h1

Collimating a reflactor

March 20, 2017

One of the nice things about ‘reflactors’, like the ones shown here, is that they can be collimated just like reflectors – and at the fast focal ratios that reflactors typically work at, they’re likely to need it.

I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about collimation before. I haven’t blogged about how to do it because there are so many other sites that cover it already. I learned it myself from the book Astronomy Hacks by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, which is a pretty good book for anyone getting started with a telescope, and an absolute gold mine for anyone who owns a reflector. The Thompsons have nice step-by-step instructions, illustrated with photos, for making and using your own collimation cap, and for collimating using the Barlowed laser method.

Collimation is one of those things that seems forbiddingly complex until you’ve done it a couple of times, at which point it becomes so routine as to hardly be worth mentioning. In conversation with other amateur astronomers I usually compare it to changing a baby’s diaper – awkward and probably terrifying the first time or two, and a complete non-event the next thousand or so times.

The Badger and the Ferret both have Allen bolts on the back ends of their OTAs that look pretty much the same as those on the spiders of Newtonian reflectors. The central bolt controls the distance down the tube and the rotational facing of the diagonal mirror, and the three perimeter bolts control the mirror’s tilt. You can use a Cheshire sight tube or collimation cap and collimate a reflactor just like you’d do a reflector. You can also use the Barlowed laser method, which is what I did.

It’s a three-step process:

  1. Draw a set of concentric circles on a piece of graph paper to make a collimation target, and rubber-band this over the front of the scope.
  2. Pop a laser collimator (or any laser, really) into a Barlow lens and see where the beam lands.
  3. Adjust the rotation and tilt of the mirror until the beam is centered.

I did the first bit in my garage, which is why there’s so much crap in the background of the first photo. Then I realized that it would be a lot faster and easier if I could see what was happening to the beam while I adjusted the collimation bolts, so I carried the whole rig inside the house and into the bathroom and pointed it at the bathroom mirror. Once I had the collimation spot-on, I spun the scope a quarter turn to get the final photo, which is why our tropical-themed shower curtain is in the background of the second shot.

As you can see from the photos, the scope arrived a bit out of collimation. That wasn’t a huge deal for the kind of low-power scanning that I got the scope for, but it probably did degrade lunar and planetary images somewhat. I can tell you that after collimation, it does better. I got a mesmerizingly good view of Jupiter Saturday night at the Salton Sea, with gently ruffled belts and zones marching all the way to the poles, like the layers of crust in a good baklava. But that’s a story for another time.

h1

Why I blog – and observe, and do everything else – so unevenly

March 13, 2017

[Warning: this is by far the most navel-gazey thing I’ve ever posted here. It’s almost entirely autobiographical, and unless you are really interested in the answer to the titular question, I recommend going elsewhere. Proceed at your own risk! – MJW]

Let’s start with the obvious fact that I do do these things unevenly. I’ve noted this before. I’ll have months where I’m out almost every clear night, and months where I never go out at all, even in good weather. Admittedly those zero-observation months are way down now that I have a monthly column to feed, and one of the things I like best about having a monthly column is that it forces me to get out and observe.

The why of this is complicated. Partly it is a complex and seasonally-shifting work schedule. Except for a couple of weeks between terms in August, and a week here or there for fieldwork or a conference, I teach human gross anatomy every weekday between mid-June and the end of October. November through May is given over to research and writing, committee work and other forms of administrativa, and prepping lectures for the next teaching block.

Layered over that is the waxing and waning of enthusiams that I think is natural for most people. As my friend Mike once put it in an email, “I know from many, many years’ experience (in programming as well as palaeo) that my phases of enthusiasm drift in and out of being in a totally random way, so I need to seize each one as it comes past and squeeze it till it bleeds productivity.”

I feel that, strongly. Very strongly, in fact. There are times when Subject X is all I can think about. It literally keeps me up at night. And then a few weeks or months later, I’ll only be able to think about Subject X with an immense act of will, and little to no enthusiasm or enjoyment. These periods of fascination typically last 4-6 weeks, after which I’ll have two or three days of feeling restless and bored as I cast about for the next thing. They also vary in intensity – sometimes Subject X is just something I think about in my spare time, and sometimes it’s about all I can think about during my waking hours. Privately I refer to these things as my ‘manias’, but a therapist once told me they were more likely to be properly classified as obsessions. Although I remain undiagnosed, I assume that there is some behavior spectrum on which I am a few paces farther away from the mean than most people. (If you have some relevant technical knowledge, I’d love to hear from you in the comments, or by email.)

Subject X can be just about anything. I don’t know in advance what the next one will be, and I don’t pick them. Certain subjects come around repeatedly, and other don’t. For a brief period in the mid-2007 it was houseplants. We went from zero houseplants to about 20 in the space of a month. I’ve managed to kill all of them except one over the following decade, and that particular mania has not returned.

Fortunately for my career, the interest that has returned the most often and at the greatest intensity has been paleontology, and biology more generally. It is not an exaggeration to say that my career has primarily been built on work I got done when I was in the grip of a mania. This worked really well in grad school, before I was a parent and when I had few real responsibilities. I could hole up in the spare room and work for 12 or 16 hours a day, emerging only for meals and bathroom breaks, and go to bed happy and fulfilled and ready to repeat the process the next day. Then I’d have months-long doldrums in which I got nothing done.

Even when I’m ‘on’, it’s a lot harder to channel that level of energy and enthusiasm when my days are so broken up by the spectrum of family and work responsibilities I have now. I’m not complaining about the latter! Being a parent is the most fulfilling I’ve ever done by a long shot, and I am fortunate to have work duties that are interesting and rewarding. If anything, I’m not complaining about my present situation as much as I am pointing out how far I got on very little discipline, because I was able to crank out lots of work in very little time. Even now, many of my papers have their genesis around 2:00 AM, when I can’t rest because I can’t stop thinking about a particular problem, and writing about it is the only way I can exorcise it, at least enough to get to sleep.

So, about this blog. Sometimes stargazing is Subject X, and sometimes it isn’t. The first time was in 2007, right after the houseplants. If the houseplant mania had returned and astronomy had not, I’d probably be blogging about plants on an equally erratic schedule. Because even when I’m in the grip of a mania, I don’t always have the desire or time to blog about it. Activity on any of my blogs is like a spring tide, which requires both the major driver (the moon/a mania for that subject) and the minor driver (the sun/interest in blogging) to align. Except for the first couple of years of SV-POW! when Mike and Darren and I were trying to actually trying to get at least one new post up every week, I have always felt that my blogs existed primarily to serve me, rather than the other way around, and I would blog when I felt like it and not push myself to blog when I didn’t. That’s not to say that I don’t care about my readers. I do, and I’m very grateful for all of the kind things people have said in the comments over the years. I wish I had the capacity to write for you more regularly. I guess I do, you just need a subscription to Sky & Tel to see it.

With all of that said, there are certain conditions that tend to push me toward stargazing. I typically do a lot of stargazing in the summer (up on Mount Baldy) and early fall (out in the desert), partly because the weather is nice, and partly because teaching anatomy is sufficiently technically demanding that I don’t have much energy or enthusiasm left over for paleontology, and I’m actively looking for something very different to do and think about. Stargazing versus teaching anatomy: outdoors vs indoors, alone or in a small group vs being in a lab with 50-150 people, no pressure vs trying hard to get everything right, on my own time vs scheduled. It’s the perfect getaway from my day job.

Likewise, I’m blogging a lot right now in part because I have a whole stew of stuff keeping me busy at the university, including some demanding committee work. And in part because I realize that these ‘spring tide’ events of stargazing mania, desire to blog, and time in which to do so don’t come around very often, so I’d better get as much done as I can before conditions change.

And they will change. My ever-cycling interest will turn to something else. In a few months we’ll have a beautifully clear evening and I’ll see the scopes in the garage and do nothing with them because I will feel nothing. I am fully cognizant of this now, and I will be fully aware of it then, but that knowledge will not motivate me. I simply will not care about stargazing, and I’ll go do something else instead. All of the subjects that fascinate me are tinged with this Flowers for Algernon-esque bittersweetness. But I rarely think about that – I’m usually too busy thinking about the current mania.

I have wondered, if this whatever-it-is that I have is ever diagnosed, and a treatment offered, if I would accept it. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to think about what I want, instead of whatever semi-random subject has a hold on my mind at the time. But I don’t think I would give up the exhilaration of these obsessions for mere convenience. I have previously compared them to falling in love, and when you are madly in love, there is no number of ordinary friendships that you would accept in trade.

h1

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

March 1, 2017

earthshine-feb-28-2017-450

Got out tonight for a few short burst of observing amidst other things. I set up the C80ED and caught the young crescent moon as it was going down. Above is my best shot. It is still wildly inferior to the one I have up in the banner image, to the right of the blog title. That one I shot with my XT6, which had about three times the light gathering ability and almost twice the angular resolution of the C80ED, and I got that shot one night earlier in the lunar cycle. That was back in the early days, when we were still living in Merced. From my driveway I had a straight shot almost to the horizon, so I could catch a 2-day old moon. Here I have lots of trees and buildings in the way, so I generally have to wait an extra night to get a shot at the moon from the driveway.

Then I was out again in the half hour before midnight to try some things with the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition. First, I put it on the lightweight Manfrotto CXPRO4 tripod and DwarfStar alt-az mount that I have previously only used for much smaller scopes (example 1, example 2). Orion was going down over LA so it was pretty stinky, but I still had a long look at both the belt and the sword, and I powered up to split the Trapezium and Sigma Orionis. Then I swept up to hit M35 in Gemini, then back down to Meissa at the ‘head’ of Orion. I finished on Jupiter, using the 60mm aperture mask to knock down the CA.

bresser-on-dwarfstar-1

I was deliberately bouncing around the sky, looking at a variety of targets at a variety of magnifications, to see if the Manfrotto/DwarfStar combo would keep up. I’m a pretty forgiving observer – witness my near-pathological devotion to cheap scopes and stuff made out of junk – but one thing I just can’t handle is an undermounted scope. My first Mak was a 4″ which I hated and sold away before I realized that I hated it because I’d never put it on a solid mount. That experience left me traumatized when it comes to rickety mounts.

The Bresser/Manfrotto/DwarfStar rig doesn’t look like it should work. It looks like the definition of a spindly undermounted disaster. But it was fine. I never had any problem slewing, tracking, or focusing. It helps that the Bresser is lighter than it looks, and carbon fiber is a lot stronger than it looks.

(In the photo, I have the optional eyepiece rack attached to the DwarfStar – I don’t think I’ve ever shown a photo of the mount with it in place. It’s useful.)

I was also pleasantly surprised by the views I got of Jupiter. To get to a decent magnification I used the 8.8mm ES82, both natively (52x) and Barlowed (104x), and a Celestron 8-24mm zoom dialed down to 8 (57x). In both eyepieces I could see the North and South Equatorial Belts and stacks of minor belts marching away toward the poles. There was some CA, but I could minimize the effect by keeping Jupiter in the center of the field, and my eye centered over the eyepiece. The view was so good that I slipped out of gear testing mode and just stared for a few pleasant minutes. I was also happy to find that with the rubber eyeguard removed, I could see the entire field of the 8-24mm zoom at all magnifications while wearing glasses. Which I have to do now. In fact, the other night at the Salton Sea I made almost all of my observations with glasses on.

And lastly, the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition – whew! – finally has a name. I posted on Cloudy Nights about the Messier survey I’m starting with it (thread here), and CN user ‘Glob’ wrote,

mwedel, I read and enjoy your blog, let me suggest nicknaming the 4″ “The Ferret” as King Louis XV called Messier.

I responded:

That is a lovely suggestion, and it put a huge smile on my face. One thing I haven’t blogged about yet is that basically by serendipity I managed to pick up an 80mm prototype of the Bresser ‘reflactor’. So now I have two, big and little, otherwise nearly identical. Ferrets are mustelids (weasel family), along with wolverines, badgers, skunks, fishers, martens, stoats, weasels, and otters. My late grandfather was an accomplished taxidermist and one of his stuffed badgers is sitting on top of a bookcase about four feet from me as I type. It’s just about the same size as the 4″ reflactor. So I’m going to take your charming suggestion, with one modification: the 80mm will be the Ferret, as I anticipate some effort to ferret out all the Messiers with it, and the 4″ is henceforth the Badger, because it can just knock them around with all that aperture. Thanks for helping me solve that long-standing and vexing problem!

So, it’s official now: from now on, the Bresser AR102S is the Badger, and the 80mm will be the Ferret. More info on the Ferret one of these days. I’m going out with this family photo of the two – Badger’s up front, Ferret looms behind:

bresser-ar102s-comet-edition-and-80mm-prototype-1

h1

Finally – the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition at the Salton Sea

February 26, 2017

ar102s-at-dawn

Sometimes life is cruel.

(Did I say cruel? I meant ridiculously First World cushy, where a grown man can afford nice toys and has the time to play with them and blog about it. But within the context of this grown man’s play-time blog, sometimes life is cruel.)

To wit: my Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition (still sans snappy nickname) arrived on Sunday, January 29, just a few hours late for the new moon observing run at the Salton Sea that Terry Nakazono and I went on the night before. Since then it’s been mostly cloudy here, with poor transparency on the nights it hasn’t been totally socked in, so I’ve been misusing the scope on bright stuff like the moon and Jupiter. And waiting not-so-patiently for a chance to get out to dark skies and do some wide-field, low-power scanning.

I actually did get about 45 minutes of semi-dark time with the scope a week ago. I was on dawn patrol up in the foothills and I spent some time in the summer constellations before the sun came up. The views were bright and contrasty, but all it did was whet my appetite.

Friday night I finally got the scope out under decent skies, for a decent amount of time. I decided pretty late to go to the Salton Sea – originally we had other plans, but Vicki and London were wiped out from a long week, and the forecast said that Friday was the last clear night for a while, all over SoCal. I didn’t leave Claremont until almost 7:00 PM, and with set up time after I arrived at Mecca Beach, I didn’t start observing until 10:00.

Gear

I was rolling pretty light. I wanted to test the Bresser reflactor/bino set as a package, so I used the AR102S on the came-with mount and tripod. I essentially always have binos out while I’m observing, so I used the 7x50s that came with the scope. That was a novel experience – I usually roll with 10x50s or 15x70s. This was my first time using 7x binos for serious deep-sky observations.

The only way I broke with the Bresser package was with eyepieces. I did use the included 20mm 70-degree a few times early in the evening, and I briefly tested the 10mm 70-degree that just came in, but my most-used set for most of the evening consisted of the 28mm Edmund RKE, both natively (16.4x) and with a 2x Barlow (33x), and the 8.8mm ES82 (52x and 104x).

28mm-rke-in-ar102s

A word about the 28mm RKE. It is simply the most comfortable eyepiece I’ve ever used. There are several factors that play into that. One is the long eye relief. Another is the magical floating stars effect, which is real, and impressive. Finally, there’s the wide exit pupil it gives, which in the AR102S is 6.2mm. That’s probably wider than my pupils go these days (same is true of the 7mm exit pupil of the 7×50 binos). Using binos or eyepieces with exit pupils wider than your own will go is usually not recommended. The extra light falls on the muscles of your iris, not on your retina, so your pupil becomes an aperture mask, stopping down the system to a smaller working aperture. You could get just as much light delivered to your brain using a smaller instrument or eyepiece. But there is one positive effect of using a “too-wide” exit pupil: you can move your eye around a bit within the light beam, without any falloff in illumination. So “too-wide” exit pupils are very bright – maximally bright – and very comfortable. And if a bit of light is wasted, oh well, it’s not like the cops are going to come for you.

One nice effect of swapping the 28mm RKE for the 20mm 70-degree is that they have close to the same true field of view of 2.9-3.0 degrees, but the RKE gives a much sharper image with fewer aberrations. Unsurprisingly, since it’s bending light from the same true field into a much smaller apparent field. Normally, a 45-degree AFOV would feel downright claustrophobic to me these days, but for some reason the 28mm RKE doesn’t bother me. I think it’s the magical floating stars effect – most narrow-fields (okay, anything south of 50 degrees) feels tight, like looking through a soda straw, because so much my field of view is taken up by the inside of the eyepiece barrel. But with the 28mm RKE, there is no visible eyepiece barrel, so although the AFOV isn’t actually that big, it feels much more expansive.

I did have one minor gear screw-up: I forgot my laser. I haven’t installed a finder on the AR102S. Same with the C80ED, except for one or two nights early on. When I really need help I lay a laser finder along a straight edge and use it to point to things in the sky. On the C80ED, there are a couple of buckles on the tube clamp that together form a de facto trough like the one I built for the SkyScanner 100. On the AR102S, the finder bracket serves the same purpose. But I forgot my laser. So I did what I usually do, just dead-reckoned it. I’ve gotten to the point where I usually don’t even have to sight down the tube, I can just sort of look up and aim the scope and get the target within a 3-degree circle. The AR102S will go wider than 3 degrees – a 32mm Plossl or 24mm ES68 will give 3.6 degrees, and my 32mm Titan 2″ will go to 4.88 degrees. But none of those eyepieces do their thing with the same panache as the 28mm RKE – at least in this scope. I did get out the 32mm Plossl just in case I needed a wider ‘finder’ eyepiece, but it never made it into the focuser.

Goals

I had a program in mind. Long-time readers will know that I’m a big fan of Jay Reynolds Freeman’s astronomy essays, especially “Refractor Red Meets the Herschel 400”. More relevant to this post is “Messier Surveys”, in which Freeman relates his habit of running through all the Messier objects with every instrument he gets his hands on, from 7×50 binoculars to a 14-inch SCT. Despite my Messier Marathon attempts, I’ve never kept track of which Messiers I’ve seen with which instruments. I’m certain I’ve seen them all with the XT10, and I’ve seen almost all of them with my 15x70s, but beyond that, I have no idea. So I decided that the best way to properly test the Bresser would be to start a Messier survey with it.

To be clear, I had no intention of attempting an off-season or mini Messier Marathon. I decided to just go until I got tired. I also was not a purist – I looked at plenty of non-Messiers along the way, including some I had never seen and wasn’t planning to observe when I started.

And in fact, I started with some non-Messiers.

Perseus

When I started observing at 10:00, plenty of good stuff was getting perilously low in the west. The western reaches of Cassiopeia were already down in the Palm Springs/Indio light dome. I started with the Double Cluster and Stock 2 – my first time looking at them with the AR102S. They were spectacular as always. Then I swept up through the Alpha Persei Association and followed the eastern ‘arm’ up to NGC 1528. The cluster was fully resolved at 33x, but I thought it was prettier at 16.4x, when the dimmer stars trembled just at the threshold of resolution. I also checked in on NGC 1545, which is a much less impressive cluster and a much tougher catch since it is dominated by a bright foreground star. But my favorite observation in this area was another OC, NGC 1513. I tried this one at a variety of magnifications and it always ‘popped’ a little more in averted vision, as previously unresolved stars swam into visibility. Not one of the sky’s stunning showpiece objects, but delicately beautiful if you have the time to tease out its secrets (and the skies – it’s not bright).

I hit M34 on my way out, and of course I stopped at the Pleiades, which were very nicely framed at 16.4x.

Orion and Vicinity

After all of that, I realized that I had to get a move on if I wanted to catch M79, the glob in Lepus, before it set. I hopped over to snag it, and visited Hind’s Crimson Star while I was in the neighborhood. It was a tiny red spark in the 28mm RKE.

The whole sword of Orion fits into the field of view of the RKE. The Trapezium was nicely broken out into four stars at 33x with the Barlow. I had a quick look at Sigma Orionis and scanned the Belt and the big OB association just off Orion’s western hip. M78 was delightful. Even at 16.4x, the two foreground stars were visible and distinct from each other and from the background glow, and the western edge of the nebula showed a more abrupt cut-off, which lent the whole object the feel of a comet.

Binocular Tours

Up to this point I had been using the 7x50s to trace my star hops in advance, but now I really started to run ahead. One thing about writing my deep-sky tour articles for Sky & Tel – I usually remember all the stops and I can run through them quickly anytime I’m out. In this case, I started at Sirius and followed the path of my December 2015 article down through Canis Major, across Puppis – with a side trip down to Vela that was not in the article – and into Hydra (for M48). Then I picked up where my tour from this March started, running northwest through Monoceros and northern Orion before ending in Gemini. Running through both tours took about 10 minutes, and I saw a lot and missed a lot more. Seriously, that stretch of the winter Milky Way is just ridiculous. You can swing your optics over it again and again and not pick out all there is to see.

Then I had a long break to rehydrate, eat a snack, and get into my cool-weather getup. I’ll have to write a whole post about that sometime.

ar102s-set-up-for-observing

After the break I went back through almost all of that with the telescope, in part just to see it all with more than 50mm of aperture. I noticed some Herschel 400 objects in Puppis that I had never observed, namely the open clusters NGC 2479 and 2509. Both were dim swarms of faint stars that were still not fully resolved at 52x, but very pretty. I had not noticed them in the binos, but after catching them in the scope I was able to see them when I went back with the 7x50s. I was comparing the two clusters in the binos when a meteor flashed through my field of view, which is always a cool sight. I spent about half an hour trying to catch the planetary nebula NGC 2440, and even hauled out Interstellarum to help me get on target, but I never got a definite sighting. I’m going to have to study that one and come back another time.  I did catch NGC 2438, the planetary nebula that is superimposed on M46 but only about half as far off as the cluster. It was obvious at 52x but I couldn’t separate it from the glow of the cluster at 16.4x. Needless to say, it didn’t show in the binos.

Roaming

By the time I was finished retracing my winter Milky Way tours, the Auriga Messiers were getting low in the west, so I hopped over to check them out. After that I hit M44 and M67 in Cancer. M44 was just perfect at 16.4x – everything nicely resolved, but still compact enough to look like a coherent object. The stars in that cluster always seem to fall into geometric patterns to me, as if they were laid out using a grid system that got erased the morning after creation. I can’t think of anything else in the sky that gives me the same impression.

I also popped up north, past Iota Cancri and over the border into Lynx, to check on NGC 2683, a surprisingly bright and easy Herschel 400 galaxy that I had previously only observed with binoculars. (Want to know more about this galaxy and its neighbors? See the April 2017 Sky & Tel!) Since I’d seen it with smaller-aperture binos under worse skies, naturally it was an easy catch for the AR102S.

After that I turned south, to Omega Centauri. Although I haven’t written about it yet, when Terry and I were at the Salton Sea last month, I spent a long time looking at the monster ‘glob’ – actually the exposed core of a dwarf galaxy that was cannibalized long ago by the Milky Way. It’s a favorite spring target of mine when I have a good southern horizon. From Mecca Beach there is a definite light dome from El Centro and usually some near-horizon haze in the southwest – directly over the water. But Omega Centauri culminates between that particular Scylla and Charybdis. Last month I spent nearly an hour checking it out, using naked eyes, binoculars, and several levels of magnification with the C80ED. I could just get the outermost stars to resolve at 120x, albeit in imperfect seeing. This time was worse – about the same lousy seeing, and slightly worse transparency. I didn’t get any actual resolution, but I could make out pronounced differences in brightness across the face of the cluster. I also had a look at NGC 1528/Centaurus A, the famous radio galaxy. I think it should be naked-eye visible under optimum conditions, but my conditions were not optimum. It was obvious in the binos and showed some detail in the scope.

Then it was on to Corvus to check in on M104 and M68. I also observed the planetary nebula NGC 4361, I think for the first time. It’s bright but small, and it turned out that I could see it at 16.4x, I just didn’t recognize it – I had to go up to 52x to confirm that it was nonstellar. I also visited M83 while I was in that neck of the woods. What a wonderful galaxy, so big, bright, and obviously elongated even at low magnification.

By now it was almost 3:00 AM and I was getting pooped. I finished in Lyra, with Epsilon Lyrae and the Ring Nebula, M57. I couldn’t split the Double Double. That might have been the scope, but it might have been the skies – by this point there was a steady breeze blowing right in my face when I looked east. I have had other nights where the seeing was so bad that Epsilon Lyrae would not split. I did notice some CA around those stars at high power, which probably didn’t help.

I decided to finish with M57, which was fitting since it was a chance observation of that nebula with the TravelScope 70 a few years ago that got me hooked on refractors. I wanted to recreate the feel of that surprising low-power observation so I left in the 28mm RKE. The whole southern end of the parallelogram fit very nicely into the 3-degree field, with M57 showing as a pale little dot. Then I realized that I had stopped the scope down to 60mm while I was playing with the double star and had forgotten to take off the aperture mask. So I got to do one of my favorite tricks – reach up and pull of the mask while I’m observing, and watch the sky get brighter in a hurry, as if all the lights out there suddenly turned on. The nebula had been obvious at 60mm – at full aperture it was so bright it almost looked stellar.

ar102s-at-mecca-beach

Tally

I ended the night having observed several double stars and 46 unique DSOs with the telescope, of which only 22 were Messier objects. Three were Herschel 400s which I believe I observed for the first time – those were the open clusters NGC 2479 and 2509 in Puppis, and the planetary nebula NGC 4361 in Corvus.

I’ll have a more complete review along soon, but the Bresser Messier AR102S lived up to its middle name – it is a superb Messier-catcher. Every Messier I attempted was not just visible but easy at 16.4x. Will be interesting to try it on some of the smaller, tougher objects like M76. I think this will be my Marathon scope this year.

Don’t take this as a full-spectrum endorsement. When I do post a full review of the scope, I’ll have both good and bad to report. It’s not a good all-rounder, not a good first or only scope. But what it’s built to do, it does quite well.

The biggest surprise for me was how much I could see with the 7×50 bins. I didn’t catch everything, but of the 46 DSOs I observed telescopically, 34 were also visible in the binos, and some of the rest I simply forgot to check (the galaxy NGC 2683 comes to mind). There were more DSOs that I saw in the binos but didn’t take the time to log, including shedloads of clusters in Monoceros. I don’t know if I will be able to complete a Messier survey with the 7x50s – I reckon some of the smaller planetary nebulae will prove my undoing – but I’m at least going to make the attempt.

h1

Kickstarter – the Great Lick Refractor

February 25, 2017

I have been very fortunate in getting to visit the Lick Observatory three times, and to look through the Great Lick Refractor (36″/914mm aperture, f/19) on two different occasions. On the second visit I even got a quick afocal snap of Saturn through this wonderful, 129-year-old instrument. Those stories and accompanying photos are on Cloudy Nights, here.

I bring this up because there’s a Kickstarter going on right now to sponsor a couple of experienced astrophotographers to use the Great Lick Refractor for one night (or maybe two, if they enough funding), and backers get copies of their pictures. The project will be funded – they’re already well over the target goal of $6500 and closing in on the $9000 they’ll need for a second night – so there’s no real risk here. I pounced as soon as I heard about it. If you’re interested, click on one of the links above and check it out.

This project will be funded on Monday, March 20, 2017, at 7:17 PM PDT.

h1

From sub-aperture mask to replacement dust cap

February 23, 2017

aperture-mask-2-4-length-comparison

Here’s something dumb. The Bresser AR102S Comet Edition is optimized for two things: widefield, low-power scanning, and portability. At 20″ for the OTA it’s just within the bounds of airline carry-on-ability, but you can unscrew the dewshield and shave off another 4″, at which point the options for storage and transport expand wildly.

BUT the stock dust cap for the objective is dome-shaped, for no good or obvious reason, which means it sticks out about a full centimeter longer than necessary. When you’re thinking about flying with a scope, that is one centimeter more stupidity than you should have to put up with.

There’s another problem with the stock dust cap: when the scope gets cold, it gets loose and falls out easily. Nothing unique to this scope about that – I’ve had to shim the majority of my scopes’ dust caps for the same problem, including the C80ED and XT10. One cheap package of sticky-back green felt has kept me going since 2010. I think I’ve used almost a third of it.

Now, I already have a nice 60mm sub-aperture mask for this scope (construction details here). If I could plug the central hole securely, I’d have a replacement dust cap that would be shorter, would get tighter rather than looser if it shrunk in the cold, and would serve double-duty as both a dust cap and a sub-aperture mask. The problem was finding a plug the right size, with a good lip on it to keep dust out, that would grab the edges of the mask hole securely.

aperture-mask-2-1-tootsie-roll-can

And it’s the dollar store to the rescue again, with this container of Tootsie Rolls that is intended to double as a coin bank. The hard plastic lid snaps down into the cardboard tube very securely, and the plug bit is just a shade over 60mm in diameter.

aperture-mask-2-2-external

I used the Dremel and some sandpaper to enlarge the hole in the sub-aperture mask ever so slightly, and voila. There’s a small lip that runs around the top edge, and even a little recess in which to hook a finger and pull out the plug.

aperture-mask-2-3-internal

Here you can see the ridges on the plug. By sanding in short increments, I was able to fine-tune the hole diameter until the plug snapped in very securely, without stressing either piece. I need to put some tape or a little epoxy or something over the perforated slot, which is intended to be punched out so the candy container can become a coin bank. Or cut out the center and replace it with another, smaller plug, so I’d have a dust cap and two aperture masks in one package…

aperture-mask-2-5-dust-cap-replacement

Boom. Now the scope is a centimeter shorter for travel, and I don’t have to keep the sub-aperture mask in my eyepiece case.

What I really want is for someone with even rudimentary 3D modeling skills to create a series of nested aperture masks, like Russian dolls, in 10 or 20mm increments, which could be 3D printed on demand in whatever combinations people needed. Most of them could be standard sizes, with only the outermost adapter for each telescope model needing to be custom. Then you could order the adapter for your scope and whatever set of nested masks you wanted, or maybe all of them to simplify, so your 100mm scope could also be an 80mm, a 60mm, a 40mm, and even a 20mm (the “Galileo model”) if you liked, just by taking out the relevant bits from the dust cap. Sure, it would be gross overkill for most people, but for those of us who like playing “what if” (“what if my C80ED was a C40ED?”) it would be a godsend. And with 3D printing no-one would be stuck with a bunch of useless stock when the idea inevitably bombed.

Anyway, if someone would to that, it would save me the trouble of building my own “Mask-ryoshka” dust cap out of junk from the dollar store. But if I’m being totally honest, avoiding building my own stuff out of junk from the dollar store was never the point of the exercise, was it?*

* With apologies to Adam Savage.
h1

Get $5 off your first purchase from OpticalInstruments.com

February 21, 2017

Hey, I was temporarily without a 10mm eyepiece (long story) and I have been sufficiently happy with the Bresser 20mm 70-degree that came with my AR102S Comet Edition that I plunked down thirty bucks for the 10mm version (sale price, down from $50). It was only my second-ever purchase from OpticalInstruments.com (after the Bresser Spektar spotting scope a couple of years ago), but they rewarded my ‘ongoing support’ with this deal. You can use this link and unique code:

https://opticalinstruments-com.myshopify.com/?redeem=58abdb56bb070f0018560f59

to get $5 off your first purchase, and if you do, I’ll get a $5 kickback. As far as I know, there is no limit to how often this can be used by people making their first purchase there. So if you’ve been tempted by something at that store, here’s your chance to save a little dough. Happy shopping!