Archive for April, 2009

(Driftway Observatory - M51 - click to enlarge.)

(Driftway Observatory - M51 - click to enlarge.)

Are there Daffodils in M51?
(That’s not real, you know.)

How about ants?

(It’s just an image  – well, a real image

but not reality in the raw the way I taste it.)

Certainly there is enough exotic gas and dust
to build worlds and populate them.

(They build it by letting photons ping CCD chips –


like most of us take pictures these days.)

One hundred billion stars? Twice that? Or thrice?
What planets might abound?

(I let it get right in there.)

And is there intelligence? Of course,
but awareness? Intelligent awareness?

(Grab a little bunch of those

ancient, long-journeying packets of energy

with my telescope’s lens.)

Or something beyond reason?
Beyond our reason. Beyond our awareness?

Afterall, why should we be first?

(They come tumbling down the tube

getting jammed together like the stream from a firehose.)

Loren Eiseley reminded us long ago
that “there are things still coming ashore.”
But he was talking about our shores –
our unsures interest me.
They abound.

(Then hose my eye – my right eye

and not all of it.  The cones don’t do much.)

To begin with, I don’t think we know what anything is –
though we’re magnificent at describing what things do.

(It’s the rods that get excited – do all the work –

hauling in energy that started where? started when?)

The difference of a decade, what would it bring? A thousand decades,
or million perhaps – hell, why not a billion years?

(I’ve been waiting here millions of years just for these.)

The world wasn’t made in six days.
It took 13 billion years to get us here.
(Bosh!  you say,

I’m just the fragment of a moment   – a twinkling mere 60 years in the making – or there abouts.)

Or did it? And look at how we have changed in just the last few years?
The last two hundred years? The last 5,000 !
Perhaps it took just 5 billion to raise us from the primordial dust and gas –
that’s the age of the Sun, or so we believe
and Earth is not much younger,
nor for that matter life forms.

(How little you know – I’ve always been there

in the star dust, just waiting to  manifest,

and I’ll be there still long after you think I’m gone – star dust to star dust.)

So couldn’t others be years? Hundreds of years?
Thousands, millions, even billions of years beyond us?
(I heisitate to say “ahead” –  I doubt there is an absolute meaning to that concept.

(So this is another moment, meant to happen –

an eternal moment when energy born inside a star in M51

meets my rods, leaps my synapses, pings my brain.)

Does “year” even mean anything? It is a way we measure our awareness
Because it happens to be the yardstick we were handed – a birthright,
but nothing more.
(And causes me  – the one seated at the telescope –

the one trying to squeeze meaning out of a puff of grey against the black –

the one who asks . . . )

Are there Daffodils in M51?
A silly question – no doubt daffodils beyond our wildest dreams.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by what we know – but far easier still, to be underwhelmed.
I’ve been watching M51. It is 30 million lights years away – or maybe 15 million.
That’s one of many things we don’t really know. but I like it that way.

(I feel like I’m doing Eiseley’s bidding – my own little part

of watching
to see what emerges next

what claws it’s way over the edge of the unsure
and marches up the sands of universal time. )

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Bren, Joe C., Sybil and I were dutifully out on Gooseberry last night  at 8 pm, hoping to see this despite heavy clouds!

The Moon, the Pleiades(M45), and Mercury, all within a single binocular field of view - as depicted on Starry Nights Pro software.

The Moon, the Pleiades(M45), and Mercury, all within a single binocular field of view - as depicted on Starry Nights Pro software.

What we saw was the Moon – stunningly thin – and a couple of the brighter Pleiads – but no Mercury. What a tease! The sky was at least 90 percent overcast – and heavy stuff. But there were several holes right where they were most needed and the Moon put in several appearances for three or four minutes at a time. As it got darker we could see some stars of the Pleiades under it – but no Mercury. We knew right where it should be and each hole in the clouds seemed to be just a fraction too small to reveal both the Moon and Mercury which were about 4-5 degrees apart.

It was refreshingly cool, though, after a day of record high April 26th temperatures – and a two-day old Moon is a special treat, somehow made more intriguing by it’s little fan dance with the clouds. Yes, sometimes the Moon would vanish and you would think Mercury might pop out, but the clouds stubbornly hid it.

Why is this so appealing? just pretty – and a good lesson in angular size. The Pleiades always appears quite tiny to the naked eye – yet when you see the Moon near it, you realize it is about twice as big! Of course this is all a matter of where things are – the Moon is only a light second or so away – the Pleiades about 400 light years from us! Even if the Moon could block out the Pleiades, it would be roughly akin to the way we can blot out the moon with a finger tip, even  though our finger is half an inch across and the Moon roughly 2,100 miles in diameter.

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I spent nearly two hours cleaning the observatory dome Friday – that’s probably a one-hour job for a normal person. Lestoil, a bucket of water, and a scrub brush did the trick. Here’s a partly before/after shot. What IS that black stuff?

Before I started the whole dome looked like the shutter - ugh!

Before I started the whole dome looked like the shutter - ugh!

And here's how it looks when cleaned? I did this about a year ago as well - maybe two?

And here's how it looks when cleaned? I did this about a year ago as well - maybe two?

I built this in 1992 (or thereabouts) and only cleaned it once before. Maybe that cleaning was worse, but not in my memory. I think it was a year ago, maybe two – certainly not three. I don’t know if this is something that gets deposited from rain? Air? Or of it’s some sort of growth on the fiberglass?

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Boy, some times I just want to wrap it up. When I came in from observing Friday morning about 1 am that’s how I felt – who needs this? Of course having a cold, unable to sleep from coughing and having low blood sugar were all contributing factors to mood – and I had them all the other night when I went out to observe because I couldn’t sleep. But the situation with using the 10-inch in the observatory certainly didn’t help.

To put it simply, it doesn’t work to my satisfaction. Yes, it fits in there. BUT. . . I have it raised on a platform about 8-inches off the floor and this means my seat has to be raised and guess what – raise the observing seat and suddenly you need to brace your feet on a the seat’s foot rest and this brings your knees in front of you and this  puts distance between you and the scope on its Dobsonian mount – net result? You lean over to use the eyepiece – sometimes sitting sideways. Not comfortable – not relaxing.

Bottom line – the 10-inch went out of the observatory the next morning – which is when I discovered the exact nature of the problem. The 10-inch works fine when on the ground and the observing seat can be at normal height and you can straddle the scope with one foot in front and one behind. And sometimes you don’t have to do that even. So, when Sybil came over to observe on Friday night I used the 10-inch to have her sit comfortably and see the Beehive, M67, and M3 – and it worked! She spent time at the scope and even  moved it to keep the object in view.

This is important. This is what I want for my visitors – a chance to really observe in relaxed mode. The 15-inch gives better views, but when it’s pointed much above 50 degrees it becomes difficult for some visitors to use comfortably. Perhaps the Catsperch observing chair will change that – I’ll see. But for now, the solution is simple. Use the 10-inch. It gives excellent views and just about anyone should be able to sit comofrtably i at it while observing – and that last is critical – especially for older – and younger – visitors.

And what about me? After Sybil left I had an hour and a half of enjoyable observing, including some time with the 120mm Skywatcher mounted on the T-mount in the Observatory where I didn’t think it would fit. Let me tell you, this is the way to go – at least for me. Yeah, i reached this conclusion once before, but I have to learn the same lesson several times before it really sinks in. I went out Staurday night for some more time witht he 120mm and this time I bright my old office chair intot he dome againa nd yes, it’s wonderful! This is the most natural, most comfortable arrangement -w ith ane xcellent telescope – I can have.  I think I am at last settling in. Even did some serious sketching.

One brief note about the 120mm Skywatcher – the finder is not correct image – so I replaced it with one that is. I also replaced the diagonal with a correct image diagonal. Probably will sell diagonal and finder.

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The conventional wisdom when advising people what kind of telescope to purchase is this:

The telescope that’s best for you is the one you’ll use the most.

In other words, focus on convenience and ease of use. As I move in the direction of trying to have visitors to Driftway Observatory take repsonsibility for their own observing – that is, actually observe, not just take a quick peek – I need to keep this advice and my visitors capabilities in mind.  The 15-inch Obsession may give the most imrpessive views – and at first glance most impress visitors by its sheer size – but it is NOT the easiest and most comfortable telescope to use. That became clear when I had several first-time visitors out the other night.

For each –  for various physical reasons – it was obvious that using the 15-inch, while possible, was difficult and uncomfortable. They would have been much better served in the long run had I taught them to use the 10-inch Orion Dob instead. I want each visitor to sit down and spend at least 10-minutes observing an object and for that the 10-inch Dob is a much better choice.

What’s more, my choice of mounts for the 120mm refractor was poor as well. I put it  on a pier with the Voyager alt-az because I thought that mount was easier to control. But to use it this way you need to frequently put the observing seat very low – uncomfortably low – so low that it is difficult for some visitors to get back up again and that is simply not acceptable. It hardly will encourage regular use.  So next time this telescope goes back to the T-mount. That mount has some drawbacks, but at least with it the observer decides on a comfortable seat height and brings the telescope to them.

All this was learned, btw, on a night when I thought all we would do was play  with the telescopes a bit because it was nearly totally overcast. However, Saturn shown through thin spots in the soup, as did Mizar and Algieba. So we actually did  a little observing, at least with the 15-inch. My experience with that made me realize that the set up with the 120mm was just going to be too awkward.

Bottom line – both telescopes are fine for me. They follow the rule about the telescope I’ll use the most. But that doesn’t make them fine for people of varying heights and agility. To implement the new program where users point and guide the telescope and eventually learn to star hop, I need to think about each individual and make sure each has an appropriate set-up.  This may cause some concern among visitors who feel cheated if they’re not using the biggest – but I also need to drive home the point that the biggest  scope is not always the best choice. Afterall, I frequently use a small refractor and I do so because , in the final analysis, I find it a better fit.

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My Sky-Watcher 120mm ED-APO refractor arrived yesterday and I was certain I would suffer the new telescope curse of several nights of cloudy skies – and what’s more, didn’t much care!

Oh, I was anxious to see what this bargain priced “apo” could do – and hoping it would live up to it’s hype – but I’m also battling a major cold and spend most hours feeling at best half-drugged on cough medicine – at worse, looking for a firing squad to offer myself to as target practice. The forecast seemed to bear me out, but there were some question marks in it and after supper I curled up on a small couch and tried to get a little nap. This hadn’t worked for most of the day – I’d lie down and in 10 minutes be up again coughing.

But shock one – the nap worked! I didn’t wake up for two hours, felt refreshed, had missed my  dose of cough medicine by two hours and didn’t feel a need for it. I had set up the new refractor on the T-mount on the observing deck earlier in the day and left it out just in case. Well, now it was dark and I either had to bring it in, or use it if there were some holes in the clouds.  So I got dressed for outside. Checking the temperature, I saw it was 51 degrees which would seem to indicate clouds.

Nope. Shock 2:  Wonderfully – totally –  clear! Not much wind either, though that too had been in the forecast. Shock three was not so pleasant.  I gazed around trying to figure an appropriate “first light” test. I thought a good, challenging double star like Rigel would be perfect, but it was too low. So I settled on Saturn, high in the south.

Arghhhhhhhhhh! Shock three: It looked horrible! Even at low power. What was wrong with this scope! It is supposed to excel onplanets and double stars. I quickly swung it over to nearby Algieba and increased the power. This relatively easy double did split, but again, very sloppy: Like it might in the 15-inch before the mirror had cooled . . . oh my! Maybe I wasn’t quite awake. Maybe that cough medicine still had my brain sizzled. The scope’s  black tube – it has these wonderful flecks in it that sparkle in the sun – had been exposed to the sun all day. There’s a built in (not collapsible) lens shade. And, of course, I had left the lens covered until right now. Must make a wonderful little heat trap up there at the end of the tube where it can do the most damge. The lens obviously needed time to cool.

So I breathed through my nose, went back inside to make myself some tea, and came out again. It had now had 15-20 minutes to get down to air temperature. since it’s a doublet I thought that might do the trick. In any event, I swung it over to one of my favorite triples, Castor: Bingo! Charming. The seeing was nothing to write home about, but there were the nice faint diffraction rings I hoped to  see, almost kissing each other in the case of the two brighter components. (I think this was with the 13mm – 69x on this 900mm focal length. Though I’m pretty sure I jumped to the 7mm (129x) but I wasn’t taking notes.)

No – I didn’t do a formal star test. Didn’t study the image inside and outside of focus. I’ll leave that kind of hard-nosed review for another night. I wanted this to be a gala opening. I like this scope. I love the idea of having almost five inches of really fine refractor at my command without breaking the family budget. Yeah, the Chinese, I know. Hey – they are doing some real good work at incredible prices. I also like little details here – such as making the both ends of the scope white so you can see themin the dark, but leaving the bulk of it black.

This is a nice scope and it comes at a price that includes a really nice 9X50 correct image finder and what certainly seems like a very good 2-inch diagonal. (The price was $1495 and shipping was free wtih the retailer I used.) The two eyepieces included, a 20mm and a 5mm, I could do without. They seem serviceable. They may even be quite good. But I have a nearly complete set of Televue Naglers and I use a manual, alt-az mount, so I really want the wide field the Naglers provide. The eyepieces that came with the scope can wait for a more thorough evaluation another night as well.

I don’t like to bounce around a lot. I sit at the telescope and I spend time on target, but I did take a quick look at the Beehive (M44), just to experience an open star cluster. And I did stay long enough to see all four members of ADS 6921, a quadruple I’ve found a little deceiving in the past when using a good 102mm refractor. But I wanted to see how the 120ED handled a globular cluster, so I swung over to M3 and remained entranced. The seeing didn’t allow the kind of power I would have liked to use, but it was nice at about 129x.

Somewhere I found a few moments to get the 15-inch Obsession set up and the cooling fan going on it. I didn’t know how long these skies would last, but this is galaxy season and . . . so, how does this reffractor do on the Leo Triplet?

Answer? Just fine, thank you. M65 and M66 show their distinctive traits and their ghostly companion, NGC 3628 popped right out. Of the three, I have to say  NGC 3628 tends to hold my attention the longest – I guess because it plays periferal vision games with you, teasing you into wondering just how much you’re seeing.

Those three confirmed I moved on to the other “triple” in Leo – M95, M96 and M105. This is really a quadruple – or a quint – though I admit, it’s very hard to fit them all in the same field of view.  I almost always find M105 first and the reason is, it’s a double! Why didn’t Messier list it this way?

Well, maybe because Messier never listed it. It was found by his buddy Pierre Mechain, but not passed on to him for inclusion in his list. It wasn’t added to the “official” Messier catalog until 1947. But that still doesn’t answer my question. M105 has a companion that’s only about half a magnitude fainter and 8 minutes away – that’s as close or closer than a couple craters on the moon such as Plato and Copernicus –  NGC 3384.

In the new scope – as in many others, it seemed almost as bright as M105 to me, although it’s listed as half a magnitude dimmer, that’s hardly dim. What’s more, M105 is a triplet in itself with a third, much dimmer companion,  NGC 3389. And no, I didn’t see this – forgot to search for it. I was having too much fun. What I should have done is put the Clearvue 30mm eyepiece in – that would have have given me a field of more than 2.5 degrees and I at least should have captured all four galaxies in one gulp – though I’m quite sure the fifth would remain elusive at that power, though the exit pupil still would have remained well within the capabilities of my aging eyes – hmmm… really need to try this! That 30mm Clearvue was another bargain. It has a very good 80-degree afov and so should make a great, low-powered eyepiece for this scope.

But on to M51. Tonight I’m playing the tourist – hey, what’s that? What a neat double star – lavender and white. I mean, I had started at Alkaid as I do when looking for M51, but had gone in the wrong direction and ended up in the outer fringes of Bootes. What I saw, I’m sure, was Kappa Bootes and another, much wider double nearby, Iota Bootes. Don’t you love discovering stuff? Sure, I’ve seen these doubles before, but not for a long time and I couldn’t identify them until I checked the books and charts. So for a while they were my discoveries – kind of a purity there. Once you put a name to them you “tame” them – take away the wild freedom they had for a moment.

But I was looking for M51 and found it of course and was delighted to be able to detect the swirling collision that is called the “Whirlpool.” Funny how we always speak of this one as singular too, though we all know it’s two galaxies, one having passed through the other in all probability, though I can’t remember which is the bumper car and which the bumped.

I then zipped on over behind the bear’s ears to check out M81 and M82. Wow! M81 was a veritable spotlight! Yeah, I’m getting excited about this scope – and also about the night.

At this point I needed to switch to the 15-inch. Much as the 120mm was delighting me, I had just washed the mirror on the 15-inch – something I do only once a year – and I wanted to see how it was performing. Besides, the skies were offering above average transparency. At first glance I was actually a little disappointed. In a strange way I thought the view through the 120mm of M51 was better. But it isn’t. That was just a quick, first impression. As I studied M51 in the 15-inch I saw much, much more. Aperture rules. But there’s an aesthetic to the view through the 120mm that has the 15-inch beat in some ways, and there’s an ambiance – an ease – to using the smaller refractor that makes it both more intimate and more comfortabl to use.

That said – the rest of the night  I opted for just plain more – more light – which the 15-inch delivered. M81 leaped out at me, as did the dark clouds crossing M82. And I fairly danced down Markarian’s Chain in Virgo – no strain at all to see seven galaxies in a single field and if I had strained I probably would have seen a few more. But seven blows my mind – hell, one does! And I did swing back to M105 and take a quick look for NGC 3389 and found it with no problem-  the 17mm Nagler Type 4 on the 15-inch was a wonderful eyepice for this.

It was midnight by the time my cough returned – as well as some clouds – but before packing up I took one more look at Staurnt hrough the 120mm. Yep – it deserves to be called an apochromatic in myhumble opinion. Yes, if you pay $3-$5,000 more for a similar sized scope I’d expect something more – but except for the hole in my bank account I really don’t know how much difference I would notice.

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Sybil, Tom, and I caught Mercury last night, in perfectly clear and fairly steady skies over Gooseberry where there is an unobstructed, 360-degree horizon.

The fleeting little planet showed up as a small disc – one tenth the size of  the crescent Venus, now visible in our morning skies, and  a bit better than one fourth the size of Saturn. Careful examination showed it wasn’t round, but that’s about all you could tell.


Mercury, as seen by the Messenger spacecraft in a flyby last year. Messenger will go into orbit around Mercury in 2011.

Mercury, as seen by the Messenger spacecraft in a flyby last year. Messenger will go into orbit around Mercury in 2011 and with luck will tell us a lot more about this little world than we now know.



It’s a hell of a world, Mercury, quite literally with the largest extremes of temperature any where in the solar system. But then, all these local worlds are hell with the exception of Earth. Earth is incredibly unique – well, at least it’s one-in-nine ( or eight) – we simply don’t know enough about other planets around other stars to make anything but a reasonable guess about other Earth-like planets.

But we sure aren’t like Mercury – or like anything else in this little neighborhood. Not that you could tell any of this by looking at it. Viewing Mercury from Earth has been incredibly unproductive even with large, professional telescopes. And no, Hubble can’t look at it – it’s too close to the Sun. Our only good view came about 35 years ago when we had a spacecraft, Mariner 10, pay it a visit. (We’ll get another good look a couple years from now.) 

Meanwhile, out on the real world of Gooseberry Island we enjoyed the steady emergency of the winter constellations – staying until  the end of astronomical twilight – and we had reasonably transparent skies – average I would say – but watching the stars come out gave us a good review of everything. Starting in the west, the Pleides were charming in binoculars. Looking at them in relation to Mercury, it’s hard to believe that by the end of the month you’ll be able to see both the Pleiades and Mercury in the same binocular – or small telescope – field.  That little planet does get around!  

I only took a glimpse at the Hyades, but with these clear horizons the Winter Hexagon was great, standing well up and dominating the southwestern quardrant of the sky – Sirius,  Procyon,  Castor and Pollux,  Capella, Aldebaran, and Rigel – then back to Sirius.  What a brilliant circlet of stars!

We got a glimpse at Saturn, but I had the 80mm Eon on the light T-Mount and the southeast wind was jiggling it quite a bit. That didn’t seem to hinder a good look at Mizar and Alcor, however – and later the Beehive, M44.  (M42, quite low in the sky, seemed to be more impressive in binoculars than a small scope – but then we were looking in twilight at it quite low.) 

What I like about Gooseberry is the 360-degree horizon. What is bad about Gooseberry is the cars – a pretty steady stream of bright headlights, making the devlopment of true night vision impossible. (I imagine drivers saying – “look, there are bunch of nuts with telescopes. I’ll your keep the headlights on them – maybe we can see what they’re doing.”)

Meanwhile, back at Driftway Observatory . . .

At 3:30 am I got in 90 minutes of observing with the 15-inch on the Observing Deck. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been out here and this is the first time using the deck since my neighbor and I cleared the brush and small trees to the north. I was really surprised to see how this added a real sense of openess to the deck. In terms of the amount of sky seen it isn’t critical, but it adds favorably to the ambiance. 

I was able to do some rough alignment of the new 50mm finder and I found that using it in tandem with the Telrad reflex  site made for very quick finding of things – everything, that is, escept M5. That one continues to elude my memory bank. I finally had to go get a chart out of the observatory. Seems I just can’t pin down the right section of the sky  for this beautiful globular and by the time I did the waning moon was high and bright in the southeast, shining through the bare tee branches, washing everything out. Add to this some high tin clouds rolling in over M5 and twilight heralded by the appearance  Venus low in the east and I knew it was time to go in..  I spent a few more minutes tweaking the collimation of the 15-inch – not bad – and then packed up.

Oh – did the annual mirror washing  of the 15-inch do any good? I sure seemed to remove a lot of gunk. But darned if I could tell the difference when looking through the scope. Of course, this was a less than ideal test with the moon washing things out. Though I must say, just being on the observing deck broke the subtle cabin fever that develops as I spend  most of my winter observing inside the little dome. I had forgotten how sweet it is to be out in the open.

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