You have to strike while the iron is hot here in DC, so when the sky was clear again last night, with seeing and transparency both forecast to be average, I shrugged off my late night fatigue and trudged outside, Takahashi in hand. I didn't have it in me to walk all the way to the park, so I walked over to the (much closer) church.
Unfortunately the bushes that once shielded me have been trimmed, so it's now impossible to avoid the white glare of nearby streetlights. That stops my eyes from fully adjusting to the dark - which means that, when I'm at the church, deep space objects (other than double stars) are out of reach. Luckily the waxing Moon was high in the sky.
Once glance at the Moon - and the Capitol Dome shimmering downhill - confirmed that seeing would be quite good tonight. I used my Berlebach Report tripod, which can just handle the FC-100DZ on either my AYO II mount, or the DiscMounts DM-4 that I recently acquired. The bigger Uni tripod is definitely much sturdier - I used it last time in better seeing - but heavy enough that I didn't want to bring it out tonight.
Once again, my first glimpse of the Moon was a little disappointing tonight. Yet after a few minutes, the telescope and my eyepieces cooled down, and everything snapped into focus. If you ask me, the Moon is at its best when (roughly) half illuminated, especially the northern hemisphere. As I've written here before, I get a real kick out of following how the appearance of the crater Plato changes with the coming and going of lunar day; those changes became a fixation for nineteenth-century Selenographers hoping to detect evidence for volcanism - or perhaps life - on the Moon. Tonight I thought I could just about make out a few craterlets in Plato: a classic test for good seeing (and good optics).
Further south, the huge crater Copernicus is also a pleasure when the terminator is nearby. As Air Force and Army lunar mapping projects competed with one another in 1959, Patricia Marie Mitchell Bridges labored in secret to sketch the crater - and create the finest representation of a lunar environment produced to that point. Thereafter, Air Force maps would pave the way for NASA's expeditions to the Moon. If you ask me, the human history of this corner of the Moon is among the strangest - and richest.
For me, the view tonight was not quite as crisp and clear as it was on the 20th. Still, the Takahashi acquitted itself well, despite the relatively wobbly mount. After about 40 minutes I hit the wall and packed up, exhausted but satisfied.
It seems that the cloudy, turbulent days of winter - in more ways than one - are finally coming to an end. In the wee hours of March 20th, the sky was clear, transparency was (supposed to be) high, and seeing was about average. Conditions, in other words, were about as good as we've had in months.
I trotted out with my EVScope, intent on imaging some of the deep space wonders that are now prominent in the early modern sky. After a lightning-quick setup, as usual, I directed my attention to M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, which is colliding with (and ripping apart) NGC 5195, a smaller galaxy. After a seven-minute exposure, the results impressed me - and for once I noticed that the image looked better when I peered through the eyepiece.
Two other galaxies beckoned around the same constellation (Ursa Major, or the Big Dipper): Bode's Galaxy (M81) and the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101). Both are much trickier targets. Bode's bright core is easy to find, but its spiral arms are easily lost; the Pinwheel is big, but has generally low surface brightness. While transparency was supposed to be high, the sky was actually remarkably bright, and I noticed clear halos around street lamps. If anything conditions promised to be poor for both galaxies, and sure enough I wasn't pleased with the results. Here's a three-minute exposure of the Pinwheel Galaxy; you'll see it doesn't exactly impress.
That's the thing with the EVScope, and something I haven't seen mentioned in any review: like all telescopes, it performs much better under a dark sky. While there's a lot of hype about how it will reveal deep space objects in the middle of the city, that promise holds up much better for objects that are already bright. Fainter objects can be lost in the glare of light pollution, just as they are in traditional optical telescopes. I'll try these galaxies again when conditions are better, but I don't expect radically different results.
By the evening of the 20th conditions had improved dramatically. Both seeing and transparency were now good: a confluence we haven't had here in DC since November, maybe October. Although I was exhausted from waking up early on the previous night, I had to walk out with my Takahashi to catch the Moon while it was still quite high in the sky.
As I've written, I've been a little disappointed since swapping my FC-100DC for the DZ, which is supposed to offer slightly better color correction. While I had only used it in nights of bad seeing, I was beginning to worry that it might have been knocked out of collimation in transport. After I set up on the night of the 20th and glanced at the Moon, those worries only grew: the image looks distressingly soft, and I started thinking about how to contact Takahashi.
Yet after a few minutes the telescope cooled down, and then: wow. Suddenly the Moon snapped into crystal clear, razor-sharp focus, with absolutely zero false color anywhere - including along the lunar limb, where the slightest undulations and shadows were totally crisp. No matter which eyepiece I used, the detail was spectacular. What stood out the most? Probably the rilles; they seemed to be everywhere, and so delicate that they looked like veins on a living thing.
After a little while I concluded that the view seemed best with my 6mm Delos at 133x. At that magnification I could still see the entire Moon, but I was close enough to make out truly breathtaking detail, in every conceivable shape and form. It truly felt as though I was looking out the window of a spaceship, approaching the Moon after a long journey from Earth.
There are times when the atmosphere cooperates, and something spectacular is in the night sky, that it doesn't take long for me to have my fill; to feel as though I can't take in any more, because I just want to savor and remember what I've seen. So it was this night. After about 40 minutes, I packed up and walked home.
So yes, the FC-100DZ is an extraordinary telescope. To me, it has a bit less false color than the DC and significantly less than the TV-85, although both of those telescopes really had very little, and that gives it a small edge in sharpness. The difference is subtle but noticeable - on nights of good seeing. Of course, those night don't come along very often, and I've found that on most clear nights the state of the atmosphere matters far more than slight improvements in instrumentation. The FC-100DZ's bigger improvement over the DC, as I've written, is probably its modest but meaningful mechanical upgrades.
Still, owing fine refractors has made me a little obsessive about the details, and for me the move from a DC to a DZ appears to have been worth it. That's a relief!
I've written it before, but wow: Washington, DC is such a feast or famine city for amateur astronomy. We've had bad seeing on just about every clear night (and there haven't been many) for around five months now. At last, this month, the clouds parted - but on night after night, the seeing remained poor at best. I took out the Takahashi FC-100DZ twice, and both times found the seeing well below average. Both times the Moon failed to impress as it otherwise might, and stars shimmered and danced in the eyepiece. Mars had long since set; I won't have another good look at the planet until 2022.
At last, at 4:30 AM on Wednesday morning I stepped out with my EVScope and found the seeing to be . . . okay? It was windy near the ground, to my great frustration, but the stars scarcely twinkled and the internet confirmed it: seeing, it seemed, was about average. Of course that doesn't matter as much as transparency when you want to observe most deep space objects, but transparency was average, too. The sky, in other words, was about as good as it's gotten since autumn.
It was a little cold, however, and muddy where I set up in the park. I hoped to test the EVscope on the Ring Nebula and the Hercules cluster: two objects I admired last year with my refractors. The scope aligned itself within seconds - why can't other mounts do this? - and I soon found it to be in perfect collimation. Moments later, it had found the Ring Nebula and I began a short exposure.
As I wrote last year, under urban skies the Ring Nebula looks like a ghostly grey ring with a fine four-inch refractor - a ring you can just, just make out with direct vision. Using the APM 140 with averted vision, the ring was plainly obvious. In darker skies, with a four-inch Takahashi, the ring was equally obvious and appeared a little flattened. Every time I looked, there was a visceral thrill to seeing it, with just a couple lenses between my eye and the nebula. Yet through the eyepiece, the object itself was a subtle pleasure.
The experience couldn't be more different with the EVScope. That thrill of seeing something with your own eyes is just about gone. Unlike others, I really don't like looking through the scope's eyepiece; it's like looking down a barrel, for one, and at the bottom of that barrel it's clear that you're seeing a screen. Maybe I've been spoiled by fine refractors and fine eyepieces, but it's a letdown.
So I look at my phone, and for the most part I wait. The experience of observing - of learning how to see - is completely lost with the EVScope. Yet the thrill of seeing deep space objects otherwise barely visible from the city beginning to resemble their true selves is simply something you can't get with a traditional telescope under an urban sky. This time I really was floored when the nebula almost immediately turned green on my screen, and then when its perimeter began to seem orange, and then when its interior started to take on a greenish hue. The breeze pushed on the tube just enough to blur some of the stars, but what a wonder.
Observing the Hercules cluster was a slightly different story. The cluster is always a highlight for me, not least because it's three times older than Earth - or because we beamed a message there from Arecibo, in 1974. With one of my refractors, it looks like a smudge at first from downtown DC, but after a while the stars come out, like diamond dust on a velvet background. It's subtle - exceptionally so with one of my smaller scopes - but magical nonetheless.
Again, the experience couldn't be more different with the EVScope. Hundreds of stars are easily visible, but of course they're slightly bloated; they lack that crushed gemstone beauty that you get with a fine refractor. Many of the stars are also clearly red, a testament to their age: again, things are visible through the EVScope that just aren't accessible with a regular telescope. Is the view more impressive? Maybe not to an experienced observer, but it's different, and that's a good thing.
Some complain that the EVScope delivers the same experience you might get with a much cheaper (and more unwieldy) astrophotography setup. That's just not true. The EVScope is marvelously portable, and I can set it up in about one minute. It needs virtually no time to cool down. It's a joy to use and on most nights there's no fuss at all. In half an hour I can pack up - this takes another minute - having observed at least three deep space wonders as I otherwise never could. The key point is that the EVScope delivers a fundamentally different experience than you'd get with either a traditional telescope or an astrophotography setup - and again, I view that as a very good thing.
It has, to put it mildly, been an eventful ten weeks since I last wrote in this journal. We endured a sustained effort to subvert democracy and a frightening insurrection in the midst of what - we hope - was the worst stretch of a once-in-a-century pandemic . . . and then, at long last, we exhaled with the return of decency and competency to the White House. There were nights I was too consumed by the news to take out a telescope, believe it or not.
But the bigger reason for the lack of updates here has been the atmosphere. For months it has been every bit as turbulent as the politics in this city; in fact, I don't think we've had a night of good seeing since early November. I took out my Takahashi FC-100DZ a couple times, if only to catch a glimpse of Mars before it grew too small for detailed observation. While I caught a glimpse of those dark albedo features and even the southern ice cap, the planet is now too small for the kind of views that dazzled me last summer and fall - and the seeing never really brought it all into focus.
On the night of January 12th, with our observation deck deserted, I did manage to haul the Takahashi and my TV 85 to the rooftop. Since I swapped my FC-100DC for the DZ primarily to obtain the best-possible views of Mars, I thought I'd compare the view through the Takahashi with what I could get using the TV 85. As I've written in these pages, the TV 85 offers gloriously high-contrast views, but its color correction is supposed to lag behind that of the Takahashi refractors, especially the DZ.
So, was the view very different? Well, the seeing was awful, so that hampered the comparison . . . and my red dot finders abruptly stopped working, which made it much harder to quickly compare the views. Then I discovered, to my surprise, that my AYO II mount has developed a little slippage, especially when holding two telescopes. Is it time to look for a new medium mount?
In any case, I did eventually get a chance to observe Mars through both telescopes. I thought that perhaps I could make out a little more detail with the DZ, but the seeing was so bad and the usable magnification so low that I couldn't be sure. I was, however, struck by the difference in color. Mars was much redder through the TV 85, and the planet's colors looked more accurate, more natural using the DZ. To me, at least, that's roughly synonymous with "better." The difference was big enough that I can't really imagine using the TV 85 over the DZ for planetary observation, even in bad seeing and cold weather.
In any case, I have some tinkering to do before using either telescope again; new finders and perhaps a new mount may be in order.
On November 16th, the sky was clear and, after a glorious sunset, atmospheric seeing promised to be mediocre but transparency was predicted to be superb. With no Moon in the sky, conditions were right to take the EVScope for another spin.
I've now (separately) purchased the backpack that's sold with the EVScope; my rolling case, I suspect, my knock the telescope out of alignment. When I set it up this time, collimation was just about perfect. I made a couple tiny tweaks - again, this took seconds - and then rapidly achieved fine focus with the built-in Bahtinov mask. It was cold and I was exhausted, so I figured I would only take two ten-minute exposures of the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies.
Moments after the telescope slewed to Andromeda, I heard some rustling in the distance and noticed a dim orange glow, appearing and disappearing. Then the sounds of muttering wafted over on the breeze. It seemed I was sharing my park - and I had the disquieting feeling that I was being observed. After about eight minutes or so, I thought a third shadow joined the two in the distance, and then the rustling got closer. The conversation, it seemed, was definitely in Russian. Suddenly a flashlight turned on; there were three people, and they were walking directly towards me. I greeted them: "Hello? Hi!". At that, one of them exclaimed "oh my God!", and then all three of them darted to the side, behind a bush, and disappeared. The sounds receded into the distance.
That was unsettling. Fortunately, after ten minutes the Andromeda exposure turned out nicely, considering the light pollution. Collimation and fine alignment really makes for much tighter stars and far better images, though I imagine things would be better still in superior seeing (and, of course, under a darker sky).
Now it was on to Triangulum. It wasn't long ago that I managed to spot the galaxy with the FC-100DC, under darker skies some distance from DC. I noticed only a slight brightening of the sky, with averted vision, in what I could just perceive - or imagine - to be a spiral pattern. Clearly observing the galaxy now, from downtown, is a particular thrill. I don't know why, but Triangulum in particular has always captured my imagination. Maybe it's because it gets so little attention compared to the two giants of our Local Group of galaxies, or maybe because it's a face-on galaxy with distinctly knotted spiral arms . . . I'm not sure why, exactly. In any case, I find that the EVScope does a particularly good job on this galaxy (see above).
And again, during the exposure I was in for a shock. With a loud thump and a lot of growing, a rabbit suddenly rushed right by the telescope, a fox in hot pursuit. The fox stopped short of my location with a snarl, then scampered - its little legs a blur - over a hill and behind a bush. Both fox and rabbit were no more than six feet from me. I couldn't wait to tell my four-year-old daughter in the morning.
Anyway, after a few more minutes the Triangulum exposure was done to my satisfaction. I packed up the telescope, warmed my chilled fingers, and walked home. Suffice it to say, I've really started to enjoy the EVScope.
A few days after my strange night with the EVScope, an ad appeared on AstroMart that forced me into hours of tortured thought (usually while attempting to get my one-year-old to sleep). Here was a Takahashi FC-100DZ, used only once and in pristine condition. As I've mentioned before, this year I've been tempted to swap my 100DC for a DZ. The DZ has better color correction and its optics might be marginally sharper, on average, though both improvements may be difficult to detect visually (I read many opinions, and they seem to differ). You can read a great breakdown of the relative merits of the four current FC-100 models here.
I've resisted the urge to swap the DC for the DZ because, first, the hassle and expense seemed daunting, and second, the DC's weight is supposed to be lighter. The difference in weight, I concluded, outweighed (sorry) the marginal difference in optical quality. Yet the four-inch refractor is my most used telescope, and now I couldn't resist the urge to upgrade to maybe the finest refractor of this size ever made.
So, I bought the DZ and sold my DC (along with some other stuff to make up the cost).
I have to say, the comparison between DC and DZ surprised me in a few ways that aren't covered elsewhere. First and for my purposes most importantly, the weight difference between the two telescopes is scarcely noticeable. In the above pictures, you can see the DZ in a configuration for short-range, daytime viewing. However, to reach focus for astronomical viewing you must detach one of the couplings, and that makes the DZ noticeably lighter. It is then also more compact than the DZ when the sliding dew shield is tucked over the optical tube.
Second, the most important couplings of the DZ do not screw apart but rather use thumbscrews and compression rings. You can also use that system to attach a diagonal, and I can't tell you what a difference it makes. I actually detest the Takahashi fetish for stacking screwable couplings in the visual back. The couplings, I've found, tend to stick together, and they're not wide enough to grip easily. It's easy to damage them (cosmetically) by applying too much pressure (I did as much to one of the DC's couplings). The new system brings the DZ in line with most other fine refractors, and it is just such a relief.
Third, to balance the telescope - using just about any eyepiece - the clamshell tube holder must sit farther from the visual back than it does with the DC. This may seem like a very minor detail, but it provides more room for a red dot finder (RDF) just in front of the visual back. My Rigel QuikFinder RDF is now in a more comfortable position, and it's those little details that can make a real difference in the field.
Fourth, the focuser is just a bit nice. Its knobs are metal - not plastic, as in the DC - and the feel is a bit smoother (though I did need to adjust the tension knob for my big Delos eyepieces). I sold Takahashi's two-speed focuser upgrade with the DC, and although I will no doubt miss the fine focus on the DZ, I didn't like how the two-speed add-on left some daylight around the gear housing. On the DZ, I'll stick with the stock focuser. That focuser, by the way, allows me to reach focus with all my eyepieces - something that was just out of reach for the DC.
Finally, although the sliding dew shield is very smooth and easy to use, its tightening screw does leave a subtle mark on the optical tube that is noticeable when the dew shied is deployed. I wonder if the previous owner tightened the screw a bit too much, but I doubt it; I think this is just a natural consequence of the technology. It only matters if you're obsessive about the condition of your equipment - but Takahashi telescopes are so beautiful that they tend to bring out that obsession.
Last night, and against my better judgement, I took out the DZ for the first time. I say "against my better judgement" because transparency was mediocre and seeing was poor. It's a recipe for disappointment to take out a new telescope in such conditions. I couldn't resist, but I did set up near the cathedral, closer to my house so I could hurry back if observing disappointed.
And did it? Well, a look at Mars did clearly reveal that the atmosphere would not be my friend tonight. And yet, I could plainly make out no fewer than three large dark albedo markings, along with that brilliant south polar icecap. Turning elsewhere, Rigel A and B were laughably easy to split in the poor seeing, and Orion was beautiful even before it emerged from the light pollution near the horizon.
So could I make out an optical difference between the DC and DZ? Not after one night of poor seeing. Mars did seem a bit yellower than it does through the DC, and certainly I could detect absolutely no hint of false color in or out of focus. I'm excited to study the Moon, for example, on a really good night. Yet I don't expect a large or even a plainly noticeable difference. I bought the DZ primarily so I could be absolutely sure that the optical quality of my most-used telescope would never hold back my observations - and so that I would never wonder what something would look like with a slightly better telescope of the same design. It's a tiny thing, but after a while tiny things start to matter a whole lot in amateur astronomy.
It was a cold, damp night when I stepped out with the EVscope and found a relatively mud-free corner to set up in my park. I decided to try my hand at collimating the telescope to see if that might tighten the stars in my pictures, and I hoped to decide, once and for all, whether to keep the telescope before my refund period ran out.
To my surprise, the telescope was badly out of focus when I turned it on - so out of focus that its auto-alignment failed. Fortunately, it comes with a bahtinov mask cleverly built into the dew shield. Achieving rough focus, and then fine focus with the mask, takes a matter of seconds. With that done, the telescope immediately found alignment, and I got it to slew to Bellatrix, a fairly bright star in Orion. Now I turned the focuser knob until a dark cross appeared in front of the suddenly bloated star: the spider vanes holding up what would be a secondary mirror in most reflectors (but is a sensor in the EVScope).
The cross was badly askew, which means that the telescope was poorly collimated. It took all of 30 seconds or so to fix the problem, and even less time to achieve fine focus again. And then, voila: the stars were more closely to dots - rather than smeared blobs - and the resolution of the telescope suddenly seemed higher. Funny how that works.
I tried my hand at imaging a few objects: the Orion Nebula, of course, and the Flame Nebula, Bode's Galaxy, and the little galaxy NGC 1637. The latter was a bust: it's very small, and lost in the glow of light pollution to the south. An unavoidable problem for me is that the EVScope amplifies both the light of deep space objects and the light pollution in our DC skies. It's not a problem for brilliant objects like the Orion Nebula or the Andromeda Galaxy, but dim, diffuse objects are another story. I also didn't take exposures longer than five minutes. It's one thing to gawk at the Moon or Mars for that long - or much longer - but another thing to sit silently in the cold, waiting.
But was it ever cool to see the spiral arms of Bode's Galaxy, slowly brightening on my screen as the minutes and seconds ticked by. Here were photons 12 million years old, from a galaxy nearly the size of our own, somehow visible in an urban sky. The view was quite sharp, I thought, and the telescope performed perfectly, immediately slewing to whatever I asked it to find.
Do I prefer my optical telescopes? Yes, for most objects I do, but it's simply true that the EVScope shows me hundreds of nebulae and galaxies that I never imagined seeing from the city, and reveals glorious detail in wonders I thought I already knew well. It's a keeper. Now if only I could get a lightweight, go-to mount for my refractors . . . .
We've enjoyed maybe the best stretch of clear nights with good seeing that I've experienced since moving to Washington, DC, and I was out nearly every night with a telescope in hand. Between work, childcare, and observing, I had no chance to update this blog - but now it's raining, and I have an hour (but just an hour) to relax.
Roughly two weeks ago, I spotted a Takahashi FS-102 for sale on Astromart. Amateur astronomers will know that this is a four-inch refractor with a well-earned reputation for exceptional optics. It's been replaced by the Takahashi FC-100 series, and I already own a telescope in that line. But the FS-102, while much bulkier than my 100DC, does better at longer wavelengths. And in Mars-watching season, that's what I convinced myself I needed.
Although the FS-102 was supposedly in pristine condition, when it arrived I was dismayed to discover that the lens cell was loose and the tube was covered - I mean covered - with scratches. Luckily, the owner was mortified when I informed him, and I received a (nearly) full refund. I now had some cash to spare, and at just that moment a new copy of Sky and Telescope arrived. A favorable review of the EVScope convinced me to give that telescope another chance (see a previous entry for my first impressions). Maybe the buggy version I owned before had unfairly soured me on the product? It did, after all, offer me a chance to observe nebulae and galaxies I would otherwise never have a chance to see from the city . . . .
After it arrived, I bundled the telescope into a suitcase and rolled it along to my nearby park. After I turned it on, it just about instantly figured out where it was and slewed (quietly) to any object in the sky, like magic. Clearly, I'd been sold a glitchy version the first time around. This was more like it! And when I tapped on "enhanced vision" (I describe the technology in a previous entry), the effect was really satisfying. After a couple minutes gathering light on the Andromeda Galaxy, for example, dust lanes I'd previously spotted only with averted vision clearly snapped into focus.
So, how good are the views? Well: although I managed to achieve fine focus, I think I'll need to collimate the telescope when I'm next out. Stars are not exactly pinpoints, as these images attest, and that's also caused by a tendency of the telescope to move too much while it's gathering and stacking images. There's more noise in the pictures than I'd prefer, and after getting used to my wonderful TeleVue eyepieces, the view through the EVScope's "eyepiece" is really cramped. It's like looking through a tunnel. More importantly: no, seeing an image through a grainy screen is just not at all the same as seeing it through an optical eyepiece. An optical telescope feels like an extension of the eye; not so the digital EVScope.
But damn, it's cool to see galaxies shimmer into view on my iPhone screen. It's simply true that I can see things now that I never would have imagined seeing before, and isn't that what this is all about?
I mean, the Triangulum Galaxy from an urban sky . . . are you kidding me?
I'm still learning how to use this technology, and pictures I've seen online tell me there's plenty of room for improvement. Still, I've noticed that the images look much more spectacular in the app, while I'm in the field, than they do after I get home. Certainly they pale in comparison to even half-decent astrophotographs made with dedicated gear. Now does the technology always work seamlessly. Just a couple nights ago, I had to restart the telescope and reinstall the software before I could get the enhanced vision mode to work, and by then I'd already shivered outside for about 30 minutes. Some objects also look immeasurably better through my optical telescopes. The EVScope is just about useless for lunar and planetary views, and stars look like ugly blobs compared to the beautiful diamonds they resemble through my refractor.
Yet what the EVScope does so well is find that sweet spot between visual observation and astrophotography, and it does so in an integrated package that's usually a pleasure to use. No, I never had the thrill of seeing something with my own eyes - the thrill I've described often in these pages - but I certainly did get a deep sense of pleasure when I glimpsed the Whirlpool Galaxy from the city.
One virtue of the EVScope is its weight. If I stuff the EVScope into the suitcase I used for the APM - which, admittedly, does seem to mess with its collimation - then I can easily sling my Takahashi 60Q over my shoulder (and wedge its tripod in the suitcase). I've now used the 60Q twice, including once in the early morning, with the EVScope gathering Orion's light. I have to say: I was more than a little stunned by its quality. To my astonishment, the Moon through the 60Q really didn't look any dimmer than it does through the TV 85, and details were equally sharp.
Here are three images I took of the Moon over the last week, with the 60Q, the FC-100DC, and the APM 140. A reminder: the 60Q has an aperture of about 2.5 inches; the 100DC of 4 inches, and the APM of 5.5 inches (these are big differences for refractors). The optical quality of each telescope is roughly similar, though I'd say the APM shows the most false color, and the 60Q the least.
That's the 60Q on the left, and the APM on the right. The comparison isn't quite fair; seeing and transparency differed on each night - it was average when I used the APM, and decidedly better than average when I used the 60Q and 100DC - and while the smaller telescopes had fully cooled down when I took these images, the APM in my judgement had not. Still, it amazes me how slight the differences are. I have a new phone, by the way, with a much better camera, and I think it shows.
These pictures were taken after the APM had fully acclimated, and I think it's fair to say that now the aperture difference is more easily visible. There's a deeper and more richly textured quality to these images than there is to the 60Q closeup above. Yet it always takes me aback to realize that, when telescopes are of similar quality, differences from night to night on bright objects - the Moon especially - owe more to atmospheric conditions than anything else, including aperture. It's different for dimmer objects. I can usually see at least five stars in the Trapezium using the APM, for example, but I've rarely if ever confidently spotted a fifth with any other refractor.
Mars was full of detail when I observed it with the APM - wow that south polar cap looks bright and sharply defined right now - but I found that it, and every other bright object, was surrounded by a bright halo that night. This seems to be a common and very annoying optical effect in the skies of Washington, DC. On two nights with the 100DC, however, I had no such problem. Dark albedo markings were wonderfully detailed, and I spent easily an hour both nights just enjoying the view. It's a little sad to think that every night brings us a little farther from the red planet, but the view should dazzle for months to come.
One last note. My first night with the 100DC over these past two weeks was November 3rd. I suddenly resolved to stop doom scrolling and instead do something that distracted me. But what a sinking feeling I felt, walking bewildered to the field, with panicked screams - yes, screams - echoing around me. I walked out on the 4th, too, and the mood was lighter. Then, on the 7th, while playing with my kids in the very spot I usually set up my telescopes, came the good news: the networks had called it for Biden. I'll never forget the scenes of spontaneous joy on the streets: the bells ringing, cars honking, crowds cheering. We may be in for some very dark months this winter, but that was a moment I'll long remember.
After selling my EVScope recently - you can read more about that choice below - I sold a few other items and wound up with a nice chunk of change. I started feeling a familiar temptation, one I've described often in these pages. Should I buy a big telescope that, yes, wouldn't cool down quickly enough to use outside of summer, and yes, might struggle with dew or collimation, but - but! - if conditions were just right, could show me more of the universe than my refractors currently reveal?
One option after another came to mind as I struggled to settle my one-year-old at night, and one after another I knocked them down. Visions of what I might see with a much bigger telescope clashed with visions of that telescope gathering dust in my closet while I walked out the door with another small refractor. The truth is, I have to walk too far and observe too quickly for anything other than a refractor to make much sense (except perhaps a Hubble Optics reflector, but I worried about setup time).
In the end, I decided to double down on what I already have, and add a little variety to my refractor lineup. I really wanted a telescope that's even more portable than my TV-85, for nights I'm feeling tired, want to go further afield, or don't have enough faith in the atmosphere to haul out a bigger instrument. And I wanted a refractor that's a little better in red wavelengths than my FC-100DC, and maybe just a bit more attuned to planetary observation. No major leaps, then, but a bit more versatility and a bit more variety.
My first purchase was a Takahashi FS-60Q. I found what seemed like a good deal and couldn't resist pulling the trigger. The 60Q screws in half, so it fits neatly in a small backpack with my VAMO traveler mount. It even comes in two formats: a tiny, do-everything version with a very short or "fast" focal ratio, and a long "Q" version that's "slower" and has much better color correction. That's the version I'll use - screwed in half, as I carry it on my back.
When the telescope arrived, the optics were in perfect shape but the body had a couple tiny nicks - imperceptible at first glance - and the dust cap didn't fit quite as snugly as I'm sure it once did. What's worse, I quickly found that I needed a long list of expensive accessories to actually use the telescope. After a couple weeks and a lot of headaches, I finally had everything assembled and ready to go. It was a cold night with below-average seeing: exactly the kind of evening that didn't seem to justify dragging out a bigger telescope. The weight of my whole setup was almost laughably light as I excited my building; I could barely feel it at all. I could get used to that . . . .
I found that same spot next to the church where I'd set up my APM a week or so ago. It took me just a couple minutes to unpack my gear, although I have to say: screwing the little telescope together is an extra step that can be a bit awkward in the dark. The sounds of traffic were also a little too close for my liking, and I wished I had walked on down to our nearby park. Yet it was late, and this was so much better than nothing.
Mars was now right at opposition, and wow did it even look big - even through the little telescope. To my delight, both dark albedo features and the south polar ice cap were immediately obvious on the planet, and the seeing didn't seem that much worse than average (owing, perhaps, to the smaller aperture of the telescope). I could make out Mare Cimmerium, clear as day, and I think maybe - just maybe - the long, thin outline of Hyblaeus. The Curiosity rover, the Insight lander, and even Viking 2 were all in the picture, in a more or less vertical line across the planet.
After about half an hour of ogling, I packed up. The view was much dimmer than it is through my bigger refractors, but the detail I could make out was truly impressive for such a little telescope. The one drawback: I can't reach focus with any of my Delos eyepieces using the telescope. I suppose that's okay; they're really too heavy for a really portable setup.
Then, last night, I returned to the church with my FC-100DC. Atmospheric seeing promised to be better than average, but it was immediately obvious from the halos around streetlights that transparency would be anything but. This time, I nearly convinced myself to keep walking to the park, but again it was cold, I was tired, and I wanted to go to bed on time. What a joy it's been to observe Mars high in the sky in the evening, rather than the (painfully) early morning!
Strangely, I happened across much the same region of Mars. While the planet was a good deal brighter than it had appeared through the FS-60Q, the transparency was so bad that I spotted only the tiniest hints of additional detail (usually, it's the seeing that limits planetary observation). Once again, I enjoyed the view for about half an hour, watched a deer walk daintily across the sidewalk, and then packed up. Hard to believe that I can now get six hours of sleep after observing Mars!
Opposition! What a word, for Mars observers. Earth is directly between Mars and the Sun in exactly one week, and it's in a part of Mars's orbit that takes it especially close to our planet. We won't get a view like this for 15 years or so, and we haven't had one like it since 2003. Technically, Mars was a little closer in 2018, but as I recall it didn't get very high above the horizon then for Northern Hemisphere observers, and a global dust storm - more likely when Mars is relatively close to the Sun - thoroughly spoiled the view. At the time, my telescopes showed only a fuzzy orange ball, with just the faintest hint of dark albedo features (and that was probably my imagination). I resolved then to be ready for 2020, and I certainly have been. This week, I explored the planet with my Takahashi FC-100DC and APM 140, and wow: what a view.
I should begin by saying that I also observed Mars in single-digit (Celsius!) weather on the morning of September 22nd, but also the seeing was forecast to be average, the transparency of the atmosphere left much to be desired. There were odd halos around everything: street lamps, the Moon, and certainly Mars. I could only make out four stars in the Trapezium with the APM, and albedo features didn't pop on Mars as they can when the atmosphere is stable and clear.
When the sky cleared again on October 4th, I decided to take my 4" Takahashi to the field. Mars rises early enough now for me to step out in the late evening - just before midnight - which typically allows me to sleep more restfully (albeit still for only four or so hours). This time, transparency was a whole lot better, but seeing was about the same: not terrible, but by no means good.
Albedo features were stark and obvious on the planet, however, and I wished I'd taken a sketch pad. I was unhappy with the iPhone drawings I attempted to take on other nights, so I opted not to draw one of those - maybe a mistake, but it did give me more time to drink in the view at the eyepiece. The Moon had a hint of that "watery" look it can take on when the seeing is mediocre, but still: I had a nice long look at Mare Crisium at lunar sunset. Jupiter and Saturn had long since set, and I had a pang of sadness: I'm unlikely to observe them for a good long while. Mars will make up for it!
Then, tonight, the seeing promised to be above average. I'd hoped to observe in the evening again, but unexpected clouds ruined that plan. By 3 AM the sky had cleared, and out I walked with my APM 140. To my alarm, Mars was already lower in the sky than I'd anticipated, and I feared it would be lower still by the time I arrived in my preferred observing site. I hadn't walked far when I noticed a dark alcove beside a church I frequent, and it occurred to me that it would afford a great view of the southern sky. So, I abandoned the field I normally visit for that alcove: a high risk gambit, since the field is a sure thing and it seemed entirely possible that there might be currents from nearby buildings to ruin this spot. Worse: the church is right next to the National Cathedral, and I worried: could security kick me from the grounds?
But no, this time it all worked out. I found a nice corner to settle down, and when I turned the APM to Mars it was full of wonderful detail. The entire southern hemisphere of the planet seemed dark, relative to the rest, with spectacular, linear features that helped me realize how nineteenth-century observers could have imagined a network of canals on the planet. The south polar cap was remarkably bright and clearly defined, and I could just - just - make out the white clouds of the north polar hood on the limb of the planet.
Mars reaches its closet approach to Earth next Tuesday at 10 AM EST: a scant 62,069,570 kilometers (by astronomical standards, a stone's throw). It was quite strange to see the planet so big and bright, entirely illuminated by the Sun. I felt it was almost too bright for the APM, strangely enough, at least at 217x (the highest magnification I felt I could use with a manual mount). Still: what an unforgettable view.
The waning Moon was nearly at zenith, and in good seeing it also provided a spectacular view. Yet because I wanted to keep switching to Mars, I didn't adjust the height of the tripod - and that made for a very uncomfortable lunar viewing experience (painful, in fact, because of a worsening neck and back injury). I captured some quick pictures without being able to fully stabilize my old phone, and they actually turned out a bit better than I'd hoped. A testament to the capabilities of the APM in an accommodating atmosphere.
By next week we will be on the downswing of this year's opposition, and it already saddens me to think how long it will be before we have a similar view. What will the world look like then? With how quickly things seem to be changing - often, it appears, for the worse - it seems impossible to guess. With any luck, I'll still have this blog - and I'll still have a telescope as good as the APM 140.
To say I was tired after my last morning out is an understatement. There's nothing like 16 straight hours of work and childcare after a three hour night's sleep. Yet when the forecast called for better-than-average seeing and transparency on another clear morning, I had to go out again. After all, it'll be a while before Mars looks this good. This time, however, I took my Takahashi FC-100 DC and my lightest tripod; I was still a little sore from hauling the APM.
Conditions were just about the same this morning as they had been on the sixth, and that provided a nice opportunity to test how close the view through a good 4-inch refractor can get to that of a 5.5-inch (the APM). In a word (okay two words): pretty close! The Moon dazzled with detail, although I definitely saw finer features - especially those rilles - with the APM. Mars was wonderfully clear, with dark albedo features obvious but maybe a bit less dark than they had been through the APM, and the south polar ice cap much dimmer. Orion and the Trapezium were wonderful, but I could only clearly see four stars in the Trapezium - with a hint of the fifth, "F" star. You could drive a truck between Rigel A and B, but maybe a slightly smaller truck than you could with the APM. The Takahashi is just a fantastic telescope.
I set out to observe Mars, and indeed I observed the planet for a good long time. Two years ago, during the last opposition, I dreamed of exactly the views I've had this year. Once again, I tried sketching the view on my phone, but it's become clear that I've reached the limit of what's possible with that technique. Next time, I'll bring sketchpad - but still, it's nice to know what I've seen.
I found that the steady atmosphere easily permitted a magnification of around 250x, which is rare in these parts - and better than I enjoyed on the sixth. Although I spent a lot of time on Mars, I found I kept returning to the Moon. There's nothing like the gloriously detailed lunar views a fine refractor can reveal in good seeing. Features visible around the terminator were especially interesting tonight, with plenty of tiny craters glinting at local sunset, and some really interesting, rectilinear scarps (or so I decided; I'll have to look this up later).
So, another great morning - but it'll take me a few days to recover this time.