The good times keep coming! Another clear morning, with average seeing and above-average transparency. Astronomy and my toddler have been costing me sleep recently, and deep down I knew it wasn't a good idea to head out in the wee hours again. Yet there I was, waking up at 2:30 AM, gulping down four cups of coffee, and slipping out the door with three big bags. My cat watched me go with a knowing look.
When I got outside, the night seemed nearly perfect. Not a single cloud in the sky - now that's rare - and the stars seemed remarkably steady. Mars was a brilliant red near the half-Moon; it's getting noticeably brighter, it seems, with every week. The temperature was perfect, and a gentle breeze made it even better. As the Earth warms, I figure, most of us will be spending more time walking in the night. I guess I'll be a veteran.
When I got to the park, conditions somehow seemed even better. I couldn't see the Milky Way, of course - not in these urban skies - but the sky did seem unusually full of stars. Then, as I unpacked my trusty Takahashi refractor, it suddenly hit me: I'd left my stool at home. A cascading series of problems followed. I'd taken my little Report tripod, which can usually hold the Takahashi okay, but only when not fully extended. Well, I would have to extend it all the way without a stool, and even then I'd have to bend over a little to use the eyepiece - let alone the red dot finder. A pleasant early morning under the skies suddenly seemed a lot less fun.
My worst suspicions were realized when I turned to Mars, now high above the eastern horizon. The tripod wasn't up to the telescope, and the view took a full four seconds to stabilize when I nudged the planet into view. That's an especially big problem because I don't currently have an eyepiece with a big field of view, so I have to keep nudging and nudging - which means more and more wobbling. There was so much wobbling, in fact, that I hard time perfectly focusing the telescope - a consequence, in part, of the Takahashi's lack of a two-speed focuser. Craning over my eyepiece, I suddenly felt let down by my equipment, for the first time in months. If only I'd brought that stool!
What's worse, the seeing turned out to be surprisingly uneven. It guess that breeze was messing with the view. Admittedly, the view of Mars would have thrilled me a month ago: there was the southern polar cap, bordered (if memory serves) by dark dunes, and there - in fleeting moments of atmospheric stability - a delicate latticework of dark albedo features, spidering up from the pole. And yet, on the whole it was all a bit blurrier than I expected. The Moon was impressive, with gloriously crisp detail around Plato in particular. I thought I could maybe - maybe - make out a few craterlets, but it was hard to be sure with the view wobbling, my neck aching, and my knees buckling.
When I turned south to Jupiter and Saturn, I was shocked - for the opposite reason I had been just a day and a half earlier. Both planets were almost void of detail, the view entirely washed out by terrible - not just bad, terrible - seeing. I hastily turned back to the Moon and tried not to remember the view through the APM. After a while, Venus rose to the northeast, a glorious golden crescent very near blood-red Aldebaran. It was nice to see the Pleiades again, rising over the trees. I suppose it won't be too long before Orion makes it reappearance in the morning sky.
A bright comet, NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) is visible to the naked eye just before sunrise - a sight we haven't had, I think, since PANSTARRS (C2011/L4) in 2013, and Hale-Bopp (C/1995 O1) in 1997. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay out long enough to see it. I fervently hope it survives its pass by the Sun so I can catch it in the evening sky within a week or so - clouds permitting, of course.
I walked home knowing it would be a very long day with very little sleep. Had it been worth it? If only I'd brought my stool, then certainly. But now . . . at least I'd gotten another good view of Mars. It's hard to imagine what it will look like in just a few months!
It's been quite a stretch of clear nights in these parts - as I wrote before, DC is a feast-or-famine city for amateur astronomers - and I've been determined to take full advantage. Last night, I hauled my APM 140 out the door for what I hoped would be an hour of deep space urban observing. As I embarked on the 15-minute walk to the park with, what, sixty pounds worth of equipment, I fretted about a fleet of clouds flitting by overhead. When I got to the park, however, the clouds had largely passed, and although I was drenched with sweat after all that hauling I was more or less ready to go.
I was curious to see what the APM could do with no Moon in the sky. The first thing I noticed is that transparency wasn't great, but also that stars were pinpoints almost immediately. Although the difference in temperature from inside to outside wasn't great, I was still impressed that the telescope acclimated just about instantly. The Ring Nebula is almost comically easy to find these days, so I started with it. I could see a clear ring with no averted vision - always nice - but I can't say the view was much brighter then it had been a few days back, when the Moon was out. Still, a nice way to start the night.
Next, I tried to track down some globular clusters in Scorpio, then rising out of the worst of the city's light pollution to the south. The double star Al Niyat was a gorgeous sight, but the globulars - M4 and M80 - were underwhelming. I abandoned the effort and switched to simply admiring some bright stars for a while, beginning with Antares. This, to my mind, is a principal difference between refractors and other kinds of telescopes. Stars look so much more beautiful - more natural - through refractors, in a way that's hard to explain. It's something, I think, about the size and color of the "disk."
I decided to see if I couldn't track down the Whirlpool and Pinwheel galaxies around the Big Dipper. After spending about five minutes in futility, it suddenly dawned on me that the year was far enough along for Jupiter and Saturn to be rising in the evening sky. Sure enough, when I moved out of the shadow of a tree there they were, high enough already to observe. I didn't expect too much; they were still quite close to the horizon, after all.
But when I turned to Jupiter I just about fell off my stool. There, on the limb of the planet, was the pitch-black shadow of a Galilean moon. And there, framed by Jupiter's North Equatorial Belt, was the moon: Europa, if I'm not mistaken. Suddenly the seeing stabilized, and wow: I've never seen so much detail and color on the planet. It was like viewing a Hubble image, at a little distance, while squinting ever so slightly. The Galilean moons were actual disks, not just points of light, though I couldn't see their color, let alone any albedo features on their surfaces. The seeing, I judged, was good but not great. But the telescope! What a thrill to observe the planet with a nearly six-inch refractor.
When I turned to Saturn, I was nearly as impressed. The planet just had such a satisfying color through the big refractor: a creamy, buttery pale yellow, with mottled bands of grey cloud. Again, there was a space telescope - or maybe space probe - kind of feel to the image, a three-dimensionality and intricacy of detail that I've rarely seen before.
I swung back to Jupiter. As I watched, Europa's shadow vanished in the limb of the planet, and the moon itself started to edge into black space. Then, the Great Red Spot rotated into view - and above it, on the northern hemisphere of the planet, an even darker mass of clouds. When the atmosphere really settled down, every cloud belt and zone was just absolutely full of delicate detail. What a thrill.
I could have stayed for so much longer, but I knew it would be just four or five hours before my toddler woke up, and I had to get what little sleep I could salvage. What a memorable night! I've always wanted to be able to see real change on Jupiter - to observe the true dynamism of the inconstant planet. Finally, I had the chance to see the best the planet has to offer in real-time. I can't imagine any of my other telescopes would have shown me as much; the Takahashi might have come close, but not with so much color.
I never imagined I'd be able to use such a big refractor before having a backyard. As I lugged the telescope back home, I couldn't stop thinking: it's so worth it for even one special hour with the giant planets.
It's hard to properly celebrate Independence Day this year, though that didn't stop the jet fighters and warplanes from passing overhead yesterday evening. Fireworks followed - hours and hours worth - but I was more interested in the other parts of the sky. At 11:45 PM, I set off to view the "Buck Moon" - and maybe, just maybe, catch a sight of what promised to be a very subtle penumbral lunar eclipse.
I decided to take my trusty TV 85. Clouds were closing in, and so I wasn't sure what to expect when I reached my park. Five minutes of viewing? A full hour? It didn't seem worth it to take a larger telescope. Plus, after all those sleepless nights lately - and full days of work and childcare - I was too tired to lug anything bigger.
When I reached the park, I realized, first, that Jupiter and Saturn are now quite high in the sky even at midnight, and second, that seeing was really quite good - better than it had been on July 2nd and 3rd. I realized, too, that I couldn't spot a lunar eclipse, but that the hazy sky had adorned the Moon with a beautiful golden tint. And wow, was it bright. After a few moon-free early mornings, it was strange to see my telescope cast a shadow in the park.
It was a strange atmosphere last night. While seeing was quite good, the air was hazy, almost watery. The Moon in particular looked like it was made of liquid: a giant and intricately-detailed bubble. Still, what a sight. Tattered clouds swept by from time to time, and just before I packed up a distant bat fluttered directly across the lunar surface. Like something from a Dracula movie.
Turning to the planets, I was again impressed by the TV 85 (a recurring theme on this website). At modest magnifications, the little refractor really is a match for any other telescope I've owned. Jupiter's great spot was plainly visible, and so were dusky clouds on Saturn - and the Cassini Division, winding all the way around those rings. In moments of especially good seeing, Jupiter's surface was thick with intricate detail.
Of course, the view of both was a good deal dimmer through the TV 85 than it is through the APM 140, and the colors were more muted than they are even with the Takahashi, let alone the APM. I tried increasing the magnification last night to almost unusable levels to dim the view enough to get a decent picture with my iPhone. I succeeded, at least, in taking my first blurry picture of the great red spot - but, as always, I lament the quality of those phone pictures.
Part of me wished last night that I had had the energy to haul out a bigger refractor. Even so, you can't go wrong with a TV 85 - and I left the park, satisfied despite the prospect of a measly four hours of sleep. There's nothing like a fine refractor on a moonlit night.
Rocking a fussy baby is a dangerous thing. The mind latches on to anything that can distract from the crying, and for me that means telescopes. Could I really use my Mewlon 180, I wondered lately? The telescope is beautiful, but it takes at least an hour to cool down - about as long as I often have to observe. And would I really feel comfortable collimating it in a park? Could I even haul it to a park in the handsome but bulky carrying case I bought for it?
The answer to all these questions, I ultimately decided, was no. At the same time, I happened across a new telescope model: a 140mm refractor made by a German company, APM. At just under 20 pounds, this telescope is remarkably lightweight for a 5.5" refractor, and because it's a doublet - meaning it has two lenses - it cools downs quickly. Color correction is also excellent - maybe not quite as good as my Takahashi FC100, but on par with my TV 85 - and a sliding dew shield means the whole assembly is quite compact. Quality control is so good that the telescopes can ship with strehl reports, meaning you know exactly what effect unavoidable wavefront aberrations will have on image quality. The price, meanwhile, is unbeatable for a big apochromatic refractor.
I couldn't help but think that the APM would work much better for me than my Mewlon, especially as I've gotten used to those pinpoint refractor stars. Once the idea was in my head, as usual, I couldn't shake it. I sold my Mewlon and a few eyepieces - including my cherished Ethos - then bought a rarely used, second-hand APM with an unusually high strehl of 0.958. To my surprise, the big telescope rides quite easily on my AYO II mount. I had been told that the mount can't quite handle refractors with similar apertures, such as the TEC 140. But if I balance the refractor just right, it does fine - provided I don't use a heavy eyepiece. Which, hey, I had to sell to buy the telescope anyway.
Although I promised myself after June 9th that I'd only take a telescope out in the early morning if the seeing seemed above average, by July 1st I couldn't wait any longer. Both seeing and transparency promised to be below average on the morning of the 2nd, but the sky was clear and I wanted to test the refractor. I went to bed at 10:30 PM, woke up at 2:30 AM, and was out the door at 3:05. I'd bought a large soft case to haul the telescope and all my equipment except my mount, and it certainly made it much easier to walk the 15 or so minutes to my new favorite observing site. When I got there, however, my arm was nevertheless ready to fall off.
This urban observing location is really special: screened by bushes in a large park that I have permission to use at night. As on the 9th, I was surrounded by rabbits and fireflies, and by 4 AM a cacophony of birds started calling all around me. The nearby trees are alive with noise - not bird calls, but animals moving through them. An army of squirrels? A flock of pterodactyls? Either way, it's a memorable experience being out there in the early morning.
Turning to Mars, the image was clearly brighter than what I observed through the FC-100DC on June 9th, but also softer with a bit more light scatter. Nevertheless, that southern polar cap and some delicate dark albedo features were clearly visible. Switching to Jupiter and Saturn, it was clear that poor seeing and to a lesser extent transparency, not the optics of my telescope, would limit my morning views. Both planets had more color than they do through my Takahashi, and I could see a whole family of moons around Saturn - always a thrill. Even at high magnifications, the view remained bright - another step up over the Takahashi. Yet I couldn't really push past 100x and still see detail; the seeing was just not good enough. Still, the great red spot was as obvious as I've ever seen it.
I wanted to have a look at the Ring Nebula to compare the light gathering capacity of the APM to my other refractors. With so much light pollution in the muggy sky, the nebula still seemed faint. But I could clearly make out a ring without using averted vision - a first for me. Then, at around 4:15 AM, I noticed a bright light on the eastern horizon. Was it a plane? Or could it be Venus? I had a look, and yes - there it was, a delicate golden crescent. I've never seen Venus look so beautiful; a mesmerizing sight that defied all my iPhone attempts to take a picture.
Walking back was another huge chore, and when I returned I noticed that the wheels on my case already had some wear and tear. Still, I thought the telescope acquitted itself very well. The only false color I detected, I think, was a function of seeing. Stars were, of course, pinpoints. The view was noticeably brighter than it is through my Vixen - about as bright as it was through my dearly departed C8, I figured. Thermal acclimation was nearly instantaneous. The mount was sturdy, with vibrations at well under two seconds. This telescope is a keeper.
On the evening of the 2nd, I realized that the sky would be clear again on the morning of the 3rd - except now the seeing and transparency promised to be average. Could I really function for a second day on four hours of interrupted sleep? Yes, I decided I could - and there I was again, in the park by 3:30 AM. This time I brought my Takahashi. I didn't have the energy to lug out my APM on so little sleep, and I wanted to compare the view through the FC-100DC with what I'd had with the APM.
Mars was, once again, my first target. I had been a little disappointed with the view of Mars through the APM, although to be honest I would have been blown away had it not been for that magical morning on June 9th. Now, using the Takahashi again, I realized that the view on the 9th was a function of good seeing and good transparency - and a great little telescope, of course. The view on the morning of July 3rd was similar to what I'd had using the APM on the 2nd, albeit less bright and with a bit less scatter (possibly owing to better seeing). The south polar cap was easily visible, and some dark albedo features too - a fine view, but not comparable to what I saw on the 9th.
When I turned the telescope south to Jupiter and Saturn, I was surprised: the seeing in that part of the sky was actually worse than it had been on the previous morning. Jupiter in particular was a hot mess, with nothing visible aside from the most obvious belts and zones. I could just make out the Cassini Division on Saturn, and I actually got some half-decent iPhone photos. Saturn photographs much better than the other planets largely because it's fainter. My phone washes out all detail on brilliant objects on a black background, so Jupiter especially almost always comes out as a bright white ball - except in those especially blurry moments, while taking a video, in which the picture just passes into or out of focus.
In general, views of Jupiter and Saturn were worse using the Takahashi than they had been with the APM, but a lot of that comes down to a slight difference in seeing. I would say that, with the focal extender, the Takashi probably gives slightly sharper but less colorful and somewhat dimmer views. With that said, the difference in brightness on the planets was less than I expected; the Takahashi puts up a hell of a fight against any telescope, it seems.
Turning to the Ring Nebula, the picture was very different. In subpar transparency - the forecast lied - the nebula was only barely perceptible at all. I needed averted vision to see a ring, and then again - just barely. I guessed that the view with the APM was twice as bright, a gigantic difference, of course, when it comes to observing deep space objects.
Once again, Venus loomed on the horizon when it was time for me to start thinking about packing. Once again, the view was glorious - and the iPhone washed out all details (ditto for Mars). Oh well - I took a shot anyway, and now it's on this website. Somehow, it still helps me remember the wonder.
Dodging crowds of rabbits, I made my way home. The lack of sleep hurts, but I'll cherish these early morning memories. And I sure am happy to have another telescope in the fold.
Washington is a feast-or-famine city for amateur astronomy. Clouds and bad seeing can endure for weeks - even months - with little relief, and then, suddenly, the weather clears for a week. When that happens, I've learned to take advantage of it - no matter how tired or distracted I may be.
So when the sky cleared last week, I was ready. Unfortunately, the first couple nights were marred by bad seeing. But the last two nights may have been my best since I started this hobby, many years ago now.
On night one - on the seventh - I hauled my Vixen 115SED to a park about a ten minutes' walk from my home. With its various upgrades and attachments - including the diagonal - the Vixen weighs just under 15 pounds. My larger tripod - a Berlebach - weighs around 12 pounds. Everything else probably weighs about as much. Walking ten minutes with all that gear - in three big bags - is about all I can take. But I made it, and after thoroughly dousing myself with mosquito spray, I walked towards the center of the park. There, I found a depression screened with bushes: quite possibly the best observing site I've encountered in a city.
As I unpacked, I found I was surrounded by rabbits. Over the next two hours, they would routinely hop by, some no more than six feet away. I could see the flash of their white tails bounding along from time to time. My attention, however, was elsewhere. The Moon would rise only after I had to walk home, which meant that conditions were ideal for deep space observing.
Of course, while seeing was pretty good, transparency was much worse, and at the beginning of the evening banks of high-altitude clouds seemed to obscure exactly what I most wanted to observe. Still, even then I had a good look at some particularly beautiful and bright stars: Arcturus, for example, glowing like an ember in the dark.
Whenever I take out the Vixen - okay, it's been just three times now - I'm impressed by how comfortable it feels to use. The size and weight seem just right to me. Stars meanwhile are absolute pinpoints, and the colors are just sublime. I'm convinced that a fine refractor will spoil every other telescope for the observer. There's just something about the sharpness and color that you can't get with another instrument - even if those other instruments lend themselves to much larger apertures.
Anyway, tonight I wanted to observe some globular clusters. I started with M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules. Every nebula, galaxy, and globular cluster aside from the Orion Nebula is a subtle find in DC's light polluted skies. Even the brightest require averted vision to see clearly, and the Hercules globular is no exception. Yet with averted vision, I could make out countless tiny stars: diamond fragments against black velvet.
Next, I hunted down M80 and M92: two relatively bright globulars swimming in the most light-polluted part of the sky. They were not immediately spectacular, but then, of course, you think about it: the light coming through the eyepiece left its source during the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum (colloquially called the last "ice age"). There's something indescribably special about scouring the most distant reaches of the Milky Way. And these two globulars I had never observed before.
The Ring Nebula (M 57) was last on my list. It was a remarkably easy find, and quite obvious despite its relatively low elevation above the horizon. I needed averted vision to clearly see the ring, and I just wonder what it would look like in a truly dark sky. Still, it's always surreal to see M57: a preview of the eventual fate of our Sun.
I went to bed content on the seventh, then woke up on the 8th to realize that seeing and transparency early in the morning of the ninth would both be above average. I can't remember the last time that happened. With Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and the Moon all slated to be in the night sky, I couldn't miss it. I set my alarm to 3:30 AM - then woke up at 2:30, exhausted but ready to go. I packed up my FC-100DC and walked out the door.
This time I nearly blundered into a deer while entering the park. For some reason, that deer just wasn't interested in moving. I was again surrounded by rabbits and this time, a chorus of singing birds. It was beautiful. There were the planets and the Moon, all lined up - and there were high-altitude clouds, defying the weather forecast. For the next two hours, I switched from one world to the next, dodging the clouds as best I could.
Here I find it hard to put in words the thrill I got when I turned the Takahashi to Mars. Mars is still many months removed from its biannual opposition - its closest approach to Earth in its long orbit - but the view through the Takahashi was so much better than anything I'd seen before that it truly was like I was seeing the planet for the first time. As you can read in this blog, in previous attempts to observe Mars I always wondered whether I could really make out its surface features. No such confusion this time. There was the south polar cap, bright and clear as day . . . and there were its dark albedo features, not only obvious but intricate in detail, despite the relatively small apparent size of the planet. I was flabbergasted. With focal extender screwed in - and even without - the Takahashi is a stunning planetary telescope.
I realized just how stunning when I turned to Jupiter. At around 200x, I have simply never seen so much on the giant planet. You had the feeling that, if only you could get a little closer, you could see an almost Hubble-like level of detail. The seeing didn't quite let me do that, nor did those awful clouds. But still: it was stunning to see all those cloud features I'd previously seen only online or in books. Totally obvious - of course - was the great red spot, and over an hour I followed along as it moved toward the limb of the planet. The four Galilean moons were all lined up, and I could easily make them out as disks.
Saturn was equally spectacular, of course. At around 250x, the view was a little dim with those clouds rolling in, but impressively detailed. It was not quite the best view of Saturn that I've had with the Takahashi - owing, I think, to those clouds - but it was close. Cloud features were plainly evident, as was the shadow of the planet on the rings - always a highlight for me. The Cassini Division clearly surrounded the entire planet.
Not to be outdone, the Moon was just as impressive as the bigger, more distant worlds. The pictures didn't quite turn out as I'd hoped, but wow: the detail was perhaps even more spectacular than it was on May 31st, and this time without any false color at all. I observed at around 250x for a while, savoring the view especially with TeleVue Plössl eyepieces attached to a 2.5x PowerMate. Crater peaks and rilles in particular were breathtaking to resolve and follow.
I had one quick look at the Ring Nebula before the Sun came up. Although its constellation - Lyra - was now much higher in the sky than it had been on the 7th, the brilliant Moon made up for it by washing out fainter objects. The nebula was quite easy to make out, but dimmer - slightly - than it had been through the Vixen.
Now the Sun was coming out, and I had to rush home for my young son's wakeup time. Having had just two hours of sleep, it would be a long day. But so worth it after such a memorable night.
Once again, the sky was clear and the seeing better than terrible last night, so out I stepped onto my rooftop. With a curfew on from 7 PM - what a strange and distressing time this is - I couldn't go outside. Luckily, there were very few people on the rooftop, and no helicopters hovering low in the sky.
The Moon was three-quarters full, and with no planets in the sky and transparency quite low, it would be my focus once again. I really wanted to see if I could make out more chromatic aberration tonight through the FC-100DC; the view a couple nights back had made me reconsider the focal extender I'd bought for the telescope.
A band of ragged clouds obscured the Moon as I stepped outside, but they passed within a few minutes. When the Moon emerged, I noticed no - and I mean no - chromatic aberration at all, not even on the lunar limb. The seeing was, by then, pretty unsteady, but I did manage to get some spectacular views of the crater Gassendi at around 200x. Nineteenth-century Selenographers imagined that the crater's central mountains changed in shape, betraying - they thought - signs of volcanism or perhaps even life on the lunar surface. It's been a joy for me to learn a great deal about the Moon's cultural and scientific history as I work on my next book. It gives added depth to these nights of lunar exploration.
Last year, Takahashi debuted a seeming upgrade over the 100DC: the 100DZ, a telescope with better color correction and even fewer lens aberrations. Observers report that, visually, there is no difference between the DC and DZ - certainly not on most nights - but still, in this hobby you always want what is just out of reach. A telescope that promises to show you ever so slightly more, even once in a blue Moon, can be extremely tempting.
However, last night clinched it: I'll keep the DC for now. The DZ is about a third heavier, and there is just something about having such a lightweight, easy-to-mount refractor that still shows so much. And now, with the extender, it's almost as though I have two telescopes in one, both just about perfect for different roles, and one that, apparently, shows absolutely no false color in my usual observing locations.
Last night, miraculously, the clouds cleared rather than thickened after sunset, and seeing conditions lingered - for just an hour or two - near average. I dutifully set out with my Takahashi, yet when I reached the rooftop I found it crowded with people. It's like we, as a city and country, have simply decided to ignore COVID-19. Disappointed, I walked downstairs and decided to set up shop on a bench just outside my building. While I was tucked mostly out of sight, there were bright lamps everywhere, and so I had little choice but to observe the Moon. Not ideal, but not the worst: there are few better things to do than explore the half-full Moon with a fine refractor.
With the Moon at 60x, it was immediately obvious that it was going to be a special night. Maybe the seeing was supposed to be average overall, but the Moon seemed unusually sharp. Switching to around 200x, I could easily make out a number of craterlets within the crater Plato, and I was delighted to make out the towering shadows of its mountainous rim. Mountains on the Moon are rounded by years of bombardment, but they nevertheless cast spectacular shadows with the Sun at locally low elevation. These particular shadows, in Plato, have an especially interesting history. In the nineteenth century, observers announced that their flickering betrayed the existence of a lunar atmosphere. The apparent appearance and disappearance of those craterlets, meanwhile, supposedly revealed ongoing volcanism. Was the Moon an active world? To many of the era's leading Selenographers - geographers of the Moon - it certainly seemed to be.
It was one of those nights where you could just linger endlessly over the minutest details on the lunar surface, exploring the complexities of terrain you've never really seen before. The Moon's mountain ranges, in particular, had a towering, three-dimensional feel to them. The glint of mountains catching the rising Sun in the blackness just beyond the terminator always gets me. I can just imagine what it would be like to stand on one of those peaks, taking it all in with the Earth overhead.
Nearly as striking as the specular detail I could make out, however, was the chromatic aberration I could clearly see, despite using a telescope in the FC-100DC that is nearly free of color - and despite using a focal extender that should have all but eliminated false color. Stepping away from the eyepiece, I noticed that the Moon had a hazy look to it, with yellow distortion around the disk. Could the atmosphere be causing all that false color? Or was it stray light entering the optical tube? I'm still trying to figure it out - but it's definitely something I'll monitor.
Nevertheless, a memorable night - and not least for the wail of police sirens in the background, amid protests here in DC over yet another expression of racial injustice. At least there was the SpaceX launch, earlier in the day, to give us a measure of hope for the future.
It's been a while! With around 8,000 COVID-19 cases confirmed in DC - and who knows how many undiagnosed - I've resolved to use my telescopes only in conditions of average or better seeing, and only with at least one showcase object in the sky. For two months, that combination basically did not materialize. Conditions were so bad for astronomy here in DC that I saw plenty of advertisements for telescopes published by people in and around the city.
A couple weeks ago, the sky was finally clear. Although seeing was below average, I couldn't stand being cooped up in my apartment any longer. I took my TV 85 to our rooftop and had a look at the rising full moon. Though the TeleVue never disappoints, the atmosphere was just roiling, and the view was soft. I could only use low magnification. Still, it was nice to catch a glimpse of something astronomical.
Then, last night, seeing was briefly better than average - it's been so long since that happened - and at dusk the Moon was a beautiful crescent hanging over the western horizon. This time, I took out my Vixen ED115S, and resolved to walk around ten minutes to a nearby park. After two minutes of walking with all my gear, I was sore, sweating, and ready to quit. I ducked into a nearby driveway, then walked over to a patch of grass bordering a private school and forest. From there, I could see the Moon in a gap between trees. Good enough!
With the Moon sinking towards the horizon, seeing was not quite as good as I expected. Or more accurately: it was inconsistent. At times, the view was a little fuzzy, or perhaps hazy; at other times - and briefly - it was crystal clear. Still, I now had my first opportunity to test the Vixen in conditions that were better than terrible.
It's an impressive telescope, no doubt about it. It's immediately obvious that it gathers more light than the FC-100DC. This was not a given, because small Takahashi refractors are renowned for outperforming larger telescopes. But subtle features, such as rilles, that are hard to see in my smaller telescopes are clearly visible in the Vixen, giving a mesmerizing complexity to the lunar landscape. You truly get the sense that you could explore it forever. And in particular, the "ashen glow" of the crescent Moon - that majority of the lunar disk illuminated by Earthshine - was much brighter than I can ever remember seeing it. I could actually make out a lot of features on that part of the Moon - a first for me.
Above all, the optics are sharp. I also feel that they take noticeably longer to cool down than those of the TV 85, for example, or even the Takahashi. And if you really look for it, you can see just a bit of false color on the lunar limb when the Moon isn't perfectly in focus. It's just a hint of greenish-yellow, but it's there. I guess I've developed expensive eyes while using these fine refractors. I actually doubt that I'd be able to see even these hints of false color with the Moon higher in the sky; that's something to check out next time. Still, for now I think there may just be a bit more of that color than I can make out with the Takahashi.
There's also more coma - more distortion on the edge of the view - than I see through my smaller telescopes. This is not surprising, and it does not feel distracting to me; you really have to look for it to notice it. But notice it I did when the sky darkened and a star appeared near the Moon at low magnification. My Vixen has a number of heavy upgrades, and that makes it about twice as heavy as the FC-100DC. Still, the AYO II mount holds it with no problems at all. The view, in fact, is rock steady - better than I expected. I can't give that mount enough praise.
After about 40 minutes, the mosquitoes were out in force and I had to pack up quickly. A pity; I'd hoped to catch a glimpse of some other objects, but I have to admit that my observing site was far from ideal anyway.
I am very happy with this telescope. The optics are superb, if not entirely color-free, and it just feels good to use and handle. It's almost the perfect size for a medium-sized refractor; any bigger, and you get the sense that it would be much harder to mount. As is, you barely notice it's there sometimes. You could get lost in that view.
The Vixen provided another useful lesson to me last night. With a heavy heart, I decided to sell my Mewlon 180. Although the telescope is absolutely beautiful, it just takes too long to cool down - and it's too heavy to carry far in its case. I've been debating whether to use the funds to buy a larger refractor, but now I wonder whether the Vixen is the biggest telescope I can manage - until I have a backyard or car, at least.
To put it lightly, conditions here have been far from ideal for observing. Our rooftop is now closed, following DC's lockdown order, and even going inside feels increasingly perilous (though some models suggest we may be approaching or even passing our COVID-19 peak). The weather, meanwhile, has been nothing short of atrocious, with almost unrelenting cloudiness at night, even after clear days.
Tonight, the sky finally cleared up for a few hours. The astronomy forecast told me to expect better than average transparency with worse than average seeing. Since I usually specialize in lunar, planetary, and double star observing - the stuff I can do from the city almost as well as the countryside - I typically prefer good seeing over good transparency, so again it promised to be a sub-par night. Still, I had to take a telescope out before the mosquitoes come out in late spring. With the rooftop closed, I may not be able to observe comfortably for a long time when they do appear.
Sadly, even municipal park is closed, too, so I was forced back to my old observing site, in a community garden with rows of plants and flowers that together create a labyrinth. Sadly, in the past two years two new buildings have popped up nearby, each with floodlights, so the spot is much worse than it once was. And even though I brought my FC-100 DC - my all-around, can't miss workhorse - on my lightest tripod, the ten-minute walk with all my gear was nothing if not uncomfortable.
Still, there was Venus, just a few months from its opposition, almost comically bright in the western sky. I recently upgraded the Takahashi with a Rigel Quickfinder, which makes it so much easier to point the telescope. Within moments, Venus was in my sights. I bought a new Baader diagonal too - the best of the lot - and hoped to see a bit more of the planet than I had before.
Indeed, the view was probably my best of the year, although with Venus that's not saying too much. It was quite low in the night sky, and it did have noticeable false color. Still, the seeing was actually probably above average (!), and there were moments when the atmosphere settled down enough for some sharp views of the planet and its striking cusps. I don't expect a better view this year, and wow - I even managed to get a (terrible) picture!
It was atmospheric transparency that seemed far below average tonight. When I turned to the Orion Nebula, for example, the view was pretty disappointing. Orion is getting low in the night sky, and I've discovered that that makes a huge difference for its famous nebula in particular. As soon as the atmosphere gets too thick, the nebula starts to blend into the rest of the sky. Pointing to Rigel, however, I was astonished at the brightness of Rigel B and the separation I could see between it and Rigel A. It was the clearest view I've had of this spectacular star system.
By then, the nearly full Moon was on the rise. It was a "Super Pink Moon," apparently, and although that doesn't refer to its actual color, bizarrely the Moon did have a pinkish hue near the horizon - a product, I suspect, of a hazy atmosphere with high humidity. Taking any pictures proved to be a nightmare. Since I can't sit in the garden, my hands and especially my legs are far less steady than they are on the rooftop. The picture above is the best I got, and doesn't quite capture the clarity of the image.
It does reveal, however, the excellent color correction on the Takahashi. I'd been tempted to replace the DC with a DZ during a recent Takahashi sale, as I mentioned below, but figured that the much lower weight of the DC made it a better bet for me - and that the visual performance would not be noticeable most nights. I felt a bit better about that decision after last night, though still: once you develop expensive eyes, it's hard not to imagine what even better color correction might be like.
Towards the end of the night, a few deer nearly blundered into me, and they seemed a bit reluctant to leave when I greeted them. I kept hearing their rustling nearby. Then, I nearly stumbled across a raccoon on the walk home. With fewer people on the streets, DC's other residents seem to be taking over.
Life - for me, for millions in the United States and around the world - has changed just a bit since I last wrote. Friends and students have fallen ill, and so many have lost their jobs. It feels crass to complain, but still: my family of four is now largely isolated in our little apartment, and my office is in a walk-in closet. It's less than ideal.
In these difficult and chaotic times, I of course have no way of traveling for work, which means that I have a surplus sitting in my research budget. Not surprisingly, that got me thinking about improving my little telescope collection.
With the Mewlon around, I decided that the C8 was expendable, after all - especially since the device I purchased to make it acclimate more rapidly (a Lymax Cat Cooler), is much bigger and heavier when accompanied with a battery than I'd anticipated. So I sold the C8 and its accessories, then used the profit to buy two new Baader diagonals: supposedly, the best on the market.
Now I had three telescopes in DC, and really four is probably the sweet spot for me. This past winter convinced me that I'm going to have my easiest observing sessions when it's cold - certainly on the rooftop, since nobody goes up there when it's even a little cool. I decided that I needed a somewhat bigger doublet refractor that would cool down very quickly, but gather a bit more light than the Takahashi FC-100DC could reveal. It couldn't be too big, however, or I wouldn't be able to easily carry or mount it. And it couldn't be prohibitively expensive (not an easy restriction, considering how refractors scale in size and cost).
After doing a lot of research - too much, considering my other obligations - I settled on a Vixen ED 115S. This is a fine doublet telescope that shows very little false color when in focus (so little that it passes as an apochromat), gathers substantially more light than a 100mm telescope, is versatile at F 7.7, and remarkably light at just over 10 pounds. For some reason, it seems to be quite rare.
The telescope is decidedly not cheap, however, though it does ship with second-rate accessories that nevertheless can only be purchases as accessories when buying from TeleVue or Takahashi. To my astonishment, I found the Vixen with a heap of top-rate add-on accessories - tube rings, greatly upgraded focuser, handle, etc. - for sale at an incredible price on Astromart, in used but like-new condition. I pulled the trigger, and the telescope arrived just a week or so later.
For more than two weeks after the telescope arrived, the clouds and rain would not relent. I suppose that's good; coronaviruses apparently do not spread as easily in humid weather. And certainly fewer people went outside. Still it was frustrating, especially as I increasingly worried about navigating my building and touching the germs on every surface. Hauling telescopes through the building increasingly seemed like a perilous prospect.
Then, last night, the sky cleared for just a few hours. I forgot about the pandemic for a moment and hurried to bring both the Vixen and my trust TV 85 to the rooftop. I mounted them on the AYO II: perhaps the finest piece of non-optical equipment that I've purchased in this hobby.
It was quickly apparent that both seeing and transparency were nothing short of atrocious. And I mean atrocious: the night probably offered a worse combination of both than anything I've experienced in the past year. On top of that, gusts of wind rolled over the rooftop, and clouds defied the forecast to move in quickly from the west.
In that context, my decision to bring the TV 85 quickly paid off. I might otherwise have been worried that the new telescope was partly to blame for the somewhat soft appearance of the Moon, for example. But the blurriness and inconstancy of the view were, if anything, even worse through the magnificent optics of the smaller telescope, despite its smaller aperture.
And despite the uncooperative atmosphere, the Vixen impressed. It took just a bit more time to cool than the TV 85, and provided useful views almost immediately. A look at Venus quickly revealed that the Vixen shows noticeably less false color than the TV 85, even in poor seeing. The TV 85 showed a fringe of blue around lunar limb in these terrible conditions; not so the Vixen. It should be noted that, to my eyes, the TV 85 normally offers almost no false color: perhaps even less than the FC-100DC (it's just amazing in that regard).
With its remarkably wide view of view, the TV 85 did provide superior views of the Pleiades. The Vixen dazzled too, but there was just something about the TV 85 view that stood out. Maybe the fault lay in the eyepieces: while I used a TeleVue Plossl in the TV 85, I used a Baader Hyperion Zoom in the Vixen. In my experience, there's no substitute for TeleVue eyepieces.
A look at Orion, however, exposed the advantage of larger aperture. Despite the abysmal seeing, the Trapezium was absolutely crystal clear, with an impressive amount of space between its components. Switching to a 2", 55 mm TeleVue eyepiece revealed all of Orion's belt at around 16x, glittering and glorious despite hazy atmosphere and light pollution.
In short, the new telescope is wonderful: optically on par with the Takahashi and TeleVue, nearly as portable as the Takahashi (though it requires a heavier mount and tripod), almost as quick to cool down, and aesthetically really nice to boot. It is also just a joy to use. There's no fussing with anything, and it works beautifully on the AYO II mount. My only complaint comes by way of comparison: while the upgraded Moonlite focuser is rugged and fluid, the stock TeleVue focuser is just a bit smoother.
Who knows what the world looks like when I next write. In the meantime, it's nice to be reminded - with the aid of two fine telescopes - that the universe will remain more or less the same.