Archive for the ‘Jupiter’ Category


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.


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 Reports: two perfect imperfect nights at the Salton Sea

November 23, 2015

Apex 127 ready for stars 2015-11-14

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

Terry Nakazono with Meade Polaris 114 2015-11-14

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

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

Matt aligning finder on Apex 127

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

Matt digiscoping moon

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

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

Jupiter and moons 0530 PST 2015-11-15

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

Clouds at dawn 2015-11-15

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

Waxing gibbous moon 2015-11-22

Back Again

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

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

Sigma Orionis sketch 2015-11-22

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

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


That planet above the scope is Venus, not Jupiter.

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

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


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


Chasing Comet Lovejoy

February 4, 2015

I’ve been out a few times in the last few weeks, mostly to see comet 2014 Q2/Lovejoy. It’s still nice and bright and it’s an easy catch in binoculars. You can get up-to-date finder charts from Heavens Above.

Our notes from January 17 - Steve's sketch of Jupiter and my sketches of the Trapezium and comet Lovejoy.

Our notes from January 17 – Steve’s sketch of Jupiter and my sketches of the Trapezium and comet Lovejoy.

About three weeks ago now, on January 17, I was up at the Webb Schools observatory with Steve Sittig, who you’ll recall from the virtual star party, last summer’s birthday observing run, and – farther back, in 2010 – comet 103P/Hartley. We were using the equatorially mounted C14 in the Webb Schools’ Hefner Observatory. We started on Orion just to get warmed up, and we could easily see the E and F stars in the Trapezium. After that we went after the comet. It was kind of a comedy of errors. We had problems getting the telescope pointed where we needed it, and neither of us had seen the comet yet so we were a little unsure of where to look. Finally we started scanning around with binoculars and then the comet was an easy catch, and we were able to get the scope on target. I made a couple of sketches a few minutes apart that show the comet moving through the field, but the western sky was getting hazy and pretty soon the comet was lost to us.

Jupiter from Webb - Jan 17 2015 - with labels

Jupiter and the four Galilean moons on January 17, 2015. Click through to see the moons. Photo by Steve Sittig.

After that we turned east to have a look at Jupiter. Steve made a sketch and got some photos with his DSLR mounted to the C14. As is usually the case, the photos do not nearly capture all of the detail that we could see at the eyepiece. We could see many cloud bands at high latitudes, and north and south equatorial belts were highly detailed with ruffled edges and festoons. Io was distinctly yellow at the eyepiece, much more so than the other moons, which ranged from white to a very faint blue. Thanks to Steve for the photos and for the great, if brief, night of stargazing.

Comet Lovejoy 2015-01-24 invert

The next Saturday, January 24, London and I set up telescopes in the driveway and took in some of the best and brightest objects (most of which London found himself!). I sketched the comet a couple of times, to show it moving against the background starfield.

I have another long-delayed observing report, from a trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park late last fall, but that will have to wait for another time.


The conjunction last Sunday morning

July 18, 2012

In the latest Mount Baldy observing report I described an awesome predawn conjunction of the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and the bright star Aldebaran. What made it so great was not just the close appearance of four bright objects in the eastern sky, but the almost perfect symmetry of their arrangement: not only did they form an almost perfect arrowhead shape, but the arrowhead pointed straight up toward the Pleiades. All in all, just about the most beautiful celestial sight I’ve seen with my naked eyes.

Just as the kite was flying up over the hill to the east of our observing site, a nice couple drove up and set up a camera. They were Robert and Elizabeth Preston, and they kindly send this photo with permission to post. Trust me, you’re going to want to click through to the big version.

Here’s a closeup of the four conjunction objects from a photo by Terry Nakazono. The moon, Jupiter (top), and Venus (bottom) are all unmodified. I had to crop out the area around Aldebaran (right) and boost the contrast to bring out the star.

I can’t imagine a better end to an observing run.


Observing report: All-nighter on Mount Baldy

July 15, 2012

Whew! Last night rocked. Terry Nakazono was out from LA, and we had been planning for about two weeks to spend the night observing up on Mount Baldy. We had made a shorter, half-night run up the mountain back in June, Terry to chase faint galaxies with his SkyScanner and me to log a few Herschel 400 objects with the XT10. Last night was basically the same plan, but on steroids–the moon was rising later, and neither of us had anywhere to be today. My wife and son were both out of town, she on work and he on a sleepover, so I was released on my own recognizance.

We got up there about 8:45 and met fellow PVAA member Craig Matthews setting up his 8″ Dob. Former PVAA president Ron Hoekwater joined us a little later on.

Terry was rolling with his SkyScanner again, and aiming for galaxies in Ursa Major and Bootes. I decided to leave the XT10 at home and take the Apex 127 Mak instead. I’ve had that scope for about a year, but before last night I had not really tried it out under dark skies. It did go to the Salton Sea in February, but we were mostly clouded out that night. Five inches is a lot of aperture under dark skies, and I was anxious to see what the Mak could do. Mount Baldy is not stupid-dark like Afton Canyon or western Arizona, but it’s not bad at all. The Milky Way was prominent and showed a fair amount of detail, especially after midnight when a strong marine layer at lower altitudes effectively halved the light pollution to the south (Inland Empire) and southwest (Los Angeles). On light pollution maps Baldy shows as being in the Orange zone, Bortle Class 5, but between the altitude and the marine layer it is sometimes effectively Green (Bortle 4). Last night was such a night.

I also took along the Celestron Travel Scope 70, which I had otherwise only used for quick peeks from my driveway. I’ve been meaning to blog about that scope. Right now you can get the scope, finder, two eyepieces, a tripod, and a backpack carrying case from Amazon for about $70 shipped. The finder is a travesty–an all-plastic “5×20” unit that is in fact stopped down to 10mm right behind the objective. I stripped the so-called optics out of mine and use it as a naked-eye sight tube, in which role it performs admirably, and a heck of a lot better than it ever did as a magnifying finder. The tripod is a joke, the sort of thing that gives other flimsy tripods a bad name. It struggles to hold a point-and-shoot digital camera steady, let alone a telescope, so I donated it to a museum. But the eyepieces are serviceable, the carry bag is fine, and the telescope itself is okay–more on this in the next post–so for $70 it is a screaming deal. As with the Apex 127, I was anxious to see what it could do under dark skies.

It was not yet fully dark when we arrived so I spent some time jawing with Craig. It was cloudless and clear where we were, but we could tell it was raining in the Mojave Desert, because the northeastern sky flickered with distant lightning. And we knew it was far off because we never heard even a hint of thunder. The lightning was not reflecting off clouds but off of the sky itself. It was as if the sky was on the fritz, like a bad florescent bulb. It was a profoundly weird and unearthly effect.

I started my observing run by putting the Apex 127 on Saturn. In addition to observing with “new” scopes, I was also rolling with genuinely new eyepieces. Explore Scientific has been having a CUH-RAY-ZEE sale on their well-reviewed 68, 82, and 100-degree eyepieces, so I sold some unused gear and bought a few: the 24mm ES68, which delivers the widest possible true field in a 1.25″ eyepiece, and the 14mm and 8.8mm ES82s. The Apex 127 is my longest focal length scope at 1540mm, so those eyepieces yielded 64x (24mm), 110x (14mm), and 175x (8.8mm). I also have a 6mm Orion Expanse that gives 257x–that is my default high-mag eyepiece in any scope. The ES eyepieces had just arrived in the mail last week so last night was my first time to try  them out.

Anyway, the seeing was limiting, with the view shaky at 175x and downright ugly at 257x, but Saturn was crisp and jewel-like at 110x and I could see four moons even at 64x. I haven’t checked the charts to see for sure which ones they were, but Titan certainly, and Dione, Rhea, and Tethys probably. I have seen up to five moons of Saturn at once before, but that requires steadier skies than we had last night.

After Saturn I hit a few favorite Messiers, including the globs M13, M5, and M4, all of which were impressively resolved for a 5″ scope. My favorite view of the evening through the Apex 127 was of the galaxies M81/M82 in the same field at 64x, with tantalizing hints of detail visible in both.

Then I got to work, finding and logging Herschel 400 objects. I was chasing mostly open clusters in Cygnus and Cassiopeia. I logged NGCs 6866, 7062, 7086, 7128, 7008 (a planetary nebula) and 7790. I also tried for open clusters NGC 7044 in Cygnus and 136 in Cassiopeia, but could not locate anything I felt comfortable calling a definitive open cluster at the charted locations amid the rich Milky Way starfields. This was also an issue with several of the Cygnus clusters I did log—at high magnification they tended to disappear into the surrounding star chains and asterisms.

Getting skunked is no fun, and by that time I’d been working on H400s for about two hours. For a change of pace, I switched over to the Travel Scope 70 and started plinking at Messiers. With a 32mm Plossl eyepiece I got 12.5x magnification and a stunning 4-degree true field–more like a finder on steroids than a telescope. I started with the Double Cluster as soon as I saw it was over the horizon, then hit M31, but didn’t immediately see its satellite galaxies. Then it was on to the “steam” rising from the teapot of Sagittarius: M8, M20, M22, M24, M25, M23, M18, M17, M16—these last three all nicely framed in the same field—M26, and M11 up in Scutum. Then back to the “bottom” of Scorpio and Sagittarius to catch M6 (M7 had already set behind a hill to the south—bummer), M69, M70, and M54, then all across the sky for M51, M101, M102, M13, M92, M15, back to Andromeda for a nice view of M31, M32, and M110 all prominent in the same field, M52, M103, M33, M76, and M34. I’d seen all these things before, but for most of them this was the lowest magnification I had seen them at, given that my binocular observations of them had mostly been with 15x70s. One of my favorite views of the night was M103 in Cassiopeia with NGCs 654, 663, and 659 in an arc below in the same field.

A little after 3:00 AM it was time for another goal: tracking down the outer giants. I had looked up the finder charts for Uranus and Neptune on Sky & Telescope’s website and logged their positions in my atlas. I found Neptune first, in Aquarius, using the Apex 127. Neptune was a very blue spark, and required 257x to appear non-stellar. Uranus, farther east in Pisces, was obviously non-stellar even at 64x. I also ran up to 257x on it, but the most pleasing view was at 175x. I had seen both planets before, but never as well, nor spent as much time on them as I did last night. Very strange to see giant Neptune as a tiny point of light in the mind-boggling darkness and immensity of space.

After observing planets I went back to the TS70 to continue the Messier survey. Logged M57, M56, M27, M45—absolutely stunning in the center of the field at low power—M72, M73, M2, M30, M75, M71—and old adversary from my early days with the XT6, but dead easy at low mag under dark skies—and M77. I tried for the faint face-on spiral galaxy M74 and suspected something there but couldn’t be sure. For a few these objects, including M72 and M77, I had to go up in magnification to pull them out of the skyglow or make sure they were not stars, using the 25mm (16x) and 17mm (23.5x) Plossls. I tried the 24mm ES68 but it was too heavy for the long cantilever from the mid-tube dovetail to the extended focuser tube of the TS70.

The last big show of the night was an upside-down kite shape rising in the east, with Jupiter at the top, Venus at the bottom, the thin crescent moon on the left, and Aldebaran on the right. I looked at the planets with the Apex 127 at 64x—the near-horizon seeing was bad but Venus’s crescent shape was well-defined, and Jupiter showed a couple of cloud bands and of course the four Galilean moons. Update: Pictures of this conjunction are posted here.

And that was it. The sky was rapidly getting brighter in the east, so we didn’t need artificial light to pack up. We pulled out at 5:25, went to Norm’s diner for breakfast, and I dropped Terry off at his hotel and went home for some badly-needed rack.

My final tally for the night was 8 new H400s, including NGCs 654 and 659; 44 Messiers, 42 of which I saw in the TS70; and 5 planets, including all four gas giants and Venus. Favorite observations were the flashing sky from over-the-horizon lightning, M81 and M82 in the same field in the Apex 127, M31 and both satellite galaxies in TS70, my best-yet views of Neptune and Uranus, and the dawn conjunction of planets, moon, and stars. Between dusk and dawn I observed five of the seven planets visible in a 5-inch scope, missing only Mars and Mercury (both were achievable, it turns out, I just didn’t try for them). It was a heck of a good night.

How did all the equipment perform? Stay tuned for the next post!