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