Archive for the ‘Planet’ Category


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.


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.

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.


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

March 1, 2017


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.


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:



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

February 11, 2017


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

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

Yup. For several reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


Here’s the scope before…


…and after.

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

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

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


A little piece of Mars

July 21, 2016

Mini Museum no 3614 DSCN1469

This is my Mini Museum: a collection of tiny samples of rare and interesting specimens from the history and prehistory of Earth and the solar system. There’s a lot of stuff in here that is very satisfying as both a paleontologist and an amateur astronomer. Highlights for me are the preserved woolly mammoth meat, the fiberglass casts of Diplodocus bones used as the Krayt Dragon skeleton in Star Wars: A New Hope, and, above all, the tiny piece of the Martian meteorite Zagami. It’s labeled “Martian atmosphere” because the meteor is known to contain tiny bubbles of Martian atmosphere in pockets of melted glass (Marti et al., 1995).

The specimens are embedded in a single block of acrylic that is 5 inches tall, 4 inches wide, and 1 inch thick. At $299 it’s not cheap, but it’s a pretty astounding collection of objects at any price. There is also a smaller, 10-specimen edition for $99. It doesn’t include Zagami or the Krayt Dragon, but it does have asteroid fragments, Stegosaurus plate, woolly mammoth meat, fulgurite, and the moon tree sample. These will sell out at some point, so if you’re interested in picking one up, don’t tarry.


Marti, K., Kim, J.S., Thakur, A.N., McCoy, T.J. and Keil, K., 1995. Signatures of the Martian atmopshere in glass of the Zagami meteorite. Science, 267(5206), p.1981.


Mt Wilson photo tour and a brief observing report

June 5, 2016

Mt Wilson 1 - Geo on the 60-inch

Last night the PVAA had the 60-inch telescope booked at Mt Wilson. It had been ages since I’d been up there – my only other trips up were in 2009 and 2010 (observing reports here and here). So it was very satisfying to be back. It is amazing to look back and realize that in 2010 I was only 3 years into what has now been almost 9 years of stargazing.

The last two times I went up, we didn’t have time for a tour of the grounds, so about all I saw were the parking area, the 60-inch dome, and a few odds and ends in the distance. This time we got a nice long tour from Geo Somoza – most of the rest of this post is a photographic tour of part of the observatory. We didn’t have time to go through the museum up there, or see the solar telescopes – guess I’ll just have to go back again to catch those (which is no bad thing!).

I rode up with Ron Hoekwater, Laura Jaoui, and Gary Thompson, who kindly drove us. We left Claremont early and got up there about 6:00, well in advance of the planned 6:30 start time for the tour. While we were chatting outside the gate, we saw something ominous: a tower of smoke going up from the mountains to the west. This would come back to haunt us.

Mt Wilson 2 - Einstein bridge and the 100-inch

Here’s the dome of the 100-inch Hooker telescope – world’s largest from 1917, when it eclipsed the 60-inch telescope on the same mountain, until 1948, when it was eclipsed in turn by the 200-inch Hale telescope on Palomar Mountain. It is a bit staggering to realize that from 1908 to 1993, when Keck 1 went online on Mauna Kea, the three consecutive world’s largest fully-functional telescopes were all within 92 miles of each other in southern California. (The 240-inch Soviet BTA-6 saw first light in 1976, but it suffered terrible thermal stability and seeing problems and never performed anywhere near its full potential.)

This bridge is nicknamed “Einstein’s bridge” because Einstein paused here for a famous photograph during a visit to Mt Wilson in 1931 – see that historical photograph here.

Mt Wilson 3 - the 100-inch

Here’s the scope itself, the same machine that Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason – a former mule-driver who worked his way up to master observer – used to chart the expansion of the universe. I was scheduled to go up and observe with the 100-inch last year, but I got very sick the day before and couldn’t make it. So that is still on the bucket list.

Mt Wilson 4 - the 100-inch mirror

A view into the back of the mirror cell of the 100-inch telescope. The green champagne-bottle glass of the primary mirror is clearly visible. If you click through to the full-size version you may be able to see bubbles in the glass. The 14-inch-thick mirror had to be made in three separate ‘pours’ of molten glass, and bubbles from the first two pours were trapped by the layer above. The people at Mt Wilson were so concerned about the bubbles interrupting the figure of the mirror that at first they refused to work with it, but St Grobain Glassworks was unable to pour a better one and eventually George Ellery Hale ordered his people to grind and polish this mirror, which turned out to be fine at the optical surface after all.

Mt Wilson 5 - 100-inch eyepiece

In the old days, to observe visually with the 100-inch you had to go down a narrow hallway to a tiny room where light from the scope was bounced to the Coude focus. That was pretty unsatisfying so a few years ago the telescope was modified for more intimate visual observing. Now the primary mirror at the bottom of the scope bounces the light to a secondary up in the upper cage, thence to a tertiary at mid-tube which directs the light out to a quaternary mirror in the diagonal housing at the top of the black tubular assembly on the left of the scope in the above photo, thence down to a quinary mirror at the bottom of the black tube, then into the white refractor that is pointing down and to the right. A diagonal sitting nearby can be placed into the refractor to put the eyepiece into a convenient orientation when the scope is tilted.

Mt Wilson 6 - 100-inch controls

The control board of the 100-inch, with at least three separate control systems lined up right to left in order of age. Most interesting is the old table on the right with the clock and the two periscopes. The periscopes allowed the telescope operator to see the telescope’s setting circles. Nowadays, the scope is controlled by the computers on the left.

Mt Wilson 7 - 100-inch dome

Excited amateur astronomers lingering outside the dome of the 100-inch. We got to walk around on the walkway you can see on the outside of the dome. The entire dome rotates, walkway included. It’s a fearsome engine indeed.

Mt Wilson 8 - CHARA array and 60-inch domes

On the left is one of the six domes of the CHARA array, I believe still the world’s longest-baseline optical interferometer. It has enough resolving power to image the discs of nearby stars. On the right is the 60-inch dome.

Mt Wilson 9 - lightspeed test site

Geo shows us the concrete pier used during the speed-of-light experiments in the 1920s. More on those in a sec.

Mt Wilson 10 - lightspeed test plaque

For decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Albert Michelson conducted a series of experiments to measure the speed of light. In a series of famous tests in the 1920s – almost two decades after Michelson earned his Nobel Prize – a beam of light was bounced from this pier on Mt Wilson to a mirror on Lookout Mountain, one of the foothills of Mt San Antonio, better known to locals as Mt Baldy – the mountain at whose base I live. The concrete pier on Lookout Mountain is still there and it is apparently an easy hike. It’s on my to-do list.

Mt Wilson 11 - LA and smoke from wildfire

Sunset over LA. On the left, the marine layer of fog is moving in over the city. On the right, a tower of smoke is going up from a wildfire near Calabasas, about 40 miles to the south and west of Mt Wilson, and spreading out over the LA basin. For a while the smoke was going southeast from the fire, and it looked like it might miss us. But by the time it was getting dark, the wind had shifted and was carrying the smoke directly toward the observatory.

Mt Wilson 12 - going up to the 60-inch

As darkness fell, we trooped into the dome of the 60-inch telescope.

Mt Wilson 13 - Edison bulbs

Here are the controls for the dome’s shutter, which has to be opened for the telescope to see out, and closed again to protect the telescope during the daytime and in inclement conditions. The three light bulbs on the upper left of the console are original Edison bulbs – they have been working without ever being replaced since 1907 or so.

Mt Wilson 14 - control board and mercury tank

Our telescope operator, Christopher Burns, checks something on one of the computers in the control center, while beyond him Geo stands by the mercury tank in which the 60-inch telescope floats. Don’t worry, it’s fully sealed now. In the old days, it was open, and mercury would sometimes splash on the floor as the telescope rotated.

Mt Wilson 16 - Jupiter with blue filter

Our first target was Jupiter. As usual, the photo completely fails to do justice to the naked-eye view. The seeing was imperfect and I think the smoke from the fire might already have been affecting the views. The north and south equatorial and temperate belts were visible, and the Great Red Spot was prominent, but I could see little detail beyond that. I have seen much better on other visits, and indeed in much smaller scopes (see for example the two previous Mt Wilson observing reports linked at the top of this post). But I won’t complain too much – part of the joy of observing with the 60-inch is in the process, not the outcome.

Mt Wilson 15 - 60-inch lit by laser

After Jupiter we moved on to the globular cluster M3, and then the Sombrero Galaxy, M104. M3 was already looking a bit dim – certainly not as bright as it appeared in Ron’s 25-inch scope from RTMC last weekend – and about this time the smell of smoke became pronounced in the dome. We had a hurried look at M104, but it was just a dim smudge of light and I couldn’t even make out the dust lane.

After M104 we had to shut down early to protect the telescope. If ash from the fire was allowed to fall on the mirrors, it would combine with moisture in the air to produce acids which would eat away the coatings. In the photo above, Geo is shining a laser up through the optical train to check for ash on the mirrors.

Mt Wilson 17 - Matt with the telescope

It was a bummer to have to shut down early, but we had an awesome tour and it was fun to observe again with the 60-inch, even if only briefly. Geo and Chris were great hosts and everyone had a good time. We’ll get to reschedule our night on the scope, since we only got about an hour and a half of observing in, so the club’s investment is protected. It’s a shame about Mars, though – we won’t have another opposition this close for some time, and the planet will be noticeably more distant, smaller, and dimmer by next month already. Still, into every observing career a little rain – or ash – must fall, and I’ve been extremely fortunate. Two eclipses (2012, 2014), a Venus transit, and a Mercury transit in the last four years, and not one of them clouded out. Mars will be back, and I’ll be ready.


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

June 4, 2016

Matt at Delicate Arch IMG_2984

Preface – Running with the Red Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Observing Report 2 (Large): Going Deep at RTMC

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


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

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

M51 sketch by Lord Rosse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

In the northern sky:

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

In the western sky:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s eat.


Observing report: the transit of Mercury from western Colorado

May 19, 2016

Mercury transit 9 May 2016 - telescope setup

I was in Utah from May 4 to May 15, chasing dinosaurs with Mike Taylor, a colleague of mine from England. I took a telescope along in hopes of getting some dark-sky time, and to hopefully catch the transit of Mercury on May 9.

Things did not look promising at dawn on the 9th. I was in Fruita, Colorado, and when I got out of bed, the sky was completely overcast. Mike and I decided to head out west of town to visit Rabbit Valley, where a nearly complete skeleton of the long-necked dinosaur Camarasaurus is visible in a hard sandstone ledge. (Why is no-one excavating this dinosaur? Because we already have many nice specimens of Camarasaurus, and the sandstone around this one is like concrete. It would be a mountain of work for very little payoff.)

We spent about two hours measuring and photographing the skeleton, and as we did so, the clouds started to break up a bit. By the time we got back to Fruita, a little after 11:00 AM, the sky was clear except for a few scattered wisps of cloud. I set up my telescope in front of the Dinosaur Journey museum and started watching and photographing the transit.

Mercury transit 9 May 2016 - Mercury crossing the sun

I was using the same setup as in the last post: my Celestron C80ED refractor, a Celestron 8-24mm zoom eyepiece, and a GoSky full aperture solar film filter. For photography, I used a Nikon Coolpix 4500 for still photos and my iPhone 5c for video.

I caught about the last hour of the transit, and I got to share the view with about a dozen museum staff and passersby. A few light clouds drifted through the field of view, which looked pretty cool and didn’t obscure the view at all.

At 12:42 Mercury finished exiting the disk of the sun. The next Mercury transit will be in 2019 – I hope I’m as lucky then as I was this time.