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.
The weather has been stormy over the past few weeks, but this morning the clouds cleared and the seeing promised to be good. I woke up at 2:45 AM and walked out the door by 3:20, hauling my APM 140. As I reached my local park, it dawned on me that conditions were essentially perfect. The sky was wonderfully transparent, the temperature was perfect, and there was a thin misting of dew on the ground. The rabbits and fireflies that used to give the park such a magical air, however, have largely disappeared (for now).
It was a special morning for more than one reason. The Moon had just passed in front (occulted) Mars, and the two worlds were still right next to each other in the night sky. It was a stunning sight as I set up the APM. Then, when I wheeled the big telescope around to have a look at the Moon, I was just floored by the spectacular, razor-sharp detail. Rilles and craterlets snapped into view as I've never seen them, and I thought I could actually pick up gradations of color on a Moon that has always looked monochrome to me.
It was easy to get lost in that view, but I had a job to do: observe Mars as it approaches opposition. Now, it's around five weeks away - hard to believe! - and wow does the planet look big and bright. The APM revealed it in spectacular detail, with Syrtis Major huge and dark on the planet's surface, arcing north from a south polar cap that now seems small (but bright), with Nodus Alcyonius obvious nearby. It was easily the best view of Mars I've had. By 4 AM the view softened a bit, as a turbulence entered our terrestrial atmosphere. I think I noticed a hint of the planet's rotation between 3:45 and 4:45 AM; Syrtis Major seemed just a bit offset from where it was when I set up.
I knew my iPhone would never capture even a half-decent image of the view, and I kicked myself for not bringing a sketching pad. Still, I have an app called "Paper" on my phone, and I used that to quickly just down what I could easily see. An enormous amount of detail is missing, of course, including many subtle grays south of Syrtis Major. Yet I'm hopeful that I'll get better at this, and I could tell that it helped me observe more closely and carefully.
By 4:30 AM or so, the highlights of the winter sky had climbed above the horizon. Of course, I had to have a look at Orion. To my surprise, six stars were visible in the Trapezium - a first for me, if memory serves. Through the APM, the nebula looked about as impressive near the light-polluted horizon as it does while near zenith with my Takahashi (or maybe even a little better). Rigel B was much easier to spot than I can remember, and the Pleiades were just spectacular. Venus, also rising in the east, was lost in atmospheric turbulence. But still, I observed its half-disk for a minute or so.
I've praised it before in this space, but wow - I cannot say enough about this APM refractor. There are times when I've fantasized about selling all my gear in exchange for an Astro-Physics refractor - something truly high-end. Yet I just can't see how the APM can be improved. I see less false color with the APM than I do with the Takahashi - even with the Takahashi's focal extender screwed in - and the detail, contrast, and color I can see on planets is just otherworldly (sorry). Bright deep space objects are a joy to observe, and the every last detail on the telescope - from the focuser to the dew shield - is a pleasure to use. Like my TV-85, there's something magical about this telescope. It's a true keeper.
Also deserving of praise: TeleVue Delos eyepieces. They are, without doubt, the best I've used in terms of clarity, contrast, and comfort for my eye. Maybe I'll get another come Christmas.
My greatest weakness in this hobby - and maybe in life - is that I'm never sufficiently content with what I have. When I realized that my big refractor - the APM 140 - was just about as portable as my smaller and substantially less capable Vixen 115 ED115S, I started imagining what I could get by selling that telescope.
Eventually I discovered the Unistellar EVScope, a remarkable little device that uses a sophisticated sensor to amplify the feeble light of galaxies, nebulae, and globular clusters. The telescope uses a technique familiar to astrophotographers - stacking images on top of each other - to provide detailed, colorful views of these objects. In theory, I reasoned, the EVScope could finally allow me to explore deep space from the city, something I've long dreamed of. The EVScope has received rave reviews from popular outlets, mixed reviews from astrophotographers, and a great deal of skepticism from seasoned observers at such websites as CloudyNights.
To me, its potential was too great to ignore. I sold the Vixen and took the plunge.
So, was it worth it? In a word: no. Yet I'm not disappointed, as I had to try - and I'm convinced that this has more to do with my unique expectations and restrictions than anything else.
First, the good: this is a beautifully-built product, compared to other examples of fine consumer electronics. Yes, the mechanical beauty and precision of one of my refractors, for example, makes the EVScope look like a toy. Yet it has the kind of sleek, effortless style of the Apple laptop I'm using to type this blog. Its tripod is lightweight but absolutely sturdy, while its motor slews quietly and smoothly to its targets. The app you use on your phone to control the device is wonderfully easy to use, and the instructions that come with the telescope are really well done. The whole setup provides a masterclass in accessible ease of use.
Now for the bad. I spent three, maybe four hours with the EVScope before selling it. In my first session, on our rooftop, a gaggle of interested residents kept wandering over while I attempted to set up the telescope. What was I looking at? They wondered. Nothing yet, I replied, it was my first time using the telescope. Oh you'll never see anything in the city, they assured me. Eventually it got to be too much - none of my neighbors decided to wear masks - so it was back downstairs for me. I noticed that the telescope failed to achieve alignment on the rooftop, but I blamed that on the nearby lights.
During the next two sessions, I walked to the nearby park. Again the telescope struggled to achieve alignment, and even when it claimed to be aligned it typically did not maneuver accurately to the right object. A back and forth with tech support (who took four days to get back to me after one query) reassured me that any problems could be solved. Yet did I have the time or energy to solve them?
The reason I ultimately decided I did not has a lot to do with the telescope's "enhanced vision" feature - the feature that starts stacking images. I was impressed by the many stars that gradually winked into view when I turned it on, but somehow profoundly disappointed by the experience of seeing them. It reminded me of buying a microscope, not long ago, with an LCD screen. Adding that level of separation between reality and the eye, for me, deprives the observing experience of its most essential characteristic: actually, really, seeing what is otherwise hidden. As soon as there's a screen - and there's a screen with the EVScope even when using its eyepiece - the experience is ruined, the effect is gone, and I might as well be home scrolling through Hubble Space Telescope images. Not everyone would feel that way, but I suspect that many amateur astronomers will. It's why we spend far too much time and money to admire the faintest smudges and hazes and pinpoint pricks of light that, our brains remind us, have almost unimaginable significance. The EVScope is tailor-made for those who don't feel that thrill.
As I was struggling to align the telescope, I eventually pointed it at the Moon. Here was a third disappointment: the Moon, through the telescope, was incredibly unimpressive. My aging cellphone, held up to my C90, provides a far superior view. I realized that no matter what, I would never used the EVScope with any bright Solar System object in the sky, and since lunar and planetary viewing at my primary interests, that really knocked the wind out of my sails.
And this too: while I sat hunched over the EVScope in the park, someone walked close to me with a flashlight, shone it at me, and then silently walked away. Was it the sound of the motor that had attracted them? Or the red light on the telescope's base? Either way, it echoed my experience on the rooftop - and it reminded me why I don't like the silence of simpler devices while observing in the city. That, and wow do I have hate wrestling with electronics in the few hours I have to observe. I tried to suppress the thought that those three of four hours of frustration could have been truly wonderful had I brought my other telescopes to the park.
So it was that the EVScope left my house this morning. I hope that the buyer likes it more than I did; certainly, there's plenty to like. Yet for my needs, with limited time in the city, it just doesn't cut it.
I lost a few hundred dollars in the transaction - that always hurts - but fortunately found the C9.25 on sale for a few hundred dollars off. I bought that telescope with a couple upgrades, and now will wait until it arrives in a month or so. If there's one telescope I've regretted selling, it's the orange tube C8 I had earlier this year. As much as my experience with the Edge HD warned me about Schmidt-Cassegrains, the orange tube restored my faith. So, here's hoping that the 9.25 provides a level of planetary performance that even the APM 140 can't quite match.
I suppose that, for now, I need to accept that some corners of deep space are simply off limits for me in the city.
We're less than two months away from Mars reaching opposition, and the red planet is getting awfully bright in the morning sky. Its apparent size is getting pretty big, too, and there are - as yet - no signs of the planetary dust storm that made it so much harder to see details on the planet during its last opposition, in 2018. Now is the time to observe Mars, and with that in mind I dragged my APM 140 out of the apartment and down to the park at 3:30 this morning.
Wispy cirrus clouds were starting to advance from the west as I set up my telescope, and there was an odd haze in the air. Street lamps were surrounded with halos that took on an odd fractal pattern I'm not sure I've seen before. After I started observing, I noticed the same thing around Mars.
Oh well! The planet was spectacular nonetheless. The clouds that constitute its south polar hood appear to have broken up as the southern hemisphere enters summer, and the ice cap - now clearly visible - seems quite small. I could plainly make out an an intricate latticework of dark albedo markings stretching up from the pole, covering maybe half the planet's surface. Tonight, the atmosphere allowed me to reach around 170x before the view got a little mushy, and at that magnification the planet is still quite small. Easily big enough, however, to discern a whole lot of detail.
Venus had climbed fairly high above the horizon by around 4 AM, and wow did it look weird with the naked eye: squashed into a fat little triangle by those strange atmospheric conditions. It was hazy and painfully bright through the telescope, though still satisfying to see the planet, from our perspective halfway illuminated. I thought I could make out some detail in the planet's clouds around its terminator, near the equator, but seeing was bad enough to make me question that observation.
The Pleiades, meanwhile, had also wheeled into view, and I had my first look at them with the APM. Naturally the view was brighter than I've had before, though I wished for a wide field eyepiece - I'd left my 55mm Plossl at home - and the seeing was bad enough to mar the view ever so slightly. Still an impressive sight, however.
Once again, telescope, mount, and tripod all functioned exceptionally well. I'm impressed at how easily the lightweight AYO II handles the big refractor when everything is properly balanced. Bizarrely, the telescope handles more smoothly and easily than the Takahashi FC-100DC on the same mount - or maybe it just seems that way, since it takes a little more effort to use the smaller telescope's focuser (it's one-speed only). Certainly the APM is my favorite telescope to use, with the little TeleVue a close second (it would be first, but that big aperture is hard to resist).
I was quite tired after I last published on this blog, but the night of the tenth was clear again - and again the seeing promised to be better than average. With a week of uninterrupted rain coming our way, I had to step out again. This time I decided to try our rooftop, which was been a little too crowded to feel safe lately.
I decided to see whether the APM 140 was portable enough to haul upstairs. To my astonishment, the telescope slipped easily into the Gitzo carrying bag that I've been using for my Vixen refractor. That sliding dew shield goes a long way. It also barely felt heavier, and it suddenly dawned on me that, because the APM can sit well on the same mount and tripod, it's actually just as portable as the Vixen. Imagine that: a nearly six-inch-wide, portable refractor!
To my relief, the rooftop was relatively empty. I unpacked and set up the telescope in under five minutes, and of course the APM acclimates so fast that it was immediately ready to go. Jupiter was up first. To my delight, I'd tuned in on time for another shadow transit - my third in three weeks! To think I'd never seen one before. This time it was plainly obvious that it was Io's shadow on the Jovian clouds; I could clearly make out the moon as a tiny orange disk. How the mind soars to imagine its volcanoes belching sulfur into the radioactive torus swirling around Jupiter.
I switched to Saturn, but the planet was just a bit lower in the sky than Jupiter, and the difference in seeing was plainly noticeable. Turning back to Jupiter, I was struck by how much better - I'm afraid there's no other word for it - the planet looks through the APM than it does through the Takahashi FC-100DC, even when the smaller telescope has its focal extender screwed in. The biggest difference, I find, is in the color. Jupiter's reds typically look a pale pink through the Takahashi, but they are clearly red - in the case of the Great Red Spot, a vivid crimson - through the APM.
I also noticed that my Delos eyepieces offered a notably better view then the Naglers, for what it's worth. Both made by the same company, of course, but the Delos seemed to have just a bit more contrast, and they were definitely easier on the eye to use. I'm thinking now that I should swap my 9mm Nagler for a 10mm Delos, if I can do it while breaking close to even.
As I admired Jupiter with the 6mm Delos screwed in, for a magnification of 163x, the seeing suddenly stabilized for around 20 seconds, and the planet suddenly snapped into crystal-clear focus. I was taken aback; I almost couldn't believe what I could make out. It was a textbook view of the planet - in that it could have literally appeared as a Hubble photograph in a textbook, held at arm's length, while squinting ever so slightly. The Great Red Spot and the swirling, complicated clouds surrounding it beautifully framed Io's shadow, and the details in the cloud belts were so richly textured . . . I was just astonished.
When the seeing returned to normal, I could do nothing but pack up and leave. There are times in amateur, observational astronomy when you've had your fill and you need to step away to process it for a while. I packed up - again, in under five minutes - and stepped quietly downstairs, knowing I was sated for the week.
A note on the APM. Earlier this year, I would not have believed such a telescope was possible - or at least, I would not have believed I would ever own one. Here is a refractor that, at 5.5 inches in aperture, excels at just about every object, but somehow manages to be grab-and-go portable. It weighs just a few pounds more than my much smaller Vixen - which is itself light for its aperture - and so a relatively light mount and tripod can comfortably handle it. I can carry it with ease. Its focal length is fast enough for wide-field views, but slow enough for magnificent planetary observation. It offers absolutely sharp, color-free views and first-class mechanical quality, at least on par with my Takahashi, but somehow costs just a hair more than that much smaller refractor - and about the same as the Vixen. Somehow, it cools down just about as fast as they do.
It's true that my APM has what I gather is an unusually high strehl ratio - in other words, its optical quality is better than average - so my experience with this model might be unusually good. Even so, tonight's look at Jupiter - not exactly the easiest object to view - made me wonder why anyone would need or want anything more expensive at this aperture. My cup was full, and I can't imagine that any other portable telescope would have filled it further.
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!