in the world.

I have one favor to beg of anyone who reads the article – I need feedback. This is my first time writing about astronomy anywhere but a blog, forum post, or club newsletter, and I’d like to know (1) what worked, (2) what didn’t, and (3) what you’d like to see in the future. The comment field is open.

There’s a lot more to like in this issue of S&T, some of which will be of particular interest to regular readers of this blog. Tony Flanders has another inexpensive telescope shoot-out. Back in 2011 he and Joshua Roth looked at $100 scopes, in particular the Orion SpaceProbe 3, GoScope 80, and SkyScanner 100 (that article is a free download here, and a follow-up comparing the SkyScanner to the StarBlast is here). This time Tony considers three scopes in the $200 range: the Meade Infinity 90mm refractor and alt-az mount, the Orion StarBlast 4.5, and the Astronomers Without Borders OneSky. I won’t give away any spoilers, except to note that he finds all three to be capable scopes, which I’m sure is no surprise around here.

Another nice review in this issue is Alan MacRobert’s look at the first two volumes of Jeff Kanipe’s and Dennis Webb’s Annals of the Deep Sky, from Willmann Bell. As a deep-sky junkie who likes to read himself to sleep with Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and Stephen James O’Meara, I have been curious about these new books, but I hadn’t heard anything about their quality before reading MacRobert’s article. Sounds like I need to make space on my Christmas list.

There’s loads more interesting stuff in this issue – cover articles on Einstein and gravitational waves, great observing articles by Alan MacRobert, Fred Schaaf, Gary Seronik, and Charles A. Wood, a very nice piece by Sue French looking at some neglected open clusters and double stars in Cassiopeia (an area I thought I knew well)…you get the picture. If you’re not a subscriber, you can find the December issue of Sky & Telescope on your local newsstand, or order a print or digital copy online here.

If you’re new here, welcome! Have a look around, and feel free to comment.


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.


Sketching NGC 6633

October 7, 2015

Wedel NGC 6633 2015-10-06 - inverted and cropped

As long-time readers will recall, I have been bully on the idea of sketching DSOs for a long time. I have been inspired by the careful observations and sketches of Doug Rennie and Terry Nakazono in particular. So I made up a blank observing form (which is now up on the sidebar here), printed out some copies, and decided to finally give it a shot. I was going to do M57 first, and kick off my much-discussed, long-delayed Suburban Messier project. But I’d just been emailing with Doug and he’d recommended NGC 6633 as a rewarding open cluster for visual observation, and as I was flipping around in my Pocket Sky Atlas I noticed that it was well-placed high in the southeastern sky.

I was rolling with the XT10. I figured that whatever target I went for, I’d want to capture as many background stars as possible, and the XT10 has much better light grasp and angular resolution than anything else I own.

I started at moderate magnification with the 8-24mm zoom but kept backing out to try to get more context for the cluster, and I ended up with my trusty old 32mm Plossl. The transparency here was appalling. The sky looked clear, in that there was no naked-eye-visible haze or clouds, but it was very humid, and all of that water vapor in the air was bouncing back the city lights like crazy. The sky was about as bright as I have seen it without actual clouds up there. Here’s a measure of how humid it was – all of my exposed stuff dewed up! I don’t think that has ever happened to me here in Claremont.

Wedel NGC 6633 2015-10-06

As far as my method – I was using a 0.5mm mechanical pencil and a click eraser. I started out by trying to frame the field of view with some bright ‘anchor’ stars and then interpolate between them to flesh things out. This proved frustrating – inevitably I’d get one region ‘starred in’ to my satisfaction and then see that its geometry was off compared to a neighboring section. So I did a fair amount of erasing and repositioning. On the first pass I was mainly trying to get the positions of the stars correct.

Then while I was still at the eyepiece I went back and ‘brightened’ up some of the stars by drawing over them with slightly larger circles. I tried to sort them into about five bins, from the bright star south of the cluster, through the brightest anchor stars, the major cluster members, the minor cluster members, to the barely-theres.

Finally, when I brought the drawing inside I touched up a few stars that were noticeably out-of-round.

So the drawing you see here is the ‘rough’ drawing, but with about three layers of revision layered on top. I don’t know if this is good practice or not, it’s just what I did this time, pretty much making everything up as I went along.

As for the cluster, NGC 6633 has a fairly recent nickname: the ‘Italy cluster’. Here’s a diagram from this blog, with my sketch inverted and rotated to match:

NGC 6633 comparo

I can buy it. I wouldn’t have ever picked out that by myself, but I can see the shape in my drawing, and I didn’t know it was there when I was drawing it.

So, I have rather mixed feelings about all of this. While I was doing the sketch, all I could think about was how difficult it was, and how badly I was screwing it up. But I’m fairly happy with the result – it is at least recognizable as NGC 6633 – and I know that I know that cluster and the surrounding starfield a lot better now. Probably better than I know any other single object. I can’t think of another time that I invested so much time and energy on a single observing target.

Maybe this is the beginning of wisdom.

UPDATE October 26, 2015

Here are a couple of sketches of NGC 6633 sent along by Terry Nakazono with permission to post. Thanks, Terry!

NGC 6633 at 31X (7-19-12)

From July 9, 2012.

NGC 6633 at 44X (6-28-13)

From June 28, 2013.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.



Observing Report: Night of the Refractors redux

November 20, 2013

From left to right: my TravelScope 70, my C102, David’s C102. When I took this picture, we hadn’t put the finders on the big scopes yet, or gotten my stand-alone GalileoScope set up yet.

This one is a little late: David DeLano and I spent the night of Sunday, November 3, observing at the Salton Sea. This is the belated observing report.

We met up at the visitor center at the headquarters campground. We rendezvoused there a little after 3:00 in the afternoon because we had some things to do before sunset, which because of the time change was coming at 4:50. The visitor center gift shop has a little astronomy section and both of us picked up a copy of the Sky Atlas for Small Telescopes and Binoculars, by Billie and David Chandler–more on that atlas another time. David also picked up a nice plasticized version of the Chandler planisphere.

Chandler Sky Atlas

After that we drove down to my favorite spot at the Sea, which is the south end of the Mecca Beach campground. A couple at another site were loading up as we were pulling in, and the left a few minutes later. After that, we were the only humans at the campsite all night long, except for someone in the late evening who pulled in, turned around, and left, all without stopping.

Our first activity was dinner at a picnic table in the shade. We split the gear and groceries like so: David supplied firewood and snacks, and I brought dinner (Subway sandwiches) and cooked breakfast (pancakes).


Even as we were eating, the second activity commenced: the exchange of hostages. As far as I can tell, David is a hot rod mechanic who happens to work on small refractors instead of cars; if that strikes you as hyperbole, just read on. Anyway, he’s way more adept at getting refractors to sing than I am, so I had brought him an unfinished Carton 60mm f/15 refractor and a couple of small objectives that I had rescued from otherwise unsalvageable garage sale scopes. To transfer into my care, David had brought a nice Celestron 2-inch star diagonal for my C102, and–most importantly–a GalileoScope that he had built and modded for me.

Galileo is Rocking Out in His Grave

The GalileoScope was created for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, when it originally sold for $15. That was mostly down to economy of scale; now that sales have cooled, the price is up to about $50. It’s still a lot of telescope for that price. David’s GalileoScope mods have been featured here before.

The stock GalileoScope is a straight-through instrument with an f/10 objective and a push-pull focuser, which you aim by looking along some gunsight-style ridges on top of the OTA. My GS has had its tube chopped to accommodate a Stellarvue 90-degree diagonal with a helical focuser (the #D1026AF unit here, if you want one for yourself), and has a Daisy red-dot finder perched on the forward gunsight.


Above, my nicely tricked-out GalileoScope. Bottom, David’s insanely modded version–possibly the most attention anyone has ever lavished on a cheap build-it-yourself 50mm refractor.

Lest you get too jealous of my pimped-out GalileoScope, let me describe David’s own GS. He got the aftermarket f/11 objective kit, which lengthens the light path enough to allow the use of a diagonal without chopping the tube. At the back end of the scope, there’s a 2″ Crayford focuser (yes, you read that right) with a 1.25″ adapter. His diagonal also has a helical focuser for fine-tuning; in fact, in use I forgot about the Crayford and used the helical focuser exclusively. At the front end, there’s some kind of fancy RDF, sold by Cabella’s for use by hunters, with the largest eye-lens I’ve ever seen apart from the “boxy” astro-only unit-power finders, the Telrad and the Rigel Quikfinder. A set of nice rings with Delrin-tipped screws completes the instrument, and allows David to mount it coaxially with his larger scopes as possibly the most awesome luxo-finder-slash-second-instrument that I’ve ever encountered (on a small scope; the 9.5-inch refractor mounted on the 12-inch Zeiss in the Griffith Observatory probably takes the cake for larger instruments).

David’s GS really must be seen to be believed. Once on the Dinosaur Mailing List, Mickey Mortimer wrote, “Looks like it’s time to over-technicalize this previously tame post.” I can’t think of David’s GS without those words going through my mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the most extensive hack anyone has done on a GS. It is definitely the most badass.

I should mention that getting both of the GalileoScopes to work as well as they do involved a lot more than just throwing some nice parts on. It required a lot of work and thought and experimentation. Happily, David documented the process and will have a guest post about his adventures in GS-hacking in the not-too-distant future. So stay tuned for that.


David’s GS mounted on his C102 as the luxury finder to end all luxury finders.

After dinner and the exchange of hostages, it was time to set up scopes. I was rolling with the C102/SV50 combo again. I also set up the TravelScope 70 just to have something different to plink around with. David set up his second tripod for my GS, and put his mod-tastic GS on his own C102, using a third tube ring to support the GS stalk and rings. This makes for an imposing setup. I studied it as intently as an American astronaut getting his first look under the hood of a Soyuz capsule. We used some antennas on a distant mountaintop to get everything aligned, and then almost immediately we were off and running.


Our first target, at 5:30, was Venus. There wasn’t much to see–basically a very bright half-circle–but checking in just feels like the right thing to do.

Next we turned to the Double Cluster and Stock 2 and spent a few enjoyable minutes tracing out the loops and chains of stars in our various instruments. Like last time, I could see the red stars in NGC 884, and if anything they were easier this time since I knew what to look for.

After that we turned south and did a big tour of the Sagittarius/Scutum area, eventually going north into Aquila and then west through Serpens to Ophiuchus. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We started with the teapot asterism in Sagittarius, and let that guide us to M8, the Lagoon Nebula. Then we hopped up just a bit to M20 (the Trifid Nebula) and the open cluster M21. After that we took a break to hit M13 in Hercules before it sank down into the light dome over Palm Springs. We returned to Sagittarius with globs on the brain and took in M22, which I thought was a serious contender in the field of majestic globs. Then it was up to the M24 star cloud, where we got lost for a few minutes at the sight of literally thousands of stars in our eyes. Somewhere in Seeing in the Dark–and irritatingly I cannot find the passage right now–Timothy Ferris describes a swath of the sky, possibly M24, as a “wonderland of far-flung suns”. Whether he intended it for M24 or not, it’s an apt description.

At the risk of letting my current bout of refractoritis get the best of me, I must say, the view of M24 through the C102 was just breathtaking. Now, I have visited M24 before, many times. It is one of my favorite places in the sky. But I had not taken a good look at it through a decent-sized refractor under dark skies. The contrast was superb: against a jet-black background, the stars were so finely graded by brightness that I noticed rivers and shoals among them that I had never been aware of before, including a current of brighter stars running north-south and paralleling the Milky Way. Truly, this is the backbone of night.

But even in a palace, one can want for variety (or so I’ve heard), so we ventured onward. Past the open cluster M18 we came to the Swan Nebula, M17, very bright and clear and looking just like its namesake. Then farther up we found M16, the Eagle Nebula, its tendrils of glowing gas wrapped around a dense cluster of newborn stars. Then back to M24 to pick up the open clusters M25 and M23, which attend the majestic star cloud like obsequious courtiers. M25 is one of my favorites; it sits at the center of a curving arc of stars that David describes as a spiral, but that to me has always looked like a fishhook, with M25 as the bait.

After working through all of those objects with the scopes, we stopped for a binocular tour. I had along my Nikon Action 10x50s and David was rolling with his Nikon action 10x40s. I found that if I held David’s green laser pointer between two fingers of my right hand and the binoculars, I could aim the laser beam at the center of my field of view. We shared many sights over the course of the evening using this trick. For starters, we revisited all of the Sagittarius clusters and nebulae mentioned above, and picked up the little glob M28 as well.

DeLano 1 chart - wide

The asterism “DeLano 1” next to Mu Aquilae. It is much more obvious than this Stellarium view shows, and looks more like a bright open cluster.

Then we turned north to Scutum and Aquila. Our first stop was M11, the Wild Duck cluster. Then I took a break for bathroom and snacks, and David went crazy finding new things. When I got back to the scope, I had some catching up to do: the open clusters IC 4756 in Serpens, and NGC 6633 and IC  4665 in Ophiuchus. David had also discovered something pretty that was not listed on any of our charts: a small group of bright stars just north of Mu Aquilae. So far I have not found this listed anywhere as a named object; for the heck of it we called it DeLano 1.

DeLano 1 chart 2 - narrow

A closer view of DeLano 1.

Zoom Zoom Zoom

I see that I have not mentioned what I was using for eyepieces. Thanks to the 2″ diagonal I could use my 32mm Astro-Tech Titan, which gives a wider true field than any other eyepiece I own. In the C102 it gives a magnification of 31x and a 2.2-degree true field of view, which was great for framing almost everything we looked at (the Pleiades fit with a little room to spare, even). My only other 2″ or dual-barrel EPs are the 21mm and 13mm Orion Stratus EPs, which I used infrequently Sunday night. When I wanted more power, I put in the 1.25″ adapter and my new toy, the Celestron 8-24mm zoom eyepiece.

My only previous experience with a zoom EP was a Scopetronix 7-21mm, which was pretty stinky. Zoom EPs always have wider apparent fields of view at high magnification and narrower AFOV at low magnification. That is pretty much the opposite of ideal, but physics is physics, and the comparatively narrow apparent field is tolerable as long as it doesn’t get too narrow–below about 40 degrees you feel like you’re looking through a soda straw. Unfortunately, with the Scopetronix zoom, the AFOV started at 40 degrees (at high mag) and ended up somewhere below 30, at which point the image is so small you might as well be looking through the other end of the telescope.

Happily the Celestron 8-24mm zoom has a more generous AFOV. The stated range is 40-60 degrees, and that seems about right to me. What’s not so great? It’s not parfocal across its magnification range (I don’t know how many zoom eyepieces are), so you have to refocus as you change magnification. Also, it’s a little soft at high power. Not egregiously so, but my 8.8mm ES82 is not going to be losing any sleep. On the plus side, it’s decent, convenient, and at a current street price under $55, dirt cheap.

Incidentally, this is the danger of getting a couple of high-end eyepieces: they are so sharp and so clear that when you go back to merely average EPs, the differences are immediately noticeable. It makes you spoiled.

Lyra, Cygnus, Vulpecula, and Sagitta

After I got caught up in Ophiuchus, we turned north, first to Polaris and the “Engagement Ring” asterism, and then to the Lyra/Cygnus/Sagitta area.

Naturally our first stop was Epsilon Lyrae,  the “double double” star, which was cleanly split at 125x with 8-24mm zoom. So if you’re curious about that eyepiece, there’s a point in its favor.

After that we followed my usual J-shaped path through this  region: from the Ring Nebula, M57, on past the fair-to-middlin’ glob M56 to the brilliant, contrastingly-colored double star Albireo. Like a lot of double star observers, I like doubles when they’re not too widely split, and at 31x the 32mm Titan and C102 gave perhaps the best view of Albireo I’ve ever had in a scope. After Albireo, go straight south to find Collinder 399, better known as Brocchi’s Coathanger. Southwest of the Coathanger one comes to the pair of closely-spaced, equally-bright stars that mark the feather end of the constellation Sagitta, the arrow. Halfway along the arrow a zig-zag pattern of stars leads to the faint glob M71. Then proceed along the arrow to the third bright star up from the feathers and hang a right to find M27, the Dumbbell Nebula.

The Dumbbell does a neat trick as either one’s scope or one’s sky conditions improve. From a small scope, or a big one under city lights, it looks like a bow tie. As things get better, the ends of the bow tie sprout extensions to either side, so the nebula starts to look more like an apple core. Finally the area to either side of the apple core starts to fill with nebulosity, so the nebula ends up looking like a football with a bright band–the former bow tie/apple core wrapped around its “waist”.

10-04-2008_DumbellThe football form of the nebula is obvious in most astrophotos of M27. Here’s a nice example by Rogelio Bernal Andreo ( that shows the different aspects in different colors: white bow tie center, red apple core extensions, blue football wings. I have seen the football before in the XT10, but I had never seen it in a small scope before Sunday night. And, to be clear, the C102 did not show the entire football. But it did definitely show the wisps of nebulosity extending out on either side of the apple core. It’s probably  best to say that M27 was halfway between  the apple core and football forms. It was missing the crisp cut-off at the edge of the football, which the XT10 will show under sufficiently dark skies. But it was still way more than I expected. I am still learning what a 4-inch scope with high contrast can do under dark skies; the answer is, “an awful lot”.

The striking appearance of M27 can in part be chalked up to excellent transparency in the early evening. Another example is that both of us could clearly make out the North American Nebula, NGC 7000, in the binoculars. My best-ever views of the nebula have been with 15×70 bins out at Owl Canyon. I have caught glimpses of it in the 50mm glasses before, but never as good as it was Sunday night. David was getting it clearly in his 40mm bins, which is pretty amazing.

We did another binocular tour in this area, hitting all of the objects listed above as well as M29, M39, the heart-shaped asterism around the bright star Sadr in the heart of Cygnus, and the wide blue/orange binocular double Omicron Cygni. This was about 8:30 PM, four hours into our 9-hour run.

This is pretty much how we proceeded for the rest of the night: pick an area, figure out some of the best and brightest objects therein, and hop our way through them. David was working off the Evening Sky Map and suggesting objects from its lists, and I was working from the PSA and rediscovering some goodies I hadn’t seen in a while. Rather than give an exhaustive list of everything else we saw, I’ll just list some highlights:

NGC 253 and NGC 288 – NGC 253 is the Silver Coin Galaxy. It’s up there with Andromeda (M31), the Whirlpool (M51), the Sombrero (M104), and Bode’s Nebulae (M81 & M82) as one of the best galaxies for northern hemisphere observers. My first view of it was in binoculars from Big Bear Lake, and under those dark mountain skies it looked as good in the 15×70 bins as a lot of galaxies look through a telescope. Mottled details is visible in even small scopes under sufficiently dark skies. While you’re in the area, might as well drop down about one eyepiece field and pick up the globular cluster NGC 288.

NGC 7789 – Here’s one I’d seen before but forgotten about. This is a nice open cluster off the tip of Cassiopeia, sandwiched between two small groups of bright stars. There are a lot of open clusters in Cassiopeia–we did a third binocular tour that encompassed NGC 457, NGC 436, M103, NGC 663, NGC 659, NGC 654, and Cr 463–but NGC 7789 might just be the best, not only for its inherent charm but for the rich surroundings in which it is set.

M37, M36, M38 – This is the famous trio of open clusters in Auriga, which are among the most popular and  most visited objects in the winter sky. The one that impressed us the most Sunday night was M37, the lowest (east-most) one. It is a dense swarm of tiny stars, which David described as “crystals”, and which to me looked like the proverbial scattering of diamonds on black velvet.

M46, M47, M93 – These open clusters in Puppis are also popular winter objects, especially the close pair of M46 and M47. I suspected the planetary nebula NGC 2438 in M46, which I first spotted at the All-Arizona Star Party back in 2010. Since then, I always look for it, and when I do spot it, I wonder how I was able to go  for so long without seeing it.

M76 – This is the Little Dumbbell Nebula in Perseus, and one of just a handful of planetary nebulae in the Messier catalogue (the others are M27, M57, and M97). As its name implies,  the Little Dumbbell is the smallest and probably least impressive of the Messier planetaries, but I’ve always had a fondness for it. Although small, it has a high surface brightness so it’s not hard to spot if you know where to look, and it is not without its charms.

Planetary nebulae illustrate why the Messier catalogue is a two-edged sword. On one hand, the Messier catalogue does include some best-of-class objects in almost every category of DSO; on the other hand, there are numerous objects in other catalogues that outshine (sometimes literally) the less impressive Messiers. For galaxies, you have things like the Silver Coin and NGC 4565 in Coma Berenices; for open clusters, look no farther than the Double Cluster in Perseus and NGC 663 and NGC 7789 in Cassiopeia; for diffuse nebulae, see the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024), the Rosette (NGC 2237), and the Christmas Tree or Cone Nebula (NGC 2264).

But planetary nebulae get especially short shrift; a quick-and-dirty list of impressive non-Messier planetaries in northern skies includes the Cat’s Eye (NGC 6543), the Eskimo (NGC 2392), the Saturn (NGC 7009), the Ghost of Jupiter (NGC 3242), and the Blinking Planetary (NGC  6826). This is not because Messier had anything against planetaries but because his catalogue was discovered rather than assembled post-hoc, and discovery is always a haphazard process. Still, we are not discovering these things for the first time, and with their often high surface brightness and charming array of forms, planetary nebulae are great targets for beginning and city-bound observers.

By 2:00 AM we were winding down, and so were the skies. A cloud mass that had been hovering over Palm Springs started to send forth offspring, and the haze near the horizon was getting worse. A bright star in Leo that I just couldn’t place turned out to be Mars. We had one last look at the Double Cluster and called it a night.

It was one of the most fruitful observing runs I’ve ever had. By my count, we looked at:

  • 49 Messiers
  • 20 NGC, IC, Collinder, etc., objects
  • 4 double stars (counting Epsilon Lyrae only once)
  • 4 asterisms (DeLano 1, the Engagement Ring around Polaris, the Heart around Sadr, and Kemble’s Cascade)
  • 3 planets (Venus, Jupiter, Mars)

So about 80 things in the sky, not counting the numerous shooting stars, which we noted every few minutes all night long. That is by far the most things I’ve seen in one evening when I wasn’t doing a Messier Marathon. But we weren’t rushing or trying to get through a ton of objects, we were just basically out for a spin, and if you cruise around the sky for 9 hours, you are going to end up seeing a lot.


I came away from the evening with a couple of firm directions for future observing.

First, I don’t think I logged anything that I hadn’t seen before (DeLano 1 excepted!), but I saw a lot of stuff that I had forgotten about, like NGC 7789. Most of these were things that I had visited in the course of doing one or another Astronomical League observing program. That’s great because those programs have helped me to learn the sky, and they’ve introduced me to a lot of wonderful objects that I hadn’t seen before. But now that I know the sky, I need to go back and re-observe those things and spend a little more time with them. This is especially true of the many beautiful clusters on the Deep Sky Binocular observing list–I am ashamed to say that there are many of those that I still have not visited with a telescope. So even my terra cognita holds some wonderful things waiting to be rediscovered.

Second, I need to go south (in the sky)! Here’s some relevant math: the Salton Sea campgrounds are at about 33 degrees north latitude. That means that Polaris is 33 degrees above the northern horizon, the celestial equator is 57 degrees above the southern horizon, and with no intervening landforms or atmosphere I should be able to see down to -57 degrees declination when I look south. Now, in practice the near-horizon haze makes the last few degrees pretty worthless. But I have seen the globular cluster Omega Centauri with my naked eyes from the Salton Sea. At -47 degrees declination, it never gets more than 10 degrees from the horizon. If it’s naked-eye visible that low under good conditions, then binoculars and telescopes will reveal much more at the same declination, and maybe even a little lower.

In practice, I have explored almost none of that southern expanse. I am used to thinking of the Silver Coin galaxy as a far southern object, but at -25 degrees it culminates a full 32 degrees above the horizon–more than a third of the way to the zenith! Except for sighting Omega Centauri a couple of times, I have not deliberately gone south of about -30 degrees declination (and I’ve only gotten there in the area around the “tail end” of Canis Major), which leaves a LOT of unexplored sky out there. I was fortunate to get to see most of the best of the southern hemisphere sky when I was in Uruguay in 2010 and it was amazing. Much of what I saw there is visible from here, I just haven’t looked. I need to fix that.