Archive for the ‘My telescopes’ Category

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Observing Report: Total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017

August 28, 2017

My parents, Norma and John (seated), and me with London and Vicki (standing), with the projected eclipse.

Long Range Planning

Since the August, 2017, eclipse first came on my radar, my plan was to see it from somewhere on the Great Plains. I had two reasons for this. One, most of my family lives in Oklahoma, and it would be simpler for them to drive up to the eclipse path than to fly to somewhere more remote. Also, on the plains you can usually see weather coming from a long way out, and fronts move in predictable ways. I figured that if clouds did spring up on eclipse day, I’d have a better chance of driving to get around them on the plains than anywhere else.

Originally I’d been thinking Kansas or Missouri, both of which border Oklahoma and would have made short drives for my relatives. But a closer look at the eclipse map this spring dissuaded me. The eclipse would only barely clip the northeastern corner of Kansas, in the relatively densely populated area around Kansas City. The path of totality painted a broad stripe across Missouri, but mostly along a line connecting Kansas City and St. Louis. I figured that area would get hammered by visitors, and the cloud forecast wasn’t as favorable as it was for points west, either.

Map by Xavier Jubier/Eclipse2017.org

Nebraska, on the other hand, looked pretty good. My maternal grandparents used to live in Imperial, in the southwest corner, and they retired just a few miles down the road to Enders. Imperial would make a convenient rendezvous point, both for any family driving up from Oklahoma, and for me, Vicki, and London flying in from California.

In one sense Imperial was not convenient: it’s a long way from any major airport. Two hundred miles from Denver, and three hundred from Lincoln. But I like long drives in the country (really, I do!), and I was happy to trade some driving at either end of the trip if it would save me traffic in the middle.

I guess now is a good time to mention that I did not want to stay on the path of totality. I figured – correctly, as it turned out – that competition for rooms would be fierce, that at least some places would be gouging visitors, and that traffic would be a problem in at least some areas. Instead, I wanted to stay an hour or two off the path of totality, preferably somewhere out of the way, where crowds would not be a problem, but I’d still have a range of possible observing spots within easy driving range. Again, Imperial was a promising choice, and in early February, I called and reserved rooms for my parents and for Vicki, London, and me at the Balcony House Bed & Breakfast (which was outstanding, by the way – it’s worth going to southwestern Nebraska just to stay there).

By now, plans were firming up. I knew that the fall gross anatomy course at WesternU would be rolling by eclipse time, and Vicki and I would need to arrange things so we’d miss as few days of lab as possible (many thanks to our department chair for the time off!). But we also wanted some time in Imperial to unwind, and to visit places important to our family history. That meant leaving on Saturday, August 19, and coming back on Tuesday, August 22. The Balcony House didn’t have any rooms on Saturday night, and in fact, nobody else in Imperial did, either. So we decided to make Saturday an easy day and only drive as far as Holyoke, Colorado. Holyoke is another old family stomping ground – Grandpa and Grandma had lived there for several years, too, and it’s where my mom grew up.

Sun funnel testing in Claremont

The Sun Funnel Rides Again

Gear! I didn’t settle on exactly what I’d be rolling with until Thursday, August 17, just two days before we were to fly. My old Sun Funnel – veteran of the annular eclipse and Venus transit of 2012 and the partial eclipse of 2014 – was in storage in the garage. There was never really any question but what it would be going along; it’s just too darned useful for showing solar events to even small groups of people. I did have to decide which scope to use with it. We’d sold London’s AstroScan, but my flock of airline-portable scopes had grown in the meantime. Strong contenders included the GalileoScope, Tasco-Vixen 9VR, and SkyScanner 100. I set up and tested the 9VR and the SkyScanner, and I ended up going with the latter scope, for several reasons:

  1. It has the most aperture of any scope I was seriously considering.
  2. It’s at least somewhat collimatable.
  3. With its open design, I wasn’t worried about it overheating.
  4. It balanced the best with the Sun Funnel mounted.

For the flights, I put the SkyScanner in the padded bag that my Apex 127 came in, and packed t-shirts and socks around it. The Sun Funnel I broke down – I put the screen material in a folder between sheets of clean paper, and I stuffed more socks in the funnel itself. I also brought along four pairs of eclipse glasses, a piece of #14 welder’s glass (previously seen here), and 10×42 Bushnell binoculars to look for solar prominences during totality.

London with his grandparents in front of the Balcony House in Imperial, Nebraska

One more piece of gear came to me on the road. Sunday morning we woke up in Holyoke, Colorado, had lunch at The Skillet (which had excellent country cooking), and then popped across the street to the Family Dollar for a few odds and ends. I’d been thinking of making a little sun-finder, like the one David DeLano detailed in this post. My SkyScanner has a DIY wooden bracket that is square to the tube, so I just needed something round that I could use to project a spot of sunlight. I ended up going with a $1 empty condiment bottle, which I already blogged about here. When we rolled into Imperial that afternoon, I unpacked all of the gear and did a test run on the sidewalk in front of the Balcony House. Everything was ready – now we just needed clear skies.

Targeting on the Fly

My initial targets for possible eclipse observing spots were the towns of Tryon and Stapleton, Nebraska, both about a half an hour north of North Platte. I picked up a Nebraska road map and highlighted possible routes from Imperial to either Tryon or Stapleton, going either north to the path of totality and then east, or vice versa. Either town would have required about 2.5 hours of driving on a regular day, and I figured it would be smart to budget for eclipse traffic. The east-then-north route to Stapleton had the following problem: it went through North Platte, and if traffic was apocalyptically bad, we might get stuck on the edge of the path of totality, or even outside of it. The north-then-east route to Tryon would get us close to the centerline first, with fewer opportunities to get stuck off the path.

Ah, but then. A few days out, and the weather apps were predicting partial clouds and possibly even rainfall for west-central Nebraska. Right up until Monday morning, North Platte, Tryon, and Stapleton all looked they might get clouded out. So Sunday the five of us – Mom, Dad, Vicki, London, and me – had a council of war. To the level of detail possible in weather prediction, the area around North Platte looked lousy, but Scottsbluff, in far western Nebraska, was supposed to have sunny skies. Between North Platte and Scottsbluff, the weather looked progressively better to the west, and worse to the east. So we changed things up: instead of turning east to Tryon or Stapleton, we’d stay on Highway 61 north out of Ogallala and shoot up to Hyannis, then turn west on Highway 2 and go as far as we needed to find clear skies. This was basically the Tryon plan with the directions reversed: go straight north to the eclipse path first, then drive east or west along the path to a promising destination.

The Drive Up

I wish I had had the time and opportunity to take pictures during the drive up from Imperial. It was beautiful. We left Imperial right after dawn, and the rising sun turned the fields to gold. Within a few miles, we could see banks of fog lying in the low spots on the landscape. And then a few miles further, the fog was lying everywhere. We started driving through fogbanks that congealed into an unbroken blanket by the time we reached Ogallala. The weather apps were still projecting clear skies to the west and, well, unclear skies to the east, so we kept going.

The fog had cleared by the time we saw our first eclipse-watchers, at the fairgrounds in Arthur. There were hundreds of people in RVs, tents, cars, and trucks, looking worriedly up at a sky that was completely socked in with clouds. We kept going, and saw a few hundred more scattered along the side of the road as we approached the center line. About this point we hit what I can barely bring myself to describe as ‘traffic’. At its worst, we were the 9th and 10th vehicles in a convoy of 13, but the convoy was rolling along at a steady 62 or 63 miles per hour, which was fine and certainly not worth the risk of trying to pass someone on a two-lane road in the Nebraska sandhills. The hills themselves were liberally spangled with wild sunflowers. From a distance, they looked like they’d been dusted with pollen. Everywhere we went the landscape was green.

Alliance

From a purely eclipse-viewing perspective, I would have been happy with any of the towns on Highway 2 west of Hyannis. Sure, they were a few miles off of centerline, but the difference in the duration of totality would have been trivial. And I figured we’d miss the big crowds expected at Alliance. But this plan had one fatal flaw, which I did not anticipate: a complete absence of public restrooms west of Hyannis. If I’d been by myself, I might have just pulled over anywhere and, er, recharged the water table as needed, but that’s a less attractive option to a group that includes two women and two senior citizens. Actually, there may have been a public restroom in Lakeside, but we had no chance to find out, as there was a big train blocking the road into town when we came by. So we headed on into Alliance and braced for the worst.

Our setup at the Western Nebraska Community College shindig. The forest of telephone poles in the background is where line repair people train.

The worst turned out to be not that bad, actually. We drove past a big group assembled on a grassy field on the east edge of town, and on to the first gas station that looked like it might have restrooms. By the time we’d all had a biology break, it was almost time for the eclipse to start. We decided to head back out to the east edge of town and see if the group on the grass still had some parking spots. This turned out to be an excellent choice. The parking was organized by the Western Nebraska Community College, which had free porta-potties and eclipse gear for sale. We ended up next to a family from Denver that we had met in line at the gas station. They all had eclipse glasses but no other optics, so I set up the Sun Funnel so they could watch with us, and they returned the favor by taking pictures of our party.

The Eclipse

As soon as we had the cars parked, I was busy setting up the Sun Funnel, while everyone else got folding chairs set up and got their eclipse glasses on. I got the photo above, my first shot of the eclipse, at 10:45 AM.

There was a wind out of the north that kept threatening to snatch our hats away, and it was flirting with blowing the scope over. I can’t remember ever setting up the Manfrotto tripod for low use, with the legs spread almost straight sideways, but I remembered from the documentation that doing so was possible. That fixed the stability issues with the scope, and from that point on, all we had to do was re-aim it every few minutes (I’d already made this switch in the family shot above – that shot is out of order in terms of eclipse phases). As I mentioned in a previous post, not only was the dollar store mustard bottle sun finder cheap and effective, but I could see the projected dot through the translucent walls of the bottle so I didn’t have to get my head behind or underneath it to aim the scope – handy when the sun was almost directly overhead.

A labeled shot from the end of the eclipse, when all six of the big sunspots were visible, with the Earth added for scale. All of the other crud on the image is dirt and bits of grass – that’s what happens when gear is left out in the wind in a grassy field for three hours.

There were half a dozen nice sunspots, and it was fun to watch the moon overtake them. A lot of the people who stopped by to look at the sun funnel weren’t familiar with sunspots, so I gave them the quick spiel: giant magnetic storms on the sun, with the biggest that we could see then being about the same size as planet Earth.

About halfway between first contact and totality, the north wind started pushing clouds across the sky, which you can see in the above video. This added some definite suspense to the proceedings, especially when, about 5 minutes before the start of totality, a huge “dreadnought class” cloud came over. I think everyone on the field was on pins and needles – we could still see the sun, as the next photo demonstrates, but it wasn’t what you’d call a great view.

Fortunately the cloud moved out of the way right at the start of totality. And I mean precisely then. Below is a shot from just a couple of seconds before, with the diamond ring effect haloed by the tail-end wisps of cloud. Those wisps moved out just as the moon covered the last light of the sun, and our view of totality was perfectly clear.

That photo above is my best eclipse shot. Vicki has a DSLR but I didn’t take it along. I did waste a few seconds, but only a few, trying to get a couple of HDR shots with my iPhone, but they didn’t really come out. I had read plenty of horror stories of people who basically missed their first eclipse messing around with cameras, so I resolved long ago that if I was lucky enough to have clear skies for totality, I’d try to spend them looking, not shooting.

For the most part, the partial phases of the eclipse were familiar to me from the 2012 and 2014 eclipses. Totality was a whole ‘nuther beast. This was my first total eclipse, and even though I had read a lot of eyewitness reports and seen some videos of other total eclipses, several things surprised me:

  1. Neither of my previous eclipses had been close enough to total to produce the weirdly sharp shadows that you get on either side of totality, when the thin crescent sun acts more like a point source than a bright extended object. So I’d never seen that effect before, and neither had anyone that I was with. We had fun marveling at our shadows, but I didn’t think to get any pictures or video of them. You can see the sharp shadows starting at 1:25 in this video.
  2. It got a lot darker a lot earlier than I expected. This was especially true in the last 10 minutes before totality. It was extremely weird – before the dreadnought cloud moved in, we were all aware of standing in direct sunlight, just not much of it. It wasn’t like diffuse sunlight coming through clouds, and it wasn’t like sunset light, either. I’ve never seen anything else quite like it – which I guess is part of the reason people chase eclipses, to see things you can’t see any other way.
  3. The inner corona was a lot brighter than I expected. I couldn’t really see any of the outer corona, just a thin bright ring around the moon. It was bright white. The contrast between the blazing white of the corona and the absolute blackness of the moon made the latter even more unearthly. In Seeing in the Dark, Timothy Ferris described the moon during totality as an “awful black ball” and I can now vouch for the accuracy of that description. It doesn’t look right.
  4. Even at the midpoint of totality, the sky was brighter than I had thought it would be, and the ground was darker. We all did look up, and saw Venus, Mars, Mercury, and Regulus, but I didn’t see any other stars; the stars didn’t ‘come out’ as I had expected. In contrast, right where we were, looking around at family members and other eclipse chasers, it was dark, like being outside half an hour after sunset. And the 360-degree twilight lit the horizon all the way around in shades of orange, salmon, pink, and violet. In general, the terrestrial effects of the eclipse were more pronounced and arresting that what was going on in the sky – with the undeniable exception of that awful black ball.
  5. I assume that the atmospheric effects on either side of totality are symmetrical – that the weird light I mentioned above in point 2 extends just as far after totality as before, and that the 360-degree twilight extends just as far before totality as after. But that’s not how I perceived them. I noticed the oddly thin light before totality, and after totality had ended I was surprised at how long the sunset effect persisted. The above photo is from a minute and a half after the end of totality, looking north-northeast, about 90 degrees off the path of the shadow, and the twilight effect is still visible in the distance.

After Totality

Totality was a rush. In the aftermath we sat around talking happily about how amazing it had been, and watching on the sun funnel as the moon gradually uncovered the sun. London and I made pinhole projections – his is above, mine below.

We also wandered around until we found a cottonwood that was projecting crescent suns on the street. Here’s a photo:

And a video – this worked out better than expected, because the wind was blowing the leaves and branches around and making the crescent suns flicker, like sunlight glinting off moving water. Shame I didn’t think to turn the phone sideways, but I’d just had my mind blown, so I’m giving myself a pass.

All too soon it was winding down. The telescope and sun funnel had been the first things set up when we rolled in, and they were the last things put away when we left. Here’s my last shot, from 1:16 PM:

Ironically, after all the gloomy predictions, traffic was worse getting away from the eclipse than it had been getting to it. I’d hoped that maybe we could head south out of Alliance and fast-track it back to Ogallala on Highway 26, but that way was jammed up. So we went back the way we came. On the drive home we were the 5th and 6th vehicles in a train of 17, and we had to settle for a bit under 60 mph, but we still made it back in good time. There was another train blocking the access into Lakeside, so I still don’t know if the town has a public restroom.

The trip had one neat little coda. On the flight home, London had the window seat, and he spotted the young crescent moon, back in the evening sky after its big adventure. I passed him my phone, and he got some great shots. Here’s the best:

What now?

There will be other solar eclipses between now and the next “Great American Eclipse” of 2024, but most of them will happen in other parts of the world, and the chances that I’ll have the opportunity to go see them are slim. Here are the upcoming eclipses and transits that I am hoping to observe in the next decade – as always, assuming the skies cooperate:

  • January 31, 2018 – total lunar eclipse
  • January 21, 2019 – total lunar eclipse
  • November 11, 2019 – transit of Mercury
  • May 26, 2021 – total lunar eclipse
  • May 16, 2022 – total lunar eclipse
  • November 8, 2022 – total lunar eclipse
  • October 14, 2023 – annular solar eclipse
  • April 8, 2024 – total solar eclipse
  • March 14, 2025 – total lunar eclipse
  • March 3, 2026 – total lunar eclipse

That’s a pretty good lineup, I think. For more details on all of these events, see MrEclipse.com.

In sum, the eclipse was awesome, in every sense of the word. I get now why people become eclipse chasers. I’m not quite to the point where I can afford to go jetting around the world to catch every single one, but I will make it to every future eclipse that I can. If you ever get a chance to stand in the path of totality, go.

UPDATE 29 August: Mike’s comment below about Cthulhu reminded me that I needed to post another picture. After I put the diamond ring photo on Facebook, my friend Jarrod posted this modified version, which I can’t unsee. Cower before Ecl, the Dragon of Totality:

Eclipse dragon

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The small telescope quest revolutions: my Tasco/Vixen 9VR

April 11, 2017

Now this is deeply satisfying. I have been wanting one of these little beauties for a while. This is the 9VR, a 60mm f/5 achromatic refractor sold by Tasco in the 1980s, but manufactured by Vixen in Japan. These Vixen scopes came out under several brands, including Celestron. It’s basically a “Short Tube 60”, and the spiritual and possibly the actual ancestor of the Short Tube 80s that started taking the world by storm not long after. In fact, there was also a Vixen-made 10VR that basically was the original Short Tube 80, so that evolutionary line may have been real, and direct.

If you can’t already make it out, click through to see the embossed VIXEN on the objective lens cell.

It is a truly tiny scope. At 9.5 inches, a little longer than the PICO-6, and maybe a smidge heavier. I should get them together for a side-by-side comparo.

So how does it work? Optically and mechanically it is very sweet. This is my first experience with Japanese-made gear, and it does not disappoint. I haven’t done extensive optical testing, but the scope shows plenty of detail on Jupiter despite having only 60mm of aperture and 300mm of focal length to work with. It’s fast at f/5, but chromatic aberration is somewhere between “unobjectionable” and “is it even there?” It is, but you really have to look for it; the image is surprisingly clean.

The bottom of the scope, showing the tripod mounting block and the loooong focuser drawtube, with a helical-cut rack. The focuser is so smooth it’s uncanny. I’ve never had a problem with the rack-and-pinion focusers on the mostly low-end scopes I own, but I did not know what I was missing because I did not know that a focuser could be this smooth.

The scope came in a little suitcase-style case with a big block of styrofoam with cutouts for the OTA and a horde of accessories. I haven’t gotten around to taking a glamour shot of my own scope in its case, so this one’s lifted from the web. One of those accessories is a slow-motion alt-az adapter, visible in the middle on the right side. I’ve owned and used similar units by Orion and Celestron and they were fine, but again, this Vixen adapter is so smooth it makes the others look downright crude by comparison.

If you want one of these, it’s like most vintage gear: you can (1) just pay more now, (2) be patient, or (3) be lucky. You can almost always find someone unloading one for $150 or so, but if you wait and keep an eye on Craigslist and Shop Goodwill you can sometimes find one for half that. I have wanted one of these for a while but never enough to get dedicated about the search. Then in around the end of February (yes, I’m getting this posted late) I saw a classified ad on CN for an ‘astro garage sale’ with something like two dozen items on sale. There were no photos of the ’60mm Vixen spotting scope’ but I had a hunch so I wrote to the seller to inquire. He sent some pictures, I sent some money, and here we are.

There is one important point to beware of if you go seeking one of these – Tasco muddied the waters a bit with the serial numbers of this scope and its successors. The original, made-in-Japan, 60mm-working-aperture scope is the 9VR, shown here. When these Vixen-made scopes were gone, Tasco followed them with two more, superficially similar scopes, the 99VR and the 999VR. Both of those scopes were made in China, not Japan, and crucially they have an aperture mask right behind the objective that stops them down to a working aperture of only 30mm or so. The photo below shows the difference clearly, with the stopped-down 99VR on the left and the full-aperture 9VR on the right – the smaller rings inside the 9VR are baffles, farther down the tube and properly spaced to not cut into the light cone (photo used by kind permission of CN user Steve_M_M):

Stopping down the objectives cuts down their chromatic, spherical, and other aberrations, which are apparently much more pronounced than in their Vixen predecessors. I’ve read of people taking apart the scopes to remove these aperture masks, but at least some folks have found the results yucky enough that they put the masks back in. The 99VR and 999VR have a reputation for being fairly sharp as daytime spotters, where light-gathering is less important, but I have to imagine that they suffer quite a bit at night with only 1/4 the light grasp of the 9VR.

The 99VR and 999VR are odd beasts to me. On one hand, they shipped with very desirable accessories, including a nifty tabletop tripod with the 999VR. But the pricing on them seems to me to be all wrong – a lot of people online are offering them for almost as much as you’d expect to pay for a 9VR. That’s a lot of dough for what is basically a glorified 30mm finder wrapped up in a lot more metal and glass than is actually needed. Maybe I’m off here and people are simply charging what the market will bear. I suspect that at least a few buyers haven’t done their homework, though, and get a 99VR or 999VR when what they really wanted was a 9VR. I guess it just rubs me the wrong way that Tasco knowingly sold a whole telescope that was stopped down to half of the apparent aperture.

Another comparo, again with the 99VR on the left and the 9VR on the right, also courtesy of CN user Steve_M_M.

I don’t know how the timing of all of this relates to the demise of Tasco as a desirable brand, whether the 99VR and 999VR were heralds of the approaching decline or symptoms of advanced rot already in progress. That probably sounds harsh – please take it with a big grain of salt if you own and love a 99VR or 999VR. I’m not slagging off the instruments so much as the designers/marketers that thought 30mm scopes masquerading as popular 60mm scopes were a good idea. And with all of that said, if I ever run across an affordable 999VR I will pounce on it just for the tripod. You can learn more about how the 99VR and 999VR compare to the original 9VR in this CN thread and this one.

One other thing to be aware of – the 9VR and both of its successors use 0.965″ eyepieces. If you want to use the standard 1.25″ EPs, you’ve got a couple of options. You can get a hybrid diagonal – 0.965″ in, 1.25″ out – or you can get a 1.25″ adapter that screws into the drawtube. I got one made by Vixen and sold by B&H Photo Video (link). In the above photo, my 9VR is set up for birding with the Celestron 8-24mm zoom, and that is a potent and flexible combination. I have not one but two ‘traditional’ 60mm spotting scopes, and they may both be looking for new homes soon.

I’m glad this came my way. It’s a cool little scope, amazingly well-built considering that it’s a ‘humble’ 60mm and from the stubby end of the gene pool to boot. I wish that these things were still being made – there seems to be a niche there that is not currently filled by anything under about $400.

(About the post title – how else do you follow “Small telescope quest reloaded“?)

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Observing report: Saturday night stargazing on Mount Baldy

April 2, 2017

Waxing crescent moon, afocal shot by Eric Scott with Samsung Galaxy S6, shooting through Orion XT10 reflecting telescope.

London and I went up Mount Baldy last night with our friends Thierra Nalley and Eric Scott. Marco Irigoyen and Leandra Estrada joined us up on the mountain. We went up to look for comet 41P, but that didn’t pan out.

Since we went ostensibly to look for the comet, I brought the XT10 for firepower, and lots of binoculars. We got set up at Cow Canyon Saddle at about 8:30. Our first target was Orion, before it could sink into the light dome over LA. Second targets were the Pleiades and the Double Cluster. The Double Cluster in particular looked magnificent. I’ve been on a small-scope kick for a while so the XT10 hasn’t been out much, and I tend to forget what a potent instrument it is, especially under dark or semi-dark skies.

The skies on Mount Baldy last night were definitely semi-dark. Even three days shy of first quarter, the waxing crescent moon was bright enough to throw shadows and rather seriously degrade the darkness of the sky.

I tried for the comet but just couldn’t see it. I had the chart, knew where to look, and swept the area repeatedly with binoculars of all sizes and with the XT10, and I got bupkiss. This was after catching the comet easily in 7×50 binos every time I looked for it in Texas last weekend – but I wasn’t fighting any moon then. I think the comet is so big and diffuse that the surface brightness is low, and therefore it is easily swamped by moonlight. It certainly was not evident last night.

While we were in the neighborhood of the Big Dipper, we had a look at Mizar and Alcor, the famous double star in the dipper’s handle. Then for comparison we checked on Sigma Orionis, and then Marco wanted a look at Jupiter. After Jupiter we went on an extended tour of the deep sky, in which we observed:

  • M81, M82 (interacting galaxy pair)
  • M97, M108 (planetary nebula and galaxy in same field)
  • M3 (globular star cluster)
  • M37 (open star cluster)
  • M35 (open star cluster)
  • M104 (Sombrero galaxy)

In addition, we also saw three more open star clusters with our naked eyes and/or binoculars: the Hyades, M44, and the Coma Berenices star cluster.

We finished up on the moon, and then Jupiter again. We spent quite a bit of time getting pictures of both with Thierra’s and Eric’s phones. By coincidence, they both have the Samsung Galaxy S6, which has a very full-featured slate of camera options. Leandra is a pretty talented photographer and she was able to coach us on what settings to use. I think the results are pretty astounding, for handheld shots using phones. Here are the two best images of Jupiter, captured by me using Thierra’s phone and Leandra’s advice:

Here’s a composite of Jupiter and the Galilean moons – the planet was overexposed in the original to get the moons to show up, so I replaced it with the better of the two shots above.

And here’s a comparison screenshot from Sky Safari Pro 5 identifying the moons – from left to right in the above image they are Callisto, Europa, Io, and Ganymede.

As usual, the view at the eyepiece was about an order of magnitude more detailed than what the photos captured. One thing that I had never seen before with one of my own scopes was a band of ruffled white clouds within the north and south equatorial belts (the prominent orange-brown stripes on either side of the equator). The barest hint of this survives in the photos. It was a pretty mesmerizing view. For eyepieces we used a 32mm Plossl (37.5x), 28mm RKE (43x), 24mm ES68 (50x), 14mm ES82 (86x), 8.8mm ES82 (136x), and 5mm Meade MWA (240x). The most used were the 28mm RKE, 14mm ES82, and 5mm MWA. If you’re wondering why we used both a 32mm Plossl and a 24mm ES68 – since they give the same true field of view – we used the Plossl during the afocal photography because it gives a wider exit pupil, which is easier to keep the camera’s aperture centered inside.

Even though we missed the comet, I was pretty happy with what we did see – at least one of every major class of deep-sky object, including all of the stages of the life cycle of stars. In the disk of the Milky Way, new stars are born from vast nebulae of gas and dust, like Orion. In time, heat and light from the newborn stars push away the remnants of their birth clouds, leaving behind only the stars themselves, as open star clusters (‘open’ as opposed to globular). Over time, the stars in open clusters drift apart to become ‘field stars’ like the Sun, no longer gravitationally bound to their siblings. When the run out of fuel, stars blow themselves apart in supernovae if they are 8 times the mass of the Sun or larger, whereas smaller stars blow off their outer layers of gas to form planetary nebulae like M97. Whether stars die suddenly in supernovae or slowly as planetary nebulae, the matter blown out by dying stars enriches the galactic gas and dust clouds, and in time it will be incorporated into new generations of stars and planets. We are products of this process – all of the elements in our bodies other than hydrogen were born by fusion in the hearts of stars, and seeded into the galaxy’s spiral arms when those stars died.

Farther out, globular clusters like M3 orbit the core of the galaxy on long elliptical orbits that are not flat, but come looping in from all directions. The stars in globular clusters are typically very old, 12 billion years or more. We know very little about how and why globular clusters formed, and how they came to have such weird orbits. Probably they are some kind of developmental leftover from the formation of the earliest galaxies in the first billion years after the Big Bang – astrophysical fossils, if only we knew how to interpret them.

All of these processes are going on in other galaxies as well, especially spiral galaxies like M81, M104, and M108.

To put all of that into context, here are all of the objects we observed again, this time ranked from closest to farthest:

In our solar system:

  • moon – 240,000 miles or 1.3 light seconds
  • Jupiter – 370 million miles or 33 light minutes (currently – Jupiter is about 5 AU out from the sun, but right now we’re on the same side of the sun so it’s only 4 AU from us)

In our spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy (the Orion spur):

  • Mizar and Alcor (double star) – 83 light years
  • Hyades (open star cluster) – 151 light years
  • Coma Berenices cluster (open star cluster) – 280 light years
  • M45 (Pleiades; open star cluster) – 440 light years
  • M44 (Beehive; open star cluster) – 577 light years
  • Sigma Orionis (multiple star) – 1255 light years
  • M42, M43 (Orion nebula; star-forming region) – 1344 light years
  • M97 (planetary nebula in same field as M108) – 2030 light years
  • M35 (open star cluster) – 2800 light years

In the next spiral arm out from the galactic center (Perseus arm):

  • M37 (open star cluster) – 4500 light years
  • NGC 869/884 (Double Cluster; open star clusters) – 7500 light years

In the galactic halo of the Milky Way:

  • M3 (globular star cluster) – 34,000 light years

External galaxies:

  • M81, M82 (interacting galaxy pair) – 11 million light years
  • M104 (Sombrero galaxy) – 31 million light years
  • M108 (galaxy in same field as M97) – 46 million light years

That is very satisfying to me, to take in such a menagerie of celestial objects, at so many scales and distances, in the space of a couple of hours armed only with a comparatively inexpensive telescope and an idea of what’s out there to be seen. I can’t wait for next time.

Saturday night astro crew. Left to right: Marco Irigoyen, Leandra Estrada, London Wedel, Matt Wedel, Thierra Nalley, Eric Scott. Photo courtesy of Eric Scott.

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

March 28, 2017

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observing Report: more Messiers at the Salton Sea

March 21, 2017

I went to Mecca Beach again Saturday evening. Like my run at the end of February, it was a solo mission, decided on at the last minute. I made up my mind in the mid-afternoon and I emailed a few folks to see if anyone was interested, but that proved to be too little notice (not surprisingly).

I got a late start, didn’t arrive until about two hours after sunset, and there was a cloud bank to the west, so I missed out on all of the early evening Messiers. I skipped right over the winter objects, having spent the last 6 weeks observing them repeatedly with a variety of instruments.

Gear

I’m flying to Texas this weekend for a Messier Marathon star party – more news on that soon – and I’m taking the Badger along. I’ve flown with little Maks and with an AstroScan once, but this will be my first time flying with a refractor. I’ve had this trip in mind for a while – it’s why I was so excited to find that the Badger would ride securely and comfortably on my Manfrotto CXPRO4 plus DwarfStar rig, because that is an eminently flight-worthy mount and tripod combo. BUT the previous testing was just a short session in the driveway. I was curious to see how the Manfrotto/DwarfStar/Bresser setup would fare under semi-realistic conditions, on an extended observing run at a distant site.

I was also testing eyepieces. I want a travel setup that will be lightweight and low hassle, but that will still cover all the things I’m likely to want. My prime mover is the 28mm RKE. It is simply delightful and gives a bright view of a wide swath of sky. Next up is the Celestron 8-24mm zoom eyepiece, which covers most of the useful magnification range for this scope (19x-57x). I used this eyepiece a lot right after I got it. Then I was off it for a while – I went through a phase of doing a lot of high-power work with my Apex 127 and C80ED, and I thought (and still think) that the Celestron zoom was just a hair less sharp than the best of my non-zoom eyepieces, particularly the Explore Scientifics. However, my eyes are now the weakest link in the optical chain, even with glasses. So although I don’t get super-sharp pinpointy star images anymore (or at least, not until I get new glasses), I also don’t worry too much about whether my eyepieces are 100% sharp or only 97%.

I also auditioned some possible third players: the 32mm Plossl, just in case I needed more true field than the 28mm RKE will give; the 5mm Meade MWA for ‘high-power’ work (still only 92x); and the 2x Shorty Barlow. It turns out that I don’t need any more field than the 28mm RKE gives, so the Plossl is staying home; the MWA is nice but big, and not worth the bulk on this trip; and my Shorty Barlow has ever-so-slightly misaligned barrel pieces, so it won’t sit all the way down in the focuser. I’d noticed this before, but it didn’t bother me because all of my other eyepieces would come to focus anyway, but not, it turns out, the Celestron zoom. So the Barlow is staying home, too, and I’m planning to roll with just the 28mm RKE and the Celestron zoom.

Star Testing

I spent the first hour on just four targets: the Trapezium in Orion, the Pleiades, Jupiter, and Polaris. I looked at the Pleiades just to see them before they went down into the cloud bank over Palm Springs. The other three targets were to test the scope and the skies. The seeing was a little better than it has been for most of this spring, but still only so-so. The Trapezium was bouncing around too much for me to resolve the E and F components, although I suspected E a couple of times.

Jupiter looked a lot better than it has so far in this scope. I think that was partly a little better seeing, and partly the result of having collimated the scope. As I mentioned in the last post, the view of Jupiter at 92x was mesmerizing, with finely-divided belts and zones resolved all the way to the poles. I was using the 60mm aperture mask to knock down the CA, and that might have helped with the seeing and with other aberrations.

When I had stared at Jupiter for about 20 minutes, I removed the aperture mask and did a proper star test on Polaris. I’m not an expert at star testing but I know a little, and I have a copy of Suiter’s book, Star Testing Astronomical Telescopes, on loan from a friend in the club. I sketched the results inside and outside of focus and compared them to the diagrams in the book when I got home. The scope has about 1/4 wave of spherical aberration. That’s not great – it’s flirting with being not diffraction-limited, and it helps explain the scope’s so-so performance on solar system objects and double stars. On the upside, the perfectly-concentric diffraction rings confirmed that the scope is now in good collimation.

Binocular Messier Hunting

The best sky conditions of the evening were in the hour on either side of midnight. The cloud bank to the west was still there, but it had retreated down near the horizon. Transparency was as good as it was going to get. Lying down in a lounge chair and looking up naked-eye, I could make out sixth-magnitude stars at the zenith. After spending a good chunk of time at the telescope looking closely at a handful of objects, I was ready for a change of pace. I grabbed the 7×50 binoculars that came with the Bresser Comet Edition package and hopped in the lounge chair for a Messier tour.

I started with some galaxies in Ursa Major. M51, M81, and M82 were all easy, as were M94 and M63 in Canes Venatici. Then I jumped over to Corvus to pick up M68 and M104. After that I went to Coma Berenices and spent a while just staring into the Coma star cluster. It’s a true open cluster, and it looks huge because it is only 288 light years away. That’s farther than the Hyades (~150 light years), but closer than the Pleiades (380-440 light years, depending on the source), and the size of the Coma cluster is nicely intermediate between those two as well.

My first Messiers in this area were the globular clusters M3 and M53. Both were easy catches, and M3 was so bright I had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t a star. Seeing them in binoculars brought back fond memories of the very first time I ever observed them. It was the spring of 2008, and we were still living in Merced. I was on a backyard campout with London, who was only 3 1/2 years old. We were using my old dome tent, and as soon as London went to sleep I poked my top half out onto the grass and did some binocular stargazing. That was the first time I ever saw M3 and M53 with my own eyes.

My next target was the galaxy M64, and it was bright and obvious – so much so that it seemed to pop out from the background, the way that planetary nebulae sometimes do. M65 and M66 were not so pronounced but they were still easy prey. M95, M96, and M105 took a little more work and chart-checking, but I managed to bag them all. Later in the morning, after I’d gone back to the scope, I picked up the globular clusters M13 and M92, and the open clusters M6, M7, and M11.

I know that other observers have seen all 110 Messier objects with 7×50 binoculars – Jay Reynolds Freeman reports having done so in his essay, “Messier surveys“. I’ve seen all of the Messiers in my 15x70s and most of them in 10x50s, but I’ve never even attempted them in 7x binos. So I am working on a proper Messier survey with these 7x50s, and so far I’m up to 40 objects. Here’s my visual log – I’m highlighting objects in green as I observe them:

If you’d like a similar record sheet for your own observations, here’s a blank one:

A Varmint of the Skies

After an hour of binocular observing, I was ready for a stretch, and also champing to track down some of these objects with the scope. I had gotten through most of them with the scope, and I was about to make my assault on the Virgo galaxies when the moon rose.

I thought that contrast had dropped off a bit, and I was seeing fewer faint stars, and the rising moon made the reason clear: a high, thin haze had developed over most of the sky. Galaxies that had been dead easy in the binoculars just an hour before were now completely invisible in the scope. I missed out on M63, M94, and M101, and abandoned my Virgo galaxy hunt. I watched the moon rise through my binoculars, then I switched to double stars for a while. I’m not going to say much about that right now – suffice it to say that the results of my double star observing will be coming to a newsstand near you this fall.

After I’d done my double star ‘homework’, I was feeling very pleased. At the start of the evening I’d written down three goals for the session: “Messiers, double stars, chill”. With the first two activities done to my satisfaction, I was content to engage in the third. I spent more time looking at Jupiter and the moon through the scope, and a fair amount of time just sitting on a picnic table and looking up with my naked eyes. The haze had thinned out somewhat by 3:00 and I was just happy to be out under the stars. Although there were people camped just a few hundred feet from me, I had the place all to myself. Even the coyotes had stopped yipping and howling.

Back at the scope, I spent a while looking around in Lyra. My favorite astronomical axe to grind is that the “celestial sphere” compresses almost limitless space and time into what looks like a dome over our heads. As I put it in this article (and this even earlier blog post), I’m constantly trying to “shatter the bowl of the sky, to see space as space”. Lyra is a good area in which to do this, with objects as close as Vega – a scant 25 light years away – and as distant as the globular cluster M56, which lies 33,000 light years away. I’ll probably write a whole post about that soon (UPDATE: hey look, I did!).

Usually if I’m up that late at this time of year, I go through the “steam from the teapot” Messiers in Sagittarius and Scutum. But an unfortunate cloud was camped out in my way. I did pick up M11 in Scutum, and M6 and M7 near the ‘stinger’ of Scorpius, with both the binoculars and the scope. I also had a nice long look at the False Comet cluster near Zeta Scorpii. The False Comet is a fantastic object for binoculars and rich field scopes – or maybe I should say “a fantastic set of objects”, since it includes the open clusters NGC 6231 and Trumpler 24, and other bright stars in the Scorpius OB1 assocation, of which both clusters are members.

I’m up to 43 Messiers with the Badger. There are 3 objects that I’ve seen in the Bresser binoculars but not yet in this scope: M63, M94, and M101. And there are 6 that I’ve seen in the scope but not yet in the bins: M5, M29, M39, M56, M57, and M79. I’m not worried about the mismatch – most of the objects I haven’t seen in the binoculars because I just haven’t tried yet. Although I am a little nervous about my ability to distinguish the smaller planetary nebulae from stars at only 7x. Still, it’s a fun hunt and so far I’ve seen almost everything I’ve attempted. Here’s the visual tally for the scope:

I ended back in the solar system. I had a nice long look at Saturn a little after 4:00 AM, and at 4:15 I was gazing at the moon when I fell asleep. After a lifetime in academia, I’m very good at sleeping sitting up, and I didn’t realize I had drifted off until my eyebrow brushed the eyepiece, ever so gently. I think that’s the first time in almost a decade of stargazing that I have actually fallen asleep at the eyepiece. I called it a night, dragged the lounge chair around to the west side of the car where it would be out of the sun, and slept until almost 11:00.

Verdict? Well, the scope is no planet-killer. Doing the star test confirmed what I already suspected. But if I use an aperture mask and keep both the magnification and my expectations modest, it still delivers rewarding views of solar system targets. And it continues to be a fantastic wide field, low power scope for deep sky work. I was also happy to find that the light Manfrotto tripod and DwarfStar mount were more than adequate. I did have to let the scope settle a little at high power, but for Messier sweeping the whole rig just got out of the way and let me observe, which is what I had hoped for. Finally, although I had other eyepieces sitting in the rack, I spent almost the entire evening using just the 28mm RKE and the 8-24mm zoom. So as a test of my travel kit, the evening was a resounding success – and a heck of a lot of fun to boot.

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Collimating a reflactor

March 20, 2017

One of the nice things about ‘reflactors’, like the ones shown here, is that they can be collimated just like reflectors – and at the fast focal ratios that reflactors typically work at, they’re likely to need it.

I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about collimation before. I haven’t blogged about how to do it because there are so many other sites that cover it already. I learned it myself from the book Astronomy Hacks by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, which is a pretty good book for anyone getting started with a telescope, and an absolute gold mine for anyone who owns a reflector. The Thompsons have nice step-by-step instructions, illustrated with photos, for making and using your own collimation cap, and for collimating using the Barlowed laser method.

Collimation is one of those things that seems forbiddingly complex until you’ve done it a couple of times, at which point it becomes so routine as to hardly be worth mentioning. In conversation with other amateur astronomers I usually compare it to changing a baby’s diaper – awkward and probably terrifying the first time or two, and a complete non-event the next thousand or so times.

The Badger and the Ferret both have Allen bolts on the back ends of their OTAs that look pretty much the same as those on the spiders of Newtonian reflectors. The central bolt controls the distance down the tube and the rotational facing of the diagonal mirror, and the three perimeter bolts control the mirror’s tilt. You can use a Cheshire sight tube or collimation cap and collimate a reflactor just like you’d do a reflector. You can also use the Barlowed laser method, which is what I did.

It’s a three-step process:

  1. Draw a set of concentric circles on a piece of graph paper to make a collimation target, and rubber-band this over the front of the scope.
  2. Pop a laser collimator (or any laser, really) into a Barlow lens and see where the beam lands.
  3. Adjust the rotation and tilt of the mirror until the beam is centered.

I did the first bit in my garage, which is why there’s so much crap in the background of the first photo. Then I realized that it would be a lot faster and easier if I could see what was happening to the beam while I adjusted the collimation bolts, so I carried the whole rig inside the house and into the bathroom and pointed it at the bathroom mirror. Once I had the collimation spot-on, I spun the scope a quarter turn to get the final photo, which is why our tropical-themed shower curtain is in the background of the second shot.

As you can see from the photos, the scope arrived a bit out of collimation. That wasn’t a huge deal for the kind of low-power scanning that I got the scope for, but it probably did degrade lunar and planetary images somewhat. I can tell you that after collimation, it does better. I got a mesmerizingly good view of Jupiter Saturday night at the Salton Sea, with gently ruffled belts and zones marching all the way to the poles, like the layers of crust in a good baklava. But that’s a story for another time.

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Young crescent moon, pleasant surprises, the Bresser gets a name

March 1, 2017

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Got out tonight for a few short burst of observing amidst other things. I set up the C80ED and caught the young crescent moon as it was going down. Above is my best shot. It is still wildly inferior to the one I have up in the banner image, to the right of the blog title. That one I shot with my XT6, which had about three times the light gathering ability and almost twice the angular resolution of the C80ED, and I got that shot one night earlier in the lunar cycle. That was back in the early days, when we were still living in Merced. From my driveway I had a straight shot almost to the horizon, so I could catch a 2-day old moon. Here I have lots of trees and buildings in the way, so I generally have to wait an extra night to get a shot at the moon from the driveway.

Then I was out again in the half hour before midnight to try some things with the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition. First, I put it on the lightweight Manfrotto CXPRO4 tripod and DwarfStar alt-az mount that I have previously only used for much smaller scopes (example 1, example 2). Orion was going down over LA so it was pretty stinky, but I still had a long look at both the belt and the sword, and I powered up to split the Trapezium and Sigma Orionis. Then I swept up to hit M35 in Gemini, then back down to Meissa at the ‘head’ of Orion. I finished on Jupiter, using the 60mm aperture mask to knock down the CA.

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I was deliberately bouncing around the sky, looking at a variety of targets at a variety of magnifications, to see if the Manfrotto/DwarfStar combo would keep up. I’m a pretty forgiving observer – witness my near-pathological devotion to cheap scopes and stuff made out of junk – but one thing I just can’t handle is an undermounted scope. My first Mak was a 4″ which I hated and sold away before I realized that I hated it because I’d never put it on a solid mount. That experience left me traumatized when it comes to rickety mounts.

The Bresser/Manfrotto/DwarfStar rig doesn’t look like it should work. It looks like the definition of a spindly undermounted disaster. But it was fine. I never had any problem slewing, tracking, or focusing. It helps that the Bresser is lighter than it looks, and carbon fiber is a lot stronger than it looks.

(In the photo, I have the optional eyepiece rack attached to the DwarfStar – I don’t think I’ve ever shown a photo of the mount with it in place. It’s useful.)

I was also pleasantly surprised by the views I got of Jupiter. To get to a decent magnification I used the 8.8mm ES82, both natively (52x) and Barlowed (104x), and a Celestron 8-24mm zoom dialed down to 8 (57x). In both eyepieces I could see the North and South Equatorial Belts and stacks of minor belts marching away toward the poles. There was some CA, but I could minimize the effect by keeping Jupiter in the center of the field, and my eye centered over the eyepiece. The view was so good that I slipped out of gear testing mode and just stared for a few pleasant minutes. I was also happy to find that with the rubber eyeguard removed, I could see the entire field of the 8-24mm zoom at all magnifications while wearing glasses. Which I have to do now. In fact, the other night at the Salton Sea I made almost all of my observations with glasses on.

And lastly, the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition – whew! – finally has a name. I posted on Cloudy Nights about the Messier survey I’m starting with it (thread here), and CN user ‘Glob’ wrote,

mwedel, I read and enjoy your blog, let me suggest nicknaming the 4″ “The Ferret” as King Louis XV called Messier.

I responded:

That is a lovely suggestion, and it put a huge smile on my face. One thing I haven’t blogged about yet is that basically by serendipity I managed to pick up an 80mm prototype of the Bresser ‘reflactor’. So now I have two, big and little, otherwise nearly identical. Ferrets are mustelids (weasel family), along with wolverines, badgers, skunks, fishers, martens, stoats, weasels, and otters. My late grandfather was an accomplished taxidermist and one of his stuffed badgers is sitting on top of a bookcase about four feet from me as I type. It’s just about the same size as the 4″ reflactor. So I’m going to take your charming suggestion, with one modification: the 80mm will be the Ferret, as I anticipate some effort to ferret out all the Messiers with it, and the 4″ is henceforth the Badger, because it can just knock them around with all that aperture. Thanks for helping me solve that long-standing and vexing problem!

So, it’s official now: from now on, the Bresser AR102S is the Badger, and the 80mm will be the Ferret. More info on the Ferret one of these days. I’m going out with this family photo of the two – Badger’s up front, Ferret looms behind:

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