Archive for the ‘Sketches’ Category

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Observing Reports: two perfect imperfect nights at the Salton Sea

November 23, 2015

Apex 127 ready for stars 2015-11-14

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

Terry Nakazono with Meade Polaris 114 2015-11-14

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

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

Matt aligning finder on Apex 127

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

Matt digiscoping moon

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

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

Jupiter and moons 0530 PST 2015-11-15

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

Clouds at dawn 2015-11-15

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

Waxing gibbous moon 2015-11-22

Back Again

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

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

Sigma Orionis sketch 2015-11-22

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

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

IMG_6362

That planet above the scope is Venus, not Jupiter.

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

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

IMG_6369

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

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Sunday night on Mount Baldy

November 3, 2015

Moon through trees 2015-11-01

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

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

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

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

NGC 6823 sketch

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

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

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

Sigma Orionis sketch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guest post: Whys and hows of astronomical sketching, by Doug Rennie

October 11, 2015

Doug Rennie first opened my eyes to the value of sketching for the visual observer. I’m very happy to host his thoughts on the subject – and his sketch of the Alpha Persei association.

Rennie Alpha Persei association - curved and inverted

Sometime in the late-1990s, I wrote an essay on bibliophila, the love of books, for a literary journal. Thinking back, I recall two quotes I cited in that essay, one from an anonymous French book collector in 1851, the second from renowned literary critic Edmund Wilson – and both relate to the reasons why several years ago I made sketching a regular component of my observing routine.

“Owning a book puts it in your possession,” the Frenchman wrote. “But only reading a book makes it yours.”

For me, the same principle applies to stargazing. Locating and observing a celestial object, be it Messier, NGC, IC, asterism, whatever, produces a visual experience – and another box checked on your Objects Seen list. You now “own” it. Then, too often, you move onto the next one in the catalog, and just as quickly, the one after that. And so on. The impressions and mental images of the object you just minutes ago observed are already dim and vanishing fast in your memory’s rear view mirror.

But.

Not so if you regularly sketch what you observe. Because now you have to slow down, actually study what you see in the FOV, look at it through various eyepieces, seeing it both up close and large and bold – its own entity – and smaller and more subdued and part of a larger celestial context, the latter being what I personally prefer.

Then you put pencil to paper and sketch it.

One star dot at a time. Or perhaps you sketch it twice: Once at high magnification to capture all the detail and maximum star count, a second time pulled back to see both object and surrounding star field, the total celestial tapestry. By the time your sketch is done, you will have spent a half hour, sometimes more, in the company of this one single object. Moreover, you will have a permanent and personal hard copy of what you observed.

In the spirit of that anonymous Frenchman, you will have made the object yours.

The second quote, from Edmund Wilson, is this:

“No two persons read the same book.”

Think about it.

And this, too: Astronomical sketching is exactly the same. No two observers see the same exact object. If you want confirmation, hit a sketching site such as Deep Sky Archive and go to any object, say NGC 6633, and you will see a dozen sketches, often more, by different observers – and no two even look REMOTELY alike. I mean, you would think you were looking at sketches of 12 different objects. Sue French turned me onto this site over a year ago and I thought, Wow this will be great as I would now have a sense of what pattern(s) to look for in future first time searches. Nope.

If anything, more confusing (So, is This what it looks like? Or is it this one? Or . . . maybe . . . this? . . .)

Just as no two persons read the same book, it seems that no two observers see the same object. Even something as “clear cut” an image as, say, the Pleiades will have as many variations as there are observers/sketchers. So one more reason to make every object yours by laying out on paper the testimony of your visual senses for each object you observe on THAT night in THOSE skies with THAT instrument with THAT/THOSE eyepieces.

Now I’ve been observing for just over 3 years, and my background is all humanities, my hard science expertise zero. Or close to it. I am primarily an aesthetic observer who just enjoys drinking in all the beauty up there and, sad to say, pays scant attention to RA and Dec #s, Bortle Scale assessments of my sky that night, recording AFOV and TFOV, etc. I just go out and hunt down what I want to observe, and once I have what I’m after in the EP, I hang around it for a while. Most of the time, but not always, doing a sketch.

I began to sketch almost as soon as I started observing, and my early sketches are, well, “pitiful” would actually be kind. I was going to include one here to illustrate, but in the end could not bring myself to post one. Bad. These things are terrible. Third graders would laugh.

So here’s how I now go about it, and produce some decent-to-me results.

I have an artist’s sketchbook, spiral bound so it lies flat when opened, 8 x 10 inches, hard black cover. Cost under $10. My wife is an artist, so I initially used her drawing pencils, but quickly bought a set of my own at a local artist supply store: 2B, 4B, 6B, 8B, etc. Cheap. I store them in a plastic travel toothbrush case. I also use her recommended eraser, some artists’ gray plastic eraser, “Prismacolo” thing and it works superbly.

I have a scraggly small lined notebook that I use at the telescope and record in it a very rough first draft, focusing on accurate positions and spatial relationships among the stars, and taking care to use different size “dots” for individual stars commensurate with their brightness/dimness and size. I do a fair amount of erasing to get this draft, which is REALLY ragged, as accurate a reflection as possible of what I see.

I first do the outermost stars in all 4 directions just to make sure that I get the entire image I want in, then sketch in the anchor/biggest/brightest stars to get the main pattern. Once this is done, I work outward from there, one quarter section at a time. Seems to work.

The next day, I transfer the image into my sketchbook, now taking time to create perfectly round dots for every star and, often, using one of those plastic architect’s templates (3 bucks at Office Depot) for the larger stars, insuring that I get perfectly round dots for each. On the smaller stars, this is generally not a problem. See the attached sketch of the Alpha Persei Association. The two largest star sizes were done with the template.

Rennie Alpha Persei association - curved

A soft 2B pencil works best for most stars, but for the really tiny dim ones, of which there are generally quite a few, I go to a 2H or HB harder lead pencil which creates a lighter gray hue. When I have completed the entire sketch, I then take a very soft/dark 6B pencil, freshly sharpened and pointy, to go over the larger and darker stars to set them off, as they are through the eyepiece in “real time”, more dramatically from the background stars.

For open clusters, by far my favorite object to observe, I much prefer the look I get through one of my refractors (Explore Scientific AR102, Stellarvue SV80ED, Orion ST80) vs either of my Dobs, the largest of which is a StarBlast 6. With a Celestron 8-24mm zoom eyepiece in place for the first observation, I can go in and out, seeing the object large and up close with maximum stars, then widest field possible which puts the object at the center and gives it more context, and various degrees of both in between. Once I find the sweet spot, to me the ideal meld of object and context, I can go to one of my fixed focal length eyepieces, often an ES 16mm or Agena flat field 19mm. Some objects, such as the Double Cluster, look best in my ES 24mm/82 afov.

That’s it. Nothing more to see here. And, as you can deduce from the foregoing, sketching is NOT all that difficult. I mean, c’mon, it’s not particle physics. So if you’ve not already included sketching as a regular part of your observing, why not give it a test drive next time out?

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Sketching NGC 6633

October 7, 2015

Wedel NGC 6633 2015-10-06 - inverted and cropped

As long-time readers will recall, I have been bully on the idea of sketching DSOs for a long time. I have been inspired by the careful observations and sketches of Doug Rennie and Terry Nakazono in particular. So I made up a blank observing form (which is now up on the sidebar here), printed out some copies, and decided to finally give it a shot. I was going to do M57 first, and kick off my much-discussed, long-delayed Suburban Messier project. But I’d just been emailing with Doug and he’d recommended NGC 6633 as a rewarding open cluster for visual observation, and as I was flipping around in my Pocket Sky Atlas I noticed that it was well-placed high in the southeastern sky.

I was rolling with the XT10. I figured that whatever target I went for, I’d want to capture as many background stars as possible, and the XT10 has much better light grasp and angular resolution than anything else I own.

I started at moderate magnification with the 8-24mm zoom but kept backing out to try to get more context for the cluster, and I ended up with my trusty old 32mm Plossl. The transparency here was appalling. The sky looked clear, in that there was no naked-eye-visible haze or clouds, but it was very humid, and all of that water vapor in the air was bouncing back the city lights like crazy. The sky was about as bright as I have seen it without actual clouds up there. Here’s a measure of how humid it was – all of my exposed stuff dewed up! I don’t think that has ever happened to me here in Claremont.

Wedel NGC 6633 2015-10-06

As far as my method – I was using a 0.5mm mechanical pencil and a click eraser. I started out by trying to frame the field of view with some bright ‘anchor’ stars and then interpolate between them to flesh things out. This proved frustrating – inevitably I’d get one region ‘starred in’ to my satisfaction and then see that its geometry was off compared to a neighboring section. So I did a fair amount of erasing and repositioning. On the first pass I was mainly trying to get the positions of the stars correct.

Then while I was still at the eyepiece I went back and ‘brightened’ up some of the stars by drawing over them with slightly larger circles. I tried to sort them into about five bins, from the bright star south of the cluster, through the brightest anchor stars, the major cluster members, the minor cluster members, to the barely-theres.

Finally, when I brought the drawing inside I touched up a few stars that were noticeably out-of-round.

So the drawing you see here is the ‘rough’ drawing, but with about three layers of revision layered on top. I don’t know if this is good practice or not, it’s just what I did this time, pretty much making everything up as I went along.

As for the cluster, NGC 6633 has a fairly recent nickname: the ‘Italy cluster’. Here’s a diagram from this blog, with my sketch inverted and rotated to match:

NGC 6633 comparo

I can buy it. I wouldn’t have ever picked out that by myself, but I can see the shape in my drawing, and I didn’t know it was there when I was drawing it.

So, I have rather mixed feelings about all of this. While I was doing the sketch, all I could think about was how difficult it was, and how badly I was screwing it up. But I’m fairly happy with the result – it is at least recognizable as NGC 6633 – and I know that I know that cluster and the surrounding starfield a lot better now. Probably better than I know any other single object. I can’t think of another time that I invested so much time and energy on a single observing target.

Maybe this is the beginning of wisdom.

UPDATE October 26, 2015

Here are a couple of sketches of NGC 6633 sent along by Terry Nakazono with permission to post. Thanks, Terry!

NGC 6633 at 31X (7-19-12)

From July 9, 2012.

NGC 6633 at 44X (6-28-13)

From June 28, 2013.

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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.

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Observing report: the compleat stargazing session

October 22, 2012

Saturday night London and I met up with David DeLano at the Salton Sea for an evening observing session. In thinking about how to describe it I decided that it was the compleat observing run–and yes, I mean compleat, meaning total or quintessential, not ‘complete’.

For one thing, we observed almost every class of object out there: artificial satellites, meteors, the moon, a planet and its moons (Jupiter), a comet (Hergenrother), double stars, asterisms, planetary nebulae (the Ring and the Dumbbell), a supernova remnant (Crab Nebula), bright diffuse nebulae (M42 and M43 in Orion), binocular associations (Alpha Persei Association and Hyades), open star clusters near (Pleiades) and far (M35-38, among many others) and very far (NGC 2158), a very dense open cluster (M11, the Wild Duck cluster), a very sparse globular cluster (M71 in Sagitta), a showpiece globular (M13, the Great Glob in Hercules), a non-Messier glob (NGC 288), Local Group galaxies (M31 and M33) and satellite galaxies (M32 and M110), and at least one non-Messier galaxy (NGC 253, the Silver Coin). Okay, so we didn’t track down any asteroids, terrestrial planets, dark nebulae, Milky Way star clouds, or galaxy clusters. Still, I think we did okay for a sunset-to-midnight run, especially considering we had no fixed plan beyond “hang out and look at stuff”.

Also, we used almost every class of common astronomical instrument: naked eyes, binoculars, doublet refractors (David’s Galileoscope and my SV50), a triplet refractor (David’s SW100T), a Newtonian reflector (London’s Astroscan), and a catadioptric scope (my Apex 127 Mak), in apertures from two to five inches and focal ratios from f/4 to f/12.

We spent a lot of time just looking up. We used whatever instruments we had to hand, on whatever targets were of interest. We used rich-field scopes on solar system targets and planet killers on the deep sky and located faint nebulae with binoculars. We compared views, compared eyepieces, and compared objects. We found new stuff, checked maps, and got lost–yes, both of us. We explored. We rocked.

I did not log any new Herschel 400 objects. I did have a fantastic time. In the future when I am looking forward to an observing run, my standard will be, “I hope it’s as much fun as that one night at the Salton Sea with David”.

I’ve done a LOT of observing this month, with two Mount Baldy runs and overnight trips to Joshua Tree, the All-Arizona Star Party, and the Salton Sea. Also, I’ve been fortunate to get to observe with three of the 10MA regulars in that time (David DeLano, Terry Nakazono, and Doug Rennie). Partly I’ve been making up for lost time, since it was too darned hot to go camping before October this year, and I was too busy in previous months anyway. It’s going to wind down now for a bit, though–this coming weekend I’m out of town, and three weekends from now we’ll be celebrating London’s 8th birthday.

I’ve been in a reflective mood already, as I passed my fifth anniversary as a stargazer and as I approach my 400th observing session. That really kicked into gear when Richard Sutherland asked me in a comment if I had any big plans for the next five years. I’m not ready to tackle a subject that big just yet, but I have learned a few things in this month of crazy observing:

  1. The moon is not nearly as much of a hindrance to deep-sky observing as I used to think. Yes, it gets a lot darker when the moon goes down–David and I were both struck by this Saturday night. But Doug and I swept up a ton of faint fuzzies in binos and in his SkyScanner despite a moon only about three days from full.
  2. Two inches of aperture will take you crazy deep under dark skies. By using every trick in the book–fanatical dark-adaptation, staying up past midnight (when most folks turn their house lights off), observing at the zenith, waiting until after a rain had swept the crud out of the skies, and mildly hyperventilating–I was once able to spot M1, the Crab Nebula, from my driveway using my 15×70 binos. At the Salton Sea two nights ago, it was dead easy in direct vision in the 10x50s, and in our 50mm finder scopes. M32 and M110 were also dead easy in the Galileoscope, and more difficult but still doable in the binos, with the difficulty mainly down to lower magnification and therefore smaller image scale.
  3. With the right eyepiece, the XT10 is a pretty decent rich-field scope. I got the XT10 back in 2010. It came with a 2″ focuser, but until this summer I had not invested in any 2″ eyepieces; I was loathe to spend any money on an eyepiece that I could only use in one scope. But this summer I caved and bought a 32mm Astro-Tech Titan. With a 70-degree apparent field, it gives a true field of almost two degrees in the XT10–enough to frame the Pleiades, the Double Cluster, the Andromeda Galaxy and both satellites, or the entire sword of Orion. That is an 80% gain in the area of the true field of view over my widest 1.25″ eyepiece. David DeLano also has one for his SW100T and it is a fantastic eyepiece in that scope as well. The 32mm Titan normally runs about $80, and IMHO it’s a steal at that price, but right now it’s on sale for closer to $60. If you have a scope with a 2″ focuser, what are you waiting for?
  4. For regular camping, a scope you can pick up and move around is highly desirable. At both Joshua Tree and the Salton Sea, I was happy to have the Apex 127 along, because I could just pick it up and move it to get away from local lights or trees. I will have to keep this in mind in contemplating future scope purchases. I have to admit that I am interested in the Celestron C8 SCT, partly for historical reasons, partly because it is the biggest scope that will ride comfortably on my SkyWatcher AZ4 mount (= Orion VersaGo II), and partly because it is probably the biggest scope I could just pick up and move around without a second thought. I reckon I’ll have the Apex 127 forever, though, even if I get a C8 someday, for the same reason that I’ll keep the XT10 if I get a bigger dob–for what it does, it’s just about perfect.
  5. Accessories matter. For the first time ever, I have spent more money on accessories than on scopes this year. This summer I went nuts and bought some nice eyepieces, and I just ordered some tube and finder rings and a dovetail for the Apex 127 and SV50. Observing is a lot easier when stuff Just Works, and most telescopes Just Work better with better accessories–sturdier mounts, better diagonals and eyepieces, more convenient finders, and so on.
  6. My interests are changing. I’ve only done a handful of comet sketches, but I’m digging them. I’m getting kinda excited about the idea of sketching deep-sky objects. I’m also getting more interested in trying to understand the 3D structure of what’s out there. Before this past month, I hadn’t done any serious binocular astronomy in over a year, and it’s really been great to get back to that. I have no idea where I’m going yet, but it is probably going to involve a lot more than tracking down the next hundred LTGs*.

* Little Turd Galaxies.

The most exciting development in the past month? The morning after the All-Arizona Star Party, Jimmy Ray said that London was pointing his Astroscan around with sufficient skill that he could probably earn a certificate at next spring’s All-Arizona Messier Marathon (certificates start at 50 objects). I had not even considered this possibility, but I discussed it with London on the drive home. Actually being able to find stuff with his telescope the past two weekends has been very empowering for him, and he wants to give it a shot, so we’ll probably start practicing in the coming weeks and months. Fingers firmly crossed!

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Comet Hergenrother again

October 18, 2012