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Archive for the ‘Multiple stars’ 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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My last post here was almost a year ago – what the heck have I been doing?

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

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

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

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

Couple things I need to do –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Breakthrough

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

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

Initial tests

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

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

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

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

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

Morning session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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OK, I wasn’t born yesterday, and the number of scopes I’ve owned and used extensively is well over 100, so why am I getting excited about  a cheapy version of a SCT “go to?”

SE6 after an enjoyable first hour of exploring the universe through the clouds and cold.

And I guess the answer is it just proved itself to be a very acceptable performer optically and electronically – and for my particular needs at this particular stage in my life, it’s a very good fit. Of course there are better optics available – and in a modern SCT.  But the combination of my old eyes, plus what I expect out of an astronomy experience, plus price, ease of use, and ease of transport and set up makes this little scope hard to beat. It is just what I was hoping it would be.

It arrived late yesterday afternoon from Amazon.com in one big box and was simple to unpack and set up – but it was raining of course – freezing rain. So I read the manual. Even though I was pretty familiar with the system from past experience,  I needed a refresher. I put some batteries in the scope and played a little to get the feel of it, pumping in my latitude and longitude, a one-time thing –  and I decided that the two-star alignment would work best for me because I know the stars – I don’t need the scope to pick them for me – and because I planned to use it on the deck where only about 40 percent of the sky is available to me, so stars the little sand brain choose would likely be behind a tree or house that it didn’t know was there. Then I went to bed with not much hope of using it in the morning.

But I was wrong. I awoke around 3:30 am and when I peeked out the bedroom window, there was Mars & Company screaming for me to come out. Without getting dressed I went down stairs and put the scope out the sliding glass doors onto the deck to cool down. Then I relaxed, put on some long underwear and made some tea. By 4 am I was entering the time and date and choosing Arcturus for my first alignment star. Of course I hadn’t had a chance to align the red dot finder, but it wasn’t that far off. A little scrolling brought the orange brilliance of Arcturus into a 32mm Plossl (46X and a tad over one degree FOV I suspect.) I then choose Vega and through  a hole in the clouds, found it, though by this time Arcturus had been smothered.

Did I mention the bright stars that beckoned me were  in a  sucker hole? If not, you now know the derivation of that term – they sucked me right out into the 30-degree night – had me walking gingerly, as flat-footed as possible, over a deck that had  a fresh dusting of snow on it. And yes, there were clouds moving fairly quickly across the stars, covering a significant percentage of the sky at any given moment. That’s why the first “go to” failed. I tried for M57 and immediately found it covered. It may have been barely visible, but I thought this is a silly choice for these conditions and 46X. So I went to M3 which was in the open at the moment – and darned if it didn’t put it pretty much in the center of that 32mm eyepieces – and I loved it! Well, loved it for the next 30 seconds before the clouds took over again.

But I pulled up my observing chair and started going through my small collection of cheap Plossls – nothing fancy here – that I had put in the eyepiece tray/spreader  – the 25mm Plossl that came with it, plus a 20, 15, and 10 of mixed heritage that came out of the box of long-ignored eyepieces. I never did try the 10 – nor the barlow. I just didn’t get the conditions and I was too enthralled with the view of M3 followed by M5 to want to fool around with changing eyepieces. I was comfortable sipping my tea and enjoying the sights both in the scope and with my naked eye. Passing clouds can be fun sometimes, first revealing, then hiding, then revealing again.

My last target was Mizar and while it didn’t place it dead center, it certainly worked – and the view was surprisingly sharp. I mean, classic, bullet-hole stars as long as I placed my head directly over the eyepiece. ( I don’t know if this is a symptom of old age, SCT optics, or the particular  Plossls I was using, but getting your head position just right sure does make the difference between flaring stars and good crisp ones. )  In any event, I used Mizar to do at least a rough alignment on the red dot finder.

Oh – and I wasn’t using the AA batteries I put in it – I was using a Power Tank I had handy and that’s obviously the way to go.  And with the Mizar sightings the clouds really got serious. But I had an hour of off-and-on viewing and  enough time to feel really impressed with the scope, though I never even checked collimation which, after its journey from wherever the heck these are made, is probably off, though the view of Mizar seemed to say it couldn’t be too far off.

Here’s what I liked:

1. Convenience. I can leave it set up next to the sliding glass door and at 21 pounds I can pick up the whole thing – including eyepieces – and have it outside in seconds. Another few seconds for grabbing the Power Tank, my observing chair, and tea and I’m home free. Putting it away is every bot  as easy.

2. The “go to” system. Until very recently I had sworn off these entirely.  Now I’m wondering why? What the hell am I trying to prove and to whom? That I know how to connect the star dots? That I don’t need a computer to find stuff for me in the universe?  Sure, that’s true – but with “go to” I can dispense with the connect-the-dots games. There’s a danger of losing a sense of context, but my continued binocular use gives me plenty of that.  And heck, I can add, subtract, multiply and divide in my head pretty well – but I would still rather use a calculator most of the time.

3. Tracking is right on and I love it. I went   and out several times when the clouds came over. I spent plenty of time in  a warm room with a red light on, giving my hands a chance to catch up with the rest of my body – they do get damned cold, damned fast. And when I came out the object I was viewing was right there int he center of the eyepiece waiting for me.

4. Optics. The sharp stars in the globulars and the bullet hole stars of Mizar were evidence enough for me that I was not making a huge sacrifice here. Yes, the contrast is down a little and yes, I wouldn’t mind having a little more light grasp. but six inches is enough to show me the kind of major deep sky objects I enjoy – the ones that have the power to develop that coveted sense of awe.

And that sense   awe has a better chance of finding me if I’m not all wrapped up in simply finding the next object, or  toying with complex eyepieces – or for that matter, binoviewers. Yeah, I’m cooling on them again.  We’ll see – but right now I’m thinking they add weight, instability, and complexity to the system and that all may be more than its worth to use two eyes at the scope. But we’ll save that for another day – or night, rather.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to trotting down to Gooseberry with this modest scope and taking on Mercury – hope it will be high enough and I can see it soon enough to get a clear picture of its phase.

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I guess most people wouldn’t consider it  a good thing to go to bed at 11 pm and wake up at 2 am in a totally dark house – the power out.

I did last night – well,this morning really. (OK – it was yesterday morning. Took me a while to finish editing this 😉

I couldn’t wait to see if the skies had cleared after several days of clouds and half-hearted rain.  They had ! And no lights anywhere to interfere!  So I rushed to get some clothes on and get out on the deck with the 10X30 IS Canon binoculars – my grab-and-go instrument of choice these nights.

Silent Night, Holy Night

And when I did two things hit me right away – first, the brightness of the stars with the Great Bear rising in the Northeast, his tail pointing to Arcturus which pointed to Spica which in turn was joined by Saturn. And second, the silence. Now this is weird because I can’t hear much anyways and I hadn’t been aware of the night being noisy. But standing on the deck a in this total darkness, the silence was almost Biblical and immediately, I thought if we had our wits about us we would declare two hours of total darkness straddling midnight on Christmas Eve. A sort of “the Day the Earth Stood Still” in miniature.  Then maybe people would experience the universe as did the shepherds who “watched their flocks by night.” It is truly wonder full and awesome.

Well – those were first impressions. To the naked eye everything looked brighter, plain and simple, but the truth is there was still a lot of water vapor in the air and once my eyes had dark adapted I found I couldn’t get much below magnitude 5 which is where I get on any good night without a moon. But that was enough. And as a bonus it was an incredibly balmy 53 degrees! Quite a contrast from my last outing which was cut short because this old body just doesn’t handle 18-degree temperatures very well for very long.

At the moment I was operating on a photon deficit and needed to gulp down some of those ancient wanderers. But first I wanted to continue my tests of binoculars and this business of exit pupil and how it relates to astigmatism. So after checking Mizar to see if I could detect the double – I couldn’t – with the 10X30s I went in and got my observing chair and the 15X70s which I had stopped down to about 40mm to give them a smaller exit pupil. (The smaller the exit pupil, the less a problem astigmatism is. See this post for more info.)

Could I split  Mizar with them? No. Not even with them on the parallelogram mount.  Frustrating. I went in and got the 20X60s and tried Mizar again – maybe the seeing was really bad. Nope. I got a split.  But here’s the thing. If I want a real nice split I have to back off as much as an inch away from the eyepieces and hold my head  at a funny angle and all of a sudden stuff settles down and I can clearly see two stars where there was only a single, flaring, dancer before.  Hmmmm… I got to try  the 15X70s again. And I did. And the result was inconclusive. And then I removed the  stops so they were truely 15X70s once more and darned  – I was suddenly able to get the split I sought. Not quite as nice as in the 20X60s, but it was clearly there.

So on a whim  I went over to Cor Caroli – the Heart of Charles. This is a favorite but I could not remember the PA, nor did I know how much separation there was. Was it possible to split it with binoculars? I did remember it to be a very easy double in a scope. Wow! There was this little violet dot, clearly separated by the 15X70s. I noted the PA as roughly southwest. Then I went in and quickly checked. Here are the facts from our Star Splitters blog:

Magnitudes: 2.9, 5.5   Separation: 19″   Poaition Angle: 229°

Now that’s what I would call a perfect binocular double!  That 2.6 magnitudes difference in brightness makes it a bit challenging, but the separation of 19″ makes it easier than Mizar.  The facts for Mizar are:

Magnitudes:   2.2 ,  3.9  Separation: 14.3″  Position Angle:    153°

I think what makes Mizar a bit harder for me is not only the fact that the separation is less, but the brightness of the primary. At 2.2 it simply is more likely to dance for me, rather than settle down.  In any event, I found Cor Caroli easier this morning.

The position of my head is different with the 15X70s than with the 20X60s. If they were both the same I would assume the problem is with my eyes,  But with the 20X60s I seem to have to get above what I would consider the optical axis and  with the 15X70s I’m closer to right on, or a little below.  Go figure.

So what conclusion can I draw from all this? That there’s a knack to getting the most out of binoculars as double star instruments.  You need patience and you have to keep trying. As time went on it all seemed to get easier for me and I don’t think it was because the seeing was improving – actually it was going down hill.

But long before it did, I did a quick galaxy survey, first with the 10X30s, then with the 15X70s. My first stop was M81/82.  For years finding this pair has always been a headache for me – but with my new system of clearly identified guide posts I found them instantly – well, M81 instantly – it took a little while for the image to settle down and M82 pop into view.  I had no trouble with my other two tests as well – M51, the Whirlpool, and M65/66 in the hook of the “J” in Leo.

I then retraced this ground with the 15X70 Celestrons and was reminded how this cheap – I got them for $45 used – pair of big binoculars can do a wonderful job on locating deep sky objects. With them there was no wiating for M82 to pop in view – both of these galaxies were instantly obvious – and so it was with M51 and 65/66.

Time to get a scope out on the deck and give the cheapy ($170) Orion binoviewers another work out.  I choose the Televue 85 because it was already on the LXD55 mount and was closest to the door. But when I put the binoviewer in I couldn’t reach focus. Darn. Forgot that it will not focus in that scope with the 2-inch diagonal. It only reaches focus with a 1.25-inch diagonal. So back to the house – and into the light – to find a proper diagonal.

Once I had that in place I had no trouble with the binoviewers, but the battery on the  red dot finder was dead. I wasn’t about to change it. I just did my best to point the scope at Algieba (Gamma Leonis) and see what this favorite double was doing tonight. Found it right away too!  I was using 25mm Orion Sirius Plossls in the binoviewer – but these were acting like 12.5mm ones since the only way I could reach focus was with the “nosepiece” that comes with the binoviewer and doubles the power – in this case bringing it to 48X and thus about a one degree fov.

It wasn’t splitting at that point, so I switched to the pair of 13mm Plossls that had just winged their way here – par avion – from Canada.  These were untested Televue eyepieces from the 1980s – Circle NJ.  One had trouble being seated in the binoviewer, but I finally managed to press it into place – later I would have a heck of time getting it out. But right now the sight was simply beautiful.  there was Algieba showing just a hint of tint – orange for the primary and greenish for the secondary. Love it!

And I hadn’t even turned on the drive. Oh there was some fooling around with interpupilary distance and some adjusting to get both eyepieces  sharply focused. A bit of a  bother, but worth it. Then I flipped the switch, skipped all that annoying stuff about date and time and went straight to “targets astronomical” – pressed “enter” and I was in business. the drive grabbed immediately. Of course I could have done a better job of aligning with the North Star, but I hadn’t so I needed to make an occasional adjustment in declination, but mostly this was time to be rapt in awe and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  This is really the most fun I’ve had observing in ages. This two-eye business takes some getting used to and a little more hassle, but it’s worth it.

I can’t explain it entirely, but it gives me a much more of a sense of being there than the ultra-expensive , ultra widefield “space walk” eyepices do. Maybe it’s simply that this is natural – blending two images is what our brains are used to doing.

In any event, I finally tore myself away from  Algieba long enough to get a good look at  M65/66 this way – this time using the 20mm Plossls.  Once more a big wow! Once more, two eyes are better than one.

Yes, the binoviewer diminishes the light gathered by the scope, but not enough to matter to me.And here I had a galaxy for each eye and photons that had been travelling for 35 million years. This is what it’s all about. Can’t wait for the new, more sophisticated binoviewing equipment to arrive. Yeah – I’ve been on an Astromart tear lately selling all sorts of things so I could buy all sorts of new things. More on that in another post.

Oh – and the lights did come on. In fact, in a three hour observing session I only had about half an hour of total darkness. But hey – usually when we have a power outage we’re in the middle of a storm. This was a rare opportunity. Clear skies. warm air – and complete darkness. Delight full!

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Ok, Mars in the binoviewers just blew me away this morning – not to mention Saturn.  I just could not get over the impression of Mars as the eyeball of a gargoyle – an impression that seemed enhanced by the binoviewer’s  faux-3D effect.

But that all came after I did some serious experimenting to try to pin down this business of exit pupil and the apparent astimatism in my eyes. Essentially, exit pupil is the diameter of the cone of light that leaves the eyepiece and enters your eye. I have always been conscious of it in terms of low power in that if it is too large, you’re just wasting the light from your telescope or binoculars. Thus, for example, the typical 7X50 binoculars which are great for daytime use where gathering a lot of light doesn’t matter – are producing a 7mm exit pupil.  For most of us, as we get older our eye just don’t open that wide – 5mm is more the norm.  So that means you may be wasting half the light the binoculars gather – something that is very important for night-time astronomy viewing.

But now I discover from Ed Zarenski – and various astronomy texts I had ignored – that even a moderate exit pupil of 4mm will make it impossible for you to bring bright stars to a sharp focus IF you have astigmatism.  And since I can’t get bright stars to come to a sharp focus in any binocular of any quality that I have ever used, I began to suspect I have astigmatism. And when I did a modest, self-administered test, it does indeed appear that I have it.

50mm Sparow Haek on LXD55 mount.

So I decided to attempt to confirm this from another direction – using a small scope at  various powers to see how small the exit pupil has to be for my astigmatism not to matter. Exit pupil can be calculated by dividing the power of  an eyepiece into the objective diameter of the telescope. In this case I choose a 50mm telescope that happened to be very “fast” – F4 – so it was very much like half a binocular.

I then systematically increased the power by changing eyepieces while the scope was pointed at Mizar, a bright star with a reasonably bright companion separated by 14 arc seconds – something even small binoculars should be able to handle.  But I have never been able to split Mizar with binoculars in the past.

Bottom line – I’m loving using two eyes, but I’m also learning that the only way I’ll see sharp stars with binoculars is to lower the exit pupil, or use glasses that correct for my astigmatism.

I found that with steady skies and Mizar nearly over head I could get a wonderful split – nice and clean – with the 20X60 Pentax I had just bought at Ed’s suggestion.  IF I was very careful about my head position. Not having my head correctly aligned and held steady, the image deteriorates. But this was very encouraging. The exit pupil on these was 3mm – quite small. The image wasn’t perfect, but darned good. Much better than anything I had seen before when using binoculars that gave as much magnification, but also a larger exit pupil – such as the popular 20X80 binoculars.

That’s when I brought out the  50mm F4 refractor, so very much akin to a binocular. I mounted it on the LXD55 (way overkill, but it was handy) and aimed it at Mizar.

I started with a 32mm Plossl. That creates a ridiculously large  7.8mm exit pupil – way wider than my pupil can open, so light is lost – but the fov is wide making it easy to find things. In any event, with a nearly full Moon in the west I could not even see the third star that forms a triangle with Mizar and Alcor. But I at least found the target. No prayer of splitting it, though.

Switching to a 20mm Plossl – 10X – and a 4mm exit pupil and I could not see a split. But from there it  got better as I increased the power. A 17mm gave me 12X,  and a 4.2mm exit pupil and I felt I could see a split, but it was very sloppy with lots of light spikes flaring off the primary and ghostly double images interfering with the view.

A 12mm Ortho gave me my first really good split. This was 16.6X and yielded a 3.1mm exit pupil – very similar to the 20X60 binoculars, so a 3mm exit pupil seems to be the starting point at where my  astigmatism is not as much of a bother.

But the view continued to get better with each increase in power and subsequent diminishing of exit pupil – the 10 was real nice – 20X and a 2.5 exit pupil. With a 7.5mm Plossl I had “refractor like” images – that is the kind I would expect with a long focal ratio refractor – an F12 or F15.  That yielded 26X and 1.8mm exit pupil – so down below 2mm is real good.

And the best images came with a 6mm ortho – 33x and a 1.5mm exit pupil. This gave the kind of performance I expect out of a real nice refractor when skies are steady, as these were.

So where does that  leave me? Well, the binoviewers are no issue at the powers I’m using. For example, on the 8-inch SCT (200mm) I’m using a minimum of 100X and that’s a 2mm exit pupil – so that explains why the binoviewer images are sharp.  Interestingly, though, if I could obtain lower powers I would increase the exit pupil and could run into problems.

Of course, I can get corrective glasses, but wearing glasses while observing is a pain, so if I can avoid that, I would prefer to – and by carefully choosing what I view with I may be able to avoid it. For example, the 18X50 IS Canons would give me an exit pupil of 2.7mm and probably result in a pretty satisfactory image – about like the 20X60 Pentax. But a better choice for me might be the 70mm right angle binoculars that Garrett Optical offers. I could put 13mm eyepieces in those and get a 2mm exit pupil at about 34X. If those are Naglers, then my field of view would be about 2.4 degrees – very respectable. What this boils down to is the 10X30IS are real nice for wide fields. The 20X60 ae great for a lot of binocular double star work. I could get nice, wide field, low power views with the  Garrett 70mm and Nagler eyepieces.  And from there the binoviewers would take over.  In other words, i can see a way to always use two eyes.

20X60 Pentax binoculars mounted on a Parallelogram mount are a good fit for me now.

But, I want to move into this slowly.  So I’ll first continue to experiment and use the Orion binoviewers with  the eyepieces I have. But I am finding it is simply hard to tear myself  away from the binocular view and when I returned to the 20X60 binoculars I discovered how critical head position was, for I could get near perfect images with those as well – if I held my head just right.

This was easiest to do if I actually was a little farther away from the eyepieces than the extended eyecups called for. Going down to the observatory, I put the scope on Mars – keeping in mind that I was in twilight by now, as well as fighting a nearly full Moon. And Mars – small as it is – was spectacular in the binoviewers – I went to two hundred power and feasted on a cosmic eyeball – a ghoulish cosmic eyeball  with orange and greens in it, but the startling white polar cap appearing to distort it and give it the eyeball feeling Saturn was high in the trees to the south, pretending to be one of the Heavenly Twins , paired up with Spica. I had to do a double take when I first saw them, for I knew Gemini was not in that section of sky. The two-eyed view was  simply mesmerizing. For the first time in along time I really wanted to just sit there – not change anything.

bottom line – this was a very enjoyable and productive morning. And yes, I need to explore this business of head position more, and I need to get tot he eye doctor .

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Wow! Now that I like! Mintaka in the 10X30 IS Canons. A bright, flaring second magnitude star with a little pin point of light nearby.

What’s the big deal, you may ask?  Mintaka, the western most of the three stars in Orion’s belt, is an easy split, as I wrote in some detail here recently.  Sure it is – in a scope. The separation is a whopping 53 seconds of arc. But let me tell you why it has stymied me over and over again in recent weeks – in fact, ever since I wrote that post I’ve been trying, at every opportunity, to split it with binoculars. But even the 15X70s when mounted haven’t done the job for me.

The reason is simple – there’s 4.6 times difference in magnitude – 2.2 for the primary and 6.8 for the secondary. That means the primary is about 58 times brighter than the secondary. And as far as I’m concerned I haven’t met the binocular yet that will give a nice, round version of a second magnitude star. This may be me. it may be conditions. Or it may be the binoculars, but that’s the way it is.  But the Canons come closest to delivering that goal – maybe in part because with 30mm objectives they just aren’t delivering that much light.

So what I at last saw – and I was able to repeat it after a 15 minute break – was a bright, dancing Mintaka  with just a faint dot of light next to it – and at just the right position angle, so I knew I had it.  I then tried the 11X56 Garrett Opticals and the 15X70 Celestrons – mounted – with no luck. So this is a big score for the 10X30IS.  And I’m having a ball.

News Bulletin:While still drafting this I had an email conversation with Ed Zarenski, the guru of all things binocular, and he threw some real light on my problem – in a word, astigmatism.  And the above is the perfect example of it. 

He wrote:

Simple astigmatism in the eyes is most affected by the size of the exit pupil.  Mine kicks in at exit pupils over 2mm.  So I have to wear my glasses with all binoculars, but not for scopes at 100x or so.  Astigmatism will prevent you from ever achieving fine focus.  That would have a significant affect on your ability to focus on doubles.

 Bingo! The exit pupil for the 10X30 is 3mm, the 11X56  5mm , and the 15X70  4.6mm – or in that ball park. I don’t trust the numbers on inexpensive  binoculars. But the trend is obvious – the stars get sharper for me as the exit pupils get smaller. In general, high powers results in small exit pupils, though it depends on the object diameter as well – you simply get the exit pupil by dividing the power into the objective diameter.

So do I have an astigmatism issue? I’m not positive, but this certainly seems to indicate it. i do remember that my ancient (c. 1960 ) copy of  “The Amateur Astronomer Handbook” by James Muirden has one of those astigmatism test of radial lines pictured in it  and also says  “luckily, astigmatism makes itself really objectionable only when low magnifying power are    being used.” Which, of course, is what Ed pointed out with the exit pupil.

 Anyway – when I look at that radial pattern the four lines nearest the vertical are much sharper – bolder – than the lines nearer the horizontal.  Wasn’t that way the last time I tried this test – about 1967 😉

Truth is, I suspect my astogmatism has been there – I think I have heard words in the past from the doctor like “slight astigmatism” and so he has not recommended glasses because it was slight – but I suspect it has gotten worse with age and while in normal situations it still doesn’t present a serious problem – in this special situation it does.

OK – back to the excitement of splitting Mintaka in binoculars. See, as someone once said, it’s all relative. It doesn’t matter what instruments you use, or what talents you bring to the show, it just matters that you’re pushing the envelope – that you’re doing things you couldn’t do before and you thought you couldn’t do now, given what you had in hand.  That’s what makes it exciting. So for me each instrument opens up a new universe and there’s a fresh sense of exploration.

I had two other examples in this session. The first  took me back to the Pleiades and its brightest member, Alcyone. When you look at this star in a small telescope at low power two things jump out at you: on one side there’s a wonderful cascade of half a dozen stars – and to the other side – sort of the inside of the Pleiades – there are two 8th magnitude stars that form a triangle with  a third, brighter one, 24 Tauri.  It is these three stars that I have been trying to see with binoculars and until now I could only dig out the sixth magnitude star. but on this night I also pulled out one of the others.

There are several other binocular doubles in the  Pleiades, some ridiculously easy, but quite nice.   These include the very easy Atlast and Pleione – 27 and 28 Tauri.  But there are several more challenging ones. Here’s a working chart I’ve developed for my own use.  I have a pair of 20X60 Pentax on order – I purchased them because they get good reviews, but mostly because  of the 3mm exit pupil. I think they will work better for me and my astigmatism than the usual 20X80, at least when it comes to doubles.  (Yes, I’m going to see the eye doctor and get a new prescription, but I really don’t look forward to wearing glasses while observing with binoculars, though it may be the only solution.)

Here’s my working chart of the Pleiades showing key binocular doubles. Fidning them is a good excuse to spend some serious eyepiece time with this most beautiful of clusters.

Click image for larger view - developed from Starry Nights Pro screen shots.

While in the neighborhood I decided to see if the 30mm objectives could dig out M1. The answer is barely.  I had to check the charts to be absolutely sure where it was. It was a bit easier with the 11X56 when mounted. It was a whispy ghost, barely detected in the 10X30IS.  On the other hand, the nearby “Thirties” were  a piece of cake – that’s M35, M36, M47, and M38.  Oh, and I swung over to “ET”  – the Owl Cluster in Cassiopeia and have to admit that most of what I saw was the nice binocular double that are ET’s (or the Owls) eyes.

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