Archive for February, 2009

05:28 +35:19, open cluster, 4,500 ly, mag 8.2

About 6 minutes across – south southwest of M38 -“. . . a rich sprinkling of very faint stars over a hazy background, with one slightly brighter star near the center . .. matched pair of 10th magnitude stars adorns the south-southeast edge.” Franch, CS p, 52

M38 is 5:29 , 35:50, magnitude 6.4 and 4,300 ly  -French says 60 stars in 4.1 inch refractor at 68X – interesting – she notes that there’s “a lone 9.7 magnitude star centered in a 5 minute hole nearly devoid of stars.”

Now that 5′ hole is almost the same size of the cluster, NGC 1907 – wonder if I can see both int he same field? She says the other stars seem to radiate out from this hole in four arms.

Pi in the sky – Some observers see the letter “pi” inthese stars – I always had felt they formed a cross.  Have to look again.

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. . . at least for me.

Up until now I have not been overly impressed with the appearance of our visitor, but tonight I checked it out once more and this time – for the first time – the “blob” looked more like a comet. I could see, as before, a distinct nucleus, but also a distinct dust tail. (Wonder if it’s changing its orientation to us? Update -spaceweather.com on 2/27 has a sequence on tail orientation – it is changing, of course, but the dust tail should have been easily seen for several days and I have seen Lulin for several days without easily seeing the dust tail, so it must simply be my viewing conditions, though that doesn’t make sense to me either!) The tail stretched out for about half a degree making the comet about the size of the full moon.

I could not see it with the naked eye, but it was very nice in my 80mm Eon. I was was observing at 9:40 pm EST and while transparency was acceptable – it was not great.  (I had just observed M65 and M66 in the same section of the sky and while easily found, I’ve seen them better witht his scope.) By some strange coincidence it looked something like the representation of it in my Starry Nights software – at least it was the right size, thought the software image shows a strangely flat nucleus – th one I saw was rounder.

While at the scope I made a quick sketch and the position exactly matches the position in the Starry Nights screen shot below, with the length of the tale as shown. (Kudos to Starry Mights for plotting it so well!) I used a 32mm Plossl and 13mm Nagler and the faint red circles on the image below  comes pretty close to the actual field of view.

Screen shot of Starry Nights software representation of how Comet Lulin might appear - a rough approximation of what I saw exactly where I saw it.

Screen shot of Starry Nights software representation of how Comet Lulin might appear - a rough approximation of what I saw exactly where I saw it.

Mind you, I am still concerned this comet has been over hyped. People expect to see it with the naked eye or at least  binoculars – and while they can find it with binoculars if they know where to look what to expect, I just think their expectations – especially if they’ve seen pictures – will be far hgher than the reality of what they will see – especially from a light-polluted, suburban location. That said, I’m enjoying checking on it night after night, though I have a feeling this was my best shot. We have a spell of bad weather forecast and after that the moon will be getting into the picture and tending to spoil things.

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I’m going through another equipment exchange burst and I hope this will be my last. My problem is simple – I get obsessed with having just the right equipment which then detracts from true observing. This particular outburst was triggered by breakdowns in high-tech stuff that are driving me in the direction of low-tech solutions out of both frustration and a feeling – rationalization? – that the low-tech is really  a better choice.

My second problem is I just have too many telescopes – though I am seriously narrowing the field. They made sense when I had a lot of visitors – and when I really thought my visitors were going to use the telescopes. What I have found is they don’t. They tend to gravitate towards the telescope that I’m near. They don’t have enough training and experience to point the telescope on their own and they don’t have enough of either to do what I consider serious observing – that is, staying on a single target for at least half an hour and making drawings and/or notes. I could address these issues somewhat with computer-controlled scopes that tracked, but these involved too much set-up time for me.

Bottom line – at any given session for visitors I can handle two telescopes – maybe three – that’s it. To me, given varying observing needs, I need perhaps four telescopes. That also fits my personal observing habits.  In fact, I think I could be quite happy with a single, good refractor and an excellent set of eyepieces.  What I’m trying to build towards this time around is the following:

The 15-inch as the ultimate deep sky scope.

Two refractors for portable and general purpose use.

Perhaps a single 8-inch SCT with computer control, but I am favoring more and more the idea of using scopes without computer control and without tracking – primarily because it keeps life simple, but also because there are some serious advantages to NOT having a computerized scope. Of course this goes against the grain. Call me contrary 😉

I’m getting there. The main question I hope to resolve in the next couple of weeks is whether or not an achromatic refractor can do most observing tasks fine. In other words, is it really necessary to spend serious dollars on apochromatic refractors – or something that approaches them? I can’t bring myself to go for the top of the line type. I really do like very nice refractors that I consider semi-apo. But even there, tests may satisfy me that much less is fine. To that end if have on order an Orion ST-120. This is an F5 refractor suitable for use on my parallelogram mount. I want to compare it’s performance on two classes of objects in particular – double stars and open star clusters – with my best refractors, the Eon 80 and the 100 ED. I know it will show more stars – the question is, will it show pinpoint stars and will it give the high contrast I’ve grown used to?  Stay tuned.

I’ve also bought used a new p-mount – well, it’s an older variation of  the “t-mount” made by Universal Astronomics. It has a shorter arm and not as many degrees of motion as the parallelogram mount I’m using. I know it will mean a more comfortable fit in the observatory, especially when using either of the two larger refractors. (One advantage of the 120ST is it is an F5 and that means it’s about 11-inches shorter than the 100 ED and so will be steadier on either of the parallelogram mounts. ) The question is, will the T-mount be more stable than my current mount with any telescope? Stay tuned. This too I hope to resolve in a week or two.

The one part of the equation that is under control is the eyepiece situation.  I now have a complete set of Naglers for the refractors. Well, complete set of the ones that are light weight. I find the 22-mm “grenade” very nice, but too large for the parallelogram mount – switching between it and other eyepieces causes issues with balance that need to be addressed and that makes it inconvenient there. But my primary goal with that eyepiece was to make it the main low-powered eyepiece for the 15-inch – and that works fine.

For lowest power – and widest field – with the refractors I should receive soon a used 32mm Televue Plossl. I hope it’s better than the 32mm – cheaper – Antares Plossl I have. I don’t expect it to get much use. My primary starting point with the refractors will be the 13mm Nagler and that will be complemented by the 9, 7, 5 and 3.5 Naglers. (The 3.5 was just purchased and hasn’t arrived yet, so I use a 3.2 TMB instead – very nice, but narrower field.)

Why the Naglers? They’re excellent. If I put a double star at the edge of the field it looks as good as it does in the center of the field. And, of course, they have that huge, 82-degree field and that means – with no motors – that things stay in view longer. I don’t think I would need them if I were sticking with motor-driven scopes. (Again – more on this in another post.) I bought all the Naglers used for an averge savings of about 30 percent. I sold my 13mm Ethos. It’s a great eyepiece, but again, weight is an issue – just not enough advantage over the Nagler to justify rebalancing. )

This set of eyepieces is for personal observing and for use with experienced visitors. I have a second set of similar eyepieces – the Hyperions – which are 68-degrees, and all heavier – and all significantly cheaper. They’re very good eyepieces and I’ll use those as the primary eyepieces with visitors. Plus having a second set means it’s easy to keep two scopes going.

Big equipment question mark? What gets sold. Possibilities:

1. One of the two 8-inch catadioptrics. Either the Celestron or Meade. I’ll decide later, but one of these goes – possibly both.

2. Either the 100ED  goes or the ST-120 goes back to Orion as a return if it does not live up to expectations.

3. The mini portamount and probably the Unistar.

4. The binoviewers – I find myself using these rarely and only for the moon.

5. The Mallincam – maybe. Again, right now I am in no mood to deal with the complexity. It’s been a hit at star parties, but I am not at all sure it is worth the hassle of setting up.  More important, I’m not at all sure I really want people to watch TV when they’re out under the stars. There are some terrific advantages to it – and some huge disadvantages in my mind.  I never turn to it as a personal observing choice and that should tell me something – but just about my personal preferences.

6. One 21mm Hyperion I had bought for binoviewing, plus two or three red-dot finders and the Telrad. These are all battery operated and go hand-in-hand with the computer technology where all you need to do is spot a bright star. I much prefer the low-tech optical finder for alt-az, manual telescopes.

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Honest – I’ve tried all sorts of gloves and glove liners and what have you to keep my hands warm while observing and until now I didn’t have a solution – well, actually I did, but I didn’t know it.

Somewhere along the line my daughter gave me something called  “Crazy Therma Band” – bands you put one of those chemical handwarming pads in, then wrap around your wrist fastening with velcro. I didn’t use them, partly because I was too lazy to put them on and mainly because the pockets in them looked too small to hold the standardl handwarmers I use. But the other night when I was out of handwarmers – but had some toe warmers – I took the toe warmers, folded them in half, put them in the pockets in these bands and wow! That works. (Actually it may work too well – I recommend getting the pads meant for these, not doing what I did.)

The problem with observing in the cold is fiddling with telescopes frequently calls for removing your gloves and handling cold metal and glass eyepieces and thumb screws and such. In the past I’ve dropped handwarmers in my pockets, then when I needed them, added them to my gloves. I was never satisfied with this approach. Clumsy, for one thing – but it doesn’t get the heat to where it’s needed. I was frequently pulling my fingers out of the glove and squeezing the handwarmer which was a lump near my palm – some comfort, but it didn’t really do the job.

But the wrist bands work. (I have to learn to listen more closely to my kids 😉 They keep heat on the blood going into your hands. My first test was in 30-degree weather – not a real test. But this morning it was 20 degrees and windy and they worked just fine. My fingers never got cold. So I went online to see what I could find out about them and to see if they made heating pads just for them since putting the toe warmers in the way I was doing doesn’t seem like the best idea.

Yep – you can learn more, and buy if you like, by going here.

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Spaceweather.com reports:

Tonight, Comet Lulin is making its closest approach to Earth. At a distance of only 38 million miles, Lulin may be seen with the naked eye. It looks like a faint patch of gas next to Saturn in the constellation Leo. Point your telescope at that patch and you will see a lovely green comet.

Maybe. Lulin is a fascinating comet – but “lovely” and “green.” Well, I guess love is in the eye of the beholder –  or maybe people who write stuff like that haven’t been outside. Last night and this morning we were blessed with 20 degree temperatures and high winds and some clouds, so I hardly got an ideal look. But I did catch site of Lulin rising about  7:45 pm. I was using ordinary binoculars and Lulin was not that easy to find – maybe the directions should be somehting like: “Look for the ghost of a comet.”

At about 9:45 pm I stepped out on the upstairs deck for another peek. This was better. Yes, there was a faint gas cloud near Saturn. Something anyone using binoculars could detect – especially if they had given their eyes 10 or 15 minutes to do some serious dark adaption.  Given clear skies and steadier air – which I hope we’ll have tonight – I would say Comet Lulin will be at it’s best from about 10 pm to 3 am. During that period it’s high enough in the sky to appreciate in small binoculars. And still close enough to Saturn so it should be relatively easy to find in binoculars. (Get Saturn in View and then sweep up tiowards Regulus – as Satur  drops out of your field to one side, Lulin should come into it from the other side.)

I didn’t get out again until 4:30 am this morning and while the skies were crystal clear, they were  very unsteady and the wind was still blowing. I found Comet Lulin easily with binoculars, then with the 100mm refractor. Nice – but I would be hard pressed to call it green. Maybe when it’s higher. At htis point it was playing tag with my tree line to the west.  It’s green tinted – maybe. but what bothers me here is the combination of photographs and hype on this comet certainly don’t prepare  people for what they’re going to see. I know what to expect and so am not disappointed – but if you have an image in your head of a streaking comet with tail streaming out – well, that’s not Lulin. And while it will be visible to the naked eye, that will only be to those with the best eyes and the best skies – minimal light polution to none.

So is it worth getting out and taing a look? Of course. Just don’t expect it to live up to the hype. This is the international Year of Astronomy and I think my fellow astronomers really want Lulin to be a crowd pleaser – and I just don’t think it’s in that category. So enjoy the images at spaceweather.com,  enjoy your knowledge of what you’re seeing – and put those together with  alive experience under the stars of a very faint, rapidly moving cloud of gas and dust –  yes, a “dirty snowball” – that as comets go is quite close to us – roughly about as close as the closest planet, Venus, gets to us. In fact, Lulin is as close to us as Venus is to us right now – but that mean it’s  still =nearly half the distance to the Sun away and that’s a long, long way. How far? Freeze Comet Lulin where it is, hop on a passenger jet, and settle back – in roughly 10 years you’ll reach the comet!

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This has been one of those weeks that well defines the old saw about “burning the candle at both ends.” Seems like night after night I’ve been able to observe both in the evening and in the morning, though I grant you it has also been quite cold and my sessions are generally just 90 minute long.

Last night I got in only half of that before clouds rolled in, but I made up for it by a wonderful two-hour session this morning with some new sights and a couple of surprises. I made a plan the night before to observe Comet Lulin, though I didn’t think it would be too interesting. Then when I got out to the observatory at 3:30 am I realized I had left my notes on Lulin in the house. No problem. A quick scan with the 12X36 binoculars uncovered it  in the southwest where it’s nipping at the tail of Leo. It will overtake the old lion in the next few days, since it’s moving fast. For dates and other information on Lulin see my earlier post here. (And yes, you can see it at a reasonable hour – you don’t have to get up at 3 am.)

I must say I was a bit surprised by its size. From pictures I had seen I expected something smaller with maybe a hint of a tail. Instead what I saw reminded me of  Comet Holmes, though, of course, dimmer and smaller.  Holmes had a wonderful halo effect – strong core and significantly weaker, but distinct shell. (See my pictures here.) Lulin was more a blob – appearing in binoculars much as the globular cluster M5 does – only larger.  It had a definite nucleus, but the surrounding matter was brighter in relation to the nucleus than was the case with Holmes.  I tried, after my eyes dark adapated, to see it with the naked eye. No luck. My guess is it is roughly magnitude 5.5 which for an extended object is well below naked eye visibility for my skies – and my eyes.

But it’s nice in binoculars and real nice in small telescopes – and while I was looking at 3 am, it’s well placed in the evening sky by about 9 pm and will get better over the next week or two as it passes near Saturn and eventually the Beehive – M44. I like it because  it’s dropping in from outer space and has this weird orbit that puts it on the plane of the solar system, but in terms of what most people expect a comet to look like, I’m afraid it will disappoint. What tail it has is better seen in photographs.

While Lulin was fun, my real fun these days continues to come from the new observing set up where I now have the 100ED refractor on the parallelogram mount. This is really working well. (See earlier post – when I tried this first with the much shorter 80mm Eon.) The 100mm is nearly twice as long – 900 mm vs 500 mm in focal length. It’s also a pound  heavier and with the longer focal length delivers more power and smaller fields of view.  These were all concerns for me.  With a high power eyepiece the scope does take about 10 seconds to quiet down after you have focused or moved it. And, of course, with something like a 5mm eyepiece (180) you only get about a minute of good viewing before you have to move it – unless you’re looking at stuff in higher declinations that appears to move slower.

But I am becoming a real fan of being unplugged. Keeps you alert and aware of the motion of the Earth – and reveals to you stuff around your object you may not have noticed – a better sense of context. Bottom line – every approach to observing has its trade offs. Right now I’m really enjoying this one.

My tour this morning took me over to the Leo Triplet – M65, M66 and NGC 3628 – three distant galaxies. The two Messier objects showed easily at 70X, but NGC3628 likes to play hide and seek, but will pop out with averted vision. Hey, these are all out there in the 30-40 million light year range – don’t expect miracles when you’re looking at light almost as old as the dinosaurs. Having done that I had to take a peek into the nearby Virgo cluster of galaxies just to see what I could see – a lot, but I don’t know what 😉 I didn’t have a chart handy and I was really just curious to see what was visible in the  100mm. There’s some many galaxies in this section of sky I really need to make notes to know what I’m seeing and I wasn’t feeling kindly towards taking my gloves off at that point.

I then went on to my real destination for the session, M5, a gorgeous globular cluster that many like better than even M13.  I can’t make up my mind. What appeals to me about M13 is the galaxy you can capture in the same field of view – that makes it special. But M5  is wonderful both in the size of its core and in the scattering of individual halo stars that are easy to pick out.  I used this to experiment with high powers, trying a 5 and 3.5 mm eyepiece. At 257X the 3.5mm really exceeds what you should use on this scope, but the image was OK. As a rule I think I’ll generally stop at 5mm.

I’m still getting the feel of how best to aim this scope and what I can expect of the 9X50 finder – and as a rule, I’m delighted with the results. I find I can intuitively point it in the right direction without sighting down the tube and usually my target is there in the finder – and the finder is accurate enough to easily put the target into even the 5mm eyepiece’s small field.  I proved this  to myself by quickly finding M13, M92 and M57 in succession, all with a high-powered eyepiece. Cool.

Well, downright cold, Honestly, I don’t like 24-degrees – but I wouldn’t miss these morning sessions – so peaceful. And I did get two surprises this morning. First, as I was watching M5 a bright satellite whipped through the field of view. It was so bright I looked up and sure enough, there it was easily visible with the naked eye and growing brighter by the second as it headed south – a wonderful example of an Iridium flare. (I checked the records, and sure enough, an Iridium satellite went by at 5:03 am and was predicted to reach about -1 in brightness.

Then there was a nice naked eye meteor. And then, when I was packing up and climbed the little ladder to pull the shutter closed, I saw a brilliant light in the north, moving from northwest to northeast. Had to be the International Space Station. I got my binoculars just to make sure it wasn’t a plane. Nope, it was the station – and yes, again the records showed an ISS pass scheduled for 5:33! Nothing like a little serendipity to take the chill off your bones!

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Video notes: I say the mount has “six”  degrees of motion. Sorry – I think it’s actually five.  The telescope has a 30mm finder on it – I changed that to a 50mm later. Finally, I talk about looking straight up and being comfortable, but old habits die hard. In the video demo I do not really take the time to be comfortable and I’m doing more leaning towards the eyepiece than I now do when using this in actual observing. It is amazing how easy it is for us to bend our neck and tilt our head without hardly noticing it, but when observing for long periods such smalltwists are uncomfortable and jsut wht I’m trying to avoid with this approach.

I think I may have found my ideal observing set up to best serve what I want to gain from the observing experience. I’m not a neo-Luddite – but I am enjoying dispensing with computers, batteries – even the little red-dot finder – and going completely unplugged.

Notice the heavy use of “I” and “my” in that first paragraph?  That’s because I’m well past the point of thinking that what I do will suit others – it may, and that’s why I’m writing this, but you’ll have to find out for yourself. One size does definitely not fit all!

OK – my goal:

Be relaxed.

Why? Because if I can’t sit still in a comfortable position I can’t get into meditation mode and if I’m not in meditation mode I’m not really observing.  Meditation? Don’t confuse meditation with some trance-like, dreamy state. The way I have learned to practice it, it is just the opposite. I am no more intensely alive, no more sharply focused, no more widely awake, nor deeply aware, than when I am meditating.  This isn’t the place for a discourse on meditation, so I won’t go into detail here, but it is important to dispel the notion that meditation is some sort of self-induced drug trip.

Meditation does require that I sit erect and comfortably – and that’s the problem with every telescope and mount combination I have tried up until now – they rarely allow you to sit that way. You are constantly making adjustments in your body position at the demand of the telescope. The eyepiece is only rarely right where you want it. Using my new/old system that is not the case. With this system you sit still – the telescope moves to meet your needs.

Now before this starts to sound either mystical or like some technological breakthrough – let me stress that what I am talking about is the fairly common parallelogram mount that has been used for years primarily by people seeking a way to hold and point large, astronomical binoculars. The mount I have was built by Charles Funk (lilc01f@peoplepc.com) a guy who likes to make things out of metal. I’m not sure if he’s still making them, but when I bought this a few years ago the price was right and his workmanship  excellent. (Universal Astronomics also makes fine parallelogram mounts.) I got it for binoculars because at the time I felt one of the keys to relaxed observing was using two eyes.

I still believe you should have both eyes open, but if you’re relaxed, the eye looking through the eyepiece gets the most light and you are barely aware of what the other eye might be seeing. But that isn’t why I gave up on large (70mm or larger)  astronomical binoculars. I gave up on them because in the past couple of years I’ve started to use really nice refractors and now the images delivered by anything but a refractor don’t fully satisfy me. I love the high contrast and I love pinpoint star images. I’m not putting down other instruments. I own them. And as I said, one size doesn’t fit all. This is what fits me. I write this as I’m still high on the elegant images I’ve been absorbing this morning before dawn of M13, Vega, Zeta Lyra and the Double Double 80mm Orion Eon and various eyepieces. So my enthusiasm is fresh. If I could find binoculars that delivered the same quality images and gave me the same power range (20X-150X) I’d probably switch to them  – although changing two eyepieces to change power . . . well. . .I’m not sure.

The bottom line here is instead of using binoculars on the parallelogram mount, I’m using a small refractor.  This too isn’t new. Others do it, though it’s uncommon, and I experimented with this approach extensively a couple years ago. (See: Stargazing by looking up – what a strange idea ;-) I made one big mistake  then, however. I was absolutely sold on the idea that to see the stars you should look up. That’s certainly the appeal of small, handheld binoculars and a rotating, adjustable beach chair. You can comfortably look up – at least until your arms get tired. With a Dobsonian telescope you’re looking to the side. With refractors and catadioptrics you’re almost always using a star diagonal and so you’re looking down or straight ahead.

I decided back then I would like to be looking up and the solution was to use a refractor on the paralelogram mount while sitting in a beach chair. Thus I was using the refactor like a spyglass, or the old telescopes that used to appear in cartoons where you looked straight through it – no mirror diagonal. What I found was that trying to position myself under the scope – even with the parallelogram mount – could be remarkably difficult to achieve. I frequently had a hard time matching my comfortable, reclined position to the telescope. Too often I got frustrated and ended up leaning in awkward ways to see what I wanted to see rather than getting up and moving the chair. See, the parallelogram mount does move in many – and strange –  ways, but the chair has to be adjusted as well and getting up from a reclining position in a beach chair just to move it an inch to the left isn’t all that much fun.

What I’m now doing is using a diagonal on the scope – and while that may sound like a small change, it’s a total abandonment of my idea that looking up was the natural and “right” thing to do.  Actually, the most natural thing is to sit straight up and look straight ahead and that’s what I do, especially when objects are high in the sky, the normal case.  I’ve used this scope and mount combination now for three observing sessions  and while I find it easy to get a good match between telescope and my comfortable position in a conventional office chair, I still can’t explain all the ins and outs of this easily – it’s much easier to just be there and play a little. What problems I have are agravated  by my being  in my small, rotating dome observatory where I must operate in a circle just under six feet in diameter and where the 30-inch  observing slit has to be adjusted by hand and needs to be coordinated with the sometimes surprising positions in which the parallelogram mount puts the scope.

But here’s my new routine.

1. Decide on a target – something I wnat to observe for 30 minutes or more. (I’m not a space tourist – I’m a visitor.)

2. Position the chair where I will not be crammed against the side of the dome.

3. Point the scope roughly in the right direction, then position the slit in the dome to accommodate it.

4. Sit down and with the scope high overhead, sight along the tube towards your chosen object. Because the mount allows the scope to be raised very high – then lowered without changing what it is pointing at this makes this kind of siting easy. There’s no crouching down and craning your neck to look up along the tube.

5. Switch to the 9X50 correct image finder by pulling the scope way down. Again – I remain comfortably seated to look through the finder, once more taking advantage of the ability of the parallelogram mount to remain pointed exactly while the scope is moved up and down over a range of at least two feet.

6. If I center an object in the crosshairs it will appear in my highest power eyepiece field of view – all I need to do is raise the scope without moving it in other directions. Again, simple.  I’m all set.

This takes longer to write about – or read – than to do and once I’ve set the dome slit and chair position I can look at several objects in the neighborhood without making major adjustments. The Earth will, in an hour or so, require I make an adjustment to the dome, but by then I’m usually ready to stretch.

So would I rather do this than look through my 15-inch Obsession? I mean, it’s all set up and ready to go, so why am I using an 80mm refractor? I’m sure there are other refractor users who know the answer. There are  also a ton of folks probably shaking their head and dismissing me as crazy. But the truth is, give me this kind of comfortable, intense observing situation and I’m happy.  I wouldn’t mind replacing the 80 mm with a 120mm Eon, but I can do a remarkable amount with the 80.

This reflects another recent development in my thinking: No live observing experience is going to show us anything like the detail yielded by imaging – even imaging done with small amateur telescopes, let alone the Hubble. But I don’t have to take these images. I’m delighted so many people enjoy doing this. But all I have to do is study their work. It shows me what’s out there. It increases my familiarity with these objects. But I value the live interaction and for that I don’t need the largest telescope. I get the essence of a globular cluster – even many galaxies – with the view in my 80mm. It easily shows me M31 and its two companion galaxies, M32 and M110. It reveals beautifully the major star clusters and as I trace the arc of stars in the middle of M35 I can see it is pointing at a puff of star dust that is the much more distant NGC2158. I can get clean, delightful splits of the Double Double at anything above 100X. Sure, I’m missing a lot of stuff I’d never look at any ways. As is said, I’m not a tourist. I want to visit these places. I’m the guy who will only go to Yellowstone National  Park if I can stay for at least the entire summer. My father gave me the 15-minute tour of the country when I was 16 – “that was the Grand Canyon son. Sorry. we don’t have time to stop. Just look to your left out the window.  Beautiful, isn’t it?” No I enjoy coming back to the same objects and spending some real time with them.

In the final analysis I can’t tell you why. I can only say,this is what I do – this is what I enjoy. And I have never enjoyed it more than I have over the past few observing sessions with my new arrangement of parallelogram mount, office chair, and 80mm refractor.

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So what’s that little cluster above M38 and how did I miss it all of these years? Too much computer control?

Uh oh – this is more of a mystery than I thought. Can’t find it on my charts!  It was a beautiful night last night, but this was the first time I had uncovered the 15-inch in a couple months – maybe closer to three, the weather has been so bad – and since I had had a little trouble with the computer, I set it aside and decided to go manual all the way. I was expecting just one visitor, Joe Black, and so that would be easy enough. After Joe arrived we stepped out into a cool (30 degree) night with some wind and sparkling skies. Seeing was poor, but transparency great.

Near the end of a two hour session, we arrived at M38 using the 22mm Nagler that gives me about a one degree field. I was looking for M36, but stumbled on M38 instead and to my surprise, noticed a little cluster just “above” it – roughly southeast.  I don’t recall seeing that before and I suspect it’s because I’m used to seeing M38 at higher power and just locking on it with the computer.  Now, nearly eight hours later withm emory fading, I can’t make any positive identifictaion on my star charts, but I think it’s just a little knot of about a dozen 9-12th magnitudes stars.  I’ll have to return another night and take a closer look and make some notes.  Meanwhile, score one for manual control versus the computer and tracking motors. If I wasn’t on manual I probably would have locked on M38 and stayed there.

That was lesson one for me for the night – the other lesson was I really need an optical finder on the 15-inch if I’m going to do more of this type of prowling.  I had a heck of a time finding my favorite cluster, M35, using the Telrad.  Mind  you, I was going from memory and my memory was playing tricks on me – but an optical finder would have grabbed it much quicker. I could find it in half a second with binoculars.

Speaking of which, even the 8×45 Garrett binoculars did a fine job of revealing M37, 36, 38 and 35 to Joe who was meeting these clusters for the first time. They were directly overhead when we had naked eye visibility to at least 5.5  so we spent a significant amount of time just studying the stars with our naked eye and binoculars – noting the the Winter Hexagon, the Pleiades, Hyades and all the stars around Orion’s belt. We also prowled about M42 with both the 15-inch and the 4-inch Orion ED. Interesting. The main advantage of the view in the 15-inch of M42 was it did reveal some color. I could clearly see blue with a fringe of red around some parts.

It’s been a rough winter. Good to get some telescope time. But the old chemical handwarmers I had grabbed didn’t work for more than half an hour  – they were in my pockets and when I reached for them they were cold -so after two hours my hands told me it was time to quit!

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As the Earth turns – it’s not a soap opera, it’s the reality we so easily forget, but it was all happening right before our eyes on Gooseberry Point, Monday. There were enough visual clues present to really sense the motion.

Gooseberry Island, Westport, offering beautiful Sunsets/Moonrise over water.

Gooseberry Island, Westport, offering beautiful Sunsets/Moonrise over water.

I had gone there to catch another look at Venus as she goes through her phasing – sort of a fan dance spread over six weeks – see this post for details – and she didn’t disappoint. While the western horizon was cloudy, Venus was 40-degrees up and visible in broad daylight. I tracked her down with the 12X36 IS Canon binoculars quite quickly, about 20 minutes before sunset. Then, blocking the Sun with my right hand and knowing right where to look, I could easily see her with the naked eye – afterall, at -4.6 Venus is bright, very bright!

I pointed the little 66mm AT refractor at her and dropped in a 20mm Plossl – that gave me about the same power  Galileo was using exactly 400 years ago when he first discovered the phases of Venus. My, what pleasure that must have given him! Of course, my modern refractor is far, far better than his lens which gave sharp images only near its center – and then not too sharp – but at least what I was seeing was in the ball park of what he saw.  You certainly could tell at 20X that Venus was not round, but shaped like something less than the quarter moon – distinctly crescent-like. About five minutes before Sunset Joe Black and his wife joined me. We looked at Venus at 20X, then I switched to the 3.2mm Burgess Planetary eyepiece which gave us  125X on this scope. Real nice! “Looks like a little moon” was the typical reaction. Yep – it sure does, only no markings are visible on that cloud-shrouded globe.  The moon was in the back of my head, though – for I knew it would be rising in about 15 minutes. A young couple, who had been watching the colorful Sunset, soon joined us for a look at Venus and the Moon,  as well as the brighter stars as they started to emerge..

Never wanting to miss the opportunity to compare what we see with the uncommon sense reality of science, I pointed out that the Sun did not set – the ocean came up to swallow it.  It was then that I started to think about what a wonderful illustration of this we had before us and how you could really develop a genuine sense of the Earth’s movement, enhanced by it being the time of full moon and us standing on a penisular – once an island –  that separated the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Buzzard’s Bay to the east.  Venus also provided an illustration of this movement, as the telescope quickly moved so Venus was no longer in view. At 125X anyone glancing in the scope for more than a few seconds could see this motion. Of course we can’t help but think of it as Venus moving, not the telescope, but it is the telescope – and us – turning at roughly 800 miles an hour.

What was really neat, however, was when we started looking for the Moon in the Bay to the east. Right on cue, a little red glob appeared on the clear horizon. In the binoculars it soon looked like a huge, mottled jelly fish – then a somewhat squashed strawberry – Buzzard’s Bay was releasing it and in a couple minutes it popped free, but still seemed to be dripping wet, the edges rough and irregular because of the miles of atmosphere we were looking through – but what a great illustration of the movement of the Earth!

You could stand facing south and see the ecliptic stretching in a great arc from where the Sun had recently set, up through Venus and on over to the East where the moon was rising – and you could put those words – rising and setting – out of your mind,  and feel that the ocean had indeed come up to swallow the Sun and Buzzard’s Bay was, indeed , going down and releasing the Moon!

I need to take advantage of this location on other full moons, for it provides a great example, as well, of the seasonal motions of the Sun and Moon and how the full moon always rises opposite the Sun, but the crescent moon right near it. I love the way the universe keeps giving me fresh looks – especially when I go out thinking I’ll just see something I’ve seen many times before.

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Summer’s other triangle – that’s what Gary Seronix calls the familiar triangular pattern around Vega. I’d never thought too much about it until poised in the snow yesterday about 6 am, I swept the sky in that general direction with the 66mm AT at low power and stumbled across Zeta Lyra – it felt like a new discovery, though I must have seen it a thousand times.

See. a few minutes earlier I had been looking at Nu Draconis. Now this is a  wonderful double for binoculars, or low powered, small telescopes like I was using.  Nu is relatively easy to find because it’s the faintest star of the five that make up the “home plate” type shape of the head of Draco. (Well, OK, to make a “home plate” you have to borrow a fifth star from Herculis. Draco’s head is usually shown as a four-sided, irregular polygon.) What I love about Nu is that this is a nearly perfect pair of 5th magnitude stars, separated by 43 seconds of arc and barely detectable in ordinary binoculars as double. Go to something like my image-stabilized 12X36mm Canon and it’s pretty easy – but turn a small scope on it like the 66mm and it is a real delight. There’s something hypnotic in seeing two Suns of almost identical color and brightness this close to one another.  I fiddled with my small, portable stool and eyepiece position so I could sit their and really soak this in. While I was doing this, we kept turning towards our own star, of course, and to the naked eye Nu and it’s companion stars that form Draco’s head began to vanish in the twilight glow.

It was a balmy 16 degrees, though, with no wind, so I sat and enjoyed.  Part of me was fiddling with the telescope – trying to get it to work better – well, not the scope, but the mount. It is the light weight version of Vixen’s popular Porta Mount and I am not that pleased with it. I really like the Astro-Tech Voyager better, but it’s heavier and so there are trade offs between steadiness, ease of use, and ease of lugging around. It was because of this – and also trying to decide if the little camp stool – which is easy to carry – was a viable choice here as an observing chair, that lead me to scan in the general direction of Vega. That’s when I suddenly swept up another double that looked a lot  like Nu’s twin – only the two stars weren’t identical – I felt there was about a magnitude difference between them – but they seemed to be separated by the same gap as the stars in Nu and I wondered what they were.

A little more sweeping around – then take heel of hand and thump forehead several times. What a dummy! I was looking at Zeta Lyra, a star I’ve seen so many times I couldn’t begin to count them – and yet, I had never paid any attention to it because every time I had seen it I was on my way to the familiar – and spectacular – Double Double – Eta Lyra. This is the problem with having favorites – you tend to ignore some nice things that are in plain sight.  Vega is hard to miss – it’s the fifth brightest star – and the brigtest in the huge  Summer Triangle of Vega, Deneb, and Altair. The images – and captions – below are screen captures from Stellarium and explain the progression from Vega to Zeta Lyra

Vega dominates the tiny constellation, Lyra. In February its high in the East before morning twilight begins. Two dimmer companions form an obvious triangle with Vega.

Vega dominates the tiny constellation, Lyra. In February its high in the East before morning twilight begins. Two dimmer companions form an obvious triangle with Vega.

Binocular will easily show that the fainter star that makes up the bottom left of the triangle is really a closely mnatched pair of stars. (A small telescope will show that each of these is a double - this is Eta Lyra, the "Double Double."

Binocular will easily show that the fainter star that makes up the bottom left of the triangle is really a closely mnatched pair of stars. (A small telescope will show that each of these is a double - this is Eta Lyra, the "Double Double.")

M y smnall telescope clearly reveals that Zeta Lyra is also a double, but this is a real challenge to split cleanly with binoculars because the two stars are of different brightness.

My small telescope clearly reveals that Zeta Lyra is also a double, but this is a real challenge to split cleanly with binoculars because the two stars are of different brightness - 4.3, 5.7.

What I really like here is that all of this illustrates some basic points –

  • While I advocate planning an observing session before going out, there are times when just prowling around, discovering something interesting, then trying to figure out what it is you’ve found is much mroe fun.
  • Switching from naked eye to binoculars to telescopes of different size gives us a whole new perspective on objects. What can be boring in a large telescope can be exciting in a small one – and genuinely better.
  • In his book “Binocular Highlights”  Seronik points out that a simple formula for determining the closest double star you can split with binoculars is to divide the power of your binoculars into 300. That will yield a result in arc seconds and looking at this triangle gives a very quick test of the theory.
  • The other major factor in splitting a double star is the difference in brightness between the two stars – and Nu Draconis and Zeta Lyra illustrate this well, They both have almost the exact same distance between the two stars – 43 arc seconds for Nu and 44 for Zeta Lyra – but Zeta is far harder to split because there is a bout 1.5 magnitudes difference in brightness.

I checked this for myself this morning under far from ideal conditions. My 12X36 IS binoculars should split stars that are 25 arc seconds – or greater – apart. (300/12=25). My 8×42 glasses should split stars with about 38 arc second between them by the same formula. Well, the 12X36IS can split both doubles – but it has real trouble with Zeta.  The 8X42 splits Nu Draconis, but when I try to split Zeta I get a distinct impression that it is more than one star – but not two.  Why? Not because they are too close for this power, but because they are close and the difference in brightness adds to the difficulty. Eta Lyra – the Double Double – is easily split into two compoents by either binocular, but the gap betweent hese two is huge – more than 200 arc seconds.

Bottom line – there’s a beautiful small triangle around Vega – which in itself is a magnificent star – and be sure to explore each of the components with binoculars and/por telescope.

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