Archive for the ‘Target of opportunity’ Category

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Getting ready for Mercury

April 18, 2016

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The planet Mercury will transit the sun on the morning of Monday, May 9. Mercury transits are not as rare as the more famous transits of Venus, but they still only come around once or twice a decade on average. The last Mercury transits before this one were in 2003 and 2006, and the next two after this year will be in 2019 and 2032. From southern California, the transit will already be underway when the sun rises at 5:57 AM, maximum transit (the point when Mercury is the furthest inside the sun’s disk as seen from Earth) will be at 7:58, and Mercury will exit the sun’s disk between 11:39 and 11:42 AM (all times in PDT).

For the transit of Venus in 2012, I used a simple homemade device called a “sun funnel” attached to a small reflecting telescope to project an image of the sun. You can read more about that here and here. The sun funnel worked well enough – I also used it for the annular eclipse in 2012 and the partial eclipse in 2014 – but the screen material degrades the resolution somewhat. Mercury is a lot smaller than Venus, and much closer to the sun, and both of those factors make it appear much smaller than Venus during a transit.

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I want maximum resolution for observing and photographing the upcoming transit, so I finally sprung for a full-aperture solar film filter for my 80mm telescope, which you can see set up at the top of this post. I got it out the other day for a test drive and got some decent photos of the current large sunspot AR2529, shown above. I’m pretty happy with the results – now if we can just get clear skies on the morning of May 9. If you’re curious, the filter I got is the GoSky Optics full-aperture filter with Baader solar film. There are several sizes available to fit all kinds of telescopes, and the filter attaches securely to your telescope tube or dewshield with three nylon-tipped screws. I got the filter for telescopes 81-113mm in diameter (outside tube or dewshield diameter, not optical diameter!), which is currently a little under $50 on Amazon.

This is my second GoSky product, after the universal cell phone adapter I picked up last fall, and I’ve been impressed with the solid construction and good fit-and-finish of both products. Some of the weird large-scale blotchiness in sun photos is probably either distortion from the iPhone’s tiny field lens, or gunk on the surface, and the uneven margin of the solar disc is from atmospheric turbulence. But I think the graininess across the surface of the sun is actual solar granulation. I couldn’t see it on the iPhone – not enough image scale. If I had, I’d have thrown in a shorter focal length eyepiece and tried some higher-magnification shots. They might not have turned out well even if I had taken them – the seeing was pretty awful – but it would have been worth a shot. Something to try next time.

The diameter of the sun is 109 times that of Earth. Here's how Earth would compare to the current large sunspot if they were side-by-side.

The diameter of the sun is 109 times that of Earth. Here’s how Earth would compare to the current large sunspot if they were side-by-side.

Unfortunately, I won’t be here in California to share the transit with my local friends and fellow observers. I’ll be in Utah chasing dinosaurs from May 4 to May 14, so I’ll have to catch the transit from there. I’m driving up and bringing my 80mm scope to take advantage of dark Utah skies in the evenings. If you want to plan your own transit observation, or just want to investigate how the transit will appear from various points on Earth’s surface, this interactive map is excellent. And if you need safe, inexpensive ways to observe the sun, check out my page on safe solar observing. Clear skies!

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New scope: Bresser Spektar 15-45×60 spotting scope

December 9, 2015

Bresser Spektar 15-45x60 6 - side view

Thanks to this thread on CN, I recently learned about Optical Instruments, a sort of online clearing house for optical gear from Explore Scientific, Explore ONE, Bresser, and a few other instrument makers and resellers. In particular I was taken by the screaming deal on the 60mm Bresser spotting scope. I’ve had a lot of fun scoping birds with my telescopes (most recently with the C80ED), but I thought it would be nice to have a light, rugged all-in-one spotter for camping and hiking. And at $39.99 with free shipping, the price was certainly right – normally the scope lists for over $100. I placed my order on November 25, got a shipping notice on December 3, and the scope came in today (well, yesterday, December 8 – I’m up late).

Bresser Spektar 15-45x60 4 - on L-bar

I got the scope out for a few minutes late this afternoon for a test drive. It’s solid. The eye lens is nice and big and the objective has purplish anti-reflection coatings. Optically okay – the image does go soft in the outer 10-15% of the field, and there’s a bit of chromatic aberration, but neither problem is severe enough to put me off. The eyepiece is not quite parfocal across the zoom range, but it’s close enough that I just need to touch up the focus a bit after changing magnification. Fit and finish are merely serviceable, about on par with inexpensive Celestron binoculars. It certainly doesn’t have the feeling of machined perfection that you get from a nice telescope, but part of that may be the rubber armor (which I’m more happy about than not, as I intend to use this scope).

Here are a couple of unboxing photos with the scope still in its case.

Bresser Spektar 15-45x60 1 - in box

Bresser Spektar 15-45x60 2 - in case

Five features I really like:

  1. Padded view-through case – this has cutouts for the mounting foot and focus knob, and the covers for the objective lens and eyepiece snap off, so in bad weather you can leave the case on while viewing.
  2. Sliding dewshield for the objective lens – I’ve only had my scope out on a cloudy day just before sunset, but I’m sure this will come in handy for cutting down glare on sunny days. This is extended in the first picture at the top of the post, collapsed in the second one.
  3. Twist-up eyecup on the eyepiece – nice for visual, great for digiscoping as it helps get the distance from the camera to the eye lens just right.
  4. Mounting foot on a rotating collar – super useful for side-mounting. The focus knob is on the right side of the scope, so it’s better to put the mount on the left if possible. I used a Universal Astronomics DwarfStar mount for testing, first with the scope upright on an L-adapter (second photo above), and then later on side-mounted using a spare footplate from a Manfrotto ball-head as a makeshift dovetail bar (see next photo below). One thing to be aware of – the cutouts in the case for the focus knob and mounting foot are fixed, so you can’t have the view-through case on if you side mount the scope.
  5. Side-mounted focus knob – most spotting scopes have a little knob in front of the eyepiece that you roll side-to-side to focus. I’ve never gotten the hang of that; I’m always struggling to find the right amount of pressure to turn the focus knob precisely without pushing the scope off-target or shaking the view. The side-mounted focus knob on the Spektar makes it feel just like using any other refractor, in that I’m reaching my right hand forward and rolling a focus knob. Lefties may not be so wild about this.

Here’s a photo showing the scope side-mounted, with the mounting foot facing left from the eyepiece and the Manfrotto footplate ‘dovetail’ (lighter grey metal) serving as a dovetail bar. The lock knob for the rotating collar with the mounting foot is facing straight up here, and the larger, right-mounted focus knob is also visible.

Bresser Spektar 15-45x60 5 - side mounted

Now, five things I don’t like:

  1. No pictures in the so-called instruction manual. Until now, I’ve always gotten a chuckle out of the labelled photo of the assembled scope in most telescope instruction manuals – sheesh, who doesn’t know what the eyepiece is? But now the shoe’s on the other foot, and I’m not laughing anymore. This scope has some non-standard features and you’re basically left to figure them out by trial and error. I did that, mostly successfully (but see below), but it’s still an irritating oversight.
  2. Just below the eyepiece is a knurled ring that rotates. I don’t know what it’s for – maybe it’s a lock ring to hold the zoom eyepiece in place? I haven’t had the courage to unscrew it and find out.
  3. The rotating collar and lock knob feel very plastic-y, and the lock knob does not come to an authoritative stop. Instead it sort of oozes into tightness. I’m worried I’m going to overtighten it and either strip the threads or break the knob.
  4. As people on CN have noted, the soft rubber dust cap for the objective lens is a loose, floppy joke. At one point while I was unboxing the scope I happened to point the objective end downward and the dust cap just fell off. And most frustratingly, while I was packing the scope up at the end of the day my hand hit the dust cap and it bent in and left a smudge on the objective lens. Grrrrr. I have a cheap Meade spotting scope from back when and it has spring-loaded dust cap that locks in place, like the dust caps on most DSLR cameras and lenses. If the dust cap on the Spektar was at least hard plastic, I could shim it with felt (I’ve done this with countless telescope dust caps). Feels like they really cheaped out here.
  5. The padded view-through case is nice but it leaves the focus knob exposed. In my book that’s okay for day use but not for something you’re going to store the scope in. If there’s one place you don’t want moisture or dust getting inside the case, it’s at the focus mechanism. Something like a velcro flap over the focus knob would be easy enough to install, but it feels like something that should have been addressed at the design end. Maybe it’s mean to pick on this one thing – I buy scopes all the time that come in padded boxes with no case, so the padded case here is definitely a step up. The Telescope Warehouse on eBay sells locking and waterproof cases that fit spotting scopes – I’ll probably be picking one up shortly.

Verdict? The scope has some quirks and some outright deficits. Fortunately they are with the mechanics and accessories rather than the optics. It also has some very nice features that make it easier and more convenient to use, compared with most spotters I’ve used in the past. At the list price of $130 it’s probably possible to do at least as well or better with something from Alpen, Barska, Bushnell, or Celestron. But for $40 it’s a steal.

The rest of the photos are quick digiscoping pix from this afternoon’s test run. It was overcast, I didn’t get outside until just before sunset, and I didn’t put on the camera adapter but instead shot everything handheld. So some of the problems with the photos are not the fault of the scope – the low light levels meant low contrast, uneven field illumination was mostly my inability to get the iPhone’s camera lens centered in the spotting scope’s exit pupil, most of the CA and almost all of the spherical aberration are from the iPhone, and I couldn’t hold the camera as still as the adapter so the detail in the photos does not nearly match the view through the eyepiece. I need to get out and play with the scope under better conditions, but for now, this is what I have. Other than the unmagnified reference image, none of these are processed at all, partly for versimilitude and partly because I’m lazy.

With all of those caveats in mind, here we go. Captions are below photos.

Telephone pole at 1x

Here’s an unmagnified iPhone pic of the utility pole and the mountain shown in the close-ups below. The utility pole is about 300 feet away, the mountaintop is 10.5 miles according to Google Earth.

Telephone pole at 15x

Utility pole at 15x. Darkening around the outside is me not getting the camera in the right spot – it was not visible visually. See the woodpecker?

Telephone pole at 45x

Utility pole at 45x. Woodpecker had moved on by this point. I could see a lot more detail visually, including growth rings in the wood and the twisted wires that make up the power lines.

Mountains at 45x

Those trees on the ridgeline admittedly do not look brilliant. But considering that they’re 10.5 miles away and being imaged handheld through a couple of intermediate layers of branches, I’m pretty impressed. We’re in the glidepath for airliners going to LAX and Ontario, and for small private planes out of Cable Airport, and I had fun this afternoon chasing airplanes with this scope. The next clear night, I’ll probably be out chasing satellites instead.

As of right now (early in the morning of December 9, 2015) the spotting scope is still available at $39.99 with free ground shipping. Optical Instruments has a bunch of other stuff on sale right now, including some binoculars and small telescopes. If you’re interested enough to get this far, you owe it to yourself to give ’em a look.

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Crazy sky atlas sale at Sky & Tel

November 23, 2015

Shop at Sky atlas sale

What the heck? My current favorite sky atlas is the interstellarum Deep Sky Atlas – more on that in another post – but the offerings from Sky Publishing are seriously discounted right now. I’m tempted to pick up another copy of the Pocket Sky Atlas just to have one to play with. If you’re interested, go here and do the right thing.

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Great deals at Sky & Telescope today only!

November 30, 2014

Hey, just a heads up that among all the other Black Friday/Cyber Monday/whatever-we’re-calling-this-season-now discounts out there, the ShopAtSky store at the Sky & Telescope website has some screaming deals. If you use the promo code BLKFRIDAY, you get 30% off storewide and free US shipping. But the promotion ends tonight (Nov. 30), so get on it!

Caldwell Objects cover

Of personal interest to me is that they have new copies of Stephen James O’Meara’s Deep-Sky Companions: The Caldwell Objects. I like all of the Deep-Sky Companions series (see my review of Hidden Treasures here) and I’ve been collecting them one by one, but I didn’t have this one. It’s been out of print or at least hard to find for a while, and used copies have been going for upwards of $60 on Amazon. The book is normally$39.95 at ShopAtSky, currently discounted by 20% to $31.95, then discounted today by an additional 30% if you use the promo code, which brings it down to $22.something. I know some folks aren’t wild about the Caldwell list but there are a lot of great objects in it and if you like O’Meara’s writing, this book is a must-have. There may never be another chance to get new, hardcover copies of this book this cheap, so if you’re remotely interested, do the right thing.

Oh, and if you don’t already have Hidden Treasures, ShopAtSky has it for $19.95 before the 30% promo today, so you can get this book right now for under $15 and with free shipping. That is just astonishing.

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October 2014: two eclipses and my favorite star party

October 5, 2014
Eclipse end 8x10 sharpened

The end of the February 2008 lunar eclipse, as seen from Merced, CA.

Some big things coming up this month, especially for observers in the western US and in SoCal and the Southwest specifically. In chronological order they are:

A total lunar eclipse early in the morning on Wednesday, Oct. 8. These are the PDT timings for Los Angeles, from TimeandDate.com.

  • 1:17 AM – penumbral eclipse beings
  • 2:18 AM – partial eclipse begins
  • 3:27 AM – total eclipse begins
  • 3:55 AM – maximum eclipse (moon is farthest inside Earth’s shadow)
  • 4:22 AM – total eclipse ends
  • 5:32 AM – partial eclipse ends
  • 6:32 AM – penumbral eclipse ends
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An early phase of the May 2012 annular eclipse, photographed at Page, Arizona.

A partial solar eclipse in the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 23. Again, these are PDT timings for LA, from NASA’s eclipse website, especially this table.

  • 2:08 PM – eclipse begins
  • 3:28 PM – max eclipse
  • 4:40 PM – eclipse ends
AASP 03 London and Daddy at dusk

London and me at the 2010 AASP.

On the two days right after the solar eclipse, the 2014 All-Arizona Star Party will be taking place at the Hovatter Road airstrip in western Arizona. London and I have been three times now, in 2010, 2012, and 2013 (click on links for my observing reports), and we’ve always had a fantastic time. See the star party webpage for details.

 

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Two more screaming deals on scopes

October 10, 2013

C102 OTAFirst up, the Celestron C102, a 4″ f/9.8 achromatic refractor. This is available in a couple of guises. The scope itself, without mount or accessories, can be had from OPT and possibly a few other places for, as of this writing, $119.95. It was even cheaper this summer–at one point, OPT had a package with the tube, a 2″ mirror star diagonal (typically an $80+ item), and some other bits for around $60 $80.* At that point you’re basically getting a solid deal on a 2″ diagonal and getting a 4″ scope for free. Did I pounce? No. But only because I am a moron. Now the packages with diagonals and eyepieces are sold out, and only the bare OTAs are left, and even they will probably not be around much longer. From what I hear, these are factory overstock and once they are gone, they’re gone.

* Update: David DeLano wrote in to clarify the different deals, and put the current one in perspective:

The C102GT bare scope was $60.  Both the 2” and 1.25” package were $80.  All were PLUS shipping.  The 2” package came with the diagonal (only).  The 1.25” package came with diagonal, EPs, and finder (I think I have that correct – Doug bought that one).  I think you said you got free shipping [I did–MW], so in reality, you only paid $15-20 more than what Doug and I bought ours for, though you didn’t get a “package”.

C102 Nexstar mount

I don’t think that there is any danger that the C102 is going away entirely, though. The Nexstar version, with Celestron’s intro-level GoTo handset and motorized mount, is available all over the place. Hayneedle has it for $299. At one point it was selling at Costco for $199, which is staggeringly cheap. That’s where Terry Nakazono got his, which I got to see and look through at the 2012 All-Arizona Star Party. Costco doesn’t seem to have them anymore, or at least they are not listed online, but (a) it might be worth going to your local store to see, and (b) possibly they will be back around Black Friday/Cyber Monday.

Update the Second: Also from David DeLano, news about this year’s “Costco Scope”:

I stopped by Costco today.  The scope this year is a Celestron 90GT.  F/l is 910 (box says F/10).  It comes on a NexStar mount, likely the same one as last year.  The drawback last year was that the NexStar mount was a bit undersized, whereas it should be fine for the 90GT.  Price is $179.99.

The C102 has gotten positive reviews, even earning a coveted “highly recommended” from Ed Ting. That review is mandatory reading if you are even remotely interested in this scope.

I did eventually pounce, springing for the bare OTA version, whose arrival on Tuesday was eerily coincident with the onset of rainy weather. So no first light report yet. But the scope is very big, and seems quite well put-together. I’m anxious for clear, clean skies so I can see what she can do. I note that this is the first telescope model that all four members of what I now think of as the “10MA gang”–David DeLano, Terry Nakazono, Doug Rennie, and myself–have owned. After I’ve clocked some photons with the scope I will write down my own thoughts, and then maybe I will solicit independent reviews from David, Terry, and Doug, and post a giant quadreview (assuming everyone wants in!).

Update the Third: I did get my scope out under dark skies–observing report coming soon–and although a full review will have to wait, it is a nice instrument and a solid deal. I recommend it, although for $60 more the 90GT SLT at Costco is worthy of serious consideration.

Meade NG60-SM

Next item: another achromatic refractor, the Meade NG60-SM, a 60mm f/11.7 scope with tripod, diagonal, eyepieces, and finder, list price about a hundred bucks, currently $24.99 plus shipping. Normally I might hesitate about recommending a “department store” scope like the NG60, but Terry gave it a solid review on CN. Now, if you’re not a 10MA regular, you gotta take that with a grain of salt–not because Terry is a bad observer but precisely because he is such a good one! At this point he’s tracked down 500 or so galaxies, almost all from light-polluted areas, and all using small scopes of 6″ or less (most were observed and sketched with scope of 4″ or less). So he is an expert at squeezing every last ounce of performance out of small scopes, and if you’re not an expert at that (as I am not) you won’t see as much through this scope as Terry does. But you can get there with practice–even Terry was a n00b once–and you’ll see a lot and learn a lot along the way.

With all that said, I don’t think that the NG60 would make a terrific first scope for most people; something like the Orion FunScope (76mm, ~$60) or SkyScanner 100 (100mm, ~$110) would definitely gather more light and would probably be easier to use. But I am pretty confident that the NG60 is the best $25 scope currently available, and possibly the best $25 scope ever offered. I am tempted to buy several and stash them in the closet for friends and relatives.

For a final word on the worth of a 60mm telescope, or any small telescope, I can do no better than to quote Tim2723 on CN, who wrote:

To focus on a bright star and find it set in a field of faint ones you never dreamed existed. To see Jupiter as a tiny gray circle with two dim bands across its face; its four pinpoint moons laid out as Galileo saw them. To view the Moon before it was a destination; when it was the great domain of the backyard sky gazer. To strain at the tiny disk of Saturn against a circle of black velvet and for a fleeting instant watch its oval shape resolve into a ring. To behold wonders that the sea of humanity passes by every night without a glance. To stand alone in the dark and weep before the awesome grandeur as the veil of eternity parts in a tiny circle of glass. To live in the sure and certain knowledge that there are things greater than yourself.

That’s what a 60mm telescope can show.

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Comet PanSTARRS, and other targets of opportunity

March 13, 2013

I had a short but very fun stargazing session tonight. I went to the top of the parking garage in downtown Claremont to look for Comet PanSTARRS. I knew that it would be horizonwards and a little right of the moon. I took the Apex 127/SV50 combo and my 15×70 binoculars. I got set up a little after 7:15 PM and started scanning the western sky, using the 15x70s and SV50 in alternation.

At 7:25 I spotted the comet in binoculars. It was down in the bright twilight glow, but it was surprisingly bright itself. Like a lot of things that you spot just as they’re coming out in the evening, once I’d found it I thought, “Dang, that’s bright, how did I miss it before now?”

Binoculars are pretty much guaranteed to be the best instrument for first picking up the comet, but it is big and bright enough to be a very rewarding telescopic target, and if you only see it in binoculars, you will definitely be missing out. Here’s a little trick for getting it in the scope: once you have it in the binoculars, scan straight down to the horizon–which ain’t far–and find a landmark. Go back up and relocate the comet, then back down again to make sure you’ve got the right landmark (I didn’t, the first time–I’d let the bins drift too much to the right on the way down). Anyway, once you’ve got the landmark, you’re golden: point the scope at the landmark and scan up to find the comet.

At 64x in the Apex 127, the nucleus seemed to be an extended object, not just a point of light. The tail swept straight up. I thought it was a little brighter and a little crisper on the north (right side in the sky, but left side in the scope). I wish I had sketched it–I’ll do that next time out.

Just a few minutes after I got the comet in my sights, a young couple pulled up and parked nearby, and invited them over to see the comet and the thin crescent moon. When the young woman saw the moon in the scope, she jerked back from the eyepiece, shook her hands, and said that the view had given her the chills. When people ask why I do sidewalk astronomy, I tell them about things like that.

Later on a family of five pulled up and I showed all of them the comet and the moon. So I had an astronomy outreach to a total of seven guests tonight. My favorite part: helping a 6-year-old kid get the 15x70s balanced on the side rail of the parking garage so he could see the moon.

If you’d like to see the comet, your best chances are in the next week or two. It will probably be bright enough to see with a telescope for weeks after that, maybe even months, but it isn’t going to get any brighter. Get over to Sky&Tel or just google “comet PanSTARRS”–the internet is falling over itself giving out instructions on how to find the comet right now.

By 7:50 all my visitors had moved on and so had the comet, lost in the hazy clouds over Los Angeles. I wasn’t done, though.

Urban decay

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before, I’m closing in on finishing two of the Astronomical League’s observing programs, the Urban Observing Club and the Double Star Club. If I’d gotten my rear in gear a month ago I could have finished them both easily by now, but my head was stuck in the Jurassic and I let too much time slip by. As of a couple of days ago, I only needed two more objects for each club: M77 and Algol for the Urban Club, and Alpha Piscium and 8 Lacertae for the Double Star Club. The trouble is, they’re all low in the western sky now, and in a month or  two they’ll be right behind the sun. So if I don’t get them pronto, I’ll have to wait a while before I’ll get another crack at them.

I got M77 Monday night from my driveway. I’d also seen it Saturday night on my Messier Marathon, of course, but that didn’t count; to be eligible for the Urban Club, the observations  have to made from someplace sufficiently light-polluted that the Milky Way is not naked-eye visible. Fortunately this galaxy has a crazy-bright core and I caught it with averted vision from the driveway even though it wasn’t fully dark yet. My time limit was set less by the sky and more by local geography: when I saw it, it was already in between the leafless branches of one of the trees in my back yard.

Algol is up in Perseus, still a good 25 or 30 degrees above the horizon at sunset, so it’s easy enough to see. That ain’t the problem. It’s the only variable star on the Urban Observing list, so I reckon I haven’t fulfilled the spirit of the thing until I’ve seen it go through one of its periodic brightness variations. These happen about every three days, which sounds great, except that they’re offset so most of them happen during the day, or when the constellation has already set. I need one of those minima to hit between about 7:00 and 9:00 PM, which is a pretty darned narrow window (why oh why didn’t I just see this thing a month ago?). I just missed one on March 7, when my head was still only in the Jurassic. The next one that is in my time window is on the evening of March 27, when I’m scheduled to be on an airplane between Texas and SoCal. The next good one after that isn’t until April 16. That one may just be doable–Perseus is far enough north that it sets pretty late from my latitude (from 40 degrees and points farther north, it doesn’t set at all).

Doing the splits can be painful

I have been kicking and kicking myself for not getting Alpha Piscium and 8 Lacertae in the past few months when they were dead overhead. I actually got Alpha Piscium in they eyepiece one night a week or two ago, but I couldn’t split it before it got lost in the trees. I found out why tonight: it’s a darned hard split.

After the comet and all my visitors had departed, I went straight to Alpha Piscium. It was already down into the near-horizon murk, which makes stars take on interesting shapes and colors that often have nothing to do with their normal night-sky appearances. At 64x it was just a dot. Same thing at 128x. Same thing at 257x, at least at first glance. But then the seeing steadied for a crucial moment and I was able to get the focus dialed in, and there it was: a double star. At high magnification in the Mak, each star is  surrounded by a neat little diffraction ring. At 257x, Alpha Piscium’s secondary component was sitting on the diffraction ring of the brighter primary, as if the primary  was sitting in the middle of a diamond ring. Like this, only I couldn’t see the diffraction ring around the secondary star so clearly. Anyway, it was a pretty sight and a righteous split.

That left me in the same place in the Double Star Club that I am in the Urban Club: 99 down, one to go. I thought that 8 Lacertae might just be possible, so I started star-hopping over that way. I almost got there, too, but just in time to see the lizard’s tail dip below the local horizon. I am pretty sure that if I try again in the next couple of nights, and go to 8 Lacertae before I  do anything else, I’ll be able to get it. It’s a nice wide multiple star, so it shouldn’t be a tough split, if I can just get on target before it sets.

Sunset birding

Another crazy good scope deal

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point this out: Orion has put their 20×50 compact spotting scope on clearance for $29.99. You can get it through the Orion site or this Amazon link. I am familiar with this scope–London and I gave it a test drive at the Orion store in Watsonville last summer, and on the strength of that encounter London asked for and received one for his birthday last November. We’ve had it out to the Salton Sea a couple of times now, so we’ve gotten to use it for daytime spotting and out under the stars.

How does it do? Well, it’s a 50mm spotting scope, and like most such devices, it basically is a finderscope and has no other finder or provision for one. Also, you’re stuck at 20x. So for nighttime use, you’re going to get binocular-esque views of the moon, planets, and a handful of the brighter DSOs (think Pleiades, Orion, Andromeda) and that’s about it. Also, it’s a short, fast refractor, so there is some false color on bright objects. To be fair, though, almost all spotting scopes are short, fast refractors (‘cept for the Maks), and other than the ED models that cost hundreds to thousands, they all show chromatic aberration. Even my beloved SV50 throws up some false color, and I don’t think the Orion spotter is noticeably worse in this regard.

Going handheld

It’s much more rewarding to use during the daytime. I don’t know why Orion is closing them out, but it probably isn’t image quality, because the two I’ve looked through have been nice and sharp. In addition to the zippered soft-side storage case, the scope comes with a velcro-tabbed, padded fabric wrap-around, similar to the weather-resistant ‘view-through’ cases on some high-end spotters (but offering less than total coverage). This has a padded hand-strap so you can take the scope off a tripod (not included, nor would you want any tripod they could include at this price point–trust me) and use it handheld. This is surprisingly effective, and London and I have taken to carrying his scope along on our morning hikes when we’re camping.

Any downsides, aside from the aforementioned false color? The helical focuser was a little stiff for the first few uses. The usual solution with sticky focusers is to twist them all the way in and out a few times to get the lubricant evenly distributed over all the surfaces. I did that with London’s spotting scope and sure enough, the problem went away. Focusing is a breeze now.

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Raw, unmodified photo of some gulls at about 50 yards, taken afocally through the Orion 20×50 compact spotting scope using my Nikon Coolpix 4500.

So, long story short, I dunno why Orion is closing these out, because I think they’re fine little scopes. I haven’t noticed any lasting problems in several days and nights of field use, and if I didn’t already have a 50mm scope of my own, I’d be all over this. It’s a decent buy at $50 and a steal at $30. If you need a small spotting scope, period, or something to keep in the car for impromptu scenery- or wildlife-watching sessions, or something for that kid you know who is interested in nature and science, this thing ought to fill the bill. I’m tempted to get another one myself, to keep in the storage compartment under the back seat of the Mazda. But if you’re interested, don’t tarry–Orion is already out of the spotting-scope-plus-tripod packages, and I don’t imagine the scopes themselves will last long at this price.