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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.

 

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.

(Written one morning in late January 2012, a day or two after this event.)
SkySafari Pro screen shot of the Centaur and his wonderful globular.

Suddenly it is 3 am! And right up there where horse-meets-man is where I want to soar – but first . . .

I have been waiting patiently for hours, trying to sleep and not sleep – that’s the problem when you agree to meet someone. Or my special problem. I don’t have an  alarm that I know how to use and I don’t want to wake up others with it anyway  . . . so I sleep for three and a half hours, then wake up too early and have no choice but to lie there, resting but not sleeping for two and a half hours – then in the last half hour I fall asleep and wake up with a start realizing I have almost missed my appointment.

But surely, Victor, our host, either won’t be there, or he’ll be late. He didn’t show another night when I had invited him and thought he had accepted – and that was for 7 pm, a much more reasonable time to observe for most people. In any event, it can’t be helped. I should explain I’m somewhere a bit south and west of the Middle of Nowhere, as indicated on this map.

Indian Pass is where the red dot is – not quite as deserted as it might look here, but far enough away from civilization to have very dark skies.(Click image for larger view.)

The forecast was for 49 degrees this morning. I don’t know the temperature, but I pull on a sweatshirt, then another, then my light winter jacket and a scarf, and a watch cap, and gloves and I’m ready to face our deserted area of Florida’s Gulf Coast. I am in Indian Pass, an area a bit easy of Port Saint Joe that is sandwiched between a huge national forest to the north and east and the Gulf to the  south with a large, wildlife refuge – St. Vincent Island – to the southeast. In other words, a very deserted, very dark section. I love it.

Sure there are houses next door but there is only one light visible and it is well down the beach and a subdued yellow color not doing any harm.  I carefully make my way down the first flight of stairs coming out of the tree-house-like “Barnacle,” our vacation home for two weeks.  This is the last dark morning we will be here and a cold front has passed leaving clear dark skies that the local Clear Sky Clock say should by now have settled down so that transparency is a four out of five and seeing is above average as well.

The boardwalk first climbs up a dune, then reaches this point where you can look down on the beach and Gulf well below you.

Who knows – I do glimpse some stars overhead, but mostly I am in a canopy of Live Oaks and an occasional Cabbage Palm as I walk first across the stone of the driveway, then broken shells and past Vic’s house – a bigger version of our own circular structure sitting high on rugged stilts, and begin my first climb up a flight of stairs in the dark, dimly lit by the red light hanging from my neck.

There are 40 or 50 steps between me and the beach and fortunately a railing beside all but the last 10.  I’m 70 and although I’ve lost a lot of weight and feel in fairly decent shape, I have developed the older person’s fear of stumbling. This is just a tad crazy coming out here alone in the dark, but I’ve planned well, having carried most of my equipment out here in three or four trips around dusk. It is now on the last flat section of boardwalk in plastic boxes. All I have to do is take stuff out and assemble it – screw together the counterweight shaft to the mount, and add the counterweight, then carry the assembly in one hand while using the other hand on the rail as I descend to the beach. There is a rail here – it’s the other end that doesn’t have one on the last descent to solid – well, somewhat solid – sand.

Oh my god! Look up, Wait. I’m too involved in trivial details. Just look at those skies! Dark as I have ever seen in my life. Darker, really then I have seen nearly every clear night I have ever observed. Two weeks before when we first arrived here they were more transparent, though. Just incredible. Bren came out and loved it! A zillion stars. The Winter Milky Way brighter than the Summer Milky Way on my best night’s in Westport – and the Zodiacal Light. Now that was like the Milky Way reaching up in a huge cone to the west, easily surrounding Venus in the evening sky and licking at Jupiter high above.  I have detected the Zodiacal Light in Westport. At Indian Pass it couldn’t be missed. That was the first evening – a most welcome introduction to the darkest skies I’ve ever enjoyed in  more than half a century of sky gazing.

They were never repeated, though I had three clear nights – maybe four – in a row and I did some wonderfully simple and enjoyable observing. The most notable experience had been an earlier excursion to this same beach over the same board walk – but on that occasion I had a much simpler – and lighter – rig. It was my old parallelogram mount -a Charlie Funk special – on a light, Voyager tripod and these incredible – cheap, but very serviceable – 100mm , 25X Zhummel binoculars.

That was my introduction to Omega Centauri and I was blown away.

NASA image of Omega Centauri – not quite what I saw, but what I saw certainly was mind boddling enough. Clcik image for larger view.

I had SkySafari 3 on my Ipad and had it with me in red light mode and so I knew where and when to look. But I was amazed at how easily I found it, just scanning the southern horizon with  10X30 binoculars – geeeeze, it’s as big as the full Moon – bigger actually – just a huge, bright puff ball that can’t be missed in the smallest binoculars. There’s simply nothing else like it. Sure, I can detect M13, M3, even M98 in these same binoculars – but only because I know them so well and know what kind of a tiny, blurry spot to seek. This – this was different. And in the 100mm binoculars it was simply awesome.

OK – maybe this screen shot from Sky Safari Pro is closer to what I actually saw with the 25X100 binoculars – but by any measure, an amazing sight!

I sat in a beach chair and drank it in, sucking down those photons from what? Five million stars, 15,000 light years away, jammed together  in a compact globe – a globe with a rough texture at 25X, hinting at the individual stars which made it up. Incredible. Simply incredible.

Where are the words for this kind of experience? How do you capture the gestalt of being on this gorgeous beach, the waves rhythmically lapping the fine sand providing a muted, base section that even my poor hearing can detect – and nothing and no one else – not that can be seen – in any direction. Nothing – nothing but the whole bloody universe and this gorgeous globular cluster – the largest in our galaxy and almost the largest we know. (There’s one larger in the The Great Andromeda Galaxy, well-known for its globular clusters, but of course it takes a huge telescope to see that one.)

No this is incredible and what will follow – one of my early goals for this trip, though seeing Omega was the main one – is visual wanderings among the local family of galaxies – what is known as the Virgo Cluster.  It’s a confusing patch of sky containing dozens of  galaxies within reach of these powerful binoculars and I figured this was a great way to get to know it better. I have wandered there before with scopes of all sizes ranging from 80mm to 15-inches. But while I have identified some individual galaxies, I really have not had a firm grasp of this section of sky – of which galaxy is which and how to quickly find my way to one of particular interest.

Talk about a Star Trek! How easily we bend our minds around the absolutely astounding. Each galaxy – each small, barely visible even in the large binos – fuzzy dot represents 100 billion stars or so, their light having travelled something in the order of 30-to-50 million years to  enter my eyes and ping my brain as I sit comfortably on this deserted beach. How do you experience it? How do you convey feelings you can’t name?

And here I was again, the sky gods opening things up for me on the waning hours of my two-week visit. How nice. How gorgeous. How startlingly bright is Sirius, over in the west – the gleaming nose of the Big Dog as he dives behind some distant trees, chasing his master, Orion. (The hunter was there earlier and it is not hard for me to imagine him. I spent several evening observing sessions with the brilliant Orion Nebulae as a major target of my binoculars and scopes.)

I had come to Florida well-equipped with binoculars and new binoviewers for two scopes – the Televue 85 and the Celestron C6.  I had a drive system for this mount as well. But for this last look on this starlit morning – the Moon had long set, unlike that first look at Omega Centauri when a last quarter Moon had challenged it, yet dimmed it surprisingly little. Anyways – for this last look I had stripped things down to just the C6 and the EQ mount, sans electronics. I did so both because I needed to pack most stuff for an early departure the night before and because there really was only so much stuff that I was willing to drag up and down that boardwalk over the dunes.

And now I was assembling it – the C6, the eyepieces, the . . . wait – here’s Vic. A white light on the path, dim – I say hello, and he says something. Who knows what. I tell him if he waits until I’ve set up the scope and put in my hearing aids I might understand him. He helps, carrying the observing chair and a few odds and ends and shortly we’re in business.

I can’t see Omega Centauri yet. My eyes aren’t well enough dark adapted because the set up took too much light. But I know where it should be and using only the red dot finder, I quickly get the scope trained on it. I’m using a 24mm Panoptic eyepiece – maybe a one degree field or so – I’m not sure exactly. The diagonal is the “power switch” from Denkmeir that I got primarily for use with the binovciewers. But I’ve packed them. Earlier experiments had shown that they dreadfully unbalance the little 6-inch catadioipric, forcing the electronics to work too hard and me to come up with a real Rube Goldburg balancing scheme involving strapping the battery pack to the front of the scope with a bungy cord. That worked one night. But I wasn’t about to screw around with it on this last clear morning.

No – here I would return to Cyclops mode – one-eyed viewing and the Denkmeir “power switch” would provide some reduction of power and thus some widening of the field of view – so let’s call it one and half degrees. Whatever it was, it was perfect! There was Omega Centauro looking exacty – I mean exactly – like its picture in SkySafari Pro – but blown up now from the binocular view with plenty of individual stars visible – about like this. (Less the crosshairs – could find the right button to click to get read of the danged things in the software.)

And can you get your mind around it? I can’t and I’m not at all sure Vic could. He looked. I think this was his first look through a telescope at the night sky.  How could anyone taking their first look appreciate Omega, the end-all of globular clusters? I don’t know. We get so little visual information actually reaching us and we are so dulled to the wonders of the world by the drum-beat of wam-bam television and computer games and whatever – well, I just don’t know how to convey it.

You need to experience it – but there’s more. You need to experience it with deep awareness. And I find that a challenge because truly deep awareness isn’t something you can find – it’s something that finds you. It wasn’t finding me – and I had no real good indication it was finding Vic. So I showed him Saturn, riding high in the morning sky next to Spica – a blue and yellow pair that looked for the world like the Gemini Twins on this morning, though I knew that famous pair were well behind me and headed for the ground.

Saturn got his attention. I mean, who can resist the ringed planet in a small telescope?  It has the biggest wow factor of anything up there. But Vic doesn’t seem like the wowed type, though he did seem impressed. And he also was impressed  by Mizar and Alcor – split it with his naked eye, too – wish I could do that. I need to get my eyes checked when I get home and I definitely need some distance glasses that correct this astigmatism.

By the time we had done Omega, and Saturn, and Mars, and M13, and Mizar, though. Vic had had it. “I’m freezing my ass off,” he said. “I have to go in – thanks!” Well of course he was. He was wearing shorts and maybe a sweat shirt or something – what he used, he said, for running on the beach. And he learned the hard way that observing the universe isn’t nearly as warming as a brisk run. You stand around a lot, barely moving and 49 feels like 39 or maybe 32.  Even through the gloves my hands were getting cold.

But I persisted. I now had two hours of observing to myself – as I did on that other morning when I used the big binos to track down a dozen or so of the galaxies in the Virgo cluster, I really know that skyscape now. That is, I have the main outlines of it in my head and am sure, without reference to a chart, I can easily find M84/85, M60 and M58, and M – well, you get the idea.

By the way – I had begun that galaxy hunt by first looking at the Leo triplet, high overhead. OMG! I mean, usually when I look at the Leo Triplet to see a double – M65 and M66. I think it’s M66 that seems much brighter and it leaps out at me – M65 is clear. But that third galaxy – bigger and dimmer – is something that falls in the “detectable” category. You find it. You sense its presence, but you don’t observe it.

Not so that morning-of-the-interfering-Moon-and-huge-binoculars-and-very-clear-skies. No that morning I would go looking for the familiar “J” of stars that usually lead me to these three galaxies and I would find instead the three galaxies and they would lead me to the “J” – incredible.

That little experience in very familiar territory led me to explore the Virgo Cluster and get a map of it in my head – something I won’t lose or forget to bring with me another time 😉

And I went elsewhere, too – to M81/82, of course. I mean never better. And to the Whirlpool – M51. It was really astounding. What was it? The clear skies? Or the 100mm binoculars – perhaps the equivalent in light grasp of a 120mm scope? I don’t know. But something sure was different foir me that morning. It was simply the best feast of faint fuzzies I have ever consumed.  Yeah, I even saw M108 and M97, the elusize Owl Nebula – and M101 was spectacular as well, high in the northeast. Oh – I even quicly found M95/96 and what is it – M105 with its companions in Leo’s forepaw – or shoulder – or maybe rib cage. Anyway – magnificient.,

But tonight I had a scope. And Vic had gone in. And I was once again alone with the universe and I could let the sight of Omega seep in – Omega, which scientists now think may actually be the core of a dwarf  galaxy that got  gently ripped apart over the course of millions of years as it a careened into our Milky Way. That would help explain its size and the different colored stars in it indicating different ages. I looked for those colors – felt they were there, but I cna’t say as they screamed out at me.

All I can say is it looked just like its pictures – and yes, I also went and found nearby Centaurus A – a special galaxy whose specialty I couln’t remember, but myf riend John had urged me to check it out, so I did. It looked like a dim star enmeshed in a very uneven – was that a dark lane – faint haze. Quite large and at 11-oclock and perheaps six degrees away from Omega. In fact, it would be less than that because in the 10X30IS binos I could see both Omega and  the faint haze that was Centaurus A – need to do some research. What exactly was I seeing?

Oh – and I couldn’t resist splitting Porrima – wonderful Porrima – easily split at a moderately high power by the C6. This evenly-matched pair is getting farther apart, but they still presented me with battling diffraction rings on this morning.

I also did a survey with the small binoculars. I saw how Omicron looked in them – then I looked at M13, the most spectacular globular I usually see – it looked like a toy – I couldn’t get that word out of my head – a toy – it just couldn’t hold a candle to Omega. But I continued the survey. I looked at M92 and M3 and then one I wasn’t too familiar with, M4 in Scorpius now getting nicely up in the southeast.

Oh my. Nothing will compare with Omega. And when I return to Westport I’ll have nice skies and I’ll explore with these instruments and I may – on occasion – I hope – be wrapped in awe.  But Omega will be over the southern horizon – well, maybe it will just peek up if I got down to the ocean at just the right time and have lots of luck. I’ll have to try.

As I packed up about 6 am I looked at the rising glow in the east – the first hint that we were turning towards our Sun – and there was the full Scorpion completely above the horzion with wonderful, hooked tail. It was a great sight to leave – formed a bookend with the setting Great Dog in the west as I carefull climbed the steps, the C6 in one arm, one hand for the rail, and plunged down into the darkness past Vic’s darkened home and to the half-packed car under our own little Barnicle.

What a perfect morning. What a perfect vacation retreat. What an icnredible star trek!

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.

Well, the Quadrantids were a drizzle at best for me – either this “shower” came early, or came late, or didn’t come at all. Haven’t seen other reports yet – but it wasn’t there for me. And now, too late, I discover there’s a new “app” designed by NASA to help you record what you see during a meteor shower and automatically send it to NASA to help their research!

Wow! Maybe that’s why it held off – I wasn’t properly prepared! 😉

Seriously folks, I saw one great Quadrantid meteor – it was fabulous – right up there with the best half dozen of meteors I’ve seen in  more than half a century of sky watching.  It came at 10:15 pm last night as I boldly stepped out onto the deck in the  18-degree cold – sub zero, really, with the strong wind we had – and bang, I was warmed up by a meteor  that took so long to go from the area of the Great Bear to  somewhere near Procyon that I could have called you and told you to look had I your number and my phone handy.

It was a fireball of at least magnitude -2 – the brightness of Jupiter. And sooo slow – well, I would estimate it took three seconds to cross the sky, but who’s counting/ –  and it looked, for all the world, like a plane going down in flames.  And no sound.  Just an eerie silence as it flared near the end. And I thought “what a great way to begin a night of meteor  observing – yes, and to end it. I should have quit when I was ahead.  I stayed out about 15 minutes and saw no more and rather than freeze I came in and settled down at the sliding glass door = room lights off of course –  where I could see a good segment of sky to the northeast and I watched and saw nothing. Now I won’t say I watched until midnight. I wrote the time downs and I took breaks – but I watched a lot and amidst the moonlight, saw nothing.

So some time after midnight I curled up on the couch and went to sleep and awoke about 2:30 am.  Ahhh – still clear, despite the forecast. OK – I got really warmly dressed ( it was now 15-degrees Fahrenheit) and went out again.  And to make a long story short in a solid half hour of being out and looking up  I saw three meteors – a short little dude near the Dipper again, now very high in the north, a really decent one in the northwest that zipped towards Capella, and another very nice one in the south heading down below  Leo.

All I observed were observed when outside – though I looked for much longer stretches from inside – always giving it at least 20 minute  watches. Now inside I maybe lost half a magnitude – but that still gave me magnitude 4.5 skies – very decent for meteor watching.

I  NEVER see anything like the advanced predictions for  various meteor showers. But I consider a good shower one where I can see about 20 an hour – and this could generously be put at 6 an hour for me.

Now about that APP – it looks intriguing. I learned about it on Spaceweather.com this morning. It’s put out by the NASA folks who keep track of meteors. Here’s part of the NASA pitch for the APP which you can download from the APP Store at Apple for free.

Surprising but true: Every day, on average, more than 40 tons of meteoroids strike our planet.  Most are tiny specks of comet dust that disintegrate harmlessly high up in Earth’s atmosphere, producing a slow drizzle of meteors in the night sky.  Bigger chunks of asteroid and comet debris yield dozens of nightly fireballs around the globe. Some are large enough to pepper the ground with actual meteorites.

With so much “stuff” zeroing in on our planet, NASA could use some help keeping track of it all.

Enter the Meteor Counter–a new iPhone app designed to harness the power of citizen scientists to keep track of meteoroids.

“Using our app, people from all walks of life can contribute to authentic NASA research,” says Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, which sponsored the project. “The data will help us discover new meteor showers, pinpoint comet debris streams, and map the distribution of meteoroids around Earth’s orbit.”

Whenever you go outside for a bit of stargazing, take your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch with you, advises Cooke.  Start the Meteor Counter, lie down in a safe dark place, and be alert for shooting stars.

The Meteor Counter operates using an intuitive “piano key” interface. Every time you see a meteor, simply tap the key corresponding to its brightness.  Keys on the left correspond to dim meteors—barely visible to the naked eye; keys on the right denote jaw-dropping fireballs.

After the observing session, the app uploads your data for processing by NASA personnel. [video] [download]

With each keytap, the Meteor Counter records critical data such as the time you saw the meteor, the meteor’s magnitude, and your location.  You can even turn on an optional voice recorder to capture your own description of events.  Experts could comment on the trajectory and radiant of the meteor, while novices might prefer to simply shout out–“wow!”

Afterward, these data are automatically uploaded to NASA researchers for analysis.

Hey, is that cool – or what? Well, it would have been freezingly cool this morning. Too cool for me – and too cool for the Quadrantids, apparently.  Hope others had better luck. Me -I’m heading off to the APP store to get the Meteor APP and give it a try. As NASA urged:

Cooke encourages citizen scientists everywhere to try it out.

“The app is available free of charge in Apple’s app store,” he says.  “Just search for Meteor Counter, and let the observing begin.”

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.

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!