Insomnia – I am making some progress on it, but not much, but when I woke up at 1:30 am this morning I at least could see stars. We have had a pretty steady dose of mostly cloudy, hazy, foggy, partly cloud and heavy rains lately – 7 inches one day, five inches more a few days later and about an  inch yesterday  – so clear skies have been unusual and don’t last long.

These clear skies lasted long enough for me to get the 66mm  WO scope out and after a false start – batteries are weak on the Celestron mount I suspect – I got it on the Desert Sky dual mount/Bogen tripod and had a good time with some old friends.

I actually have a little plan in mind – to establish a list of best objects for popular consumption on any given night – or more accurately, any given sidereal/star time – of the year.  My goal would be for these objects to be nice in any scope, so if they’re nice in the 66mm you can be pretty sure they’ll be nice in anything larger.  The 66mm thus establishes a base line. So my observations were made with this in mind.

Yes, I’m pretty sure I could make such a list from memory – but I would trust it more if I check each object with this in mind.

So – up for starters was, of course, Albireo. It did fine at 16X – was really pristine – but I think the newcomer would appreciate it more at 30X. Once they were certain what they were seeing, they could try backing off some.

I have a soft spot for Albireo, but I closed this session wilth Almach and I have to say that although it was pretty low in the east at this time, I still find its colors richer than Albireo. It does take significantly more power. I found it best at 78x, though it could certainly be split with less.

There’s no contest with the Dragon’s Eyes – they are a perfectly matched pair that’s pretty easy to split in binoculars and certainly split easily at 16X, but seem better framed at 30X.

Meanwhile the Dolphin presents more of a challenge. Gamma Delphini is a sort of pale version of Albireo – in fact I would have a sliding scale of intensity for blue and gold stars where I would rank Almach the most intense, then Albireo, and then Gamma Delphini. Needed about 50X to get a decent split and it was better at 79X.

I liked M13 at all powers from 16X to 79X – but it was best at 79X because at that point I could really see individual stars flashing across the main body of this star ball.

M31 was another object that did fine at all powers, though it was easier to pick out M32 at 79X.

As I think – and write – about this experience I basic process for visitors pops into my mind. I want to start them witht he naked eye view. From there, I’ll move them to low power binoculars on amount – just to let them know what they can expect to see with their own binoculars.  Next up would be the 66mm at 16X and on a tracking mount, tobe followed by the 5-inch SCT on tracking mount a with a 24-8 zoom. Finally they could go in the observatory and use the 8-inch SCT,

Last step? Show them a good image  – probably in the observatory and under red light –  of what they’ve been looking at and encourage them to go back and look again.

And in this process define a “glance” as one minute at the scope – a “look” as three minutes or more.

My last post here was almost a year ago – what the heck have I been doing?

Well, not much of what I would really call observing, though I had an hour and half this morning that felt right. For one thing for reasons I can’t explain I have been ignoring my best and easiest observing venue – the Observatory. So in thepast week I’ve made up my mind to get back to it.

Hey, the LX-200R is in “park” so all I have to do is open the shutter and turn on the scope. And I did about 2:20 am today and swung it to M11, the Wild Ducks – and found them hiding behind a tree! No problem – I swung over to M27 which I had taken a long look at a couple mornings ago. It was well placed and while the transparency was below par – I coud see a faint Milky Way, but nothing like I would like to – I did get a chance to really use the new (used) set of Meade Ultra-wide eyepieces I have acquired.

First, however, I looked with my inexpensive 30mmOwl “finder” eyepiece. This is an 82 degree AFOV and really quite good – especially considering it costs me $40 on the used market and that included a lens I can screw into it to bring it to 20X. Haven’t tried that yet, but I like it as a constant “finder” eyepiece for this scope and honestly, I don’t see much difference between it and the Meade UW 30mm except that the adjustable eye shield ont he Meade makes it easier for me to use.

I made a sketch – very rough – and a few notes of M27 and M57 observation, plus some notes on the Double Double. I closed up shop at 4 am as it was getting quite light.

Couple things I need to do –

Get oriented. I need to make it second nature what the directions and PA are when using this scope.

Get a better chair – my current stool doesn’t go low enough and it is difficult to observe object as high as M57 was when I was looking at it – 74 degrees – not all that high!

On M27 I noted some key field stars, so I should be able to figure the orientation from that.  I could see one star on the edge of – or just in the Nebulae and I believe from my reading this is a star to the southwest.

Best framing for this object came with the 18mm UWA. In fact, that also provided th ebest framing for M57.

I could just dig out the nearby 12th or 13th mag star on the edge of M57 that I have seen many times. That had to be an indicator of the poor transparency.

With the Double-Double I could split it starting with the 18mm and the 14mm probably gave th ebest split, though it was  hard to choose between that and the view in the 8.8mm.   However, I couldn’t get any of the views to reallys ettle downa nd give me the pristine, round stars I like with the  refractor. Masking the scope – bringing it down to 60mm – did give me nice round stars and again the best split came with the 14mm.  (The mask turns this into an F33 scope! The 14mm means I’m using 143X with a 60mm scope. Fifty times aperture should be the maximum power – about 112X – so I was luck to be getting a decent image with that 14mm.

Transit a success!

Well, I really thought we were doomed to watching the historic transit of Venus – last one for 105 years – on the web.

I had been ready to drive any where in the Northeast to see it, but the whole Northeast was socked in tight. I saw some hope in the few hours before it when this cloud pattern appeared.

This was the local cloud pattern about an hour before the transit was slated to start.

That gave me a slight ray of hope, but half an hour before it was to start I went outside and we were 100% overcast, so I settled down to watching the web cast from NASA, though the car was loaded with scopes for a quick trip to Gooseberry should things improve. The web cast  was slated to start at 5:45pm EDT.  I picked it up and we slowly moved towards the start of the transit a few minutes after 6. Right about  6 I decided to check on the weather satellite once more and darned if it didn’t show a hole over us – something I would have seen if I had looked out! Bren and I rushed out and I set up the TV85 and little Ha solar scope on a dual mount at the end of the driveway, unpacking it from the car. ( I had been planning to go to Gooseberry.) I hastily sent out an email telling folks I would be observing here.

And we did! Bren and I got a wonderful view right at the start of the transit and off and on for the next 45 minutes. I also had put one of the cheap solar filters I had bought for binoculars over the Rebel’s 300mm lens and I took several shots with it. What I got wasn’t anything to write home about, but hell, it was a picture and pretty much captured what we had seen. What struck us both was the size of Venus – larger than expected – the crispness of the little dot, and the blackness of it – much blacker than the array of sunspots easily visible below it.

This one was taken at 6:22:38 pm EDT using the 300mm – ISO 200, shutter speed 100 F5.6.

This second shot was taken at 6:27:13 pm EDT at ISO 200, 1/300th second and F5.6. I took many shots between these two trying different shutter speed and tweeking the focus because I could not be sure when I had a sharp image.

Karen Davis came over with Mason from next door and they both got a good look at the event.  Then some guy came by in a car, saw us, and stopped. He was using apiece of smoked glass that he seemed to have confidence in and said he could see it with the naked eye. Judy Beavan showed up as well, the only one on my email list besides Karen. And a little later another newcomer – Susan Czernicka. Susan wrote me immediately upon getting home:

I’m your excited neighbor from 1414 down the road who is feeling fortunate beyond words to have happened upon you out on the road.  I can’t thank you enough for enabling me to see the the transit.  Please add me to your email list.

So all in all, it was a nice event.  John Nanson saw it through breaks in the clouds from Oregon, and Dom and Daphne got great views – again through holes – with telescopes at the Sydney Observatory. Checked in on some of the Web coverage from time to time as well. Here’s a typical screen shot.

Meanwhile, real science was done during this transit by observing light reflected from the Moon and getting a reading on that which will help with studying extra-solar planets. Plans are being made for similar observations of the transit as seen from Jupiter and from Saturn later this year when the alignment for those planets is correct.  For details, see this article. 

Nothing like a nice June day in May to give the little observatory dome it’s annual washing.

The dome is fiberglass, about twenty years old, and, of course, sits exposed to the weather day and night. But still it amazes me what the rain and air does to it. How does it get this grungy? Are we breathing this stuff? I feel like we’re out in the country, but I guess not far enough out!

These pictures were taken after I had cleaned the shutter – the central part, but not the two sides.

Not sure you can really appreciate the grunge unless you scrub with brush and sponge and see the putrid green water that you then wash off.

I set out the new 16X70 Fujinon’s for testing yesterday. These are the binoculars that get rave reviews from those using them for astronomy, the most demanding task they face.  I must say the build is impressive, though the only optical test I’ve run so far tells me their effective diameter is 66mm, not the stated 70mm.  That’s pretty typical as binoculars go, though I expected better.

I’ll try them tonight. It should be an exceptional conditions for looking at deep sky objects, such as galaxies – but absolutely terrible for what really interests me right now – splitting doubles with binoculars – particularly Polaris.  That said, here  is the Red  Admiral and th ebinoculars on my old p-gram mount.  Note that in his first picture the most colorful thing about him are the white dots at the end of each antennae – but his next picture shows where he gets his name.


I’m starting a new  a “Star Hopper”  education program for anyone who wants to learn about telescopes and how to find their way around the night sky with or without a computer. It will be run out of “Driftway Observatory”  – my backyard in Westport, MA, so obviously you need to be in driving distance and participation on any given night will be limited.  The way this works is invitations are sent out to the email list of participants on the morning of a night when the forecast is favorable.  Participants can then respond and space is reserved on a first come, first served basis.

You can use your own telescope, or use one of the telescopes here.

I see this also as an excellent parent/child shared learning opportunity, however, each child must be accompanied by an adult – one child/one adult, two children/two adults.

Other requirements for participants are:

1. That you purchase a copy of the excellent guidebook,  “Turn Left at Orion, ” which we will use for every observing session.

2. That before you attend any night observing session you complete a day-time workshop on telescope use in general, but particularly on the new line-up of telescopes at Driftway Observatory. 

3. That you have – or purchase – a pair of handheld binoculars suitable for exploring the night sky. 

The learning goals of this program are simple:

1. Learn your way around the night sky using the unaided eye and binoculars. (My “Prime Time” web site will be a major resource for this.)

2. Learn your way around the universe by finding examples of the major classes of astronomical objects (double stars, open clusters, globular clusters, nebulae, galaxies, etc.) with one of the telescopes at Driftway, or your own telescope if you have one and wish to use it instead. 

3.  Apply the classic advice of Sherlock Holmes – learn to “observe,” not simply to “see.”

My role will be to suggest appropriate targets (from “Turn Left at Orion”), have telescopes and large binoculars available for you to use, and coach you in their use.  Your role will be to read about your targets and how to find them before coming out to observe. You will find yourself involved in setting up instruments, using them, and putting them away when done. Most importantly, though, you will find objects on your own with some direction from me.

I hope you will find this approach very satisfying, but I’m not sure this style of learning is appropriate for everyone. You’ll have to decide if this is what and how you want to learn. If this interests you, please respond by sending me  email ASAP and ask to be added to the Star Hoppers list. If you know someone else who might be interested, please have him/her contact me.

I will schedule appropriate times for one or more persons to come here to learn about the telescopes in daylight. We will be using the three most popular types of astronomical telescopes – all relatively inexpensive models, by the way: A 12-inch Dobsonian (simple manual control), a 4-inch refractor on an Equatorial mount (mostly manual), and a 6-inch computerized, “go-to” catadioptric.   If you master those, I’ll be happy to show you how to do astronomical video as well.

You can find a copy of “Turn Left at Orion” at a local bookstore – Barnes and Noble has had it in stock – or at an online store, such as Amazon.com.  One caution. There are still several editions of this book available.  If you have an older one, that’s fine, otherwise get the most recent one (fourth edition 2011), and I suggest the spiral bound one because it folds flat and is easier to use in the field. Here’s the complete title of the book and a link to Amazon.

Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope – and How to Find Them [Spiral-Bound]

Guy Consolmagno (Author), Dan M. Davis (Author)


Great Dob, great price, great service

By Greg Stone  on 4/21/2012
4out of 5

Pros: Easy assembly, good optics, 2-speed focuser, Easy to Use,  Fast free shipping, RACI finder

Cons: Directions not included, Tube could be longer to protect secondary from dew, Web directions dated

Best Uses: Astronomy, Galaxies, Globular Clusters, Deep sky faint fuzzies, Nebulae, Open clusters

Describe Yourself: amateur astronomer

First, this is as much telescope as I want to handle – and even then I hesitated quite a bit before buying  until I was sure I had a way to move and store it without it becoming a pain in the back.

Second – I like DOBs and I have owned the best – a 15-inch Obsession – but I was really skeptical about buying from Zhumell. Frankly, I assumed their stuff was junk and I think at first it wasn’t so good. They seem to have really improved, however, while keeping prices incredibly low – I mean, $700 including fast, free shipping? That is an incredible price for a scope this size with these features.  I’m not saying it will out perform and Obsession – but I don’t no anyone who can beat the combination of price and performance.

What’s more, I was impressed with their service.  Their was a large tear in the shipping carton for the tube and, sadly, a large dent in the tube. I took pictures and called them immediately. They didn’t need to see the pictures. They offered to pay for return shipping and send me another one. Or to compensate me for the dent.  I decided to assemble it and make sure I could collimate it – if that all worked, I  didn’t feel like packing it up and sending it back – and it did work and they immediately refunded $50. Not bad for a dent most people won’t see, since you use the scope in the dark 😉

So that said – what follows is the rest of my “review” for the folks who sell this – writing the review gets you $10 off the next purchase, no matter what you say – but I see this as a good deal. As noted,  this DOB delivers the most bang for the buck by far as long as you have the strength to lift it and a place to store it. (It separates into two pieces that are each less than 50 pounds, but still quite heavy.)

I was surprised by the quality of the optics and general construction and pleased with the comparatively sophisticated tensioning system which also allows moving the tube fore and aft within the bearings for balance of heavy eyepieces,or whatever. While I think the RA finder is nice and needed, if I were to put just one finder on this it would be a Telrad, or something similar. (I added a Telrad to mine.)

Do keep in mind there is no “right” telescope – just the right telescope for you. I would not recommend this to an apartment dweller, for example, and you are not going to use this for imaging, a part of the hobby many enjoy. But it is great for someone who enjoys star hopping – finding their own way around the night sky – and who doesn’t want to be either burdened – or coddled – by today’s sophisticated electronic marvels.

Given the price, I would say this telescope is a complement to the spirit of John Dobson who invented the simple mounting that bears his name and whose main goal in life appears to be to share the wonders of the night sky with as many people as possible.

Binoculars set up in Observing Shelter awaiting darkness for testing with doubles - and really testing me more than the binoculars. Unitron is there to check seeing conditions and acts as control of sorts - so to the Sparrow Hawk. (Click image for larger view.)

Until the past week I have never seen really sharp stars in binoculars – and what’s more, I assumed that was normal – that what I wasn’t seeing, others were not seeing.


Maybe decades worth of wrong. How many decades?  I’m not sure simply because it’s been relatively recently that I made a serious attempt to see double stars with binoculars and splitting close doubles is the most demanding resolution task of both the instrument and the observer.

From my experience I’ve developed some basic guidelines for splitting doubles with binoculars.  They are:

1. Wear your glasses if you have astigmatism – otherwise do without

2. Sit down – or better, lie back in a lawn chair – you must be comfortable

3. Hold the binoculars steady – even 7X50s will benefit from being on a tripod, or parallelogram mount unless, of course, they are image stabilized types

4. Focus carefully – very carefully –  first the left eye with center focus, then do the diopter adjustment for the right eye while keeping the left eye closed

5. Spend time on target – Look for at least one solid minute – don’t expect instant success.

6. Relax your eyes – let them focus at a distance and get used to it

7. And if all else fails, maybe you have a problem similar to mine – back off from the eyepieces an inch or two, move your head about some – find the correct head position – the one that works and yields sharp stars.

What follows is all about my own special case of “if all else fails” – because believe me, points one through six didn’t make a difference for me until I could settle the issue of point 7 and right now I’m not sure how many others have a similar problem, but I think it’s relatively few.

OK – the point is, I have been happily using binoculars for years without realizing I wasn’t getting the most out of these instruments – not even close to the most. Oh, I’ve seen galaxies out to  50 million light years or more – and I’ve gotten all sorts of expansive views of star clusters and nebulae. But I suspect what I discovered a few days ago may actually enhance  viewing of those objects as well.  What did I discover? That binoculars can, indeed, deliver “refractor-like” images of double stars. Let me be as clear as I can about this.

Double stars should look like the stars in the images to the right. That is, they should look like nice round discs with clean edges. Now any star that is low in the sky is  likely to throw out spikes of light, change colors, and dance about in any instrument just because in that instance you are looking through an awful lot of moving air.

But, if they are overhead or roughy 45 degrees or higher – and the air is average steady, then you should see nice sharp images when your instrument – binocular or telescope – is properly focused.

I do with telescopes – I don’t with binoculars – or didn’t up until recently and still don’t unless I am especially careful.  Is this my special problem? It may be. I have evidence there are some others who share it, but I suspect most people see the sharp stars they should, assuming their binoculars are held very steady – or are of the image stabilized variety – and they have been focused well.

Now let me emphasize that telescopes give me no problem – I can always see sharp, clean images with telescopes when seeing conditions are good. And while I am most likely to see the best images of doubles with either a long focal length refractor, or an apocromatic refractor, I get good, clean star images with any well-adjusted telescope of any design. Not so with binoculars. There the images have been consistently poor for me and I’m still not sure why. but lately I’ve come to suspect that my head simply isn’t screwed on straight – something critics have been telling me for years 😉

Determining what to expect with binoculars – that is, which doubles will split with binoculars  –  is much different than with telescopes. Double star fans know that all doubles aren’t created equal – and that the main problem is how far apart they are in angular measure – usually stated in seconds of arc.  A typical binocular has a field of view of between 2 and 8 degrees depending on how powerful it is. A typical binocular double is separated by less than one minute of arc. So when we are talking about stars separated by, say 30 seconds of arc, we’re talking about a distance that is just 1/120th of a degree. If your binoculars show a six degree field, then this pair of stars is taking up  about 1/700th of that field of view. Darned little.

So you also typically put the pair of stars in the middle of your field of view and the middle of the field of view is where even poor quality binoculars tend to perform quite well. Stars half way out to the edges may start to deform and stretch, but in the center they are sharp.  That’s why I say – and my experience confirms – that quite inexpensive binoculars can perform reasonably well when splitting doubles.

That is the first piece of big news I pulled out of my recent Eureka Moment.

The second was a handy rule of thumb I stumbled across when researching this subject trying to figure out what the heck was wrong with me. Telescope resolution – or expectations of resolution – are typically guided by something called the Dawes Limit which is entirely dependent upon the size of the objective  – a bigger objective creates smaller star images (in terms of angular size)  and will thus split stars that are closer together – it’s as simple as that. Now double star observers no it’s not really that simple – that frequently when the pair of stars have one that is much dimmer than the other, this rule crumbles because the dimmer star gets lost in the glare of the brighter one.

But if we are talking about stars that are within a couple of magnitudes of one another in brightness, the Dawes limit is a good starting point for determining how close stars can be and still be split.  The problem is, this rule assumes you are using fairly high magnification – say 30 times your objective diameter in inches. With binoculars you are almost always using much lower magnification. For example, my 10X30 image stabilized binoculars deliver only about eight times the objective diameter in inches. And my 25X100 binoculars have a power just four times the objective diameter in inches.

But Gary Seronik, in his small book “Binocular Highlights” suggests another rule of thumb that applies to binoculars – simply divide the power of your binoculars into 300. The answer is the separation, in seconds of arc, that those binoculars should be able to split. Thus my 10X30 binoculars – or 10X50 – should be able to split two stars that are separated by 30 seconds of arc. Albireo, a very popular double, is separated by 34 seconds of arc, so the 10X glasses should split it. My 25X100 should be able to split  stars that are 12 seconds of arc apart – that means the very popular double Mizar – which is separated by about 14 seconds – should split in the 25X binocular – and, indeed, it does. However, my 20X glasses will probably have problems with it  – 300/20=15 – and they do, though I have been able to split Mizar with those glasses, it’s difficult. So I think this is an excellent – though rough – guide. (The Dawes limit on those 25X100 binoculars, btw, is  barely a second  of arc – but that is a totally unrealistic expectation for binocular performance. Dawes limit = 4.56 Arc Seconds / Objective Diameter (inches) so 4.56/4 = 1.14. In fact, it is rare for a telescope to achieve this resolution on a double, but something like 1.8″ of arc is a reasonable expectation for a 4-inch t eleescope.)

But these numbers have not mattered much to me when using binoculars. I have only split the widest doubles. So, for example, over the years I really needed 15X binoculars to get a good, obvious split of the Dragon’s Eyes – Nu Draconis – a charming pair of 5th magnitude stars a wide 60 seconds of arc apart. Now, the new me finds them simple with just 10X30 binoculars.  Fifteen power glasses should, by this rule, be able to split stars just 20 seconds apart. The Dragon’s eyes should fall to binoculars as low as five power!  What’s more, in the past when I split this pair I didn’t get the kind of clean, “bullet hole”, stars shown in the image – I got dancing stars – bloated, jiggly stars throwing out spokes of light. It’s just that the 15 power binoculars – and the wide split – made it possible for me to see this pair as  two stars – and I assumed everyone was seeing the same thing.

But I was puzzled how observers I respect and admire like Seronik and Ed Zarenski, to mention just two, routinely split stars that were far, far closer together and instead of bragging about their amazing eyes and observing skills, seemed to think that others could routinely do the same. I know I couldn’t.

It must be my eyes. They must have problems I’m not aware of. That was my first train of thought and I’ve been pursuing that one for the better part of a year – without staisfaction. And a recent trip to the eye doctor confirms my practical experience – there’s nothing seriously wrong with my eyes. In fact, I have what the doctor describes as a “slight astigmatism” – so slight that they say that if I get corrective glasses I will barely notice the difference – and though this doctor worked with folks who sold glasses, she didn’t recommend them for me. (I ordered them anyway – there was  a special on where they’ll cost just $50 and this is something i have to see for myself because this whole business is driving me more than a little crazy.)

The Breakthrough

My breakthough came on a morning when I had decided to test five different binoculars –  10X30IS Canons, 15X70 Celestron Skymasters, 20X60 Pentax, 20X80 Celestrons,  and 25X100 Zhummels.  With the exception of the image stabilized Canons, all would be tested mounted on one of two parallogram mounts. The largest of these mounts was on a pier and really too tall for me to use sitting down, so I was using that one standing.  As a way to check the seeing and to make sure I could actually split these particular stars at low power, I had two small refractors set up as well – a 60mm Unitron using a 40mm Kellner eyepiece for roughly 24X and a 50mm Stellarvue Sparrow Hawk that was a lot like a single binocular in that it used a prism diagonal and was of very short focal ratio – F4.1. I used a 20mm eyepiece in this to get 10X, so it was, in many ways, a good match for the Canon 10X30IS.

My targets were the doubles Albireo (34.4″), Zeta  Lyra (44″), Nu Draconis -Dragon’s Eyes–  (62″), and Mizar (14.3″) – all were at a good altitude on this spring morning.

Initial tests

And the notes from my initial test showed nothing went particularly well at first.  This was the old me.

Actually, I started in the early evening with Mintaka – a wide  split at 52.8″ of arc that should be easy with all the binoculars I was testing, except there also is quite a difference in magnitude –  2.4, 6.8. That 4.5 magnitude difference makes Mintaka a bit of a challenge.  But the 25X100s showed it well. The 20X80s gave me a good look, though not quite as good as the larger binoculars. Actually, the best view came with the 20X60s – not sure why, but this is the old me talking.  I’m seeing a split, but the primary is shooting fire. The 10X30IS gave me an occasional glimpse.  The best view came with the Unitron with the 40mm Kellner, so this was roughly comparable to the 20X60 binoculars, but the star images were much better. I assumed that was because it was a long focal length refractor – and that probably was part of the reason, but as I later learned, didn’t account for all the difference.

The point here is that even the old me could split some doubles – just not nearly as well as I later learned was possible.

I moved on to the much more challenging Mizar. The 10X30IS couldn’t split it – no surprise. The separation is too little for those binoculars. Here I drew a quick sketch of what I saw with the 20X60s because the stars were so bloated and dancing so much I couldn’t be sure I was seeing a split, but I thought I was.  When I checked with the 60mmUnitron I was sure – the binocular view was correct – but, there was absolutely no comparing the two views. The Unitron – at roughly the same power- was far, far cleaner than the binoculars. (Remember, at 20X you should barely be able to split  Mizar – the formula says 15″ is  the minimum separation. Mizar is 14.3″ – though the stars are fairly close in magnitude –  2.2    and  3.9.) The 25X100 gave me a certain split, but certainly NOT “refractor-like” stars.

But something strange was starting to happen. As I maneuverd the binoculars on the parallelogram mounts they were sometimes a few inches from my eyes and once in a while I got a glimpse of sharp stars such as I saw in the Unitron. This first happened with the 20X80 Celestrons and it came when I seemed to bend my head back and literally look down my nose from an inch or two behind the eyepieces. I was tired. I was getting cold. And I really didn’t know what was going on, so I went in with the intention of getting four hours sleep and trying again when I was refreshed.

Morning session

Field notes on Albireo - at last, a clear view.

Nothing comes easily to me – especially in terms of binoculars. I wrestle with mounts, I fiddle endlessly with focus, and mostly I have ended end up seeing something like this:

I have a sense of two stars here, of course, but theimages are dancing, the colors swapping sides, and sometimes I think I see the secondary in one place, sometimes in another.

When I should see – and now do see –  this:

What a delight! This is what I'm used to seeing with a telescope and now - with more and more consistency and less and less hassle, can see with binoculars.

In one sense the change was nearly instantaneous – that is, I would go from a terrible image to a perfect one – no inbetween.  But it only happened after a lot of work and a lot of false steps.

What made me put in the extra effort was I justc ouldn’t reconcile the diffferent experience of using two very nice instruments on Albireo. The first was the Stellarvue Sparrow Hawk aka Little Rascal. This is a 50mm finder, essentially, but  it takes standard eyepieces and is easy to focus. But like a binocular it has a very short focal ratio – F4.1 – and it uses a prism to deliver an erect image. And as my notes show, when I pointed it at Albireo on this particular morning with a 20mm eyepiece (10X) I got a “clean and delicate” split just as I would expect with any telescope – though this wasn’t any telescope. this was essentially half a binocular.

Then when I switched to the 10X30IS Canon’s I was back in Blursville with dancing stars.  And then I started to notice something. I noticed it with the large, mounted binos – the 25X100 Zhummel and the 20X60 Pentax, and 20X80 Celestrons. If I backed my eye way off – I’m talking two or three inches from the eyepieces – and tilted my head so I was in effect looking down my nose  there were long moments when the two stars snapped into sharp focus. Crazy? I’m not sure. When Ibrought this up in a Cloudy Nights discussion forum a few people came forward to talk of similar experiences – but on a few.

Believe me , my heart was racing. I have looked at countless double with binoculars and I had never seen them like this.  This was a real breakthrough and I quickly skipped about from Albireo to Zeta Lyre, to the Dragon’s Eyes and then to Mizar. With these kargerf binoculars everything was great – really great with the bright image sof the 25X100,

I couldn’t believe my luck. I hadn’t even brought out the 10X30IS for this session because I had about given up on them. Twilight was starting to grow brighter in the east. I quickly went back to the house, got the 10X30IS, and voila! There was a perfect Albireo – a yellow star with a scrumptious blue pinpoint right next to it.  I simply couldn’t believe it.  It was every bit as good as I had seen in the tiny Sparrow Hawk refractor.  The only question that remains is why the heck did it take me half a century of observing to discover this?

Well, not the only question. Since this breakthrough I have had three more sessions under the stars and I have expanded the variety of stars I’m looking at to include 16 & 17 Draocnis, Regulus, and Psi Draconis.  I have had my eyes examined by a professional and asked her for ane xplanation – why the heck do I have to look down my nose at doubles? And I have discussed it in online forums and with Larry Patriarcha, the guy who makes and sells the best parallelogram mounts  I know of.  Allt hese people had ideas, but no really firm answers.

But here’s the rub. This is getting easier and easier for me to do – that’s good news, but doesn’t solve the puzzle. I am finding with practice I now achieve this state of double star nirvana without half trying. But it still is easiest to reach if I back off form the eypieces, then, once i get it, approach them slowly being careful to maintain my head position.

So I think it does have something to do with head position – after all, with binoculars you look up – with many telescopes using diagonals you look down.  And it may have some tiny thing to do with astigmatism, and it may have to do with stressing my eye muscles by tiltilting my head back and looking down my nose. But two things are clear to me – first, most observers don’t seem to experience this problem. Second, I don’t understand fully why I do, nor do I understand fully the solution because the ground rules seem to be slipping out from under me. There definitely is a groove and I find it easier and easier to get in it. And believe me, I’m not complaining. This opens up a whole new area of especially enjoyable observing for me.

Doubles I love. I always have found a magic in seeing two perect little globes next to one another.  But now I can see them with both eyes open and while leaning back in a comfortable lawn chair and looking up at the sky – and that, for me, really is double star nirvana.


After a hiatus of about four years I am back into deep sky video astronomy with both feet. The object of this form of astronomy is to provide live video views at the telescope – under the stars – which show far more detail in faint, distant objects than can be seen visually with the eye at the telescope. The video camera, a special one made by hand in Canada by Rock Mallin, simply slides into the telescope where the eyepiece normally goes.

This is not rocket science, but there are a lot of options, a lot of wires, and some stuff to learn, so at this stage my efforts are crude, but I’m happy with the results. I don’t see this as competing with still imaging where much different cameras are used to take super pictures which are then enhanced the next day in the computer.  What you see here is raw video – what you would see if you stood by the telescope and looked at the video screen. I discussed the reasons for doing this  in detail in a post about six years ago when I first tried deep sky video.

Yeah, Driftway Way Observatory looks a bit techy these days with all the wires and things 😉 That little screen about the size of a deck of cards is the recording device from Orion. It includes a nice monitor which is shown here displaying a menu. The whole thing is small and light enough to ride ont he telescope. (Click image for a larger view.)

Last night I tried for the first time  an Orion StarShoot LCD-DVR recorder – this is a new item – so new the Orion sales and technical folks could not answer my questions a couple weeks ago because they hadn’t seen one yet. So I decided to buy one and give it a try, since Orion has a reasonable return policy. My assessment? Neat. I like it. But then. I’ve only spent an hour with it. However, let’s cut to the chase. Here are most of the recorded videos from last night.

My first stop was M3, a globular cluster , and the different versions of it you see on the followingvideo are due to my playing with the MallinCam controls -sometimes taking very short exposures, sometimes longer ones. Also, the  drives on the LX-200R hadn’t really settled down yet, so you don’t get a satisfying – to me – view until the end of this brief clip.

About viewing these clips –

1. Enlarge to full screen if possible by clicking box in lower left.

2. Don’t treat like a normal video – there is no relevant sound and there is virtually no action. When you see something you like, pause and view as a still image.

3. Make liberal use of the slider beneath the video to jump from one section of the video to another.

Colliding galaxies

This next one is of one of my favorite galaxies – or rather, colliding galaxies – M51. Though I have viewed this countless times over the past 40 years or more, this is the first time I was really aware that the core of the smaller galaxy is much brighter than the core of the larger one. (I explore just that idea in another video later.)

I jumped from M51 to a much different subject, the Owl Nebulae in Ursa Major – M97.  I have always found this planetary nebular difficult visually, but in the video it’s fairly easy to see how it got its nickname. This won’t be obvious until I increase the exposure in the second half of the video.

From the Owl I went to another difficult, but astounding subject, m101, the great Pinwheel Galaxy just off the Big Dipper’s handle. This is notoriously hard to see visually, but the spiral structure, while subtle is easily seen – especially in the longer exposures near the end of this video.

M81 is best known, perhaps,a s the companion of M82. The two galaxies are fairly near to one another – and to us (11 million light years) and both can be seen int he same binocular field of view. They are quite different. M81 is a bright spiral – however, the spiral structure takes alot of exposure to bring out and only becomes apparent inthe second half of this video.

(Written one morning in late January 2012, a day or two after this event.)
SkySafari Pro screen shot of the Centaur and his wonderful globular.

Suddenly it is 3 am! And right up there where horse-meets-man is where I want to soar – but first . . .

I have been waiting patiently for hours, trying to sleep and not sleep – that’s the problem when you agree to meet someone. Or my special problem. I don’t have an  alarm that I know how to use and I don’t want to wake up others with it anyway  . . . so I sleep for three and a half hours, then wake up too early and have no choice but to lie there, resting but not sleeping for two and a half hours – then in the last half hour I fall asleep and wake up with a start realizing I have almost missed my appointment.

But surely, Victor, our host, either won’t be there, or he’ll be late. He didn’t show another night when I had invited him and thought he had accepted – and that was for 7 pm, a much more reasonable time to observe for most people. In any event, it can’t be helped. I should explain I’m somewhere a bit south and west of the Middle of Nowhere, as indicated on this map.

Indian Pass is where the red dot is – not quite as deserted as it might look here, but far enough away from civilization to have very dark skies.(Click image for larger view.)

The forecast was for 49 degrees this morning. I don’t know the temperature, but I pull on a sweatshirt, then another, then my light winter jacket and a scarf, and a watch cap, and gloves and I’m ready to face our deserted area of Florida’s Gulf Coast. I am in Indian Pass, an area a bit easy of Port Saint Joe that is sandwiched between a huge national forest to the north and east and the Gulf to the  south with a large, wildlife refuge – St. Vincent Island – to the southeast. In other words, a very deserted, very dark section. I love it.

Sure there are houses next door but there is only one light visible and it is well down the beach and a subdued yellow color not doing any harm.  I carefully make my way down the first flight of stairs coming out of the tree-house-like “Barnacle,” our vacation home for two weeks.  This is the last dark morning we will be here and a cold front has passed leaving clear dark skies that the local Clear Sky Clock say should by now have settled down so that transparency is a four out of five and seeing is above average as well.

The boardwalk first climbs up a dune, then reaches this point where you can look down on the beach and Gulf well below you.

Who knows – I do glimpse some stars overhead, but mostly I am in a canopy of Live Oaks and an occasional Cabbage Palm as I walk first across the stone of the driveway, then broken shells and past Vic’s house – a bigger version of our own circular structure sitting high on rugged stilts, and begin my first climb up a flight of stairs in the dark, dimly lit by the red light hanging from my neck.

There are 40 or 50 steps between me and the beach and fortunately a railing beside all but the last 10.  I’m 70 and although I’ve lost a lot of weight and feel in fairly decent shape, I have developed the older person’s fear of stumbling. This is just a tad crazy coming out here alone in the dark, but I’ve planned well, having carried most of my equipment out here in three or four trips around dusk. It is now on the last flat section of boardwalk in plastic boxes. All I have to do is take stuff out and assemble it – screw together the counterweight shaft to the mount, and add the counterweight, then carry the assembly in one hand while using the other hand on the rail as I descend to the beach. There is a rail here – it’s the other end that doesn’t have one on the last descent to solid – well, somewhat solid – sand.

Oh my god! Look up, Wait. I’m too involved in trivial details. Just look at those skies! Dark as I have ever seen in my life. Darker, really then I have seen nearly every clear night I have ever observed. Two weeks before when we first arrived here they were more transparent, though. Just incredible. Bren came out and loved it! A zillion stars. The Winter Milky Way brighter than the Summer Milky Way on my best night’s in Westport – and the Zodiacal Light. Now that was like the Milky Way reaching up in a huge cone to the west, easily surrounding Venus in the evening sky and licking at Jupiter high above.  I have detected the Zodiacal Light in Westport. At Indian Pass it couldn’t be missed. That was the first evening – a most welcome introduction to the darkest skies I’ve ever enjoyed in  more than half a century of sky gazing.

They were never repeated, though I had three clear nights – maybe four – in a row and I did some wonderfully simple and enjoyable observing. The most notable experience had been an earlier excursion to this same beach over the same board walk – but on that occasion I had a much simpler – and lighter – rig. It was my old parallelogram mount -a Charlie Funk special – on a light, Voyager tripod and these incredible – cheap, but very serviceable – 100mm , 25X Zhummel binoculars.

That was my introduction to Omega Centauri and I was blown away.

NASA image of Omega Centauri – not quite what I saw, but what I saw certainly was mind boddling enough. Clcik image for larger view.

I had SkySafari 3 on my Ipad and had it with me in red light mode and so I knew where and when to look. But I was amazed at how easily I found it, just scanning the southern horizon with  10X30 binoculars – geeeeze, it’s as big as the full Moon – bigger actually – just a huge, bright puff ball that can’t be missed in the smallest binoculars. There’s simply nothing else like it. Sure, I can detect M13, M3, even M98 in these same binoculars – but only because I know them so well and know what kind of a tiny, blurry spot to seek. This – this was different. And in the 100mm binoculars it was simply awesome.

OK – maybe this screen shot from Sky Safari Pro is closer to what I actually saw with the 25X100 binoculars – but by any measure, an amazing sight!

I sat in a beach chair and drank it in, sucking down those photons from what? Five million stars, 15,000 light years away, jammed together  in a compact globe – a globe with a rough texture at 25X, hinting at the individual stars which made it up. Incredible. Simply incredible.

Where are the words for this kind of experience? How do you capture the gestalt of being on this gorgeous beach, the waves rhythmically lapping the fine sand providing a muted, base section that even my poor hearing can detect – and nothing and no one else – not that can be seen – in any direction. Nothing – nothing but the whole bloody universe and this gorgeous globular cluster – the largest in our galaxy and almost the largest we know. (There’s one larger in the The Great Andromeda Galaxy, well-known for its globular clusters, but of course it takes a huge telescope to see that one.)

No this is incredible and what will follow – one of my early goals for this trip, though seeing Omega was the main one – is visual wanderings among the local family of galaxies – what is known as the Virgo Cluster.  It’s a confusing patch of sky containing dozens of  galaxies within reach of these powerful binoculars and I figured this was a great way to get to know it better. I have wandered there before with scopes of all sizes ranging from 80mm to 15-inches. But while I have identified some individual galaxies, I really have not had a firm grasp of this section of sky – of which galaxy is which and how to quickly find my way to one of particular interest.

Talk about a Star Trek! How easily we bend our minds around the absolutely astounding. Each galaxy – each small, barely visible even in the large binos – fuzzy dot represents 100 billion stars or so, their light having travelled something in the order of 30-to-50 million years to  enter my eyes and ping my brain as I sit comfortably on this deserted beach. How do you experience it? How do you convey feelings you can’t name?

And here I was again, the sky gods opening things up for me on the waning hours of my two-week visit. How nice. How gorgeous. How startlingly bright is Sirius, over in the west – the gleaming nose of the Big Dog as he dives behind some distant trees, chasing his master, Orion. (The hunter was there earlier and it is not hard for me to imagine him. I spent several evening observing sessions with the brilliant Orion Nebulae as a major target of my binoculars and scopes.)

I had come to Florida well-equipped with binoculars and new binoviewers for two scopes – the Televue 85 and the Celestron C6.  I had a drive system for this mount as well. But for this last look on this starlit morning – the Moon had long set, unlike that first look at Omega Centauri when a last quarter Moon had challenged it, yet dimmed it surprisingly little. Anyways – for this last look I had stripped things down to just the C6 and the EQ mount, sans electronics. I did so both because I needed to pack most stuff for an early departure the night before and because there really was only so much stuff that I was willing to drag up and down that boardwalk over the dunes.

And now I was assembling it – the C6, the eyepieces, the . . . wait – here’s Vic. A white light on the path, dim – I say hello, and he says something. Who knows what. I tell him if he waits until I’ve set up the scope and put in my hearing aids I might understand him. He helps, carrying the observing chair and a few odds and ends and shortly we’re in business.

I can’t see Omega Centauri yet. My eyes aren’t well enough dark adapted because the set up took too much light. But I know where it should be and using only the red dot finder, I quickly get the scope trained on it. I’m using a 24mm Panoptic eyepiece – maybe a one degree field or so – I’m not sure exactly. The diagonal is the “power switch” from Denkmeir that I got primarily for use with the binovciewers. But I’ve packed them. Earlier experiments had shown that they dreadfully unbalance the little 6-inch catadioipric, forcing the electronics to work too hard and me to come up with a real Rube Goldburg balancing scheme involving strapping the battery pack to the front of the scope with a bungy cord. That worked one night. But I wasn’t about to screw around with it on this last clear morning.

No – here I would return to Cyclops mode – one-eyed viewing and the Denkmeir “power switch” would provide some reduction of power and thus some widening of the field of view – so let’s call it one and half degrees. Whatever it was, it was perfect! There was Omega Centauro looking exacty – I mean exactly – like its picture in SkySafari Pro – but blown up now from the binocular view with plenty of individual stars visible – about like this. (Less the crosshairs – could find the right button to click to get read of the danged things in the software.)

And can you get your mind around it? I can’t and I’m not at all sure Vic could. He looked. I think this was his first look through a telescope at the night sky.  How could anyone taking their first look appreciate Omega, the end-all of globular clusters? I don’t know. We get so little visual information actually reaching us and we are so dulled to the wonders of the world by the drum-beat of wam-bam television and computer games and whatever – well, I just don’t know how to convey it.

You need to experience it – but there’s more. You need to experience it with deep awareness. And I find that a challenge because truly deep awareness isn’t something you can find – it’s something that finds you. It wasn’t finding me – and I had no real good indication it was finding Vic. So I showed him Saturn, riding high in the morning sky next to Spica – a blue and yellow pair that looked for the world like the Gemini Twins on this morning, though I knew that famous pair were well behind me and headed for the ground.

Saturn got his attention. I mean, who can resist the ringed planet in a small telescope?  It has the biggest wow factor of anything up there. But Vic doesn’t seem like the wowed type, though he did seem impressed. And he also was impressed  by Mizar and Alcor – split it with his naked eye, too – wish I could do that. I need to get my eyes checked when I get home and I definitely need some distance glasses that correct this astigmatism.

By the time we had done Omega, and Saturn, and Mars, and M13, and Mizar, though. Vic had had it. “I’m freezing my ass off,” he said. “I have to go in – thanks!” Well of course he was. He was wearing shorts and maybe a sweat shirt or something – what he used, he said, for running on the beach. And he learned the hard way that observing the universe isn’t nearly as warming as a brisk run. You stand around a lot, barely moving and 49 feels like 39 or maybe 32.  Even through the gloves my hands were getting cold.

But I persisted. I now had two hours of observing to myself – as I did on that other morning when I used the big binos to track down a dozen or so of the galaxies in the Virgo cluster, I really know that skyscape now. That is, I have the main outlines of it in my head and am sure, without reference to a chart, I can easily find M84/85, M60 and M58, and M – well, you get the idea.

By the way – I had begun that galaxy hunt by first looking at the Leo triplet, high overhead. OMG! I mean, usually when I look at the Leo Triplet to see a double – M65 and M66. I think it’s M66 that seems much brighter and it leaps out at me – M65 is clear. But that third galaxy – bigger and dimmer – is something that falls in the “detectable” category. You find it. You sense its presence, but you don’t observe it.

Not so that morning-of-the-interfering-Moon-and-huge-binoculars-and-very-clear-skies. No that morning I would go looking for the familiar “J” of stars that usually lead me to these three galaxies and I would find instead the three galaxies and they would lead me to the “J” – incredible.

That little experience in very familiar territory led me to explore the Virgo Cluster and get a map of it in my head – something I won’t lose or forget to bring with me another time 😉

And I went elsewhere, too – to M81/82, of course. I mean never better. And to the Whirlpool – M51. It was really astounding. What was it? The clear skies? Or the 100mm binoculars – perhaps the equivalent in light grasp of a 120mm scope? I don’t know. But something sure was different foir me that morning. It was simply the best feast of faint fuzzies I have ever consumed.  Yeah, I even saw M108 and M97, the elusize Owl Nebula – and M101 was spectacular as well, high in the northeast. Oh – I even quicly found M95/96 and what is it – M105 with its companions in Leo’s forepaw – or shoulder – or maybe rib cage. Anyway – magnificient.,

But tonight I had a scope. And Vic had gone in. And I was once again alone with the universe and I could let the sight of Omega seep in – Omega, which scientists now think may actually be the core of a dwarf  galaxy that got  gently ripped apart over the course of millions of years as it a careened into our Milky Way. That would help explain its size and the different colored stars in it indicating different ages. I looked for those colors – felt they were there, but I cna’t say as they screamed out at me.

All I can say is it looked just like its pictures – and yes, I also went and found nearby Centaurus A – a special galaxy whose specialty I couln’t remember, but myf riend John had urged me to check it out, so I did. It looked like a dim star enmeshed in a very uneven – was that a dark lane – faint haze. Quite large and at 11-oclock and perheaps six degrees away from Omega. In fact, it would be less than that because in the 10X30IS binos I could see both Omega and  the faint haze that was Centaurus A – need to do some research. What exactly was I seeing?

Oh – and I couldn’t resist splitting Porrima – wonderful Porrima – easily split at a moderately high power by the C6. This evenly-matched pair is getting farther apart, but they still presented me with battling diffraction rings on this morning.

I also did a survey with the small binoculars. I saw how Omicron looked in them – then I looked at M13, the most spectacular globular I usually see – it looked like a toy – I couldn’t get that word out of my head – a toy – it just couldn’t hold a candle to Omega. But I continued the survey. I looked at M92 and M3 and then one I wasn’t too familiar with, M4 in Scorpius now getting nicely up in the southeast.

Oh my. Nothing will compare with Omega. And when I return to Westport I’ll have nice skies and I’ll explore with these instruments and I may – on occasion – I hope – be wrapped in awe.  But Omega will be over the southern horizon – well, maybe it will just peek up if I got down to the ocean at just the right time and have lots of luck. I’ll have to try.

As I packed up about 6 am I looked at the rising glow in the east – the first hint that we were turning towards our Sun – and there was the full Scorpion completely above the horzion with wonderful, hooked tail. It was a great sight to leave – formed a bookend with the setting Great Dog in the west as I carefull climbed the steps, the C6 in one arm, one hand for the rail, and plunged down into the darkness past Vic’s darkened home and to the half-packed car under our own little Barnicle.

What a perfect morning. What a perfect vacation retreat. What an icnredible star trek!