Sunday, October 16, 2016


Issue 513: How Hard are the Messiers from the Backyard?

We haven’t yet run through all the Messiers in my series of articles on them, but I thought I’d give you a quick guide (in two installments) to how difficult the Ms are from a suburban backyard, and what it takes to get a decent look at them from there. The reason for this executive summary is the weather is turning beautiful, at least in the southland, and I know plenty of you will be out in that good, old back-forty chasing faint fuzzies. 


The Crab Nebula is detectable in a 4-inch as a dim oval. You will need a 12-inch range scope to begin to see much beyond that. In a 12, it will show its basic zig-zag shape on a decent evening.


A 3-inch will show it, a 4-inch will deliver a little resolution, and an 8-inch will make the thing begin to look nice indeed.


Similar to M2, if a little more difficult to resolve. Looks nice if unresolved in my 80mm APO.


M4, the Cat’s Eye Cluster, is loose and a little dimmish. You can pick it up with a 4-inch, but don’t expect it to look like much.


My 80mm APO, Veronica Lodge, will show some stars at high power, and a C8 makes it into a semi-spectacle from less than perfect backyards.


At 25’ across, this cluster is big, but not too big and was just perfect for my old 4-inch StarBlast reflector, Yoda.


If the StarBlast richest-field-telescope did a nice job on M6, its wide field was required for M7, which is 80’ across. As a matter of fact, I somewhat preferred my 70mm Burgess binocs even to the StarBlast.


I could always see the Lagoon Nebula from out-back with a 4-inch, but it did not look like much. Just a little fuzz around a star. 8-inches and a UHC filter definitely helps.


M9 was difficult, sometimes to the point of impossibility, with the 3 or 4-inch scopes. Mainly because of its low altitude. An 8 or 10 is a really good idea for this one.


Was visible if unresolved in a 4 or 6-inch scope. The 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, did a fine job on this rich and pretty globular star cluster.


Is the beautiful Wild Duck Cluster, one of the very best galactic clusters in the sky, which I unintentionally omitted. Great in all instruments large and small. In binoculars or an RFT at low power, it resembles a loose globular. In telescopes of larger aperture and longer focal length it is that amazing flight of fowl.


Really needed a 6-inch just to easily see this looser glob. A 10-inch can make something of it even on hazy backyard evenings.


My 80mm APO will show a few stars at high power, but just like the old observing guides say, a 6-inch is needed for much resolution. From the suburbs anyhow.


Like M9, this glob is rather low for many of us and an 8 or 10 is the way to fly if possible.


The Horse’s Nose Cluster was very pretty in a 3-inch refractor or 4-inch reflector, but this globular was unresolved in the small instruments. Better in a C8 or my 6-inch refractor, Big Ethel, but doesn’t begin to be great till you go to 10-12-inches.


If you just want the open cluster, a 3 or 4-inch will do it. Heck, 50mm binoculars will do it. If you want the Eagle Nebula you need an OIII filter, a 10 or 12-inch scope, and a dark hood to block ambient light from your eyes.


The Swan is easier than the Eagle, but from the backyard 8-inches and a UHC filter is a Good Thing.


This smallish open cluster was quite nice in my 80mm APO.


Somewhat tough southern glob. Low and largish. Save yourself some frustration and apply 8-inches of aperture.


I can usually pick up the Trifid with the 80mm (equipped with a UHC filter), but it doesn’t look that great from compromised skies even with 12-inches.


Large and bright, this open cluster is not a challenge for a small telescope or binoculars.


I used to enjoy looking at this big globular with my old Short Tube 80 refractor, which didn’t have much trouble resolving some stars in it.


Another bright open cluster that is nice in binoculars large and small.


This open cluster is small, about 5’ across, but rather dim with a given magnitude around 11. Nevertheless, I can sometimes see it with a 4-inch—if with difficulty. Nice in the 10-inch.


At almost half a degree in diameter, this open cluster is good in binoculars and excellent in an RFT like the StarBlast.


A magnitude 9 open cluster, M26 can be difficult in a 4-inch, looking much like a distant, unresolved globular.  It’s not that much better in a 10-inch, which at best resolves a handful of stars.


The Dumbbell was sweet in my Short Tube 80, and really, really sweet in the filtered 10-inch, which shows the apple core shape more convincingly from the suburbs.


This glob near the Sagittarius Teapot’s lid is visible in a 4-inch with fair ease, but difficult to resolve even with a C11 in the suburbs.


A small, dipper-shaped open cluster in Cygnus, M29 is good with a 3-inch, and a 10-inch or larger scope really doesn’t show much more.


M30 requires a 6-inch even to look grainy, and a 10 is a must for much resolution. I can usually spot it with a 3 – 4-inch, however.


I could often see the Andromeda Nebula (galaxy) naked eye even from my downtown backyard. Needs mucho field. The StarBlast was super fine for this monster.


M32, M31’s brightest satellite galaxy, was visible in the 4-inch, but sometimes dubious in binoculars.


Dimmer than M31 and still quite large, I found the Triangulum Galaxy a pain with the StarBlast. The C8 reduced to f/6.3 and equipped with a 27mm Panoptic would always turn the galaxy up when it was riding high.


Bright but large. Perfect for the StarBlast or a similarly wide-field scope.


Nice in a 3-inch and just gets better with every increase in aperture.


Easy in the 3-inch Short Tube, and beautiful in a 10-inch.


Visible in the 4-inch, but needed the 10-inch to begin to show its incredible richness and its red central star well.


Very similar to M36. Liked it in the Short Tube 80 and in my 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher achromat.


This triangular open cluster was, like M29, good in an 80mm, and doesn’t get that much better with larger telescopes.


A magnitude 10 range double star, it was very nice in the 80mm f/11 refractor.


Another win for the StarBlast. It’s bright and big and was perfect for the little guy.


Looks great in any aperture, even from rather compromised backyards.


In the suburbs, it takes about 10-inches of aperture to show M43’s comma shape, but it is easy to at least detect in a 3-inch or a 4-inch as haze around the bright star Nu Orionis.


The Beehive. This huge open cluster in Cancer required the StarBlast or a pair of binocs. Easy, natch.


The Pleiades are scrumptious in my 66mm APO, but I’ve never seen their Merope Nebula with that or any telescope from the suburbs—up to and including a 24-inch Dobsonian.


The open cluster was easy in a 3-inch, but the involved planetary nebula, NGC 2438, was invisible. Seeing that took my 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, and an OIII filter.


Sparser but brighter than M46, M47 was rewarding enough in the Short Tube 80, but didn’t look truly nice till I applied the 6-inch refractor or an 8-inch reflector.


Like many Messier opens “bright and large.” An RFT is practically mandatory for good framing.


I could pick up this elliptical (S0) galaxy from the backyard with my 4-inch f/10 refractor or the 5-inch MCT without much hassle. Not a whole lot to see, of course.


This Monoceros open cluster is easy enough to see in a 3 – 4-inch. The main problem is finding it without goto.


The Whirlpool Galaxy is visible in suburban 4-6-inch telescopes as two dim fuzzballs, a larger one and a smaller one, from even under fairly poor skies. To see more than that requires 12-inches and an especially good night.


This medium-sized, medium-bright open cluster is pretty in a 4-inch, and the entire area is impressive on a good night in an RFT.


To make spotting this glob easy, apply 4-inches of aperture. 6 is better. And 8 is better still. It will take the 8-incher to achieve much resolution of the cluster’s stars.


This less than impressive Sagittarius glob often needed the 6-inch refractor for easy detection. The 10-inch was pretty mandatory if I wanted to see it at least look “grainy.”


This is an easier globular than M54 to resolve—if more difficult to find. I could achieve fairly impressive resolution with the 10-inch, and could often at least at least see it easily with the 4-inchers.

So…next time we wrap up this executive summary of the Messiers, and after that it’ll be time for me to get ready for my next big star party, the 2016 Deep South Star Gaze. Fingers crossed, but for once it looks like the weather gods might be on my side this fall!

Sunday, October 09, 2016


Issue #512: More Messier Madness!

M87 shows off its jet to my Stellacam...
What better time is there for chasing Ms? The nights are cooler now and their skies are clearer (you hope). Down here, I may only have to douse myself with one gallon of Deep Woods Off instead of two. And, oh! the Messier beauties you’ll find lurking now. The mid-late summer objects are still on display and lookin’ good. A glance to the east, though, will show the Autumn wonders are on the rise—look how high M15 has gotten—and if you’re up late you’ll begin to witness glories of Winter climbing as well.

Yes, fall’s a great time for a Messier hunt, for crossing them off your Life List. For this week’s edition, however, we’re taking the WABAC machine back to spring as we navigate through the countless faint fuzzies that comprise the great Coma-Virgo cloud of galaxies.


Yes, Coma – Virgo is wonderful, but what makes it wonderful? The sheer number of galaxies on display here and their pairings and groupings. When you stop to think about it, many, many are ellipticals without much detail to offer. Tons of ‘em are certainly easy enough to see with a medium size telescope in the backyard, however, including Messier 85, a magnitude 10.0, 7.6’ x 5.9 S0 elliptical galaxy.  And you get a bonus galaxy to up the interest level; M85 is in the field with a dimmer companion, magnitude 11.6. 3.6’ x 3.5’ NGC 4394.

To find M85? While goto or DSCs are the way I’d go in these latter days, M85 is not too hard to pin down. It lies about 1.5-degrees outside to the northeast of a line drawn between two prominent stars, Diadem, Alpha Comae, and Leo’s Denebola. A magnitude 5 range double star, 11 Comae, is just a smidge over a degree to the west of the galaxy.

In the backyard, you’ll want at least an 8-incher to make this object easy on the less good nights. M85 is a galaxy that can be bright in small apertures on good evenings, but dim to the point of toughness on poorer ones. Above all, despite the fact that this is a lenticular with an oval, elongated shape, expect to see nothing more than the good old “round galaxy with a brighter center.” In other words, much like an unresolved globular star cluster. In order to see elongation in M85, I normally require 12-inches of aperture and a halfway decent dark(er) site.

How about the companion, NGC 4394? While it is small, it’s not tiny and is approaching magnitude 12. The 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, will show it on a nice night, albeit sometimes with difficulty. It is about 8.0’ northeast of the main galaxy. Medium high magnification can be a help here. In the backyard, what you can expect to see if you can see NGC 4394 is a relatively faint, round glow. From dark sites with larger apertures, this barred spiral galaxy begins to reveal its arms.


The Face lookin' atcha...
M86, an elliptical galaxy in nearby Virgo, as I mentioned in the last installment, together with its companion galaxy, M84, never fails to elicit a chuckle from me. This grouping is “The Face.” M84 and M86 form the eyes, a little elliptical galaxy, NGC 4387, is the nose, and a near edge-on galaxy, NGC 4406, is the mouth. At magnitude 9.8 and with a size of 10.0’ x 7.4’, M86 is quite prominent in 8-inch and larger scopes even from a relatively compromised backyard.

As I said in the last M-edition concerning M84, “There are so many bright galaxies within the arms of Virgo that it’s hard to know which one you are on. Luckily, the field here is pretty distinctive. If you simply must find 84 the old fashioned way, it lies halfway along a line drawn between Epsilon Virginis, Vendemiatrix, and Denebola, Beta Leonis. Positoned there, look for two bright fuzzballs about 17.0’ apart.” Which one is M86? It is the northeastern-most of the two brightest objects in the field. It is also more elongated than M84, being a Hubble Type E3.

As above, the cartoonish Face is the attraction here, that and the fact that this is the western terminus of Markarian’s chain, the mind-blowing line of galaxies stretching off to the east. But M86 itself? Sorry, pards; it is just another bright elliptical. Very noticeable but very featureless.


And so on to Virgo’s monstrous old fat-daddy spider of a galaxy, M87, for more of the same. This is one of those “been there” objects:  there’s not much to see; all you can say is you’ve been there. Actually, there’s a little more to it than that. The knowledge that this is an awesome giant of a galaxy, a titantic elliptical with a mass of a trillion Sols, makes its sight thought provoking and even moving though there is no detail to be found.

The best way to get M87 in your eyepiece is to get on the distinctive M84/M86 pair first. Then, slew your scope a degree and a half southeast. Go slowly and examine the field carefully, but despite the galaxy crowded nature of this part of Virgo, M87 stands out well. In an 8-inch in the backyard it will be fairly hard to miss, and should be duck soup for 10s and 12s.

No, there’s not much to see of M87 other than a bright fuzzy ball. The field? Not too much here either for a small scope from the suburbs. There are two magnitude 12 range galaxies, NGCs 4476 and 4478, about 10.0’ to the northeast, but while they are small, they really need a 10-inch to bring them out of a bright sky background. In my C11 from the OK but not perfect skies of the old Georgia Sky View Star Party at Indian Springs State Park, M87 was…

Basically a diffuse round glow like a bright, unresolved globular cluster in a 3-inch telescope.  With TeleVue Nagler Type 2 12mm, 233x I occasionally see hints of a condensed core, but it's mostly a featureless ball.

So that’s it? How about THE JET? M87 is possessed of a supermassive black hole at its core, and this is the source of an incredible jet of matter spewing out of the center of the galaxy. This jet is so huge and luminous that it can even be seen with amateur telescopes. Alas, those amateur telescopes need to be at least in the 20-inch range and stationed under dark skies. Ironically, my humble Stellacam II deep sky video camera in my C8 had no problem showing the jet with a 10-second exposure under suburban conditions.


M88…M88…which one is that?  Oh, yeah, back over in Coma Berenices. It’s a bright enough Sb with an intermediate inclination to us that reminds me a lot of M63 (in photographs) with patchy spiral arms similar to those of the Sunflower Galaxy. At magnitude 10.1 and with a size of 6’54” x 3’42, it is not terribly challenging for a 4-inch when your backyard conditions are anything better than putrid.

The best way to land on M88 is to follow Markarian’s Chain, that great river of galaxies, from its beginning at M84 and M86 for about two degrees to the northeast to its conclusion. Luckily for us, M88 lies right at its northeastern end and is the most prominent galaxy in the immediate area. Take your time and move slowly; this is indeed the Realm of the Galaxies, and in a 10-inch or 12-inch, even from the suburbs, there are island universes all over the place. This is a rather star poor area, but there is a 7th magnitude sun half a degree to the northwest of the galaxy, which provides a good guide to M88.

When you are convinced you have M88, give it a nice long look, sure, but don’t expect too terribly much. Even larger apertures from good site only reveal that it is strongly elongated with a brighter center. The dusty spiral arms are really for the eye of a camera.


So you want to see M89, do you? Well, I salute you for charging through the fuzzy laden waters of Virgo. And this is not a bad one. It’s another round elliptical like many of the galaxies here, but is bright enough at magnitude 9.75 and small enough at 5’06” x 4’42” that it is a reasonably easy catch for your backyard 4-inch. If you can find it. Or, more properly, figure out exactly which fuzzball in the eyepiece is it. 

Not sure exactly what to tell you if you have to star-hop. This object is just outside the heart of the Virgo cloud, and there are really no guide stars to help you on your way. If you’re star-hopping with a finder, the best way to go is to move your scope 1-degree northwest of M58, which is substantially easier to locate.

The best way to position the telescope on M89, though? The way I used to navigate Virgo-Coma in the days before computers: I’d galaxy hop. Using a 12mm Nagler eyepiece in my 12-inch telescope, I found it remarkably easy to move around the area by hopping from galaxy to galaxy with the widefield eyepiece and a (very) detailed computer chart. Back then, I used Megastar. Today, you’ll probably want to use SkyTools 3’s Interactive Atlas.

When you’ve arrived, you’ll find that while it is almost featureless, M89 is not entirely so. According to its specs, M89 is slightly oval, but in the eyepiece it looks entirely round. Otherwise it has a fainter halo and a brighter center. However, on an OK night with at least an 8-inch, you may see that it has an intensely bright, star-like nucleus, and that brings M89 into the realm of “very attractive.”


In images, M90, a magnitude 10.10, 9.5’ x 4.5’ spiral, is very pretty indeed, with a bright, oval central region and prominent dust lanes outlining tightly wrapped spiral arms. Unfortunately, once you get outside the central part of the galaxy, its surface brightness is low, and the arms are mostly for imagers, though they can be glimpsed with 10 – 12-inch telescopes on outstanding nights at outstanding sites.

Locating M90 is quite easy if you are already on M89. Just eyepiece hop, following a chain of 10th magnitude stars north for 40’ and you are there. An 8th magnitude star is 14.0’ southeast of the galaxy if you need more help, or just want to be sure you are on the correct galaxy.

When you are on M90, most of the time all you will find is the object’s strongly elongated middle part. And it may not be quite as bright looking as you expect given the galaxy’s fairly generous size. This is a galaxy to keep coming back to on superior evenings, however, since under the best conditions it can begin to give up respectable detail to medium sized instruments.


Oh, how wonderful M91 looks--in pictures. Even in fairly short exposures, this magnitude 10.9, 5.4’ x 4.6’ shows off a classically beautiful barred spiral shape with far-flung, open arms. In the eyepiece the story, as it often is, is somewhat different, but this is still a Messier, after all, and worthy of your attention for sure.

If you wanna get to M91, my advice (for the computer deprived) is to continue your eyepiece hopping, moving 1-degree 22’ west – northwest from M90. Take it easy, since this one definitely looks a little on the dim side. There is a magnitude 8.8 star just 17.0’ west of the galaxy.

Stellacam's M91...
I hate to be a bring-down, but even with fairly large telescopes under quite dark skies, about all you will see of M91 is an elongated something, and you may need averted vision to see even that much. On particulalry nice evenings, you may pick up a stellar nucleus. On the other hand, the camera loves M91, and even a 10-second exposure with my Stellacam 2 showed its basic shape:

As befits its status as M91, this is a marvelous galaxy, big, with a bright round core, a long bar, and easy to see, graceful arms that give it a classic barred spiral "S" shape.

And that, as they say, is that. Fun is fun, but done is done.

But we are not quite done with the Messiers here, though we are in the homestretch now, no denying it. How about your own observing program? If you haven’t caught ‘em all, resolve to do that over the coming year. I am hearing from quite a few of you who intend to do that very thing, and some who even say (my blushes) they are going to print out this series of blog entries and use them as their guide. That’s flattering, certainly, and though I don’t doubt there may be better guides to the M-objects than these articles, one thing is sure: the price is right!

Sunday, October 02, 2016


Issue #511: Sans Wires

Amateur telescopes and mounts have come a long way over the 20-something years since we began to go “all goto, all computer, all the time.” One thing that took a long time to happen, though? Wireless telescope control. For years that was a sore spot with me. Everything from TVs to garage doors to freaking ceiling fans had a wireless remote—everything but telescopes. There, the HC was still tied to the mount with a (usually too short) cable. I spent my observing life trying to find a place to put the stinking HC and trying not to wrap the scope up like an octopus with PTSD.

Shortly after the Meade LX200 GPS SCTs debuted just after the turn of the century, Meade began selling an (optional) wireless Autostar II controller. That would do it, I thought. Surely every Meade owner would want one, and the other manufacturers would soon follow suit. Hooray!

Sadly, that didn’t happen. The wireless Autostar was somewhat expensive, and, worse, was cranky. It worked sometimes, but not all the time, and often not very well. Because of that failure, neither Celestron nor anybody else offered a similar product. The wireless hand control had to wait until the coming of the smartphone.

Smartphones are small computers, so it was not surprising there were soon planetarium apps for them. It just seems a perfect match:  you carry your smartphone around with you all the time, including under the night sky. Why shouldn’t you have a depiction of the heavens on it? Almost every Apple iPhone commercial over the years has included something about astronomy apps. It didn’t take long for those apps to become quite sophisticated, either. Today, the leading smartphone astronomy softs, like SkySafari, are equal to the best PC programs when it comes to features and numbers of objects.

But being able to run some pretty advanced astronomy software is only part of the smartphone equation. In addition to calling over cellphone towers, all smartphones have built in Wi-Fi and most have Bluetooth. Wireless RF communications, that is. And planetarium program plus Wi-Fi equals potential wireless telescope nirvana if you can make your telescope mount communicate over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for telescope mounts is not an overly difficult a thing for a company to implement assuming there are enough people to make it pay. It turns out there are. Maybe just barely, but enough anyway. Soon there were solutions for telescope mounts that allowed your smartphone to send your goto telescope on its gotos either with Wi-Fi (usually) or Bluetooth (occasionally). These solutions take three forms: wireless-ready scopes and mounts, generic solutions that will work with almost any brand of telescope, and brand-specific setups.

Before we talk over these solutions, however, we’d better make sure you understand that “wireless” doesn’t mean “no wires.” If you live in a place as prone to dew as Possum Swamp, you’ll likely need a dew heater and its associated heater element and power cables to keep the wet stuff off your objective or corrector plate. If you take pictures, your camera will likely be connected to a computer via a USB cable. Still, eliminating the hand control cable helps a lot, since you’ll often be using the HC to move/align the scope, and doing that from different positions, meaning the cable gets really annoying. Heater wires and camera cables are not as big a hassle unless they threaten to wrap up and strangle your mount.

Turn-key Solutions

Celestron Evolution Series

For most people, this is the ideal, a telescope that comes configured for use with your tablet or smart phone right out of the box. This is still the exception in the low-mid priced range, but I expect that to change and quickly. The cost of adding Wi-Fi connectivity to a goto scope is minute, and what’s amazed me is that Celestron, with their Evolution series, is the only manufacturer in this tier who has done so thus far. What’s the Evolution like? I’ll save that for my upcoming Sky & Telescope Test Report on the Evo, but I don’t mind telling you that the Wi-Fi/smartphone features work well. 

High-end Mounts

On the high end of the telescope mount market, Wi-Fi connectivity is becoming the norm. I understand that it is standard for 10 Micron mounts now, and nearly standard for the Bisque Paramount series (at least I rarely hear of someone buying a Bisque mount who doesn’t spring for the add-on Wi-Fi board).

Prediction? Within five years all commercial telescopes/mounts will include Wi-Fi connectivity (or Bluetooth in some instances). I will further speculate that most won’t even come with a hardware hand control. That will become an extra-cost option.

Generic Add On Solutions


Just because your telescope didn’t come from the factory equipped to talk to your iPhone or Galaxy doesn’t mean you have to forego the joys of smartphone astronomy. The first Wi-Fi setup (that I am aware of) was actually an add-on for stock goto telescopes. This widget, the SkyFi from the folks who do the SkySafari astronomy app (and Macintosh program), Simulation Curriculum, wasn’t just there first with a top-flight commercial product, their SkyFi is still the most versatile setup.

SkyFi consists of a smallish 12 VDC powered electronics box and a serial cable to connect to your telescope’s RS-232 port (or, in the latest version, to a USB port as well if the scope/mount has one). That is its strength:  it will work with just about any goto scope. The telescope doesn’t know whether it is being sent on gotos from a PC or from your phone; all it sees is a “normal” incoming serial signal telling it what to do.

Any downsides? The SkyFi works with your hand control and does not replace it. You’ll normally do your alignments using the good old HC. Also, according to the manufacturer, SkyFi does not work with Android devices (that are not rooted). If you’ve got Android, you’ll want SkyBT, which is similar, but uses a Bluetooth rather than Wi-Fi transceiver. UPDATE...THE NEW SKYFI 3, LIKE THE MEADE BADGED VERSION NOW WORKS WITH ANDROID.

There are several similar products on the market, but if you dig down a little, you’ll find most of these are based on SkyFi, just as many different astronomy apps are actually SkySafari under a different name. There’s a good reason for that: the hardware and software products of Simulation Curriculum are tops and companies like Celestron and Meade don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel.

Brand Specific Solutions

SkyPortal Link

If you own a Celestron telescope/mount, the ultimate after-market solution is a little widget called SkyPortal Link (formerly SkyQ Link and SkyQ Link II). This is a Wi-Fi dongle that plugs into the Aux or HC port of your compatible Celestron mount—and most are compatible with the exception of the earliest NexStars like the still-popular GPS scopes. What this basically does is turn your Celestron GEM or fork mount into an Evolution scope—with a few caveats.

This inexpensive (around 90 bucks) device has actually been on the market since 2013. I bought one with my VX mount with the intention of using it to wirelessly link the scope to NexRemote running on a laptop. Unfortunately, the device wouldn’t work with the VX and NexRemote despite Celestron’s initial claims to the contrary. There was also an iPhone app for the Link, but it didn’t work with any of the Celestron GEMs and was very limited even with alt-azimuth fork mounts. I put the SkyQ Link in a drawer and forgot about it. I intended to return it for a refund but never got around to that.

Now, I’m glad I held onto the Link. Celestron wasn’t giving up on the device, and while they conceded it wouldn’t ever function as a NexRemote - VX link, they intended to make it work with their telescopes and smart devices. The eventual solution? Give up the poor SkyQ app and get Simulation Curriculum to do a version of SkySafari for them. This free application, SkyPortal, available in iOS and Android flavors, not only works with the SkyQ Link, it allows users to dispense with the NexStar hand control entirely.

I was still skeptical. I almost dug out the link gadget a time or two, but remembering the frustrations I’d experienced with it in 2013, I hesitated. Until I had some hours with the Celestron Evolution under my belt. It was so much fun using my iPhone as an HC that I decided I just had to try that darned Wi-Fi dongle with my VX and CGEM mounts.

So it was one clear evening that I set up the CGEM with my 6-inch refractor, Bit Ethel, plugged in the SkyQ Link, and had a go. Once I turned the mount on and selected the link’s Wi-Fi “network” which appeared in my phone’s settings, the iPhone connected to the scope immediately. I was pleased to see that the SkyPortal app, which I used initially, was just like good old SkySafari (albeit with a limited number of deep sky objects—waddayawant for free?). I went to the settings in SkyPortal, chose “German mount” and “Celestron Wi-Fi,” pushed the “connect and align” button onscreen, and was soon doing a 4-star alignment.

After centering two stars on each side of the Meridian, SkyPortal claimed I was ready to rock. Well, we’d see about that. My skepticism soon went away. Any object I requested was nearly centered in an 8-mm wide-field eyepiece in the 6-inch f/8 refractor. There were no hiccups and no disconnections. The app would disconnect from the scope if I let the iPhone go to sleep, but as soon as I woke it up it would immediately reconnect without me having to do anything.

Anything I didn’t like? There are a few rough edges. While the circuitry in the SkyQ Link (and its identical but differently named successors, the SkyQ Link II and SkyPortal Link), is the same, I’m told, as in the Evolution series, the signal seemed a little weaker. When I was in the backyard with houses and Wi-Fi signals all around, my Android tablet would struggle to connect. My iPhone 6s would always work, however.

Initially, I thought the alignment process was going to be a problem. First couple of times out I had a hard, hard time centering stars with the onscreen buttons on my iPhone, often mashing the wrong thing and sending the scope to never-never land. I was almost ready to plug in the hardware HC (you can use the direction buttons on the NexStar HC in conjunction with the app, but only the direction buttons), when, the third night out, the onscreen buttons began to feel normal and alignment began to be easy. Even in the initial attempts when I got the telescope pointing to the ground, moving it to the proper star and centering that would always result in an excellent alignment.

Any other problems? It’s not really a problem, but the alignment part of the SkyPortal app is not quite complete; it lacks the AllStar polar alignment routine. I hope Celestron will correct that (Simulation Curriculum merely adds the Celestron-developed telescope alignment code to the app, and depends on them for updates). SkyPortal is also limited by its number of objects, just over 200. The good news is that you can fix that with SkySafari Plus or Pro, which have many, many DSOs, are inexpensive, and include the Celestron scope alignment routine just like SkyPortal. Overall, the SkyPortal Link is a big win, and is the best option for a Celestron owner at this time in my opinion.

Meade’s Stella

Meade has just come out with a Wi-Fi set up for their Autostar scopes, and while I haven’t had a chance to test it yet, it’s safe to say they’ve taken a rather different path than Celestron. This appears to be based on SkyFi, with (I assume) the only difference other than a different name and different shaped electronics box being that it comes standard with a Meade style RS-232 cable. I was rather surprised to see that it doesn’t, like Celestron’s SkyPortal Link, come with a free app. You have to purchase StellaAccess separately. The upside being that StellaAccess appears to be SkySafari Plus, and has many more objects than Celestron’s freebie—it is also inexpensive.

Stella is advertised, unlike SkySafari, to work with Android, so that’s a plus, and, unlike the Celestron Wi-Fi adapter, Stella can be used with other brands with the addition of the proper serial cable, so that’s also a definite advantage. On the other hand, I assume that there are no Meade-centric features here. It sends your scope on gotos and you have to have the Autostar connected to the mount for it to work.

What’s it like using a smartphone (or tablet) enabled telescope? It fulfills not just my desire to be freed from that dratted hand control wire, but also satisfies another dream: to have a hand control that shows a color depiction of the sky. All through the 1990s and into the 2000s, I hoped somebody, someday would make a telescope HC that was like a Nintendo Game Boy. It would have a color screen and would have a built in planetarium program in ROM.

That finally did happen about ten years ago, but when Vixen released its (wired) Starbook for the Sphinx mount it was already being obsoleted by the smartphone explosion. An iPhone or Galaxy is always going to be much superior to any hand controller made by any telescope company. Yeah, I thought I’d miss the lack of tactile feedback from real buttons, but as above, the more I use my iPhone 6 with the scope, the less I miss that.

Above all, using my phone is freeing. Not just from that always short coiled hand control cable, but from my laptop and its wires and widgets. I still use the lappie when I take astrophotos, but otherwise, there is no reason to. SkySafari Pro is the equal of any PC program I’ve used. In fact, the experience has been so liberating, that it’s now hard to make myself drag out the Toshiba even for DSLR imaging. Yes, it’s easier to focus on the big laptop screen than on the DSLR display, but I’m finding I’m willing to put up with that to eliminate more wires and batteries and STUFF. Long live wireless astronomy!

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Issue #510, Conquering the Herschels

By “conquering,” I don’t necessarily mean you have to do what I did and observe all 2500 Herschel deep sky objects. While it is a worthy quest to Catch ‘em All, that’s not for everyone. On the other hand, what are you gonna do when you finally run out of Messiers? Sure, that list, as I’ve said in my ongoing series of articles about it, can deliver a lifetime of enjoyment, but once you’ve been through it a couple of times, you will likely want other things to see, something new, some different list to work. For more than a few of us that list is a subset of the Herschels, the Herschel 400, a best of the best.

What made me decide to not just finish the Herschel 400, but to go after over two thousand more faint fuzzies? The Herschel Project was born one autumn night in the piney woods of Louisiana when your Uncle Rod was out on the observing field of the 2009 Deep South Regional Star Gaze without a clue as to what to look at next.

I’d begun the evening with a list, Sue French’s “Deep Sky Wonders” column in the then current issue of Sky & Telescope. Alas, even though I gave each object its deserved share of eyepiece time, Sue’s dozen or so DSOs didn’t take all night to hunt up, not hardly—I was using the deadly-accurate Sky Commander digital setting circles computer on my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. There were still plenty of hours of darkness to be filled when I finished. After some objects from a magazine article I had at hand, I turned to the showpieces, from the North America Nebula and the Swan Nebula sinking in the west, to M31 and M33 rising in the east. That was OK, but not really what I had in mind. I was becoming at least dimly aware what I wanted was new stuff.
As two a.m. came and went, I wasn’t sleepy but I was bored. I didn’t think it would ever happen, but it seemed I had finally run out of sky objects to view. That wasn’t really possible, of course, since there are thousands and thousands of deep sky objects—galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters—in range of a 12-inch telescope. I just didn’t know which of that multitude I should chase. Sure, I gloried in the Great Orion Nebula when it rose above the pine trees, but I wanted to see that new stuff. To push back my amateur astronomy frontiers. I needed some kind of project to work on.
The next morning, though not early the next morning, after a big country breakfast (those were the days when I wasn’t afraid to fill up on biscuits, gravy, and sausage) that was thankfully not served till nine, I spent quite some time thinking about what would be on Saturday evening’s observing agenda. For a while, I’d had the idea that I should do something about finishing the Herschel 400, which I’d begun years before, had returned to seriously the previous October at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, but which I still hadn’t completed.
Where the Project officially began, DSRSG 2009...
By Sunset Saturday, the die was cast: I would stop lollygagging and finish the supposedly scary Herschel 400. To do that, I’d of course need to know which 400s I still needed to see. Luckily, I still had the list from that October CAV expedition on my laptop in SkyTools 3 (the observing planning program) format, and the program showed me at a glance exactly how many I’d done, how many I still needed to do, and which of those would be available Saturday night at Deep South. Surprisingly, it turned out that I only had a generous handful of H400s left, all would be in the sky that night, and that there was a decent chance I could finish the Herschel 400 on this very evening.
The Herschel Objects
What is a Herschel object, anyhow? As you may know, Sir William Herschel, the justly famous 18th Century amateur astronomer who discovered Uranus, was also a deep sky powerhouse. Using large home-built reflecting telescopes not much different from today’s Dobsonians, he and his sister Caroline discovered the lion’s share of the objects that eventually went on to make up the NGC catalog.
Despite his objects having been subsumed into the NGC in the 19th Century, Herschel’s original observations remained available, and one of amateur astronomy’s deep sky pioneers of the last century, Father Lucian Kemble, became fascinated with them. Back in in the 1960s, Kemble compiled a corrected and re-ordered the list of all 2500 galaxies, nebulae, and clusters using Herschel’s notes. Not many amateurs undertook to observe the aitches, however. Not only was it a very long list that included some dim and difficult objects, especially for the 1960s, quite a few of the 2500 were not there at all.
I'd almost finished the 400 the previous October at CAV...
Nobody paid much attention to Kemble’s labors till the 1970s when members of Saint Augustine, Florida’s Ancient City Astronomy Club began casting about for something to “do” after the Messier and were pointed at Kemble’s Herschels by Sky & Telescope's James Mullaney. When they checked out the Herschels, it became obvious why observing these objects wasn’t more popular: nobody would want to run through the list as it was. Not only were many of the entries beyond the reach of the telescopes of the day, it was saddled with typos, duplications, non-existent objects, and objects with incorrect coordinates.
Some of these mistakes were Herschel’s and some were Kemble’s, but all needed to be corrected. In addition to many fixes, the ACAC left out the dimmer objects, almost 80% of the total. When they were finished, they were left with a list of 400 galaxies, clusters, and nebulae that would be visible in 6-inch telescopes (albeit some with difficulty), still the most popular aperture in the 1970s.
Pretty soon, amateur astronomers across the country were working what came to be called “The Herschel 400.”  The leaders of the national amateur organization, The Astronomical League, noticed and built an observing club around the H400, offering certificates and pins for observers who completed what was then thought of as a Herculean task.
That night at DSRSG, I did indeed finish the Herschel 400, and, almost unbelievably, found myself moving on to the Herschel II, the next “best” 400 objects fairly early that evening. After I’d finished the II some months later? I had so much fun with that that I was soon daring what I came to call “The Big Enchilada,” the entire 2500 object list, and was writing an extensive series of blog entries about it. Those articles, which were, I think, some of the best that have ever appeared here, were at least vaguely patterned after Julie Powell’s wonderful blog wherein she recounted her experiences with her big project, cooking all the recipes in Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking.

How did I make so much progress so quickly, moving from the 400 to the 2500 in just months? Two ways. First, I cheated. I am interested in seeing, not hunting, and given our weather, I wasn’t sure I’d live long enough to finish the whole 2500 if I located objects with a finder scope and a star chart. A friend of mine, a talented observer, literally took years to finish the first 400 working manually. No, I’d use goto and digital setting circles for every segment of the project: the 400, the II, and, most of all, The Big Enchilada.

Celeste:  you don't need a huge scope for the 400...
My other problem didn’t have to do with finding, but seeing. The Herschel 400 is not at all bad in that regard. Its dimmest objects are small galaxies, and while some have faint magnitudes, they are small and not a huge challenge for an 8-inch from a decent dark site. The II is harder, however, and The Big Enchilada contains some admittedly tough DSOs (though, they, like the faintest of the H400, tend to be small and therefore not as challenging as their magnitude values suggest). Still I’d sometimes need a leg up when I was operating from my not-perfect club dark site. That leg up would be video.

I began with my old black and white Stellacam II deep sky video cam, and as the Herschel Project, as I was calling my quest (cribbed from the Julie-Julia Project, natch), proceeded, I moved on to the color Mallincam Xtreme. While these video cameras didn’t deliver DSLR or CCD quality images as far as prettiness went, they brought home the bacon when it came to the dimmest objects and to details within many of those objects. And they did that with short exposures that didn’t require guiding or precise polar alignment. In fact, I found my alt-azimuth mode NexStar 11 GPS, Big Bertha, was perfect for the Herschel Project.

Not that I didn’t do plenty of visual observing, too. When the skies were good enough for that, or I had a group of less challenging objects to tackle, I went visual. The video observing was fun, but it’s the visual looking that I tend to remember now, four years after the Project was done.

If you want to know what it was like observing all the Herschels, I refer you to my blog articles (just do a Google search on “Uncle Rod Herschel Project”). This Sunday, however, we’re not here to talk about all that, as fun as it might have been (there were some wild nights under the stars); the subject is the beginning of my Quest, the original Herschel 400.

If you’re thinking about taking this challenge yourself, the first thing you probably want to know is exactly what this observing list is like. How hard is it, really? What’s is in it? Well, to begin, it’s 400 objects, which is quite a jump for novices for whom the 110 objects (or so) of the Messier probably seemed like a lot. And, yes, the H400 also has a reputation for being much tougher than the Messier. If you look at object magnitudes in the 400 you might indeed get scared. There is, for example, NGC 6540, whose magnitude is often given as a daunting 14.6.

But at least 12-inches of aperture is fun...
Shouldn’t the prospect of a near magnitude 15 star cluster be enough to discourage somebody who doesn’t have access to dark skies and an 18-inch scope? Nope. This little globular star cluster in Sagittarius—which is often misidentified as an open cluster—is slightly dim, but not that dim.

Yes, NGC 6540 is the faintest object in the 400 that has an even semi-reliable magnitude value assigned to it, and it is listed as 14.6 by many sources including SkyTools 3. This cluster is undoubtedly far brighter than that, however, and is probably not much dimmer than 10, since it is visible in a 6-inch Newtonian under good skies. Heck, plenty of people have seen this one with 4-inchers under decent conditions. One thing I have learned over the years is to be wary of is magnitude values. Often what’s listed for an object is actually its photographic magnitude and that can be off a lot when it comes to the object’s visual brightness, with the object looking far brighter than its supposed magnitude.

Certainly there are DSOs in the list with roughly correct magnitudes that are on the faint side, but, as mentioned above, they are usually small: little galaxies and little planetary nebulae. Even a stellar sized object isn’t always a picnic at magnitude 13 if you’re using a 6-inch, but it is doable, and, once again, most of the H objects listed at magnitude 13 are probably closer to 10 – 11. The Herschel 400 is indeed suitable for 6-inch scopes, with the usual problem with the more obscure H400 objects not being seeing them but finding them using a finder scope and star chart.

Don’t let the above give you the wrong idea about the Herschel 400, either. “Dim and difficult” just isn’t a good description of its nature. Unlike The Big Enchilada, it will not make your eyeballs bleed. In fact, the 400 is chock-full of showpieces, including over a dozen Messiers. Most of the spectacular treats from the NGC are in there, too: The E.T. Cluster, the North America Nebula, the Eskimo Nebula, the Blinking Planetary, the Blue Snowball, the Saturn Nebula, the Whale Galaxy, the Splinter Galaxy, and many more famous ones are awaiting you in the 400. If you check your observing records, you’ll probably discover you are already at least 30 or 40 objects into the Herschel without even trying.

But exactly how do you see all this goodness? What do you see all this goodness with? Yes, the Herschel 400 was composed with the idea that it would be doable with a 6-inch telescope, and it most assuredly can be finished with one. Heck, the 400 has been done with 4-inchers. However, some of the objects are semi-challenging for these smaller telescopes, and you will want a good site to make them easy/easier. NGC 2024, Orion’s Flame Nebula, is an example. You can see it with a six-inch equipped with a UHC filter, but you’ll likely need a superior suburban yard, or, better, a site in the suburban – country transition zone to see much of it with a 6-inch beyond a few wisps around Alnitak.

Breakfast time at DSRSG back in The Day...
There’s also the question of how you want to see Herschels. Do you just want to detect all the objects so you can cross ‘em off the list, or, like me, do you want to see details in these objects? If the latter, I suggest more aperture. How much more aperture? Using my old C8, Celeste, at the 2010 Deep South Regional StarGaze’s site in the dark green (light pollution) zone, I found I could tick off Herschel 2500 objects without much trouble. I was surprised I could do that with a telescope that us spoiled amateurs of today consider “small,” but I could.

While an 8-inch can be a great telescope for the 400, if you intend to do a lot of the work from a not-perfect backyard or a so-so club site, I suggest you kick things up another notch to 10 -inches. God knows, 10-inch Dobsonians are inexpensive these days, even when equipped with goto or digital setting circles—Orion’s Intelliscope 10-inch is a measly $850. The value of a 10-inch is not just that it allows you to see the dimmer objects with greater ease, but that the brighter ones become showpieces, and that sure makes for a more enjoyable experience with the H400.

Almost as important as your telescope is your software. By that, I don’t mean you must have a laptop connected to your telescope to send it on gotos. That can speed things up, and is what I usually did during the Herschel Project, but what I am actually talking about is software to keep you organized. When you are dealing with 400 targets, that is vital. You need to be able to easily determine which you have seen/need to see, and when you can see the DSOs still on your want list. The way you do that is with an observing planning program.

For the balance of the Herschel Project, I used SkyTools 3, mentioned earlier, and you can’t go wrong with that. During the latter phase of the Project, however, I mostly used Deep Sky Planner, which I found had some important strengths for me. If I were just doing the H400, I would no doubt have found Deepsky quite sufficient as well. Unfortunately, that program is limited in the number of objects you can put in a list. I couldn’t cram 2500 into it and so couldn’t use it on The Big Enchilada. One other planner I used was Eye and Telescope, and it was excellent. Astroplanner is a favorite with the Macintosh troops and is a natural if you do your astronomy computing the Apple way.

SkyTools 3 has a built in star atlas, so I didn’t need other software to fulfill that function when I was using it. Many other planners, like Eye and Telescope, also have charting engines, but they tend to be fairly minimalist in nature and I generally used those planners along side planetarium programs (Deep Sky Planner doesn’t do charts at all, using built-in links to many 3rd party planetariums for its charting instead) When I needed star maps and was not using SkyTools, what I used most was either TheSky or Cartes du Ciel. I love Cartes du Ciel, and it is free, so if you don’t have a planetarium you think is up to the task of doing the H400, that’s what I suggest you glom onto.

A dark star party is the perfect place to chase aitches!
Other resources to help you, like books? There is the booklet offered by the Astronomical League, Observe the Herschel Objects, but what I recommend book-wise are Stephen O’Meara’s Herschel 400 Observing Guide, and Mark Bratton’s The Complete Guide to the Herschel Objects.

The O’Meara book is well written, and I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, it has once big strike against it. Mr. O’Meara chose to do all his observing with a 4-inch refractor. While getting through the list with such a small scope, even given his superior Hawaiian skies, is an impressive feat, it makes the book a little less valuable for those of us using larger aperture.

When I was observing the 400 that October in Chiefland, I was using the O’Meara book to help me, but soon found his descriptions didn’t tally well with what I was in the eyepiece of my 12-inch Dob. Even though my skies were not nearly as good as what he must have had when doing the 400, I was seeing so many more details in many aitches that I would occasionally wonder if I were on the correct object. Still, a good book, and if you’ve got an 8-inch in the backyard, his descriptions may match yours.

The Bratton book has, several big advantages. Firstly, Mark used a variety of telescopes from an 8-inch to a 15-inch (and occasionally larger). Also, the book includes plenty of sketches, something I think is vital for a visual observing book. Photos, like the many in the O’Meara book, can be a help, but nothing is more informative about what you can/should see of an object than a sketch done by a fellow observer. Finally, the book covers all the Herschels, so if you intend to go on to the HII or the Big Enchilada, it will still be there to help you on your way.

“But Uncle Rod, we thought you were going to do a Herschel book?” That was the plan, Stan. I intended to begin it in 2012 right after the Project was done. Alas, beyond some very preliminary work, not much has been accomplished. If Mark hadn’t written his guide, there’d have been a little more impetus and I probably would have gritted my teeth and done the Herschel Project book, but he did and he wrote a fine one. My book could still happen, I suppose, but if it does it will undoubtedly be a lot more like Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen than it will be like a serious observing handbook.

And there you have it. All that remains is for you to get into the backyard or out to the club dark site and get started. Oh! how I envy you! You get to tour the heavens with this magical observing list and see tons of crazy good objects for the first time. Not that my Herschel observing is completely done. I’ve been wanting something new to do—I seem to be in the observing project doldrums again. What if I went through the H400 again? This time with a small(er) telescope?

I am not (entirely) a masochist, so I wouldn’t go as low as a 4-inch given my skies and my weather, but how about a 6-inch? I might cheat a little and use a 6-inch refractor instead of the 6-inch reflector the H400 was intended for, but that’s still a small scope as such things are judged in these latter days. What will I see of the Herschel 400 with a 6-inch? How will one do on the Herschel II? Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Issue #509, The Messier XII: Steady as She Goes

You know what I’d like to do? Actually look at some Messier objects instead of just talk about them. I was hoping I’d get in some time with my 10-inch Dobbie, Zelda, and my 5-inch refractor, Hermione, now that I am off the road for a while, but guess what? As if a big Moon weren’t enough, the weather gods have decreed almost constant clouds for moi. Well, at least I have my memories of this set objects, which includes outstanding ones even by Messier standards. OK, into the backyard we go...


M78 is not one of the more difficult Messiers, but neither is it trivial. Reflection nebulae never are. These clouds of gas are not excited to glow; they don’t emit light on their own. They are mostly composed of dust with a consistency approaching that of cigarette smoke, and shine only by the reflected light of the stars within them or nearby. That’s why, when you think reflection nebulae, you thing hot young O-B stars. It takes a lot of power to light up dark clouds, even dimly, and hot stars like those in the Pleiades are just the ticket. Compared to emission nebulae, reflection nebulae are subdued, with the Merope nebula that enwraps the Pleiads being aptly compared to “baby’s breath on a mirror.”

M78 certainly ain’t as hard as the Merope nebula, but it takes some considerable telescopic hardware and dark skies if you want to see it as more than just an oval glow. While it possesses an integrated magnitude of 8.0 and has a fairly small size, the nebula can still be challenging from light pollution. I used to struggle to pull it out of a bright background sky with my 4.25-inch Newtonian from one of the homes I lived in in the 1980s, which was nearly as far downtown as good old Chaos Manor South.

One good thing is that M78 is easy to find by star hopping, and was, in fact, one of the first objects I located that way back in the 1960s. M78 forms a near 90-degree triangle with the three bright stars of Orion’s belt, and is located 2-degrees 38’ northeast of Alnitak (Zeta Orionis). When you think you are in the correct position, scan around with a medium power eyepiece. What you are looking for is a magnitude 10 range double star with a separation of about 2.0’. Examine this pair carefully, and if your skies are not too icky, you will see it is surrounded by an oval glow.

And that is about all you will see even with larger scopes from light polluted skies. Get to the dark spaces, however, and even a 4-inch will begin to show some details, brighter and darker regions, and the oval will assume a somewhat irregular shape. You should be able to detect at least 3 – 4’ of nebulosity. Up the aperture and/or improve the skies further and you will begin to see that the nebula is fan shaped. 10-inch and larger scopes will also reveal this little knot is just one part of a large complex of nebulosity with other dimmer but similar patches coming into view.

I’ve often read that light pollution reduction filters do not work on M78, since it is a reflection nebulosity. The light of the stars, after all, is in the same band of wavelengths as the artificial lights that LPR filters are designed to attenuate. Actually, however, a UHC filter can improve the view of M78 somewhat, since it has a fairly large emission nebula component. One of the big rules of amateur astronomy? Saying something is “impossible” is a sure way to be proven wrong.


The sky of winter isn’t entirely bereft of globular star clusters, but it might as well be. Once M15 and M30 and M2 sink below the horizon, you are pretty much left with M79, and the ground truth is that it just isn’t much of a glob. At magnitude 8.56 and with a size of 9’36”, it is on the puny side, and its declination, -24-degrees 30’, means it is a trifle low for more than a few Northern Hemisphere observers. Still, it is the only Messier glob game in town for a while, so let’s get after it.

Finding is not terribly involved if your southern horizon is mostly unobstructed. M79’s home constellation, the little hare, Lepus, crouching at the feet of Orion is easy enough to make out in the suburban backyard. Naturally, however, as is usual with constellations, it doesn’t look a thing like what it is supposed to represent. That’s wight, wabbit, this bunny looks more like a capital letter “I” (as in “India”). The glob itself forms a near equilateral triangle with Epsilon Leporus and Beta Leporis, and should show up in 4-inchers without a fuss, albeit just as a small, subdued round glow.

Its Shapley – Sawyer class of V means M79 is almost right in the middle as far as concentration goes. Not too compressed, not too loose. That does not mean it is easy to resolve in the backyard, however. Often an 8-inch SCT won’t quite do the job, even at high power. Oh, you might get a few stars in the periphery winking in and out, but convincing resolution at home requires my 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda. Naturally, it’s easier at a dark site, and in 12-inch and larger scopes under good skies, M79 almost begins to look worthy of its Messier designation.

M79 is better than some of the puny globulars of Sagittarius, but not as good as Coma’s M53. Still, its solo status in the winter means it will give you some chucks during otherwise glob-free times.


If M79 is not exactly highly concentrated, M80 is very highly concentrated, being rated a II on the 12 step Shapley-Sawyer scale. That brings good and bad. Combined with its bright magnitude, 7.87, and its relatively small size, 10.0’, this glob stands out like a sore thumb even with Scorpius is low in the sky. But its compact nature also makes it something of a bear to resolve.

The cluster is easily located by searching the area 4-degrees, 28’ northwest of bright Alpha Scorpii, Antares. Be careful, however. Since it is small and compact, M80 can most assuredly masquerade as a bloated star at low magnifications in smaller scopes. Use medium power, 100x and up, and examine each field carefully, however, and you will be rewarded.

What exactly will your reward be? That depends on your magnification and the aperture of your telescope. In a 4-inch or smaller instrument, the cluster will be easy, but even at higher magnifications it will not be resolved. What it will look a lot like is a bright elliptical galaxy, with a brighter middle and a diffuse halo.

Alas, an 8-inch or even a 10-inch in a suburban yard won’t deliver much more than the above, with an 8-inch sometimes failing to resolve any stars at all unless the conditions are good—the cluster is near culmination on a dry, transparent night. A 10-inch is better. On an average suburban night, one will show the cluster as a grainy appearing ball, and upping the power will bring home a sparkler or two. Even at a dark site, however, I find a 12-inch is required for a truly outstanding view of this tough-nut globular.


The galaxy pair of M81 and M82 isn’t just good, it’s one of the outstanding destinations in the list, right up there with the likes of M42 and M13. How can it be otherwise? Here, you’ve got two bright galaxies, magnitude 6.94 M81 and magnitude 8.41 M82 separated by just a bit more than half a degree. Not only can you fit them both in the same field using a wide-field eyepiece, even with fairly large aperture scopes, they are both potentially detailed and worthy of much inspection.

M81 and M82
M81 first. How to find? I’ll tell you how I was taught to locate Bode’s Nebula (M81) many a Moon ago when I was the greenest of greenhorn novices. Start at the Big Dipper’s bowl star, Phad. Draw a 10-degree long diagonal line from Phad to Dubhe and on for another 10-degrees. That will put you right in the area of M81/82. If you land on M82 first—it stands out better than M81—just move 36’ south. Really, it’s like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. How will you know when you are on M81? You’ll see a bright enough oval “nebula.”

Here’s the thing about M81, y’all:  while it is a beautiful sight, in the suburbs its beauty is mostly due to its association with M81. While the central portion of this intermediate inclination galaxy is “bright,” the outer disk and spiral arms are quite subdued. It’s large, almost 27’ across, so the light is badly spread out. The only decent looks I’ve had of this Sab spiral’s arms, which are like wisps of gossamer, have been from dark sites with larger apertures. From a truly superior site, a 12-inch will reveal them easily, as my 12-inch, Old Betsy, did one memorable night in the 1990s at the Texas Star Party. At less good locations, you’ll want at least 16-inches of aperture for a good look.

Under average conditions at average dark sites with a medium-sized telescope, you’ll likely see about what I saw with my C11, Big Bertha, back in May of 2004 from the old Georgia Sky View Star Party at Indian Springs State Park.

Under hazy conditions, M 81 is still bright and attractive. Stellar appearing nucleus in TeleVue Panoptic 22mm at  127x. Considerable oval haze extends out from the central regions n/s. No hint of the very subtle spiral arms tonight. Much the same in the 12mm TeleVue Nagler at 233x, though the nucleus looks smaller at this higher power when the seeing settles.


M82, conversely, gives up detail to 6-inch telescopes in suburban backyards. It’s bright, nearly edge-on, and there are plenty of details to be seen in the Cigar Galaxy, which my daughter, Lizbeth, used to call the Exploding Cigar Galaxy. It is "Exploding" because it’s disturbed, likely from a long-ago interaction with M81, and is criss-crossed by dark lanes and festooned with bright patches. The more aperture you use on this 9.3’ long galaxy, the more you’ll see. Don’t be afraid to pump up the power, either. Under good conditions, 200x is nice for the Cigar with an 8-incher.

On the same night I viewed M81 in Georgia, I also recorded M82:

M82 in the TeleVue Nagler Type 2 12mm at 233x is amazing. Bright star in the field, about 30" from the galaxy. Dust lanes cross the galaxy’s thin disk (about 4’) and divide it into three distinct sections. 

Some of the best views I’ve had of M82 have admittedly not been visual ones. With my Mallincam Xtreme video camera and the C11, the galaxy is just incredible, showing not just intricate dark lane structure, but almost psychedelic red matter being emitted from the galaxy’s center. Amazing.


M83, the Southern Pinwheel, can be a pain. Mostly for Northern Hemisphere observers at higher latitudes given the galaxy’s far southern declination, as things go in the north, of almost 30-degrees south. If it gets even barely out of the muck for you, however, this object is a real winner. It’s a classic barred spiral, and the best description of it I’ve ever read came in Timothy Ferris’ wonderful coffee-table book Galaxies (recommended), where he describes it as being “alive with motion.”

How do you locate this magnitude 7.8, 14.1’ galaxy among the southern stars of Hydra? If M83 is low in the sky for you, DSCs or goto will make your task easier, but it is really not difficult to pin down with star chart and finder scope. It lies about halfway along a line drawn between Menkent (Theta Centauri; I told you this was a southern object) and Gamma Hydrae. M83 is prominent enough that you should pick it up easily in a medium powered wide-field eyepiece without further direction.

In the eyepiece? To me, the Southern Pinwheel always looks somewhat like a smaller M33 at first glance. As you continue to look, however, you’ll notice it looks round rather than oval like the Triangulum galaxy. The next thing you should see is the strong bar. If you continue, especially with an ultra-wide medium power ocular (I used to like my old 12mm Nagler Type II on it), you’ll begin to make out details starting with the prominent central bar and moving on to HII regions and the wheeling spiral arms. How hard is the spiral structure to detect? Not hard at all if the object is decently high in the sky for you at a half-way good site, as at my club dark site one late May evening with my ETX-125, Charity Hope Valentine:

M83, a magnitude 7.8, 14.1'x13.2' spiral, has a dramatically bright stellar core and a large, mostly round outer envelope. Spiral structure pops in and out of view. I do have to be careful not to “see” what I expect to see given the images I’ve seen and looks I have had of the object in larger scopes, but the arms are just not that difficult. The galaxy's bar is easy.

M83 is another wonderful target for a deep sky video camera, and shows amazing detail and color in the Xtreme, and also in my inexpensive Revolution vidcam.


M84 is that most common of Virgo beasties, a bright, round elliptical galaxy. Oh, this object’s field makes for a great view, but not because of M84 itself. It’s brilliant (for a galaxy) at magnitude 10.1 and only 6.3’ across, but, as is usually the case with ellipticals, there’s just not a lot to see—a bright round fuzzball that looks like a small, unresolved globular star cluster.

If goto can make finding M83 more pleasant, it can make finding M84 much more pleasant. There are so many bright galaxies within the arms of Virgo that it’s hard to know which one you are on. Luckily, the field here is pretty distinctive. If you simply must find 84 the old fashioned way, it lies halfway along a line drawn between Epsilon Virginis, Vendemiatrix, and Denebola, Beta Leonis. Positoned there, look for two bright fuzzballs about 17’ apart. Which is M84? It is the southwestern fuzzball. It is also rounder-looking than the other galaxy, M86. M84 is a Hubble Type E1, while M86 is an E3.

What just tickles me about this field? You’ve heard of The Eyes, two bright galaxies just to the east of M84/86? Well, M84 and M86 to me are “The Face.” The two big galaxies are the eyes, a small elliptical, NGC 4387, is the nose, and an edge-on, NGC 4388 is the mouth. The effect is so comical that I can’t help smiling every time I land on this field. Which is also beautiful, of course, because it is part of Markarian’s Chain, the line of bright galaxies stretching off to the east. A look at this area with an 18 – 20-inch telescope from a dark site is a mind-blower, and has almost impelled me to buy a really large Dobsonian a time or two.

And that does it for another M batch. Next up? I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t look like I’ll be doing any observing any time soon. The weather this time of year on the Gulf Coast simply doesn’t encourage that. Oh, things will improve as they always do, but not until late October usually. Until then? We may take a break from the Ms for a week or three and talk about another favorite observing list of mine. 

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