Archive for the ‘Galaxies’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

About viewing these clips –

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

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

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

Colliding galaxies

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

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

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

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

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Well,I didn’t count them, but that’s what it felt like ths morning – several zillion stars at least and countless aged photons – and all being drawn into mye eyes and mind after a multi-million light year journey to my inexpensive 15X70 Celstrons and slightly more expensive 20X60 Pentax binoculars.

Part of the inspiration for this little journey was having just watched a Nova in which one of the main features was the incredible Ultra Deep Field image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004.  Here it is.
Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image Reveals Galaxies Galore
Source: Hubblesite.org

Now what gets me is, of course, that this image shows a tiny section of sky and in it what looks to the casual eye like a lot of faint, blurry stars is nothing but one distant – and huge – galaxy after another – and each galaxy containing something in the order of 100 billion stars or more.  Now that’s beyond mind blowing. That just leaves my little bunny brain neurons numb. Mind blowing of an order I can handle is what you can do in your own backyard – or in my case, on the back deck – with relatively simple instruments – binoculars – aided tremendously by a flexible mount, such as the  one I have  which is a standard parallelogram mount made some years ago by Charles Funk.

That mount makes using the binoculars a pleasure – holds them steady and allows you to bring them to your eyes without the usual gymnastics and neck strain that binoculars just mounted on a tripod would bring.  And yes, it was cold – but reasonably so – right around the freezing mark. And it was clear – super clear, but not so great in the “seeing” department which is why I decided to focus on the faint fuzzies and see if I could make some binocular inroads into the  Virgo Cluster of Galaxies – our local gang, so to speak.

My starting point was simple enough – I looked at the spot halfway between Denebola at the tail of Leo and Vindemiatrix and Virgo.  Well, that’s where I was told to look in some direction I read.  I’ve prowled this area many times, but with big telescopes.  The binoculars, with their much wider field, would, I felt, give me a better feel for what all is there – if I could see any of it.  There’s a wonderful chain of galaxies in that general vicinity and I know some of them are within reach of the binoculars.

Denebolar at the tail of Leo and Arcturus provide good guide for getting pointed in the right direction. The Virgo Cluster galaxies are in and about the general vicinity of the target shown. (SkySafari Pro screen shot, modified. Click to enlarge.)

Well that didn’t work! Not with the 15X70s anyway, so I decided to start with Vindemiatrix and work my way westward towards Denebola.  The first thing that caught my eye was this great triangle of stars with a bright one right in the middle of it. That’s the guide point I love because it jumps right out at you when you pan across the general area with binoculars. Here’s how it showed up in SkySafari 3 on my Ipad. (Yeah, I was ducking in and out to a warm room with only a red light on.)

This triangle with a bright star in the center was the kind of asterism that jumps out at you and it was just west of Vindemiatrix by about a binocular field. I used it and a nearby 7th magnitude star to form a triangle with the galaxy M60 to give me a starting point.

OK – that should work, but my next question was – is M60 something I can really expect to see with the 15X70 binoculars? I checked the SkySafari and it said the magnitude was 8.85 – hmmm, wonder how that compares with the familiar trio of galaxies in Leo I know I should see with these binoculars – M66, M65, and NGC 3628?

I quickly swung over to these three which have a wonderful “J” asterism to guide you – they’re like  cosmic fish caught on the hook of the “J.”  Again – here’s how SkySafari shows them on the Ipad.

The Leo Yriplet of Galaxies is well known and for me an indicator of how transparent the skies are - if I can see them easily in binoculars I know it's a good night for galaxy hunting. Well, if I can see two out of three - the two Messier objects being the easier ones.

I found my “J Hook” and the big fish – M66 – jumped right out at me. I can’t explain that. It’s always this way. That galaxy is just plain easy. M65 takes at least 30 second more for me to pick it up – and NGC3628 either eludes me entirely, or leaves me with a ghostly image that I’m not positive I’m seeing. And thus it was this morning. Now why this puzzles me is M66 is listed as magnitude 9.01, M65 magnitude 9.22 – just a tad dimmer – and NGC3628 as magnitude 9.17. In short, they’re all pretty much the same brightnness according to the numbers. But the numbers are just a rough guide because we’re not talking about a point source of light like a star. Instead we’re talking about light spread over an area – and frankly, even when you take this into account it doesn’t make sense to me that M66 should prove to appear so much brighter than the others – but it does to me.

All of which is interesting, but not the point – the point is M60, my target in Virgo, is listed as brighter than any of these at magnitude 8.85,  though it’s companion, M59, is fianter than any of them at magnitude 9.72. And using the numbers as a rough guide that’s exactly how it proved to be.  I found M60 without much trouble – and I was not sure whether I found M59 or not. But this gives me a foothold – an entry port into the Virgo cluster and I will use it on other nights in the coming months to explore much more. I have two sets of binoculars on order – new Celestron 20X80 and some used Zhummel 25X100. While neither are high quality, they should open that door with style once they arrive – though I’m not sure if my mount can handle the 100mm ones – we’ll see.

Meanwhile, I was so thrilled with how well M60 showed, I had to go cheking on some familiar targets and I quickly surveyed M51 ( the wonderful Whirlpool of a colliding pair of galaxies), M81 and M82 – just a terrific – and relatively bright pair in the Big Bear – and M101, a very faint, but large spiral that you can track down by following a trail of stars up and out  from Mizar.

And that lead me to the 20X60s Pentax. Their field is significantly narrower and with 60mm lenses rather than 70mm they shouldn’t deliver as much light – but the higher magnification and narrower field should increase contrast – and boy did it! The view of all the galaxies was significantly better in these binoculars – partly, I suspect, because the objective lenses are better, but mostly because the field is smaller, cutting down the background light and improving contrast.

So all in all, it was a great morning. Not quite Hubble Ultra thing – but because in this case the photons were really pinging my brain – not being captured by a piece of silocn and eventually represented by a pixel on a computer screen – I found this experience far better.

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Windy, cold, but clear! I’ll take that any day over the muck we’ve had recently, though I must say seeing was poor and the older I get the less fond I become of cold. But what was keeping me warm last night was the fun of opening up the 30mm Universe – the night sky as seem through 10X30 IS Canon binoculars. It’s awesome.

Now I know a 30mm objective seems small, but here’s a summary of what I saw in a series of brief observing sessions in both the evening and early morning hours. (Yeah, I did a lot of going out for half an hour,then coming in and studying charts while I warmed up.)

In Draco I started with Nu, got a clean split (60″ gap) and so went to the fainter, 16/17 Draconus. Another cleansplit. Here the gaps is about 90 seconds. So I went to the more challenging Psi Draconis which I have not split before and has just a 30 second gap and despite passing clouds and unsteady skies I got “kissing” stars which occasionally steadied enough to give me a hairline split

Went to 56 Andromedae, which I had split several nights ago, and found it easily – and it splt very easily – but my real goal here was something more subtle – the open cluster NGC 756. And I found it – a faint sprinkling of star dust with two or three stars that easily stand out. But this is a real rich area of sky as the following chart shows, for it also contains two of the largest galaxies we see – M31, the Great Andromeda Galaxy, and M33, a much more subtle patch of white . So with relative litte movement of the binoculars – afterall, look at thai six degree field – you can go from an easy double stars to a subtle cluster to a great galaxy and to to a more ghostly one.

Click image for larger version - from Starry Nights Pro screens hot.

What I saw, though, does’t capture what I regard as a remarkable – and repeated – experience: One moment you have a star dancing around and then, almost like watching a photo print develop in a tray of chemicals, you realize you’re seeing two perfect stars. This happened more than once and I don’t know if it’s the image stabilization reaching a new level, or just my brain adjusting to the new scene and kicking into gear,

I experimented with the 11X56 Garrett Optical and the 15X70 Celestrons and I have to say, they just couldn’t deliver. The images were brighter, of course, but when push came to shove the resolution wasn’t there -especially where bright stars were involved. They simply won’t quiet down in any binocular I have, but they’re better in the 10X30IS. What’s more, even though the larger ones were gathering more light – and I was using them on a parallelogram mount – they rarely  allowed me to see any more details than the 30mm binoculars. Generally, whatever I could see, I could see with either, though extended objects, such as galaxies, were easier to see in the larger binoculars.

This raises real questions in my mind as to what is the best binocular for scouting and area while star hopping with a telescope. The 15X70s make extended objects pop more easily – but they give a significantly smaller field of view thanthe 10X30s. I need to experiment with this aspect of binocular use more.

What’s fun with Draco and the binos is you can go on a neat progression from 16/17 at 90 seconds, to Nu at 60 seconds, to Psi at 30 seconds – and all with stars that are pretty close to one another in magnitude.

On to galaxy land! Morning with Ls and Js.

After a few hours sleep I returned to observing in the morning and this time my first target was  M3 rising above Arcturus in the east. A quick scan and there it was, an obvious fat star with with crumbling edges among much “cleaner” ones.

This one's too easy - just draw line between Cor Caroli and Arcturus and you'll find M3 a bit closer to Arcturus and with a magnitude 6 star right next to it. (Click image for larger version - prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

But I was  interested in bigger – and much more distant – game.  First up was M81/82, the famous pair up behind the bigBear’s ears.  I say that. I don’t know howmany times I’ve seen them – certainly more than a hundred. But I always get lost looking for them despite some obvious clues. I think it was Sue French who said something like the “Big Bear has ear mites.”  That helps. It also helps to draw a line between two of the bow stars in the Big Dipper. But in the typical finder and these small binoculars they can be too faint to readily jump out at you. You need something more and I think I have it – three radily distinguishable asterims in a row 0 a bold triangle, a ragged “L’ and a 7.   The pair of galaxes we want is right off the end of the L as indicated inthe chart. To get in the right area, scratch around behind the Bear’s ears – or use the two bowl stars to make an arrow pointing the way.

I use the two indicated stars to cut across the Dipper's Bowl and get me in the right general vicinity. Then I look for the asterism in the next chart. (Click image for larger version - prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Sigma is actually a wide (19') optical double of fifth magnitude stars and forms a bold triangle with another star of similar brightness. The ragged "L" leads you to the two galaxies and if you see the "7" you know you've gone too far. The galaxies are fainter than the bright stars int hese asterisms, but keep in mind you are looking at objects about 10 million light years away shinning with the combined light of billions of stars.(Click image for larger version - prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

OK – traveling 10 million light years or so with objects I can easilyhold inmy hand is a real trip – but I wanted to go deeper and M51 provided thenext step. Seeing the famous “Whirlpool” galaxy takes you  out  about 23 million light years  and it’s a much easier trip – from a star hopping perspective – though the galaxies are a bit fianter and, of course, mushed together – quite different from the M81-82 pair.

Start with Alkaid, the last star in the handle of the Dipper, and head in the general direction of Cor Caroli. We really have two triangles here, as shown, the second consisting of magnitude 7 stars. Since all this fits in the same binocular field as Alkaid it's apiece of cake - that is, assuming your binoculars have a field of 4 degrees or more. The 10X30s I'm using have a 6 degree fov as indicated y the circle.

That encouraged me to take a look at the lion’s hip – Leo was rising in the east and he carries with him a slew of galaxiws, the brightest being M65 and M66 – and they’re also just plain simple to find.  These are my “J” galaxies – that is, I find them because of a pair of “Js” in the sky near them. In fact, the brighter J sort of hooks them.  Here’s what I mean.

Finding the Leo Triplet of galaxies starts with identifying th ebright triangle of stars that represents the Lions rear haunches. One of those is Thea and if oyu get it in your binoculars the two "J" asterisms should jump out at you. The fainter, larger one is there just to fool you - and I've been fooled by it sometimes, especially in a finder that reverses the image. But the smaller, brighter one is actually easier to spot and from there it's clear where the galaxies are. (Click image for larger version - prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t “see” these galaxies. I “detected ” them. Tome there’s a difference. “Seeing” means you can discern shape, texture, and form. “Detecting” means you know the object is there – that this tiny patch of sky is different in brightness from its surroundings, but where you to draw a picture of what you detected it would be an indistinct smudge. So what you see is a ghostly presence at best in such small binoculars, but I felt confident with M66, a little less so with M65 – and I might have seen the third member of this famous triplet, NGC 3628.

This all defies somewhat the common warnings you here about viewing extended objects. M66, which I certainly found easier to detect,  is listed as magnitude 9.7  and M65 a bit dimmer at magnitude 10.1. But in terms of surface brightness – taking into account how spread out their light is – they are both listed close to magnitude 12.5. Now given that I have a darned hard time seeing magnitude 9.5 stars with these binoculars, you would be justified in assuming that I am either crazy, or a liar, if I say I can see a galaxy with a surface brightness of 12.5.

But all that really illustrates is how puzzling this phenomena of sight and faint objects is.  Stephen James O’Meara, observer and writer par excellence, syas in his book “The Messier Objects,” that all three of these galaxies can be seen with 7X35 binoculars! (He wrote that before the time of image stabilization and I am sure he is not using amount for those.)  If that’s the case, then it certainly isn’t ridiculous for me to claim I’m seeing them with 10X30 image stabilized binoculars. So I have confidence that I am seeing what I think I am seeing.  It is also interesting that O’Meara finds M65 brighter and I find M66 brighter – and again, I have some confidence in what I saw because O”Meara also notes that other observers disagree with him and find M66 brighter.

This whole business of what you can see with what is variable at best and the role of magnification and field size and steadiness all complicate the question, not to mention light pollution and the atmospheres transparency at the moment.  So you really have to try these things for yourself. For me, I count it as great fun that with these tiny glasses I easily hold in my hands I have travelled 38 million light years out into the universe to pluck ancient photons from billions of stars. That’s awesome.


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Also, a new observing routine: I have decided to halt my public programs and focus on my own observing projects – something i haven’t done for five years or more. As part of that change, I’ll try to keep a record here since I think it’s always good to reflect on what you’ve done.

True to the CSC, it cleared early this morning, though  just along the coast, and so I got out in freexing temps with terrible seeing at about 4 am.  I had two basic goals.

  1. Assess the performance of the new (used, of course) Canon 10X30IS binoculars.
  2. Make a preliminary estimate of the light loss caused by the new (used, of course) Denk Big Easy  binoviewers when using them on the Televue 85.

I met both goals in about 90 minutes and ended up with very cold hands despite several trips from the deck to a warm, red-lit library.

First, the 10X30.  I had just tried a pair of 10X42IS Canon’s and was unimpressed – that is, unimpressed in terms of their perforamnce relative to their price, so I owned them for less than a week.  The 10X30s are quite different, first in cost – used $245 vs. $770.  Second, in light grasp  42 vs 30 is 1,384 vs 706 square millimeters of light gathering lens – or put another way, using my 5mm dark-adapted pupil as a measure (19.6 sq. mm), that’s 71 eyes vs 36 eyes.  Of course I didn’t do a side-by-side test, but the bottom line is this – I didn’t miss the extra eyes, I didn’t miss the extra quality, and the dollar savings gave me enough to buy the Denks and a couple Plossls!

Truth is, Sky and Telescope binocular guru Gary Seronik says of the 10X30 IS : “I own a pair of these and find I use them more often than any other binocular in my collection. ”

Yep – I can understand why. First, the ergonomics are simply better – they feel right in your hand. Second, they don’t weigh nearly as much: 1.4 pouunds – nearly a pound less than the 10X42s.  Third, you need to hold the IS button continuously – a supposed disadvantage – but I found the placement of the button on the larger binoculars – it’s to one side – awkward and on the 10X30s (just in front of the center focus) intuitive.  With the bigger ones I did a lot of searching when wearing gloves for that button and then wasn’t sure I had hit it, so I would take the binoculars down from my eyes and look to see if the green light was on.  With the smaller ones it just worked naturally and I guess it’s a little noisier or more obvious when it kicks in because I always knew when it was on.

Of course, the big question I think most amateur astronomers have on their mind is can you see anything with the 10X30s? I mean, that’s barely more than an inch of objective – well , a bit more because it’s a binocular, but still darned little. And the answer is yes. Seronik describes it this way in his online review: ” the 10× magnification, image stabilization, and superb optics more than make up for the smaller aperture.”

To confirm this I did a very quick survey of some obvious binocular targets – the Pleiades (30 stars without any effort to see the faint stuff) ; Hyades – really beautiful and easily picking up stars of magnitude 9 and on the bright side of magnitude 10; the “enagement ring” around Polaris; Orion Nebula – really impressive; the three gorgeous clusters in  Auriga – M37, M36, and M38 with no sweat at all; M81 and M82 with no sweat; M51 (Whirpool Galazy) with a little sweat; M65 and M66 with a serious effort. (The cold was already getting to me, so no sweat there, but they weren’t easy 😉

What that means is I can easily use these to aid in star hppping and enjoy quick views and that’s all I expect of them – though I intend to also use them in a binocular double star program.

OK – what about my TV85 as a binocular?  This is interesting. Binoviewers cut the light in half, sending half to each eye. The brain does some recombining. And as near as I can tell no one knows quite what to make of this, nor is there agreement on anything except that there is some light loss – not sure how much.

Well, I really like the idea of observing with two eyes – it feels right and it makes sense. I did it before, but cut it out when I switched into public mode – some people have toruble getting the images together in abinoviewer and everyone  needs to adjust them for interpupilary distance and maybe make a diopeter adjustment as well, so they are too much of a hassle for public sessions. Private viewing is naother thing. the jury is still out, but I want to give them a serious try this time around. Afterall, we were born with two eyes and most of us are fortunate enough to be able to use both all the time. So why not use two eyes while observing? The answer is it’s either prohibitively expensive – though there are such things as binocular telescopes – or there are a host of quality-cutting compromises.

With typical binoculars the compromise comes in making two telescopes work together as one – to do that you need to make the two telescopes “fast” – that is with focal ratios in the neighborhood of F4 – and to sell them you need to make them cheap.  Fast and cheap just don’t go together, so binoculars invariably sacrific quality and can be used only at relatively low powers.  I have a devil of a time getting even moderately bright stars to be pinpoints with even the best binoculars I’ve used.  Use an inexpensive, achromatic, long focus telescope and it’s a piece of cake to get nice, sharp stars.  Use an inexpensive, short focal length binocular and you just can’t seem to get there from here – or I can’t.

Enter the binoviewer. You can use it on any telescope, but there are two big quibbles:

1. You introduce a lot of extra glass into the light path and that creates potential issues with reflections, collimation, and light loss.

2.  You are splitting the light beam in half sending 50 percent to each eye – so some feel you’re cutting the light grasp in half.

I can’t do anything about point one except to use quality binoviewers which the Denks are.  (They make a higher quality one than these which I haven’t yet felt compelled to get.)

I just don’t know what to make of the second point and in the final analysis I guess it comes down to the fact that there will be some light loss and you have to decide if that is important to your observing experience. There’s a trade off here – some light loss for the privledge of using two eyes. So my question is, how much light loss?

There’s actually a third problem I’ll deal with it after the light loss question.

To determine light loss I simply honed in on the Pleiades – they were just above my tree line in the west – and particularly on the stars around Alcyone. I didn’t care about actual magnitudes. All I wanted to do was to find some faint stars with the binoviewers, then examine them in cyclops mode at a similar power and with a similar quality eyepiece.  I was using 25mm plossls in the binoviewers, so my comparison eyepiece was a 17mm Plossl in cyclops mode. (That gave me 33X in the binoviewer and 35X in cyclops mode.)

I located a triangle of roughly 11th magnitude stars and my assessment was simple. I could see them in the binoviewer – though the faintest needed a little averted vision. I could see them more easily in cyclops mode. How much easier? I don’t have a clue. My rough guess is we’re dealing with no more than half a magnitude light loss and probably about half that – but that’s just guessing. Whatever the numbers, it wasn’t enough to disturb me. The view was still wonderful and using two eyes was relaxing.

Thatw as the only real test I did. I did look at M51 and enjoyed the view – but I did not do a comparison. Why? well, that’s the third issue. See  to get the binoviewer to come to focus in the TV85 you have to put another piece of glass in front of the diagonal. That means to go to cyclops mode you have to remove the binoviewers, remove the diagonal, take this piece out of the diagonal, return the diagonal, put in a single eyepiece, AND rebalance the scope – in this case slide it a bit forward on the mount.  Not a real big hassle but on a cold morning I wasn’t enthusiastic about doing that repeatedly.

But that leads to point three – in the TV 85 the binoviewer  delivers either 1.4X or 2.5X the normal magnification.  So a 25mm Plossl in cyclops mode will normally deliver  24X and thus a nearly two degree fov – very nice for the Pleiades, for example. In binoviewer mode that same eyepiece is delivering 33X and something closer to a 1.5-degree fov which really crowds the Pleiades. The guy who sold me this said I can use a 32mm or even 40mm Plossl with it and urged me to do so. I did try the single 32mm Plossl i have and it did give me a wider field. But there’s something bugging me where I thought the size of the prism in the binoviewer limited the low end of eyepieces – but it may not. I need to explore that.

But – if a 40mm Plossl works in it, it should deliver about 20X and a 2.1° true field.   That may be worth it. (The gain in true field isn’t as large as you might think because the apparent field of view on the 40mm Plossl is typically about 44° as opposed to 52° on most Plossls. )  In cylops mode I’m used to the 24mm Panoptic and a 2.8° field of view.  What i found this morning  is not having that extra field is important in finding stuff. The 24mm panoptic made finding things fairly easy – you could point the scope by intuition alone and usually find what you want in the eyepiece. Not so with the smaller fov in the binoviewers with the 25mm pair. So this is something I need to explore if I want to use the binoviewers seriously on the TV85.  And I may.  I was frustrated this morning because I have a red dot finder on that scope, but I almost never use it and it was way off and my fingers were getting too damned cold to fix it, though I tried for a while.

One last note on the TV85 – the guy I bought it from suggested trying it in straight through mode. I think I will – especially since I could put it on the  UA Tmount and use it while sitting down. Could be real cool.

So at this point I’m real happy with the 10X30 IS Canon binoculars – they’re a keeper.  And I feel I have a lot of experimenting to do with the TV85 and other scopes before I will be convinced to go the binoviewer route in a serious way. If I do go that route, then the changes it will generate will sort of travel through my equipment list as if they were dominoes and result in a lot of buying and selling – something I’m addicted to anyway, but I’m not convinced the addiction is healthy.

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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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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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