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Archive for April, 2010

The Explore Scientific  127mm f/7.5 Air-Spaced Triplet ED Apo arrived today.  I should quickly add that  at $1700 (NEAFF sale price) I don’t believe it’s a true APO – but in a word, it is good – very good. In fact I suspect this will become the scope I use the most.

I need more experience with it, of course, but I was impressed with the build and with a 10-day-old  moon and better than  average seeing -transparency was  below average – well, I’m going to wear out the word “wow” – I’m also well on my way to becoming a confirmed refractor addict.

The ES 127? Worth every penny! The only way I could go for a longer focal length than this would be with an entirely new pier and mount.  And at this point I certainly don’t see the  need for it. Other refractor fans will not be surprised, – you’ve been there.  But I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed this hobby more.  Some highlights of the first 90 minutes witht he ES 127  and that 10-day old moon over my shoulder –

1. Double- double – I have never seen it this way. Period. Oh I have split it very cleanly more times than I can count – but never like this. I cranked it up  to 381X with a 2.5 Nagler. Just incredible. With the same eyepiece the 80mm Lomo triplet was giving a good account of itself, of course, at 192X.  And the best framing in the five inch came with the 3.5 Nagler – 272X. And while I’m thinking about it – both scopes balanced beautifully on the UA DoubleStar.  I could even take the eyepieces out of both telescope – switch from 2.5 to 3.5 in the 127 – and still have the target in my fov – no slippage whatsoever. That’s good for a double mount.

2. Porrima – at last! I won’t kid you. it wasn’t like the double double – but there was plenty of clean black sky between them, though so much light they still fought with one another as they rolled across the fov. Here the full 381X was needed to get a really clean break – and I suspect I will find another night with better conditions – but this was delightful. In the 80mm i could not come close to separating them – they just waltzed across the field  – hinting at the existence of two bodies – but no space between them.

3. Saturn – four moons leaped out at me – I don’t know how many I should have seen – and this was over in the stronger moonlight.  But here the quality of the seeing really showed that it was not perfect – good, but room for improvement –  because Saturn could not take the magnification without  deteriorating. Even at that, i don’t recall a better view except one night of exceptinal seeing with the 15-inch when  Bob and Mark were here and Mark kept digging into his eyepiece case for shorter focal lengths. We had the 15 cranked up past 500. So there’s something to look forward to here.

4. Polaris – just charming, especially with the moonlight trying  – but unable – to wash out its companion.

5. M57 – now this awed me! Just a wonderful view under poor conditions. Here’s where I’m starting to think there’s no need for more light grasp to satisfy me.

6. M13 – again, very nice considering the intensity of the Moon, though it was lower in the west by this time.

If I can stay awake  – and transparency improves – I may go out after the moon sets.

Bottom line – I have lots of good things to say about this scope. I also have some quibbles, but minor. It will take a while to sort them out – but the 80/127 on the doublestar looks like my ideal observing set up – we’ll see how it stands the test of time.

Don’t think this means the Unitron will get ignored. When I have visitors I’ll let them use the 80/127 and the SCTs – I’ll use the Unitron  and other classic scopes.  AThere’s something to be said for honing your skills by using smaller scopes – sort of like as a kid when I learned to hunt with a single shot .22. My one issue with the 127 is they put  a straight through finder on it and though very nice, it just ain’t going to work for me when pointing much above 45 degrees -so I’ll swap it with a RA one off of one of the SCTs.  Of course on the DoubleStar mount my 80mm becomes the primary “finder.”

I got out again just before 4 am which gave me about half an hour of dark skies – so I did a very quick deep sky tour starting with M51 – could see it well – certanily enough to satisfy me and no challenge at all as it is in the 60mm.

M3 was disappointing and when I went to Izar I saw that part of the reason was the seeing – it came way down from what I had at 1 am. I would say at 1 am it was a 4, at 4 am a 2 on a scale where 5 is best – still, I could use close to 200X and could split Izar, but it was sloppy.

What was exquisite – just the  kind of view you would kill for – was Omicron1 Cygni. I thought the scope would overpower it, but oh my – the colors were what I imagine a fine wine is to a wine fancier – the primary was just screaming orange  – and the blue star was making a statement as well – but the killer was the green one – just the delicate of pastels.

But I get ahead of the tour – I went to M5 and found it much more satisfying than M3.

M11 was fabulous – which tells me that this scope is going to eat up open clusters.  (A large part of the charm of Omicron1 came from the black sky and loads of pinpoint stars in that neighborhood.)

M27 did well with just a hint of interior stars – if I had stayed longer I’m sure i would have seen more. Same with with M57.  The Double Double split, but not nearly so nicely in the poor seeing as it did earlier. Polaris did well, too – and Mizar – again, i thought this would overpower it, but with a 13mm Nagler it was fabulous – 73X.

So what next? Well, the 80mm F15 Towa 339 arrived today to round out the new/old scope binge. But my goal now is to start selling stuff – none of the refractors, of course. But I probably will part with a SCT. For personal viewing I could be very happy with the Unitron 114, the 80/127 rig, the C8 – and yes, the Obsession 15 for galaxy hunting. (OK, so who wouldn’t be. I’m damned lucky, but there are no computers, no electronic motors, no imaging gear and I’ve been waiting many years to get to this point  😆  I’ll keep the LX50 and I’ll see  where the Towa fits in with this mix. Folks coming over tonight, but I’ll give it a try. Meanwhile, off to Astronomy Day!

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Looking for words to describe the appearance of M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, in the 60mm Unitron, I found Charles Messier did it for me in 1773 when he wrote:

very faint nebula without stars

Ooops. Note that “nebula” is singular!  That’s not what I saw just a few minutes ago using the 60mm Unitron 128 with the 24mm Ramsden eyepiece.

It took Messier’s less famous colleague,  Pierre Mechain, to fill out the picture eight years later and in Messier’s third catalog this appears under number 51:

it is double,  each one with a brilliant center, separated from each other 4’35.” The two atmospheres touch each other. The one is fainter than the other.

Ah – that’s much better. “Two atmospheres” indeed!  Billions of stars 26 million light years away. Beyond Messier’s wildest dreams, I’m sure, and certainly beyond my ability to wrap my mind around it this morning. But it was there. It is surprising how much you can see with how little. But what I am really looking forward to with this small scope is reviewing the Messier catalog and seeing these objects through his eyes. You can find descriptions of Messier’s telescopes in two relatively new books,  “[i]The Next Step – Finding and Viewing Messier’s Objects[/i]” by Ken Graun,  and in “[i]Atlas  of the Messier Objects[/i]” by Ronald Stoyan and three others.

Messier used at least a  dozen different telescopes of a wide range of sizes and optical design. But for different reasons they were not up to telescopes of modern design that are smaller. So while it’s interesting to pursue exactly what telescope Messier used for a particular observation, I think the descriptions he has left us of what he saw are the best guide to his telescopes. And so far I’m finding his descriptions closely match what I see in small refractors.  He did, according to Graun, favor 3-4-inch achromatic refractors in his later years.

One thing he certainly did not have was a “Unihex.”  😆

Seriously – the typical telescope of his day had a single eyepiece which was a permanent part of it. We think we’ve improved on that by making eyepieces interchangeable. That’s an improvement, but I don’t want to count how many times I’ve dropped some very expensive glass while fumbling in the dark and cold with eyepieces, diagonals, and set screws.  Having used the Unihex – and now discovered the right way to set it up – I have to wonder why something like this isn’t on the market today.  I really do love using it. Think of it – six eyepieces at your disposal at the twist of your hand. No fumbling around in the dark with set screws. These are all pressure fit into their holders. Oh – and about those holders. Those are the key.

Yesterday I encountered the frustration that another reviewer had when using a Unitron and that is that there is a crude focus achieved by sliding a draw tube in and out, and a fine focus achieved with the more common rack and pinion mechanism. Sliding the draw tube in and out can easily get you off target and is imprecise and yesterday I was doing that when I changed from low to high magnification. Then I found the instructions for the Unihex online. Aha! The previous owner of this scope said he hadn’t used the Unihex – that he didn’t like it. Well, when I got it the eyepiece holders, which are of different lengths, were not on the Unihex in the correct order.  They are supposed to be screwed on in order from tallest to shortest – to coincide with the focal length of the eyepieces. You then press an eyepiece all the way into the tube and the tube length acts as a sort of crude, pre-focus.  The result isn’t parfocal, but it’s close.  You adjust the draw tube once and then everything can be done with relatively small changes using the rack and pinion.

I rearranged the eyepiece holders accordingly, put the eyepieces in from longest to shortest, and love the result. Boy that is convenient!

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Actually it was closer to 45 years ago that I began drooling over ads like this one.

And when my first Unitron arrived yesterday it was cloudy and the forecast dismal. But this little dude even knows how to break the new telescope curse. I was about to turn in early when I glanced through the sun room roof and there was the first quarter moon, fighting its way through the high junk. I was so excited I simply grabbed the Unitron – a Model 114 like the one in the picture, only with a few battle scars – and went out on the deck in my stocking feet with no jacket.

Yeah, the moon broke through the  high clouds – so did Mizar, Castor, Algieba and Saturn.

Wow!

Now I know what the excitement is about. I know there are many observers who are saying – “so what took you so long to learn this? ” Hey – my parents always said my poor performance in school was due to my being a “late bloomer.” I attribute it toa streak of stubbornness where I have to do  everything for myself – the hard way. 😆  But if you’re a doubter and you hear someone saying those old long focal length achros can give modern APOs a run for the money, listen to ’em. I’m a skeptic turned convert and it happened with a single glance through an old .965 Ramsden eyepiece mounted in a “Unihex” that brought my reaction. It’s not a simple one. I know there’s more here than meets the eye – really. We’re talking gestalt! It is a wonderful blend of superb optics, almost quaint technology (like the compression slits that allow you to load six eyepieces into the Unihex and have none of them slip out despite the lack of set screws)  and nostalgia – oh, not to mention utter simplicity, solid build ( the proverbial brick outhouse has nothing on this baby) , light weight – and did I say anything about those optics?

I mean even the old, dirty, .965 stuff using the Unihex which must have degraded some over 30 years or so  – I mean, a 25mm Ramsden! Do you even know what a Ramsden is? If you don’t, I don’t blame you. In the 60s we felt an “achromatic Ramsden” was good – like a good Plossl is today.  You gotta be kidding me – a Ramsden delivering views like this!  And an 18mm Kellner, and a 12.5 Kellner and 9mm Symetrical – that last gives me 100X – more than enough to easily split Castor and Algieba. I couldn’t see the third component of Castor, but geeeeeze, I had mag 2.5- 3 skies! These are not ideal conditions.

And nostalgia. Yeah, it’s there. How about those flip down wooden tripod legs? Or the way the center spreader connects to them – no  chains. And a wooden case! Hell, when the clouds finally drive me in I sit in my library just staring at it, ignoring the book in my hand. It’s tall. When pointed up I can just reach to slide on the lens cap.  But the proportions are all perfect – quintessential telescope. This defines telescope like the Spitfire defines fighter, like the F86 defines jet fighter – or if you are more peacefully inclined – and I usually am – like the Piper Cub defines the fun of flying, or  DC-3 defines air transport.

And that viewfinder? I wasn’t even going to look through it. I mean a 5X23 – could that do anything? I’ve looked through junk like that with cheap modern telescopes and despaired. But this one? It was really one of the biggest surprises of the night.  And it focuses using a slit tube arrangement for compression that really does hold after all these years  – and it’s sharp – and they say the little sucker deliver a 6 degree 22′ field and I believe it. Made finding easy.

Yes, i did try my Televue eyepieces – and yes, on the hybrid .965 to 1.25 diagonal – and yes, there was a lot more through-put of light with them – did I mention the Moon? That was the first target. Honestly, the rugged peaks and valleys of the Apollo 15 landing site – the slash  of the Alpine Valley, of course – everything so darned sharp with such terrific ocntrast – and I cranked the power up to 180X with no sweat – 75X per inch!

Maybe my skies were exceptionally steady because of the high haze – I’m not sure. But I’m already in love.  Yeah, the focusing can be a pain with the old eyepieces because they are not even remotely close to being parfocal – so you have to pull out, or push in the draw tube some times because there just isn’t enough travel in the rack and pinion focus to accommodate the differences. Of course the Naglers are almost parfocal, so no hassle there.

Did I mention the stars. Those wonderfully sharp Airy discs?  That’s what I expect with the APOs – and I get them, of course. Other good achros can deliver them as well. They are a must for my viewing pleasure – though I know it just doesn’t matter to others.

I went to bed quite happy and caught  a break when I woke up at 4 am as well – but I could not split Polaris – too faint – at first I thought I did, but it was only light being thrown into the diffraction ring. BUT – I was able to split the Double Double – the wider component for sure, the other one questionable. (Omicron1 Cygni was lovely with the 25mm Ramsden.)

A friend on the West Coast with a bad case of refractoritis has been my mentor in my little excursion into long focal length achros. He says he uses TV Plossls with his. I’m not sure if that’s for economy, or because he prefers them over the Naglers for these scopes. Anyone have any thoughts on the subject?  I like the gestalt of using the .965 eyepieces and Unihex – but when I’m out at the extremes I’m hauling out the Naglers – with a slightly uneasy feeling, however. Nothing I can put my finger on, but I was thinking a simple Plossl might be a better choice.

Oh – saw the ring Nebula as well – including the central hole. Charming!

And M13 – Messier called it “a nebulae without stars” – now I know why. I would say the 60mm gives us a pretty good idea of the quality of Messier’s scope – I bet when using a good 60mm we are seeing what he saw. ( I know his scope was larger, but I don’t think the optics were this good.)  I felt M13 wanted to resolve – but that was more my past knowledge of it than what was in the eyepiece.

All Unitrons are not created equal. At least that’s the impression I get from reading what much more experienced Unitron users say.  I can’t say what the quality of the lens is that I have – I don’t have anything to compare it to – but it pleases the heck out of me  😆

Oh – and still making it’s way here from Oregon is  the 80mm F15 Towa. And arriving at the same time from Maryland should be a new Explore Scientific 127mm apo-wannabe. (Hey, there’s more to life than nostalgia and while a 4-inch Unitron appeals to me, I am the first to admit that  if you want some extra  photons in a package that won’t strain the typical mount, you need to go apo.

. . . and that’s it folks. I’m only going on AstroMart and the CN classifieds to sell stuff. My cup runneth over. Anyone interested in getting together here in a few weeks for a classics night? Observing with your scopes or mine as long as they are 25 or older? Let me know.

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Had fun for a couple hours this morning using  the two 50s – the F4.1 “Little Rascal”  and the F12 Tasco – to track down a  palindrome pair of stars in Cygnus – 16 Cygni and 61 Cygni.  They are very similar – as are the two scopes – and yet quite different.

There’s only two-tenths of a magnitude difference between the closely matched 6th magnitude stars that make up 16 Cygni. In the scope they remind me of Albireo without the color – that is, about the same separation – but significantly dimmer. In fact, at this brightness 50mm loses some of its appeal. Of course it helps if you clean the dew off the lens and I’m not sure when the dew got on there, but I didn’t notice the problem until much later when I was viewing M11.  😯  Still, the pair have a fascination and those using larger scopes may know them simply because they are very close to the Blinking Planetary – which I could not see with the 50mm.

Actually, 16 Cygni is a triple star system about 70 light years from us and with a planet believed to be orbiting the “B” component. The A component evidently has a close companion you can’t see. So here’s the real fascination for me: In the 1960s – and I don’t know for how many years thereafter – I learned that astronomers assumed there were no planets around double stars because the system would be too unstable. Since more than half the stars are doubles, this cut the chances of finding extra-terrestrials at least by half. Yet here we have a triple star system with a planet and while it’s orbit is eccentric, it apparently is stable. (Or maybe not – do we know? ) On the site usually maintained by Jim Kaler there’s this note: “From 16 Cygni-B’s planet system (and no one knows if there are any “earths”), the somewhat brighter component, 16 Cygni-A, would shine with the brilliance of our full Moon.” Well – fun to contemplate!

Dropping to the east in the same constellation – 61 Cygni is the famous speed demon and the first star whose distance was measured using parallax.  That was done in 1838 by Freidrich Bessel, so viewing it comes with a significant piece of astronomical history. The distance is about 11 light years and just that closeness to us would make it appear to speed along against the background stars, but it simply is moving faster – about five times as fast as our Sun moves according to Kaler, my favorite source on all things stellar.  Kaler says this suggest that 61 Cygni is an interloper – as he put it, this implies “that 61 Cyg is not a member of the thin disk of our Galaxy, but is merely a visitor to the neighborhood.” Hmmm. . . a runaway from a globular? Or maybe a dwarf galaxy we swallowed recently???

It’s also an easy double about the same brightness as 16 Cygni and similar separation.  Even the 50mm Little Rascal at 10X can split these stars, as well as Omicron1 Cygni, a nice triple – especially when the skies are as steady as they were this morning. I tried the 10X50 binoculars – mounted on a p-mount – on Omicron1 and found I could split it, though the third component was difficult.

Looking at these stars really made me appreciate the light throughput issue when you start upping the magnification.  At 46X I was looking at a quite dim M11 – it looked more like a nebula with a sprinkling of star dust – except, of course, for it’s single bright star – the leader of the “wild ducks.”   I highly recommend this touring at different objective diameters, though. Light is a dimension and you really do get different perspectives as you switch back and forth, much as you do with magnification. I’m also convinced there’s an ideal framing – not only in terms of field of view, but also in terms of brightness – for any given object, but of course what’s ideal for me may not be ideal for someone else. It’s simply an aesthetic judgment.

Now – it will be interesting to see if the longer focal length – possibly better quality – and slightly more light gathering area of the 60mm Unitron does better.  It’s due to arrive today as the clouds roll in. But I may get a shot at testing it on these same stars Friday morning. Hey, the fun never stops! 🙄

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Clear skies this morning, though I wasn’t prepared. I’m knee deep in planning my class – outlining 12 sessions for the year – but mainly working on this project I’ve devised that is a sort of a cross between and Orrery and a planisphere.

Anyway – that meant I had no plan for this morning and no advanced preparation, so I simply went to the little Observatory, opened the shutter,  and pointed the  8-inch SCT (LX-50) at M5 after scanning around some with binoculars. Transparency was excellent. Seeing wasn’t all that good, though I didn’t put it to the test.

I want to focus on  M13, as I mentioned earlier, but I need to do some comparisons as well and I know many observers feel M5 is  the nicer of the two bright globulars. I hate to pass judgment. M5 is different. It’s great. So is M13.  I’m not sure how I would place a value on the differences.

One thing I did have in mind to do, however, was check on Omicron1 Cygni which is promoted as a nice binocular triple. I couldn’t get three stars out of it the other night with 10X50 binoculars ,however – just two.  So I swung the 8-inch around as dawn was encroaching on M5 and picked up Omicron1 at the lowest power and of course the three are obvious.  I make out the primary as gold, the secondary – the one much closer to it – as blue, and the third, more distant star, as green – wonderful! (I know Bob, they’re all the same color 😉 wonder how others see them?)  This triple certainly deserves its stellar reputation. I can’t begin to imagine why I haven’t looked at it before. Incredible. Cygnus, rich as it is, somehow doesn’t attract me, except Albireo of course. Maybe I get frustrated by all those stars – I certainly get frustrated by the North American nebula. I know where it is. I can “see” it  – sort of, in binoculars. But boy, I can not make out it’s shape. I just see a difference in background color of the sky in that region. I checked on it again this morning – same result as always.

But getting back to Omicron1,  I decided to shut up shop quickly and scoot into the house and bring out the  set-up I devised last night with the 50mm Tasco. I’m using a dovetail bar to mount the Tasco 6TE5 and the 50mm Stellarvue “Little Rascal” side-by-side on a rather flimsy photo tripod.  This is the first time I tried it and it actually works. 😯  I pointed the pair toward Altair and made sure they were seeing the same thing – they are. The Little Rascal is F4.1, so with a 23mm eyepiece it’s delivering about 9X and nice wide field.  It’s good up to about 35X, but after that the image really falls apart. The Tasco can easily take you to 100X.

But this morning I had a .965 26mm Kelner in the Tasco, so that gave me about 26X in the little F12 scope.  So what did I see? The Little Rascal could split it – so my 10X50 binos should – I just need to get them steady. But there was not much joy in the faint images. The Tasco was something else. I enjoyed the view in it more than in the 8-inch. This is a great combination for this triple – a real nice fit. But I really need to fool around a bit with different eyepieces. The Kellner can only be brought to focus if you don’t insert it in the diagonal the whole way. Less than ideal, but a nice power – and yes, even with just 50mm of light  gathering power the colors were still there for me.

Bottom line – in 90-minutes  or so of observing I had more fun with the 5-10 minutes I spent with the Tasco and Omicron Cygni  that with the 8-inch.  I’m really getting hooked on these “classic” refractors – long focus achros. Nearly went crazy this weekend when three attractive scopes hit CN and Amart classified. The first was 60mm Unitron Model 114 on Alt-Az mount with Unihex eyepiece holder and in real nice condition. That’s on it’s way now from Florida and is due here Wednesday.  I’ve been waiting for over 40 years to look through a Unitron, so I guess I can wait a few more days.  😆

The second is a 339 Towa – 80mm F15 OTA.  This one has know nostalgic value for me. I really don’t knbow anything about Towas, except I read ont he web that they’re good.  It was just $120 – seemed reasonable. It now on it’s way from the west coast, so it will be a while.

What I really anguished over was 4-inch Unitron OTA that looked nice, but I was a tad uncomfortable with the seller and his “best offer” approach. Plus this is a guy who has several old Unitrons and right now is breaking them up and selling them piecemeal. If he had had the Alt-az mount ( he sold it a few weeks ago)  for this I think I would have given in and bought it. As it was I had to tie my self to my chair, then roll away from the computer 😉

Come on – I’ve never looked through a Unitron. I know they’re good. But I also am pretty sure that a modern APO is better – certainly has more light throughput with modern coatings. And, of course, is shorter and easier to mount. The guy did have an equatorial mount and clock drive. Ever seen a  Unitron clock drive for one of these large scopes?Looks like something out of a Jules Verne movie -a definite Victorian air to it. But now the price was really getting out of hand.  And I haven’t even looked through a 60mm yet! Gotta slow down.  🙄

Yeah, but running is fun!

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Shivered on Gooseberry with a small group of mostly new observers as the clouds gave us just enough of a gap to catch Venus, a slither of a Moon a mere 1.4 days old, and Mercury beside it shortly after sunset.

I really didn’t think this one was going to work. The CSC forecast yesterday was for clouds at sunset today. The forecast this morning was for it to be clear – but by noon  the forecast had changed back again to cloudy. At 5 pm  the satellite showed clouds moving in from the northwest, but many were drying up as they got here – but more and thicker ones were on the way.

I sent out an email to those interested advising that it really did not look promising. But I said I would be there on the off chance we got a lucky break. I really didn’t expect anyone to join me. Well, folks got the email and decided to come anyway, so there were seven of us there and as the sun ducked into a bank of clouds about 10 minutes before setting it really did not seem good. But there was some blue above the clouds and about 15 minutes after sunset Venus popped out in it – and and almost at the same time the crescent moon was easily visible in binoculars and could be picked up with your naked eye as well – but no Mercury, though it was a bit less than a degree from the Moon.

However, when I turned the 80mm refractor on the Moon, there was Mercury, right where it should be, so every one got a chance to take a look. It was a mere dot, mind you, but clearly visible. But no amount of coaxing could bring it out of the haze enough to see in binoculars, let alone with the naked eye. Eventually it was joined by Mars ( almost overhead)  and Saturn (high to the southeast), so we had four of the five naked eye planets forming a nice arc across the sky and giving everyone a good sense of where the ecliptic is.

But cold! i was really unprepared – having cautioned others to dress warmer than they thought they should, I didn’t.  There was a wicked  southeast wind down there that was cold as the dickens, so I wasn’t too disappointed when the encroaching clouds made it impractical to stay too late.  😆  Still, I counted it a minor, but fun piece of outreach. (In March we had a similar view – but much clearer skies and a Moon just 24 hours old.)

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Remember a summer evening when you were maybe 12 and you stayed out past sunset? And sunset faded into twilight which faded into night and you knew your Mom would be worried, but you just lay there on the grass, looking up, fascinated as the stars came out?

For me those evenings were filled with a mixture of wonder and confusion. They still are, but on a deeper basis. Last night was such an evening – only colder 😉

But I rediscovered for the umpteenth time the deep pleasure of simply looking up – and I enhanced this by adding a comfortable, swivel beach chair, a parallelogram mount, and a very nice pair of 10X50 binoculars – which in sum led me through a space walk in my new and much larger “backyard.”

It began close to home shortly after 8 pm with Saturn high in the southeast, Mars high in the south, and memories of Venus and Mercury, now well below the treeline, if not below the horizon to the northwest.  Together the four did a beautiful job of defining the ecliptic.  This is particularly true of Saturn and Mars, both just a tad north of it.  But Saturn also is a reminder these nights of where the southeast-to-northwest arc of the ecliptic crosses the more easily defined arc of  the celestial equator. Yes, I really do think about this stuff when I’m out there because I’m trying to develop an intuitive grasp of where we are in the universe  and this helps.

Suddenly it all fit together so nicely. The projection of earth’s equator is an easy one – but the ecliptic I usually find more elusive, but not last night. Then it  just seemed so obvious that these little dots of light – Saturn and Mars – were sitting on a disc – the same disc on which I was lounging in my beach chair in my little gem of a spaceship, Earth.  Here we were on the plane of our solar system where almost all the local action is. I wish I knew how to bottle that experience so I could take a sip of it whenever I wanted. Most of the time all this talk of planes and arcs and planets remains in an abstract world. I understand the words, but they have no meaning at the gut level – last night they did. Last night they they left the realm of mere words and  numbers and were real.

That’s the sort of thing I always seek – but too rarely find. But it didn’t end there. The night before I had enjoyed a brief tour with some 10X50 Pentax PCF WPII binoculars I had picked up recently on Astro-Mart. They give a crisp, five-degree field of view that stays sharp to near the edges. But I quickly tire of holding them up, so for tonight I had brought out the “Suntracker” swivel beach chair – my favorite for binocular use – and a rather battered parallelogram mount made to my specs by a guy in Tennessee  several years ago.  At the time I wanted something fairly short that didn’t crowd my observatory, but now I use it on an old Meade field tripod and in the open.

But what was important here was a new lesson in patience.  I not only was staying away from the DoubleStar mount which had scopes already to go, but I really took the time to get comfortable in my chair,  and get the binos well-balanced.  This is absolutely critical.  I want them to float in front of me and when looking straight up, they should not put any pressure on my face. Then I went out in space. It was a real trip!

My tiny backyard vanished – everything around me vanished – thanks to using both eyes – and I felt I owned the universe. It was my new backyard and I was just roaming around from one familiar spot to another –  M35, 37, 36 and 38 of course – then over to M44 and Mars spinning past, splitting the two donkeys – then down to ancient M67 and eventually over to the Leo Triplet where I settled down for a long look. Yes, I could see M65 and M66 in the 10X50s, but I had to pretty much imagine NGC 3628. Maybe others can pick it up with 50 mm? I feel good if I can see it with an 80mm scope.

And that’s where I eventually went – to the 80mm APO  which I gradually worked up from 16X to 37X. It was on the UA DoubleStar mount with a C8 and I switched to the bigger scope and I swear I saw these galaxies better than I ever had before and I think the reason was simple. No, it was not because transparency was excellent and seeing pretty darned good as well, though that certainly helped. It was because I had had the patience to get totally – and comfortably – immersed in the universe the way I know I should, but too seldom do.  I always seem to think I can cut corners.  What was important for me was to mentally and emotionally get the context down pat using naked eye and binocular, then slowly inch up on both power and light grasp, making each instrument deliver all it could before moving on. Delightful! When it works the way I think it should, this experience is way beyond my skill to express it.

In the final analysis I don’t think any of the equipment matters. What matters is simply learning how to relax.  I’m not talking meditation here – though that’s important to me – but learning to accept the fact that you’re going to take a beautiful night like this and really devote it to just a few objects. (Think of it as going to the Magic Kingdom and instead of hitting every ride in a marathon day, you just go through the Haunted Mansion – several times. [-)

And what was the best lesson of the night was learning – or maybe relearning – how to sit in a chair.  No kidding. I think lying back in the grass and looking up is the most natural approach to the night sky and I’m sure our species has been doing that for thousands of years.

But put binoculars in front of your eyes – binoculars held firmly in a very steady mount –  and it is still so easy to strain just a little and not even know you’re doing it. The position of the binoculars isn’t perfect, so you just raise your head a tiny bit and maybe twist it. The big mistake is you are, perhaps  subconsciously,  trying to bring your eyes to the binoculars  instead of bringing the binoculars to your eyes. Well – at least that’s been my problem in the past. I always thought that when I grew up I’d learn to be more patient. Maybe I’m growing up. 😉

In any event the evening session lasted a couple hours.  If I were younger I probably would have made a night of it. Conditions were terrific. But instead I came in and eventually got to sleep around midnight and didn’t get up again until 3 am. Still, this gave me a chance to repeat the process and extend my vision from the solar system to the galaxy. For once I was back on the observing deck and my eyes had reasonably dark adapted, the summer Milky Way was quite high overhead. The northern parts near Cassiopeia were lost in the light dome from New Bedford and North Dartmouth, but from Cygnus down through Scutum it was terrific. What really struck me was the varying intensity – the big rift you get between Cygnus and  Aquila, then the really bright clouds you find as you hit Scutum. My treeline blocked off the best parts that go down into Sagittarius towards the center of our galaxy, but what I could see was enough to give me a vision much akin to the one in the evening session where I could really see our planet sitting as a lonely speck on the great disc of our solar system with a few other lonely specs, Saturn and Mars.

Now the planets were mostly out of the picture, but that greater disc – this one much puffier, but better defined –  was obvious. And again I found it easy to envision our tiny star as one of millions in these clouds that spiral out from the galaxy core.  In a sense it was disc against disc – one in my memory from a few hours before and running across the sky from southeast to northwest – and a much puffier one now cutting across at a much different angle from northeast to south. Both these define our home – our place in the universe.

I spent more time in the chair not using the binoculars – just captivated by the naked eye vision.  But I at last did a little exploring of the familiar.   I looked for M57 but with 10X I could not decide which faint dot among several was a little blurry, so I swung on down to Albireo.  But  with 10X I could not split it. (Have others been able to with small binoculars?) It showed some gold, but no blue and nothing I could call two stars. So I kept moving eastward until I hit M27 which was certainly large enough to make an easy target.

Next I played with my own little piece of mythology – using the well-known Coat Hanger as a jumping off point. I think it was Bren who suggested that this belonged to the Fox, for the obscure constellation of Vulpecula is nearby – and we have always had fun thinking about this worn out little fox, returning to his den, a bit sweaty, but happy that he had once more eluded the hounds – and, of course, hanging up his red hunting coat on this starry coat hanger.  Having invented that – and I’m laughing at myself here because I am really not a big fan of constellation mythology – I can appreciate how ancient people, sitting on the ground at night, looked at the stars, connected the dots, and let their imaginations go wild.

From the Coat Hanger it was a short slide down past Altair to one of my favorite open clusters, M11. And with the first hints of dawn showing I moved quite quickly to the 80mm, got M11 in view, and then shifted to the C8. This fascinates me. At one moment it looks like a printed circuit board – at another, the streets of a well-planned city. There is something very regular, almost rigid, about the pattern of stars in this cluster that belies its nickname of “Wild Duck.”

The circuit board metaphor works for me, but this morning I liked the city one even better. The single bright star that dominates felt like the Empire State Building to me – and the dark lanes – a blotch really – that enter from the west could be a celestial version of Central Park – and at that point I have exhausted my very limited knowledge of the Big Apple.  But twilight was really taking over and I just had to check on the Double Double to see just how good the seeing really was.

Very good. So good that with the 24mm Panoptic in the C8 – 83X – I was getting a nice clean split of both stars. And they were perfect round dots at higher power in the 80 mm with as textbook clean a split as you can obtain.

Yep – and there’s more of this weather in the forecast for tonight! We’ve been building towards it gradually. Saturday gave clear skies for a while, but really horrendous seeing and not that good transparency. Each night since I’ve had  some hours that were better than Saturday, but none as good as last night. For me, it’s a few hours like these that define amateur astronomy. May we all have many of them!

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