December 1, 2019
Last week, it was clear for two nights in a row, with the Moon below the western horizon and all the bright planets setting soon after the Sun. A good time, I figured, to have a look at Orion - rising to the east at around 8 PM - and track down some double stars that I'd missed in years past. I've recently become much more interested in double stars, partly because I now imagine what the sky must look like from orbiting planets.
On both nights, I was forced to use our observation deck. My daughter was a little sick, and I had to be on call in case she woke up and needed something. Since it's illuminated, the deck is a terrible place for deep space observation, but it's a whole lot better than nothing. Unfortunately, atmospheric turbulence was high and seeing on both nights was therefore somewhere between atrocious and worse than average. Not terrible for low-power observation of Orion and open clusters, but nowhere near good enough for splitting tricky double stars.
On night one, I stepped out with my Takahashi refractor: my go-to, all-around telescope, especially in cold weather. The seeing was then closer to atrocious, especially near the horizon, and views of Orion were not exactly the best I've had. I've focused on getting great equipment, but more often than not it's the atmosphere that limits what I see at night. On top of that, it was gusty on the observation deck: gusty enough to actually push my telescope. Not a great night, to put it lightly.
Undaunted, I stepped outside on night two with both my TV 85 and my Mewlon. I observed for around 45 minutes with the TeleVue, lingering on the Pleiades and Hyades: brilliant open clusters that are now high in the sky and therefore spectacular at around 9 PM. The seeing was well below average: bad enough to notice at low magnifications, but not bad enough to spoil the view (in contrast to the previous night).
After a while, I mounted my Mewlon. For over a month, I've waited for a sturdier mount to arrive from Stellarvue, but no success. I've had to cancel and go with another option, from the manufacturer of the only mount I have now: my VAMO Traveller. This mount is downright miraculous for its light weight and ability to handle substantial telescopes, but it's overmatched with the Mewlon.
The view was therefore a little wobbly, and the problem was compounded but two equally bad problems: the seeing near the horizon, especially with the higher magnifications that the Mewlon permits, and the thermal state of the telescope, which had still not cooled down in the low temperatures (it was around 7° C). Stars danced in the eyepiece, or even stretched into short lines: a bizarre effect that I've rarely seen.
Still, by around 10 PM, at modest magnification, I did get a decent view of Orion: a great deal brighter and perhaps more impressive than what I'd seen with the TV 85. Rigel A and B were also much easier to split with the Mewlon than with the TV 85, though I did manage it through both telescopes in spite of the awful seeing. Castor A and B also made for a brilliant and impressive binary, though, again: it was hard to find the targets I was hunting for with the opaque sky (transparency was low) soaking up DC's light pollution.
In short: not the best night for the Mewlon, and exactly the kind of conditions in which the TV 85 can match much bigger telescopes. As usual: I'm still happy I stepped outside!
November 9, 2019
So I may have contracted a mild case of aperture fever. Not the first time, and likely not the last.
I caught a glimpse of the Ring Nebula with my 100mm Takahashi recently, and part of me was impressed. With averted vision I could just make out a ghostly grey smoke ring - not bad, considering the bright urban sky. Yet the view made me wonder what it might look like through something bigger; viewing the moon made me wish for even higher magnifications and just a bit more light. I like my C8, but its optical quality isn't quite on par with that of my fine refractors. And while it cools down in 40 minutes or so if the weather is mild, that won't cut it in the winter.
So, I bought a Takahashi Mewlon 180.
It turned out that I had a lot more money squirreled away in my university accounts than I expected, and I can only spend it on research or research-related equipment. That meant telescopes, and the Mewlon, I felt, would fulfill all my needs. It squeezes a lot of aperture into a package that's almost as small as a Catadioptric, except it's a Dall-Kirkham reflector, which means it doesn't have a corrector at the front and therefore cools down quite quickly. It's also a Takahashi, and that all but guarantees excellent optical quality and superior craftsmanship. I was tempted to get the (even) pricier 210mm version, but after a lot of reading I decided on something just a bit smaller: something that would cool down even faster and be less sensitive to poor atmospheric seeing.
When you take it out of the box(es), the Mewlon does not disappoint. It's the most beautiful telescope I've ever owned. It looks like a jet engine. It's a bit bigger than I expected - of course - but light and wonderfully well-balanced around its slender dovetail. I got a giant and excessively well-added carrying bag for it, which adds significantly to the hassle of lugging it to my observing sites but adds a little peace of mind, too.
Within a week of the Mewlon's arrival, the sky was clear and the Moon a beautiful crescent. I carried both the Mewlon and my TV 85 to our observation deck. It was cold, and I used the TeleVue for about 35 minutes while the Mewlon cooled. Once again, the little telescope surprised me. It seems to defy the laws of physics by squeezing so much performance out of such a tiny package. Details on the Moon were simply stunning, and Saturn - despite being low on the horizon, and despite some very mediocre seeing - wasn't bad either.
Two things were immediately obvious when I switched to the Mewlon: first, the view was brighter and I could use a lot more magnification, although the Moon was now lower on the horizon and the seeing was worse. Second, my little Berlebach Report tripod and VAMO Traveller mount just couldn't handle the Mewlon like they could the shorter - but slightly wider - C8. The view wobbled, badly. I've already ordered a sturdier tripod (another from Berlebach) and tripod (this time from Stellarvue).
Still, I was delighted with the Mewlon. The Moon's terminator was just a bit more detailed, even at relatively low magnifications, than it had been through the TV 85. The view wasn't completely different at those magnifications - a testament to the much smaller TV 85 - but there was definitely more there, and it was crisper than it had been through the C8. At high magnifications - magnifications the TV 85 couldn't match - a new world started to emerge. I don't think the Mewlon had fully cooled down, however, despite the wait, and I wish I could have stayed out just a bit longer.
Whenever the Moon is up, I try to take pictures using my iPhone 8. That's as close to astrophotography as I hope to get, at least for now. Although iPhone pictures inevitably have far less clarity, vibrance, and sharpness than views through the eyepiece, I am learning how to take better shots. I've given up on the gadgets that some telescope makers sell to mount the phone in front of the eyepiece; in my experience, the results are too often disappointing. Instead, I've learned to hold my hands more steadily - steadily enough to focus the phone on the object I'm observing.
I've also learned to enhance the clarity and definition of the photos I take, and then slightly increase the settings for shadows, vibrance, and occasionally black point to better approximate what I'm seeing. My most important lesson, however, is to take videos of anything other than zoomed out views of the Moon. By taking videos, I can freeze on frames in which atmospheric seeing suddenly stabilizes. When I take a screenshot of those frames, the resulting picture is often much sharper than I get by just starting on picture mode. Some objects that are totally washed out otherwise - like Saturn - start to look like themselves when I take a video.
I enjoy taking even the decidedly amateurish photos I can get with my iPhone. But at some point, I'd like to try my hand at sketching, like the nineteenth-century observers I've been reading and writing about lately. I doubt my results will equal theirs at first, but it will be fun to try.