We've had a few clear nights this week, with seeing and transparency both hovering near average. It's been a demanding month at work, but I had to step out last night, Takahashi in hand, to catch a glimpse of Jupiter and Saturn. The glare of the rising full Moon, however, discouraged me from going to the park near my house - it would just be too bright, I thought - so I popped up to my rooftop for a quick look.
That rooftop really isn't suited for serious observing. Somehow the concrete slabs thrum with vibrations from my building, and the warm air boiling from the rooftop always worsens the seeing, sometimes dramatically. Nevertheless I did steal a few clear, stable glimpses of Jupiter and Saturn: enough to make out countless zones and bands on Jupiter, and the Cassini Division on Saturn. The small, orange disk of volcanic Io, I believe, was just about to move across the Jovian clouds; I've been so overworked lately that I didn't bother to check.
Then I looked over at the Moon, still rising in the east. Like most observers, I always prefer the Moon when it's only partly illuminated - I love the shadows along craters and mountains - and in any case tonight it was clear that the atmosphere along the eastern horizon was just not going to cooperate. Seeing and transparency in that corner of the sky, it seemed, were particularly challenging. Still, the Moon is always - always - a striking sight through a fine refractor, no matter the state of the atmosphere.
After about fifteen minutes, I packed up and stepped back inside, thoroughly pleased that I'd ventured out despite my fatigue. It's almost always like that: even when tired, there are few things I'd rather do.
Conditions were glorious last night - temperatures in teens, seeing and transparency both above average - and I was feeling surprisingly energetic, so I dragged my TEC 140, DM-6, and Berlebach Uni tripod out the door, and walked 15 minutes to my favorite nearby park. I had about 80 pounds of gear with me, but somehow, last night, I found it quite manageable. It was heartening to know that I could transport the TEC 140 without much more difficulty than I used to haul about my dearly departed APM 140.
When I set up shop I noticed that the sky was strikingly dark, and that the stars and planets scarcely twinkled. I immediately plugged in my highest-power Delos eyepiece - which manages 217x - and targeted Jupiter. What a view! I lost track of how many cloud belts I could make out, and subtle detail was everywhere. I was looking at the same hemisphere I had admired about a week ago with the TEC 140, and that same barge I noticed then was still around. Now the Galilean moons looked even more clearly like disks, and therefore like real little worlds.
I decided that the difference between the TEC 140 and the APM 140 lies in the sensation of texture on the planets. More than the APM, the TEC gives me the feeling that the clouds of Jupiter, for example, have depth, which in turns makes it clearer that I'm observing a three-dimensional object. That really makes a profound difference. Both the APM and the TEC provide views that are far better than those of four-inch refractors, including the Takahashi FC-100DZ. There's just so much more contrast visible with the bigger refractors, and on a low-contrast object like Jupiter that means everything.
The view of Saturn was a bit less perfect, just like it was a week ago. While I could easily crank up my magnification past 200x on Jupiter - which is usually about the limit in the Washington, DC air - Saturn benefitted from lower magnification. Still, I was struck by the obvious complexity of its ring system in moments of good seeing. It seemed I could clearly make out not only the Cassini division, but at times I got a flicker of brightness variations, attesting to distinct ring groupings of varying brightness.
After observing Jupiter and Saturn for a while, I wheeled the telescope east to observe the Pleiades at low magnification, which was pleasant but not noticeably different than it is in a smaller refractor. Then I realized that Uranus had climbed well over the horizon, and in fact that it should now be near 37 Ari, a star of very comparable magnitude (5.75 to 6 for Uranus). I've never observed Uranus before. I've tried to find it, but come up empty time and time again. It's actually a little embarrassing; it shouldn't be that hard to identify. So, this time, with the weather perfect and armed with a powerhouse telescope, I decided to give it a try.
The trick was to find Menkar (Alpha Ceti) and Kaffaljidhma (Gamma Ceti) in the constellation Cetus. While these are bright stars - Menkar in particular, at magnitude 2.5 - it's telling that even with atmospheric transparency better than average, I could only barely make them out. DC's light pollution is especially bad to the southeast from my position, which is where the national mall and the rest of the city's downtown area is located. Anyway, once I found those two stars I used them to triangulate Mu Ceti, which at magnitude 4.25 truly was at the edge of my perception.
These three stars in Cetus formed a narrow triangle that pointed to Uranus and 37 Ari. In fact, the length of the triangle was actually greater than the distance of the planet from that triangle. Using my finderscope, I searched. And searched. About 20 minutes went by, and no dice: I could see only stars. I started scanning more broadly, thinking I'd done something wrong. Then I checked my star map - which I get through an app called Stellarium - and suddenly it hit me: I'd been looking for something that looked like a planet. But Uranus is so far away - and therefore so dim - that it should really be indistinguishable from a star at low magnifications. My problem was that I had plugged in my 24mm Panoptic eyepiece, which gave me a magnification of just about 40x. I needed to trust my map and really crank up the power on the star that, I knew, must be Uranus.
So I did. With the high power Delos eyepiece back in and my magnification at 217x, suddenly the planet became obvious: a little grey-green ball, wandering through space. I could make out, at most, only the subtlest detail on that little ball - and really it was virtually featureless. But the thought that that ball was four times the diameter of Earth gave me a rare, visceral sense of the scale of the Solar System. It can be hard to wrap your mind around the reality that the distance between Uranus and Saturn is actually greater than the distance between Saturn and the Sun. Now, at the eyepiece, it seemed obvious. I hadn't found Uranus before because I'd underestimated the size of the Solar System; I didn't imagine that a planet so big could look so small.
It might seem like a drawback of manual mounts that it took me over 20 minutes to find Uranus - not to mention the many times I've searched for the planet and failed. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you do "star-hop" successfully with a simple mount, the sensation of actually finding what you're looking for is really special, and you don't get that with a go-to mount. You also start to genuinely learn the sky; I'd never thought about the constellation Cetus, for example, but now I know where it is, and I know that its third-brightest star is actually a triple-star system that I'd like to check out someday. That's not to say that star-hopping is always feasible or desirable, especially in the big city. But, as usual, you do give something up by opting for the convenience of modern technology.
A last note on equipment: in recent days, I've ranked the Delos eyepieces, TEC 140, Orion 6x30 finder, DM-6, and Berlebach Uni tripod in comparison with other gear I've used. I've described them as the best I've seen in their class of equipment. Yet I haven't mentioned how well they all fit together. It really is seamless. The DM-6 holds the TEC 140 with perfect ease; there are no jitters, just buttery smooth movement even at high magnifications. The Uni tripod, while light, is an absolute rock, while the finder scope makes it a breeze to hop between stars. And the Delos eyepieces slotted in the TEC 140 provide a glorious view of just about everything. It's all very pricey, of course, but I really recommend this mix.
The walk home was arduous. But, like William Herschel exactly 240 years ago, I'd found a new planet, and that made it easily worthwhile.
We've had some wonderfully clear, autumnal nights over the past week, with Jupiter and Saturn riding high in the evening sky and the Moon waxing and waning nearby. I'm teaching what may be my favorite course at the moment - about the human history of nearby celestial bodies (what I call "neighboring worlds"), and a special highlight is taking my students out for a night with a telescope.
I have now accumulated some very fine refractors, however, and I worried about how they'd fare after being handled by twenty students. To that end, I drew on my research funds to buy a William Optics Zenithstar 81. It's a beautiful little refractor, and I figured that it would be more than adequate to give my students an impressive view of the Moon. For their first assignment, they need to find a feature on the Moon and then write a history of how people have understood, imagined, explored, or planned to exploit that feature.
A few things immediately struck me about the Zenithstar. First, it costs about a third as much as the TeleVue 85 I used to own - less than a third, when you consider it comes with its own mounting rings, dovetail, Bahtinov mask, and carrying case - despite giving up only four millimeters in aperture. Second, its build quality looks to be on par with the very best telescopes I own and have owned, with the possible exception of my TEC 140. Third, it seems to weigh less than the FS-60Q I once owned, and much less than the TV 85, and its sliding dew shield makes it much more compact than either telescope.
It was really easy to carry the telescope to a darker corner of campus, and there set it up on my DM-4 mount and Berlebach Report tripod. Almost immediately, the Plossl eyepieces I'd decided to use provided beautifully crisp views of the nearly fully illuminated Moon. The students who had started to gather were predictably impressed. When we found we had a few minutes to spare at the end of the evening, I decided to try showing them Jupiter and Saturn. At about 56x, the planets were small, but beautifully sharp and clear. Many of my students were awestruck; they had a hard time believing that they could really see the major cloud belts of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn from downtown DC.
Experiential learning is always special; it makes the otherwise abstract concepts we discuss in class come alive for my students, and it can provide lifelong memories. I for one was stunned by the performance of the little refractor. It is, by far, the most portable telescope I've owned, and when it comes to performance it really doesn't give up much to the TV 85. I loved my TV 85, but I would have a hard time recommending that telescope as a go-to instrument when the Zenithstar seems to provide so much more value for the cost.
Last night conditions were even better, and now I resolved to head out with my biggest telescope: the TEC 140. The weight of the telescope, tripod, and mount means that I really can't haul everything to my favorite field. I targeted the little alcove next to a church that I've used over the past year, yet when I arrived as I was dismayed to find that the church had installed a new streetlight that completely ruled out observing there. I wandered about, dragging my heavy gear, until I decided to head down to a little amphitheater near the National Cathedral. There I found a perch that, if I moved around a bit, afforded me a view of Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon through the canopies of nearby trees.
When I swung the TEC to Saturn, I was mesmerized. This was only the second time I'd used the TEC, and the first time in good seeing. In those conditions, Saturn looked absolutely stunning, like a beautiful jewel set in a velvet background. Its many moons were brilliant and sharp, and the shadow of the planet on its rings gave me the rare sense that I was actually seeing a world in three dimensions (often, objects in the eyepiece look flat, and therefore two dimensional). Cloud details were obvious on the planet's yellow-white disk.
Switching over to Jupiter provided an even more spectacular revelation. The TEC provided what may have been my best-ever view of the planet, with more cloud belts and zones than I could count, delicate, feathery structures within those belts and zones, and a perfectly obvious, brown "barge" - an elongated, oval cloud feature - near the planet's equator. There was a contrast and vibrance to the planet's colors that you just don't get with a smaller refractor, and all four Galilean moons were visible as clear disks, rather than points of light.
Jupiter and Saturn soon wheeled behind the trees, so it was time for the waning gibbous Moon. Once again, I was dumbstruck. The Moon wasn't that far above the horizon, but at 163x there was just such a wealth of subtle, perfectly sharp detail, from jumbled crater peaks to winding rilles and delicate scarps. The terminator was perfectly positioned to throw mountain after mountain in sharp relief, and in exploring them I eventually lost track of time. Then a giant cricket jumped on my pants, I realized in shaking it off that it was past midnight, and I began packing up for the painful trek home.
The TEC 140, I have to say, is noticeably better than the APM 140 I've also raved about in these pages. I'm not sure it's worth the extra cost; certainly I could never have afforded the difference if I didn't use the telescope for my research and writing (which means I could draw from my research funds to buy it). I realize how lucky I am, and I hope I can keep using the telescope for a lifetime.
It won't be that often, however, until I manage to own a backyard; as wonderful as the telescope may be, it's also hard to transport more than a few minutes from our home.
Everybody approaches amateur astronomy in different ways, but for me - and many others - the most difficult thing about the hobby is that you always wonder, no matter how sublime the view: what would I see if I had different equipment? Usually "what would I see" means "what more would I see," and usually "different" means "just a bit better" - and that means that many amateur astronomers, at least at some point, embark on a long, frustrating, painfully expensive quest for new telescopes, new mounts, new tripods, new eyepieces . . . the list goes on.
I've been on that path for quite a few years now. Yet when it comes to telescopes - or more specifically, to optical tube assemblies - I reached the end this spring. For a long time, I dreamed of someday - somehow - being able to own a truly world-class, medium-sized refractor. I long had my eye on the Telescope Engineering Company (TEC) 140: an American-made, oil-spaced triplet of uncompromising optical and mechanical quality that, while portable, easily outperformed much larger telescopes. I didn't think I'd be able to afford it for a very long time, but then I realized that although I'd slowly cobbled together a rather large collection of telescopes, I was really only using three of them (my EVScope, Takahashi FC-100, and APM 140). If I sold my unused telescopes and some other gear for the right price, I might just have the financial foundation I needed to pursue a used TEC 140.
Precisely as those thoughts entered my mind, a TEC 140 ED in like-new condition popped up on the used market for a daunting but reasonable price. I took the plunge, and then went on a truly exhausting campaign to sell everything I could spare to recoup what I'd spent. Some of what I sold, I know I will miss for a long time. I ended up parting with my FS-60Q, TV-85, and APM-140, and each loss stings in a slightly different way. I've had unforgettable memories with the TV-85 and APM-140 in particular, but upgrading equipment is not for the sentimental.
In the end I earned precisely as much money as I spent on the TEC 140, so my guilt was mostly assuaged when it arrived. Comparing it to the APM 140 was instructive and ended up highlighting the virtues of both telescopes. The TEC 140 is, first and foremost, slightly but meaningfully heaver and bulkier than the APM 140. Its focuser is more robust, its finish is of clearly higher quality, and its tube ringers are easier to manipulate. With that said, the APM's focuser is just as buttery smooth, and I actually find its sliding few shield a little easier to manipulate. It's not a tossup - the TEC 140 is clearly mechanically superior - but the APM holds up surprisingly well when you consider that it costs less than half as much (during sales, more like a third as much).
Because the TEC 140 is that much bulkier than the APM 140 and uses a Losmandy dovetail that I didn't want to replace, I needed a new, sturdier mount. That's also because my AYO II mount had, after just a year, started to develop an unacceptable amount of slippage on one side. So, I scraped together what I could and purchased a DM-6 mount to match the DM-4 I purchased for my Takahashi. This, to be sure, is a beautiful piece of metal . . . but although mechanically superior to the AYO II (in my view), it's also very substantially heavier. The upshot is that my TEC 140 setup is a good deal less portable than my APM 140 setup had been.
Because it's less portable, I can't take the TEC 140 to the field where I used to set up my APM. That field will be reserved for my FC-100DZ and EVScope from now on. On some level it feels like a minor loss - I had some wonderful times there with my APM - but I'm quite sure the FC-100 can pick up the slack. And I do now have the alcove, near the church by my home, that affords some fine views of the southern sky.
The TEC-140 is also so heavy that I refuse to take it out unless seeing is above average. This morning, for the first time in a while, it was forecast to be. So there I was, huffing and puffing on the sidewalk at 4:00 AM, bound for the alcove and for a date with Jupiter and Saturn. Both planets have passed behind the Sun and are again high enough above the horizon to be worth a look.
It was an exhausting walk, but setup was easy and quick as usual. When I turned to Jupiter, two things struck me. First, seeing was not nearly as good as advertised; that close to the southeastern horizon, it was average at best. Second, the color correction of the telescope was absolutely spot on. The older TEC 140 ED is supposed to be slightly better in longer (red) wavelengths than the newer TEC 140 FL, but slightly worse on shorter (blue) wavelengths, which should make the ED somewhat better for observing Mars and Jupiter, but somewhat worse for astrophotography. In any case, Jupiter's coloration was lovely, even if the planet's fine detail was often obscured by the turbulent atmosphere.
Saturn, fortunately, was higher in the morning sky. Turning to the planet at 98x, with a 10mm Delos eyepiece installed, made for a genuine "wow" moment. Never have I seen more than a few of Saturn's moons, but now Enceladus, Dione, Titan, Tethys, and Rhea were all clearly visible. Subtle gray shading was easy to see on the planet's disk, as was a shadow just behind the rings (I love their orientation right now). The Cassini Division was plainly obvious but now around the entire ring system; unfortunately, seeing was just not good enough to see more. Once again, the color correction was sublime.
After turning to some stars and observing them in and out of focus, it was clear to me that the telescope has - surprise, surprise - exceptional, beautifully corrected optics. Yet it struck me, as it did several months ago with the FC-100DZ, how much more seeing matters than optics when it comes to planetary observation. Did I see more detail this morning on Jupiter and Saturn with the TEC 140 than I would have with the APM 140? Maybe, just a little. But have I seen more detail with the APM 140 when the atmosphere cooperated? Absolutely. I'm looking forward to experiencing what the TEC 140 can do when the atmosphere truly is steady.
I suspect I will miss the portability of the APM 140, and wow that is a good telescope when you consider its cost relative to the TEC 140. Yet for me, it is important to know that the quality of my optics are not keeping me from seeing more planetary or lunar detail. With that in mind, I am very happy with my beautiful TEC. A distant goal, accomplished surprisingly soon!
After two weeks of rainy, stormy weather, the skies cleared over the last two nights, and seeing conditions were, remarkably, better than average. On the evening of the eighth, I marched out of our apartment with my Takahashi, focal extender installed, to have a good look at Saturn and Jupiter. Both are now fairly high in the evening sky, beginning at around 9:00.
After a fifteen-minute walk to my favorite park, I was ready to go. Jupiter, it turned out, was a little disappointing. I did manage to catch some tantalizing glimpses of complex details in the planet's belts, including one enormous ruddy patch in the north equatorial belt. But, on the whole, the colors and contrast were a little muted from what they can be. Atmospheric transparency was a little lower than average, I thought, so maybe that was to blame. Or maybe the APM 140 has spoiled me.
When I switched over to Saturn, however, I was rewarded with one of my best-ever views of the planet. The Cassini Division stood out sharply along the entire ring system, and the thin black shadows visible behind the rings and on the rings, behind the western limb of the planet, were perfectly crisp. I thought I could make out no fewer than two grayish cloud belts - normally, I can clearly see just one. I admired the beautiful planet for a good long time before packing up and heading home.
Then, on the morning of the 10th, I set out at 3:30 AM to observe the Moon and Mars. It's amazing what we do to ourselves, as amateur astronomers, to pursue our passion. I can never sleep well when I know I'll have to observe in the early morning, and on this night I'd had maybe a couple hours of sleep. Would it be worth it?
As I left my building and set out for the park with the Takahashi, I noticed two things. First: the Moon and Mars were really high in the sky! Second: there was space in my building's illuminated "back yard" (as my daughter calls it) to set up the telescope. Why wouldn't I just do that and save myself the walk? I was awfully tired, after all.
I went for it, and I can't recall making a more disastrous observing decision. After seeing up in one corner of the area, the sprinklers, which had been silent, suddenly started up exactly where I was sitting. In a panic, I grabbed what I could and rushed to another part of the yard. Nothing was damaged, but my eyepiece - a TeleVue Delos - did fog up completely. Ugh. Now I was forced to set up directly under no fewer than four bright lanterns. Maybe it wouldn't matter, I tried to convince myself.
Oh, it would. Stray light kept entering the eyepiece, spoiling the view with ghostly reflections. Both Mars and the Moon also had a halo that's not usually there - partly because of the mist rising from the sprinklers, I decided. I also decided that stray light washed out some of the contrast on Mars. And what a pity, because a look at the Moon quickly convinced me that seeing was as good as it has been all year. I'm certain I made out at least a couple craterlets in the crater Plato - a sure sign of excellent seeing (and an excellent telescope).
Mars was disappointing, only because it was so obvious to me that I would have seen far more had I just walked to that park. Still, dark albedo markings repeatedly shimmered into view, and the southern polar cap was obvious - if a good deal smaller than it had been earlier in the year (or have the bright clouds that make up the southern polar hood dissipated?).
Then the sprinklers turned on near me - it turns out I hadn't escaped them entirely. Why not soak pavement during the entire night? It's not like we're in an ecological crisis or anything. Once again I packed up, this time for good. All in all I was happy to have had a good look at the Moon, and grateful for the lesson - don't use the backyard! - well in advance of Mars's opposition this year. Still, after sacrificing so much sleep I had hoped for a better view of Mars. Next time!
This weekend, we travelled to the Shenandoah Mountains with our "bubble family" for a much-needed getaway from Washington, DC. It took a little negotiation - even a short trip with kids requires a lot of luggage - but I eventually received authorization to stow a telescope in the trunk. There wasn't much room, so the telescope had to be small, and that left two options: the TV 85 or the Takahashi FC-100DC. I decided I wanted the extra reach of the Takahashi, so I unscrewed its focal extender - shortening and lightening it - and then found a way to make it fit with my lightest tripod.
To my delight, our cottage turned out to have two balconies, both isolated from surrounding houses, and was just enough of a clearing in the trees to reveal a part of the night sky. That part, I soon realized, could not have been better placed: it would reveal the Ring Nebula and the Hercules Globular Cluster in the evening, and the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies in the morning. Even better: the forecast called for clear skies on both nights we were there. What are the odds?
On the first night, I stepped directly from my bedroom to the cottage's narrow, second-floor balcony. The air was alive with the squawking of birds and the buzzing of bugs. Luckily I brought plenty of mosquito repellant - although it was hard to forget about the legions of spiders spinning webs just overhead - and wow: what a night sky! Bortle 4, by one classification scheme; yellow or maybe green by another. It was, admittedly, not perfectly dark, but to this city slicker it was nothing short of a revelation. It's been so long since I've seen the Milky Way - but there it was, clearly visible. There were in fact so many stars that it was hard, for a moment, to pick out the constellations! Oh, what I've been missing in DC.
To my surprise, Jupiter and Saturn both turned out to be high enough to view from the upstairs balcony. Saturn was beautiful, but I've had better views from the city. Jupiter, by contrast, was so clear and full of contrast - and, lucky me, I had tuned in just on time to see another shadow transit! To think that I'd never seen one before this month. Callisto, it turned out, had just finished traversing the planet, and its shadow was still in the clouds. The shadow seemed a bit more distinct - a bit more clearly round - than it had been on the surface of Jupiter with the APM 140 on the 10th, but I found I couldn't increase the magnification beyond 123x without the view breaking down. To my surprise, I also found that a new Delos 6mm eyepiece presented a clearly better view than my trusty Nagler 3-6mm zoom.
Next, it was off to deep space. It has literally been decades since I had a telescope under a reasonably dark sky, and so it was such a pleasure to simply trawl through the Milky Way at low magnification, admiring the knots and clusters of random stars. Every patch of the galaxy, every view, resembled an open cluster from urban skies. Incredible.
There are, I realized, deep space objects that look better under dark skies - that is, more of the same - and those that look different. The Ring Nebula, I realized when I finally look that way, mostly looks better. I could easily make out a ring without using averted vision, which I can't do with anything smaller than the APM 140 in DC. Yet I could also make out subtle nebulosity within the ring - a first for me - and the ring didn't look quite as round as it seems in the city. The Hercules Cluster, however, looked completely different: less a fuzzy ball and more an explosion of innumerable stars, textured and complex right down towards the center of the cluster. When I saw textured, I mean it was almost as though someone had sprinkled especially dense clumps of glitter haphazardly over a page already covered with a thinner dusting. An unforgettable sight.
On the following night, I decided to sneak out in the morning, this time on the bigger, first-floor balcony so I could see more of the sky. I never have much time with how little my son sleeps, but I hoped to get a good view of two huge deep space objects whose surface brightness is just too low for urban skies - the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies - before catching a glimpse of Mars.
Andromeda was impressive: a bright, fuzzy nucleus (of course) and a subtle but immense disk, stretching out of view even at 25x. I thought that maybe - just maybe - I could make out a dust lane after around 15 minutes of peering, but that might have been my imagination. At last I tore myself away from the view and started scanning for the Triangulum Galaxy, which I've never managed to spot before. After about 15 minutes I tracked it down, and wow - was it ever subtle. I could make out its pinwheel shape using averted vision, and that was incredibly special to me.
At last, Mars became impossible to ignore. Snapping in the 6mm Delos I was treated to an absolutely spectacular view of the planet at 123x, featuring that southern ice cap, of course, surrounded by a ring of remarkably dark dunes, and the unmistakable peninsula of Syrtis Major Planum. I have never had such a detailed view of Syrtis Major, and what timing: the Perseverance rover will soon blast off to land at Jezero crater on the border of the region. To be honest, this view alone exceeded my wildest hopes for the Mars opposition of 2020. Amazing to think that the planet will only seem bigger over the next few months!
Yet just as on the previous night, although the view was full of contrast at 123x it broke down when I pushed the magnification much further. I had high hopes for 185x with the Nagler Zoom, but no dice. After a while, it was time to pack up. I was sorely tempted to look at the Pleiades, then just wheeling into view, but I had to be ready in case my son woke up. I couldn't complain, of course; together, both nights were nothing short of unforgettable. I now know: there's nothing better than a fine telescope under dark skies.
With regards to the rest of my setup, I was really impressed with a new purchase: that 6mm Delos eyepiece. Beautiful contrast, incredibly easy on the eyes, and a nice field of view. The 30mm TeleVue Plössl was less impressive - actually, it's long been my least favorite eyepiece in my Plössl collection. Stars seem a little stretched out away from the center of the eyepiece; at first, it's like they're not quite in focus, and then, towards the edge of the view, they stretch out into miniature arcs. I think I might need another kind of eyepiece for beautiful wide-field views under dark skies.
All in all, a memorable trip, and a welcome relief from these COVID times.
In many cultures, in many times and places, bright comets were thought to herald - or perhaps cause, or confirm - disaster. It therefore seems almost absurdly fitting that, in this terrible summer of 2020, a naked-eye comet has appeared in our sky. I wrote earlier about failing to spot that comet - "NEOWISE" - in the morning, but it's rounded the Sun and is now visible in the evening - a much more convenient time for me to observe. This week I decided to make a concerted push to see it.
I started with a pair of Nikon "Action Extreme" (ugh) 10x50 binoculars, on the 15th. After walking to our rooftop, I scanned the area south of the Big Dipper after sunset. The sky took longer to darken than I'd anticipated, but eventually, around 9:30 PM, I found NEOWISE. It's strange: this was my first comet sighting since Hale-Bopp way back in 1997, and it gave me a complex medley of emotions. On the one hand, it seemed a little underwhelming; Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in 1996 had given me a wildly unrealistic frame of reference. I vividly remember seeing Hyakutake cover much of the sky, or Hale-Bopp's ion tail still visible at sunrise. By comparison, NEOWISE was a smudge - partly because it's dimmed since I should have been looking for it, a week ago. And on the other hand, what a thrill, nonetheless, to see a relatively bright comet; how exciting to receive such a vivid reminder that our Solar System is a restless and active place.
On the 16th, I marched out again, this time with my Vixen ED115S. Several weeks ago, I tried to sell that refractor to afford my APM 140. I had a sale lined up, I thought, but the buyer kept asking for more discounts. Finally he asked for one more discount and posed a question that forced me to measure the telescope. When I did, I was struck by the beauty of the thing and declined to go lower - then sold some eyepieces instead.
Thank goodness! The Vixen is just about a perfect telescope - it might actually be my favorite. As I've mentioned before, it's just the perfect size and weight for me, and perfectly well-balanced with its upgraded focuser. It provides just a bit more punch than the Takahashi can manage, and although it's heavier it's still very manageable. It's also, somehow, easier to use; the finder is in exactly the right place, the focuser is buttery smooth, and the handle makes it a snap to mount.
Anyway, conditions could not have been worse on the 16th. Not only was it gusty, but the air was murky, thick with humidity, and thin clouds already covered much of the sky - with thicker clouds following in their wake. I scoured the horizon for that comet. Eventually I found it, peeking through high-altitude cirrus, further north than I'd remembered. Since it was already partly obscured, it looked only a bit brighter than it had using binoculars - but there it was, nonetheless, a bright little nucleus with a fan-shaped tail. Jupiter was rising, so I had a look before heading back downstairs. The seeing was terrible and haze covered the planet with a yellow veil, but still - the detail wasn't bad, considering.
Then, miraculously, on the 18th conditions promised to be superb by DC standards: above-average seeing, according to ClearDarkSky, and above-average transparency, with not a cloud to be seen. I rumbled out of my building at 9:30 PM, with the APM in its giant suitcase. It soon dawned on me that I was more tired than I normally am; this was going to be a long, hard walk. After 15 minutes I was drenched with sweat and sore in a million places, but I'd made it to the park and covered myself with bug spray.
I walked around and scouted out what I could see. Finally, I found a gap between houses that afforded me a good view of the comet, plainly visible with the naked eye but very close to the horizon. I had to set up in a far corner of the park to look through that gap, and the mosquitoes were worse there than they are in my normal spot. Still, I got a good view at last.
I was struck by the brightness of the comet's nucleus relative to its tail - and struck, too, how little that tail seems to brighten with increases in aperture. The APM gave a clearly brighter view than the Vixen, let alone the binoculars, but the difference wasn't that great - not as great is it is when I view, say, the Ring Nebula. Still, the view was very satisfying - best with a 17.3mm Delos eyepiece at 57x, I decided. Higher magnifications did not seem to bring out any more detail in the nucleus, possibly because the comet had already neared the horizon. Using averted vision, I thought I could spot a hint of a halo surrounding the nucleus - more than the tail, that is - but that might have been my imagination. Either way, with the APM, a very fine comet; proportionally more elongated than Hale-Bopp, much shorter, of course, than Hyakutake, and far fainter but still aesthetically pleasing.
When the comet got too low in the sky and the mosquitoes got too bad, I migrated back to my usual observing spot, where Jupiter and Saturn were rising to the east. When I had a look, however, I was shocked. The seeing was actually abysmal - some of my worst of the year. It was as though a southerly, high-altitude wind was rushing across my view, distorting and periodically compressing both planets. Jupiter still showed a good deal of detail in fleeting moments of greater stability, and the four Galilean moons all lined up made for a pretty sight.
But I was reminded again that you just can't count on ClearDarkSkies - or any tool based on our weather forecasts - to help you predict what the sky will be like. I enjoyed some of my best views this year - on May 31st, June 9th, and July 10th - when ClearDarkSkies predicted poor to average seeing, and some of my worst views when it predicted good seeing. In particular, seeing seems to differ in different areas of the sky, and you never know what those areas will be.
On a mechanical front, I swapped my red dot finder for a right-angle finderscope on the APM, and that made a huge difference for the better. It's much easier to find things now with the big refractor. On the other hand, I also had a big more trouble using the telescope on my AYO II mount. I had to tighten the mount considerably to keep the telescope stable, which meant that it was harder to nudge along as I tried to keep up with the movement of the comet or planets. I might have been a little too impatient; maybe I should have worked harder to balance the telescope perfectly - but that balance does shift as I change eyepieces. At some point, I'll likely have to bite the bullet and buy a slightly sturdier (and heavier) mount. At least there's minimal wobbling after I do give a nudge.
On another front, I suddenly realized last night that, after selling eyepieces to fund the APM, I suddenly have a dearth of high-magnitude eyepieces with a good field of view. When I can afford it, I'll need to invest in some more eyepieces. Or maybe I should sell more things I don't use? It never ends.
To conclude, NEOWISE ultimately offered some memorable (if all too brief) views, and the refractors, as usual, acquitted themselves nicely.
The good times keep coming! Another clear morning, with average seeing and above-average transparency. Astronomy and my toddler have been costing me sleep recently, and deep down I knew it wasn't a good idea to head out in the wee hours again. Yet there I was, waking up at 2:30 AM, gulping down four cups of coffee, and slipping out the door with three big bags. My cat watched me go with a knowing look.
When I got outside, the night seemed nearly perfect. Not a single cloud in the sky - now that's rare - and the stars seemed remarkably steady. Mars was a brilliant red near the half-Moon; it's getting noticeably brighter, it seems, with every week. The temperature was perfect, and a gentle breeze made it even better. As the Earth warms, I figure, most of us will be spending more time walking in the night. I guess I'll be a veteran.
When I got to the park, conditions somehow seemed even better. I couldn't see the Milky Way, of course - not in these urban skies - but the sky did seem unusually full of stars. Then, as I unpacked my trusty Takahashi refractor, it suddenly hit me: I'd left my stool at home. A cascading series of problems followed. I'd taken my little Report tripod, which can usually hold the Takahashi okay, but only when not fully extended. Well, I would have to extend it all the way without a stool, and even then I'd have to bend over a little to use the eyepiece - let alone the red dot finder. A pleasant early morning under the skies suddenly seemed a lot less fun.
My worst suspicions were realized when I turned to Mars, now high above the eastern horizon. The tripod wasn't up to the telescope, and the view took a full four seconds to stabilize when I nudged the planet into view. That's an especially big problem because I don't currently have an eyepiece with a big field of view, so I have to keep nudging and nudging - which means more and more wobbling. There was so much wobbling, in fact, that I hard time perfectly focusing the telescope - a consequence, in part, of the Takahashi's lack of a two-speed focuser. Craning over my eyepiece, I suddenly felt let down by my equipment, for the first time in months. If only I'd brought that stool!
What's worse, the seeing turned out to be surprisingly uneven. It guess that breeze was messing with the view. Admittedly, the view of Mars would have thrilled me a month ago: there was the southern polar cap, bordered (if memory serves) by dark dunes, and there - in fleeting moments of atmospheric stability - a delicate latticework of dark albedo features, spidering up from the pole. And yet, on the whole it was all a bit blurrier than I expected. The Moon was impressive, with gloriously crisp detail around Plato in particular. I thought I could maybe - maybe - make out a few craterlets, but it was hard to be sure with the view wobbling, my neck aching, and my knees buckling.
When I turned south to Jupiter and Saturn, I was shocked - for the opposite reason I had been just a day and a half earlier. Both planets were almost void of detail, the view entirely washed out by terrible - not just bad, terrible - seeing. I hastily turned back to the Moon and tried not to remember the view through the APM. After a while, Venus rose to the northeast, a glorious golden crescent very near blood-red Aldebaran. It was nice to see the Pleiades again, rising over the trees. I suppose it won't be too long before Orion makes it reappearance in the morning sky.
A bright comet, NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) is visible to the naked eye just before sunrise - a sight we haven't had, I think, since PANSTARRS (C2011/L4) in 2013, and Hale-Bopp (C/1995 O1) in 1997. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay out long enough to see it. I fervently hope it survives its pass by the Sun so I can catch it in the evening sky within a week or so - clouds permitting, of course.
I walked home knowing it would be a very long day with very little sleep. Had it been worth it? If only I'd brought my stool, then certainly. But now . . . at least I'd gotten another good view of Mars. It's hard to imagine what it will look like in just a few months!
It's been quite a stretch of clear nights in these parts - as I wrote before, DC is a feast-or-famine city for amateur astronomers - and I've been determined to take full advantage. Last night, I hauled my APM 140 out the door for what I hoped would be an hour of deep space urban observing. As I embarked on the 15-minute walk to the park with, what, sixty pounds worth of equipment, I fretted about a fleet of clouds flitting by overhead. When I got to the park, however, the clouds had largely passed, and although I was drenched with sweat after all that hauling I was more or less ready to go.
I was curious to see what the APM could do with no Moon in the sky. The first thing I noticed is that transparency wasn't great, but also that stars were pinpoints almost immediately. Although the difference in temperature from inside to outside wasn't great, I was still impressed that the telescope acclimated just about instantly. The Ring Nebula is almost comically easy to find these days, so I started with it. I could see a clear ring with no averted vision - always nice - but I can't say the view was much brighter then it had been a few days back, when the Moon was out. Still, a nice way to start the night.
Next, I tried to track down some globular clusters in Scorpio, then rising out of the worst of the city's light pollution to the south. The double star Al Niyat was a gorgeous sight, but the globulars - M4 and M80 - were underwhelming. I abandoned the effort and switched to simply admiring some bright stars for a while, beginning with Antares. This, to my mind, is a principal difference between refractors and other kinds of telescopes. Stars look so much more beautiful - more natural - through refractors, in a way that's hard to explain. It's something, I think, about the size and color of the "disk."
I decided to see if I couldn't track down the Whirlpool and Pinwheel galaxies around the Big Dipper. After spending about five minutes in futility, it suddenly dawned on me that the year was far enough along for Jupiter and Saturn to be rising in the evening sky. Sure enough, when I moved out of the shadow of a tree there they were, high enough already to observe. I didn't expect too much; they were still quite close to the horizon, after all.
But when I turned to Jupiter I just about fell off my stool. There, on the limb of the planet, was the pitch-black shadow of a Galilean moon. And there, framed by Jupiter's North Equatorial Belt, was the moon: Europa, if I'm not mistaken. Suddenly the seeing stabilized, and wow: I've never seen so much detail and color on the planet. It was like viewing a Hubble image, at a little distance, while squinting ever so slightly. The Galilean moons were actual disks, not just points of light, though I couldn't see their color, let alone any albedo features on their surfaces. The seeing, I judged, was good but not great. But the telescope! What a thrill to observe the planet with a nearly six-inch refractor.
When I turned to Saturn, I was nearly as impressed. The planet just had such a satisfying color through the big refractor: a creamy, buttery pale yellow, with mottled bands of grey cloud. Again, there was a space telescope - or maybe space probe - kind of feel to the image, a three-dimensionality and intricacy of detail that I've rarely seen before.
I swung back to Jupiter. As I watched, Europa's shadow vanished in the limb of the planet, and the moon itself started to edge into black space. Then, the Great Red Spot rotated into view - and above it, on the northern hemisphere of the planet, an even darker mass of clouds. When the atmosphere really settled down, every cloud belt and zone was just absolutely full of delicate detail. What a thrill.
I could have stayed for so much longer, but I knew it would be just four or five hours before my toddler woke up, and I had to get what little sleep I could salvage. What a memorable night! I've always wanted to be able to see real change on Jupiter - to observe the true dynamism of the inconstant planet. Finally, I had the chance to see the best the planet has to offer in real-time. I can't imagine any of my other telescopes would have shown me as much; the Takahashi might have come close, but not with so much color.
I never imagined I'd be able to use such a big refractor before having a backyard. As I lugged the telescope back home, I couldn't stop thinking: it's so worth it for even one special hour with the giant planets.
It's hard to properly celebrate Independence Day this year, though that didn't stop the jet fighters and the bombers from roaring overhead yesterday evening. Fireworks followed - hours and hours worth - but I was more interested in the other parts of the sky. At 11:45 PM, I set off to view the "Buck Moon" - and maybe, just maybe, catch a sight of what promised to be a very subtle penumbral lunar eclipse.
I decided to take my trusty TV 85. Clouds were closing in, and so I wasn't sure what to expect when I reached my park. Five minutes of viewing? A full hour? It didn't seem worth it to take a larger telescope. Plus, after all those sleepless nights lately - and full days of work and childcare - I was too tired to lug anything bigger.
When I reached the park, I realized, first, that Jupiter and Saturn are now quite high in the sky even at midnight, and second, that seeing was really quite good - better than it had been on July 2nd and 3rd. I realized, too, that I couldn't spot a lunar eclipse, but that the hazy sky had adorned the Moon with a beautiful golden tint. And wow, was it bright. After a few moon-free early mornings, it was strange to see my telescope cast a shadow in the park.
It was a strange atmosphere last night. While seeing was quite good, the air was hazy, almost watery. The Moon in particular looked like it was made of liquid: a giant and intricately-detailed bubble. Still, what a sight. Tattered clouds swept by from time to time, and just before I packed up a distant bat fluttered directly across the lunar surface. Like something from a Dracula movie.
Turning to the planets, I was again impressed by the TV 85 (a recurring theme on this website). At modest magnifications, the little refractor really is a match for any other telescope I've owned. Jupiter's great spot was plainly visible, and so were dusky clouds on Saturn - and the Cassini Division, winding all the way around those rings. In moments of especially good seeing, Jupiter's surface was thick with intricate detail.
Of course, the view of both was a good deal dimmer through the TV 85 than it is through the APM 140, and the colors were more muted than they are even with the Takahashi, let alone the APM. I tried increasing the magnification last night to almost unusable levels to dim the view enough to get a decent picture with my iPhone. I succeeded, at least, in taking my first blurry picture of the great red spot - but, as always, I lament the quality of those phone pictures.
Part of me wished last night that I had had the energy to haul out a bigger refractor. That concerned me a bit. My Takahashi is not much heavier; would I always feel this way when I set out with the TV 85? Even so, you can't go wrong with the little scope - and I left the park satisfied, despite the prospect of a measly four hours of sleep. There's nothing like a fine refractor on a moonlit night.