Astronomy with a Pocket Binocular.

Creating a new genre of amateur astronomy literature.

A work commenced November 11, Anno Domini 2019.

Subject to Copyright

I’m a big fan of pocket binoculars; they’re tiny, elegant, and when decently made, are  very sharp shooters. Compared with standard-sized binoculars, ‘pockets’ are much less expensive and there is a good one available to suit most anyone’s budget. They can work well with kids, grand-parents and every one in between. Their extreme portability makes them very popular across a broad ecclesia of people; hikers, birders, sports spectators, hunters, theatre goers and general nature lovers. They’re as likely to be found near a window overlooking a garden as they are tucked away in a backpacker’s pouch. But what is less commonly known is that they can be used for casual astronomical viewing. Unlike telescopes, there is no set up required. Simply pick it up and off out you go! They’re so small that they are completely immune to the vagaries of the Earth’s atmosphere. It doesn’t matter if the seeing is horrid or immaculate, their small apertures and low magnification will show you the same view, under the same conditions, time and time again. Their very low carrying weight allow individuals to hold them to their eyes much longer than standard binoculars in the 40 to 50mm aperture class. And as soon as you’re done, they fold away in a pocket, hence the name.

Pocket binoculars are almost invariably not recommended for astronomy. Sure, they don’t provide those knock-out views you get with larger binos, but what if your only instrument were a pocket binocular? Is viewing the night sky anathema? Absolutely not! Even small glasses like these can bring a great deal of cosmic real estate to your eyeballs. And though their ability to gather faint starlight is limited, they will nonetheless greatly exceed the acuity of even the keenest, sharpest human eye.

I suspect that one of the main reasons why pocket binoculars are not spoken of much in astronomical circles is that most people live in big cities or towns, where light pollution drowns out much, if not all, the glory of the starry heaven. They are disconnected from the great natural light show provided by Amighty God, who reveals His majesty in every shooting star, every burning sun, every moon, planet, and galaxy scattered across the Universe. But if you take leave of the cities and drive out into the countryside, the night sky is transformed from a washed-out, featureless dome into a marvellous light show that can fill us with awe and re-unite us with the sacred, the mysterious and the infinite-eternal.

I have the immense good fortune to live in a beautiful place, far enough away from the large cities and towns that are home to the vast majority of people. I can step out of my back door and immediately engage with the sky. I take nothing for granted. For me, astronomy is not always connected with darkness. In Scotland, we enjoy many fabulous sunsets, painting radiant colours; brilliant oranges, sanguine reds, and even purple splashes across the heavens as the Sun makes its way toward the horizon. As dusk gives way to darkness, the night sky has a way of wrapping itself around you like a magic cloak. At first, only the brightest stars can be seen, but as full darkness falls upon the landscape, the great host of heaven come out to play. Being located on the western edge of northern Europe, beautiful auroral displays are common, colouring in the northern horizon in magnificent ribbons of incandescent light. Out here in the sticks, the great river of stars that constitute the Milky Way can be easily seen on a dark, Moonless night.

During  deepest winter, darkness rules. The Sun sets early(4pm) and rises late(8am). Many go to work in darkness and travel home in darkness. Yet in summer, the Sun rules the sky from 3.30am to after 9pm, and even then its shallow dip below the northeastern horizon never brings true darkness. In June and July, twilight rules the wee small hours. Still, whether it’s high summer or deepest winter, my pocket binoculars never fail to show me something new and exciting.

A mid-Summer’s night stroll; looking northeast at 2 minutes after midnight on June 22, 2019.

My quest to find a good pocket binocular encountered many unexpected twists and turns. I don’t live anywhere near a good binocular dealer, so I was not afforded the luxury of ‘trying before you buy,’ as it were. No, in my case, the best I could do was ‘buy-in and try.’ Some models promised the earth but fell well short of the mark. In other cases, I trusted the opinions of a number of so-called ‘experienced glassers’, but upon learning how to test such instruments myself, I discovered that many of these reviews were just not discriminating enough. It was like deja vu all over again from my telescope testing days( I have no interest in acquiring any new telescopes, as I already have all I could possibly wish for). Some models advertised as ‘premium’ turned out to be junk.

Premium junk.

In the end though, I settled on a couple of models – both 8 x 25  formats – made by reputable firms; Zeiss and Opticron. Unlike a swathe of pretenders, these were the real McCoys. Both models are very well made, with fully-multicoated optical components and phase corrected Schmidt-Pechan roof prisms. The Opticron has a wonderfully flat field of view, thanks to the incorporation of aspherical ocular lenses, but the size of the field is rather restricted as modern pocket binoculars go; just 5.2 angular degrees. In contrast, the Zeiss Terra has a significantly wider field – 6.8 degrees – but is not quite as sharp at the edges of the field as the Opticron. During daylight testing, I ascertained that the Zeiss Terra produced a slightly brighter image, due in most part to the employment of higher reflectivity dielectric coatings on the prisms. The Opticron, in contrast, has silver coated prisms, with slightly lower reflectivity.

My instruments of choice; the Zeiss Terra(left) and the Opticron Aspheric LE(right).

Both models display excellent control of stray light and do not produce annoying internal reflections and glare when pointed at bright objects like the full Moon, or during the day, when glassing strongly backlit scenes. This affords the highest levels of contrast in the images they produce. For astronomical use, where all the objects are effectively located at infinity, it is important for the field to remain as flat as possible from the centre right the way to the edge for aesthetic appeal. While many of the pretenders I tested were good on axis, their edge of field definition was less than desirable. And no one wants to see stars bloat to enormous sizes as they are moved off axis.

Both models have hermetically sealed optics, filled with dry nitrogen gas at a slighly higher pressure than the surrounding atmosphere. This prevents fogging of the optics in cold weather and slows down internal corrosion of the components. The slight pressure differential also creates a small outward force that helps keep dust and fungi  from entering the instruments. Ergonomically, the Zeiss is easier to use, as its slightly larger frame fits my hands that little bit better than the Opticron. Both focusers are buttery smooth with zero backlash when rotated clockwise or anti-clockwise, but this has proven more important during daylight observing than at night, where relatively little focusing adjustments are required, as for example, in moving from a target at low to high elevations above the horizon. The Opticron is the more elegant instrument; the Zeiss more rugged.

Mechanically, both the Zeiss and Opticron are very well endowed. The double-hinge design on both models has enough tension to maintain my particular inter-pupillary distance, and fold up with ease when not in use. The eye lenses are good and large on both instruments, allowing me to comfortably and swiftly engage with the entire field, with little or no guesswork or blackouts. The eyecups on both instruments are robust, comfortable and simple to deploy. Unlike other models which offer several positions, both the Zeiss and the Opticron only have two- either fully down or fully up. So, not a lot to think about, you’re either in or you’re not.

And both have the same eye relief; 16mm.

The Zeiss Terra Pocket(right) is a little wider and taller than the more conventional Opticron Aspheric(left), but both fold away when not in use.

The larger field of view of the Zeiss(6.8 degrees) is more useful for daytime applications, but at night, when observing the sky, even a 5.2 degree field is more than sufficient to frame the vast majority of targets I’m likely to study. I estimate that the limiting magnitude of both instruments to lie somewhere between +8.7 and +8.9. And with the same exit pupil – 3.1mm – they allow me to image targets with the sharpest part of my well designed eye lenses.

A Walk through the Autumn Sky:

A favourite autumn  haunt.

November is perhaps my favourite month. It’s easy enough to justify. I entered the world in November, and have come to associate my experiences of it with the carefree days of my youth. While the trees begin their long winter slumber, I feel especially alive. All my senses go into overdrive. Maybe it’s the vibrant colours of autumn leaves that assault the eyes, or the sweet, musky aroma of decaying plant matter that infuses the misty air. Or could it be the crunching sound made by my feet as they wade through the rain-soaked leaf litter that creates a memory trace back to the innocence of childhood? Whatever it is, walking though the rural autumn landscape upwells deep feelings of reverence for the preternatural beauty of the wet and the wild.

The feeble light of November compels me to re-schedule the times of my walks, and usually I try to make the most of the daylight by venturing out around noon, when the Sun is at its highest in the sky. And though November nights can be mild, bitterly cold, and everything in between, the celestial treasures that attend a clear night with no Moon greatly warm the heart.

To help us find them, it pays to invest in a good literary guide and, in this capacity, I would heartily recommend  Ian Ridpath’s and Wil Tirion’s, Collins Stars & Planets, now in its fifth edition. In it the student of the starry heaven can find all kinds of useful information, packed full as it is with month-by-month maps of the entire night sky, as well as beautifully illustrated colour maps of all 88 constellations that grace the celestial sphere.

Good companions under the stars.

Heralds of Winter

So without further ado, let’s begin our adventures with a pocket binocular. A great place to start is to seek out two amazing sights in the northern heavens; the glimmering Pleiads and imposing Hyads, both located near each other, and both well situated for observation, riding high in the sky after 9pm on mid-November evenings.

The constellation of Taurus.

Before we embark on our first celestial adventure, let’s get suitably attired  by reading the  celestial swangsong of Lord Byron(1788-1824):

‘Tis midnight! on the mountains brown

The cold round moon shines deeply down;

Blue roll the waters, blue the sky

Spreads like an ocean hung on high

Bespangled with those isles of light,

So wildly, spiritually bright.

Whoever gazed upon them shining,

And turn’d to earth without repining,

Nor wish for wings to flee away,

And mix with their eternal ray?

From Night at Sea by Lord Byron.

Both the Pleiades and Hyades, the heralds of winter, are easy to find in the November night sky. Both are located in the zodiacal constellation of Taurus. The Hyades is readily identifiable as a distinctive V-shaped asterism with a bright orange coloured star, Aldebaran, marking the southeastern-most tip of its horns, and a little higher up and to the right of it you’ll see the glittering jewels of the Pleiades star cluster.  Known by many names throughout antiquity and even further back into the long human pre-history, the Pleiades appears as a tiny congregation of stars, rather like a miniature Plough with a somewhat truncated handle. For me, the most inspiring references to the Pleiades  are sourced from God’s very own love letter to humanity; the Holy Bible. In all, the gleaming Pleiads are mentioned three times in the Good Book, twice in Job (9:9 & 38:31) and once in Amos(5:8), where the King James Version mentions them as “the seven stars”. The Lord God Almighty challenges his servant, Job, by asking him if he can “bind the sweet influences of Pleiades?” The implication is clear; no human can do such a thing, but it’s all in a day’s work for his Creator.

With my average eyes, I can usually make only six members from my home. But at darker sites, with better transparency, I have occasionally chanced on the seventh member – whence its nickname of the Seven Sisters – though still with considerable difficulty. That said, there are many accounts of people seeing more than seven members with the naked eye. For example, from the summits of high mountains, where the air is thinner and (often but not always) less turbulent, reports of seeing as many as 10 or 12 members are not uncommon in the archives. I know of one account, published in the Astronomical Register from October 1883, where astronomers at the newly established Pic Du Midi Observatory in the French Pyrenees, at an elevation of about 9,500 feet, reported the detection of 16 members with the naked eye!

The Pleiades, as seen in the 8 x 25 pocket binocular.

Through the pocket binocular, the Pleiades never fails to inspire. Instead of straining to see six members, several dozen are plainly presented covering the central third of the binocular field. And though the view is immeasurably improved by looking through a larger binocular or small telescope, I cast my mind’s eye back in time to when the Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei, first turned his primitive spy glass on the same cluster of stars in 1610. Though the field of view of his telescope was woefully small (about one quarter of an angular degree, or half a full Moon diameter), Galileo still managed to record the main stars of the cluster, which are spread across one and a half Moon diameters. That’s something I have done before when I was sketching the Double Cluster in Perseus using a large Maksutov Cassegrain, sporting a field of view of only half an angular degree. It’s challenging but it’s certainly doable!

The Pleiades, as drawn by Galileo Galilei in the winter of 1610. Image credit: Wiki Commons.

The number of stars visible in the Pleiades depends on a variety of factors; the amount of light pollution you encounter, the transparency of the air you’re looking through, as well as its elevation above the horizon. I find the latter factor particularly interesting, as I have watched the Pleiades from its heliacal rising in the east in the wee small hours of August nights, right the way through to late spring, when it is observed sinking ever lower in the west.  When the cluster is glassed close to the horizon, only the most brilliant members are clearly discerned with the pocket binocular. For example, when observed at just 10 degrees above the eastern horizon, the dense canopy of air you’re looking through will dim the brilliance of the cluster by nearly one stellar magnitude! But if you venture out later in the evening, when the cluster has reached say 30 degrees altitude, you’ll gain an extra half a magnitude and your little binocular will begin to to show many fainter members. So, the higher the cluster rises in the sky, the better the view you will experience. This is equally true of any astronomical target, so it always pays to wait until your binocular target is well above the horizon; patience is a virtue!

The brightest luminaries of the Pleiades have beautiful names, inspired by the mythology of classical antiquity; Merope, Pleione, Electra, Asterope, Maia, Celaeno, Alcyone, Taygeta and Atlas, which you can see on page 241 of my guide book referenced earlier. The pocket glass reveals that they all have a silvery white colour, that betrays their relatively young age, which astronomers estimate to be about 50 million years. The centre of the cluster is thought to be located at a distance of about 450 light years.

If the Pleiades fail to inspire, then surely the majestic Hyades can? To see it, cast your gaze at the bright orange star Aldebaran and bring the pocket glass to your eyes. What you will see is a large V-shaped asterism filling most the field of view of the pocket binocular. These are the ‘horns’ of the celestial Bull, with Aldebaran situated in the south east of the field. Like the Pleiades, the Hyades is also steeped in ancient Greek mythological lore(but mostly pagan). Indeed, the Hyades were the fabled daughters of Atlas and Aethra, and half-sisters of the Pleiades.

The Hyades(with the outlined V shape) as seen in the 8x 25 pocket binocular.

When situated high in the sky, the Hyades is a marvellous sight in the pocket binocular. If you take a long, studied look at it with dark-adapted eyes, you will begin to notice that there are other red stars in the field, specifically, the three brightest stars that delineate the upper(northernmost) horn of the Bull. Its other stellar constituents appear white or blue-white to my eyes.

In order to create more atmospheric scenes, it pays to seek out some trees over which the Hyades and Pleiades appear to hover. Even on a dark night, the silhouette of tree branches set against these illustrious autumn clusters can be easily made out and adds greater dimensionality to the binocular view. I also love to observe these clusters as they change their orientation in the binocular field, rising in the eastern hemisphere, culminating in the south, before falling back towards the western horizon.

Unlikely Twins

The constellation of Gemini as depicted on page 153 of the guide book.

By the time the Pleiades and Hyades have reached a good altitude in the sky, the constellation of Gemini will be seen rising above the eastern horizon. But just as the full Moon often appears larger to the naked eye when it is close to the horizon, the same is true of the relative positions of the stars. Though seldom(if ever?) discussed in the contemporary astronomical literature, the illusion is known as the horizon enlargement effect. This can be perceived rather easily when observing the two brightest luminaries of this constellation; Castor and Pollux. If you see these stars rising in the background of a distant landmark, such as a hill or a building, they will appear to be more widely separated than when they are situated higher up in the sky. The effect is quite dramatic, though still illusory. That said, the little pocket binocular always shows them to be the same distance apart, no matter where they are situated in the night sky!

This curious effect was discussed over a century ago in an interesting article penned by Dr. Edouard Claparede, which first appeared in the October 1905 edition of Archives de Psychologie, and which was subsequently discussed in a short communication published  in the journal Nature dated February 22nd 1906, in which it is stated:

He(Dr. Claparede) arrives at the conclusion that when we see the moon or sun, at the horizon, we are surprised into believing it to belong to things terrestrial – to come into the class of objects which are by far of the greatest interest to us. As such we notice it with much greater attention, and for this reason overestimate its size.

But there is yet more illusion associated with Castor and Pollux, the so-called celestial twins, than that presented by the horizon enlargement effect. Situated exactly 4.5 angular degrees(or 9 full Moon diameters) apart, both stars easily fit in the field of the view of my pocket binoculars, but if you look at their colours they will be seen to be completely different; Castor(located higher up in the sky) is white, pure as the driven snow, while Pollux(lower down) presents as orange in contrast. What is more, Pollux appears distinctly brighter in the pocket glass than Castor(and to the naked eye for that matter!), though their designation is opposite to what one might expect in that the brightest star in a given constellation is usually assigned the Greek letter alpha, and the second in glory, beta and so on. The reason lies squarely at the feet of the Johann Bayer(1572-1625) who wrongly assigned the Greek letters to these stars in 1603 in his magnum opus, Uranometria Omnium Asterismorum, seemingly unaware that Castor was fainter than Pollux. In fact, Castor, with a visual magnitude of + 1.6, is assigned to the second tier of stellar glory, while Pollux, at +1.1 is a bona fide 1st magnitude sun.

Curiosuly, Bayer’s blunder was not unique to his good self. Many celebrated astronomers through history estimated both stars to be of the same degree of glory(2nd magnitude); Hipparchus, Tycho Brahe and Hevelius, to name but a few. And closer to our own time, Argelander(1840) and Heis(1860) though accurately assigning Pollux to +1.1, designated Castor a value fully half a magnitude fainter than it really is (+2.1). Only with the invention of the photometer in the 1860s did these discrepancies become resolved.

Looking at these stars through the pocket binocular, or any other optical accoutrement for that matter, one is hopelessly unaware of their distances from the solar system, which astronomers have estimated to be 52 and 34 light years for Castor & Pollux, respectively. And neither could they realistically be expected to have been formed from the same stellar nursery. What is more, though the apparition is quite beyond the capabilities of these tiny binoculars, Castor is a fascinating multiple star system of which, the two most prominent are closely separated stars, designated A and B, both roughly three times the mass of the Sun and of an early spectral type A, with an estimated age of 370 million years. Through a small telescope at high magnification, they make a splendid visual target, easily resolved in this epoch(2019) in even a humble 60mm refractor.  Pollux on the other hand, is a more highly evolved orange giant star, nearly twice the mass of our Sun and of late spectral type K, with an age nearly twice that of its so-called twin(724 million years).- or should it be triplets?

What blessed illusions the stars rain down upon us!

A Field Full of Stars!

The stars of Perseus, with its brightest star, Mirfak. marked with a pencil tip.

Were you to venture outdoors after supper on a clear, late November evening, the constellation of Perseus, the celestial Hero, will be very well placed, high in the eastern sky, and easy to scrutinise with the pocket binocular. Now cast your gaze at its brightest luminary, Mirfak, bring the glass to your eyes, and you’ll be greeted by a remarkable sight; a field littered with a few dozen stars, ranging in brightness from the 2nd to the 8th magnitude of glory! The nearly flat fields presented by my chosen instruments make vewing this target an especially enjoyable experience, with pinpoint stars from centre to edge.

Known by various names, this remarkable congregation of suns is most often referred to as Melotte 20, after the Anglo-Belgian astronomer, Philibert J. Melotte(1880-1961). Better known for his photographic discovery of the eigth satellite of Jupiter, Melotte published a ground-breaking photographic atlas of the sky in 1915, wherein he numbered this curious stellar grouping. The eye, naturally enough, humanises the view; creating order out of the stellar chaos; almost effortlessly linking up the light years between its members, imbuing  them with a sense of the familiar; perhaps slithering serpents or great meandering rivers. If this were a typical telescopic scene, with its higher power and smaller field of view, you’d be easily fooled into thinking that this was a bona fide star cluster, bound up in a gravitational embrace like the comely Pleiads. No, the stars you pick up with the little pocket glass are not so much bound by gravity as they are by common velocity; they’re all moving in the same direction through space. And it was this discovery that led to the other appellation bestowed upon them; the Alpha Persei Association, thought be located about 600 light years from the solar system.

Melotte 20 as observed in the pocket binocular, mid-evening view looking high in the east.

The majority of its stars are young (50-70 million years) and of early spectral type O or B, explaining why many appear white or blue-white to my eye. And yet, if you concentrate your gaze on its brightest member, Mirfak, the pocket glass will soon convince you that it’s not merely white, but rather a creamy-white. And that comports with its spectral class; F5.

Mirfak is a very big star in the scheme of things; fully 8 or 9 times the mass of the Sun, and so destined to live fast and die young.

It is unquestionably more difficult to view Melotte 20 when it’s at its best position at my location, especially if you’re not inclined to lying on your back, observing it as it passes near the zenith later in the night. The early evening location of Melotte 20 will afford a more comfortable viewing experience in the pocket binocular. What’s more, I have enjoyed glassing it profitably under less fecund skies, from towns and even under the bright light of cities.

Unlike the Pleiades, the most prominent members of which have memorable names, most of the stars in Melotte 20 are only acknowleged with numbers. Yet the Old Book tells us that although it was allotted to Adam to name all of God’s creatures, the Lord knows all the stars intimately. As the Psalmist declares;

He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.

Psalm 147:4

And yet, mighty in the creation of its myriad blazing suns, is He no less mighty in giving life to a tender, green blade of grass upon the earth?

There’s no escaping. Near and far, everything lies within the span of His hand.

More Leopard than Lion

I am by temperament, solitary. Although I’m a fully committed family man, I am happy and content in my own company. I’ve always disliked crowds and spend the vast majority of my observing time alone with my instruments and my thoughts. Maybe it’s just about growing older.  In past years, I have attended some star parties, but found them more a distraction than anything else. My days of hooking up with fellow amateur astronomers ended abruptly several years ago, when I accepted an invitation to travel across the Atlantic to join a small group high on a mountain. It was just a few short months after my late father passed away and I was still grieving for him. I was in two minds about going, as it was quite an expensive trip for me, but the organiser reassured me that I would be “closer to my father” on top of that high mountain, soaring 8,500 feet above sea level. Even though he knew I was a man of deep faith from our email exchanges, one evening he found occasion to taunt me in front of a few other guests, by claiming that there was no actual evidence that Jesus Christ ever existed! What a cruel, ignorant and insensitive thing to say! Rather than argue with him, I walked away and was immediately consoled by a fellow Christian in the group, who told me he had been fighting this kind of ignorance all his life. But we are to forgive our fellow men their trespasses and I have long forgiven him, though I hope that the same chap will more clearly understand that being a Christian is far from being a hairbrained, flash-in-the-pan way to think and live. It has, after all,  by far the greatest explanatory power that makes sense of the whys and wherefores of the world we find ourselves in.

As I explained earlier in this communication, I see no hard distinctions between glassing during the day and peering at the sky on a dark night. Afterall, the Earth is a planet too and it was created so that we could freely explore it! And though we live in a fallen world, where all of the creation groans for the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise to adopt the sons and daughters of Adam, we can still enjoy its beauty by studying the lifeforms that teem and multiply upon its surface.  And what better tool to explore this aspect of the physical Universe than with a good quality pocket binocular!

Here in the glen, mild days in late November invariably mean overcast, damp and often misty mornings and afternoons, with poor visibility. But thanks to the waterproof nature of my pocket glasses, I need never worry about them. A little rain on the optics and body armouring has no lasting consequences on the operation of such instruments. Indeed, I have come to regard their getting wet as a kind of initiation rite lol!

A little rain maketh the binocular.

Every denuded tree branch, every crawling insect, scurrying rodent, every fallen leaf, and grazing sheep upon the hillsides cry out for study with the pocket binocular. And because my field glasses possess excellent close focus capability, well under two metres, I can explore the dying days of 2019 in exquisite detail. But nature never ceases. She is in constant flux.

For the birds.

Gone are the green leaves of the deciduous trees and the warm sunshine they once basked in. Gone are the family of noisy magpies that rested in the Rowan tree in my back garden for much of the year. I still see them about and hear them chackering from afar off, but they have taken up residence elsewhere. And while the brambles have seen their halcyon days come and go, the brilliant white snowberries are ripe for the picking by hungry tree birds, as are the holly bushes now adorned with their brazen red fruits.

Exploring terrestrial astronomy.

What an extraordinary thing it is to be alive!

Doubtless, human knowledge has come a long way, with the mature sciences of physics and chemistry providing us with a wonderful platform to understand at least the salient features of the macrocosm and microcosm, between which we find ourselves. But though we have some measure of understanding of how matter behaves in the Cosmos, living things more and more, appear to be an exception. The more we study them, the more complex they are shown to be. Some men have deluded themselves into thinking that we understand the living state, but it is quite apparent that we are far from understanding what it really means to be alive. The growing things are a mystery and a law unto themselves! It is a curious thing that the Biblical Creator is uniquely known as the “Living God.” A Being who declares, “my glory I will not give to another”(Isaiah 42:8) When I contemplate the majesty and beauty of the living world, I can more clearly understand why the Living God would withhold His secrets from humanity, lest we destroy it, either in our ignorance or arrogance, or both. It’s one thing to have dominion over nature, to be responsible stewards of the biosphere, as it were, but quite another thing to play god. And though we continue to grope in the dark, I suspect that the essence of life may forever lie beyond the capabilities of science to elucidate.

Afterall, based on our track record, He has every right to withhold such knowledge from us!

A Stupendous Accumulation of Star Matter

The Andromeda Galaxy, as it appears on page 75 of our guide book.

The sky is rich in mystery.

Especially for the tyro.

I am reminded of a curious tale related by the Canadian-American astronomer, Simon Newewcomb(1835-1909), concerning a skipper who, having set out from England, while  plying the dangerous waters of the Atlantic Ocean, noticed a curious object in the crystal clear heavens, which he apparently sighted every night during his voyage. After docking in the New World, he eagerly made his way to the Observatory at Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he told the learned Professor Bond in no uncertain terms that he had discovered a comet! Bond was used to hearing such yarns however, and soon revealed to the gallant skipper that his ‘comet’ was, in fact, the great Nebula in Andromeda.

But the same object really is steeped in mystery. Afterall, its conspicuous, smudgy light must have been seen by humans far back into hallowed antiquity, yet there is nary a  mention of the ‘nebula’ by other great pre-telescopic observers, including Hipparchus and Tycho Brahe, nor even by the venerable Bayer. Indeed, the first tentative recording of it didn’t come until 974 AD, when the medieval Persian skygazer, Al Sufi, made vague reference to it, only to be re-discovered by the German astronomer, Simon Marius(1573-1624) on the long night of December 15 1612, when he examined it with a primitive Galilean telescope, describing it as a ” flame seen through horn.”

Spare a thought for poor ole Marrius. His ‘Dutch trunk’ had a field of view scarcely a quarter of an angular degree wide, so what he likely described was the bright nucleus and little more. The pocket binocular does immeasurably better however. The Andromeda ‘nebula’ is easily seen with the naked eye on a dark, moonless night from my back yard, presenting as a small, cloud-like smudge. And though it was always referred to as a nebula throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was finally shown to be a bona fide ‘Island Universe’ or ‘galaxy’  in the early 20th century, when its prodigious distance was finally estimated.

A pocket glass view of the great Andromeda Galaxy.

Through the pocket glass, its distinctve lenticular shape is easily discerned. The mid-section is brightest and represents the core of the galaxy, and extending off on either side of the core, your little glass ought to be able to allow you to trace its fainter spiral arms which extend its width to more than 3 angular degrees, or six full-Moon diameters. Messier 31, as it is also commonly known today,  has two smaller companons, analogous to the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds that orbit our own Milky Way; wee elliptical galaxies in their own right- M32, just south of the core and another, M110, situated a few degrees off to the north of the core. While both of these fainter companions are magnitude +8 or thereabouts, and so ought to be just visible with the pocket glass, I personally find them to be rather elusive in these pint-sized glasses.

Maybe you’ll fare better?

That said, it’s always an awe-inspiring sight to spy this distant galaxy in any optical instrument, however small. Most astronomers estimate that the Andromeda galaxy is as big, if not bigger than our own Milky Way, with somewhere between 100 and 400 billion stars. Its distance is worth contemplating also; between 2.2 and 2.5 million light years away.

The Scriptures inform:

But Jesus answered them, My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.

John 5:17

So, when you next cast your gaze on its ghostly magnificence, take a few moments to muse upon the perspective. When the light you see from it first set out across intergalactic space, our Creator was busy putting the final touches on making our jewel planet ready for the last Big Bang of His creation; the sudden introduction of human beings (Adam & Eve and their descendants), fashioned from the dirt of the ground(Genesis 2:7), uniquely made in God’s image, and freely able to think and wonder about the dark, wheeling vault above their heads!

Contentedness

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

1 John 2:16

The last Thursday of November is American Thanksgiving Day, where families across that great nation come together and give thanks to their Creator for the many blessings He has bestowed upon them. I wish we had something similar here, but the ugly head of  secularism makes that a very unlikely prospect. Unfortunately, we have had no trouble  adopting a less reverent American tradition, Black Friday, when some folk behave more  like animals, pushing and shoving their way into department stores in search of bling.

The hobby of astronomy is not immune to rampant materialism either. That’s one of the principal reasons why I turned my back on promoting vainglorious refractors, where I lusted after ever more expensive models just to feel like I had ‘arrived.’ I was just feeding a greedy habit. But then I took heir of myself and managed to break free from this vicious cycle, discovering the wonderful virtues of Newtonian telescopes, which have met all my needs as a keen visual telescopic observer; and saved me a great deal of money to boot;- funds to donate to more noble pursuits!

I didn’t need or want them any more. They have no power over me.

I have taken the same approach to pocket binoculars; I have chosen two models that offer all the performance I could possibly want. They’re not cheap, but neither are they overtly expensive.

I received a curious email a couple of weeks back from a chap who wondered why I didn’t go the whole distance and buy in the most expensive models, like the Swarovski CL or Zeiss Victory pocket, or some such. My reply was that I did not believe that I would be gaining anything in moving to a Swarovski, as the 8 x 25 model provides the same generous field of view(6.8 angular degrees) as my Zeiss Terra,  has the same light transmission(88 per cent), and though I have not field tested that particular model, I have very strong suspicions that the Zeiss is every bit as good– and may even be that little bit better – than the Swarovski CL pocket at half the retail price. And as for the Victory model; sure it offers a wider field of view in excess of 7 degrees and sports fluorite objectives. But my average eyes would very likely not notice any significant optical differences from the much more economical Terra(which also employs ED glass)  and I could happily live without that slightly wider field.

Don’t chase the wind.

So I don’t have any desire to have the ‘best.’ It’s an unhealthy attitude and a distraction from what’s really important. My instruments are well good enough for every application I employ them for. What’s more, even premium instruments develop faults.Take this report as an example. You’ll not likely hear anything like that on a public forum though, where their fanatics seem to be completely intolerant of any criticisms expressed about their ‘little babies’.

Happy with my chosen tools.

I am thrilled to bits with what I have.

I’m content; happy with my tools!

Surveying the Landscape

The view from the top of Dunmore, looking northeast over the Fintry Hills towards Stirling.  Black Friday morning, 2019.

Were it not for the tall conifers that lie in the common ground beyond my back garden, I would have an unobstructed view of Dunmore, a hill rising just over 900 feet above the valley floor. When our houses were first built in the late 1950s, there were no trees to block the view, as my wife reminds me when ever we look back over old family photos. Dunmore is just one of a number of gently rolling hills that comprise the Campsie Fells(Gaelic Monadh Chamaisidh) a chain of extinct volcanoes that date to the Carboniferous Period some 300 million years ago, when Scotland lay near the equator, and which stretch for about 16 miles from Denny Muir near Falkirk through Fintry and on as far as Dumgoyne in the west. Very popular among ramblers and hillwalkers, it also served as a convenient field site for geology undergraduates from Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, who explore its many interesting geological features.

Columnar jointing in basalt sill under summit of Dunmore, Fintry, seen here in better light. Image credit: Edinburgh Geological Society.

After a short walk up an old winding dirt road, you’ll arrive at an abandoned red ochre quarry, an iron-rich, clay-like  mineral used as a pigment for paint in olden times, but more recently as a road sub-surfacing material.  From there, the path takes you over a couple of burns and some boggy ground until you reach the base of Dunmore. After a magnificent night of crystal-clear skies and freezing conditions, temperatures struggled to get above zero all day, and climbing even a small hill like this is not an inviting prospect for many who like their creature comforts. The low-lying Sun of mid-morning keeps much of the terrain in shade and one has to tread carefully on the icy surface underfoot, so you need to wrap up warm and wear appropriate boots with a solid grip. But as we approached the peak, the Sun had risen high enough in the sky to lend some of its gentle heat to us, and though it did not have much power, my wife and I were immensely grateful for its uplifting warmth which always raises the spirits.

The morning Sun illumining the Cairn atop Dunmore.

It only took 50 minutes from doorstep to summit and just 30 minutes for the descent.

We took along the lightweight Zeiss pocket to survey the sleepy valley below, still covered with a thin veneer of ground frost, but the visibility proved exceptional. Looking north, we could easily make out Loch Lomond about 17 miles in the distance, surrounded  by a string of Munros(mountains over 3,000 ft) of the Trossachs, the gateway to the Scottish Highlands. To prevent the fogging up of the ocular lenses, I kept the little Terra folded up in a warm pocket and enjoyed about ten minutes of intensive glassing, drinking up the magnificent quality of the morning light as I scanned the Fintry Hills across the valley and northwards towards our national park. The sumptuous late autumn colours were sublimely captured by the pocket glass, as were the chissled contours of the scraggy outcrops on the hills across the valley, bathed in a cobalt blue sky.

How great an artist is our Creator!

The view to the north, with Loch Lomond at centre left and the mountains of the Trossachs rising up into the sky.

It is no small wonder that the founding fathers of modern geology were Scotsmen; most especially James Hutton from the 18th century and Charles Lyell from the 19th  _ both of whom were surely provoked to reason by the stark and stunning beauty of the Scottish outdoors!

From such an elevated vantage one gets a clearer perspective on the sheer enormity of the landscape, its extraordinary age and our fleeting existence upon it. The Old Book says it far better than I can express it;

Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.

                                                                                                                          Psalm 144:4

It was well worth the effort to climb on this bitterly cold morning. But we had delicious homemade soup and a warm fire to greet us upon our arrival back home.

Orion Rising

The mighty constellation of Orion a few hours before meridian passage. Photo taken by the author on the night of November 29 2010.

December 1 saw the continuation of the cold snap. Temperatures once again struggled to get above zero all day, with nighttime lows of -6 or -7C, but the brilliant winter sunshine makes the cold much more bearable and even inviting. My Opticron Aspheric LE  8 x 25 with its excellent close focus of under 1.5 metres is a wonderful optical tool to explore the intricate architecture of ice crystals laid down by old Jack Frost in his relentless march across the countryside.

Leaves, flowers and tree branches are covered with delicate patterns and the grass beneath my feet takes on a ghostly silver glaze. I find that I have to reduce the interpupillary distance between the ocular lenses on the pocket glass to obtain the most compelling views on up-close subjects. Cold, cloudless nights with little in the way of wind engender the ideal conditions for the deposition of hoar frost. Hoar is a modern rendition of the old English words of ‘hor’ and ‘har’ meaning ‘grey’ or ‘white.’ Under such conditions, water vapour sublimates directly from the gaseous state in the air to solid ice without first condensing as liquid water.

Jack Frost has been busy creating a silvery landscape.

Because the low winter Sun casts its golden rays on the hills to the east of the village, it gets the lion’s share of their heat and so it’s not unusual to observe much more frost-free terrain higher up than in the valley below, creating lovely, stark binocular vignettes that I can enjoy simply by peering out my front livingroom window. Perhaps the most amazing effects of hoar frost occur when they envelope cobwebs and glass windows on greehouses and other such, which can create wondrous patterns that are as beautiful as they are fascinating to study.

Around 5pm, in deep twilight, a low lying crescent Moon hovered just above the hills to the south-southwest, beautifully silhoutted by the branches of a grand old Horsechestnut tree in the foreground. It was a delightful sight in the pocket glass, with its unilluminated side clearly seen bathed in earthshine. Some prominent craters were sharply defined all along the terminator, with no annoying glare or internal reflections that I have observed in lesser glasses.

On early December evenings, the constellation of Orion the Hunter arrives at a position of prominence only around midnight but doesn’t reach its highest elevation until it culminates in the south at around 1.30am local time. As a result,  I generally explore it with the pocket binocular late in the night, and sometimes on into the wee small hours. Our target this evening is the three prominent belt stars of the Hunter which can be studied from most any location, whether it be a brightly-lit town or dark country site. Our little guide book on pages 196 through 198 reveals their lovely appellations; from left to right, climbing ever higher are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. The excellent contrast of my pocket glass reveals the pure white colour of this curious stellar trio, which in itself betrays their young age in the scheme of things. The eye is naturally drawn to their almost perfect linear cast. Both Alnitak and Alnilam shine at the same magnitude (+1.7) but the lowermost Mintaka shines about half a magnitude fainter, though I find this somewhat surprising, as it always seems a little brighter than the guidebook suggests. Perhaps this is yet another splendid illusion caused by the equally brilliant stars towing the stellar line. What do you think?

Their similar brightness along the same line of sight also paints the distinct impression in the mind’s eye that they might be located at the same distance across the great dark of interstellar space. Actually, two of the belt stars are located at about the same distance from the solar system; Mintaka(700ly) and Alnitak(736ly). But you might be surprised to discover that Alnilam is situated nearly three times further away at over 2000 light years!

Placing the belt stars in the upper left of the binocular field, you’ll soon notice another white stellar jewel in the lower right of the same field. This is Eta Orionis; a dapper double star for the keen telescopist, resolvable into two components, and roughly aligned east-to-west in the high-power field of a small backyard telescope, under good seeing conditions.

As the belt stars climb ever higher as they approach the meridian, the pocket glass will enable you to bag progressively fainter members, arranged in curious loops and arcs around the brilliant three. However, because the belt stars never rise very high in my far northern latitude (56 degrees), the faintest members are better observed in larger binoculars. Indeed, the belt stars are but the brightest luminaries of a grander still binocular open cluster known as Collinder 70, comprising of some 100 stellar members down to the 10th magnitude of glory. Many of the fainter members are hopelessly beyond the power of my litte pockets to discern, but I have been genuinely thrilled by how many fainter suns that appear out of the sable depths, as the belt stars near culmination in the south. And if you’re lucky enough to live at more southerly latitudes, Collinder 70 ought to be an even more engaging sight in a humble pocket glass, as it will be placed higher in the sky. So, go out and have a gander!

The Sword Handle & the Magic Furnace

You don’t have to venture very far with the pocket binocular to arrive at our next port of call. Indeed, the little Zeiss Terra pocket glass can just frame the belt stars and the swordhandle, just south of the belt, in the same field! On a dark, moonless night, when the constellation approaches the meridian, the naked eye can easily detect three stars arranged more or less north to south. The middle ‘star,’ you will find, is most unusual, as it appears somewhat foggy, or out of focus. Placing the pocket glass to your eye will reveal a most interesting field, where the fuzzy star is clearly shown as a rather large cloud of incandescent gas, lit up from inside by young stars that were forged within the nebula relatively recently in the scheme of things; a few million years at the very most. This is great Nebula in Orion, or Messier 42, as it became known to stargazers. Indeed M42 is one of the nearest star-forming factories to our solar system, extending about 20 light years from edge to edge and some 1500 light years distant. In a medium sized telescope,  dark-adapted eyes will even reveal that it’s not white but actually glows in a kind of surreal, ‘protoplasmic’  green, but try as I may, the small objective lenses on the pocket glass have not revealed any colour beyond a dull, white or grey. A small telescope at higher powers will show you a neat quartet of stars- known famously as the Trapezium – at the heart of the nebula.

The Swordhandle of Orion as observed in the pocket glass. For more details see page 199 of the guide book.

To the north of M42, the magic furnace, my eyes can just make out a pair of smudgy stars known prosaically as NGC 1977, by employing a clever little trick called averted vision i.e. by turning your eye a little to the side to best utilise the most light sensitive part of your superbly designed retina. Their slight smudginess is due to a thin veil of interstellar gas out of which these suns were originally forged. And just above these lies a pretty configuration of about half a dozen stars making up the loose star cluster, NGC 1981. Intriguingly, nearly all of the cosmic real estate you’re looking at – including the stars and the whispy nebulosity – is located within a neat little bubble of interstellar space roughly 300 light years in diameter and between 1200 to 1500 light years distant.

Together with the Sun and many other stars taking up residence in the solar neighbourhood, the effulgent jewels of Orion inhabit but a minor tributary of the Milky Way galaxy, known as the Orion Spur. But we can thank our Creator for settling our world here, well out into galactic suburbia, where it laps the centre of our galaxy in a near-circular orbit, taking nearly a quarter-billion-years to do so. Here, the Sun and its magnificent retinue of planets, enjoy much darker skies than the vast majority of other locales within the galaxy, a place where humanity can fully explore the vast cosmos in which he finds himself in – a platform for vigorous exploration if you like – and safely tucked away between two major spiral arms. This highly strategic locus helps keep our world at a reassuringly safe distance from their deadly gravitational tug, which would otherwise have scuppered the progress of life on Earth in general, and human beings in particular.

You see, we have so very much to be thankful for!

King David of old knew it all too well:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.

Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.

There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.

Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

 

Be sure to pay a visit to the Swordhandle of Orion whenever you’re next outside on a clear, December night. Who knows? The heavens may well shout out to you!

What do you hear?

Pocket Binoculars: Why the Relative Expense?

It occurred to me that even though I’m the happy owner and user of larger binoculars, good pocket glasses are really quite expensive. I mean, my most used general purpose binocular, a Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 Savannah(a very fine optic!) retails for about the same price as my little Opticron Aspheric LE, and the Zeiss Terra pocket glass retails for about twice as much again! Nor is this peculiar to my particular purchasing choices. Indeed, you can find many examples of high-quality pocket glasses that retail for higher prices than many excellent full-size binos. Furthermore, in terms of optical performance, these pocket glasses are without question inferior to any decent full-size instrument, particularly when glassing in low light conditions, such as at dusk and dawn, or when observing the night sky. So what’s going on here?

It’s a legitimate question, and it took me a while to stumble on the answers. While a full-sized bino is unquestionably more immersive and useful under a wider range of observing conditions, they are far less portable than their pocket-sized brethern. Simply put, you can’t stick them in a pocket and get going in the same way you can with tiny, elegant pocket glasses. But I believe there is a still more fundamental reason why quality pocket binoculars command the relatively high prices they do.

Roof prism binoculars are amongst the most complex optical accoutrements employed by nature lovers, and as the technology is scaled down, it becomes more difficult to assemble such intricate devices – with their smaller Schmidt-Pechan or Abbe-Konig prisms, lenses and more diminutive housings needed to hold the optical system rigidly in place. Simply put, ornate little glasses like these take real skill in their proper assembly, with commensurately tighter mechano-optical tolerances compared with larger glasses. Thus, seen in this light, it’s not really surprising that such elegant optical devices as these command the relatively high retail prices they do. They’re just harder to manufacture than larger glasses.

Small, precision optics require more effort to make well.

So, not such a great mystery afterall!

Moongazing

A full Moon in a cloudy sky can create dramatic light shows.

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,

And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:14-18

As Holy Writ informs us, the Sun was given to rule over the day and the Moon and the stars to light our way at night. They exist to allow us to tell the time and the passage of the seasons. But the Almighty also arranged for humankind to be placed on this planet in a unique window of time where perfect solar eclipses are possible. By an amazing coincidence(I’d say miracle), the Moon is 400 times smaller than the Sun but the Sun is 400 times further away than the Moon. As a result, we can experience the majesty of a total solar eclipse and gain some measure of His supernatural creative power.

Many amateur astronomers consider the bright light of a full Moon to be little more than a natural source of light pollution, where much of the grandeur of the starry heaven is drowned out by its intense, silvery light. I too considered the full Moon to be more of a nuisance than anything else, but when I re-discovered the simple pleasures of binoculars, my enthusiam for observing the full Moon received a new lease of life.

That said, it is not so much the sight of the full Moon on a clear December night that piques my attention, so much as the spectacular light shows Luna stages for us when its reflected sunlight interacts with the water-laden clouds coursing above my head. Water acts like a weak prism, refracting and dispersing moonlight, painting beautiful colour portraits on the canvas of the sky.

I ventured out into my back garden shortly after 1am on the morning of December 11 2019 to observe a nearly full Moon, now a little past meridian passage, and beginning to peek through the thick rain clouds that had soaked the land all day, and on into the late evening. I knew that this would create the ideal conditions for the Moon to do its colourful magic, so I ran inside and fetched by little pocket glass and turned it on the bright Moon as the clouds rushed past it from the west. I was rewarded with a magnificent display of light and colour, with the clouds soaked in various shades of red, pink, orange and yellow. The most intense colours occur when the clouds are closest to the Moon and gradually fade as they venture off to the east. Every now and then, a series of small but especially dense clouds create an eerie blackness in the binocular portal, like spilt ink upon cured vellum. No two moments are ever alike, and each view through the pocket glass shows unique combinations of light, colour and shade. The clouds too reveal gloriously complex and beautiful expressions of form; mesmerizing sheets, ripples, and all manner of curiously shaped wisps.

Such dazzling displays of light and form speak volumes concerning the creative power of the Lord of Light, in whom there is no darkness to be found.

Alas, this godless generation readily worships the creation but not the Creator.They refuse to acknowledge the artist but will readily enjoy His handiwork. The cult of Earth worship aims to create a spirit of fear within man’s soul. But fear is of the evil one and not of God.

If only they knew the firm promises of the Lord of heaven’s armies:

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

Genesis 8:22

Which part of this do they not understand?

The Kaleidoscopic Star

The Jewel of Canis Major: Sirius.

While we’re on the subject of colourful light shows, here’s yet another one to explore with your pocket binocular. Mid-December is a fantastic time to get to know the brightest star in the firmament; Sirius, the Dog Star. It’s easy to find by following the diagonal line of stars downward from Orion’s belt until your eye meets with its intensely brilliant light. Sirius is fascinating to watch with the naked eye and with the pocket binocular, as it coruscates wildly: one moment it’s white and then the next it flashes green or blue or even red; indeed, all the colours of the rainbow! The phenomenon is especially thrilling at my far northerly location, as Sirius never rises very high in the sky, even when it culminates in the south, but that significantly enhances Sirius’s kaleidoscope-like antics as the star passes through very dense air near the horizon.

The pocket glass greatly enhances the view owing to its greater light gathering power over the human eye. Because Sirius lies very far away in space, its light acts like a point source, passing though air cells of varying temperatures on its way to your eyes. As a result, its beams get refracted and dispersed at slightly different angles which gives rise to its frantic twinkling. It’s a well and truly heart-warming sight to behold on a cold winter night.

Sirius shines so brightly not because it’s an especially big star – it’s only twice the mass of our Sun and 25 times more luminous. Its great apparent brightness is mainly due to its close proximity to the solar system – just 8.6 light years in fact. Were Sirius to replace the Sun in our skies it would be 70 per cent larger than the solar disk and daylight would be painfully bright. We’d all have to wear ultra-dark sunglasses even on an overcast day until it sunk below the horizon. And don’t forget to wear factor 200 sunblock to protect you from its ferocious ultraviolet flux. No, if the Sun were replaced by Sirius it would be game over for all terrestrial life on Earth. We can thank our Creator for not subjecting us to its lethal rays.

Sirius has a neat little secret quite beyond the capabilities of your pocket glass to discern. Tucked up very close to it lies its curious companion – Sirius B – the nearest white dwarf to the solar system. With a size only about one per cent of our Sun, a teaspoonful of its exotic matter would weigh more than a fully grown elephant! Siriius B completes one orbit of its primary every half century.

If you place Sirius toward the top of the binocular field, and glance at the bottom of the same field, your little glass will pick up a pretty cluster of stars known as M41, spread across an area of sky about as large as the full Moon. Our guidebook on page 100 informs us that it contains about 80 stellar members but only the brightest dozen or so are picked up in the pocket glass. Those who live at more southerly latitudes will fare better with this cluster under a good, dark sky, as its altitude above the horizon will be greater.

To be continued…………………………………..

 

De Fideli.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.