Sunday, March 27, 2016


Issue #486: The Last Gasp of the Go-to Wars...

Rod as a Junior OP...
Yeah, I know this was supposed to be another installment in my refractors series, but I got to thinking about something else, and ‘round here thinking about something inevitably leads to writing about it. 

Perhaps in part because of the lousy weather we’ve had of late, I’ve been practicing my other passion, ham radio, a lot more than I have in recent times. That led to me thinking about the Morse Code War that nearly ended amateur radio in the 1980s-1990s. That started me ruminating on how similar amateur astronomy’s go-to war is and how potentially damaging to my other avocation.

Let me tell you a story… Daddy, an engineer and a real old timer of a ham radio operator, an “OT” in our parlance, W4SLJ (now a Silent Key), was adamantly  in favor of the code requirement for licensing. He made sure I was a good CW (code, that is) op, too, pushing me to go for the gold of the Amateur Extra Class license in the days when it took quite a bit of effort and study, and, most of all, code proficiency to earn that "ticket."

Back when I got my Extra, you had to be able to copy 20 words per minute, a not inconsequential speed at which to “read the mail.” Especially if you had to copy it with a pencil and paper under the steely-eyed gaze of the FCC Radio Examiner. 20 w.p.m is about the point where you have to stop hearing letters and begin hearing words.

Luckily, I had no problem with that 20 w.p.m. hurdle,since I apparently had a built-in affinity for the code—sometimes I think talent for Morse code is akin to a talent for music. Some folks have got it and some folks ain’t. Anyhow, while I liked CW a lot and kept using it after I got the Extra ticket, it took me a long time to figure out why my dad and other older hams—many of them the the most prominent in the hobby—were so fixated on Morse code.

After all, as an important communications mode Morse wasn’t just dying by the late 1960s, it was nearly dead except as a means of communicating reliably with ships at sea. Even that was going. Teletype, and, soon, satellite and digital modes, were coming in and would shortly make CW laughably irrelevant as anything other than a backup/emergency mode or maybe a  backup of a backup.

I did finally figure out to my satisfaction why so many Old Timers, especially, were so insistent about testing new hams’ ability to copy Morse code despite its lack of relevance in modern communications. For many hams, CW was a "gate keeper" for the hobby. It kept the riff-raff out or kept 'em confined to the ranks (and minimal band space) of the Technician Class license (which only required 5 words per minute of code proficiency). 

The sad thing about that was that many Tech-class hams were competent technically and would have made good additions to the general amateur ranks. Unfortunately, more than a few of them of them could never get past the 13 w.p.m. requirement that was the entry to“real” ham radio with the General Class License.

My first major go-to rig...
Large numbers of these folks eventually tired of the restrictions imposed by the Technician license and dropped out of the hobby, not a few of them switching to CB radio when that craze hit in the 70s.  Hams, me included, noticed the popularity of CB. Boy did we.

And not in a good way. We, almost to a man and woman, most assuredly did not see the Chicken Banders as a potential resource. Rather than trying to bring CBers into ham radio, what did we do? We (to include our national organization) did everything we could to keep them out. Tens of thousands of good potential amateur radio recruits were lost as the seventies ran out and computers soon began to attract technology crazy youngsters more than radio.

Ham radio became a troubled pursuit with a graying profile that still affects it today. Luckily, though, hams led by a strong national organization, the American Radio Relay League (I wish amateur astronomy had a national organization a little more willing to assert itself), finally came to realize the day of the code was over, and that if we were to bring in new blood the Morse code requirement had to go and go quickly. And it was by now obvious that if we didn't get a transfusion of that new blood, we were done. The FCC agreed, the Morse code requirement for licensing was dropped, and amateur radio began to recover.

Post-code, amateur radio went from being a graying hobby on its deathbed, to one that shortly regained a surprising degree of vitality. Ham numbers are now higher than they’ve ever been, and the youngsters are beginning to trickle back in. The amateur radio population is undoubtedly much higher than the amateur astronomer population, though, since you don’t need a license to practice amateur astronomy, it’s more difficult to determine how many astronomers there are. 

Anyhow, what fixed ham radio was us hams waking up to the frightening fact that amateur radio was going away. It also took the leadership of the ARRL to do something about it with the government (though ironically the ARRL had for many years been going in the opposite direction). But we are good now. We in amateur radio are good, anyway.

“Well, Rod, that’s a nice story and all, and I’m glad it had a happy ending for you and your ham buddies, but what does it have to do with us amateur astronomers?” A lot, rather unfortunately. Yes, we’ve got our own Morse code dust-up in progress due to those go-to wars. I’d thought this was a dead issue, since it’s clear that rank and file amateurs have embraced the technology, but lately it seems to to be coming up again and again. Not just in the online places amateurs gather like Cloudy Nights, but at local clubs. Hearing this stuff again, especially considering the fact that our ranks are at least as gray as ham radio’s were in its darkest days, has me worried.

When did this all get started? The go-to wars have been with us almost since the day computerized telescope technology was released in practical, affordable form. Since about 1992, that is, when Meade’s amazing LX-200 hit the streets. While it didn't look much different from Meade's previous SCTs, the LX-5 and LX-6, the LX-200 was, Meade claimed, "revolutionary."

This was one time when hyperbole-happy Meade was right. There really was an LX-200 revolution. When most amateurs got a look at what the scope could do, they were mucho impressed. Not that Meade was there first with a commercial telescope that pointed automatically at objects. That was Celestron. Unfortunately, Celestron’s go-to SCTs, the Compustars, were expensive and finicky. Meade improved the workability of the idea and got prices down to what serious amateurs could afford.

Like to hunt? Grab your water heater and hunt!
Me? I was skeptical in the beginning. Not just because I thought learning/knowing the sky was essential and central to amateur astronomy, but because I was skeptical about the accuracy and reliability of this new technology. Any concerns I had about the efficacy of go-to were pretty much put to rest in late ’92, however. A fellow club member had invested his entire IRS refund in a 10-inch LX-200, and brought it out to the club dark site one evening when I was out there cruising along with my 6-inch Dobbie. “Ha,” thought I. "Danged thing will never work. Get a horse!”

How wrong I was. My pal invited me to give his new scope a spin. Punched in M13. There it was looking beautiful in the eyepiece. M5? Yep. M8, M20, M92, and all the rest of the summer wonders fell to the LX-200 as quickly as I could mash the hand control buttons. The reliability? I was soon reassured about that as well. The original LX200 was not perfect in that regard, but, still, it was pretty darned solid.

The left only the question of whether real amateur astronomers use go-to. That, I wasn't so sure about. And I must admit that early on, when the subject came up at club meetings (not much Internet astronomy in the early 1990s), I tended to side with the curmudgeons who were condemning those damned “coffee grinder” scopes to perdition even as they were springing up like weeds on our observing fields. You had to know the sky to be an amateur astronomer. Period.

That’s what I thought till I stopped and really thought about it. While I believed, and still believe, that knowing the sky is good for a number of reasons—and especially because of the feeling of accomplishment it brings—I don’t think it is what makes you an amateur astronomer. Knowing something about the objects you observe and knowing how to observe them is probably more important than knowing how to find them with a finder and star chart. Most of all, for me, what makes you an amateur astronomer is a love of the night sky, no matter how you show that love.

What really won me over to go-to, though, was two things. First, plenty of people enter astronomy, are enthusiastic about astronomy for a while, and then drop out of astronomy. Why? Once they get past the Moon, bright planets, and a bright deep sky object or two, they run out of interesting things to view. Go-to changes all that. It’s all well and good to say they should just learn to use a star chart and that soon they’ll be seeing plenty of good stuff if they do, but it’s not always that simple.

Most people want a little more return on their investment of time and money than being told, “Well, stick with it for a couple of years and you’ll eventually be able to see something.” Remember, too, that even for veteran star hoppers light pollution can be a killer. There is actually plenty to be seen from the average light-polluted suburban yard, but finding it can be very difficult. There just are not enough “guide stars” to make star hopping to dimmer objects practical. And in the beginning it is vital new astronomers get into the backyard and observe as often as possible to keep their enthusiasm up.

Yes, knowing the stars and constellations can be a good thing, but guess what? If someone stays with the hobby, they will learn the sky, go-to scope or no. It just comes naturally after you’ve been in our avocation for a while. The beautiful thing about go-to is that Joe and Jane Novice get to see cool stuff while they are learning.

I even deforked my Ultima 8 and put it on a go-to GEM!
One other thing I hear from the curmudgeon crowd?  “What they gonna do when that fancy go-to breaks down, huh?” That is really not much of a reason not to go go-to. Like any new technology, go-to technology has gotten simpler electronics-wise as the years have passed. That is good for the manufacturers since it makes the scopes cheaper to produce, and it is good for us since it tends to make them more reliable. Anything can break down, of course, but that’s not a reason to forego it. Your TV is just as likely to malfunction as today’s go-to mounts and telescopes, so what are you gonna do? Give up TV? You think you’re gonna go back to listening to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio?

The other thing that convinced me go-to is a good thing was the way the blasé faces of the teenagers at public outreach sessions lit up at the sight of those computerized hand controls. And really lit up at a telescope hooked to a laptop running Stellarium. And really, really lit up at one of our members sending her scope to targets wirelessly with a cell phone. Kids like computers and phones, and if that is a hook to get them into astronomy, where they will find that computers are just the tip of the iceberg coolness-wise, so be it.

Should I worry that these younguns are not being exposed to the real amateur astronomy? The amateur astronomy of Arthur Norton and Patrick Moore? No. The amateur astronomy of go-to and computers is the real amateur astronomy now. Astronomy has changed, just as the amateur radio of Hiram Percy Maxim has changed. The important thing is that there is still an amateur astronomy and an amateur radio. They are still around only because they have been able to change with the culture. Maybe grudgingly, but they have changed.

Yes, even staid old amateur astronomy has changed. I don’t know why I’m worried about the last sputtering debate about go-to. The go-to wars are really over. Amateurs have voted with the their wallets. Go-to is here to stay. Don’t like it? Don’t use it. But don’t necessarily condemn it till you do some thinking about it.  If you like hunting, by all means hunt. But let’s stay focused on product, the enjoyment of the sky, rather than process, the type of tool you use to reach night sky nirvana.

Sunday, March 20, 2016


Issue #485: The Messier III: The Next Batch

You wanna hear something funny? Back when I got started in amateur astronomy as a little kid in the mid-1960s, the Messier list was considered a challenge. At least on a par with the way many of you regard the Herschel 400 today. Heck, as a wet behind the ears novice, I was challenged just by the task of finding the freaking Andromeda Galaxy, but get deeply into the Messiers and even my more experienced brother amateurs (few sisters in those benighted times) would start quaking in their boots.

Why? A couple of reasons. First and foremost, those really advanced amateurs with the giant Cave Newtonians you see in the little black and white pictures in ancient back issues of Sky & Telescope were a distinct minority. I mean a minority of a minority. Most of us struggled along with 4-inch reflectors and 60mm refractors. A little bitty scope, a suburban sky, primitive eyepieces, and no filters and, heck yeah, M97 could be tough. Hell, M81 could be tough.

Especially if, like me, you were saddled with the pitiful Norton’s Star Atlas as your finding tool. As I have oft said before, the key to finding deep sky objects easily the old fashioned way, by star hopping, is, in addition to good skies, having detailed charts. Tiny maps that only show stars down to magnitude 6, like old Norton’s is not a recipe for success.

There was also the information factor. You would have seen pictures of these objects back then, some of them, but the pictures were almost always taken with giant pro scopes. What would M1, say, look like in a 6-inch reflector? Often you couldn’t even find a text description of how it would appear in an amateur’s scope. Most of the (few) amateur astronomy books in the public library were hold-overs from an earlier era, an era when amateurs looked at the Moon, the bright planets, and double stars. That’s why Kreimer and Mallas’ “A Messier Album” was so important. That let us at least get an idea what we should see in our little scopes. Yeah, John Mallas used a beautiful 4-inch Unitron refractor, but it was still a 4-inch.

I loved the Messier Album columns, and they were the key, really, to my success with the Ms with my 4.25-inch mini-scope, and that makes me want to give something back. Consider this series an homage to Mallas and Kreimer, an Album for a new generation for whom an 8-inch is a small scope—you lucky ducks.


M13 and company...
We hit pay dirt right off the bat this time out. As I said a few Sundays back, I don’t necessarily think Hercules’ Great Glob is the best globular star cluster in the sky for northern observers. I think those laurels should probably go to M5 or maybe M22. Nevertheless, Herc is great. How could it not be with a magnitude of 5.8 packed into a just-right size of 20.0’ or arc?

Do not get the idea that this object is necessarily a pushover if you look at it with a 6-inch or smaller telescope, though. It ain’t. A Shapley Sawyer Concentration Class of V (M15 is a IV) makes it pretty tight. I never was able to resolve it as an experienced observer with my Short Tube 80 achromat, much less with my old 4-inch Palomar Junior as a greenhorn. Well, maybe a star or two with the latter. Barely. Maybe.

‘Course, seeing stars in M13 depends on the quality of telescope you use, too, not just its aperture. I’ve had better success in resolving M13 under poor skies with an 80mm scope with excellent optics than I have with a 100mm that’s just so-so—my 80mm APO will show quite a few sparklers in M13, while my StarBlast 4.5-inch f/4 RFT struggles to show any at all. The refractor not only delivers tighter stars, it will take higher magnifications, reducing the impact of a bright sky background. If you want a tremendous view, however, think 8 or, better, 10-inches. Even from my humble backyard, the cluster is a marvel in a 10.

Don’t have 8 or 10-inches of telescope? Get to a dark site, and the glob can be mind-blowing in a somewhat smaller instrument. Really good skies can allow a smaller scope with superb optics to do nearly as well as an 8 or 10-incher, as my ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine proved one night:

M13, now that it is getting out of the light dome, is as beautiful as ever. Considerable resolution around its periphery with plenty of stars winking in and out even across its milky looking core. Tremendous numbers of tiny stars. Rather than looking almost spiral shaped as this cluster occasionally does visually in a larger telescope, in the ETX125 at 170x it looks almost hourglass shaped.

M15 in Charity...
If you are using a 10-inch or larger scope under dark skies, bump the power up to 300x or so and look for the “propeller,” a curious arrangement of dark lanes in the cluster’s halo that looks, yes, like an airplane’s propeller. Oh, and before moving on to the next M, detour about half a degree to the northeast and look in on NGC 6207, a pretty little 12th magnitude galaxy.


We now go from the sublime to the ridiculous. M14 is another globular cluster, but it couldn’t be more different from the one that precedes it in the Messier list. It is small (11.0’), and it is (relatively) dim (magnitude 7.6). It is also somewhat hard to find nestled as it is in a rather dreary area, southeastern Ophiuchus. If you’re more interested in seeing than hunting, the best way to get on this one is with a go-to mount or digital setting circles.

Once you have Messier 14 in the field, what can you see of this star city? Not too much. On a below average summer night from the suburbs, I could see this sucka with my 12-inch Dobsonian, but just barely. It was a fuzzy star at lower powers, and increasing magnification delivered nothing more than a puny handful of stars that barely made this smudge look much different than an unprepossessing Virgo elliptical galaxy. From a dark site, you can pick out some more stars with 10 – 12-inches, but make it into a showpiece? No.


And then it gets good again with yet another superb globular star cluster. While M15, located not far from Pegasus’ bright star Enif, the Horse’s nose (which gives M15 its nickname, “The Horse’s Nose Cluster”), is classified as a Shapley-Sawyer Type IV, which means it is on the concentrated side, visually it doesn’t look that way. The core is very bright, small, and tight, sure, but it is surrounded by an absolute horde of tiny stars in a somewhat elliptical mass.

M15 is bright, magnitude 6.3, and despite its fairly large size, 18.0’, it takes magnification very well. The more power you can pour on, the more stars you can resolve in a compromised backyard, and the better this one looks. In my 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, at 350x not long back, M15 was simply stunning with its intense core (a black hole is thought to lurk there) and multitudes of minute stars everywhere.

Want a real challenge? M15 contains a bonus deep sky object, the tiny planetary nebula Pease 1, which is situated just outside the cluster’s core. While the planetary is dim, magnitude 15 or so, that’s not what makes it tough. What does that is its small size, 3.0”. That’s “seconds,” not “minutes.” That makes the nebula nearly indistinguishable from a star, and if you are to have a prayer of seeing it you need magnifications of 400x and up, steady skies, and an OIII filter. The way to find Pease 1 is to “blink it,” to place the OIII between eye and eyepiece and alternately remove and replace it, making the planetary wink in and out (you hope). I have searched for Pease 1 seriously a few times, including with a 24-inch Dobsonian at high power, but have never been at all sure I’ve spotted it.

The Pillars...

Serpens' M16 is technically “just” an open cluster, but these days most of us automatically think “Eagle Nebula” when we hear “M16.” To be accurate, the nebula actually has the designation IC 4703. Whatever you call it, this is a tremendously famous object thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope shot of this emission nebula’s dark component, the Pillars of Creation.

The Hubble image, taken in 1995, was no doubt responsible for the Eagle becoming a bread-and-butter object for amateur astronomers. Sure, the coming of OIII filters to the arsenals of the average amateur in the 1990s helped with that, but until the interest spawned by Hubble caused me to hunt it down, I still just assumed it was “impossible visually.”

Not hardly. With an OIII filter and a medium aperture telescope, the nebula is easily visible under relatively poor conditions, as it was one (almost rainy) night in Georgia in my C11:

M 16 is low in the sky and there is heavy haze building, but with the OIII I can still make out the Eagle Nebula in addition to the cluster. Rather ill defined, moreso than usual, but I can see the spreading "wings" with averted vision. 

As conditions improve, so does this 6.0’ diameter gas cloud. And, “yes,” the pillars can be visible with the help of an OIII in a medium aperture—10 – 12-inches—telescope and a real good sky.


M17 with 6-inch Newtonian...
If M16 is good, Sagittarius’ M17 is great. The Swan Nebula easily shows off its looping “neck” to a UHC filter equipped 6-inch scope even  under half-assed skies, and the more aperture and darker skies you can bring to bear on this magnitude 7.3, 25.0’ long emission nebula, the more you will see. You will move from just the basic swan (or omega) shape, adding dark lanes and many outlying patches of nebulosity. Some of my fondest memories are of observing this great bird of the galaxy with a 6-inch Newtonian from our old club dark site in the early 1990s:

Despite its low altitude, M17 is a marvel in the 6-inch Newtonian. Not only can I see the swan's neck, the “back” of the bird, the strip of nebulosity running from the neck, is criss-crossed with dark detail. 


M18…M18…which one is that? Oh, yeah, the open cluster a degree south of M17. Folks, there are open clusters and then there are open clusters. There are M11s and M35s, but there are also M29s and…yes, M18s. This is nothing more than a small knot of stars located near the northern edge of the great M24 star cloud—really its only claim to fame. It’s small at 5.0’ across, but also somewhat dim at magnitude 7.5. Worse, the best word I can use to describe it is “sparse.” Frankly, it looks better in my 100mm binoculars than in a telescope. In the binocs, it’s at least an interesting tiny condensation in the rich Sagittarius Milky Way.


Back we go to Ophiuchus for another globular star cluster. Given its specs, mag 6.8 and 17.0’ in size, M19 should be maybe a little better than M14. Alas, no. What drags it down for us denizens of the Northern Hemisphere is its southerly declination, -26-degrees, which means it is a little close to the horizon even at its best. Which is not to say you should give it a pass. From my club’s current (semi) dark site, my 10-inch at 200x will regularly show about 10.0’ or so of it and resolve a few stars in its halo on those yucky, yucky feels-like-you’re-observing-from-underwater summertime nights.

And that is where we’ll leave it for this time, standing on the doorstep of the next good one, the oh-so-wonderful M20. Next week? We’ll give the Ms another break and instead talk about one of my current obsessions, refractors

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Issue #484: Big Ethel Goes to the Dark Site

What is it with this weather? Last winter sucked. Spring was worse. Summer just as bad. Yes, we got thrown a few bones last fall, at least, but with the coming of winter, the hammer fell again. But even when you are going through times of execrable weather conditions, you do get good nights here and there, and last Saturday out at the club dark site we darned sure got one.

However, while it was apparent Saturday morning that a nice evening was on its way, it was also apparent it wouldn’t be perfect. There’d be considerable haze, and I just wasn’t able to convince myself to cart a truck load of imaging gear to the mostly disused airfield we use for our observing. I’ll fess up about another thing too:  when you can do pretty good imaging from your backyard, it’s hard to make yourself drag all the junk to the club site for a couple of hours of work. Yes, conditions are better there than at my suburban home, but not worlds better.

What would I do then? I’d been anxious to give my new (to me) 6-inch achromatic refractor, Big Ethel, a chance to show what she could do from that darker site. I also thought “just” going visual would provide me with a relaxing, fun evening. The previous dark site expedition had been devoted to testing a camera I am reviewing for Sky & Telescope. Yes, that was fun, but still work. This Saturday would be just fun.

One of the nicest things about using Ethel would be that I could leave my CGEM mount at home. While the 6-inch weighs in at around 25-pounds, that is well within the visual capacity of my smaller mount, the Celestron VX. Compared to the previous Saturday night, I’d be traveling light. Just the scope, mount, case of eyepieces, and an accessory box or two. It would be a busman's holiday if the weather held.

As I was packing the 4Runner late Saturday afternoon, it was clear the weather would for once hold. This was one of those wonderful times when I didn’t have to keep sneaking peeks at the sky to see if things were going south; that was obviously just not going to happen.

Also nice was the fact that given my light gear load and the relative ease of set up, I wouldn’t need to arrive at the site till right at sundown. When I'm taking pictures, I try to hit the field at least an hour before sunset. 

With everything packed, I spent a few minutes running down some targets with my fave planetarium program of the moment, Stellarium 0.14.2. When I found an interesting object that would be well placed for viewing over the course of Saturday night, did I use a fancy observation planning program, SkyTools or Deep Sky Planner, to add it to an observing list? No, I just wrote the object's I.D. into my little spiral notebook with the picture of my Master, Yoda, on the cover. As I told y'all some time back, I am happily enjoying the simpler side of amateur astronomy again.

At the site as the Sun was sinking, I got the VX set up and carefully and gingerly mounted big Ethel in the GEM's saddle. It’s not that the big refractor is that heavy—she’s a little lighter than my C11 SCT—it’s that f/8 Ethel is awkward thanks to her relatively long tube. I do have a system for mounting her now, though. I balance her on my shoulder and slide her into the dovetail. With the VX legs fully extended, the saddle on the mount is at the perfect height to allow me to do that with little effort. Yes, it might be better thanks her weight and the length of her tube (long lever arm) not to extend the legs all the way, but if I didn’t, I’d be crawling on my belly like a reptile to observe objects even approaching zenith.

Scope on mount and stars winking on, it was time to get the goto alignment done. This is the only problem area I’ve run into vis-à-vis Ethel and the Celestron AVX mount. While she’s not shaky at all on the VX, her long tube causes another problem. Go to something overhead and the tube is liable to bang into a tripod leg. This is exacerbated by the need to have the tube a little far back in the tube rings so as to achieve reasonable balance. Ethel is not as objective end heavy as the Synta 6-inch achromats, but she is still objective heavy and having the tube rearward in the rings makes the danger of banging into a leg during slews worse.

Solution? The real solution would be a half-pier extension for the tripod. Unfortunately, one is not made for the VX as far as I am aware. I am toying with the concept of fabricating my own from PVC or something, but until I can do that, I’ve got a work-around. As long as I reject goto alignment stars above about 75 – 80 degrees altitude, I am alright. If, following alignment, I want to observe something near zenith, I’ll manually slew the scope near the object, navigating around the tripod legs before issuing the goto command. None of this is a big deal, and given the length of the tube, it’s not much fun to observe objects high in the sky anyway.

With it now approaching “good and dark,” the heavens were looking fine. Well, OK, anyway. I could barely make out the winter Milky Way, which can be fairly prominent on a truly superior evening from this site, but at least I could see it. A large part of the problem was obviously humidity. The tube of the scope wasn’t quite dripping wet, but it was already approaching that. Naturally I had a dew heater strip around the objective assembly to keep things dry. And a good thing I did. At astronomical twilight the lights on the DewBuster controller were blinking like mad as the heat cycled on and off.

What We Saw...

Time for the first object of the night. What? How about an old friend, NGC 457, the famous and beloved E.T. Cluster in Cassiopeia? In went my inexpensive 30mm GSO wide field eyepiece. It’ not as nice as my 28mm Uwan, but it is a heck of a lot lighter and performs pretty darned well in an f/8 scope. When the slew stopped, I took a look. The little stick figure of stars, E.T., was there in the field center, looking googly eyed (the bright star Phi Cassiopeiae forms one of his eyes) and waving at old Rod across all those dark light years. My friends thought he looked just scrumptious in the refractor. Me? Good, but…

The refractor was performing well…the collimating I’d done when I’d received her had really got her dialed in and was allowing her to show how good her optics are. But there is that but, which has to do with my eyes. The sad fact is that with the level of astigmatism in my eyes, bright stars just don’t look good at low power. I could wear my glasses, but I hate wearing glasses when I observe. I suppose I should look into TeleVue’s Dioptrix corrective lenses. For now, what helps is bumping the power up a bit. To me, rascally little E.T. looked much better with my humble 16mm Happy Hand Grenade (Zhumell 100-degree eyepiece). Even better was (natch) the 13mm Ethos.

Despite all that, I still wanted to show off the wide-field capabilities of Ethel and what better way to do that than with the Double Cluster? Punched in N-G-C-0-8-8-4 and put the 30mm eyepiece back into the focuser. Yes, my eyes ain’t much these days, but that didn’t stop Ethel from nearly blowing me off my feet with the view she gave me of the pair of open clusters. She had just the right mix of (unobstructed) aperture and focal length to yield—I’m not making this up—one of the best views of this object I have ever had. Two star-swarms in contact, with their multitudes of tiny suns looking like some sort of cosmic hailstorm.

M1, the Crab Nebula, isn’t exactly spectacular visually in any telescope, but I was curious to see what Ethel would bring out. My impression with the 8mm Ethos was that what I saw in the big 6 approached, perhaps equaled, and maybe even slightly exceeded the view I’d have had of ol’ Crabby in an 8-inch SCT. The nebula was surprisingly bright, showed off its “S” or lightning bolt shape, and at higher power it was obvious the nebula's edges were not smooth and that there was considerable mottling across its surface. Nice.

This stuff was just prelude, naturally, to the main event: M42, the Great Orion Nebula. What did I notice most as the huge cloud climbed toward culmination? Not so much the clouds of nebulosity that seemed to go on forever, or the fact that the companion nebula, M43, was showing off its comma shape and dark lanes, though all that was nice. What was just so amazing and beautiful was seeing all the tiny pinprick stars embedded in the glowing gas of M42. The view quite frankly reminded me of what I used to get with my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy.

Since we were in the neighborhood, I thought I’d stop in at M78. This small reflection nebula is usually not that great in a 6-inch, but it was surprisingly interesting on this night. Often, it’s just a small oval haze of nebulosity around two stars, but tonight in the big glass the cloud was showing its oblong shape and faint hints of dark mottling.

Here they come again, the galaxies of spring! M65 and M66 were still down in the Possum Swamp light-dome and were not that impressive. However, an even better pair, M81 and M82 had climbed their way out of all the mess to the east. In the 30mm both were beautifully framed in the same field, but things got better detail-wise in the 13 Ethos. No, the arms of M81 certainly didn’t slap me in the face, but a little averted imagination encouraged me to imagine I saw hints of them. Naturally the peculiar and near edge-on M82 was a welter of detail thanks to its criss-crossing dark lanes.

Can you see many galaxies in a 6-inch? Yes you can, and far beyond the Messier. An example was NGC 2903 in the area of Leo’s mane. While the Lion was still somewhat in the light-dome, the galaxy was surprisingly big and bold, showing not just its oval disk but obvious central condensation.

What was the hit of the night with me and my friends? Amazingly, not M42. Instead, what we raved about was NGC 2362, the open cluster in Canis Major that accompanies bright yellow Tau Canis Majoris, the Jumping Spider Star. In the 16mm eyepiece, bright Tau was surrounded by a beautiful halo of tiny, tiny amber stars. Why is Tau known as the Jumping Spider? Due to contrast effects, when you jiggle your scope, the cluster stars appear to move in one direction while Tau seems to jiggle in the opposite direction.

M41 is usually a challenge for me, My C8s’ somewhat narrow fields don’t really do justice to it. It was a different story with Ethel. In the 30mm, it was a beautifully framed oval cloud of countless sparklers. Staring at it reminded me of how much I used to love it as a kid, staring at it with my 4-inch Palomar Junior.

Time and again, Ethel demonstrated she is not afraid of the dim. A case in point being NGC 2359 in Canis Major, the famous Thor’s Helmet Nebula. Not only was this cloud of excited gas thrown off by a Wolf-Rayet star visible; it was also detailed. With the 13 Ethos and a UHC filter, anyway. Not only was the central area easy, I could make out the two nebulous extensions, the “horns” of the helmet. Not bad for a 6-inch telescope.

I love bonus deep sky objects. An example of that is Messier 46. It’s a pretty enough open star cluster, but what makes it super cool is the presence among its stars of a planetary nebula, a miniature of the Ring Nebula, NGC 2438. This can be tough for a 6er, but not for Ethel. The nebula was easy to see, a little spot almost overwhelmed by M46’s hordes of suns.

By now the night was growing old and we were all weary, damp with dew, and a little cold. Time for one more. The final destination was obvious. Just no doubt about it. Jupiter had climbed above 30 degrees. I inserted the 8mm Ethos and sent the mount to the king of the planets.

What did I expect? Not too much. We’ve all heard horror stories concerning 6-inch Chinese achromats and color and Jupiter. The truth? There wasn’t nearly as much of the color purple as I’d expected. Oh, it was certainly there, even though my eyes aren’t as sensitive to it as they once were, but it was simply not disturbing.  The lack of debilitating color was just a sidebar, though. The eye-opener was the tremendous detail visible as the planet climbed out of the horizon murk.

Even though the seeing was hardly terrific, there was just tons to see…the faded Great Red Spot, the belts, details in the belts and more. The main limiting factor was, once again, not the telescope but my eyes. The more power I applied, the more I saw; but my eyes couldn’t really keep up with the telescope. Rest assured, chromatic aberration didn’t mask Jupiter’s features, far from it. I can hardly wait to view Saturn in the big refractor.

Then it was time to call it, to throw that accursed Big Switch. Takeaway? I love Big Ethel, and if you think you might want a 6-inch achromat, now is the time to get one. Prices will likely never be lower. Once you have yours, I guarantee you will occasionally find yourself muttering as I do, “I HAVE A 6-INCH REFRACTOR!” H


What's changed in the couple of years since I published this article? Other than the fact that the CGEM mentioned here has long since been sold, not much. The weather was just as poor this year as it was in 2016 when this was written. And I still love Ethel just as much as I did on this dark site night.

While I will always own and use an SCT, if you are a fan of this blog, it's no secret I've become more of a refractor guy over the last three and a half years. Witness to that is the fact that while I only own a single SCT now, an Edge 800, I have six refractors (well, seven if you count my odd little ETX60). Why is that? One reason is their efficacy for astrophotography. Moreso, though, it's their basically simple/easy to use nature, which complements my current "simpler is better" take on astronomy.

If you've read my recent Sky & Telescope Test Report on the RSpec software, you know I can still wrangle computers, cameras, and spectrographs, but much of my time is now spent in simple visual enjoyment of my favorite objects. For that, a simple but powerful telescope like Ethel cannot be beat. 

Sunday, March 06, 2016


Issue #483: The Messier: Part II

Well, you axed for it, so here it is, part II of what will be an ongoing series covering all the Messier objects. Or, to be exact, my impressions of all the Messier objects and my advice on observing ‘em. I enjoyed your responses, by the way, and hope you’ll keep them coming in. I would love to hear about your observations of these gems.

What do the Messiers mean to me today? A lot. After spending more than a few years considering them the tame stuff, just fodder for public at outreach, I’ve come home to the good old Ms. Why? For one thing, I’ve just got tired of squinting at quasars and PGC galaxies on a monitor screen. I want the cool stuff, the pretty stuff, in an eyepiece. I want the stuff that thrilled me as a kid when I first undertook The List in 1965.

Another thing is that I’ve come to the realization that these wonderful deep sky objects never get old. You can spend a lifetime observing nothing but the Messiers and never see everything of them there is to see. I plan on doing just that with eye and eyepiece as well as a camera occasionally—well, maybe with a few detours to the more wonderful NGCs—seeing all I can of these beauties in the years remaining to me.

M6: The Butterfly Cluster

Do you like open star clusters? If you’re much beyond the novice stage, probably not. You think they are boring, don’t you? And once you get beyond the best NGC examples, most open clusters are kinda boring. Most of ‘em can be described with one standard log entry, “Sparse, not well detached from the background.” The Messier is a different kettle of fish, however. Almost every single open cluster among the Ms is wonderful no matter how experienced and jaded you are. Beginning with Scorpius’ Butterfly Cluster.

This bright, magnitude 4.6, and large, 20.0’ across, group is easy to find 10-degrees 45’ east of bright Epsilon Scorpii in the Scorpion’s tail. Just don’t mistake even larger and brighter M7 for it. M7 is down near the “stinger” stars; M6 is a bit north.

What do you get when you track it down? While it’s big enough, M6 is not so big as to confound larger telescopes. It looked pretty darned impressive even in my long focal length C11:

M 6, the Butterfly, is an engaging open cluster. Beautiful in the 35 Panoptic eyepiece. It would be even better, I'm sure, in a shorter focal length instrument, as the more dark sky you can put around it the better it looks. Its double-lobed "butterfly" shape is fairly obvious, but I have to slew around to take all of it in. 

There is no question that the wider your field, the more the cluster’s looping lines of stars begin to resemble the wings of a cosmic butterfly. My best view of this group ever was, frankly, not with a telescope of any kind, but with my Zhumell Tachyon 25x100 binoculars one night at the Chiefland Astronomy Village:

I usually have a hard time seeing a butterfly here, but not tonight. With plenty of open space around the cluster, I suddenly see two arcs of stars forming wings. At 25x this cluster is almost perfectly framed, and the binoculars deliver a striking pseudo 3-D effect with the bright cluster stars standing dramatically in the foreground of this Scorpius star field.

M7:  The Ptolemy Cluster

M6 looks best in a wide-field telescope or binoculars, but such an instrument is mandatory for M7. This magnitude 3.3 galactic cluster is 80’ across, and almost challenged the field size of my big binocs. Not quite, however. The cluster was amazing in the huge glasses and the same observing run at CAV where I enjoyed the Butterfly gave me a splendid look at Ptolemy (it has been known since ancient times, having been recorded by, yes, Ptolemy in the second century A.D.):

Back down south to catch M7, a glittering sea of sapphires. It’s too big for most telescopes and just fits into the Tachyon 25 x 100 binoculars’  field. What do I think? “Awesome, incredible.” I am wearing out those words, but the southern sky is just that in these binoculars.

In a richest field telescope or large aperture binoculars, you should be able to count up to 80 stars here arranged in an oblong shape on a clear night with the Scorpion riding high, even if you are at a northerly latitude.

M8:  The Lagoon Nebula

For this installment, this is where things really, really get good. With M8, the justly famous Lagoon Nebula. If you want a little background on my love for the Lagoon, read this, but I can sum it up just by saying this Messier, the “summer Orion nebula,” is in my top five Ms.

The Lagoon...
That is not to say, however, that M8 is as good as M42. Not always, anyway. Oh, it’s big and its bright, magnitude 5.0 and 17.0’ x 15.0’, but even for moi down here on the Gulf Coast, it’s relatively low even at culmination. Not only is it in the hash down on the horizon, it is in the summertime hash—the hazes, clouds, and general muck of summer. On a poor night in the suburbs, about all you will sometimes see in addition to the open star cluster superimposed on the eastern half of the cloud is a bit of nebulosity in the vicinity of the bright star 9 Sagitarii.

If that were all there were to the Lagoon, it would definitely be at the bottom of the Messier hit list, but it is most assuredly not. Wait for a special night with M8 near culmination, or, even better, get out to the club dark site, and you will begin to believe that it does live up to the “summer Orion” moniker.

One thing you do not have to worry about is finding this object. Look to the teapot, and specifically to the area 6-degrees to the northwest of the “spout” formed by Delta, Gamma, and Epsilon Sagitarii. There, enwrapped in the star-steam of the Milky Way that is pouring out of that spout, you will immediately notice a semi-fuzzy “star,” even with a 30mm finder.

Insert an eyepiece that will give you enough field to take in the whole nebula (you might want to use a UHC filter to tamp down the sky glow that results from using relatively low power), and just enjoy this big oval cloud and its stars for a while before you begin looking for details. Even if you don’t have a too-bright sky background, you might want to use a UHC filter anyway, since one works very well on this object, pulling out much nebulosity, and doesn’t dim the beautiful stars in the field too much.

When you’ve had your fill of the overall picture, start examining the Lagoon in detail, maybe using higher magnifications to do so. The first thing you will notice from a good site is, well, the Lagoon, which is the dark lane that divides the nebula into roughly eastern-western halves. With a filter and good conditions, you should be able to see the edges of this lane are not smooth, but are irregular and complex, as in my photo here. On the best nights, with sufficient aperture, you may also see the dark lane isn’t really that dark; it is filled with wisps of nebulosity.

Bump up the power some more and examine the area near the center of the western half, and you will see the famous “hourglass.” This brightest portion of the entire nebula forms a shape not unlike what is on a black widow’s back.

Finally, on the other half, the eastern half of the nebula, there’s the star cluster NGC 6530. This spangled group forms a roughly spherical shape centered on the brightest portion of the eastern half of M8. You should be able to see at least a dozen bright suns here as well as many dimmer ones. Incidentally, this cluster is now thought to be a foreground object and not really involved in the nebula.


M9, which lurks in the far southern portion of the lackluster constellation Ophiuchus, is a lot like Rodney Dangerfield; it just don’t get no respect. Partly, I suppose, because it’s in a seldom visited part of a rather subdued constellation, and partly because it suffers by comparison with Ophiuchus’ two premier and much more well known globulars, M10 and M12. Still, it is an M and M9 is good.

The easiest way to find it? With goto or digital setting circles. No gots? Probably the best guidepost to M9 is magnitude 2.45 Eta Ophiuchi. Proceed 3-degrees 30’ to the southeast of Eta and you should run up against this little magnitude 8.42, 12.0’ diameter knot of stars without too much trouble. If your conditions are good, you may, repeat, may be able to see it in a 9x50 finder as a bloated “star.”

What will you see when you finally land on M9 depends, as always, on your sky, your scope, and you. On a punk night with a 4-inch telescope, it’s barely there at all sometimes, looking a lot like a distant elliptical galaxy. In an 8-inch on a fine evening from a moderately good site, M9 is moderately good with a prominent core, plenty of resolution, and an obviously elongated shape. Since its brightest suns shine at magnitude 13.5, you will want to use an 8-inch telescope on this one if possible and a 10-incher is better.

M10: The Twin Glob (with M12)

M10 is the easternmost of Ophiuchus' two much-loved globulars. It is bright at magnitude 6.40, and large enough, 20.0’, to be prominent, but yet not so large as to spread its light out. If you need directions for finding it, look at your charts and you will see that it forms a near right triangle with two of Ophiuchus’ more prominent stars Han and Yed Prior (Zeta and Delta Ophiuchi, respectively).

To put it mildly, M10 is a wonder. It is the best globular star cluster in Ophiuchus, and Ophiuchus, as you probably know, is just peppered with globs. With a simple 6-inch Dobsonian from a typical suburban site, M10 shows much resolution, and not just with averted vision. At 150x from a badly compromised backyard on a hazy summer night 23 years ago, I was easily able to resolve plenty of tiny little stars surrounding the cluster’s reasonably compact core.

M11: The Wild Duck Cluster

Even people who say they don’t like open clusters like M11. Why? It’s just so beautiful. And it is so rich that it’s really more like a loose globular. Well, almost anyway. It is also trivial to find. It is in the little constellation, Scutum, but your guide to it should probably be Gamma and Iota Aquilae.  Draw a line between those two, and then extend it a near equal distance to one of Scutum’s stars, Eta Scuti. If your skies are not so hot, Iota and Eta may be a little difficult with the naked eye, but a 50mm finder will show them easily.  Anyhow, keep going for another degree and a half from Eta Scuti and you are there. The cluster will show up in almost any optical finder.

Magnitude 6.3, 14.0’ diameter M11 is lovely in any scope. It is a rich oval patch of countless tiny stars. While many open clusters appear blue in overall hue due to their numerous hot young stars, M11 always looks yellowish to me. Finally, while the cluster is called the “wild duck” because the brightest stars form a triangular shape (more apparent in binoculars or a small scope) that looks like a flock of ducks on the wing, there’s something else ducky here. Pump up the power, and you will see a dark shape  near the center of the group, that looks remarkably like a duck with outstretched wings. I swear. Go out and look when M11 comes back around and tell me I am wrong.


People like to call M10 and M12, the Twin Globular Clusters of Ophiuchus. And who am I to tell them not to if they like that? If nothing else, the two are close together in the sky, being separated by only a bit more than 3-degrees. That is about the extent of their twin-ness, though; you’ll find that in the eyepiece the two look absolutely nothing alike.

You have to get to M12 first, of course, and if you don’t have a computer hand control to punch M, 1, and 2 into, the best way to approach it is by noting that M12 forms an almost (but not quite) equilateral triangle with Yed Prior and Han. Or, if you are starting out from M10, just nudge your scope to the west for 3-degrees or so and you’ll see M12 in the field without too much difficulty.

While the cluster will stand out in the eyepiece, don’t expect it to put your eye out. It is considerably more subdued than its supposed twin, M10. You know what M12 reminds me of? Spring’s loose globular cluster, M53. And that is the heart of the matter concerning this one: it is looser than M10 and that makes it appear somewhat dim despite it being, at magnitude 6.1, brighter than M10. Still good, though, as my log entry from that long ago backyard summer night of 1993 says:

Much resolution at 127x and 220x with the 6-inch Dob. The loose core is not completely resolved, but numerous stars put in appearances in the halo around it. The cluster’s shape looks odd, with an almost square appearance.

Next? I don’t know if we will get to our next group of Ms next Sunday or not. If the sky cooperates, I hope to bring you a dark-site report concerning my new 6-inch achromatic refractor instead.

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