Archive for the ‘Observing projects’ Category


Resources for Naked-Eye and Small-Scope Observing

September 12, 2020

Allan Dystrup’s Classic Rich Field, and more

A few years ago, Cloudy Nights user Allan Dystrup started a thread called “Classic Rich Field“. It’s mostly about OB associations, and the early observations were all done with a Vixen 55mm f/8 scope. Later observations were done with classic refractors of up to 4” aperture, and included night vision enhancement. The thread fired my interest in OB associations, and I admire Allan’s commitment to making detailed observations with small telescopes. Also, other experienced observers chimed in with additional information. It’s one of the best threads I’ve ever encountered on CN.

Allan also published an overview of his Classic Rich Field project in Nightfall, the Journal of the Deep-Sky Section of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa. It just came out this summer, and it’s a free download at this link (17 Mb).

What I did not know until recently is that he has a bunch of other threads going, including “Classic Messier“, “Classic Best NGC“, “Classic Planet Observation“, and “Classic Moon“. Turns out he also has a clearinghouse page with links to all of them, which is here. Go read and be inspired.

Scott Harrington’s DSOs for Small Telescopes, Binoculars, and Naked Eyes

From the wonderfully useful site Adventures in Deep Space, check out these thoroughly awesome observing lists:

100+ Planetary Nebulae Visible with Small Telescopes & Binoculars, by Scott Harrington

250+ Deep-Sky Objects Visible with 7×35 Binoculars and the Naked Eye, by Scott Harrington

Bob King’s Night Sky with the Naked Eye

I spend a good chunk of every dark sky observing session just looking around, with no instruments. So I was excited when this book came out, I got a copy, and I love it. Of course, that was all four years ago, and you’re just hearing about it now because I’m kind of a lousy blogger. But there you go. Here’s the Amazon link.


Observing Report: Total lunar eclipse on April 4, 2015

April 5, 2015

April 2015 lunar eclipse composite

I stayed up late Friday night to catch the beginning of the lunar eclipse early Saturday morning. The penumbral eclipse started at 3:16 AM local time, and it was still going on when the sun rose. The umbral or ‘total’ eclipse was very brief, just five minutes between 4:58 and 5:03. Just like last October, I got London up to see it. He was kind enough to loan me his 60mm Meade refractor for the event, and he used his XT4.5. The little Meade refractor made photography easier by cutting down the light level without sacrificing contrast. I took all of these photos with my iPhone 5C shooting through a Celestron 8-24mm zoom eyepiece. As usual, I processed and composited the photos in GIMP.

Full moon 2015-04-03

I’m particularly happy with this shot of the full moon. I really need to do a composite image with all of my best full moon shots. One of these days.

Previous lunar eclipse reports:

Previous full moons:



This blog is inaccurately named

October 28, 2014


My reflectors

Me, back in the spring of 2008. Man, that XT6 seemed huge at the time. It looks tiny now.

Way back in September 2007, even before I had obtained my first telescope, I started keeping a log of my astronomical observations. A bit over seven years later, that log is an Excel spreadsheet that runs to 2564 lines, documenting 595.5 hours of telescopic and binocular observations spread out over 429 observing sessions. As far as I know, I have not missed a single session.

One thing you can tell right away is that my average observing session is a heck of a lot longer than 10 minutes. On average, over the last seven years I have gone out observing 61 times per year–about once every six days–and stayed out for an hour and 23 minutes per session. But this is horribly misleading. In truth my observing sessions split pretty neatly into two bins: those sessions that last 30 minutes or less, almost always conducted from my yard or driveway, and those sessions that last hours and hours, from Mt Baldy, the Salton Sea, Owl Canyon, the All-Arizona Star Party, and sundry other places that I’ve gone someplace else and set up a scope for an extended period. As time has gone on, those extended sessions away from home have occupied a progressively larger proportion of my observing in any given year. Here are some relevant numbers:

  • 2007 (last three months): 45 sessions, 25.81 hours, average of 34 minutes per session
  • 2008: 85 sessions, 67.48 hours, average of 48 minutes per session
  • 2009: 110 sessions, 101.66 hours, average of 55 minutes per session
  • 2010: 95 sessions, 166.73 hours, average of 105 minutes per session
  • 2011: 18 sessions, 47.23 hours, average of 157 minutes per session
  • 2012: 57 sessions, 101.34 hours, average of 107 minutes per session
  • 2013: 26 sessions, 59.62 hours, average of 137 minutes per session
  • 2014 (so far): 9 sessions, 25.67 hours, average of 166 minutes per session

Another thing the numbers at this level do not reveal is just how clumpy my observations are. My biggest sustained run of regular observing was July 2009 to November 2010, when I observed 161 times in 17 months. That was followed immediately by a long dry spell, December 2010 to January 2012, when I only observed 19 times in 14 months, and in half of those months I made no observations at all. From May to September 2013, I only went out twice. This year I did not observe at all between January and June. My islands of productive observing are separated by increasingly large gulfs of not-observing.

What gets me out often? Observing programs. I did almost all of the observations for the Binocular Messier and Deep Sky Binocular clubs from my driveway, in short sessions. Ditto for the Double Star and Urban clubs. Although I made up logbooks for the Bino Double Star Club and for O’Meara’s Hidden Treasures and Secret Deep, I haven’t started those observations yet.

This has implications for my decisions about gear. It doesn’t make sense to keep a large stable of telescopes when I might only get out 20 times in a given year. And if I’m going to a distant site for an all-nighter, I don’t want to take a whole bunch of scopes, I want to take one, or perhaps two at most.

Camp Wedel

The XT10 on one its many, many trips to the Salton Sea.

If money was no object, my ultimate gear list would be pretty short: a big Dob for chasing faint fuzzies, a compact mid-sized telescope that could do almost everything, a smaller or more break-down-able scope for airline travel, and some image-stabilized binoculars for bino observing. I always figured the Dob would be a 14″ or 16″ ultralight truss or strut design, but as time goes on I increasingly wonder if I’ll ever pony up the money for such a scope when the XT10 has so much to show me. In the CN thread “Where does serious aperture begin?”, Don Pensack wrote:

For years I thought an 8″ scope was a “lifetime” scope. Probably around 15000 DSOs are reachable, and pretty much all star clusters. You could spend a lifetime with one and become quite an accomplished observer.

Given that my tally of total objects observed probably stands at around 500 (110 Messiers, 170 other NGCs, ~75 southern-sky objects, 100+ double and multiple stars, 20 or so planets, moons, and comets, sundry IC, Collinder, and Stock objects, asterisms, etc.), it seems kinda silly to dream about a scope that would show me more than the ~20,000 objects left to see in the XT10, especially when said scope will (a) cost a lot more, and (b) be more of a pain in the rear to set up (since the XT10 is no hassle at all).

For a while I thought my compact, do-everything scope might be the Apex 127. But that was before I got into widefield observing and drank the refractor Kool-Aid. Now I think only a 4″ or 5″ apo will do, but that will set me back as much as the 14″ Dob. In other words, not something I’ll be purchasing anytime soon. Ditto for the image-stabilized binoculars. They’re nice, but they’re not urgent.

And, in truth, none of this is urgent. My current scope lineup lets me do about anything I want to, and I’ve always been fascinated by pushing humble equipment to its limits. Although I did get one new scope recently–more on that in the next post.


The new scope and the moon at the All-Arizona Star Party last weekend.


Double stars, urban observing, and where I go from here

October 17, 2013

There’s one observation from last Saturday night at the Salton Sea that I haven’t mentioned yet. At 2:25 AM, I found and split the double star 8 Lacertae, the 100th and final target on my trip through the Astronomical League’s Double Star observing program.

I don’t typically observe double stars from dark-sky sites. Or rather, I do check in on old favorites like Epsilon Lyrae, Albireo, and Beta Monocerotis for purely aesthetic reasons, but I usually try not to log double stars from dark-sky sites. I figure that double stars are about the only deep-sky objects that show up just as well in town as they do out in the boonies, so if I log double stars from dark sites, I’m not only wasting my dark-sky time, I’m also using up some of the best observing targets that I can see from my driveway. (At this point, someone out there is thinking, “Using up!? You can’t use these things up!” Au contraire–the joy of discovery upon first observing an object is an irreplaceable quality, and if I burn all of that out in the desert, what do I have left for the driveway?)

Anyway, the Double Star list is done, and I’m only one observation away from finishing the Urban Observing Club. So what’s next for me?

First, as a sort of cosmic background radiation of my observing, I will keep plugging away at the Herschel 400, sometimes from home, often from Mount Baldy and the desert. Currently I’m at 171 of 400 objects, so plenty of things left to see. I recently picked up Stephen James O’Meara’s Herschel 400 Observing Guide–stay tuned for a review at some point–and I think it will help me formulate a plan for actually finishing this before the end of time.

Second, I’m kinda hooked on double stars, and I’ve been putting off the AL Binocular Double Star Club until I finished the regular Double Star observing program. This will also give me a chance to put the Nikon Action 10x50s through their paces; for the previous binocular observing programs I used the Celestron Skymaster 15x70s and UpClose 10x50s. So that’s a new driveway observing project to occupy me for a while. (If you’re wondering what I’ll do when I’m past the two AL double star clubs, there’s always the Herschel 500 double stars, and still more beyond that.)

Third, there’s the Suburban Messier Project. I should just dig out a sketchbook and get going on that.

Fourth, and almost at the intersection of the above projects, is this. When I was in Portland last fall, I hit Powell’s Books–as all right-thinking people must–and picked up a copy of Stephen James O’Meara’s The Secret Deep. This is the fourth volume in his Deep Sky Companions series, following his Messier and Caldwell books and Hidden Treasures, which I scored in the spring of 2012. Now, I’ve been through the Messier objects many times, and I’ve seen almost all of the Caldwell objects, but Hidden Treasures and The Secret Deep contain a host of things which I have never observed. And O’Meara is one of my favorite authors when it comes to stargazing books. So I am thinking that I might make those books the centerpieces of my deep-sky observing for the next while, and try to sketch my targets and then compare my observations with O’Meara’s. There are a fair number of Herschel 400s in both books, so working through the books would also advance me a little closer to finishing that project, too.

And beyond that? Well, I have some ideas. I have Sue French’s first book, but I haven’t worked through it yet, nor have I picked up her more recent book. Steve Coe’s underappreciated Astronomical Tourist, Dave Eicher’s Deep-Sky Observing With Small Telescopes, and Phil Harrington’s Cosmic Challenge are all sitting on my bookshelf, mostly read but not “done”. And lurking beyond everything else are the Herschel 2500 and the 7000 double stars, variable stars, and deep-sky objects from Burnham’s Celestial Handbook.

So I’m not going to run out of things to point the scope at. The question, as always, is what to point the scope at next.

For a philosophical one-eighty from this post, see the next one.


What’s on your bucket list?

August 7, 2012

First off, many thanks to everyone who has responded about the Suburban Messier Project. I’m going to do it, sooner or later, and I’ve started a draft outlining how my thinking has moved forward, thanks to your answers, but I haven’t had time to work on it much. I’ve been in summer teaching mode and anything not directly related to human anatomy has had to be fitted into the scraps of leftover time. Exhibit A: this post, which I started writing weeks ago, and only just finished.

Actually, work bears on this post in a way, in that it was work-related stuff that got me thinking along these lines. We’ve had a lot of discussions lately about goal-setting, and our annual reviews are shifting to be based more on the goals we set for ourselves. I’ll be honest, at first I thought this was one of the fairly pointless exercises of the kind that have made “academic” a curse word (“it’s all just academic”, etc.). But I’m warming up to the idea, now that evaluation is tied to it, because it means I can sort of set my own criteria for advancement (within reason).

ANYWAY, this has sort of spilled over in my stargazing. As you may have noticed, I am a bit of a gearhound, and I especially like to try out new (to me) scopes. About two dozen telescopes have passed through my hands since I first got into amateur astronomy in the fall of 2007. About two thirds of those were purchased used, and I sold most of them for about what I paid for them, which is a nice way to audition telescopes without spending a bundle. This summer I’ve been on a kick to thin the herd a bit, and cut back to just those scopes that I actually use. And I’ve realized that I’m pretty happy with my current scope lineup. I’d like to have a bigger, ultralight dob someday, and I’d like to try out an ED or APO refractor, but I no longer feel compelled to pounce on every affordable scope that comes over the horizon.

Free from the constant distraction of ten-night stands with hot little scopes, I’ve been thinking more and more about–gasp!–observing, and specifically my long-term goals as an observer. Either a bigger dob or an APO will require saving up dough for quite a while, possibly years. If I’m going to invest in a scope on that level, I should be pretty darned sure that it will show me stuff I want to see.

So, what do I want to see?

My imagination has been fired by the achievements of observers I idolize. Steve Coe observed something like 2000 deep-sky objects over a couple of decades–all of those visible from his latitude (in southern Arizona) that are listed in Burnham’s Celestial Handbook (see this sidebar page for a similar list). Uncle Rod just finished the Herschel 2500–all of the deep sky objects catalogued by William Herschel and his sister Caroline. And Jay Reynolds Freeman’s essay “10,000 Objects” has been lurking out there like Mount Everest.

(I should say here that some people dismiss observing thousands of objects as a form of celestial stamp collecting. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it’s quite the opposite. These things are really out there. They are part of our universe, and I want to see them for the same reason that I want to visit as many countries as I can in my lifetime, and see as many earthly splendors as possible. The universe is very big, human lifetimes are very short, and there is just so much to see.)

But the observing list that has stuck most firmly in my head is one posted by Don Pensack on Cloudy Nights, in a thread on telescope aperture. It’s worth quoting at length, so I will:

For years I thought an 8″ scope was a “lifetime” scope. Probably around 15000 DSOs are reachable, and pretty much all star clusters. You could spend a lifetime with one and become quite an accomplished observer.
But my interests shifted more to galaxies so I moved up “a magnitude” to a 12.5″. And while I certainly can see more galaxies and details therein, the biggest difference in appearance came with the mundane, easily visible, brighter objects.
I’ve seen (and it wasn’t possible in an 8″):
–individual stars in M31 (NGC206 stars)
–stars across the face of M14
–tons of H-II regions in most of the nearer galaxies
–white swirls inside the GRS on Jupiter
–brightness variations on Ganymede
–differential colors in the Galilean moons
–the Keeler Gap in Saturn’s rings
–the outer spiral arms of M81 and NGC7331
–to-the-core resolution on M15
–red giants in M13
–dark lanes in tons of edge-on galaxies
–M17 and M16 as part of the same nebula
–wonderful striations across the face of NGC6888
–B33 (Horsehead), both with and without a filter
–galaxies in some faint Abell Galaxy clusters
–several Abell planetaries

I sit when I observe except at the zenith.

The next logical step (to gain a magnitude): 20″
But it’s too big to easily carry by one person and transport in a small, high-mileage, car. I regularly observe at dark sites frequented by others with larger scopes, and I’ve learned that, by and large, most big scope observers don’t go after targets any fainter than I do.
And I hate standing or using a ladder to observe.
A 20″ f/3 would work, but the issue of lifting the scope would still remain.

So, for me, though I’m tempted by larger apertures, MY serious aperture is 12.5″. I guess the key is, if you observe a lot of things, and use the scope quite a bit on a variety of targets, that constitutes serious observing. And, no matter what aperture is used, by extrapolation that’s serious aperture.

Okay, so his list wasn’t presented as a list of observing targets per se, more like some highlights from his move up in aperture. But I still read them and thought, “Damn, I’d like to see that stuff for myself.”

In that spirit I’ve been working on a list of stuff I want to see; an astronomical bucket list. Some things that might be on a general astro bucket list are not on my specific list, in some cases because I’ve already observed them. So as I was making up the bucket list, I made a parallel list of my favorite observations to date. Not all of them were challenging, but all were memorable. They delighted me, and the chance to possibly recapture that delight is my major motivation for going out to observe.

On to the lists! Both are arranged roughly from the center of the solar system out toward the edge of the observable universe.

My Favorite Observations to Date

My Astronomical Bucket List

  • Chart sun’s rotation using sunspots
  • Total solar eclipse
  • Transit of Mercury
  • Night sky from a ship in the mid-ocean
  • Southern hemisphere skies with more than 50mm of aperture
  • Up-close rocket launch–okay, so this isn’t technically an astronomical observation. But hey, it’s my list.
  • Phobos
  • Major asteroids
  • Zodiacal light–this is supposed to be an easier catch than the Gegenschein, which I have seen. Possibly I have seen it and not known what it was.
  • Jupiter or Saturn being occulted by the moon
  • One or more moons of Uranus and Neptune
  • Pluto
  • A great comet (this one is up to the universe)
  • Barnard’s star
  • Track a high proper-motion star as it moves in front of background stars (will take 2 or more observations some years apart)
  • Sirius and the Pup
  • Herschel 500 double stars
  • Detail in the Crab Nebula (M1)
  • Central star in the Ring Nebula (M57)
  • “Pillars of Creation” in M16
  • Horsehead Nebula (B33)
  • Bright, naked-eye nova or supernova (again, this is up to the universe)
  • “Propeller” in M13–apparently there are three dark lanes in M13 that form a propeller shape. I’ve never noticed them.
  • Globular clusters in the Andromeda galaxy (M31)
  • Jet in M87 (will definitely need a bigger scope!)
  • All 110 Messiers in a Messier Marathon
  • Herschel 400, Herschel II 400, and Herschel 2500–I’m not quite a third of the way through the Herschel 400, so I’ll be climbing this mountain for a long time. But the scenery is well worth it.
  • More, and more distant, quasars

I’m sure more things will occur to me in the future. In the meantime, quite a few things on my bucket list are achievable with the gear I’ve already got. I just need to get out and see more–and that is a goal I can work on anytime. May it ever be so.


Suburban Messier project–gear? rules? company?

July 20, 2012

Part 1: Inspiration

I am contemplating a new observing project. It started back in May, when Doug wrote a long comment that ended with:

You know what we need? Really, really need. One of these guys: O’Meara, Sue, Tony Flanders, etc. to write a book complete with sketches, using a Real People telescope in a typical residential suburban setting. A Celestron or Meade or Orion sub-$500 scope from a backyard or driveway in Torrance or Sacramento or Cleveland and do all the Messiers . . . or whatever. Then you’d have something you really could use with goals you had a realistic chance of achieving.

Come to my house, or one like it and do all your observing here. For a year. Sketch what you see through the eyepiece of a real world scope in a real world setting. Then I can say “Ah, so THAT is the pattern I am looking for.” And will recognize when I see it….

Hey, Matt, YOU have real world scopes. And a backyard. So, maybe you?

And I wrote:

Your question inspires me. I had already been thinking about doing a Messier survey with a small scope, just to see what could be achieved. I may fire up that observing program one of these days. If I do, I’ll try my hand at sketching, too. It probably won’t be soon. Our skies here suck in the summer, with lots of haze and smog and not much wind to blow it out. And it’s too hot to go to the desert. But I might do some runs up Mount Baldy, which is acceptably dark but not stupid-dark like the Mojave.

So, at first I was just thinking of doing a small-scope Messier tour, from wherever, including Mount Baldy and the Salton Sea. But I think that would be of limited usefulness. The orange/yellow zone skies on Mount Baldy are something that a lot of folks would have to drive to get to. The blue/grey zone skies at the Salton Sea are way too dark to be useful for what Doug was describing. Not at all like what you’d get in “Torrance or Sacramento or Cleveland”. If it’s going to be a suburban Messier survey, it needs to be from in town–specifically, from my front yard and driveway (my back yard has a verdant canopy of greenery which is beautiful but not good for stargazing).

The other part of this is that I have never sketched deep sky objects. I have often sketched planets, very approximately, to show how many cloud belts and moons I could see, and I have been sketching my way through the AL Double Star Club observations, but c’mon, that requires drawing 2-4 tiny circles. I haven’t sketched DSOs, and I think it’s a skill I should cultivate.

My desire to learn to sketch DSOs has been intensified by observing with Terry Nakazono, who sketches, and by seeing the really nice sketches done by fellow PVAA member Justin Balderrama (who blogs here). Justin is in his teens, but you’d never know it to flip through his observing logbook. And these guys don’t make a big deal out of their sketching–it’s just part of their observing technique. I dig that. I’d like to do that.

Part 2: The Rules

Okay, so I’m going to observe and sketch all the Messier objects from my yard. Using what?

For a while I toyed with the idea of getting one of Orion’s $100 tabletop scopes, the SkyScanner 100 or GoScope 80, just for this project. But lately I’ve been cutting back on scopes–I just sold Shorty Long and Stubby Fats–and I’m loathe to turn around and start piling them up again. The scope is going to have to be one I already own.

My current lineup includes:

  • XT10 (10″ or 254mm)
  • Apex 127 (5″ or 127mm)
  • Skywatcher Mak (3.5″ or 90mm)
  • Travel Scope 70 (2.75″ or 70mm)
  • SV50 (2″ or 50mm)

Since this is a small-scope project, the XT10 is out. I’m throwing out the Apex 127, too. Using Doug’s original “sub-$500″ criterion you could buy the OTA, but you couldn’t mount it securely, not unless someone was having a ridiculous sale on mounts. And, fer cryin’ out loud, Uncle Rod uses a 5” Mak as his back-up deep-sky scope (which is one of the reasons I got one for myself), so I think it’s big enough to also be disqualified for a small-scope challenge.

On the other hand, the SV-50 is too small. Reeling in all the Messiers with it would be an interesting challenge from a dark site, but from town it would be straight-up murder. Plus, I doubt too many amateurs these days are starting out with a 50mm scope. Anyone who can afford a 50mm scope can probably afford 10×50 binoculars (currently $25 at Amazon for a decent pair), and those will frankly be a lot easier to use.

That leaves the 90mm Mak and the 70mm refractor. And here I’m just going to make a command decision and go for the 90mm Mak, for a lot of reasons. The biggest is comfort. If I’m really logging, sketching, and taking notes, I reckon I’ll need about a half hour per object. Multiplied by 110 objects means 55 hours of observing time, minimum, spread out over the next year or two. If I’m going to spend that much time with any one scope, it has to be comfortable for both eye and body. The optics on the Travel Scope 70–on my example, anyway–are swell up to about 20x, acceptable up to about 40x, and frankly pretty gross after that. In contrast, I’ve had the little Mak up over 200x regularly with no image breakdown, and it’s got a nice flat field that is essentially free of aberrations.

The “body” side of the comfort equation is why I’m not using my son’s Astroscan. For him it’s fine sitting on a folding chair or even on the ground. For me it needs a table, which is never as stable as a tripod, and more of a pain to move around late at night in the dark. And like the TS70 it is wonderful for bright, wide, low-power scanning, but runs out of magnification pretty fast.

My one reservation about using the 90mm Mak is the long focal ratio–1250mm, or two inches longer than the XT10 even–which means high minimum powers and a narrow field of view. The max true field in this scope is only a little over 1 degree (compared to a max true field of about 4 degrees for the TS70), which is not enough to fit in the largest Messier objects. I’m not worried about the Pleiades–I’ll just scan around to see them all–or M31, where I’m unlikely to see more than just the core from town. It’s M33, the Triangulum galaxy, a large not-quite-face-on spiral galaxy, that makes me sweat. It’s going to be hard enough to see from town in the first place, let alone in a scope that won’t fit the whole thing into the field of view at once. But no scope is perfect for every job, and I want this to have some element of challenge, so I’ll stick with the little Mak.

I’ve also decided to eschew fancy eyepieces for this project, and just use ordinary Plossls, probably my 32mm (39x) and the three that came with the scope: 25mm (50x), 12.5mm (100x), and 6mm (200x). I strongly suspect that the 25mm is all I’ll need for most objects. A lot of DSO hunters recommend a 1-degree true field for finding objects and a 2mm exit pupil for observing them. In the 90mm Mak, the 25mm Plossl gives almost exactly those values:

True field of view (TFOV) = Apparent field of view (AFOV)/magnification; in this case 52 degrees/50x = 1.04 degrees.

Exit pupil = aperture/magnification; in this case 90mm/50x = 1.8mm exit pupil.

As with the fancy eyepieces, using the nice Astro-Tech dielectric diagonal feels like cheating.  I sold the 90-degree prism diagonal that came with the scope–I couldn’t get it out of the house fast enough. That leaves either a 45-degree erect-image prism diagonal that I just discovered I had the other day (which is the only reason I haven’t sold it yet), or an $8 mirror diagonal I bought off Cloudy Nights. Either is probably a good match for what would come with a beginner scope, but I’m going to use the cheap mirror diag. More Maks are sold with prism diagonals, but whatever, I can’t put myself through that many hours of looking through a low-end prism, and I don’t think substituting a piece of gear that costs less than ten bucks will corrupt the replicated beginner experience.

Now, the big question: what finder should I use? At first I was thinking I would just roll with the 9×50 RACI. It’s my favorite and most-used finder, and observing with it would be a cinch. But I am reluctant to do that, for two reasons. First, I know how to find stuff with a 9×50 RACI. It’s not going to push me or teach me anything. Also, I think it sort of violates the spirit of observing with the stuff that Joe Newbie would have available. A 9×50 RACI is a big upgrade, close to half of what I paid for the 90mm Mak in the first place. That leaves other three finders that I have lying around that I could potentially use:

  • The 20mm erect-image finder that came with the scope. Gag me with a stick. I know that a lot of 90mm Maks ship with these things, but they shouldn’t. This finder is good for two things: gathering way too little light, and making people hit their face on the scope when they try to get their eye behind it (you can see a close call here). For the love of Pete, if your scope came with one of these and you can’t afford anything better, get over to Telescope Warehouse and get a 6×30 finder with a bracket for $18-20 or a dot finder for $14 (also, if you just flat need a scope, they have 70mm achromatic refractors for $22 and 90mm achromats for under $40, although you’ll have to rig a mount).
  • The 6×26 straight-through erect-image finder that came with the Apex 127. I forgot this existed until I found it in an unlabelled box when I was cleaning up the front room.
  • The red dot finder that came with one of my other scopes at some point, which I never got around to selling.

There are actually valid arguments for both the 6×26 and the RDF. Most entry-level scopes these days ship with RDFs, including all of the Orion tabletop scopes, so for replicating the beginner experience it is probably the most legit. With a max true field of 1 degree in the scope, though, it will make for some punishing star-hops. The argument for the 6×26 comes from Jay Reynolds Freeman’s essay “Finding deep sky objects rapidly”:

I use magnifying finders instead of unit-magnification ones because I need to see more than just naked-eye stars to point the telescope accurately, and the extra light gathered by magnifying finders provides them. I use straight-through ones because I can keep both eyes open and use the finder cross-hair as a reflex sight, fused by the brain with the view through the other eye.

I don’t know that trick, but I’d like to.

Both the RDF and the 6×26 will be irritating in that they’ll force me to get my head behind the scope, but I reckon it’s time I learned more than one way of finding so I’m willing to make the sacrifice. Anyway, I’m still undecided on which one to use, but maybe you can help me out with that.

Part 3: Audience Participation

Now, gentle reader, I have three questions for you. Before we get to them, let’s review the plan:

I will (1) observe–or attempt to observe–and (2) sketch (3) all of the Messier objects (4) from my front yard/driveway (5) using my 90mm Mak and (6) inexpensive eyepieces. I don’t have a fixed schedule in mind, but doing the whole list in a year does not seem prohibitively difficult or time-intensive; that’s only 2 objects per week, on average.

The one hang-up there is that the dimmest objects will probably have to be observed when they culminate (get as high in the sky as they’re going to from  your latitude), possibly after midnight when a lot of folks shut off their lights and the LP slacks off a bit, which dictates a particular season. For the big mess of galaxies in Virgo-Coma, that means springtime, when the weather is iffy. I have gotten several of the Virgo-Coma galaxies from my driveway with 15×70 binoculars, but I wasn’t sketching or taking extensive notes, which will eat up observing time. In some cases it might not be a matter of going on dawn patrol to catch ones I missed, because in a small scope under LP they might only be visible near the zenith, late at night, during a narrow seasonal window. I’m going to try to get it done in a year, but if it slops over into a second year I won’t be devastated.

Now, if you’ve managed to hang with me this far, I have questions for you:

  1. Following the discussion in the previous section, which diagonal and–especially–which finder do you think I should use? Do you care? Is your interest more in seeing the beginner experience replicated from top to bottom, or just in the descriptions of the objects through a modest scope under light-polluted skies, in which case the mode of finding doesn’t really matter?
  2. Can you think of any other rules or conditions that would make the survey more informative/relevant/legit/challenging?
  3. Would you like to join me?

I’m dead serious on that last point. If you’ve never seen all the Messiers before, feel free to use whatever scope you like, from whatever observing site you like. Or use your big scope from home, or your small one from a dark site, or whatever–set whatever conditions you like for your Messier project. Sketch or don’t sketch, although it would be cool if you did, because then we could compare notes.

I’m planning to set up a sidebar page for this anyway, and scan and post my sketches and observing notes. I’d be happy to host yours, too, if you send them to me. I get 3 gigs of space on this blog, and so far in all of my time here I’ve only used 1/12 of it, so I’m not worried about running out of space by hosting too many images or PDFs or whatever.

I’d like to set an arbitrary start date of August 1 for my own survey, but if you happen to stumble across this post a few months from now and want to join in then, feel free.

Any takers? If so, let me know in the comments.

Clear skies!


Deep sky objects from Burnham’s Celestial Handbook now on the sidebar

July 17, 2012

Just a heads up, since new blog posts are probably more attention-getting than new pages: thanks to the kind offices of a fellow Cloudy Nights forum member and his friend, a list of the DSOs from the monumental Burnham’s Celestial Handbook is now available on the sidebar. That’s 1160 objects north of -30 declination (plus 6 Messiers that are just south of the cutoff)–out of the total of 1880 listed in all three volumes–plenty of goodies to keep a deep sky fanatic busy for a long time. Go check it out.


Two new Astronomical League observing clubs

February 27, 2012

Award pin for the Binocular Double Star Club, from the AL website

My copy of the Reflector, the Astronomical League’s quarterly magazine, arrived in the mail today, with announcements of two new observing clubs: the Binocular Double Star Club and the Analemma Club.

This is exciting news for me. I’m always looking for new lists of things to look at, especially from home. My Herschel 400 project is chugging along, slowly, as I get dark-sky time, but I can’t get to dark sites all the time and I’m committed to observing from home. I really need structured observing lists or else I spend my driveway observing sessions checking out a handful of old favorites and then wondering what else to wonder at. Binocular lists are good because binocular objects tend to be bright enough that I can see them from Claremont with my 15x70s, and double stars are good because they punch through the light pollution pretty well and many of them are strikingly beautiful. I’ve already finished three binocular observing programs (Binocular Messier, Deep Sky Binocular, and Southern Sky Binocular), and I’m a bit over halfway through the observations for the AL Double Star Club and loving it. So a new club that combines binocular observing and double stars is right up my alley. Update Aug 1 2012: As I often do for AL observing programs I intend to pursue, I made up a blank logbook for the bino double star club. It’s free if you want to use it–you can find a link to the PDF on this page.

Award pin for the Analemma Club, from the AL website

The Analemma Club is a little different. You don’t observe a long list of objects, just one over and over: the sun as it traces out its figure-eight path, or analemma, in the sky over the course of a year. That path is created by Earth’s axial tilt and its elliptical orbit around the sun. A Google Image search for ‘analemma’ will show many composite photos created by amateurs that show the position of the sun in the sky at regular intervals over the course of a year. An analemma can also be recorded by projecting the shadow of a gnomon on the ground, a wall, or a globe–the Wikipedia article on analemmatic sundials has a couple of examples, and there are loads of instructions on how to build these things scattered around the web. Once you have a complete analemma, you can do all kinds of things with it:

  • Calculate your observing latitude and the tilt of the Earth’s axis
  • Sketch or plot the path of the sun on the celestial sphere
  • Calculate the Equation of Time
  • Calculate the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit

All of this requires math–alegbra and trigonometry. And in the Analemma Club, you have to first generate an analemma and then do that math; the list of four things to be calculated and sketched is taken from the Analemma Club page. Now, I realize that following the sun for a year so you can do math is not everyone’s idea of a good time. But I’ve always been fascinated by sky motions and I’m sufficiently interested in analemmatic sundials to have started a project folder for one at some point, so this club may be the kick in the pants I need to actually, you know, do the work.

So, that’s why I care about these new clubs. Why should you care? Well, if you’re in the US and you’re a member of an astronomy club, you’re almost certainly an AL member already, so if you’re doing any regular observing programs you might as well send in your observations and get some bling.

What if you’re not a member of an astronomy club, or not in the US? Well, if you find the observing programs useful, do ’em anyway. All of the requirements are freely available online, and although the bling is a fun perk, the real benefit is in learning your way around the sky, developing your observing skills, and most importantly, seeing a bunch of awesome stuff.

As of this writing, the Astronomical League has 34 different observing programs (and 3 clubs that have no observing requirements), covering everything from Earth orbiting satellites to distant galaxy clusters. Several clubs require only naked-eye observations, several more require binoculars, and the vast majority can be completed with an inexpensive telescope. So whatever your available gear or level of experience, there is probably an AL observing program that would suit you. Go check ’em out.


The awesomely delayed New Year’s post

March 27, 2011

The year is almost exactly one fourth gone, so this is more than a bit late. But 2010 was a transformative year in my astronomical career, and I wanted to explain why and how, and to assess how I did on my astronomical New Year’s resolutions.

My first resolution was, “I resolve to spend less time mooning over the stuff I want, and more time using the stuff I have.

I’m calling this one a mixed success. On one hand,  I did a LOT more observing in 2010 than in any previous year. Not in terms of sessions–I did 95 in 2010, versus 110 in 2009–but in terms of time spent and objects observed. In 2009 I probably observed a few dozen things; in 2010 I saw more than 200, the great majority of which were new to me.

I got off to a strong start, taking advantage of the good sky transparency after winter and spring rains to do a lot of observing from my driveway, especially with binoculars. I completed the Binocular Messier Club by mid-February, and did most of the observations for the Messier Club and Deep Sky Binocular Club between January and March.

Crucially, I finally started getting out to dark sites on  a regular basis. I first started observing in October, 2007, but I had only been on one dark-sky observing trip before last year. Two factors played a role here.

The first was getting up to Mount Baldy with a friend from the PVAA in the fall of 2009 to try to catch the impact of the LCROSS mission on the moon. We didn’t see the impact fireball–no one on Earth did, not directly, although the LCROSS probe sent back good pictures and data showing that yes, water ice is indeed present in the craters at the lunar poles. What turned out to be more important for me was the revelation of how much more I could see under those darker skies, and the shedload of deep-sky objects I was able to observe that night, mostly with 15×70 binoculars. That night was also a big step forward for me because it was the first time I had taken out my Pocket Sky Atlas and used it to really cruise the skies, rapidly finding my way to new objects that I’d never seen before. So come the beginning of 2010, I knew that quite dark skies were available close by, I had the motivation to get out to them, and I was learning the skills I’d need to take advantage of them.

The other big factor is that my son, London, was 5, so he was both more adventurous than he had been, and also required quite a bit less minding. It was time to go camping. My trips to the Salton Sea in January, February, and March of 2010 were solo efforts, although I met up with at least one other PVAA member each time. But almost all of my later dark-sky outings were camping trips. We went to Owl Canyon in June and September (London stayed with Vicki in a hotel room on the latter trip), Joshua Tree Lake and Afton Canyon in October, and the All-Arizona Star Party in November. And we’ve already been out once this year, to the Salton Sea again (the Salton Sea is more southerly and lower in elevation than the high-desert observing spots I’ve been to, so it’s warmer overnight during the winter months). The impact of these dark-sky trips is hard to describe. I have had experiences out under those dark skies that would simply have been impossible anywhere else. I don’t think it’s going to far to say that they have not only changed me as an astronomer but as a human being.

I mentioned that my resolution observe more and obsess about gear less was only a mixed success. I did spend less time mooning over telescope  catalogs and telescope vendors’ websites, and more time at the eyepiece, so that part was okay. But I also turned over almost my entire telescope collection, selling off old stuff and trying out new stuff in the quest for the perfect lineup. I think every single telescope I own right now was purchased in 2010, except for the Astroscan, which is really London’s. I learned some valuable things along the way. I know now that a 10″ dob is as much big iron as I need for at least the near future. I found my ultimate no-excuses travel telescope. And I got a couple of nice mid-sized telescopes, both of which turn in good images without breaking either my back or my bank account. I’m not done buying telescopes–I would like to get a 5″-6″ SCT or Mak to have something more portable than my current mid-sized scopes but equally capable–but I think I’m  converging on the ideal scope collection for my observing interests. It wouldn’t hurt me to concentrate on getting some non-telescopic gear, like a light-pollution filter and some better eyepieces.

Galileo's sketch of the changing positions of Jupiter's moons--an observation one must repeat for the AL Galileo Club.

My other resolution for 2010 was, “I resolve to complete the Astronomical League’s Galileo Club, Lunar II Club, and Messier Club.” This one was also a mixed success. As I’ve reported (more than once, and if you’re tired of hearing about it, I don’t blame you), I did complete the requirements for several of the Astronomical League’s observing clubs, just not all of the ones I resolved to finish. This was mainly caused by the big shift in my observing habits mentioned above. Prior to 2010, essentially all of my observing was done from home, under light pollution, and so I naturally gravitated to projects that were easy to complete under those conditions. Hence the interest in the Lunar II and Galileo clubs (although I was also interested in the latter simply because Galileo was The Man). Last year my interest shifted to the deep sky (i.e., objects beyond the solar system: nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies) in a big way, and all of the clubs I completed in 2010 are deep-sky programs.

So what about observing programs for this year? I’m only 9 objects away from completing the Urban Club, although I let a few of them slip too near the sun so I won’t be able to put that one to bed until a few months from now, when they’ve escaped (or, more accurately, when our orbit around the sun has moved the sun’s apparent position against the background stars). I should do more on the Double Star Club–like the moon and planets, double stars are little affected by light pollution, so those will give me something to chase on the nights when there’s too much humidity, smog, or dust to go after faint fuzzies.

NGC 4038 and 4039, a pair of colliding galaxies popularly known as the Antennae. Part of the Herschel 400.

But those are really incidental. My big observing push for the foreseeable future is the Herschel 400, a list of 400 of the best out of the more than 2500 deep-sky objects cataloged by William Herschel. It’s deliberately intended as a follow-on to the Messier Club, to help observers further develop their skills and see more of what’s out there. I started on it last fall, not in earnest but as a way to pad out my sessions as I finished up the Messier and Caldwell lists. Quite a few of the objects for the other deep-sky clubs are drawn from the Herschel 400, so between having completed a few of those and having started on the Herschels last fall, I’ve got almost a quarter of them–95 out of 400–logged already. Sounds like quite a bit of progress, but most of those 95 were chosen for other clubs because they’re among the best and brightest, so I’m afraid many of the gems are already logged and the remaining 305 are going to be mostly true faint fuzzies. Still, one never knows until one looks, and even my limited exploration of the rest of the Herschels has turned up some surprisingly beautiful objects.

So, I’m going to work on the Herschel 400, but I’m not going to commit to finishing it this year. I had a lot of fun last year but almost suffered from observing program burnout. This year I’m going to take a more relaxed pace. If I finish a few things along the way, great, but I’m not going to push myself to do it.

Still, I am not without goals, and even though three months have passed I’m going to make some astronomical resolutions for 2011 (only having 9 months to work on them ought to add spice).

Resolution #1: I resolve to not give up on observing from home.

All the dark sky trips in 2010 were great, but after a strong first quarter I did a lot less observing from home after March. There is a danger here, of developing the attitude that it’s not worth going out unless I can be under inky-black skies. The truth is that there is a lot of great observing to be had in town, especially if one chooses the right targets and the right times to observe. As I ought to know, since I got so much deep-sky work done from my driveway last year, mostly with very modest instruments. So I am going to try to get in at least one or two serious observing sessions from home every month, light pollution be damned.

Resolution #2: I resolve to spend more time on every object that I observe.

This one is also a reaction to my experiences last year. Some people dismiss observing programs as a list-checking exercise that corrodes the relaxed, contemplative side of observing. I don’t think that’s universally true–I always take at least a couple of minutes on each object to jot down my observations and impressions–but I would be lying if I denied that that danger exists. So one of my goals for 2011 is to improve the quality of my observations, and not to worry about their quantity.

And…that’s it. That’s all I really want for this year. I certainly grew as an amateur astronomer in 2010. In 2011, I want to mature as an observer.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Binocular Messier bling

March 24, 2010

More bling in the mail today: my certificate and pin for the AL Binocular Messier Club. The pin is already on my Kepler cap, which is now triply geeky (once for this pin, once for the Lunar Club pin, and, let’s face it, once for being a ballcap that celebrates a space probe).

If you are a member of the Astronomical League–and if you’re a member of a US astronomy club, AL membership is probably included with your local club membership–this is a no-brainer. You only have to see 50 Messiers with binoculars to complete the Binocular Messier Club requirements and score your own bling. I’ve gotten 99 Messiers with binoculars so far, not because I have to, but because it’s fun. And because the more I see with modest instruments, the less I feel like a wuss next to Jay Reynolds Freeman.

But mostly because it’s fun. After looking at small patches of sky at medium or high magnifications, it’s nice to sweep large swathes of the sky at low magnification. I’ve learned more about the forms of celestial objects at the telescope–but I’ve learned more of my way around the sky with binoculars. It’s the perfect project for a beginning stargazer, whether you’re in the Astro League or not. Give it a shot!