Sunday, July 17, 2016

 

How Low Can You Go on the Messiers?


As in “How little aperture can an experienced observer use and still get rewarding views of the brighter objects from the backyard?” This is, friends, a follow on of sorts to last week’s edition. If you read that, you know one of the things that have concerned me of late is the size and weight of my telescopes and my ability to handle them comfortably and safely, not just years from now, but right now.

Last time, I mentioned, somewhat in passing, that I’ve been having back problems and that that might make my continued use of my Zhumell 10-inch Dobsonian problematical. That was brought home rather starkly the last dark of the Moon Saturday night when I transported the Dob, Zelda, to our club site for an evening—I thought—of relaxed deep sky cruising with a few good friends.

Zelda, a GSO scope with a solid, steel tube is not overly heavy. At least that was what I thought till that night. My backache had at least lessened, if not gone away, so I wasn’t overly concerned about loading Z into the 4Runner, setting her up at the dark site, and reloading her in the truck at the end of the evening (I can leave the scope and gear in the 4runner overnight after I get home, unloading the next morning, unlike when I lived downtown). I was feeling good and looking forward to some nice views on a good if not perfect evening.

And Zelda did deliver those views:  spiral arms in M51, countless stars in M10 and M12, and even a little resolution of great Omega Centauri, which was descending and only barely above the tree line. No, conditions were not perfect. The Splinter Galaxy, NGC 5907, was not as prominent as it usually is in a 10-inch, but it was not much better in the 15-inch set up next to me. Finding that galaxy and anything else I wanted to look at was duck soup with the aid of my 50mm RACI finder, my Rigel Quick Finder, and SkySafari running on my ASUS tablet.

So, I was one happy little camper? Uh-huh. Until about two hours into the evening when my back began to let me know I was going to pay for loading and unloading the Dob. I considered sticking it out for a little while longer, but then the wind changed and the smoke from a nearby field that was being burned off blew over and settled onto the observing field. I reluctantly gave the evening’s run up as a bad business. Back home, I pondered what to do about my telescope/back problem. Not just at the dark site, but in the backyard.

While my backache has alleviated over the last week, I am still wary, and have decided that for now I’m only using reasonably light telescopes. Not just at the dark site, but in the backyard. Wary? I am at the moment afraid to lift the 10-incher’s tube. A pretty pass, doncha think? So, what shall I do?

The obvious candidate for use while I am on the DL, I decided, was Charity Hope Valentine, an ETX125, who I neglected to mention last time. I simply forgot about her. Maybe because she’s been squirreled away in the sunroom closet in her case almost since we moved to the suburbs. She is light, if not as light as an ETX90, and would, I thought, not be a challenge for suddenly decrepit me to move around, not even with the tube/drive base affixed to the tripod. Best of all, she is a complete little system with built in goto via the Autostar computer. The only ancillary item I’d need would be a battery or AC power supply and a dewshield.

She would have been almost perfect, but the poor little thing has gone to that big star party in the sky after being my faithful friend for a decade. I set her up in the backyard one night last week, hoping for passable if not exactly transparent skies when, suddenly, the rain began to fall. I threw a cover over Charity and scurried inside. “Maybe tomorrow,” I thought. Late the following afternoon, I thought I’d check to make sure Charity’s LNT real time clock was working—I’d replaced the battery the previous day. Hooked her to a jumpstart battery, threw the switch, and she beeped as normal, but the LED display on the Autostar controller did not illuminate. What the—?

Nothing I could do helped, so I shut her down, disconnected the Autostar, and took it into my shop, The Batcave, for examination. What the problem was was immediately evident when I opened the case:  a couple of chips had been turned to charcoal. How had that happened? There’d been a tremendous nearby lightning strike that morning. While the scope was not plugged into AC, she was close enough to the strike that the Autostar had been fried. But good.

What to do? My tests indicated there’d been some internal electronic damage to the scope, too. There’s not a lot of active circuitry in the PE, but there is some. I might try to repair the scope and replace the Autostar with one off eBay or something. Or I might put the scope on some sort of new mount—maybe a driven alt-azimuth mount like one of Celestron’s SE rigs.

But I am not going to do anything immediately. I have decided to see how it goes with my back. If my problems abate completely, I’ll go back to using the 10-inch. If not, I’ll either fix Charity or defork her. Having a light scope on a driven mount, a driven alt-azimuth mount, will be a good thing if I am not all better soon. But what do I do for now? What do I use at home and at the dark site while I am waiting for my back to tell me what to do?

Simple:  I use my good old SkyWatcher AZ-4 un-driven alt-az mounting. It’s very light and has a Vixen style dovetail saddle, so I can use any one of several scopes with it, and especially my refractors. Which refractors? The mount will happily accommodate either my C102 4-inch f/10 or my wife’s 4-inch f/6.5 Explore Scientific. Either of those should be bearable even if my backache returns. But only marginally bearable, and the C102 is approaching “Danger Will Robinson!” territory. I decided to start out smaller and lighter, with the 3-inch (80mm, actually) f/11.4 SkyWatcher OTA that came with the AZ-4.

I haven’t used this pretty OTA a whole lot, she was just lagniappe; I really only wanted the AZ-4. But from what little I’d used her five years ago, I knew she was more than sufficient for casual looks at the Moon and planets. The big question was whether she could also deliver at least somewhat satisfying Messiers while I am under the weather.

Yes, I could use my undeniably (much) better William Optics Megrez II 80mm instead, but I like the idea of the 910mm of focal length the SkyWatcher delivers. That makes her more effective on the planets—I can get higher magnifications without fooling with Barlows and very short f/l eyepieces. Having more power eyepiece for eyepiece also keeps the sky background darker in my somewhat light polluted backyard.

The weather—naturally—prevented me from answering the above question about the little scope’s efficacy for some time. Typical Mobile summer: thunderstorms every afternoon, often extending into the evening. Even if the clouds disperse they leave plenty of haze behind. And there are the bugs, of course. And walking into the night is like walking into an absolute steambath. Not the sort of environment that impels you to grab a telescope large or small.

Nevertheless, as the Allstar Game was winding down the other night (it had become obvious my National League team was gonna lose to the American League), I fetched the SkyWatcher 3-inch refractor, whose, name, by the way, is “Eloise,” out of the Batcave and sat her in the backyard to warm up—the Batcave’s air-conditioner was going full blast, and if I’d uncapped her objective immediately it would have promptly fogged up.

With the game over, I ventured back into the backyard to, first of all, reacquaint myself with what the telescope would do on the Solar System. Eyepieces? Nothing special, just my old Orion/Pro Optic wide-fields and a 6mm Celestron (Vixen made, I think) Orthoscopic that is at least 35 years old. The telescope is equipped with a 1.25-inch (only) focuser, but I hadn’t found that a limitation. Her aperture and focal length give a decent, wide field at 25mm.

Alright, onto Luna. The just before First Quarter Moon looked terrific. Of particular note was the Straight Wall, which was near the terminator. It was so sharp, like an obsidian knife lying on the lunar surface. I bumped the magnification up to close to 150x with the Ortho, and the image remained good, very good. Higher? I could have gone higher; the little scope takes magnification well, but at 150, said image is getting dim thanks to the small aperture.

Otherwise? Color, for example? What color? Yes, I know for the chromatic aberration in an 80mm achromat to be really well-controlled, it needs to be at a focal ratio of at least f/15, but no color did I see with this scope and my eyes at a smidge over f/11. Away from the terminator, the disk remained sharp, if maybe not quite as sharp as in an APO—still looked good, however. There is little doubt in my mind that a dedicated observer could do some fairly serious lunar exploring with this telescope.

By this time, Jupiter was getting low in the west, and was in fact behind a pine tree to the southwest. To get a look, I’d need to move the scope. That is one of the beauties of Eloise on her AZ-4. Light. No polar alignment or goto alignment. Need to move her? Just pick her up and freaking move her!

Which I did, lining up Jupe with the SkyWatcher’s red dot (“bb gun”) finder. While I have a 50mm RACI finder I can use on the telescope when needed, I don’t often need to. The Combination of the red dot and a 35mm – 40mm eyepiece makes it easy to get anything I want into the field. The verdict on Jupe? Sharp, particularly the Galilean moons despite the low altitude. There was no false color I could see other than that produced by differential refraction thanks to the altitude. The major cloud belts were easy and high in contrast. When the seeing would occasionally get really good, I could see some detail in those bands.

Saturn was nice and high by this time, so I headed that-a-way, figuring the altitude of the planet and the excellent seeing on this evening ought to allow Eloise to really strut her stuff. It did. At 150x, the ringed world was just lovely. Cassini’s Division was sharp, disk detail obvious, and a couple of Moons in addition to Titan were visible with the Ortho. Honestly, I can’t say the image was much worse than what I saw in a beautiful 4-inch Takahashi at the dark site a while back.

I already knew the 3-inch could deliver the goods on the Solar System, however. Her objective is of excellent quality, and prior to the SCT explosion of the 1970s a good 3-inch refractor was the chosen tool of many a Solar System observer. The question was would the views she’d give of the Messiers and other brighter DSOs be good enough to lure  me into the backyard with her on a regular basis while waiting for my back to decide whether it wants to punish my faux pas further?

To find out, I began with an easy one, M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra. It’s bright and small and easy. Which doesn’t mean it’s always terrific in a small scope in light pollution. I’ve often struggled to make out the “donut hole” with a 4-inch Newtonian in light polluted areas. I inserted a 20mm Expanse eyepiece and positioned the scope on the Ring’s well remembered spot.

And there it was. It was too small at 45x to make out much, but, yes, there it was, easy to see and shining bravely amongst the dim field stars. Upping the magnification to 182x with a 5mm SkyWatcher wide-field eyepiece made the ring shape and the fact that the nebula is elongated rather than perfectly round reasonably easy.

How would Eloise stack up against other similar aperture scopes in similar conditions? The C102 would have done a better job, but only a bit better. However, the ring shape of the nebula was easier to make out than in a 4-inch reflector in comparably punk conditions. I would say the view was pretty much equal to what we had in a friend’s StarBlast (4.5-inch rich-field Newtonian) from the dark site a couple of weeks back.

In other words? Not bad. Back in the 60s, people liked to say that a 3-inch refractor is the equivalent of a 6-inch reflector. That’s not true now and wasn’t true then. In a 6-inch, the Ring is more sharply defined and it’s elongated shape far easier. There’s just no way to get around the 6-incher’s 400% increase in light gathering power. Still, a 3-inch will show the same details, just in slightly subtler fashion.

M13 was, I realized riding high. Almost too high, nearing culmination. Where has this summer gone? Hercules’ Great Globular was OK. I did not note any resolution on this night, but the cluster looked grainy, as if it wanted to resolve. I can achieve some resolution with my 80nn APO on good nights, and certainly I can with the C102 4-inch refractor under clearer skies, so it’s not out of the question that Eloise might pull out a few suns from M13 on a superior evening, even in the backyard. Anyhow, I thought the cluster looked better in the 3-inch refractor than she does in the average 4-inch reflector.

M92, Hercules’ other globular star cluster is a good target for medium aperture telescopes under reasonable skies. It is in no way a rival of M13 for appearance, but it is good nevertheless. For a little scope peering up through humid haze? Not so much. M92 looked pretty good, all things considered, and did appear somewhat grainy, but I didn’t see any stars. As with M13, however, the Megrez will pick out a few on an OK backyard night, so I expect Miss Eloise might be able to do the same.

I thought I’d look for M51, and look I did, but no M51 did I see. That was not overly surprising considering the sky and the fact that it was getting worse as the night grew older. I was somewhat disappointed at first, but recalled that in the past, even years ago when my eyesight was no doubt more acute, I have had a very difficult time making out the two blobs that are M51 and NGC 5195 with a 6-inch Newtonians on nights such as this one.

M27 wasn’t exactly at its best, but it was there. If I’d waited for it to get a little higher, it would no doubt have been better, but despite Deep Woods Off and a citronella candle, I was literally being eaten alive by mosquitoes. As it was, the Dumbbell was a not too bad fuzzy oval at medium power.

Do you like double stars? I always have, even though I’ve gone through periods when I haven’t observed them much. One thing I know is that a longer focal length 3-inch refractor can be a powerful portable tool for viewing double stars within the limits of its resolving power. Stars are quite tight in Eloise, and she can frankly best somewhat larger reflectors on binaries. How about Polaris, then?

Uh-uh, no joy. Polaris can occasionally be a challenge for a 4-inch, so I wasn't too disappointed not to pick out the companion. I don't think the problem was resolving power, but more the dimness of the comes in the hazy, transparency-challenged skies.

The three inch proved herself, mostly,  and I think will serve admirably while I wait to see what the story is with my current infirmity. If my back goes back to normal, out comes the 10-inch. If not, if I have to baby it and seek treatment, the 3-inch, maybe supplemented by the ETX, perhaps on a new mount, will be it for a while I fear. No, 3-inches or even 5-inches is not in the same performance league as 10-inches, but I’d rather see something than nothing, and seeing what you can pull out with a wee scope is, I must reluctantly admit, challenging fun!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

 

“Lo, there shall be an ending…”


The time has come, my fellow Baby Boomers, for us to have a talk. A rather serious talk. Yes, we’ll be back to chasing Messiers next week, but this week we need to discuss weightier matters. Matters broached by my friend Barry Simon in a recent post on the Cloudy Nights Refractor Forum. The subject of Barry’s post was, to summarize and paraphrase, “What are we Boomers going to do with all our equipment, our telescopes, as we age and approach the final fade-out?”

That for me is an interesting and relevant topic and one I’ve been thinking about more than a little for the last year and a half.  It is also not one I find at all depressing...it's just life and the inevitable conclusion to that story. As we retire or at least proceed past middle age, it is something that demands our attention even if, like me, you are pretty sure your last page hasn't yet been written (or at least read by you).

Why am I thinking these (supposedly) gloomy thoughts? No, I am not planning on checking out anytime soon, but I have to admit I am definitely well into my spring semester. It's not like I'm approaching  final exam week yet, but I am at least coming up on midterms. It is time to ponder these sorts of questions. If there were a title I'd bestow upon my current mindset, it would be the title of this blog entry: "Lo, there shall be an ending." 

As a natural consequence of months I’ve spent ruminating on my life’s journey, the Universe, and my place in it, I began to consider one of my life’s big passions, astronomy. Which led to me thinking about all the astro-stuff I’ve accumulated, mostly over the last 30 years, thanks to that passion. Like Barry, I had begun wondering about and worrying about what the heck to do with it all.

Surveying my gear, I realized I'd become something of a telescope hoarder. I won't say "collector," because what I had was mostly (though not all) Fords and Chevys, Meades and Celestrons. Utilitarian telescopes I liked and used. Or liked, anyway. It became clear to me that over the last decade or two I had strayed from my long time precept that telescopes are tools, and that they had become an end in themselves.

In my late 40s I got into the habit acquiring stuff I did not need:  "Well, that's a nice C8. Be good to have a backup. And she is so pretty." Soon I had backups of backups. When I finally decided to take stock about a year ago, to take inventory of all my astro-stuff, I gotta tell you I was a bit shocked.

My shop/garage, “the Batcave,” was host to over 20 telescopes, several of them heavy or otherwise cantankerous to the point where I knew I would seldom (if ever again) use them. And there was another herd inside the house. It became clear to me this wasn’t a good thing for either my physical or mental health. 15 years ago I’d have reveled in it all. Not now.

My central concern was that the scopes, mounts, accessories, and all the rest of the stuff that was the result of 50 years as an amateur astronomer not be a problem for my wife, or my kids, or my friends when I shuffle off this mortal coil. Whether that be in 10 or 20 or even 30 years--or tomorrow. The approach I took was "Anything that doesn't get used has to GO," and I got work to reduce telescope headcount.

TELESCOPES TO GO

First on the chopping block were three standard C8s. I have a Celestron Edge 800 and that is the SCT I use when I use SCTs these days (I mostly do refractors of late for a variety of reasons), and I didn't need three standard C8s. Hell, nobody really needs three extra C8s. I had them because I could have them. All three went to good homes and brought in some money.

Next up was my beloved truss tube Dobsonian "Old Betsy,” a time-honored 12-inch I’ve had since the early 1990s. She was an older design truss and quite heavy for me in these days when I have a back that occasionally complains. I made a good deal on her with a young couple who were enthusiastic about astronomy. I really hated to let Bets go—so many pleasant memories of using her—but what good was she doing sitting on the floor of the Batcave rotting away month after month? And I still have those memories.

There was also my retro telescope, my Criterion RV-6 Dynascope Newtonian. If I'd bought this one back in the day, I'd have had a hard time parting with her, but she was given to me some years ago, so it was easier to let go. Beautiful primary, drive worked fine, amazing performer. I sold the RV-6 rather than giving her away in hopes that placing some monetary value on her would give the person who bought her the impetus to take care of and use her and that appears to have happened.

Then there was an assortment of other telescopes large and small—like my StarBlast—that also went out the door, too, to good homes. Despite my efforts, however, I’m not quite done selling and/or giving away just yet. There is still…

My carbon fiber C11 OTA. It has taken quite a while to get up the gumption to sell her. I can remember, when I got her just after the turn of the century, going around for days with my head in the clouds chanting, “I have a C11, I have a C11!” But I'm pretty sure I will part with her. She, Big Bertha, does me no good sitting in her case in a closet night after night when she could be making some younger amateur happy. She is just too heavy for me even now and that trumps everything else.

An 8-inch f/5 Dobsonian. This ultra portable 8 has, alas, a somewhat bum focuser that needs to be replaced before I sell her (one of JMI's ridiculously bad RCF focusers). Or I might just give her away to a good home crappy focuser included. She's a pretty, pretty telescope but simply doesn't get used. Like the 12-inch, she sits on the floor of the Batcave.

TELESCOPE KEEPERS

My Edge 800 SCT is in this category. I don't use her too much of late, but I'd like to keep my hand in in the SCT game for one thing. For another, when I need a little more image scale for pictures, she might serve me well. Like every other scope I own, however, she could go on the chopping block as the next few years roll by. I will always have a telescope and will always observe—well, as long as I am able—but not necessarily all or even any of these current keepers will be with me to the end. Well, actually one certainly will, tail-end Charlie below.

The SkyWatcher 120 Pro ED, “Hermione,” is maybe one of two or three of my remaining scopes that might be exempt from the above. She is light and she is very capable. She is today my most used telescope and I can’t ever see her becoming difficult for me to handle, even if I have to downsize her mount a little even from the Celestron VX. She shouldn't be any trouble for someone to sell or otherwise dispose of when I depart.

Big Ethel, a 6-inch f/8 achromatic refractor, is something of an aberration, a skylark of a telescope when I was, I thought, done with skylarking telescopes. I bought her from Barry and she was for sure something of an indulgence. I always wanted a freaking 6-inch refractor, you see. On the up side, she will not be as much of a hassle for someone to collect/transport, etc. when I am not around as the 12-inch Dobsonian would have been.

Zelda, a 10-inch GSO Dobsonian, is simple and sweet, and I intend to hold onto and use her as long as I am capable of using her. No batteries, no computers. This is what replaces the C11. With the 12 and (soon) the C11 gone, I want to have a little aperture for visual work. Unfortunately, the twinges my back is emitting of late indicate “as long as I am capable” may not be as long as I might wish. We’ll see.

My most used imaging scope today—and one of my most used telescopes for any purpose—is an 80mm fluorite William Optics Megrez II. I am pretty sure she’ll will be one of the two or three with me to the end. She can do a lot and is light enough that she is at least bearable even on a camera tripod.

If I will likely keep the 80,  I will surely keep the 66mm WO Patriot refractor. Not only is the Patriot a superb wide-field imager, she takes up virtually no room in storage, and I would have to be pretty far gone not to be able to use her at all. Also, I am constantly amazed at how much I can see with this wee telescope.

I have a Celestron 4-inch f/10 C102 that gets used frequently, so she’ll likely stay along with a 3-inch f/11 SkyWatcher achromat. Both are good for when I’m feeling lazy but still want to observe with something. Unfortunately, their grab ‘n go goodness is somewhat duplicated in more elegant fashion by the two William Optics refractors, so either or both of these might hit the road at some point.

Finally, there is one telescope that is a sure survivor, my Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior. This was my first scope. I will keep her to the end. After that she is on her own.

MOUNTS TO GO

The CG5 I used extensively for 10 years has found a new home. Funny thing? This inexpensive mount never failed me. Her gotos were always spot on and her tracking was more than good enough for me. Almost to the end she was out on dark observing fields grabbing Herschel 2500 objects.

Not gone yet, but destined to leave soon is a Synta Atlas EQ-6. This is not a bad mount. It just never gets used due to the fact that its payload and tracking capabilities are duplicated by my CGEM. The Atlas doesn’t take up a whole lotta space in the Batcave but, once again, why hold onto something that you just let sit and rot?

Several smaller mounts and accessories have also gone out the door. Stuff like EQ-1s and EQ-2s, wedges, tripods, etc., etc. None of this stuff has been missed or is likely to be. I also sold the fork/drive-base/wedge/tripod/case of the NexStar 11 when I removed the tube from the fork. I loved the setup and had used it for well over a decade, but it had become way too heavy and awkward for me.

MOUNT KEEPERS

In the short term, my CGEM is staying. It’s a good mount that makes my modest imaging programs easy. However, as soon as I get to the point where I am afraid, really afraid, to mount the head on the tripod, it will have to go. If my current back problems do not abate, that will be sooner rather than later. Why do I have a CGEM as well as an EQ-6? Never could get friendly with the EQ-6 HC and was never impressed by the EQ-6’s goto accuracy, even with EQMOD.

There is no reason I can think of to dispense with my SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount. Not the greatest thing in the world, but it works, even with the Edge 800. If you want real grab 'n go, you want some kind of an undriven alt-az mount like this—especially one that’s so light and small.

And that leaves my Celestron AVX. I presume I'll use it till it (or me) fails. Far lighter than the CGEM, but still capable of taking nice pictures if you keep the focal length of the telescope reasonable. I believe I’d have to get close to being too decrepit to dare get out on an observing field at night before I’d have to give up the VX.

The astro-junk I’ve accumulated over the last half century includes more than just scopes and mounts, of course. I divested myself of my collection of decades worth of Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines some time back. As soon as the S&T DVDs came out, I put a huge pile of magazines on the curb (nobody, and I do mean nobody wanted them, alas). They really weren't a very practical reference tool—not like the DVDs. I kept a few from the 1960s and those I appear in and that was it. Astronomy? I still like the magazine, but I rarely open a back issue so there was no reason to keep them. Every copy of Astronomy I had went away.

Other stuff? Selling and giving away telescopes has gone a long way toward thinning the eyepiece/accessory herd as well. "Have fun with your new scope and take some nice free Kellners and Plossls with you."

So, there’s still some gear that needs to be OUTA HERE, and especially the C11 and Atlas, but even with a ways to go it has been absolutely FREEING to get rid of all that stuff. Those unused telescopes were actually stressing me out rather than making me happy. I'd walk past Old Betsy in the Batcave and think, "I've really GOT TO drag her out tonight" even if I didn't want to. As I said, in the beginning, I believe the last page of my story hasn't been written yet, but slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to make preparations for the last chapter and beyond—whatever that turns out to be—feels good.

Is this really the end of my gear lust? Will I give in and get back on the equipment train? I don’t think so. I have rules now.  I began with "Nothing comes in unless something goes out." I upped that to, "Nothing comes in unless several somethings go out," but even that didn't seem enough.  Today it's "Nothing comes in unless you have sold or given away EVERYTHING. Unless you absolutely, positively have NOTHING, not even a Short Tube 80, to star gaze with." Will I stick to that? I seem to be sticking with it so far.

I will say that if the VX mount went up in smoke tomorrow, I'd have to replace that with another VX or a similar mount, even if I still have the CGEM when that happens. As above, the CGEM is borderline heavy for me right now, and I really need a GEM in the VX's weight class. Actually, maybe that is about all I need mount-wise. If the VX is like the CG5, which is still going more than ten years down the road, this is not likely to be a problem anytime soon, thankfully.

Beyond the reduction of my stress level, I feel relieved to be working not to leave a mess or trouble behind. Oh, don’t get dewy-eyed on me, friends.  I am in good health and I plan to be observing for quite a few years yet. That's what I plan, anyhow, but you have to keep sight of the truth. And the truth, the ground truth, is in this old adage: "When your number's up, you gotta go." Don't want to cast a pall over the proceedings, but let's face it, Boomers...our numbers could be up tomorrow. I can't put it any more succinctly than that.

Whatever happens, amateur astronomy and, particularly, the last thirty years of it has been quite a ride. Wouldn't trade those years for anything—well, that's not quite true. Not quite anything. But it has been fun. I loved almost every minute of it, though I must admit I view our avocation a little differently now.

Biggest change in my thinking of late?  What I value most at this time is not the gear I’ve owned or the sights of I’ve seen or the pictures I’ve taken, but the friendships I’ve made in our hobby. The most valuable thing about the process I’ve outlined here is that it is (in part) responsible for an epiphany. The epiphany that what matters isn’t stuff, but the people you love and the people who love you. Nothing else matters, friends.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

 

The New Deep Sky Planner


It’s the 4th of July weekend! Here just on the cusp of the late summer star party season, when I will soon be logging lots and lots of air miles to bring my particular take (ahem) on amateur astronomy to your club or star party, I am feeling a little lazy. I know you like your Sunday blog, though, so I am not going to leave you high and dry. This one is a wee bit short, but it’s on an important subject:  the new release of one of the best astronomy software programs there ever has been, Deep Sky Planner.

I suppose—no, I know—there are amateur astronomers who don’t use computer software in our avocation. Some folks like the old finder-Sky Atlas 2000 way of locating objects, and when they want information on one, they turn to a book like Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. And that is fine. What matters in amateur astronomy is that you enjoy doing whatever you are doing however you are doing it. Computer-free is not how I roll in astronomy, though.

I got hooked on what we called “microcomputers” back in the dark ages, as you can read here, and they became an end in themselves for me for quite a while. It would sound funny these days to say your hobby is computers. That would be like saying “my hobby is typewriters.” But in the 70s and 80s and even into the 90s (barely), computers were as much a hobby as astronomy or radio or photography or comic book collecting. They hadn’t yet evolved into everyday tools, and not only were there computer hobbyist magazines, there were computer-fests just like hamfests, events where the microcomputer crazies among us could gather to buy-sell equipment and swap tips.

Those days are, of course, long past. Creative Computing magazine and even Byte have been gone for a long, long time. In a way that is sad. But on the other hand it’s also witness to the fact that the microcomputers, which evolved into PCs and Macs, have come of age. They are no longer things to fiddle with and play with, but useful everyday tools for getting stuff done. Including astronomy stuff.

Not long after “home computers” came along, there was astronomy software. It took a while for us to get past the first crude efforts like SkyTravel for the Commodore 64 and get to programs that could genuinely enhance the observing experience, but we got there. And it really didn’t take that long.

By the time really capable computers—the IBM and clone 486 machines—began to sprout on everybody’s, even your old Aunt May’s, desktop, it was only a little while before the first hesitant attempts at PC astronomy, software like SkyGlobe 3.6, gave way to heavy-hitters like Megastar and TheSky.

Today? I wouldn’t dream of doing astronomy without a PC. Having incredibly deep charts and access to a whole world of information about deep sky objects, information access than in the 80s would have been reserved for the professionals, has changed everything. Thanks to computers, I’ve seen more and imaged more and enjoyed the pursuit more than I would ever have dreamed possible. Which begs the question, “Well, Uncle Rod, which computer software do you use?”

That tends to change year to year if not month to month. In part it depends on the project I am working. Viewing and imaging all 2500 Herschel deep sky objects, for example, required different software than what my current interests, imaging the Messiers and doing casual deep sky visual observing with a Dobsonian, demand.

Stellarium...
Also, the types of software I use can be divided into two types—when you leave aside specialized software for things like camera control, image processing, and spectroscopy. There are the planetarium programs, programs that put sky maps, representations of the night sky, on your computer's display. And there are planning programs, essentially giant databases of objects that allow you to make observing lists and record and manage observations.

Planetariums? I’ve used ‘em all. TheSky has been a long time fave. So has Starry Night. I suppose, however, that what I’ve used most has been the free stuff. Mostly the wonderful program Cartes du Ciel. Unfortunately, it simply won’t run on my current laptop. Not sure why and have been unable to find out. It throws up access errors at random intervals for no easily determinable reason. It’s great software and I often miss it. Or would if my problems with CdC hadn't coincided with the maturing of another great free program, Stellarium.

Stellarium is beautiful. It contains more than enough deep sky objects for me. It easily controls the goto telescope—any telescope—I am using. It is quite customizable through its scripting system. It is very easy to learn and use. Is it better than TheSkyX Professional? Not hardly, but the price is sure better, and I haven’t found anything I need to do that Stellarium cannot do. I love the program and it looks like I’ll be sticking with it for a long while.

Then comes the real subject of this article, planners. I’ve purty much used them all, starting with Deepsky, moving on to SkyTools, and experimenting with newer ones like Eye and Telescope. These giant deep sky databases have all had things to recommend them, and I could use any one of ‘em happily, no doubt. Of late, however, what I seem to be stuck on is Phyllis Lang’s Deep Sky Planner, "DSP.".

DSP is mature software, having been one of the first planners to hit the street. And Ms. Lang has kept after it, working on DSP continually over the years, making it at least incrementally better with each release. It shows. This is one of the most professional looking (and operating) astronomy programs I’ve run across. Also worth noting is the high level of user support Phyllis provides. Sometimes that is just as important as the features of the program itself.

 If you are new to DSP or planners, have a look at my review of  Deep Sky Planner 6 in the July 2015 Sky & Telescope. That will tell you all you need to know. If, however, you don’t have access to that ish (I bet your local library can pull it out of the stacks) , you can read a short review by me in Astronomy Technology Today.

So why do I love Deep Sky Planner so much? There are numerous things I like about the program, including one thing that might seem a little mundane or even silly. I like its nice big fonts. I don’t have to fool with the program or the computer to get text of a size I can read easily with six decade old eyes. The observing list displays are incredibly legible with text that’s just the right size. Doesn’t seem like a big deal in the house in the daytime, but even if you are a youngster with good vision, get on a dark field with a dim red-filtered laptop display and you will appreciate DSP’s legibility.

Another thing I love about Deep Sky Planner is its adherence to a basically standard Windows menu interface. You know, “File,” “Window,” “Help,” etc. Yes, there are special menus to support this special application, but in general everything’s where you’d expect it to be in a Windows application, not buried in non-standard menus and links.

Finally, I really like the idea that it doesn’t come with its own charting engine.  I used to think that was a liability, but not so. The program interfaces with a wide variety of planetariums (though not Stellarium, darnit). Once you establish a link to the planetarium of your choice, it works just like a built-in sky mapping engine would. That means you not only get the highest quality charts possible (as with TheSkyX Professional), but that you don’t have to learn a new charting program.

So, now we come to DSP 7. Rather than bore y’all with a point by point description of what DSP does, I’m just going to hit the “new and improved.” And there is considerable new stuff here, if more of an incremental nature compared to DSP 6, which was the Really Big Release. So, yeah, I loved DSP 6. It was great. The game changer.  The release that made Deep Sky Planner world class. That does not mean, however, that DSP 7.0 is a trivial advancement. It has some genuinely important new features/improvements:

Expanded and updated database contains over 1.55 million objects and uses the latest professional, peer-reviewed data available. Many catalogs have been updated. Please see catalogs for more details.

Any other enhancements pale beside this one. Let’s face it, planners live or die by the accuracy of the object data in their databases. What good is having tons of fuzzies if  the information on them isn't correct? No one expects every single entry in these massive catalogs to be right, of course, but I certainly appreciate the efforts by Ms. Lang to improve and correct data. I’ve done some checking haven’t run across any bum entries yet.

Object designation matching engine can find matches for designations that you enter using sophisticated pattern matching technology. The engine is forgiving of case mismatches, extra or no spaces in designations, and can match some commonly used catalog mnemonics that are not IAU approved (e.g., B for Barnard Dark nebulae).

You know what I hate? Planners that are picky about the way you enter the object designations for a search. Nothing is more frustrating than being made to enter M103 instead of M 103 or vice versa. Deep Sky Planner is good in this regard, and I am glad. Almost as important as the accuracy of the data in these programs—or maybe moreso—is your ability to easily and quickly search for the objects you want. Once you catch on to the DSP way of doing things, finding the objects of your heart’s desire is easy.

Drag and drop objects from any Deep-Sky Planner report into a plan, or add your own objects.

One feature that speeds up my composing of observing lists and projects is the ability to drag and drop objects into a plan (a list). Search result window on one side, plan window on the other, and I can happily drag whatever I want into the plan with my mouse. Why some other planners don’t offer this functionality, I’ll never know. DSP already featured this before v7, but the dragging and dropping seems smoother than ever now.

Display essential object information from the latest professional data, DSS images and other graphical data for objects.

When I’m doing a project that involves the dim and difficult, it’s often helpful to have an image of what I am looking for at hand. While DSP has long had the ability to download Digitized Sky Survey images, this facility has been substantially improved since Version 5. It had become more reliable and quicker in 6 (which introduced the ability to batch download object images), and Phyllis seems to have now put the finishing touches on it. Image downloads are faster than ever (within the limits imposed by the DSS server).

Includes emission line data for planetary nebulae which is useful for selecting the best optical or narrowband filter.

Is the above something I’d use frequently or at all? Maybe not, but it demonstrates the depth of features and capabilities the program boasts. It is not a piece of software you’ll quickly outgrow; it’s a program you will grow into.

I could keep on chirping about DSP 7’s features, but I don’t want to talk your ear off--it's time to get that grill going. To sum up, Deep Sky Planner 7 is more an evolution than a revolution. It’s the filing off of a few rough edges—and there weren’t many left—on Deep Sky Planner 6. But does that mean you shouldn’t upgrade if you have Version 6? Not at all. Not hardly. The bottom line is that 7 is better. Maybe incrementally after 6, which was something of a revolution, but it is better. You want it.

To learn more, just go to the DSP website (where you’ll find links to excellent videos, including instructional videos) to learn more. One thing you’ll find out there is how modest the price is for all this goodness:  a measly 75 bucks for a download (a “real” CD is just a little more). Upgrading from 6? How about $37.50? Given the utility of this program, I just don’t know how you can beat that with a stick. Have at it Kats and Kittens and tell Ms. Phyllis I sent ya.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

 

Getting a Black Eye


But in a good way, as in gazing at the wondrous Blackeye Galaxy, M64. Yep, here is another Messier installment that features a showpiece, if one that’s maybe not quite as spectacular as last week’s M57. Actually, we’ve got not just one showpiece this morning but—count ‘em—three. There are two other goodies in this group that, while maybe not as pretty individually as M64, pack a real wallop when seen together:  M65 and M66.

‘Course, to see these beauties you gotta have something to look at ‘em with. I’m not talking about your telescope. We’ve covered that ground a couple of times already. What I am talking about is something that is often claimed to be at least as important as the telescope, eyepieces.

What do I like for Messiers ocular-wise? Those who know me know I am addicted to ultra-wide apparent field eyepieces: 68-degrees, 82-degrees, 100-degrees, more. I just love the sensation of looking through a gigantic spaceship porthole. And there are practical reasons to embrace ultra-wide fields. More apparent field brings more true field with it. If you are using an un-driven Dobsonian, a larger true field means less frequent nudge-nudge-nudging to track objects.

And especially less nudge-nudge-nudging at the medium powers that are so useful in the backyard. A 12 - 14mm range eyepiece with an 82-degree apparent field gives you plenty of space, but enough magnification when used in the average telescope to spread out that yucky background sky glow and increase contrast a bit.

Unfortunately, heretofore ultra-wide fields came at a price, a price in money that was too high to allow some of us to experience 82-degrees or 100-degrees of heaven. That’s changed in the last few years with the introduction of reasonably priced imported ultra-wide angle eyepieces (actually, even top of the line oculars are imported today).  

How good are these budget priced (well sorta) alternatives? The 82s have been very good for a long while. Some years ago, I tested the Uwans from William Optics and found them fully competitive with the high priced spread in almost every way. Since then, Mainland Chinese 82s have become something of a drug on the market, with very good ones from folks like Meade and Explore Scientific going for as little as 130 bucks a pop. How good are they? Very good. Usually at least as good as and sometimes better than the Uwans of yore.

M64
What if you want MORE though? What if you want 100-freaking-degrees of AFOV? I wanted that very thing some years ago, a 100 in the 16mm focal length neighborhood. But I couldn’t afford the Cadillac, which was well over 700 dollars at the time. What my modest budget would allow was one of the first 100-degree eyepieces to come to these shores from Mainland China. These were sold wearing a variety of badges including Zhumell, Orion, and TMB. I ordered the Zhumell, not quite sure what I would get, but being pretty convinced I would not get perfection for less than a third the cost of the real deal.

And I didn’t, but you know what? The Zhumell 16mm, a.k.a., “the Happy Hand Grenade” wasn’t that bad either. Were the stars at the edge of that great big field perfect? No. There was astigmatism and other aberrations. However, much of the trouble had to do with me and my telescope and not the eyepiece.

A major reason for the ugly looking stars out toward the field edge was the astigmatism in my eyes.  Another was due the coma inherent in an f/5 Newtonian mirror—no eyepiece, no matter how expensive, will fix coma; only a coma corrector can do that. All in all I was pleased. The big field was nice and since I don’t waste my time obsessing about the field edge, I thought I got my money’s worth.

Fast forward to today and things are even sweeter in the 100-degree arena. Meade (see my review of their 100-degree oculars in the August 2016 Sky & Telescope) and Explore Scientific are, again, upping the ante. Their reasonably priced 100s can, frankly, be astonishingly good. I was especially impressed by the ES 20mm. My friends and I did a shootout between it and the competition’s 100-degree 21mm a few years ago on the hallowed observing field of the Chiefland Astronomy Village and were frankly amazed. Was one better than the other? Hard, very hard, to say.

And there are new players coming onto the field with their own Chinese 100s: William Optics, SkyWatcher, and others. It’s an interesting time to be a dollar-conscious amateur astronomer with an eyepiece Jones.

So, should you pay the extra fare for the “best”? That’s for you to decide, but I’ll no longer be paying a premium for a relatively small increase in performance. All else aside, the “quality” of my vision means getting closer to perfection than what I get with less expensive eyepieces won’t help me much. Your mileage may vary, but I prefer to give up a mostly unobservable degree of improvement and use the money I “save” to pay my inevitable weekly bar tab at Heroes.

M64:  The Blackeye Galaxy

Yes, the Blackeye Galaxy is spectacular, but it is a subtle spectacle. It can be detected in amazingly small backyard scopes—its magnitude of 8.52 coupled with a large but not too large size of 10’43” sees to that—but small scopes won’t show the dark patch, the black eye, near the galaxy’s nucleus that most observers long to see.

The Trio...
M64, located in the spring constellation Coma Berenices, is fairly easy to find without electronics, if not as easy as its predecessor on the list, M63. The best way to approach it is using magnitude 5.0 35 Comae. The star is almost halfway along a line drawn between Diadem and Gamma Comae, stars that should show up—if barely—in fairly poor suburban skies. 35 will likely require optical aid, but a 50mm finder will reveal it easily. When you have the star in the eyepiece, move 1-degree northeast and you should bump right into M64.

Your reward for hunting it down? The galaxy is undeniably impressive in a 4-inch on a nice night. In a medium power eyepiece, it’s a large oval of nebulosity that really “looks like a galaxy.” A 4-inch will also reliably show M64 is possessed of a small, near-stellar appearing nucleus. Alas, that is about it. Occasionally I’ve been convinced I’ve seen a hint of the black eye, the dust patch near the object’s center, with three and four inch backyard telescopes, but it’s just an impression I get when I use averted vision. Not something I can hold steady with direct vision.

Seeing the black eye easily takes at least an 8-inch. In the backyard, a C8 will turn it up, but it’s still not going to be something you can admire with direct vision. That will take a 10-inch on a good night at 150x and above. Wanna kick it up a notch? A larger scope under dark skies will begin to show the black eye isn’t a round black spot at all, but instead a curving arc of dark material. My C11 shows that fairly reliably at a dark but not crazy dark site. One year at the Georgia Sky View star party at Indian Springs State Park near Jackson, the C11 made this galaxy into an absolute thing of wonder.

M65: The Leo Trio (with M66 and NGC 3628)

Oh, M65 is good. Don’t kid yourself about that. M65 is slightly dimmer than M64 at an integrated magnitude of 10.25, but it is also smaller, 8.1’x2.1’, so it stands out well. That said, in the backyard on a so-so night, it’s more of a smudge that teases you with hints of detail than anything else.

M65 is easy to find manually thanks to its proximity to one of Leo’s bright “hindquarters” stars, Chertan, Theta Leonis. With Theta in the finder, scan two and a half degrees east-southeast and you should run across M65 without fail. You will also likely notice the similar (though hardly identical) M66. Which is which? M65 is the eastern galaxy and M66 is the western one.

While M65 is easy to see with a ten or eleven inch scope in the backyard—heck, it’s not really a challenge for a four or five—seeing detail is a little dicier. That takes dark skies and at least a ten-incher for me. Under suburban-country transition zone skies, there’s still not a wealth of detail to be seen in the galaxy. It’s a strongly elongated lens shaped object with a bright center. What it looks a lot like is a miniature Andromeda, M31. Under the best conditions with a 12-inch I get hints of a dust lane near the periphery of the disk, but it is not easy.

M66

M66 at magnitude 8.92 and 9.0’ across its longest dimension appears similar in brightness to M65, but strikingly different in appearance. The most amazing thing for me is how easy it is to tell M66 from M65 visually even under rather poor conditions with a rather small telescope.

If you found M65, you can find M66, so no worries there. Once you are on the proper galaxy, what will you pull out? In the backyard, the most prominent thing is this SAB galaxy’s large, bright elongated, central region. That and a faint outlying haze is about all I get from the back 40, though. At high quality observing sites, the 10-inch or the C11 will begin to reveal at least one of M66’s huge, sweeping spiral arms and tantalizing dark details.

The true joy of M65 and M66 is in their “Leo Trio” guise, however. In addition to the two bright galaxies, there’s a third, dimmer one here, magnitude 9.48 (but looks considerably fainter than the Messiers) Hamburger Galaxy, NGC 3628. It’s a near edge-on, and when observed from dark sites with 10-inch and larger scopes it can show a prominent equatorial dust lane. If you have an eyepiece that can frame about 45’ of sky, you can get all three of these beauties in one field. Let me tell you, the view in my 10-inch Dobbie, Zelda, equipped with a 13mm 100-degree eyepiece, which easily frames all three, is stunning.

M67

As you know, I am not the world’s greatest open cluster fan. But some I do like, like M67, Cancer’s “other” open cluster. It’s rich and it is different. It’s quite old for a galactic cluster, on the order of up to five billion years as a look at its color-magnitude diagram shows. Cool thing, though, is that this magnitude 6.9, 25.0’ cluster looks its age. M67 is a sprinkling of gently glittering amber gemstones set amidst Cancer’s lonely stars. Embers fading away at the end of time.

Finding M67 is as easy as falling off the proverbial log since the cluster lies near Cancer’s Alpha star, Acubens. While Acubens is not very bright at magnitude 4.25, it’s usually detectable naked eye from the suburbs when the Crab is riding high. When you are on it (a zero power finder working in tandem with your 50mm finder scope helps), just cruise 1-degree 45’ northwest and you will encounter this pretty group.

When you have M67, the first thing you’ll notice other than that it’s a nice, very nice, if somewhat subdued cluster, is that it is slightly elongated, and, more than that, that it is quite rich. A 10-inch under reasonably dark skies will easily show more than 100 suns here.

M68

M68 is a very sweet little globular star cluster. Unfortunately, for some of you this Hydra object is a bit far south, declination -26. How far south is that? Well, about as far south as M83, the Southern Pinwheel. This is the last stop before you get to the land of Centaurus and Lupus, y’all. If, however, you’ve got a good view to the south you’ll like this one. It’s reasonably bright at magnitude 7.3, reasonably large at 11.0’, and loose enough to be easy to resolve without being so loose that it is dim.

The main problem for mid-northern-latitude observers hunting M68 without computers is that more than a few of them are unfamiliar with this far southern part of the sky. Best way to the glob? Probably by using Beta Corvi and Epsilon Corvi, both of which are bright. The cluster forms a near right triangle with the two and lies 3-degrees 30’ south of Beta (Kraz).

If, like me, you can get pretty far south before running into too much of the trash near the horizon, M68 can be a treat, even in a smallish scopes, as it was one night with my ETX125, Charity Hope Valentine, from the club dark site:

M68 is a pretty Shapley-Sawyer class X globular cluster in Hydra. It doesn't look as loose to me as its X rating would indicate. What I see is a somewhat elongated, very grainy appearing core. It is not close to culmination yet and is fairly low on the horizon and in the haze, but I can see quite a few tiny stars winking on and off around the edges of the central area. Best at 170x.

M69

This globular, another of those that crowd along the base of  Sagittarius’ Teapot (which believe it or not is now beginning to climb back into the sky at mid-evening), is middling good for me at magnitude 8.3 and 8’06” in size. And from more southerly latitudes than my 30-degrees it must be impressive. I doubt it would be a showpiece even if it were overhead, though. It’s a middle-of-the-road glob.

At least it is easy to find. Draw a line from Eta Sagittai through Epsilon, extend that line for another 2-degrees 30’ and you are there. Take it easy, though. If you are at a fairly high latitude, the glob might not jump out at you. Check the field carefully using a medium power ultra-wide eyepiece if possible.

With M69 in view, you are probably going to be pleasantly surprised at what you find—especially given me dissing the little guy. This Class V glob is small enough to remain bright, and not so tight as to be difficult to resolve. 150x in an 8 or 10-inch telescope from a passable site will just about always do it.

M70

This Sagittarius glob is in many ways similar to M69. Same class, V, similar size at 8.0’, but a little dimmer at magnitude 9.06 and slightly farther south. So, the impression I get is “a lot like M69, but not quite as nice.” It’s a Messier, though, so “not so good” is still awfully good when compared to your average NGC globular.

If M69 is easy to find, M70 is Real Easy. Just draw an imaginary line between the Teapot’s base stars, Ascella and Kaus Australis. M70 is almost smack in the middle of the line. As with M69, don’t get too cavalier. If M70 is low in the sky for you, it may not be obvious in the field at first glance.
Despite its couple of minuses compared to the previous glob, the impression I get of M70 is “much the same.” It might be just a touch harder to resolve than M69 on a comparable night, but not enough to make much difference. 150x is a good power for me with the 10-inch.

So, what’s up next Sunday? We may take a week off from the Messiers. I’ve got a new piece of astronomy software here I’d like to tell you about, the new version of Deep Sky Planner, and it is my intention to do that next time. Rest assured, though, we will soon be back on the Messier trail.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

 

The Magic Ring


One of my Facebook friends asked me a question the other day. On the face of it, it was a simple and casual one, “Rod, do you still image the Messiers?” Sometimes the simplest questions turn out to be the most thought-provoking, however. I replied that, yes, I still take pictures of the M objects (and observe them visually as well). After sending my reply, though, there came another—internally generated—question, “Why?”

Because they are just so wonderful. Are there some objects in the NGC and other deep sky catalogs that are better, visually, than some Messiers? Yes. But the preponderance of beauty is in the Ms. Almost—if not quite—every one of them is a gem. Do I get tired of looking at them? That would be like asking whether I get tired of looking at Mona Lisa or reading Hamlet. I have never seriously observed a Messier without seeing something new in it—well maybe except for M40 and M74, but they are the only exceptions.

OK, forward we go…

M57

We start this installment’s bunch with a bang, a real superstar. M57 has been one of my most beloved objects since I first hunted it down many a moon ago with my 4-inch Palomar Junior reflector. Not that I can say it really looked like much back then, not compared to what my telescopes of today will bring home, but, it was easy to find, it was obvious in the eyepiece, and it actually looked a little like the pictures in the astronomy books I checked out of my elementary school’s library.

Certainly M57 is a worthy target for three and four inch telescopes. At magnitude 8.8 and 3’48” across its longest axis, it is easy to see with a small telescope in the suburbs. You can see this corpse of a dead star, yes, but don’t expect too many details with a little telescope. At least you won’t have to worry much about finding it. It’s almost halfway between a line drawn between two of the little summer constellation Lyra’s most prominent stars, Beta and Gamma Lyrae.

M58
In 4-inch and smaller instruments under less than optimum conditions—the inevitable summer haze that affects even Lyra with its nice northerly declination of +30—there is only so much you can expect. M57 will be immediately obvious, even in a fairly low power eyepiece; it’s over twice the average diameter of Jupiter and is not a planetary nebula that will masquerade as a fuzzy star. Unfortunately, all you’ll see easily is just that, that it is not a star. Its ring shape is elusive, even if you pump up the power.

At 6-inches of aperture, things get much better. It will be undeniable that M57 is a smoke ring, not just a disc. When seeing is good, it will also be easy to see that this ring is squished, that it is somewhat elongated. Finally, when you increase the power to 200x or thereabouts, you’ll observe the center is not empty, but hazy; this is a filled donut.

Frankly, the view will be much the same at 8-inches, though all of these things will begin to be easier. You’ll also note on the best nights that the “ends” of the Ring’s oval on its longest axis are not sharp, but diffuse. While, unlike some planetary nebulae, the Ring doesn’t offer strong color, you can still occasionally detect a blue-green tint in it on transparent nights, most easily with 8-inch and larger telescopes.

It’s at 10-inches that you can begin to hope for some lagniappe, including the faint star (magnitude 15 or so) that’s just outside the ring to the northwest. It’s a pretty good accomplishment to bring home that pesky sun, but it is not THE star. The Star is the Ring’s elusive central star, a white dwarf, the remnants of the sun that created the nebula.

Can you see the Ring’s progenitor with a 10-inch? Yes you can. I saw it summer before last with an humble Chinese 10-inch Dobbie. Was it easy? I wouldn’t call it easy, but it was not overly difficult either. A novice observer out there with us on the club field picked it up without much of a fuss when we told him what to look for. That’s the good. The bad is that the central star has regularly eluded me in 30-inch and 42-inch Newtonians.

M59 and M60...
How can the central star be easy with a 10-inch one night and impossible with a 42-inch another night? Some people think the star, which is nominally at magnitude 15 or thereabouts, is a variable. That’s possible, but I don’t really think that’s the answer. The problem is the Ring’s filled interior. If the donut hole were dark, the star would be fairly trivial. It is not; the interior is very much a light gray, and the contrast between it and a dim star is minimal.

So how do you see the central star? Really pump up the power, to 500x and higher. In the above mentioned 10, the star wasn’t there at 250x, but with higher magnification it swam right into view. To make use of high power, which spreads out the bright background in the Ring’s donut hole and increases contrast between it and the star, you will of course need good seeing. If the seeing is not good, the star will be invisible even in a very large scope. It will be smeared out of existence. Luckily, even in this day when weather patterns seem to be changing—and not for the better—I get good seeing with fair regularity in the summer and can often at least glimpse that fabled central star.

M58

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Oh, Virgo’s M58, an SAB barred spiral galaxy, ain’t exactly ridiculous, it’s just that it’s in a whole other class compared to objects like M57. Not a bad class, mind you, it’s magnitude 9.66 and 5’54” across so it is fairly prominent for a galaxy. It’s just not liable to put your eye out.

How do you find this galaxy? Easy: push the M button on your goto telescope’s hand control followed by 5 and 8.  I am not kidding. Oh, you can find it the old fashioned way with finder and chart even if you are a relative novice, but M58 is right smack in the middle of the cloud of Virgo galaxies at the heart of the constellation, between the arms of the maiden as it were. Best guide to M58? Probably magnitude 5 Rho Virginis, which is about 2-degrees to the southeast of the galaxy in this star poor area. You’ll need a detailed chart, of course, since even in suburban skies you’ll see multiple faint fuzzies in just about every field you land on here.

M61
Once you are there, what will you see? With an 8-inch to 10-inch, you may see at least one more galaxy in the field, NGC 4564, but there is no doubt which one is M58; it is the big one. Is it also bright? I can see it from the backyard with direct vision with my 8-inch, but it is easier with averted vision. Naturally, it is more prominent in a 10. As with many galaxies, bright and dim, what it resembles an unresolved globular cluster:  a bright core surrounded by fainter haze.

M59

E5 elliptical Messier galaxy M59 is cool. Not just because it’s bright at 10.6 and shows obvious elongation n/s with dimensions of 5’24” x 3’42”, but because its field is just so beautiful. An 8-inch will turn up at least 3 galaxies here. In addition to M59, there’s M60, another bright M 25.0’ to the southeast, which is graced with a smaller companion galaxy, NGC 4647, 02’41” northwest of its center. M59 itself appears as a noticeably off-round fuzzball with a fairly extensive outer halo.

Once again, goto or digital setting circles are the way to go here. Sometimes, here in the heart of Virgo, it’s still hard to figure out which object is which, however. Luckily, the layout of these three bright galaxies is pretty distinctive, and once you orient yourself as to the way your telescope presents the field as compared to your chart—inverted, mirror reversed—it is easy to ID the fuzzies. Make it easy on yourself and use a computer charting program like Stellarium, which will allow you to flip or invert the field to match what is in the eyepiece.

M60

Is M60 even better than M59? Perhaps. It’s got a brighter magnitude value, 9.8, but this 7’24”x6’0” E2 elliptical galaxy is not as obviously elongated. It trumps M59, however, because it has little buddy NGC 4647 beside it. An 8-inch telescope will have no difficulty picking up a faint nebulous patch beside the main object. Don’t see it? You are likely on M59 rather than M60, then. DSCs or goto are, again, the path to happiness here.

M61

M63
M61 is a face-on SAB spiral galaxy, and face-ons tend to be tough. Luckily, this one is fairly small and bright, 6’30” in diameter and magnitude 9.65, so seeing it is not much of a challenge. Not for a 10-inch in the suburbs. Want to do beyond just seeing it, though? A 10-inch under a dark sky can do well with this one, but a 12-inch is undeniably better.

At least it’s a little easier to find M61 than the run of the mill Virgo galaxy, it being in the western part of the constellation away from the greatest mass of objects. You’ll find M61 5-degrees north of Eta Virginis and about 1-degree 18’ northeast of a prominent 5th magnitude star, 16 Virginis. All in all, finding this one manually was a pleasantly easy surprise.

With the galaxy in the field, what you’ll see with a suburban 10-inch is a round subdued glow with perhaps a hint of a stellar-appearing core. A 12-inch makes the galaxy easier with direct vision but that is about it. Under dark skies with 10-inch and larger telescopes, you’ll see signs of spiral structure, and especially the galaxy’s most prominent, sweeping spiral arm.

M62

Ah…summer’s coming in and that great celestial bug, Scorpius, is on the rise. Our next target, M62, a globular star cluster, looks like it ought to belong to the Scorpion, but it’s actually just over the border in Ophiuchus, in the southern part of that sprawling constellation. At magnitude 7.3 and 15.0’ across, M62 stands out well, or WOULD if it were higher in the sky for most Northern Hemisphere amateurs.

Yes, M62 belongs to Ophiuchus, but if you are finding it The Old Fashioned Way, use two of Scorpius’ stars to pin it down. The glob lies about 4-degrees northeast of the Scorpion’s body, and forms a triangle with two of his stars, Tau and Epsilon Scorpii. Assuming Scorpius is well over the horizon, and the haze and light pollution is not too bad, the M62 may show up in your finder as a wee fuzzy.

Stellarium M63
It M62 good? It would be if it were higher, but it is not. As is, in an 8-inch under the average summer conditions in the suburbs, you may have to settle for “grainy but not resolved.” A 10-inch at a dark site can bring out a satisfying number of stars in the halo of this somewhat compressed Type IV cluster.

M63

We began on a good one and we end on a good one too, M63, the winsome Sunflower Galaxy. It is still a galaxy, however, despite the fact that it’s a Messier and has a reputation for being spectacular, so don’t expect “blindingly  bright.” It is easy enough in a 4-inch, though, and can begin to show its sunflower aspect in a 10-inch under decent conditions given its bright magnitude number, 8.59, and reasonable size, 12’36”.

Finding this Canes Venatici object is easy due to its prominence and to its position about 1/3rd of the way along a line drawn between Canes’ Cor Caroli and the Big Dipper’s Alkaid. The galaxy is actually about 1-degree northeast of this line, but  a little scanning with a medium-low power eyepiece should turn it up without much hair pulling.

A 4-inch telescope in the backyard will show you the basic features of this steeply inclined galaxy. It’s a prominent oval with a bright, small, but not stellar center. To see more, you will need a 10-inch and a dark site and a medium-high power ocular. With one, you can hope to glimpse the mottled, patchy, petal-like spiral arms that give rise to M63’s “Sunflower” moniker.


So..? The finish line is not yet in view; it’s a long way off yet, but I smell victory. What say we continue our M-quest next week, too?

Sunday, June 12, 2016

 

At the Messier Halfway Point


After this installment’s M-objects, we’ll be a little more than halfway through The List, or maybe considerably more than halfway through depending on exactly which objects you believe are genuine Messiers. Anyway, the star of this week’s show is, as I said last Sunday, the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51. I made a few remarks in the previous week’s article about this rather spectacular deep sky object, to include my choice of an effective telescope for viewing it, a 10-inch to 12-inch Dobsonian.

Why a Dobsonian? To begin, in this aperture, 10 – 12-inches, a Dobsonian is the most economical choice. Sure, there are a few expensive custom-made Dobs available in this aperture range, but they are far outnumbered by the inexpensive Dobbies of Synta and GSO. Is a Synta or GSO mirror the equal of a Zambuto? No, but the current imported mirrors are actually very good. It’s unusual to find one with a figure that’s not at least ¼-wave and often better, and one will serve well for deep sky observing (and may not be a slouch on the planets either). A 10-inch GSO or Synta Dobsonian can be had for around 500 dollars and is an incredible bargain.

At least as important as cost, for me anyway, is portability. A 10-inch or 12-inch fork mount SCT is a heavy telescope any way you slice it. A 12-inch Meade is frankly a beast best suited for an observatory. A 10 or 12-inch SCT OTA on a separate mount is easier to handle, if not that easy, but then you have to transport and set up a GEM (or other) mount too. I don’t mind doing that occasionally, but certainly not for an hour long Messier run from my backyard.

In contrast, a 10-inch solid tube Dob is easy and quick for most adults to transport and setup. The OTA will fit in the backseat of most vehicles, and all there is to assembling a solid tube scope is “plunk rocker box down, place tube in rocker.” This degree of portability does begin to ebb at 12-inches, admittedly. Carrying a 12-inch solid tube Dobsonian is doable for some people, but it is like wrestling with a water heater. Luckily there are alternatives.

One is the traditional truss tube scope. That is a good solution if one can be left assembled for transport to the backyard. Often that is not possible, not with the trad style truss scope. The tube assembly can be even more awkward and heavy than a solid tube telescope. And disassembling the tube to get the scope into the backyard and then reassembling it is a pain.

However, there are now 12-inch Dobsonians that are easier to handle than old-fashioned trusses and somewhat lighter than a solid tube telescope. I’m talking about the collapsible tube telescopes from Synta. Another possibility if you have considerably more bucks to spend is the ultra-light Dobsonians, which are available from several makers.

A Dob is a good choice for attacking M51 or any other Messier, but it’s one that leaves some beginners uneasy:  “Don’t I need goto and tracking?” Both those things can enhance your experience, but goto/tracking is no longer the exclusive province of SCTs. Synta produces Dobsonian telescopes under its SkyWatcher brand and for sale by Orion that feature both things. And an un-driven scope can be equipped with digital setting circles that make finding easy. Isn’t it hard to track an object by hand at higher powers? Not if the telescope is properly made. I find tracking at 500x easy with my 10-inch GSO Dobbie.

None of this is to say you must have at least a 10-inch telescope to have fun with M51. A dark sky can allow much smaller scopes to do a good job on the galaxy and its companion. My experience, however, is that 10-inches is where it starts getting really good.

OK, let’s go, beginning with M50…

M50, the Heart Shaped Cluster

Do you like open clusters? You don’t? OK, OK, but this is a Messier open cluster and at least somewhat removed from the “dim, not well detached” NGC opens that provoke your scorn. M50 is bright at magnitude 5.9 and reasonably compact at 15.0’ across its longest dimension. It’s visible easily in finders and quite rewarding in medium aperture telescopes.

Since the cluster is easy in a finder, locating it is trivial on those deliciously dark and clear winter evenings after a front passage. Scan some 5-degrees northeast of Theta Canis Majoris, the big dog’s “nose” star, and you should run across M50 without a fuss. This is a fairly star-rich area, but M50 is the only open cluster of any prominence in the region.

On target, your reaction will likely be much like mine, “Not too shabby, not too shabby.” A 10-inch will show maybe 25 bright stars and perhaps three times that many fainter ones at medium magnification. This is the Heart Shaped Cluster because its looping star chains seem to outline a Valentine’s Day heart. I sometimes have trouble making out the supposed “shapes” of open clusters, but even I see a heart here. Look for the prominent red central star in the midst of M50’s suns.

M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy

M51
And here we are at the Whirlpool. What do you need to know about it most of all? That it is beautiful, but also subtle. Its magnitude is 8.1 and its size is 11’12” x 6’54”, yielding a surface brightness of somewhere around 13, which doesn’t sound too bad, but remember you are after details, and those details, the spiral arms, the dust lanes, the “bridge” between it and its interacting companion galaxy, NGC 5195, are not easy. Sure, I’ve seen the galaxy from heavy light pollution, but only as two blobs, a bigger one and a smaller one, and most of us want the Whirlpool to be more than a “been there” object.

To do anything with M51, you have to get there, of course, and without a goto computer and in a moderately light polluted sky, that can be somewhat difficult. What works for me is a 50mm finder and a pair of 7th magnitude stars that lie 3-degrees 21’ northwest of bright Alkaid, the “end” star of the Big Dipper’s handle. M51 is just 19’ farther to the northwest and closest to the southeastern star of the pair. If you are observing from the suburbs, pay close attention to the field. M51 will not likely jump out at you.

So what will you see with a 10 – 12-inch telescope? That depends. From my club’s (semi) dark site in the suburban-rural transition zone, I can always make out spiral structure with the 10-incher, but, remember, I’ve been looking at this thing for nearly 50 years. If you are new to the Whirlpool, spend plenty of time on it, use a variety of magnifications, and employ the tricks—like averted vision--we discussed a while back. Beyond basic spiral structure? I can usually see parts of the bridge of material between the two galaxies, but it is not complete. I can also, on a good night, a superior night, see hints of the Whirlpool’s convoluted dust lanes.

M52 and the Bubble...
With a larger telescope, you will see more from a site like my club’s, but not a whole lot more. What this galaxy, like most galaxies, needs is a dark sky. The best view I’ve ever had of this object was with a modest instrument, my old 12-inch telescope, but that scope, Old Betsy, was sited under the very dark skies of the Texas Star Party in 1999. From there, the complete bridge was obvious (if still not blinding), and I wasn’t just able to see dust/dark lanes, I could see their edges were not smooth, but “curdled.”

M52, the Salt and Pepper Cluster

Cassiopeia’s M52, another open cluster, is not good and it’s not bad. What makes it stand out is a superb neighborhood. While a 10-inch is once again probably optimum, even a 4-inch will do a good job of capturing this magnitude 6.9, 16.0’ group.

Look for M52 about halfway along and 45’ west of a line drawn between Beta Cassiopeiae, Caph, and Iota Cephei. While not as prominent in a finder as M50, you should still be able to see something here with a 50mm.

M52’s main claim to fame—if any—is its legion of tiny stars; up to 100 are visible in medium aperture telescopes at medium-high magnifications. There’s a red central star, but the chief impression is “tiny, closely-packed stars,” which is what gives the effect of a sprinkling of salt and pepper on a dark background.

The neighborhood I mentioned? If you’ve a dark enough sky and a 10 – 12-inch telescope and maybe a nebula filter, move your telescope 36.0’ to the west and you will come upon the famous Bubble Nebula. While it is easy to image, it’s not quite so easy to see any of the nebulosity visually, much less the bubble shape, without dark skies and good transparency.

M53

M53
M53 has, to me, always been a herald, a herald of the return of the summer sky and its hordes of globular star clusters. This spring glob is not nearly as good as its more easterly mate, M3,  but after a months of a globular shortage I welcome it, and it is pretty good. Better than puny little M79 anyway. In a dark sky and riding high, this magnitude 7.7, 13.0’ across ball of suns is pretty in a 10-inch or an 8-inch if not overwhelmingly pretty.

For once, finding is not a concern. If your site is at least good enough to show Coma Berenices’ magnitude 4.3 Alpha star, Diadem, you are in like Flynn. M53 lies a mere degree and a half to the east. On a decent night, the cluster should appear as a slightly fuzzy “star” in a 50mm finder.

When you are there, what will you see? From the average suburban backyard, all you’ll find in the eyepiece of your 6-inch and smaller scope is a fuzzball. A prominent enough fuzzball, but a fuzzball. An 8-inch will give you a cluster that wants to break into stars, but can’t quite do it. Grainy, yes, resolved, no. In 10-inch and larger telescopes, you get what you came for: plenty of tiny sparklers.

If you have really good skies and an 8-inch or larger scope at your disposal, look for M53's companion globular NGC 5053, which is loose and difficult. This open cluster-looking glob lies about a degree southeast of M53.

M54

Here’s another glob, Sagittarius' M54. At magnitude 7.7 and a size of 12.0’, this one is hardly a spectacle. That’s largely thanks to the relatively large distance between us and this fairly compressed (Type III) star-ball. It’s some 36,000 parsecs distant and looks it.

Luckily, finding M54 is trivial if Sagittarius is decently high in your sky. It is found on the “handle” side of the Teapot’s base and is 1-degree 42’ west of Ascella, the teapot’s “leftmost” bottom star. Tread carefully, especially if your location is at a higher northern latitude. In horizon haze M54 will definitely not be prominent.

What it will be is a fuzzball. Not just in 4 – 6-inch telescopes, but in 10 – 12-inchers as well. As above, it is tight and far away, and while it begins to look grainy in 12-inch scopes, I’ve never achieved much resolution in even a 16-inch under suburban skies.

M55

M55
This is yet another Sagittarius globular. Alas, it’s no M22, though it might look quite a lot like that fantastic glob if it weren’t so poorly placed for Northern Hemisphere observers. As it is, this magnitude 7.42, 19.0’ group is sadly diminished.

M55 can also be difficult to find “manually.” That’s because much of the time it is in the treetops and it is also located in the rarely visited southern portion of Sagittarius well removed from the teapot. Position your telescope 8-degrees southeast of Ascella, and scan carefully with as low power an eyepiece as you can use given the probable brightness of the sky background in this part of the constellation. M55 is a loose one, a Type II, so look for something that appears to be a round and rich open cluster.

The actual appearance of M55 will depend on how high it is in your sky, the transparency in its area, and the aperture of your telescope. This is really an object for a 10-inch at least, and on a good night down here in the southland, many teeny stars are revealed in M55. It ain’t exactly a spectacle, but it’s worth your time under the right conditions.

M56

Yes, there are Messier globular star clusters and then there are Messier globular star clusters. M56 is most assuredly not an M13. Or even an M30 or M53, though the cluster’s specs don’t sound that scary. It shines out at magnitude 8.4 from its lair in Lyra and spans a mere 8’48” of space. The problem is that it’s a Shapley Sawyer Type X. A XII is the loosest type, so M56 is much like NGC 5053, if not quite that bad—5053 is an even looser XI and is considerably dimmer.

M56
But, yes, M56 can be tough; it was amazingly so for me when I hunted it one long ago night from my parents’ suburban backyard with my 4.25-inch Palomar Junior reflector. It was a Messier globular and Lyra was riding high. Ought to be duck soup, right? I got the scope on the cluster’s approximate position with the aid of Norton’s Star Atlas. Nothing. Nowhere. Could my aim be that far off? No. I finally spotted the little devil as a dim, very dim, round glow. That was M56?

It’s easy to get on M56’s spot without a computerized telescope as it is conveniently placed approximately halfway along a line drawn between Albireo and Lyra’s Gamma star, Sulafat. It’s actually a little bit outside that line to the east by about 45’ and slightly closer to Albireo than Sulafat. If you need further direction, a fairly prominent magnitude 6 star, SAO 68040, is 24’ northwest of the cluster.

What do you get for your efforts? From the average backyard, not much; in a 6-inch, M56 remains a smudge not much better than what I saw in the Pal Junior.  An 8-inch will begin to resolve a sprinkling of stars at about 150x, but still “mostly a round glow.” Things get better in Zelda, my 10, which, when I increase the power to 200x, begins to bring home something that looks like a globular. To get more than that the solution is a dark site.

With (now sold) Old Betsy, M56 was quite attractive from darker skies like the Percy Quin State Park of the 1990s, the initial home of the Deep South Regional Star gaze. Under those good but hardly perfect conditions, the cluster began to at least approach M53. In addition to plenty of resolved stars in the outer halo, the 12-inch would show M56 has a distinct, brighter, triangle shaped core.

How did you do? What did you see? How did you see it? I’d love to hear if you’d like to post your comments. I am not able to respond to every single one, but I assure you I do read them all. 

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