Archive for the ‘Moon’ Category

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Why and how to make a sub-aperture mask for a refractor

February 11, 2017

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Here’s the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition with a homemade aperture mask. I just converted the scope from a 102mm f/4.5 to a 60mm f/7.7.

“WAT!? You took a refractor, the most aperture-challenged of the three basic telescope designs, and made it even smaller?”

Yup. For several reasons.

The first and most obvious is to control chromatic aberration (CA), also known as false color. Despite the name ‘achromat’, which literally means ‘no color’, doublet refractors without extra-low dispersion (ED) glass do show some false color, because their lenses do not bring all of the colors of light to the same focus point (they’re still a LOT better than scopes with a singlet objective lens, like those used by Galileo). For dim objects like galaxies, nebulae, and most field stars, the effect is not noticeable, even in large and optically fast scopes like the AR102S Comet Edition (nickname needed). But bright objects like the moon, planets, and first magnitude stars will be surrounded by purplish halos, and may have yellowish margins. In effect, the purple and yellow-orange parts of the spectrum are forming out-of-focus images that are superimposed on the main in-focus image.

The problem is that CA gets bad fast as refractors get bigger. There are a couple of standards that are commonly used to describe the focal ratio necessary to minimize CA to acceptable levels, the Conrady standard and the Sidgwick standard. By the Conrady standard, the focal ratio must be 5 times the aperture in inches; by the less stringent Sidgwick standard, 3 times the aperture in inches is good enough. Note that the standards describe focal ratios, not focal lengths, so they go up fast with increasing aperture. Here are some apertures, focal ratios, and focal lengths required to meet the Sidgwick standard:

  • 50mm (2″) : f/6 : 300mm
  • 76mm (3″) : f/9 : 684mm
  • 102mm (4″) : f/12 : 1224mm
  • 127mm (5″) : f/15 : 1905mm
  • 152mm (6″) : f/18 : 2736mm

This, along with mounting considerations, explains why reflectors and catadioptric scopes are progressively more common past 4″ in aperture. A 6″, f/8 Newtonian will be free of false color (as are all reflectors) and has such a gently converging light cone that it is easy to collimate and to focus – it’s easy for such scopes to achieve ‘planet-killer’ status if the mirror is good. A 6″, f/8 achromat will be a beast to mount and it will show lurid false color on bright objects.

But people still make, buy, and use such scopes! Why? Horses for courses: big, fast achromats can be superb deep-sky scopes, where chromatic aberration is typically not a problem. With the fixed sizes of standard eyepieces, achieving wide true fields requires short focal lengths (not just short focal ratios), and bright images require aperture, which drives the development of large but optically fast scopes like the AR102S Comet Edition. At f/4.5, it is well into ghastly CA territory on bright targets. The other night I stayed up late to catch Jupiter, and in the AR102S the planet wouldn’t even come to a clean focus. It was just a bright ball of light inside a sea of purple. I switched over to London’s 60mm f/11 Meade refractor and Jupiter snapped into a sharp and essentially color-free focus. There was a moon emerging from behind the limb of planet, already one moon-diameter out into black space, that was completely invisible in the CA-smudged view of the AR102S.

I’m okay with that – as I noted in a previous post, observing bright solar system targets with the AR102S is deliberate misuse of the scope. When I want good planetary views, I have a 5″ Mak and a 10″ Dob that can both be pushed to 500x (assuming the atmosphere is steady enough). But their max fields of view are pathetic compared to the AR102S – about 1.1 degrees for the Mak, and a shade over 2 degrees for the Dob, versus 3.6 degrees for the refractor, which is enough to take in all of Orion’s sword at once, with space left over on either side.

Still, I’m not going to take all of my scopes out with me every time I go observing, and chances are good that at some point I’ll want to look at something bright even if my main goal for the evening was low-power sweeping with the AR102S. Under those circumstances, it’s easier to have an aperture mask shoved in my eyepiece case than to pack a second scope. Hence this project and this post.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are other reasons to stop down a scope besides reducing CA:

  • To reduce glare from bright objects. Mostly applies to the moon when it’s full or very gibbous.
  • To give a more aesthetically pleasing image when the seeing is bad. Opinions differ on this point. Some folks prefer to look through a larger aperture despite the increased susceptibility to bad seeing, on the grounds that in the moments when the atmosphere does settle down a bit, you’ll see more detail. I suppose it depends on whether one is in exploration mode or aesthetic observation mode.
  • To make it easier to focus. F/4.5 is a steep light cone, and it’s easy to overshoot the point of best focus. Stopping down the scope makes a shallower light cone, so it’s easier to watch the image transition from out of focus, to near focus, to in focus. I’m going to test this method of finding best focus on some close double stars.

I had done some calculations in advance to figure out what sizes of aperture masks I’d want to try out. Given that the AR102S has a fixed focal length of 459mm, here are the focal ratios at full aperture and at 10mm decrements:

  • 102mm gives 459/102 = f/4.5
  • 90mm gives 459/90 = f/5.1
  • 80mm gives 459/80 = f/5.7
  • 70mm gives 459/70 = f/6.5
  • 60mm gives 459/60 = f/7.7
  • 50mm gives 459/50 = f/9.2
  • 40mm gives 459/40 = f/11.5

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I didn’t want to trade away too much resolving power, so I tested the scope on the moon using cardboard masks of 76mm and 60mm, made from the light cardboard spacers from a box of wet cat food. The 76mm is shown above. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at this aperture and focal ratio (f/6) the view was still unappealingly soft. But 60mm looked good, with minimal CA. This makes sense – the working focal ratio of f/7.7 is a healthy step beyond the f/7.2 that the Sidgwick standard suggests for a 60mm aperture. Going any smaller would be trading away valuable resolution, without significantly improving the image.

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The light cardboard aperture masks were fast and easy to make, but they weren’t very sturdy. To make a more permanent mask, I needed plastic, heavier cardboard, or foam-core board. So I unscrewed the dewshield from the scope and walked down to the dollar store, where I looked for food packages and storage containers that might fit. Finally on the last aisle I found this 1-gallon plastic jar. The lid slip-fit over the dewshield with just a bit of extra room, which I knew I could shim out with some sticky-back felt.

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I wanted to make sure the lid would fit before I did the hard work of cutting, so I put the felt on first. This was very familiar – it seems like every other scope I get has a loose dust cover that has to be shimmed to fit correctly. I’ve been slowly chipping away at the same package of sticky-back felt since 2010. I didn’t have a compass handy, so I used a small paper ruler to make a ring of marks around concentric 60mm circle inside the lid. Then found a lid to a jar of vitamins that was exactly 60mm in diameter and used that to trace the circle neatly.

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I was going to cut out the aperture using hobby knife, but the plastic was too tough. So I moved up to a box knife, and then a linoleum knife. Then I said heck with it and got the Dremel. The hole I cut wasn’t perfectly circular and had rough edges to boot, so I wrapped some sandpaper around a pill bottle to make a tool for rounding out the aperture.

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Here’s the scope before…

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…and after.

Even with the aperture mask, the AR102S is not a champion scope on solar system targets. The C80ED blows it away, which makes sense – it has a 33% resolution advantage over the stopped-down AR102S, and frankly just better glass. But at least the view now is clean and not appallingly degraded. A dramatic way to see the difference is to get a good tight focus on the moon with the mask on, then quickly take it off without removing one’s eye from the eyepiece, and watch the view get a lot brighter and a lot softer at the same time.

I have a few more things I want to do. The 60mm aperture mask fits over the end of the scope so securely that it could work as a dust cover, if only I can find or make something to plug the central hole. Also, I think I am going to play with making aperture masks in other sizes, just to see what happens.

And finally, I have another 4″ scope that will be fun to make an aperture mask for. But that will be a subject for another post.
skyscanner-aperture-mask-test-fit-jar-lid

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Misusing a fast reflactor: moon-gazing with the Bresser AR102S Comet Edition

February 1, 2017

bresser-ar102s-comet-set-up-for-moongazing

I was going to hold off before I posted anything on the performance of the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition (which I swear I am going to start calling something else, just as soon as I think of a good nickname). That’s because I haven’t had a chance to try it out under the conditions where it is likely to do well. This is an optically fast scope, optimized for low-power, widefield scanning, ideally under dark skies where those faint stars can really pop. A great time and place to test-drive this scope would have been last Saturday night at the Salton Sea, right after the new moon, when Terry Nakazono and I stayed up observing almost to dawn, (expect that observing report in the not-too-distant future).

Unfortunately, the scope arrived Sunday afternoon, a day late for our Salton trip. Mount Baldy is covered in ice and snow, and I haven’t had time on these school nights to get up there anyway, much less to get to anyplace farther away. And the skies down here in Claremont have been crappy this week. Never clouded out, but never truly clear either – there has been a thin, high-altitude haze that is really good at both obscuring dim stuff and reflecting light pollution. So the only objects that have looked good are the bright, small things – the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and double stars. In other words, exactly the things that the AR102S Comet Edition is not specialized for.

So I don’t feel like I can give the scope a fair review yet, because all I’ve been able to do with it are the things it’s not built for. It’s like taking a Lamborghini Huracán on a Moab jeep trail – it’s not going to work out well, in ways that are completely predictable, and you’re not going to learn very much by doing it.

But when has that ever stopped me? I may not be able to review the scope, but I can still play around with it.

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Here’s a raw shot of the moon, taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4500 shooting afocally (and handheld) through the supplied 20mm 70-degree eyepiece.

crescent-moon-2017-01-31-processed

Same shot tweaked with Unsharp Mask and Curves in GIMP.

crescent-moon-2017-01-31-greyscale

And then converted to black and white.

I didn’t learn much. Yes, there is chromatic aberration. In other news, water is wet and the Pope is Catholic. On the plus side, the Trapezium in Orion is split into four members at 23x. Haven’t tried it on the Double Double or any other double stars, really.

On the to-do list are (1) to get this scope out someplace dark and clear and really put it through its paces, at a variety of magnifications – and using a variety of eyepiece designs – on a variety of targets, (2) to do some actual testing on close double stars and doubles with significant magnitude differences, and (3) to experiment with sub-aperture masks to knock down the CA on bright stuff. “Why not just use a smaller or better-corrected scope?” you may wonder. Well, this is sold as a travel kit, and if by using a sub-aperture mask I can make it into a passable solar system scope, I’ve just made it a better all-rounder when and if I take it on the road.

Given the waxing moon and the continuing lousy forecast for the coming week, I’ll probably have to tackle that to-do list in reverse order. Stay tuned.

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Parting shot. I got this Earthshine pic by doing a half-second exposure with the Coolpix. It’s not nearly as good as the one in the banner at the top of the page. I need to try again next cycle when the moon is younger.

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

June 4, 2016

Matt at Delicate Arch IMG_2984

Preface – Running with the Red Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observing Report 2 (Large): Going Deep at RTMC

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

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

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

M51 sketch by Lord Rosse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the northern sky:

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

In the western sky:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s eat.

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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.

IMG_6362

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.

IMG_6369

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.

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Sunday night on Mount Baldy

November 3, 2015

Moon through trees 2015-11-01

Sunday night I went up Mount Baldy for a solo session. I was rolling with the C80ED, which has become my default grab-n-go rig.

One of my goals was to test a couple of new eyepieces. Several astro retailers had a big sale on Meade wide-angle eyepieces last month. I was torn between the 20mm and the 5mm Series 5000 Mega-Wide 100-degree EPs (man, is that a mouthful or what?). The 20mm would have been a great low-power, widefield scanner, which is something I’ve gotten progressively more interested in this fall. But for a long time I had been without an EP shorter than my 6mm Expanse, which is not without its problems, so I sprung for the 5mm instead.

In the meantime, thanks to this thread on Cloudy Nights I had become aware of the VITE eyepieces. These odd little birds come in only 3 focal lengths (at least so far): 23mm, 10mm, and 4mm. They are three-element EPs with one aspheric plastic element and plastic bodies. They’re about $17 apiece on Amazon, or $9 apiece on eBay. I ventured my nine bucks and got the 4mm from eBay, thinking it would make an interesting comparison with the 5mm Meade 100-degree. I had done a quick comparo late Saturday night from my driveway on the moon and the Orion Nebula – more about that in a bit.

Sunday evening on mount Baldy I cruised through the highlights in Lyra, Cygnus, and Sagitta. I did a quick, rough sketch in my notebook of the open cluster NGC 6823. It has a curl of stars wrapping up around it like a fiddlehead fern.

NGC 6823 sketch

After that a couple of high school kids and their little brother drove up nearby, and I spent about an hour showing them around the sky – the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), the Double Cluster, Pleiades, Andromeda galaxy, Polaris, M15, 61 Cygni (aka Piazzi’s Flying Star), and finally the Messier open clusters in Auriga – M37, M36, and M38.

The kids left about 10:30. Since I was in the area I had a look at M1, and then cruised down to Orion. The constellation was slowly crawling over the ridgeline to the east, so I started visiting the bright stars, and in some cases splitting them. First up was Meissa, which was elongated at 68x and cleanly split at 120x in the 5mm MWA and 150x in the 4mm VITE.

Mintaka was an easy wide split at only 25x. Seeing was not good, but Eta Orionis appeared to be elongated east-west at 120x and 150x. The view in the VITE was kind of a mess, so I spent a few minutes just cruising around Orion’s belt and sword with the 5mm MWA. Alnitak and its dim companion were widely split. I turned south to Sigma Orionis. I’ll have to check my notes, but I don’t believe I’d ever split this star before. It’s pretty great, with a group of three fairly bright stars and a second group of three much dimmer ones. I backed down to 68x and all six stars were still nicely split, and frankly looked a bit sharper, although that might have been down to bad seeing.

Sigma Orionis sketch

So, here are my thoughts and observations on the 6mm Expanse, 5mm MWA, and 4mm VITE. These don’t count as an actual review, as I didn’t have equivalent focal lengths to compare, and I’ve only spent a couple of nights with the two newer eyepieces, observing only a handful of objects. Still, I tried them on a variety of things – the moon, globular and open clusters, the Orion Nebula, double stars – and the strengths and weaknesses were consistent. All of these observations are with the C80ED, so the chromatic aberration (CA) with certain EPs is particularly interesting.

6mm Expanse – Has a small but noticeable amount of CA on bright stars. Eye placement is a bit tricky – I get some kidney-bean and full-aperture blackouts until I get my eye placed just so. Comfortable enough once I get my eye in the zone, though. Halos on some bright objects.

5mm MWA – Sharp from edge to edge. No detectable CA, but the edge of the field does look blue until I get my eye centered. No detectable field curvature. Eye relief is pretty tight – when I move in close enough to see the entire field, my eyelashes brush the lens about half the time (I do have long lashes, but still). I have to move my head around to focus on objects in different parts of the field. Very immersive – I feel like I could climb through the eye lens and into space. The rubber eyecup is annoyingly loose – it frequently comes off with the dust cap.

4mm VITE – Can’t focus the whole field at once. Center of the field is sharp enough, but objects start getting blurry halfway to the edge of the field and are entirely defocused at the edges. ‘Sweet spot’ is pretty small. Considerable CA – makes an ED refractor perform like a short fast achromat! Strong internal reflections from bright objects on the edge of the field, or just out of the field. Almost impossible to focus on the lunar terminator if it’s centered – a big bright glow from the lit side of the moon fills the center of the field. Eye relief is tight – eyelashes scrape most of the time.

Verdict – The 5mm MWA is a keeper. The eye relief is short but tolerable, and totally worth it for the huge, flat, well-corrected field. As for the VITE, I’m glad I didn’t spend more than $9. I’ve read that these perform better in longer focal ratio instruments, but at f/7.5, the C80ED isn’t exactly fast. So how long does the light cone have to be for the VITE to perform well – f/10? f/15? At those focal ratios, it would take an exceptionally still night for a 4mm EP to be useful. I will try the thing in my Mak and probably in my C102 but I am not expecting much. People on CN seem pretty happy with the 23mm, so maybe there’s some variation within the line.

Back to the observing report. By midnight I was tired and my feet were cold. I had just resolved to pack up and head home when I saw that the hillside behind me was lit up by moonlight. The moon was coming up behind the ridgeline to the east. It had been a long time since I’d had a chance to shoot the moon rising behind trees, so I quickly set up the camera adapter and got to work. My best still shot is at the top of this post. And here’s a video:

I went for the sideways aspect ratio this time, but I didn’t quite get the camera square on to the view. Guess I’ll just have to try again next month.

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Digiscoping with the GoSky universal cell phone adapter

October 30, 2015

Bird on a stick - 50x

As I mentioned in the moon video post, I recently got a GoSky universal cell phone/eyepiece adapter. So far I’ve tested it on some birds during the daytime, and on the moon after dark. Here’s a Northern mockingbird at 50x, about 125 feet away.

C80ED set up for digiscoping

I did most of the digiscoping with my C80ED and a 12mm Plossl (50x). I tried other eyepieces but for my purposes the 12mm Plossl delivered the best balance of magnification, true field, and image brightness.

C80ED digiscoping business end

If you haven’t seen one of these cell phone adapters, it has a diamond-shaped, padded clamp that screws down around the eyepiece, and another padded clamp to hold the phone. The bracket for the phone can slide up and down and rotate relative to the eyepiece clamp, so you can get the phone’s camera centered over the exit pupil of the eyepiece. As you can see here, the phone bracket is wide enough to hold an iPhone 5 with a heavy Otterbox case. I prefer to leave the case on while shooting – it’s rubber, so I can crank down the adapter bracket and make sure the phone is truly secure. Plus, it’s one less thing to do during setup and teardown.

iPhone earbuds remote shutter release

You may be wondering why I have earbuds hooked up to the phone. It’s because of a very nice feature with the iPhone 5 and 6 (don’t know about other iPhone models or other brands of smartphones) – the volume buttons work as shutter release buttons, which is often handier than trying to press the button on the screen, AND this functionality extends to plug-in volume buttons like those on the earbud cords. So you can plug in your came-with Apple earbuds and use the volume control there as a remote shutter release for hands-free, no-shake photography.

Fanned tail feathers - 50x

That mockingbird again, fluffing its tail feathers.

Waning gibbous moon 2015-10-28

Here’s one of the moon. The seeing was punk last night so I know the system was not performing anywhere near its limits. I’ve done far better holding the phone by hand on nights with better seeing, but only by dumb luck, taking loads of pictures, and throwing away all but the best. Using the adapter I get much more consistent results, even if the seeing makes them all consistently lousy on a given night.

The biggest problem with this setup so far is that the lens of the iPhone camera is bit fish-eyed and that introduces some kind spherical distortion (I believe it is positive or pincushion distortion – feel free to educate me in the comments) in the image. It’s not so bad in this cropped picture:

European Starling x4 - 50x

But check out the diverging power lines – which are parallel in real life – in the unmodified original:

European Starling x4 - raw shot

These are European starlings at 50x, again with the 12mm Plossl, from about 250 feet.

I did lots of back-and-forthing between camera and the various eyepieces to confirm that the distortion was in the camera and not in the telescope or eyepieces. It’s a fairly minor annoyance for me – I’m not expecting world-class results out of my smartphone camera. Just something to be aware of.

European Starling - 100x

I tried going up to 100x with the 6mm Expanse on this starling. It caused a lot of vignetting – even in this severely cropped photo, you can see that the corners are dark. I’ve had this problem with using too much magnification with handheld afocal photography as well. I think that as magnification goes up and the exit pupil goes down, it’s progressively harder to fully illuminate the camera’s CCD.

This may seem like a lot of caveats and complaints – distortion, vignetting, etc. – but they’re all problems that come along with doing afocal photography with a phone. The adapter itself is dandy. It holds the phone and eyepiece securely and without stressing either one or leaving a mark, it’s easy to put on or remove, and it adjusts easily. I wish now I’d gotten one a lot sooner. There are lots of interchangeable brands on these things – if you want the GoSky verison, it’s here.

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Video: Moon and clouds

October 29, 2015

After much helpful prodding by Doug, I finally broke down and got a cell phone/eyepiece adapter. I had some Amazon credit and I was looking at some cheap astro gear by VITE. In particular I was checking out their cell phone adapter when I saw the link for a similar piece of gear by GoSky. The GoSky model cost a little more but the build quality looked more substantial and the reviews were better, so I bit. Got it out after work this evening for some digibirding and then some moon shots. More about that, and about the mount, in another post.

Shot this video from my driveway using the C80ED, a 12mm Plossl, the GoSky camera adapter, and my iPhone 5C. I know a horizontal aspect ratio works better on most computer screens, but I deliberately wanted it vertical to catch as much of the moon rising as possible without moving the scope. These were the last clouds of the evening, so at least for now, the New Gear curse has lifted.