Product Review: The Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 Binocular.

Grandes Binoculares.

The achromatic telescope has enjoyed a long and illustrious career in the hands of skilled observers. In my most recent book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, I have documented and shared with you the amazing achievements of the classical refractor over three centuries of time. But it would be quite inaccurate to claim that it has been really superceded by anything else in the modern age. This is especially true in the case of binocular manufacture, where sales of achromatic instruments vastly outsell models which possess modern ED glass. And there’s a good reason for this: ED is an expedient luxury that impacts little to the binocular view, what with their low magnifications and wide fields. For every ED model offered, there are a great deal more models made with traditional crown & flint.

Consumers vote with their wallets.

We still live in the achromatic age.

Having enjoyed and appreciated the achromatic refractor for decades, I have come to the conclusion that it is in the binocular that achromatic optics has reached its zenith. Properly made, achromatic optics provide wonderful, sharp and contrasty images of the eartly and heavenly creation. This conclusion has been reached by extensive field experience of a variety of achromatic binoculars that show vanishingly small amounts of secondary spectrum and which are far more alike than different to models with ED glass, but at a fraction of their cost. These sentiments are also reflected in the models still being marketed by some big names in the large binocular world, including Celestron and Oberwerk. What these manufacturers offer is great performance at prices that won’t leave you out in the cold.

For certain kinds of visual astronomy, large binoculars simply can’t be beaten. The ability to use two eyes rather than one greatly influences the quality of the views, where it impacts depth of field perception, faint object detection and significant improvements in perceived contrast. Without a shadow of doubt, large binoculars are the single most powerful way to enjoy larger deep sky objects, where telescopes simply cannot offer the same ‘zoomed out views.’ That said, it’s very much a Goldilocks scenario; increase the magnification too much and you lose those gorgeous panoramic sights, but when the power is too low, finer and fainter details remain elusive. It was with this realisation that I took a punt on a curious large achromatic binocular made by Pentax; enter the PCF WP II 20 x 60.

That Pentax were prepared to put their name on the PCF WP II 20 x 60 is a lesson in objectivity. Why would such a prestigious manufacturer of high-end cameras and sports optics decide on a well-appointed, large achromatic binocular? The answer is that when well made, even a 20x model would deliver up wonderful, tack sharp views of the landscape by day and breathtaking celestial vistas by night. And this has been achieved at a price point that suits the budgets of discriminating amateur astronomers who just appreciate well designed classical optics; true observers rather than casual sightseers; folk who want real substance rather than the latest ‘gee whiz’ gimmicks.

                                                     A Full Featured Binocular

Though the instrument can be acquired at a good, price new (£219 UK for the latest SP model), I was lucky enough to acquire this binocular in excellent, used condition for a little over half the retail price. The former owner had taken very good care of it, added a sturdy carrying strap and dispensed with the flimsy carrying case, replacing it with a sturdy foam-lined aluminium case.

The Pentax 20 x 60 snug in its foam-lined aluminium case. Note the tripod adapter attached to the instrument.

The porro prism binocular weighs just 1.4 kilos (~3 pounds), surprisingly light for an instrument of these specifications and is water and splash proof. This may account for the WP(water proof?) in their name. The interior is purged with dry nitrogen gas to prevent internal fogging and to minimise corrosion.The body, which is constructed of a lightweight magnesium alloy, is covered with a protective rubberised substrate that is easy to grip and is tough and durable in all weathers.

The petax 10 x 60 is deisgned for rough weather use.

The optics are fully multi-coated to maximise light transmission to the eye and reducing contrast-robbing internal reflections to a minimum.

The beautifully applied multicoatings on the large 60mm objective lenses.

Hard coatings on the ocular lenses maximise their durability.

The centre focusing wheel is remarkable in two respects. Firstly, it is quite tight in comparison to other binoculars I’ve used. This was intentionally done by the manufacturer, as you’re not likely to use this instrument watching fast moving birds or some such, necessitating the rapid change of focus position. This increased tension does however allow for very precise focusing to be achieved. Secondly, there is a facility on the focuser to lock it in place. Simply push the focusing wheel forward and it is locked in; a nice design feature that can be advantageous. For example, if you end a session with the binocular focused on the stars at infinity, locking the focuser in place ensures that you can re-engage with the sky whenever you’re next out, with minimal (if any) re-focusing necessary.

The well designed focuser ensures very accurate focusing of the instrument and can be locked in place simply by pushing the focussing wheel forward, as indicated.

The strong bridge connecting both barrels of the binocular is reassuringly stiff, allowing one to easily obtain the correct inter-pupillary distance (IPD) and only requires occasional adjustment in field use.The dioptre setting is found under the right-hand eyecup allowing independent focusing of both barrels. It has just the right amount of tension and stays in place without any fuss.

The dioptre setting on the binocular lies directly under the right eye cup.

I really like the twist up eyecups on the Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60. Like my smaller roof prism binoculars, they click into place and are quite secure. Eye glass wearers just need to hold the eyecups down, while those who don’t (yours truly included) can extend them upwards for very comfortable, full-field viewing. The texture of the cup is hard rubber which is a far cry from the cheap fold up/down eyecups seen on many other large binoculars in this price range. Indeed it is my experience that the latter can fragment in prolonged field use, necessitating their replacement from time to time. These sit very comfortably against the eyes and never need to be adjusted. Eye relief is exceptional; a verry comfortable 21mm.

High quality hard rubber eye cups twist up and lock in place for non eye glass wearers. Those who wear eye glasses will likely keep them fully down while in use.

                                                    Mounting Options

It is not the weight per se that forces one to mount this binocular. As stated above, they are quite light for their optical specification. Rather, it is the 20x magnification that limits their hand-held use. That said, I can hold them reasonably steady by extending my hands a little further forward on the barrels than with my smaller binoculars and this strategy can work quite well for short, ‘quick peek’ sessions. Incidentally, I discovered thumb indentations on the belly of the instrument presumably designed to assist hand holding! Golly gosh!

Ain’t that sweet: indentations to fit the hand on these big binos!

Still, whatever jitter you have, it will be magnified 20 times while looking through it. Such high powered binos definitely require some kind of stablising action and, in this capacity, one can either elect to use them tripod-mounted or by using a monopod.

The Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 binocular can be easily mated to a light weight tripod with an appropritae adapter.

A word of caution; avoid using those cheap plastic tripod adapters that often attend bargain basement large binos such as the ubiquitous 15 x 70. These introduce an annoying level of flexure that will almost certainly detract from enjoying the instrument in the field. It is strongly advisable to invest that little bit more in a good quality, all-metal unit sold by Opticron and other companies. Indeed, I found the same adapter that fits my 10 x 50 roof prism  binocular also work swimmingly well with this larger instrument.

Tripods have their pros and cons though. Although they offer the maximum level of stability and have built in slow-motion controls on both axes, they are quite uncomfortable to use when aimed high in the sky. I found it quite hard to find a suitably comfortable positioning of my eyes when used in the seated position. That said, a trpod was useful in checking collimation of the barrels and certain daylight activities, but in the end the most suitable way I’ve found to use this instrument is by mounting it on a simple monopod.

Using a high quality(solid aluminium) ball & socket adapter, mounting the 20 x 60 on a monopod is quick and easy to execute.

Travelling light; the author’s preferred mode of mounting the Pentax 20 x 6o binocular using a light but strong extendable monopod and ball and socket head.

Simplicity itself; the 20 x 60 mounted on a lightweight but sturdy monopod.

Using the monopod, I have been able to get very stable views during daylight and extended periods of night use. For quick looks, I usually stand and adjust the angle of either the monopod itself or the ball & socket head. For the most stable viewing sessions however, I relax in a recliner and, securing the monopod base between my feet, have attained nearly jitter-free viewing. I have learned to place some of the weight of the binocular on my face, which increases the overall stability to a significant degree.

Yours truly suitably attired, demonstrating the use of the monopod.

 

Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 Optics

As the size of binoculars increase, it makes a lot of sense to decide on a porro prism design, rather than its roof prism counterpart. Porros are less expensive and just easier to make well and also offer slightly more light throughput than their roof prism counterparts. The optics of the Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 are notable. All lenses are fully multi-coated with a protective overcoat. The Bak-4 prisms are also multi-coated. The oculars are constructed from aspherical lenses which offer several advantages over conventional lens systems, espcially in the suppression of spherical aberration and a number of off-axis aberrations that plague conventional porro binos. In addition, fewer elements are needed with ashperical designs, significantly reducing weight.  Rather than rambling on with this, it’s best to hear it from an established optics firm. Here is a link to more information on aspherical lenses.

Collimation test

Collimation of binoculars is important especially on these high power units. One quick way to test for collimation is to mount the binocular on a tripod and select a target at least a kilometre away. I elected to use the snow capped Fintry Hills a couple of miles distant.  With the correct IPD selected for my eyes, I look through the binocular and slowly pull my eyes away until the exit pupils start to become separated and I can only see the top of the field. If there is miscollimation, one image will be raised slightly higher than the other. To my relief both images remained perfectly level. Testing for sideways collimation involves aiming at a distant target and testing to see if images at the edge of the field are precisely aligned on both sides. In doing this, I detected a very slight misplacement but it was so small that I wasn’t worried. The images merge very easily and you don’t encounter eye strain even after prolonged use.

Misaligned prisms can also be revealed by examining the shape and size of the exit pupil when the binocular is pointed at a source of light. As you can see below, both exit pupils are round and of the same size indicating that all was well.

Two round exit pupils of the same size indicate good alignment of the prisms with no picking off evident.

Daytime tests:

The binocular has a 3mm exit pupil. This ensures the best part of your eye is imaging the field. And oh what a field! When precisely focused images of daytime targets are bright and tack sharp across nearly the entre field (read 95%), indicating that that aspherical optics were working well. Contrast is excellent with very effective baffling of stray light. On axis, very little chromatic aberration could be detected but I could see that off axis some lateral colour was evident. That said, it was very slight and totally acceptable to my eye. In comparison to a side by side test made with my ShortTube 80 f/5 achromatic telescope charged with a power of 16x (5mm exit pupil) in a wider 3.75 degree field showed much higher levels of lateral colour.

Spying on a corbie perched on a TV aerial against a bright sky background about 40 yards in the distance showed very slight secondary spectrum around the crow’s jet black plumage. I deemed the result quite excellent and non-intrusive for an achromatic binocular of these specifications.

Close focus was estimated to be about 8.5 metres.

 

A Curious Aside: Yep, as soon as an issue is raised here it soon pops up online lol. Check out the consensus in this thread regarding ED elements in binoculars.

Nightime tets:

For nightime testing, I mounted the 20 x 60 on a simple monopod, as described previously. This is a very quick and effective way to get going with this large binocular. Some users of the instrument complained about the small field of view offered by the Pentax PCF, what with its 2.2 degree true field. Others commented on the sensitivity of the instrument to eye placement, but truth be told, I found neither of these things to be in the least bit distracting. You see, I’m used to very small fields working with close double stars at very high magnifications and with fields that are far smaller than what is offered by this big gun. Right off the bat, I was enjoying very comfortable, stable images. A 2.2 degree field is small as 60mm binoculars go, but it is plenty good enough to frame larger deep sky objects. To my mind, it simply boils down to training.

My first light target was the Pleiades cluster in Taurus. Getting myself comfortably positioned on my recliner and adjusting the monopod, I was absolutely blown away by the sight of this magnificent open cluster in the 20 x 60! More like an astrophoto more than anything else, the entire cluster was beautifully framed, crammed full of gorgeous blue-white starlight and razor sharp from edge to edge. The sky hinterland was jet black with none of the flaring of stellar images that I had experienced in my brief rendevous with budget 15 x 70 models.  It is immediately apparent that the field is very flat from edge to edge, with no distortions that I could register. It just exuded quality! And although I own a number of good telescopes that can collect far more light than this 20 x 60 instrument, they could not beat it in terms of delivering such a magisterial image. Focusing the binocular was particularly satisfying; very small motions can make the difference between seeing the faintest stars and not seeing them at all.

Turning next to the Sword Handle in Orion, which is also perfectly framed in the 2.2 degree field,  I was deeply impressed at the wonderful contrast and colour rendering of the bright O/B stars in the field; tiny little pinpoints of light bathing my retinas. I could easily make out the greenish hue of the great Nebula in Orion (M42) and a steady hand revealed at least two of the tiny quartet of stars comprising the famous Trapezium (Theta Orionis complex).

Though the field of view is not large enough to frame the three bright Orion belt stars, the 20 x 60 pulls out many more faint stars in Collinder 70 that are quite beyond the reach of my regular astro binocular; my trusty 10 x 50. Suddenly, this peterrnaturally lovely open cluster has become a whole lot more crowded!

In the wee small hours of freezing January nights, I would watch the sky, waiting for the Beehive Cluster (M44) in Cancer to approach the meridian. Having experienced the Pleiades, I was very much looking forward to seeing this large and sprawling open cluster in the 20 x 60. And again, it did not disappoint; the view was enthralling! The entire field was filled with pinpoint stars against a jet black sky. Using two eyes greatly enhances the view and there is a lot to be said for seeing these wonders of God’s creation in their correct orientation, as if they were made for such instruments.

The glories of the Double Cluster in Perseus were a joy to behold in this high power binocular; great mounds of starlight of varying hues with curious fans and spirals of distant suns meandering their way from their crowded centres. Compared with a 10 x 50, the view was simply in a different league!

I didn’t notice much in the way of chromatic aberration in the images, save for a brief spell with the Dog Star, Sirius. It’s brilliant light is dazzling in the 20 x 60, corruscating with various colours from moment to moment. In my opinion, secondary spectrum is a complete non-issue with this instrument for astronomical use; just set it up and go stargazing!

Although smaller deep sky objects are best examined in telescopes with more light gathering power and their ability to take higher magnifications, I nonetheless enjoyed some very pleasing views of the Auriga trio of Messier open clusters; M36, M38 and especially the sumptuously rich M37, which appears satisfyingly large, well defined and glistening with the light of many faint suns. M35 was also big and prominent in this large binocular with dozens of its constituent stars being easily made out.

This is a wonderful instrument for framing and observing the Engagement Ring: a circular arrangement of faint stars encrusted with the creamy bright Polaris as the principal gemstone. Smaller, more conventional binoculars really don’t show this structure half as well, owing to their lower power, wider fields and reduced light grasp.

With such a large and powerful binocular, the colours of stars really stand out; marmalade orange Propus, sanguine red Mu Cephei, the soft yellow pastels of Capella and the Orion belt stars, white as the driven snow. This instrument would also make a dedicated variable star observer very happy, what with its impressive light gathering power (reaching down to perhaps + 11 magnitude from a dark site with good transparency) in a very well corrected, wide field. The 20 x 60 might not be the first instrument that comes to mind for a budding comet hunter, but I am reminded of the advice of the great 19th century observer, William F. Denning, who recommended an instrument with a field of view of between 1 and 1.5 degrees for such work. And in more modern times, the distinguished comet discoverer, David H. Levy, advises that the comet-seeking instrument deliver a field of just 0.75 angular degrees! Seen in this light, the suggestion doesn’t seem quite so far fetched.

The telescope provides wonderful views of some prominent binocular doubles; Mizar & Alcor, o1 Cygni, Albireo, Mintaka and Cor Caroli, to name but a few.

Structure within Structures

The Pentax PCF 20 x 60 is a formidable instrument for delineating structures within larger asterisms. Just have a look at the stars around fiery red Aldebaran with this bazuka! Sure, you can’t see the entire Hyades but with its pinpoint stars, wonderful contrast and generous ‘space penetrating power’, as Sir William Herschel of old liked to say,  it allows you to capture painfully beautiful starfields, rich in light and colour against a velvet black sky.  It’s even more amazing when pointed at Alpha Persei; the field is littered with lovely stellar jewels sparkling through the cold dark of interstellar space. This will be a great instrument to begin a study of stellar hinterlands around the brightest stars in general, something I thought about in the past but never pursued because of other diversions. I think it’s tailor made for such projects!

Ready to go when you are: the Pentax PCF 20 x 60 can be used at a moment’s notice between heavy showers when some clear spells manifest.

Starting in Gemini and running the binocular haphazardly across the sky through Auriga, northern Orion, Taurus, Perseus and ending in the gloriously rich Cassiopeia, the binocular shows me many new asterisms which I had not witnessed before, a consequence of its unique field of view, magnification and image orientation. Almost every field stumbled upon brings new bounties, delicate arrangements of stars unnoticed in smaller binoculars; vast shoals of starlight in the open ocean of space.

Moon Watching:

In the early days of February 2019, I got several opportunities to observe the waxing crescent Moon through the monopod-mounted Pentax PCF 20 x 60 binocular. The views were amazing; razor sharp, beautiful contrast, most excellent suppression of internal reflections that can easily plague lesser binoculars. Indeed, I’ve devised this simple but highly discriminating test as a way to quickly establish whether a binocular is fit for general astronomy use. If the unit shows flare and/or internal reflections when pointed at the Moon, it’s leaking light.

The image scale of the Moon seemed larger than I expected it to be in going from a standard 10x binocular to this 20x unit. It just seemed like I was getting a higher power than the 20x marked on the Pentax binocular tube. This is no doubt an illusion, a consequence I suppose of the Moon’s taking up a larger fraction of the area of the field than seen in my trusty 10 x 50 binocular.

The earthshine from the dark side of the Moon was very prominent and as the crescent continued to grow, the binocular revealed more and more details of the lunar regolith. The image scale is great for seeing high resolution details of the battered southern Highlands. On the evening of February 10, I enjoyed a wonderful view of the three large craters; Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina on the eastern shore of Mare Nectaris. Up north, Atlas and Hercules could be clearly made out with a steady hand. The limb displayed a sliver of colour; sometimes green, sometimes yellow, depending on where my eyes were postioned.I judged the chromatic aberration on this tough target to be minimal and completely non-intrusive to a seasoned telescopic observer. Contrast between the bright lava fields and darker maria was very well presented, producing an extremely immersive, aesthetically pleasing view.  This will be a great binocular to observe the early waxing Moon during March and April, when earthshine is at its most prominent and I look forward to fielding the instrument for this purpose. Sure, the binocular cannot substitute for the telescope proper, but it certainly complements those high-power, high-resolution views. The big binocular has a charm all of its own and should really be enjoyed on its own terms.

Concluding Remarks:

A quality, large binocular at a great price!

As you can probably discern from the above write up, I took to this instrument like a proverbial duck to water!

The Pentax PCF 20 x 60 WP II  is an impressive performing, large binocular, with a rugged but durable housing. It is water and splash proof, making it suitable for routine and/or prolonged work by day or by night. Its high magnification requires a stable mounting system to get the best out of the instrument.The ability to lock the focus in place is a useful mechanical feature that will be greatly appreciated by all those who use it in the field.

The Pentax 20 x 60 has very high quality optics, including properly collimated porro prisms and quality multi-layer coatings that efficiently transmit light to the eye. All lenses are also fully multicoated. The aspherical optics deliver a very highly corrected field, from edge to edge. Chromatic aberration is very well controlled and is not intrusive in normal use. Contrast-robbing internal reflections are also very well suppressed in this instrument. The binocular is very easy to use and has comfortable eye relief(21mm with the twist-up eyecups), allowing hassle-free viewing for both non eye-glass wearers and those that like to observe with their glasses on.

Less experienced observers have complained that the binocular has too small a field, but I am reminded of the superbly designed (but very expensive!) Takahashi Astronomer 22 x 60 binocular which sported a field of view of just 2.1 angular degrees, so slightly smaller than that offered up by the Pentax 20 x 60! In truth, a 2.2 degree true field is perfectly adequate to frame the vast majority of celestial objects.

The binocular is ideally suited to framing showpiece deep sky objects for careful study, such as the Double Cluster, the Pleiades, the Beehive Cluster and other large Messier objects, but is also well appointed for use in comet hunting/observing and variable star work. Its high magnification and excellent contrast produces magnificent views of the Moon that will impress anyone who uses it.

The Pentax PCF 20 x 60 WP II can also be employed as a two-eyed spotting ‘scope in long-distance daylight viewing/surveillance, e.g. observing a bird’s nest at a comfortable distance or in a variety of maritime applications.

Its very reasonable retail price makes this a most attractive instrument for budget conscious amateurs who do not want to compromise on optical performance.

Highly recommended!

Post Scriptum: Stephen Tonkin, an accomplished binocular astronomer and author has written another review of this binocular (the newer SP incarnation). It can be viewed here.

And then another one pops up; coincidence?  lol.

Neil English is the author of several books on amateur astronomy. His latest work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, is now availlable in hardback and electronic formats.

 

De Fideli.

Astronomy with an Opera-Glass: Redux.

A trip down Memory Lane with a grand old book & opera glasses.

 

Astronomy With an Opera Glass (1888) by Garrett P. Serviss

Brief biographical outline: Garrett Putnam Serviss was born on March 24 1851 in Sharon Springs, New York, and educated at Johnstone Academy, New York. After finishing high school, Serviss entered the newly established Cornell University in 1868, graduating with a B.S. degree in Science with honours in 1872. During his time at Cornell, Garrett’s flare for the written and spoken word flourished, so much so that he won awards for poetry. After graduating, Serviss enrolled at Columbia College Law School and in June 1874, received his LL.B and shortly thereafter was admitted to the New York State bar. But practicing jurisprudence as a profession proved to have little appeal to the young man, so he tried his hand at journalism, accepting a job as a reporter and correspondent for the New York Tribune, which he pursued for two years. In 1876, he secured a job at The Sun ( not to be confused with the filth-filled modern newspaper bearing the same name!), becoming copy editor of the paper after just a few years of service. It was during his time at The Sun that Serviss began writing popularised science articles and in particular, a string of articles on amateur astronomy. Indeed, he was so successful in his popuular science writings that his employers created a special role for Serviss as ‘Night Editor,’ a post he maintained for ten years, from 1882 through 1892.

Like so many astronomy enthusiasts, Serviss’ interest in the celestial realm began in childhood on his parent’s’ rural farmstead, where his young eyes would have beheld the preternatural beauty of the night sky, arching from horizon to horizon. As his notoriety grew, Serviss was sought out by a growing fan base, who invited him to give public lectures in astronomy aimed at a lay audience. This allowed him to travel the length and breadth of the country and even on trips abroad to evangelise his love of the night sky. His great success as a science communicator led him naturally to a career as a professional writer, turning out a string of magazine articles and books; both fictional and non fictional, including A Trip to the Moon, Pleasures of the Telescope, and Astronomy in a Nutshell. Arguably his greatest and most far-reaching work in amateur astronomy was his Astronomy with an Opera Glass, which was first published in 1888, the subject matter of this blog.

Garrett P. Serviss (1851-1929).

Serviss was, through and through, a man of the great outdoors, enjoying hill walking and mountain climbing well into his autumn years. One of his greatest personal acheivements was to reach the summit of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps, which he accomplished aged 43 years. “It was done,” he said, “in an effort to get as far away from terrestrial gravity as possible.”

Among his other creations is a “Star and Planet Finder:” a forerunner to the modern planisphere, which he marketed in collaboration with a one Mr. Leon Barritt, which proved to be an indispensable science tool for school children throughout the United States. Serviss married Miss Eleanore Belts and together they had a son, Garrett P. Jnr., who excelled at athletics, winning the silver medal for his country in the High Jump at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. Sadly, Eleanore died in 1906, and just two days before Christmas 1907, his son also died whilst attending Cornell University.

In later life, Serviss re-married a Madame Henriette Gros Gatier, who hailed from Cote d’Or, France, raisng her two children to adulthood. The recipient of many literary and scientific honours, Serviss was well travelled and comfortably well off for much of his long life. He died aged 78 years, survived by his second wife, stepdaughter and stepson.

Overview of the Book: Astronomy with Opera Glasses: A popular Introduction to the Study of the Starry Heavens With the Simplest of Optical Instruments, was originally published in 1888 by D. Appleton & Company, London. This author will be making use of a high-quality modern re-print by Forgotten Books. The interested reader can also access an online version of the manuscript which can be perused here. 

The book consists of a short introduction, followed by five chapters covering the four seasons, as well as a chapter dedicated to the Moon and the planets. It is a short book in the scheme of things, with just 154 pages.

Introduction:

Stargazing was never more popular than it is now. In every civilized country many excellent telescopes are owned and used, often to very good purpose, by persons who are not practical astronomers, but who wish to see for themselves the marvels of the sky, and who occasionally stumble upon something that is new even to professional star-gazers. Yet, notwithstanding this activity in the cultivation of astronomical studies, it is probably safe to assert that hardly one person in a hundred knows the chief stars by name, or can even recognize the principal constellations, much less distinguish the planets from the fixed stars.And of course of the intellectual pleasure that accompanies a knowledge of the stars.

Page1

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Author’s comments: To me, the written and spoken word of the English language reached its zenith at the end of the 19th century, during what we might call today the Late Victorian era. Back then, morals were clear, unambiguous and understood by all and sundry. Men were men and women could be women. Granted, life was considerably harder than it is today, but it was also more purposeful with it. People had a clear idea of what their roles were in an ordered and harmonious society; a society that cherished self sufficiency and honest work. Garrett Serviss, in his elegant writings from this long forgotten era in human history, provides us with a glimpse of what the glory of the heavens meant to a man of letters. But like so many men of his ilk, Serviss can trace his earliest days to humble beginnings on a rural farmstead run by his family. The stars were a comfort to those agrarian people, who still looked to them as signposts or timepieces, marking the passage of the seasons; auguring the time of sowing, reaping and threshing.

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Continuing the introduction, Serviss calls to mind the brilliant apparition of Venus in the early summer of 1887, when its great white light illumined the sky over Brooklyn Bridge. Many individuals, so Serviss informs us, thought it was the light from the Statue of Liberty. He continues;

And as Venus glowed in increasing splendor in the serene evenings of June, she continued to be mistaken for some petty artificial light, instead of the magnificent world that she was, sparkling ou there in the sunshine like a globe of burnished silver. Yet Venus as an evening star is not so rare a phenomenon that peple of intelligence should be surprised at it.

pp 2

To Serviss, the general ignorance concerning our nearest planetary neighbour provides an excellent backdrop for what he considers to be an even deeper ignorance of the stars, “the brother of our great father, the Sun.”  Serviss links this perceived indifference to the stars to the largely mathematical nature of professional astronomy which tended to intimidate those without a penchant for precision and calculation. Luckily, though Serviss was undoubtedly acquainted with some advanced technical learning, the methods in this work entirely dispense of any need for such erudition.  The heavens have a natural beauty that appeals to the human mind, whose heart has a deep longing for eternity, as King Solomon of old so eloquently expressed in the Book of Ecclesiastes (3:11).

Serviss also has the presence of mind to allay fears that a sound knowledge of the heavens can only be achieved by possessing a large and expensive telescope:

Perhaps one reason why the average educated man or woman knows so little of the starry heavens is because it is popularly supposed that only the most powerful telescopes and costly instruments of the observatory are capable of dealing with them. No greater mistake could be made. It does not require an instrument of any kind, nor much labor…..

pp 3

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Author’s note: How refrseshing it is to read such words, living as we are in a world driven by the ugly sceptre of materialism. This author became aware of this as he spun his own elaborate web of materialism, acquiring ever more costly telescopes in the somewhat pretentious and utterly mistaken view that one must ‘pay to play’. Thankfully, he liberated himself from that deadly entanglement and now enjoys good but modest instruments in his pursuit of heavenly treasures.

Happy is he with his lot.

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And with the aid of an opera-glass most interesting, gratifying, and, in some instances, scientifically valuable observations may be made in the heavens. I have more than once heard persons who knew nothing about the stars, and probably cared less, utter exclamations of surprise and delight when persuaded to look at certain parts of the sky with a good glass, and thereafter manifest an interest in astronomy of which they would formerly have believed themselves incapable.

pp 3-4

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It is at this juncture that Serviss begins to describe the simple optical accoutrement with which he weaves his inspiring allegory of the starry heavens; the opera-glass..

First a word  about the instrument to be used. Galileo made his famous discoveries with what was, in principle of construction, simply an opera glass. The form of telescope was afterward abandoned because very high magnifying powers could not be employed  with it, and the field of view was restricted. But, on account of its brilliant illumination of objects looked at, and its convenience of form, the opera glass is still a valuable and, in some respects, unrivalled instrument of observation.

pp 4

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Author’s note: By the time Serviss penned these words, the Galilean telescope was long relegated to a mere historical curiosity, owing to the introduction of the achromatic doublet which offered far superior performance in terms of correction of chromatic aberration, coma and astigmatism, and allowing far higher magnifying powers to be employed. Binoculars had ‘evolved’ * considerably too , even in the case of the humble opera glass as he describes in the next few paragraphs of the introduction.

*More a case of intelligent design than ‘blind evolution’ surely?

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In choosing an opera-glass, see first that the object-glasses are achromatic, although this caution is hardly necessary, for all modern opera-glasses, worthy of the name, are made with achromatic objectives. But there are great differences in the quality of the work. If a glass shows a colored fringe around a bright object, reject it. Let the diameter of the object-glasses, which are the lenses in the end furthest from the eye, be not less than an inch and a half. The magnifying power should be at least three or four diameters.

pp 4

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Author’s note: A bona fide Galilean binocular would have consisted of a singlet convex objective and a singlet concave element as the eye lens. Yet, to a contemporary of Serviss, even at the extremely low powers delivered by such a device, chromatic aberration would be very objectionable and a very poor choice for the purposes of exploring the night sky.


Serviss continues by demonstrating to the reader a simple way to estimate the magnifying power of his/her opera-glass, by focusing on a brick wall and estimating “how many bricks seen by the naked eye are required to equal in thickness one brick seen through the glass.” This is fairly easily achieved by holding the opera-glass up to one eye whilst leaving the other free to image the unmagnified view. With a few second’s practice, one will be able to simultaneously image both the magnified and naked eye image, allowing one to make a good estimate of how much magnifying power the instrument is delivering.

The instrument used by the writer in making most of the observations for this book has object-glasses 1.6 inch in diameter , and magnifying power of about 3.6 times. See that the field of view given by the two barrels of the opera-glass coincide, or blend perfectly together. If one appears to partially overlap the other when looking at a distant object, the effect is very annoying. This fault arises from the barrels of the opera-glass being placed too far apart, so that their optical centers do not coincide with the centers of the observer’s eyes.

pp 4

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Author’s note: For those who are interested in the development of the binocular through history, this resource was found to be quite authoratative. There is also an excellent youtube presentation of early binoculars available for viewing here and its follow-up here.

 

Overview of the author’s instrument: While rummaging through an antique shop in the picturesque old English market town of Kendall, in the Lake District, Cumbria, the author’s wife spotted a curious leather case inside of which was found a dusty Galilean binocular. Prizing it out of the case, this author briefly tested it by focusing on a clock-face about fifty yards distant. The image was fairly dim, owing to the amount of dust on the lenses, but to his delight, the individual barrels were set just about at the optimal interpupillary distance to bring both eyes into a single, circular light cone. The focusing mechanism was found to be a bit stiff and clunky but still adequate for general use, and the lenses were pristine enough for him to take the decision to purchase the instrument and its brown leather case, all for the princely sum of £7.

What follows here is a series of photographs of the instrument for the interested reader.

The dusty object glasses on the binocular.

 

The object glasses were measured to be 44mm in diameter, or 1.73 inches; which exceed Serviss’ minimum recommendations!

The instrument has a neat pair of retractable lens shades.

 

The instrument had a nice set of retractable lens shades. which could also double up as makeshift dew shields, which would ultimately come in handy during longer periods of field use.

The instruments were apparently manufactured in France.

 

The instrument has a “Made in France” inscription annexed to the left-hand barrel of the binocular but no manufacturer name was apparent. Curiously, the high-quality leather case accompanying the binocular is stamped “Made in England.” Somewhat puzzled, more inscriptions were found whilst racking the focus wheel outwards;

Racking the eyepieces outward uncovers a “War Office” stanp on one of the barrels.

 

When the eye lenses were racked outwards using the central focusing mechanism, the inscription “War Office” was found on the left barrell whilst the right barrel had ” Model” but no further information could be discerned.

With this information, it became somewhat clear that these were World War I binoculars. Since France had a technological edge over Britain in the production of high-quality optical glass up to the beginning of the 20th century, it was reasonably assumed that there was a division of labour amongst these war-time allies, with the leather case being manufactured in England. Consulting an online forum dedicated to the Great War, confirmed the author’s suspicion of the division of labour adopted by Britain and France during World War I. Ascribing a date of manufacture corresponding to World War I was further substantiated by the uncoated lenses used in the instrument. Anti-reflection coating technology was still a few decades ahead when these binoculars were being made.

The instrument is constructed mostly of metal parts but the lens shades and the central focusing wheel look as though they were made of the earliest commercial synthetic polymer, Bakelite, which was used extensively after 1909. Source here.

The author then went about dismantling the binocular to clean the optical surfaces. Intriguingly, the instrument was very easy to take apart so that lenses could be cleaned before use;

The innards of the Galilean binocular with a simple cylindrical light baffle placed immediately ahead of the eye lens.

 

Before and after cleaning the object glasses.

 

After carefully cleaning the lenses and putting it all back together again, and tightening up the screw which adjusts the tension on the focusing wheel, the author was delighted by how much esier it was to use, with brighter and more crisp images to boot. The instrument was now ready for field use.

Preliminary testing of the instrument  allowed this author to estimate its magnifying power at about 3.5x, just about the same as Serviss’ original instrument. Further tests on the night sky allowed him to estimate the field of view offered up by the instrument. Turning to the handle of the Ploughshare showed that the field glass was able to just about fit the stars Mizar and Alioth in the same field. Yet another test showed that the instrument was able to fit most of the main ‘V’ of the Hyades star cluster in Taurus, allowing him to estimate its field of view to be ~ 4.5 +/- 0.1 angular degrees; considerably less than a modern binocular but adequate enough to pursue this project.

There is no facility to adjust the interpupillary distance on this instrument or to adjust one ocular independently of the other, but this was not found to be an issue. Clearly, this was a no-frills instrument designed for basic use. There is no lavish overlaying of mother-of-pearl or some other ornate covering on this instrument like so many other beautiful Galilean binoculars dating from the late 19th century and early 20th century, but this is entirely in keeping with its intended use. And while it would be easy to get carried away, as it were, and imagine that the instrument was actually used on the battle front, this author was content with entertaining the idea that it might have only seen use by ordinary civilians.

In use, the ‘opera-glasses’ are not too lightweight. If they were, they would pick up the jitters from the author’s hand-holding all too easily but nor are they too heavy to render prolonged field use a chore. There is a lot to be said for field glasses that are ‘just right.’

The author was over the Moon with his purchase. This was a genuine example of an instrument described by Serviss, allowing this author to authenticate the literary descriptions proferred in the work. This is an important issue going forward; to really experience the visual sensations of a Victorian amateur, one ideally has to use an instrument from the same period, or as near as can be. There is little point in claiming that one has the heart of a Victorian observer without also using instruments that would have been right at home in the same period. Doing it any other way is little more than cheating lol!

Now we are ready to enjoy the night sky as Serviss may have viewed it through his simple opera-glasses. Since each chapter of the book can be enjoyed independently of the others, for convenience, this author will commence with an exploration of the autumnal (fall) night sky (Chapter III) since this is the season in which this blog was first initiated.

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Chapter III The Stars of Autumn

Covering pages 60 through 88

It is certainly true that a contemplation of the unthinkable vastness of the universe, in the midst of which we dwell upon a speck illuminated by a spark, is calculated to make all terrestrial affairs appear contemptibly insignificant. We can not wonder that men for ages regarded the earth as the center, and the heavens with their lights as tributary to it, for to have thought otherwise, in those times, would have been to see things from the point of view of a superior intelligence. It has taken a vast amount of experience and knowledge to convince men of the parvitude of themselves and their belongings. So, in all ages, they have applied a terrestrial measure to the universe, and imagined they could behold human affairs reflected in the heavens and human interests setting the gods together by the ears. This is clearly shown in the story of the constellations.

pp 61

Garrett Serviss, writing as he was at the end of the 19th century, held fairly typical ideas for his time regarding the plurality of worlds. He, like so many of his contemporaries, believed the vastness of the starry heaven pointed to humanity’s mediocrity (‘parvitude’) in the scheme of things. Although he does not explicitly express it, he probably believed life was commonplace in the Universe. Back then, scientists were totally ignorant of the sheer complexity of even the simplest living cell- equivalent to that observed in the largest of human cities –  and so was not in a position to see the incredible unlikelihood of something as complex as a living thing coming into being without the mediation of an intelligent agency. Today, the consensus appears to be shifting considerably from this scientifically naive view of the ubiquity of life on other worlds, especially now since a great deal more scientific evidence has come to the fore strongly suggesting that life on Earth did not evolve in any Darwinian sense. As this author has explained elsewhere, Serviss’ view of humanity as “contemptibly insignificant” is demonstrably false. We are, almost certainly, the only sentient creatures ever to have been created aside from the angels (the host of heaven).

The tremendous truth that on a starry night we look, in every direction, into an almost endless vista of suns beyond suns and system upon systems, was too overwhelming for comprehension  by the inventors of the constellations. So they assumed themselves, like imaginative children, as they were, by tracing the outlines of men and beasts formed by those pretty lights , the stars. They turned the starry heavens into a scroll filled with pictured stories of mythology. Four of the constellations with which we are going to deal in this chapter are particualrly interesting on this account. ….The four constellations to which I refer bear the names of Andromeda, Perseus, Cassiopeia and Cepheus, and are sometimes called, collectively, the Royal Family.

pp 62-63.

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Author’s note: The constellations that Serviss has chosen to discuss at length are prominent in the skies of early autumn and are especially well placed at the latitude this author observes from:- 56 degrees north. Indeed, they are better placed in his skies than they were for Serviss, who presumably would have observed from mid-northern latitudes and afford a wealth of objects that can be studied with the opera-glass.

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Maps 14 and 15, presented on page 62 and 64, respectively, highlight the main constellations visible at mid-northern latitudes throughout September and October. Only the far southerly constellations are out of reach of the author’s gaze. Before discussing the Royal Family, Serviss enters into a brief but fascinating discussion on the southerly constellation of Capricornus, the most diminutive constellation of the zodiac,with a particular mention to both Alpha and Beta Capricorni. He writes:

The stars Alpha, called Giedi, and Beta, called Dabih, will be recognized, and a keen eye will perceive that Alpha really consists of two stars. They are about six minutes of arc apart, and are of the third and the fourth magnitude, respectively.These stars, which to the naked eye  appear almost blended into one, really have no physical connection to each other, and are slowly drifting apart.

pp 65

 

Serviss then discusses the star Beta Capricorni.:

The star Beta, or dabih, is also a double star. The companion is of a beautiful blue colour, generally described as “sky blue.” Is is of the seventh magnitude , while the larger is of  magnitude three and a half. The latter is golden yellow. The blue of the small star can be seen with either an opera- or field glass.

pp 65-6

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Author’s note: This author has always referred to Alpha Capricorni as ‘Algedi’, which in Arabic means ‘little kid.’ Serviss, on the other hand, chooses to use a variation of this appellation; ‘Giedi.’ Being very low in the skies of central Scotland, the duplicitous nature of this star is exceedingly difficult to discern with the naked eye, even on the steadiest of nights. Indeed, they are just about half the separation of Mizar & Alcor in the handle of the Ploughshare, for comparison. The opera-glass however, makes light work of showing two yellow suns, the brighter being +3.6 (Alpha-1) and the fainter +4.3 (Alpha-2). This is a wonderfully complex system for double- and mutiple- star enthusiasts located at more favourable latitudes further south, where each of these stars is found to be double in a small telescope. Alpha 1 & 2 are known as an optical double, as the stars are located at greatly different distances; 106 and 560 light years, respectively, and by chance alone are located along our line of sight

In the same field about 2.5 degrees further south, you will be able to make out the golden tint of third magnitude Dabih (Beta Capricorni). In modern 10 x 50s, it too is revealed to be a double star, the companion being of the sixth magnitude of glory. Alas, the low power of the opera-glass, as well as the large brightness differential between the two, not to mention its low elevation above the horizon, makes this very difficult, if well nigh impossible to discern. What can you make out?

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On page 65, Serviss also mentions a curious thought entertained by Sir John Herschel regarding faint companions to bright stars:

A suggestion by Sir John Herschel, concerning one of these faint companions, that it shines by reflected light, adds to the interest, for if the suggestion is well founded the little star must, of course, be actually a planet, and granting that, then some of the other faint points of light seen there are probably planets too.

pp 65

This is clearly an erroneous conclusion, as Serviss points out:

It must be said that the probabilities are against Herschel’s suggestion. The faint stars more likely shine by their own light.

pp 65

This just goes to show that even great astronomers can be dead wrong! Having said that, it is possible to see Earth-sized objects at stellar distances. Take the famous ‘pup,’ the faint companion to the Dog Star, Sirius B, for example, which can be seen in a 3-inch telescope in the current epoch. The companion, a white dwarf star, is incredibly small and dense but highly luminous!

 

With the most powerful glass at your disposal, sweep from the star Zeta eastward a distance somewhat greater than that separating Alpha and Beta, and you will find a fifth-magnitude star beside a little nebulous spot. This is the cluster known as 30 M, one of those sun-swarms that overhwelm the mind of the contemplative observer with astonishment, and especially remarkable in this case for the apparent vacancy of the heavens immediately surrounding the cluster….

pp 66

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Author’s note: Throughout much of the 19th- and early 20th centuries, the Messier objects were denoted by a number followed by the capital letter, ‘M,’ in contrast to today, where the letter ‘M’ precedes the number. M30 (a bright, 7th magnitude globular cluster located some 26,000 light years away) can indeed be picked up as a distinctly non-stellar blob in an opera-glass but its full glory can only be appreciated with a modest sized telescope and high magnifications. The fifth magnitude star Serviss is likely referring to is 41 Capricorni.

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Serviss then moves from Capricorn to Aquarius, situated to the northeast of the latter and more accessible to observers located at high northerly latitudes. Serviss launches into an interesting discussion of the mythology related to the celestial Water-Bearer, both in ancient cultures and in more recent Arabic lore.

The star Tau is double and presents a beautiful contrast of color, one star being white and the other reddish orange- two solar systems, it may be, apparently neighbors as seen from the earth, in one of which daylight is white and in the other red!

pp 68

Tau Aquarii is indeed a beautiful and easy sight to behold in the opera-glass, with both stars being separated by about 0.65 angular degrees. Serviss’ fecund imagination goes to work here as he rightly considers the colour these stars cast on the landscape of hypothetical planets that might exist there.

Serviss then discusses the fascinating 8th magnitude object in Aquarius that we know today as the Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009), an appellation first bestowed upon it by the Third Earl of Rosse (Birr, Ireland).

Point a good glass upon the star marked Nu, and you will see, somewhat less than a degree and a half to the west of it, what appears to be a faint star of between the seventh and eighth magnitudes. You will have to look sharp to see it. It is with your mind’s eye that you must gaze, in order to perceive the wonder here hidden in the depths of space. The faint speck is the nebula, unrivalled for interest by many of the larger and more conspicuous objects of that kind. Lord Rosse’s great telescope has shown that in form it resembles the planet Saturn; in other words, that it consists apparently of a ball surrounded by a ring……..If Laplace’s nebular hypothesis, or any of the modifications, represents the process of formation of a solar system, then we may fairly conclude that such a process is now actually in operation  in this nebula in Aquarius, where a vast ring of nebulous matter appears to have separated off from the spherical mass within it.

pp 68-9

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Author’s note: The visualisation of the Saturn Nebula with the opera glass is certainly possible but it only presents as a very faint 8th magnitude ‘field star’. Serviss, writing at the time when modern astrophysics was in its infancy, had no idea that what he was describing was not, in fact, a solar system in formation, but one rather that was in the process of dying. The Saturn Nebula is a prominent planetary nebula, a geriatric star in its final death throes, as it sheds its outer atmosphere to the great, cold dark of interstellar space.

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On page 69, Serviss invites us to examine the star Delta Aquarii with the opera glass. At magnitude + 3.3, it shines with a blue-white hue. It is here, so Serviss informs us, that Tobias Mayer ” narrowly escaped making a discovery that would have anticipated that which a quarter century later made the name of Sir William Herschel world-renowned.” In 1756, the planet Uranus passed very close to this star but it moved so slowly that it escaped his notice.

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Author’s note: The story of Uranus is really the story of ‘near misses.’ The historical archives reveal many such ‘nearly never made it’ sightings of the 7th planet orbiting the Sun. In fact, Galileo himself almost certainly sighted Uranus in the early 17th century, but did not realise its significance.

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Above Aquarius you will find the the constellation of Pegasus. It is conspicuously marked by four stars of about the second magnitude, which shine at the corners of a large square, called the Great Square of Pegasus. This figure is some fiften degrees square, and at once attracts the eye, there being few stars visisble within the quadrilateral, and no large ones in the immediate neighborhood to distract attention from it

pp 69

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Author’s note: The Great Square of Pegasus is all the more remarkable for its great paucity of bright stars. Indeed, this is precisely the reason why it stands out so prominently in autumn skies. How many stars can you make out within the body of the square? From my reasonably dark site I can make out about, this author can make out maybe a half dozen stars ranging in magnitide from +4 to +5.5, most prominent of which are Upsilon, Tau, Psi and Phi, which vary in glory from +4.4 to +5.1. Additionally, when the constellation is higher up in the sky, and with good transparency and no Moon, additional members can be made out with some concentration; 71 Pegasi ( magniude +5.4)  can be glimpsed near the centre of the square and 75 Pegasi (+5.5)  just a few degrees further south. 85 Pegasi might also be glimpsed just above Algenib (Gamma Andromedae) near the border with Pisces.  Many more are possible from the darkest skies, however. Indeed, counting the number of stars within the Great Square that are visible to the naked eye remains a good test of how dark and transparent your skies are. However, even a thin veneer of haze will all but extinguish the fainter stars visible to the naked eye on the best nights.

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Although Pegasus presents a striking appearance to the unassisted eye on account of its great square, it contains little to attract the observer with an opera-glass. It will prove interesting to sweep with the glass carefully over the space within the square , which is comparitively barren to the naked eye but in which many small stars  will be revealed, of whose exstence the naked-eye observer would be unaware. The star marked Pi is an interesting double, which can be separated by a good eye without artificial aid, and which, with an opera-glass, presents a fine appearance.

pp 70

Sweeping with the opera-glass within the confines of the Great Square is still a worthwhile endeavour, where many fainter stars of magnitude 7 and 8 come into view. Though Serviss does mention it, the opera-glass is just the perfect optical accoutrement to properly discern the colour differences between the stars marking the vertices of the Great Square. To this author’s eye, only first magnitude stars clearly reveal their colours, but with the opera-glass you’ll be able to make out that Markab (Alpha Pegasi) and Algenib (Gamma) are lovely blue-white in hue, whilst Scheat (Beta) has, in comparison, a soft ruddy colour. Another beautiful target is Enif (Epsilon), located in the south-western edge of the Flying Horse, near the border with the diminutive constellations of Delphinus and  Equuleus. Owing to its rather irregular variability, it can sometimes manifest as the brightest star in Pegasus, outshining all the others in glory, with its fetching orange complexion. Though a little beyond the low powers offered by the opera-glass, a larger field glass should also reveal Enif’s wide and faint (magnitude 8.6) companion.

It is somewhat surprising that Serviss fails to mention M 15, a bright, sixth magnitude globular cluster just off to the northwest of Enif. Appearing as a fuzzy star in the opera-glass, averted vision should allow you to see it swell to nearly twice the size it appears using direct vision.

Finally, another target worth seeking out is the fifth magnitude star, 51 Pegasi, a sun-like (G class) star located roughly midway between Alpha and Beta Pegasi. Situated just 50 light years from the solar system, 51 Pegasi was shown to have a planet about half the mass of Jupiter circling its parent star just a few million miles from its fiery surface. Fascinated as he was in the ‘plurality of worlds,’ were he alive today, Serviss would most certainly have waxed lyrical about this star system!

Serviss moves from Pegasus into Cetus, the Celestial Whale, and almost immediately launches into an interesting discussion on its most famous luminary; Mira (Omicron Ceti):

By far the most interesting object in Cetus is the star Mira. This is a famous variable- a sun that sometimes shines a thousand-fold more brilliantly than at others! It changes from the second magnitude to the ninth or tenth, its period from maximum to minimum being about eleven months. During about five months of that time it is completely invisible to the naked eye; then it begins to appear again, slowly increasing in brightness for some three months, until it sjines as a star of the second magnitude, being then as bright as, if not brighter than, the most brilliant stars in the constellation. It retains this brilliance for about two weeks, and then begins to fade again, and, within three months, once more disappears.

pp 71-72

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Author’s note: Mira is a wonderful subject for the opera glass. It was discovered to be variable by the Dutch astronomer, David Fabricius in 1596, barely a decade before the telescope first made its mark on European civilization. At its brightest, it is a handsome ruddy colour in the opera glass and, thanks to a number of suitable ‘reference stars’ of fixed brightness in its vicinity, which vary in glory from the 6th to the 8th magnitudes, they can be used to monitor its changing luminosity over the weeks and months.It’s period is 332 days.

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Serviss explains that Mira is somewhat irregular in its maximum brightness though. For example, he informs us that in 1779 it shone with a brilliance more reminiscent of a first magnitude star. Acknowledging the Sun’s minor variability, Serviss supposes that the nature of its variability is attributed to much more prominent star spots (analogous to the sunpots on our own star) on its fiery surface:

Knowing that our Sun is a variable star-though variable only to a slight degree, its variability being due to the spots that appear upon its surface in a period of about eleven years- we possess some light that may be cast upon the mystery of Mira’s variations. It seems not improbable that, in the case of Mira, the surface of the star at the maximum of spottedness is covered to an enormously greater extent than occurs during our own sun-spot maxima, so that the light of the star, instead of being merelty dimmed to an almost imperceptibe extent , as with our sun, is almost blotted out.

pp 72

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Author’s note: Serviss was wrong in his explanation of Mira’s extraordinary variability. Its variability is actually caused by its sinusoidal expansion and contraction, from 400 to 500 times the diameter of our own Sun. It is this change in radius and temperature that gives rise to its variability. Mira is at the latest stage of its evolutionary journey and, as a result, is shedding its outer atmosphere to interstellar space.

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Serviss wonders whether the antics of Mira might reflect the fate of our own star in the aeons to come:

We might even go so far as to say that possibly Mira presents to us an example of what our sun will be in the course of time, as the dead an barren moon shows us, as in a magician’s glass, the approaching fate of the earth. Fortunately, human life is a mere span in comparison with the aeons of cosmic existence, and so we need have no fear that either we or our descendants  for thousands of generations shall have to play the tragic role of Cambell’s ” Last Man,” an endeavor to keep up a stout heart amid the crash of time by meanly boasting to the perishing sun, whose rays have nurtured us, that, though his proud race has ended, we have confident anticipations of immortality. I trust that when man makes his exit from this terrestrial stage, it will not be in the contemptible act of kicking a fallen benefactor.

pp 73

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Author’s note: Like human beings, stars are at their most unstable when very young and very old. In middle age, they enjoy much greater stability. Our Sun, now in its stable mid-life, is the least variable star known to astronomical science. Greater variability would be very dangerous for the life that teems on this planet. Is it a coincidence that humankind arose on the scene during this period of maximum solar stability? I think not. This is the best possible time to launch a global civilisation, where billions of human beings can enjoy the benefits of great scientific advances that make our lives comfortable. It was planned that way and can only last for a definite amount of time before things go downhill for one and all. The Biblical authors affirm that the Earth is not our ultimate home;

For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city that is to come.

Hebrews 13:14

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The text on autumn skies moves from Cetus into Pisces, a large and sprawling constellation snaking its way from ‘under’ the square of Pegasus (as seen from the northern hemisphere), northeastwards where it borders with Andromeda, the Chained Princess. Beginning with some mythology associated with the constellation, Serviss then suggests we sweep our opera glasses from northeast to southwest and examine the many delightful stars that fall into the field of view:

You will find it very interesting to take your glass and , beginning with the attractive little group in the Northern Fish, follow the windings of the ribbon, with its wealth of tiny stars, to the Western Fish. When you have arrived at that point, sweep well over the sky in that neighborhood, and particularly around and under the stars Iota, Theta, Lambda and Kappa. If you are using a powerful glass, you will be surprised and delighted by what you see.

pp 74

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Author’s note: The most distinctive feature of this constellaton is the attractive loop of seven stars situated at its southwestern edge known as the Circlet. The field of view offered up by the opera glass used by this author is not large enough to encompass them all, but a modern, wide-angle binocular can certainly do so. Centre Kappa and Lambda Piscium in the field. Just a short distance south of these stars lies the spot where the Sun crosses the celestial equator, heralding the arrival of Spring in the northern hemisphere. While you’re there, it’s worth checking out a pretty little asterism known as Alessi J23407+0757 situated just over two degrees north of Iota Piscium. Appearing quite smudgy in the opera glass owing to its small image scale, it makes a delightful telescopic sight consisting of about half a dozen stars.

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Serviss leaves Pisces and then moves into Aries, the Ram, sandwiched between Taurus and Andromeda, where he invites us to explore its two brightest luminaries, set about four degrees apart; Alpha Arietis(Hamal) and Beta Arietis (Sheratan), both of the second magnitude. They present an interesting case of colour contrast, with Hamal shining with a soft orange hue while Sheratan is revealed as blue-white in the opera glass. On page 75, Serviss gives mention to Gamma Arietis(Mesarthim). He writes:

Gamma Arietis, is interesting as it was the first telescopic double star ever discovered. Its duplicity was detected by Dr. Hooke while watching the passage of a comet near the star in 1664.

pp 75

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Author’s note: The opera glass will pick up a faint star ( 7 Arietis) just west of Mesarthim, but this is not the duplicity Serviss speaks of. In a small telescope using low power, magnitude 3.9 Mesarthim is seen to be composed of two stars, both white and of nearly equal magnitude; 4.6 and 4.7.

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At the bottom of page 75, Serviss returns to one of the themes he raises earlier in the chapter, by finally introducing the constellations that comprise the ‘Royal Family,’ consisting of Perseus, Andromeda and Cassiopeia, all featured on Map 17 on page 77 of the text. After discussing their interesting mythology, he finally begins the astronomical discussion of these constellations on page 79, where he notes the great riches to be found within their confines;

The starry riches of these constellations are well matched with their high mythological repute. Lying in and near the Milky-Way, they are particularly interesting to the observer with an opera glass. Besides, they include several of the most celebrated wonders of the firmament.

pp 79

Serviss begins with Andromeda and its greatest attraction to the possessor of an opera glass; the Great Nebula (M 31):

In searching for picturesque objects in Andromeda, begin with Alpheratz and the groups forming the hands. Below the girdle will be seen a rather remarkable arrangement of small stars in the mounth of the Northern Fish. Now follow up the line of the girdle to the star Nu. If your glass has a pretty wide field, your eye will immediately catch the glimmer of the Great Nebula in Andromeda in the same field with the star.

 pp 79-80

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Author’s note: The “Great Nebula” in Andromeda is indeed a fine sight in the author’s opera glass, where its central bulge and extended spiral arms look rather like two fried eggs set back to back.

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He continues on page 80 to inform us that this deep sky object  is the “oldest or earliest discovered of the nebulae, and with the exception of that in Orion, is the grandest visible in this hemisphere.”

An illustration of what the Andromeda Nebula looks like in an opera glass is provided on page 80, together with an early reference to averted vision:

By turning the eyes aside, the nebula can be seen, extended as a faint, whispy light, much elongated on either side of the brighter nucleus.

pp 80

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Author’s note:  We have a tendency today to think that many of the more advanced skills employed by visual observers are essentially modern developments. And yet Serviss clearly reveals to us that the eminently useful activity of using averted vision (using the night-sensitive rod cells situated either side of the fovea)  was known and used to good effect at the end of the 19th century.

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On page 80 through 81, Serviss described the curious phenomenon of a nova seen superimposed on the Andromeda Nebula in 1885, which flared up suddenly and faded back to invisibility in the course of just a few months. He does not however, reveal the interesting story of its discovery.

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Author’s note: What Serviss is almost certainly referring to is SN 1885, which was first chanced upon by the French  astronomer; Ludovic Gully, on the evening of August 17 1885 from Rouen, France, during a public stargazing event. Intriguingly, Gully dismissed the event as an artifact of ineffective baffling of his telescope from scattered moonlight and so did not follow it up and report it to the broader astronomical community. Just two evenings later, it was apparently seen by the Irish amateur astronomer, Isaac Ward(1834-1916), based in Belfast, who described its appearance as ruddy and with an estimated magntude brightness of + 7.

The Northern Irish astronomer, Isaac Ward (1834-1916), seen here sat beside the 11cm achromatic refractor he allegedly used to observe SN 1885A. Image credit: Wiki Commons.

 

SN 1885A was picked up by Ernst Hartwig, based at Dorpat (Tartu) Observatory, Estonia, on the evening of August 20 1885, when its existence was finally communicated to the international community. Despite attempts by both Gully and Ward to claim it as their own, the discovery of ‘S Andromedae’  (the common name soon bestowed upon it), was credited to Hartwig. SN 1885A was a supernova, which reached its maximum brightness of +5.85 on August 21 1885 after which it faded back to magnitude 14 a year later. More historical information regarding the object can be viewed here. SN 1885A retains the distinction of being the only supernova event to have been viewed in the Andromeda Galaxy to this day.

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That Serviss was largely ignorant of the true nature of SN 1885A  is no surprise. Astronomers knew very little in these early days considering how massive stars end their lives. What is more, we also gain a glimpse of how small the cosmos was thought to be at the end of the 19th century. Concerning the ‘nova’ in Andromeda he writes;

Although it appeared to be beside the bright nucleus of the nebula, it is likely that it was really hundreds or thousands of millions of miles either this side or the other side of it.

pp 80-81.

On page 81, Serviss encourages users of the opera glass to conduct sweeps through Andromeda eastwards towards Cassiopeia and Perseus. As we do so, the richness of star fields increases dramatically as our portal on the heavens rejoins the meandering river of stars that is the Miky Way. On page 82, Serviss pauses to consider Gamma Andromedae, which presents in  a comely golden hue in the opera glass. He also points out that this is the spot in the sky that demarks the radiant of the Biela (Andromedid) meteor shower, so called after the astronomer who first discovered a short period comet that graced the inner solar during the mid 19th century.

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Author’s note: Serviss was also a keen telescopist and indeed published a splendid book (mentioned earlier in passing) dedicated to the sights within reach of a small telescope. What’s more, this author imagines him using both the opera glass and the telescope profitably to bring the many treasures of the northern sky within reach of his eyes. Serviss alerts us to the beautiful colour contrast triple system, Gamma Andromedae (pp 82), which is a delightful sight in a telescope employing moderate powers. Before leaving Andromeda, be sure to check out the terrific binocular triple, Nu Andromedae. Observers with the keenest eyesight should try their hand at seeing this triple system with the naked eye.

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Next let us turn to Perseus. The bending row of stars marking the center of this constellation  is very striking and brilliant. The brightest star in the constellation is Alpha, or Algenib, in the center of the row. The head of Perseus is toward Cassiopeia, and in his left hand he grasps the head of Medusa, which hangs down in such a way that its principal star, or Algol, forms a right angle with Algenib and Almach in Andromeda.

pp 83.

Perseus, the classical Hero, presents some of the most spectacular sights to the user of an opera glass. The opulent splashing of stars around Alpha Persei (Algenib) is presented in the star map on page 84 of the text and cries out for exploration. After discussing the Demon Star, Algol, Serviss turns his attention to the region of sky around Algenib:

Turn now to the bright star Algenib, or Alpha Persei. You will find with the glass an exceedingly attractive spectacle there. In my note-book I find this entry, made while sweeping over Perseus for materials for this chapter: “The field about Alpha is one of the finest in the sky for an opera glass. Stars conspicuously ranged in curving lines and streams. A host follows Alpha from the east and south.” The picture on page 84 will give the reader some notion of the exceeding beauty of this field of stars, and of the singular manner in which they are grouped, as it were, behind their leader. A field glass increases the beauty of the scene.

pp 85-6.

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Author’s note: The reader will note that Serviss refers to Alpha Persei as ‘Algenib’ rather than the more familiar name of ‘Mirfak’ used by astronomers today.

Serviss took notes while observing; an essential activity for any serious observer!

In October, Perseus rides very high in the sky at the author’s location, making it especially well placed for observation. The stream of stars around Mirfak referred to by Servis is known today as the Alpha Persei moving cluster (or association). Centring the opera glass on Mirfak reveals about a dozen stars of magnitue 6 or greater within a two degree radius anda few more ‘outliers’ can be picked up by virtue of the glass’ larger field of view (~4.5 degrees). This remarkable clustering of star light presents one of the most spectacular sights in all the northern heavens using a field glass. Indeed, so large and sprawling is this cluster that it is somewhat lost in the field of view offered up by even the smallest rich field ‘scope!

Modern binoculars have come an awful long way since Serviss penned his words. Today, one can obtain very decent binoculars for a modest price offering much higher contrast, magnification and field of view than anything Serviss could have dreamed of! The author’s 8 x 42 binocular, for example, samples a field fully 7.3 degrees wide, and with a higher magnification can pull out considerably fainter members than any early 20th century field glass. This instrument makes observing through the old field glass more like looking through a straw than anything else!

Isn’t modern technology wonderful!

This author considers it a great blessing that he is able to use such a wonderful optical instrument from the 21st century!

Intelligent development: a modern binocular (right) exceeds the power of old opera glasses by a huge margin.

 

Observing the Alpha Persei Association with a modern binocular cannot fail to introduce a deep sense of awe concerning the vast beauty of the heavens!

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The reader will find a starry cluster marked on Map 17 as the “Great Cluster.” This object can be easily detected by the naked eye, resembling a whisp of luminous cloud. It marks the hand in which Perseus clasps his diamond sword, and, with the aid of a telescope of medium power, it is one of the most marvelously beautiful objects in the sky- a double swarm of stars, bright enough to be clearly distinguished from one another, and yet so numerous as to dazzle the eye with their lively beams.

pp 86

Serviss is referring to the famous Double Cluster (Caldwell 14) located about mid-way between Perseus and Cassiopeia. This is undoubtedly one of the crown jewels in all the heavens, and while it can be seen as a foggy whisp with the naked eye, any optical aid makes it look immesaurably better. Serviss writes;

An opera glass does not possess sufficient power ” to resolve” this cluster, but it gives a startling suggestion of its half-hidden magnificence….”

pp 86

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Author’s note: The view of the Double Cluster is considerably improved with an opera glass, but it is much better seen with decent aperture telescopes. This author observes it pretty much routinely for much of the year and finds that the view becomes better and better the larger the telescope is employed. There will be a natural limit though, as the largest telescopes will have a field of view that becomes too small to sample the full glory of this celebrated deep sky object. The best view he has had in recent years is through a 12″ f/5 Newtonian reflector using a 34mm  wide angle eyepiece serving up a power of 45x in a 1.5 degree true field, but a very close second is at 59x in the same telescope in a one degree field.The latter is slightly less favoured, as it restricts some of the hinterland to these clusters from being comfortably observed.

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Nearby, about mid-way between Algol and the lovely golden Gamma Andromedae (Almach), the opera glass makes light work of picking up the open cluster also mentioned by Serviss as’ 34 M’. When high in the sky, during October and November, one can make out perhaps a half dozen of its brightest stellar members and perhaps twice that with a 10 x 50 binocular. Telescopically, M 34 is reasonably rewarding, presenting a rich scattering of white, yellow and orange stars at moderate medium powers.

Serviss next invites us to explore the rich stellar archipelagos of Cassiopeia, easily made out as ‘wonky W’, as this author affectionately refers to it. Serviss writes:

Here the Milky-Way is so rich that the observer hardly needs any guidance, he is sure to stumble upon interesting sights for himself. The brightest stars are generally represented as indicating the outlines of the chair or throne in which the queen sits, the star Zeta being in her head. Look at Zeta with a good, field glass, and you will see a singular and brilliant array of stars near it in a broken half circle, which may suggest the notion of a crown.

pp 86-87.

From here, Serviss invites the reader to visit a locus very near the star Kappa Cassiopeiae, denoted by a very small circle on Map 17 ( page 76). A number is assigned to this locus:- 1572. Intriguinginly, this little spot makes Serviss’ mind races:

This shows the spot where the famous temporary star, which has of late been frequently referred to as the “Star Of Bethlehem,” appeared. It was seen in 1572 , and carefully observed by the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe. It seems to have suddenly burst forth with a brilliance that outshone every other star in the heavens, not excepting Sirius itself. But its supremacy was short-lived. In a few months it had sunk to the second magnitude. It continued to grow fainter, exhibiting some remarkable changes of color in the meantime, and in less than a year and half it disappeared.

pp 87.

Serviss goes on to say that in 1264 and 945 AD, similar outbursts of brightness were recorded at the same location in the heavens. Serviss seems to suggests that a legend grew up around this ‘nova’  and that it could also be the location of a star that burst forth during the time of the birth of Christ. Yet, Serviss exercises caution when entertaining such legends;

In short, there are two many suppositions and assumptions involved to allow any credence being given to the theory of the periodicity of Tycho’s wonderful star. At the same time, nobody can say it is impossible that the star should appear again, and so it may be interesting to the reader to know where to look for it.

pp 87-88.

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Author’s note: Serviss is justified in expressing caution in attributing the Star of Bethlehem to Tycho’s Star. As a Bible believing Christian, the ‘Star’ was undoubtedly a real phenomenon, as were Christ’s teachings, miracles, death and resurrection. Best to leave it at that! No harm done in visiting this spot in Cepheus from time to time!

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On page 88, Serviss brings his tour of the autumn sky to an end by briefly considering a couple of stars in Cepheus; particularly Herschel’s Garnet Star, Mu Cephei, the deep sanguine hues of which will delight the user of an opera glass, as well as the wonderful Delta Cephei, a celebrated double and variable star, the components of which are quite widely spaced. Serviss writes:

With a good eye, a steady hand and a clear glass, magnifying not less than six diameters, you can separate them, and catch the contrasted tints of their light.

pp 88

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Author’s note: The separation of Delta Cephei A & B has hardly changed since Serviss penned his words. Today they are separated by 41,” precisely the number proffered by Serviss at the end of the 19th century (see page 88). Try as he may, this author has not been able to prize the components apart using his low power opera glass. Even his steadily-held 8 x 42 failed the test. He has however found it no trouble to separate the components using a power of about 15x in a 80mm shorttube achromatic telescope on a steady night with good transparency. But one can easily monitor the changing brightness of the Cepheid variable (Delta Cephei A) with an opera glass, which gradually fades from magnitude 3.5 back to 4.4 over a period of about five days and 9 hours.

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Chapter IV  The Stars of Winter

Covering pages 89 through 117.

I have never beheld the first indications of the rising of Orion without a peculiar feeling of awakened expectation, like that of one who sees the curtain rise upon a drama of absorbing interest. And certainly the magnificent company of the winter constellations, of which Orion is the chief, make their entrance upon the scene in a manner that may be described as almsot dramatic. First in the east come the world-renowned Pleiades. About the same time Capella, one of the most beautiful of stars, is seen flashing above the north-eastern horizon. These are the sparkiling ushers to the coming spectacle. In an hour the fiery gleam of Aldebaran appears at the edge of the dome below the Pleiades, a star noticeable among a thousand for its color alone, besides being one of the brightest of the heavenly host. The observer familiar with the constellations knows, when he sees this red star which marks the eye of the angry bull, Taurus, that just behind the horizon stands Orion with starry shield and upraised club to meet the charge of his gigantic enemy. With Aldebaran rises the beautiful V-shaped group of the Hyades.

pp 89

Despite being separated by over a century of time, Serviss’ opening lines in this chapter covering the winter sky, immediately resonate with this author, as though he were standing right beside him on a clear and dark winter evening. Orion is indeed the great herald of the hyemal heavens, its august form dominating the meridian from well after midnight in early December but arriving increasingly earlier as the winter progresses.

As well as hosting a riot of bright stars crying out for observation with an opera glass, Orion’s brilliant luminaries – Rigel and Betelgeuse – are accompanied by a host of brilliant suns that decorate the heavens: Sirius and Procyon dominate the sky low in the southeast, and higher up, fiery red Aldebaran in Taurus, and creamy yellow Capella, the jewel of Auriga. The heavenly twins, Castor & Pollux boldly announce the arrival of Gemini, and over in the west at sunset, the white and blue-white luminaries of summer still make their presence felt; Altair in Aqulia, Deneb in Cygnus and Vega corruscating wildly in the denser air at lower altitude.

This rich assortment of bright stars create the unmistakable impression that the winter sky is darker than at other times of the year. And, indeed, there is more than a grain of truth to this assertion; for it is at this time of year that our gaze begins to carry us away from the extremely bright centre of our galaxy, and faces the Perseus spiral arm of our Milky Way.

Of such an array of bright winter stars, Serviss believes it is unrivalled in all the heavens;

The heavens contain no other naked-eye view comparable with this great array, not even the glorious celestial region where the Southern Cross shines supreme, being equal to it in splendor.

pp 91.

 

From his observing site in the populous borough of Brooklyn, Serviss provides a historically interesting titbit regarding the encroach of light pollution in urban settings:

To comprehend the real glories of the celestial sphere in the depth of winter, one should spend a few clear nights in the rural districts of New York and new England.

pp 91

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Author’s note: Clearly, by the 1890s, light pollution was becoming a signifiant issue for urban dwellers in comparison to the darker skies of earlier times.

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The reader is referred to maps 18 and 19  feaured on pages 92 and 93 of the text. Serviss begins with the large and winding constellation Eridanus the celestial River, so named by the ancient Greeks, though the Egyptians intended that it should really represent the majestic Nile. Only the northernmost stars are visible from the author’s far northerly latitude, where the opera glass sweeps up a good assortment of its stars including Beta, which forms part of the ‘foot’ or Orion near Rigel, but also the roughly linear array of stars comprising Gamma, Pi, Epsilon and Delta Eridani.

Fluvius (Latin for ‘river’) Eridanus, as it is affectionately known to this author, snakes its way over a prodigious 100 degrees of sky, as far south as the bright blue-white star, Achernar, some 57 degrees and 42 minutes south of the celestial equator and so hopeless beyond the ken of observers situated in the far north.

Seviss calls our attention to the remarkable multiple star system, Omicron (40) Eridani:

There are the two Omicrons, the upper one being o1 and the lower one o2. The latter is of an orange hue, and is remarkable for the speed which which it is flying through space. There are only one or two stars whose proper motion, as it is called, is more rapid than that of o2 in Eridanus. It changes its place nearly seven minutes of arc in a century.

pp 94-5

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Author’s note: The large proper motion of o2 Eridani is a sure sign that it is located relatively near the solar system. Indeed astronomers esimate that is a mere 16 light years away.

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Though both o1 and o2 Eridani are quite easily seen with the opera glass, the deeper secrets of the orange star o2 are quite beyond its powers. o2 actually has two faint companions of magnitudes 9.5 and 10.5, which were both uncovered by Sir William Herschel, observing from Bath, England, onthe evening of January 31 1783. These can be resolved by a small telescope using moderate magnifications (discussed by Serviss on page 95). the brighter magnitude 9.5 star is actually a white dwarf, discovered to be such in 1910, while the fainter 11th magnitude component is now known to be a red dwarf star that orbits the white dwarf every 250 years or so. What an eclectic communion of suns!

From northern Eridanus, Serviss next turns his attention to two remarkable asterims higher up in the sky in Taurus; the Hyades and the Pleiades. Easily visible to the naked eye, these clusters of starlight are a delight to study with the opera glass as Serviss enthusiastically informs us. Concerning the illustrious Hyades he writes;

Many of these stars can be seen, on a dark night, with an ordinary opera glass, but, to see them well, one should use as large a field glass as he can obtain……Below the tips of the horns and over Orion’s head, there are also rich clusters of stars, as if the Bull were flaunting shreds of sparkling raiment torn from some celestial victim of his fury. With an ordinary glass, however, the observer will not find this star-sprinkled region around the horns of Taurus as brilliant a spectacle as that presented by the Hydaes and the group of stars just above them in the Bull’s ear.

pp 96-7

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Author’s note:

Map of the main stars of the Hyades asterism in Taurus. The horizontal axis is measured in hours and minutes of right ascension, and the vertical axis is measured in degrees of declination. Image credit: Wiki Commons.

 

This author has enjoyed many evenings observing the Hyades with his opera glass, or with modern binoculars. The rather restricted field (4.5 angular degrees) of view of the former will just accommodate the main part of the Hyades asterism, but it is still enough to soak up the beautiful ruddy tint of brilliant Aldebaran, and will show many of the brighter stars in the southern part of the characteristic ‘V’ shape, where the mind’s eye can indeed conceive of them as ” shreds of sparkling raiment,” as Serviss describes them. Indeed, close inspection with the opera glass reveals subtle colour differences between its constituent stars; orange, yellow and white.

His remarks concerning what can be seen in a larger ‘field glass’ are entirely valid however. For example, in a modern compact binocular, such as the author’s 8 x 42, the view of the Hyades is transformed immeasurably from that seen in the early 20th century opera glass, where many more stars are manifested owing to considerably greater magnification and a much wider field of view. In particular, the southern part of the asterism comes alive with dozens of faint stars like sparks falling from the fiery red coals of Aldebaran. Indeed, the view of the Hyades in a modern binocular offering a 7 or 8 degree true field is arguably one of the most fetching sights in all the heavens and one this author never tires of exploring!

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On page 97, Serviss states that the Crab Nebula ( Messier 1) can be seen in a ” first rate field glass,” in the vicinity of Zeta Tauri.

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Author’s note: Alas, I have been unable to detect M1 from my observing site using the opera glasses. Indeed, it is very challenging in the 8 x 42, but readily seen as a tiny nebulous speck in a 10 x 50 at the same site. The author did however detect the Crab from a darker setting in the southwest of Scotland using his 8 x 42 during a family vacation in October 2018. The fact that it is a difficult binocular object today probably reflects the darker conditions enjoyed by Serviss at the end of the 19th century.

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On page 98, Serviss calls our attention to the subtle colour differences between Betelgeuse in Orion and Aldebaran in Taurus;

The redness of the light of Aldebaran is a very interesting phenomenon. Careful observation detects a decided difference between its color and that of Betelgeuse, or Alpha Orionis, which is also a red star……Aldebaran has a trace of rose-color in its light, while Betelgeuse is of a very deep orange.

pp 98

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Author’s note: This is indeed the case. As stated previously, the opera glass is a capital instrument to discern colours in stars. This author can readily detect a rose tinting in Aldebaran while the hue of Betelgeuse does indeed present as a very deep orange. This probably reflects the spectral differences between the stars (K5 and M1 respectively), which in turn are attributed to different absorption characteristsics of the gaseous matter in their outer atmosphere.

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The magnificent Pleiads.

On page 100, Serviss launches into a fascinating discussion of the Pleiades with beautiful prose:

In every age and in every country the Pleiades have been watched, admired and wondered at, for they are visible from every inhabited land of the globe. To many, they are popularly known as the Seven Sisters , although few persons can see more than six stars in the group with the unaided eye. It is a singular fact that many of the ancient writers declare that only six Pleiades can be seen, although they will also assert that they are seven in number. these seven were the fabled duaghters of Atlas, or the Atlantides, whose names were, Merope, Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra, Taygeta, Asterope and Maia.

pp 100

The mythology behind the Pleaides is not confined to the imaginings of the ancient Greeks though, for as Servss reminds us, the celestial fireflies feature richly in the lore of every nation under heaven. He writes:

They have impressed their mark, in one way or another, upon the habits, customs, traditions, language, and history of probably every nation. This is true of savage tribes as well as great empires.The Pleiades furnish one of the principal links that appear to connect the beginnings of human history with that wonderful prehistoric past, where, as through a gulf of mist, we seem to percieve faintly the glow of a golden age beyond.

pp 101

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Author’s note: The Genesis creation account states that when God first fashioned humans in His image from the dust of the ground, he became a living, breathing soul  endowed with remarkable cognitive abilities(far in excess of any beast which, in itself, still presents an intractable problem for evolutionists). And sure enough, archaeologists have uncovered many cave paintings which affirm mankind’s long fascination with the stars, where the Pleiads are often depicted in highly accurate astronomical renderings. See this article for interest. Clearly these early people were no dummies!

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Over the next few pages, Serviss delivers an excellent overview of some of the mytholgical lore associated with the Pleiades, particularly that of the ancient Egyptians but also mentioning the Hindus, Persians, Greeks, various south- and central-American cultures and even the Celtic Druids, which is of passing interest, but ultimately unrelated to observing. It is only on page 102 that he re-engages the interested reader with observational commentary, referring to a neat little diagram of the Pleiads on page 103;

With the most powerful field-glass you may be able to see all the stars represented in our picture of the Pleiades. With an ordinary opera-glass the fainter ones will not be visisble; yet even with such a glass the scene is a remarkable one. Not only all of the “Seven Sisters” but many other stars can be seen twinkling among them.

pp 102

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Author’s note: The low-power opera glass does indeed show many more stars (perhaps 15?) than can be seen with the unaided eye but is simply not powerful enough to discern the fainter members drawn on his diagram presented on page 103. Nonetheless, the opera glass still presents a beautiful and engaging image of this celebrated star cluster that is substantially eclipsed by modern binoculars with their higher powers and superior light throughput.

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Serviss encourages his readers to learn the name and position of the main stars in the Pleaides before discussing some of the more interesting astronomical science associated with the asterism, particularly evidence associated with their common origin, which includes a common proper motion through interstellar space (see page 103). He even mentions a rather bizarre assessment made by the German astronomer, Johann von Mädler (1794-1874), who first put forth the idea that all the stars of the Pleiades revolved around Alycone, but which was later shown to be untenable. Immediately following this, Serviss embarks on a fascinating discussion of the existence of nebulosity around some of the stars in the Pleiades star cluster:

Still another curious fact about the Pleiades is the existence of some rather mysterious nebulous masses in the cluster. In 1859 Temple discovered an extensive nebula, of a broad oval form, with the star Merope immersed in one end of it. Subsequent observations showed that this strange phenomenon was variable. Sometimes it could not be seen; at other times it was very plain and large. In Jeaurat’s chart of the Pleiades, made in 1779, a vast nebulous mass is represented near the stars Atlas and Pleione. This has since been identified by Goldschmidt as part of a huge, ill-defined nebula, which he thought he could perceive enveloping the whole group of the Pleiades. many observers however, could never see nebulous masses, and were inclined to doubt their actual existence. Within the past few years astronomical photography, having made astonishing progress, has thrown light upon the mysterious subject. The sensitized plate of the camera, when applied at the focus of a properly constructed telescope, has proved more effective than the human retina, and has, so to speak, enabled us to see beyond the reach of human vision by means of the pictures it makes of objects which escape the eye. In November 1885, Paul and Prosper Henry, turned their great photographic telescope upon the Pleiades, and with it discovered a nebula apparently attached to the star Maia. The most powerful telescopes in the world had never revealed this to the eye.

pp 104-105.

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Author’s note: The reflection nebula around Merope was uncovered by Wilhelm Temple using a modest 4 inch achromatic refractor. Historical documents do indeed show that this nebulosity was notoriously difficult  to discern visually, especially with large, observatory-class instrumets. One record shows that the celebrated double star observer, S.W. Burnham, failed to see any nebulosity around Merope using a much larger refractor than anything Temple had access to and so expressed doubt of its existence. It was spotted by E.E Barnard though. Such stories are not unique to the Merope Nebula, as similar anecdotes have been reported concerning the Rosette Nebula in Monoceros, which is much better seen in a small, rich-field telescope than a large one with a restricted field of view.

The author is uncertain as to the precise photographic telescope used by the brothers Henry referenced by Serviss above, but it was probably a fore-runner to their 33cm and larger 62cm astrographs used by astronomers at Paris and Meudon Observatory, respectively, in the 1890s. For more information please see chapter 26 on the Great Meudon Refractor in the author’s book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy (Springer Nature 2018).

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The glory of Orion. Note Betelgeuse(red) at top left and Rigel(white) at bottom right. Image credit: Wiki Commons.

On page 106, Serviss begins to create many charming word pictures of the ruling constellation of winter; Orion. He writes;

To the naked eye, to the opera glass, and to the telescope, Orion is alike a mine of wonders. This great constellation embraces almost every variety of interesting phenomena that the heavens contain. Here we have the grandest of the nebulae, some of the largest and beatifully colored stars, star-streamers, star-clusters, nebulous stars, variable stars.I have already mentioned the positions of the principal stars in the imaginary figure of the great hunter….. Betelgeuse, it may be remarked is slightly variable. Sometimes it appears brighter than Rigel, and sometimes less brilliant. It is interesting to note that, according to Secchi’s division of the stars into types, based upon their spectra, Betelegeuse falls into the third order, which seems to represent a type of suns in which the process of cooling , and the formation of an absorptive evelope or shell, have gone on so far that we may reagrd them as approaching the point of extinction.

pp 109

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Author’s note: Even at the end of the 19th century, it is clear that astronomers had already envisaged an evolutionary sequence of events that causes stars to change throughout their lives. Secchi’s primitive stellar classification sheme gave way to the more elaborate Hertzsprung-Russell scheme, where a robust physical theory underpinned this change, greatly aided by the genius of Sir Arthur Eddington, who’s seminal work established the physics of stellar interiors and who clearly demsonstrated how they change as a function of time. Betelgeuse is indeed at the end of its life and is fated to explode in a cataclysmic supernova event. It might have already happened, for we would have no knowledge of the event for 500 years, which is the time taken for its light to reach us. Mighty Betelgeuse is a mammaoth star, whose diameter exceeds that of the orbit of Mars.

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Serviss continues his discussion on the bright luminaries of Orion by contrasting fiery red Betelegeuse with brilliant white Rigel;

In Rigel we see a sun blazing with the fires of youth, splendid in the first glow of its solar energies, and holding the promise of the future yet before it. Rigel belongs to a new generation of the universe; Betelgeuse to the universe that is passing.

pp 110

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Author’s note: In Serviss’ day, astronomers believed stars started out their lives shining in white or blue-white hues, but as they aged they cooled off into yellow and finally red suns. This is the reason why some old-school astronomers still refer to the whiter stellar varieties as ‘early’ and their ruddier counterparts to be ‘late.’  In reality though, stars vary greatly in their longevity. Small stars, like the exceeding abundant red dwarves, which comprise perhaps 80 per cent of all suns in the Creation, can maintain a stable existence for trillions of years. The largest, in contrast, are fated to self destruct in just millions.

The lifetime of a star is dictated by its mass and scales as (Mo/M)^2.5, where M is the mass of the star and Mo is the mass of the Sun. It follows that while Betelgeuse, with an estimated mass of ~ 12Mo will have a lifetime of (1/12)^2.5 or just 0.2 per cent of the Sun’s lifetime (~10 Gyr). This fits well with its estimated age of ~ 10Myr.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Turn your glass upon the three stars forming the Belt. You will not be likely to undertake to count all the twinkling lights that you will see, especially as many of them appear and disappear as you can turn your attention to different parts of the field.

pp 110

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Author’s note: The ~4.5 degree field of view of the opera glass easily fits the three belt stars in the same portal and is a joy to behold on a dark, winter night. The glass reveals that all three stars appear white, reflecting perhaps their common origin from a larger, so-called OB Association. From left to right these stars are given majestic names; Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Arranged as a slanting line, they naturally create the illusion of being at the same distance but this is, once again, a pleasant fiction; Mintaka is both fainter and nearer than the other two belt stars, which are situated about three times further away.

The belt stars actually form part a much grander arrangement of suns known collectively as Collinder 70. Held steadily, the opera glass will reveal a swarm of fainter stars, many of which are of the 6th and 7th degree of glory, in and around the three belt stars. When observed with a modern 10 x 50 binocular, Collinder 70 is a breathtaking sight! The reader is best advised to wait until the constellation culminates over the southern horizon to make the most at teasing the fainter members of Collinder 70 out of the murk, as they are more easily picked off with increasing altitude.

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Serviss continues his  description of the winter sky with an in-depth look at Sirius, the brightest star in all the heavens:

Sirius, in fact, stands in a class by itself as the brightest star in the sky. Its light is white, with a shade of green, which requires close watching to be detected. When it is near the horizon, or when the atmopshere is very unsteady , Sirius flashes primatic colors like a great diamond. The question has been much discussed , as to whether Sirius was formerly a red starIt is described as red by several ancient authors, but it seems to be pretty well established that these descriptions are most of them due to a blunder made by Cicero in his translation of the astronomical poem of Aratus. It is not impossible, though it is highly improbable, that Sirius has chnaged color.

pp 111

 

Sirius does indeed corruscate wildly in the dense air near the horizon at my far northerly latitude. The colours of Sirius seen by the naked eye and through the opera glass reveal the complex interplay between brilliant star light and atmospheric refraction. The very idea that Sirius was once a red star seems altogether unlikely to me and Serviss’ pointing to Cicero’s “blunder”, as it were, seems entirely reasonable as the explanation as to why this myth has been perpetuated throughout the centuries.

Serviss invites the reader to look at Sirius with the opera glass and its interesting hinterland. Indeed, by placing Sirius toward the top of the field, my opera glass picks up the faint glow of Messier 41 – discussed by Serviss on page 112 – at the bottom of the field of view. Serviss states that this open cluster is best seen with ” powerful opera glasses or a field glass.”

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Author’s note: Although many observers more conveniently located further south rightly describe M41 to be a rather spectacular sight in larger binoculars or a small, rich field telescope, it’s very low altitude at 56 degrees north latitude detracts significantly from its visual punch.

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Serviss then discusses the discovery of the elusive companion to Sirius, how it was predicted by Friedrich W. Bessel before finally being unveiled in the winter of 1862 when it was discovered through a large achromatic refractor fashioned by Alvan Clark.  In the closing pages of his treatise on the “Winter Stars,” Serviss discusses some low lying objects that can be reasonably seen with a field glass from mid-northern latitudes eg. M46 in Puppis, but for some reason, fails to bring our attention to Messier 50, easily picked up in my lowly opera glass as a foggy 8th magnitude patch about half the size of the full Moon, about one third of the way from Sirius towards Procyon, but does rightly acknowledge an interesting field of stars (8, 13 and 17 Monocerotis), near its northern border. He ends the chapter with a clarion call for us to become observers of the sky:

Do not be afraid to become a stargazer. The human mind can find no higher exercise. He who studies the stars will discover-

“And endless fountain of immortal drink

Pouring unto us from heaven’s brink.”

pp 117.

That’s regal advice for anyone in any time!

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Chapter 1: The Stars of Spring

Covering pages 7 through 29

 

To be continued…….

 

De Fideli

8 Spectacular Binocular Sights for Winter Nights.

Out and about with my 8 x 42 binocular.

 

The winter sky is jam packed full of beautiful sights that can be appreciated with ordinary binoculars. Many of the brightest stars in the sky sparkle through the darkness on winter evenings, and some of the best open clusters and nebulae make their presence felt to even a casual observer even with the most basic of optical aids. In this blog, we shall explore 8 spectacular sights that can be enjoyed with hand-held instruments or using simple, stabilising arrangements such as a monopod.

Solid as a rock; the 10 x50 binocular on a monopod.

All of the targets in this article were observed with modest 8 x 42 or 10 x 50 roof prism binoculars, serving up fields of 8.2 and 5.9 angular degrees, respectively; plenty wide enough to see all of the targets discussed.  What follows is a series of concise notes on what can be expected from a dark rural site with these instruments, but those who live in large towns and suburban areas can also enjoy many of the same sights. So what are you waiting for? Fetch your warm winter coat, hat and gloves and join me on a whistle stop tour of the winter binocular sky.

Exhibit 1: The Pleiades/Messier 45/Seven Sisters.

Location: Northwestern Taurus

The main part of the beautiful Pleiades cluster, as observed through 8 x 42 and 10 x 50 binoculars, based on observations taken over several evenings in early January 2019.

Easy to find with the naked eye on winter evenings, the Pleaides is one of the most beautiful and engaging targets in all the heavens. This wondeful asterism consists of over 100 stars scattered across 1.5 angular degrees of sky. My wide angle 8 x 42 shows many of the brightest members, which shine with either a white or blue-white hue against a velvet black sky. Many wonderful stellar associations can be feasted on; doubles, triples and elaborate curving arcs of stars that fan their way from the bright centre of the cluster. My 10 x 50 binocular, stablised on a lightweight monpod, significantly enhances the view with its larger image scale and ability to pull out fainter members. Words cannot fully grasp the beauty of this winter treasure. Small wonder the Pleiades has been the stuff of poetry ever since mankind first gazed upon the heavens. Clean, dust-free optics produce the prettiest views, minimising the scattering of light from its brightest members. Indeed, dusty optics can cause some individuals to mistakingly report seeing the faint reflection nebula around Merope and Alcyone with binoculars of this size, but in reality significantly larger instruments and exceptionally clear and transparent conditions are required to pull out this feature from the pretty asterism. This loosely bound system of stars is estimated to be about 50 million years old, with many of its main stars located about 440 light years from the solar system.

Exhibit 2: Praesepe/Beehive Cluster/Messier 44

Location: Central Cancer

Praesepe; the celestial Manger with Beehive Cluster (M44) seen left of centre.

On a dark, moonless night, cast your gaze between the constellation of Gemini in the west and Leo Major in the east, just north of the ecliptic, and you’re sure to chance on a large foggy patch situated between Delta and Gamma Cancri. Binoculars will unveil a stunning sight; a beautiful quadrilateral of bright stars with a vibrant stellar cluster just left of its centre. Arriving on the meridian late on January and February evenings, the quadrilateral delineates the manger in which the Christ child was laid, with the cluster itself presumably denoting the spot where the holy family lay resting.

The cluster itself is more famously known as the Beehive (Messier 44); an entirely appropriate appellation for this magnificent binocular sight. Several dozen stars are brighter than magnitude 6 but many of these are too close to each other to be cleanly resolved in ordinary binoculars. The cluster contains many fainter members, though while remaining unresolved, contribute a lot of diffused light which greatly enhnaces the visual appearance of the spectacle. Better seen in 10 x 50s than 8 x 42s, the manger structure is lost in the smaller field offered up by larger binoculars, though the cluster stars will be enhanced.The Beehive contains a total of about 200 stars and lies about 590 light years away.

Exhibit 3: Collinder 70

Location: Orion

Collinder 70, of which the three belt stars of Orion are the brightest members.The arrow indicates the rough position of Eta Orionis, for perspective.

Our next target couldn’t be easier to find. Simply point your binocular at the belt stars of Orion (from east to west these stars are called Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka), which radiate with an intense, white hue, pure as the driven snow. But the belt stars are merely the brightest members of a far grander cluster of magnitude 6, 7 and 8 stars collectively known as Collinder 70, snaking their way up and around them. For best results, observe this cluster when the Moon is out of the sky and when Orion reaches its maximum altitude in the south. I’m in two minds about which binocular yields the better view. The 8 x 42 yields a whopping 8.2 degree field giving a wonderful wide-angle perpective, while the 10 x 50 shows some fainter members but in a smaller true field. For this object, I think I’ll give the nod to the former instrument.Where I’m located at 56 degrees north latitude, Orion never gets too high in the sky, and I find it interesting to see how the view improves- a darker sky with more numerous stellar members – as the constellation wheels its way toward the meridian. Each incremental rise in altitude; degree by degree; enhances the view. This is a delightful target for all lovers of the night sky. Don’t leave winter behind without a visit!

Exhibit 4: Melotte 20/ Alpha Persei Association

Location: Perseus

Melotte 20 centred on Alpha Persei(Mirfak). The stars are arrayed south to north, as it appears in late winter.

On a dark, moonless night with good transparency, the constellation Perseus looms high in the sky for northern observers. Our next port of call couldn’t be easier to locate; just point your gaze at Mirfak (Alpha Persei) and hold up your binocular to your eyes. The scene literally explodes with beauty! A torrent of starlight drowns your eyes, as the wide field view of the binocular captures the riot of stellar members in this famous OB Association. In late autumn and early winter, Perseus climbs the vault of the sky from the east, presenting its stars in an east to west orientation, but I have found that the view is that little bit more magnificent when it sinks into the western hemisphere on January evenings, when the same stellar association is arrayed north to south, when the above sketch was made. Containing about 70 hot white and blue-white stars ranging from magnitude 3 through 10, Melotte 20 is quite young; about 50 million years old with the main members being located some 550 light years from the solar system. This author never tires of its beauty; the more you look at it, the more you see!

Exhibit 5: The Hyades/ Melotte 25

Location: Taurus

The Illustrious Hyades; eye candy for ordinary binoculars.

To find our next winter binocular treasure, just cast your gaze on the beautiful orange star, Aldebaran, and bring your binocular to your eyes! Aldebaran is the brightest star of the familiar horns of the Celestial Bull. But with the aid of binoculars, your eye can feast on a sparkling array of double and triple stars of varying glory and hue. Best framed in a 10 x 50 binocular, the cluster spans a whopping 5.5 degrees with as many as 130 or so stars presenting as brighter than magnitude 9. Intriguingly, Aldebaran is not a true member of this system but is actually located about half as far away as the other stars in this sprawling open cluster, which astronomers estimate is about 150 light years away. Few binocular sights enthrall as much as the Hyades. I love the way the cluster changes its orientation in the binocular field as it transitions from the eastern to the western hemispheres of the sky. Using a monopod with the 10 x 50 helps bring out the faintest members that often elude hand held observations.

Exhibit 6: The Double Cluster/Caldwell 14/h & Chi Persei

Location: Perseus

The celebrated Double Cluster in Perseus; eye candy for all apertures.

Our next target is very easy to find; just look midway between the ‘wonky W’ of Cassiopeia, the Queen, and the ‘tip’ of Perseus, the Hero. From a dark, country sky, devoid of moonlight, these clusters are clearly visible to the naked eye as an elongated foggy patch, but turn a binocular on them and you’re in for a real visual treat! Both clusters are about the size of the full Moon and are designated NGC 884 and NGC 869. The richer of the two is NGC 869 (western most) and contains about 200 stellar members, while the eastern-most cluster (NGC 884) has stars that are significantly more scattered. Together they provide a breathtaking sight in ordinary binoculars. The above sketch was made with a 10 x 50 instrument and covers a swathe of sky roughly 5 angular degrees in extent. An eye-catching stream of stars is seen fanning away from both clusters. From high northern latitudes, the Double Cluster is well placed for observation from early autumn through early spring but is best observed when it is highest in the sky after sunset on December and  January evenings. Both clusters are located some 8,000 light years away and consist of mostly young type A and B stars, though larger instruments will help pull out more highly evolved, ruddier members.

Exhibit 7: The Sword Handle of Orion

Location: Orion

The Swordhandle in Orion as seen in my 10 x 50 binocular. The field covers an area slightly larger than 2 angular degrees in width.

Our next target is the Swordhandle of the great constellation of Orion, readily identified with the naked eye even from an urban setting. This is a spectacular sight in any binocular but is especially pretty in a 10 x 50. The eye is immediately drawn to the Great Nebula (M42), one of the nearest star forming regions to the solar system. Newborn stars light up the gas and dust surrounding them and a steady hand will reveal several pinpoint stars within its confines. Just above it lies M43, just separated from M42 by a thin sliver of dark sky. At the top of the field is the pretty open star cluster, NGC 1981 and below it the binocular picks up some faint whisps from the diffuse nebula NGC 1973-77-79. Below M42 lies the comely binocular double star Iota Orionis and Struve 747 which appear to have some nebulosity associated with them. I have no trouble seeing a greenish colour in M42 in larger binoculars or in my 80mm f/5 refractor at medium power, but I find it somewhat elusive in the 10 x 50. Perhaps those observing from a darker site may fare better in this regard. Many of the objects in the sketch are located between about 1200 and 2,300 light years from the solar system.

Exhibit 8: Melotte 111, the Coma Star Cluster

Location: Coma Berenices

The widely spaced Coma Star Cluster as seen in the author’s wide-angle 8 x 42 binocular.

Our final target is for night owls – the celebrated Coma Star Cluster in Coma Berenices – as it doesn’t culminate until well into the wee small hours during early February. Those who prefer to observe earlier in the night might wish to wait until month’s end to explore it. To do justice to this large and sprawling open cluster, a wide angle binocular is the best tool, as the cluster extends over a broad swathe of sky (at least 6 degrees) and is completely lost using telescopes. My 8 x 42 nicely frames this very loose congregation of suns, the brightest of which are of the 5th magnitude of glory. Visually striking, the main feature of this cluster is a distorted ‘V’ shape which renders it rather easy to identify with optical aid. The Coma Star Cluster(not to be confused with the galaxy cluster bearing the same name), with its 50 or so members, is close to the solar system as clusters go; just 285 light years according to the best modern estimate.

Water for the Soul:

Well, I hope that you will take the time to venture out on these long winter evenings to observe these beautiful and accessible objects. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just ordinary binoculars, a warm coat and hat, and a modicum of curiosity!

Thanks for reading and clear skies!

Neil English is the author of a new and ambitious historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, now available in hardback and electronic formats.

 

De Fideli.

A Survey of Binocular Astronomy Literature.

Every dedicated binocular enthusiast needs a good binocular guide.

Dedicated to Steve Coe (1949-2018)

As an enthusiastic, life-long collector and reader of astronomical literature, I’ve always appreciated the power and value of the printed word.

Having re-ignited a keen interest in binocular observing, I was somewhat saddened to see that many great works of binocular astronomy were being largely ignored by amateurs. To help redress this balance, this blog will take a close look at a number of books dedicated to the art of visual observing using ordinary binoculars, where I offer short reviews of a number of inexpensive works. Their value lies in the collective knowledge of the authors who have produced these works; experience that far exeeds those offered by the self-proclaimed ‘experts’ constantly chattering on internet forums. And you will save yourself a small fortune – time and money – by heeding their advice.

Exhibit A: Discover the Night Sky through Binoculars: A Systematic Guide to Binocular Astronomy.

Author: Stephen Tonkin

Publisher: BinocularSky Publishing

ISBN: 978-1-9164850-0-6

Price: £10

1st edition: October 2018, pp 145.

Want a good binocular guide for Christmas? I have the perfect recommendation for you! Stephen Tonkin’s new book is sure to appeal to binocular enthusiasts of all ages. Tonkin is no flash in the pan. He has authored or contributed to many books I’ve acquired over the years and writes a monthly column on binocular astronomy for Britain’s BBC Sky at Night magazine. He also maintains an excellent website dedicated to binocular astronomy, which can be accessed here.

So I was in no doubt about my expectations concerning his new offering and boy does it deliver! Though it looks like a self-published book, Discover the Night Sky through Binoculars, is a witty and authoratative survey of what can be realistically achieved with binoculars. After a short introduction, the first three chapters cover all the technical stuff you’re likely to need to know about how to get the best out of a decent binocular. There is a particularly humorous mention of some rubbish models, which Tokin refers to as “binocular-shaped objects.” He avoids making specific recommendations about specific models though, which is a good thing, as many units can now be purchased fairly inexpensively that can provide a lifetime of great astronomical views.

The remainder of the book is divided up into the many binocular sights arranged in a month by month sequence. His superlative first-hand knowledge of the heavens shines through as he clearly and effectively shows the reader how to locate each target. All the showpiece binocular targets are covered in this book, and many more besides. Though the sky maps printed in the book are a bit small to see well, one can always download higher quality maps from his website which you can study at your own leisure. I love his description of a phenomenon called pareidolia, which describes the psychological condition of seeing patterns in the starry heavens that are not really there!

I spotted one howler though; on page 8 he says, “our visual system evolved using two eyes.” Mr.Tonkin ought to look at this presentation by an expert on human vision before jumping to such conclusions! Tut tut lol.

It’s very easy to use this book, especially if you already have some experience of the night sky, but it will work equallly well for newbies. Indeed, it’s almost like having an expert right beside you as you make your own binocular observations. The end of the book features several useful appendices, whch cover important topics, such as how to determine the size of your dilated pupil, how to test your binocular for defects, as well as sound advice on how to maintain your binocular in tip-top condition over the months and years.

This is a great, no-frills book, with simple black & white illustrations, but it’s packed full of excellent observing projects that will keep you blissfully happy for many years to come.

Exhibit B: Binocular Highlights: 109 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users

Author: Gary Seronik

Publisher: Sky & Telescope

ISBN: 978-1-940038-44-5

Price: £18.99

2nd Edition 2017, pp 112.

Gary Seronik is no stranger to those who have enjoyed Sky & Telescope magazine over the years. He wrote a regular column; Binocular Highlights; for Sky & Telescope between 1999 and 2016, where he thereafter became the editor of the well regarded Canadian astronomy periodical, SkyNews. This neat little book features 109 objects from all over the northern sky that can be enjoyed with binoculars. After a good introduction, Seronik summarises all the things you need to know about binoculars and makes a specific recommendation that a 10  x 50 unit is probably the best compromise between power and portability. That said, he admits that he is an avowed fan of image stablised models, such as his favourite; a Canon 8 x 42IS.

The remainder of the book is divided up into chapters covering the four seasons of the year, where he presents a series of brief but very engaging mini-essays on the most celebrated of all binocular targets, concentrating on those objects that are best seen from mid-northern latitudes, though he does have an occasional entry of sights only visible in the deep south, such as the illustrious Omega Centauri. The book is lavishly illustrated throughout, with full colour charts typifying a 10 x 50 binocular view, on pages made from thin cardboard rather than regular paper, and is ring bound for convenient use in the field.

If I have any quibbles to make about this book, they are minor; I just wish he could have included more objects. That said, I suspect that, for the vast majority of observers, yours truly included, binocular observing is not really about pushing the envelope to observe overly difficult or challenging objects. The targets themselves are so beautiful that you’re likely to observe them many times during a season, where their orientation in the binocular field changes as they wheel across the sky. Thus, Binocular Highlights is designed for observers who just enjoy looking at the same objects as the season’s progress; and that’s fine.

Now in its second edition, Seronik has added 10 new entries over the original book, which is a bonus. In short, you can’t go wrong with this excellent little field guide but all the while, I can’t help but think those lovely coloured charts go a bit to waste when manhandled in the field.

Exhibit C: Stargazing with Binoculars

Authors: Robin Scagell & David Frydman

Publisher: Philips

ISBN: 978-0-540-09022-8

Price: £13.74(second edition)

1st edition, 2007, pp 208.

It is oft stated that the best way to start out in the fascinating hobby of astronomy is to purchase a good binocular. There is a great deal of truth to this sentiment. Many folk who express a casual interest in stargazing quite often become disillusioned by it, perhaps because they live in a heavily light polluted location, or they made the mistake of purchasing a large, complicated telescope that is just a pain to set up in the field. The wonderful thing about binoculars is that they are much more versatile than dedicated astronomical telescopes, since they can be used during the day to have a good look around, for nature treks, birding, camping, watching sports and the like.

Stargazing with Binoculars takes a much more pedestrian path through the fascinating world of binocular observing. Written by two veteran stargazers, Robin Scagell and David Frydman, who have amassed an enormous amount of field experience with more binoculars than you could shake a proverbial stick at. Their book, now in its second edition, shows you how the sky works and then presents a month by month overview of what can reasonably be seen using binoculars of various sizes. Unlike the aforementioned books, the authors include sections on lunar, planetary and solar observing, before engaging in a comprehensive survey of the binocular market. This is a great book to learn about how binoculars are made, what the various models offer the observer and how to test binoculars prior to purchasing. It also features an excellent chapter on how best to use a given binocular; whether it be hand-held, harness stabilised, or securely mounted in a variety of configurations, from simple monopods to complex binocular mounts.

Stargazing with Binoculars provides a wealth of information that any interested reader will find useful, including how to estimate binocular fields using star tests, making sketches of what one sees in a binocular, as well as sections on observing comets, meteors, artificial satellites and much more besides. It also provides a comprehensive overview of the southern sky, so it is equally useful to those observers who enjoy life in the antipodean.

This is a fabulous, cost-effective book for all binocular enthusiasts, featuring a generous number of full colour images to complement the text, and although I have not seen the second edition( 2013), I’m sure it will be just as good if not better. All in all, a great stocking filler for the binocular enthusiast!

Exhibit D: Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars: A Simple Guide to the Heavens

Author: Stephen James O’Meara

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

ISBN: 978-1843155553

Price: £24.99

2008, pp 148

I’ve always been a fan of Stephen James O’ Meara, a highly accomplished visual observer, who served on the editorial staff of Sky & Telescope for many years before joining Astronomy(USA) as a regular columinist. I have collected and enjoyed all of his books over the years and would heartily recommend them to anyone.

Though he is perhaps better known for his studies of deep sky objects, observing from the big Island of Hawaii using 4- and 5-inch refractors, I was glad to see that he produced a book dedicated to binocular observing to complement his telescopic adventures.

Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars is a large book compared with all the others mentioned above, with dimensions of 12 x 8″. The book opens with a great introduction to exploring the night sky, featuring the Big Dipper as a starting point to find your way around the sky. Here, you’ll learn how to estimate angular separations between objects, how best to perceive star colours, as well as a good introduction to the physiology of the human eye. A surprising amount of information can be gleaned by studying the Big Dipper and how it points to many other interesting objects nearby in the sky. What is somewhat surprising about this work is that O’ Meara categorically states that he used inexpensive binoculars – 7 x 50s and 10 x 50s – in preparing the material for this book. He does not dwell on the intricacies of binocular construction or advocate any particular brand of binocular, in contrast to his other books, where he strongly advertises the virtues of small, expensive TeleVue refractors(been there, done that, not going back).

The book continues by taking a seasonal look at the treasures of the binocular sky, covering each season from spring, summer, autumn and winter. What is immediately obvious is that O’ Meara has an encyclopedic knowledge of the mythology of the heavens, with a particular interest in ancient Egyptian sky lore. While this is all very good, I personally would have liked less discussion on mythology and more about actual observing, but everyone has their own take on how best to present the wonders of the night sky and, in this capacity, O’ Meara carries his own torch.

All the illustrations in this book are black & white, but the charts and diagrams are very easy to read and assimilate. In addition, there is a wealth of good drawings made by the author in this book which greatly adds to the value of this work and while many targets can be seen by the averagely keen eye, some are very challenging, requiring both very dark and transparent skies and a very keen eye to fully appreciate.

Though it is a bit more pricey than the other books discussed above, anyone with a keen interest in the binocular sky will appreciate this very well written book, and I for one feel fortunate indeed to have a copy in my personal library.

Exhibit E: Handbook of Binocular Astronomy: A complete guide to choosing and using binoculars for astronomers – whether beginners or not-so-beginner.

Author: Michael Poxon

Publisher: Starman Books

ISBN: 97809562394-0-2

Price: £12.96

2009, pp 397

Now for something completely different!

Michael Poxon is a name unknown to me, but that ought not deter a curious individual from investigating a book. Often times, to my growing knowledge, it’s ordinary folk who come across as being the most sensible and the most experienced, as opposed to the loud-mouthed guffaws you see on internet forums.

And Poxon puts his all into this very large book!

It begins, as all the others do, by stressing how important binoculars can be to the novice and dedicated astronomer alike. He offers sage advice in purchasing a good binocular, you know; what to avoid and what not to avoid. Curiously, he advises against image stabilised binoculars for the following reasons; they’re often very heavy(over a kilogram) and so do nothing to stave off arm ache, they rely on battery power(which he finds to be a nuisance) because they lose their charge in a few hours. They are also very expensive and the author feels that the money is better spent on conventional optics. Furthermore, he rightly points out that better stablisation can be achieved by using a homemade monopod. In this, I wholeheartedly agree; my brief experience with an image stabilised unit a few years back left me feeling a little underwhelmed and I felt the images were, let’s say a tad “artificial.” And although Poxon certainly advocates the cheap and cheerful porro prism varieties, he also sings the praises of compact, roof-prism models because of their labour-saving low mass in comparison to the former, albeit at some additional cost to the consumer. It is also clear that Poxon is a highly seasoned enthusiast, who has travelled to many places around the world to observe the binocular heavens. Ever the practical man, he has the presence of mind to include the construction of effective, low-tech dew shields for his 10 x 50s used during his prolonged binocular surveys, which he often mounts astride his 36cm telescope.

Chapter 2 deals with the basics of the celestial sphere, the magnitude scale of stars, as well as a very useful table indicating the magnitude limits, field of view and angular resolution of various popular models used by the amateur community. He also offers up valuabale advice on how much one can gain in stabilising a binocular; on page 31, for example, we learn that one can go a hefty 1.5 magnitudes deeper on a stabilised system compared with hand holding; and I’d call that signficant!

What follows are excellent general overviews of the Sun, Moon and planets, eclipses etc. Poxon does an especially good job in helping the reader recognise the many lunar craters and mountain ranges within the resolution remit of a typical 10 x 50 binocular with simple but very effective lunar maps. In Chapter 5 (which is mistakenly printed as Chapter 3), he delves into the fascinating world of deep sky astronomy and what follows is a very impressive listing of interesting variable stars, double and multiple stars (both wide and close-in) as well as a treasure chest of deep sky objects from the entire pantheon of constellations in the sky( the whole 88 are represented).The data is arranged in the form of notes which can be easily followed by the interested observer.

While the illustrations are not of the highest quality, they are generously presented and can be followed without much fuss. The end of the book contains a series of useful appendices with particular emphasis on variable star monitoring.This is an excellent book and, true to its opening lines, has something for every level of enthusiast; from newbie to veteran. I was pleasantly surprised by its excellent content, written by a well heeled amateur.

Exhibit F: Deep Sky Observer’s Guide

 

Author: Neil Bone

Publisher: Philips

ISBN: 0-540-08585-5

Price: £9.99

2004 pp 223

An honorary mention. The late Neil Bone(1959-2009) was a highly accomplished deep sky observer, public speaker and writer. A microbiologist by profession, he spent many of his evenings observing the glories of the deep sky from his Sussex home. Despite his notoriety and universal respect by the British astronomical community, Bone used simple equipment throughout his life, which included a ShortTube 80, a 10 x 50 binocular and a small Dobsonian telescope to accomplish all his observing goals. Deep Sky Observer’s Guide is a wonderful little book for beginning stargazers, featuring a rich selection of deep sky objects that are accessible to anyone with the same equipment. The first two chapters cover the basics of deep sky observing, including a great overview of the celestial sphere as well as the equipment and observational skills amateurs use to good effect to divine its many secrets. The rest of the book has chapters dedicated to particular deep sky real estate, including galaxies, asterisms, globular clusters, diffuse nebulae, open clusters, planetary nebulae and supernova remnants. Although the book is not about using binoculars per se, Bone used his 10 x 50 to make excellent observations of many of his subjects and are preserved for posterity in the pages of this literary gem. To see just what can be accomplished with a humble 10 x 50 binocular, this now classic text is a great place to spend some time. Many of the deep sky objects he describes were observed using his trusty binocular, and despite his premature passing, his rich word pictures still have the ability to inspire me. In amatam memoriam.

 

 

Exhibit G: Binocular Stargazing

Author: Mike D. Reynolds

Publisher: Stackpole Books

ISBN: 978-0-8117-3136-2

Price: £5.99

2005, pp 213

 

Mike D. Reynolds is a name familiar to many American and Canadian observers. A professor of astronomy and Director Emeritus at Chabot Space & Science Center at Oakland, California, he is probably best known for his popular writings in Astronomy Magazine, as well as his excellent books on eclipses and meteor watching. Binocular Stargazing is a very well written and thought-out book, covering a lot of ground. After a short foreword from celebrated comet discoverer, David H. Levy, the first three chapters provide all the information you’re likely to want to know about binoculars, past and present, written in a friendly yet authoratative style. What is very refreshing to see in this title is that, like nearly all the other authors of binocular astronomy, Reynolds emphasises that one can obtain excellent results with only a modest investment; a philosophy yours truly also shares.

Chapters 4 through 7 offer excellent overviews of how binoculars can be used for lunar & solar observing, before engaging in a thorough but non-technical treatise on the wider solar system objects, the distant stars, as well as presenting a great introduction to deep sky observing. One slight niggle pertains to the author’s persistent use of the term “pair of binoculars” throughout the book. Though certainly not a big deal and still used my many observers, the phrase doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. The word ‘binocular’ implies duplicity. Better to use ‘binocular’ to refer to a single instrument and ‘binoculars’ when referring to more than one such instrument.

Chapters 8 through 12 offer up one of the best surveys of the binocular sky I’ve seen, arranged in seasons, ending with a special chapter devoted to observing from southern skies. Throughout, Reynolds displays his first-hand experience in the field and has a talent for making the subject matter very accessible. The science presentation is first-rate, as one would expect from a guy with an advanced degree in the science. Variable stars are particularly well represented in this title.

What I particularly liked is the inclusion of extensive appendices (A through I) at the back of the book. One appendix in particular, emphasises the age-old tradition of note-making and keeping, sketching and the like; an activity of great importance even in this age of instant digital gratification.

The text is quite generously illustrated in monochrome, though some of the images could have come out better, they are certainly good enough not to distract or confuse the interested reader. All in all, Binocular Stargazing is a highly recommended book for binocular enthustiasts, and I for one will continue to enjoy dipping in and out of it in the future.

Exhibit H: Touring the Universe Through Binoculars: A Complete Astronomer’s Guidebook.

Author: Philip S. Harrington

Publisher: Wiley

ISBN: 978-1620456361

Price: £18.34

1990, pp 306

It is hard to believe that nearly 30 years has gone by since the publication of Philip Harrington’s, Touring the NIght Sky with Binoculars. Back then, I was still an undergraduate with only a 7 x 50 porro prism binocular and a 60mm classic refractor to explore the night sky. Pluto was still a planet and the first CCD imaging pioneers were beginning to tinker with their crude chips to obtain electronic images of the celestial realm; most were still using photographic film. And while amatuer astronomy has changed beyond measure in only three decades, Harrington’s book provides solid evidence that some texts will never go out of fashion.

The preface of this now classic text reveals the modus operandi of the author, who admits that the book was primarily written for himself! Giving an honourable mention to Garrett P. Serviss’ 1888 work, Astronomy with an Opera Glass, Harrington weaves together an enormous body of field knowledge, which both complements and far exceeds the collective wisdom of his distinguished Victorian predecessor.

Harrington was one of the earliest amateur astronomers to call attention to the considerable advantages of using two eyes, explaining that gains of up to 40 per cent can be achieved in resolving fainter, low-contrast deep sky objects. This much is made clear in the short introduction to the book, but the march of time has thoroughly vindicated his binocular evangelism, as evidenced by the great popularity of binoviewing, as well the growth of binocular astronomy in general among the global amateur community.

The book, as Harrington makes clear, is actually a collection of concise notes which he himself compiled in his adventures under the night sky. Eschewing any discussion on equipment, the author launches into fabulous discussions of the Moon, Sun, planets and minor bodies of the solar system, before wading into the pantheon of objects existing far beyond our shores. Beginning in Chapter 7, Harrington provides concise but highly accurate depictions of a sumptuous listing of deep sky objects:- stars, open clusters, nebulae and galaxies, as seen in a variety of binoculars, both large and small.

In a departure from most other authors, Harrington recommends the 7 x 50 above the 10 x 50 as the best all round instrument for hassle-free binocular observing, but it is also evident that he has gained a considerable amount of experience behind a larger 11 x 80 instrument. Every constellation in the heavens is discussed separately, rather than approaching the subject from a season by season perspective. This works supremely well, being more reminscent of Robert Burnham Junior’s three volume work, Burnham’s Celestial Objects, than anything else.

While this hardback text was not designed to be used in the field, it is an indispensible work for planning and reflecting upon the sights seen on a clear, dark night. I find myself using it to compare and contrast it to my own observations and notes and to challenge myself to see more with a given instrument.

Remarkably, any discussions on binoculars per se are reserved for short appendices at the back of the book. Like all truly seasoned observers, Harrington avoids making specific recommendations, emphasing that one can do a great deal with modest equipment. Appendix B in particular, discusses how resourceful amateurs have hobbled together exceptional mounting strategies that greatly increase the comfort of viewing through truly giant binoculars, featuring such individuals as Norm Butler, Jerry Burns and John Riggs, to name but a few.

Although technology has certainly moved on (just look at the quaint photographs used to illustrate the text!) since Harrington first collated the work for this text, it is unlikely to be superceded by anything in the modern age. Indeed, it remains, for me, the definitive volume of binocular astronomy and shall continue to hold a special place in my astronomical library. Thoroughly recommended!

Concluding Words:

Just like in the case of telescopes, we are fortunate to live at a time in history where quality binoculars can be had for relatively small amounts of money. There is a bewildering number of models available to suit everyone’s budget, and even the least expensive units are immeasurably superior to the naked eye. But as all the authors of these books make clear, what is most important is that one gets out under a starry sky and use the instrument. Of course, one can decide to avoid the collective wisdom of these writers, but it will most likely lead the researcher down many dead ends (I speak from the well of my own experience), where one is tempted to keep buying ever ‘better’ models in the mistaken belief that grass is really greener on the other side. Unfortunately, this is largely the state of affairs on our telescope and astronomy internet forums, where folk seem to be more interested in a said instrument than actually using it. This is highly regrettable; indeed it is a very real kind of poverty, missing, as it were, the woods for the trees, but it can easily be countered by just getting on with the equipment we have.

I hope you have found these mini-reviews of some use and I do hope that amateurs everywhere will avail of these well thought out resources, written by people who have a real passion for observing the night sky and for sharing their knowledge with others.

Postscriptum:

Was it something I said?

Folk fae the fora having a guid chinwag about ‘binocular’, ‘pairs of binoculars’ etc.

Changin’ culture ken.

De Fideli.

 

 

Observing the Super Blood Wolf Moon.

Keeping it simple for the January 2019 Lunar Eclipse.

 

Date: January 21 2019

Time: 00:05UT

Yeehaw! The skies have remained clear this evening and things are looking great for tonight’s total lunar eclipse. What a difference that makes to the total washout we had here for the last one, which occurred on the evening of July 27 2018!

Okeydokey. What exactly is a Super Blood Wolf Moon?

It’s a Super Moon because the event occurs when the Moon is significantly closer to us than normal, making our natural satellite bigger and brighter than at other times.

It will be a Wolf Moon as it simply denotes a full Moon in January. The connection with wolves is a little harder to pin down, as these largely nocturnal critters are often heard howling at night and often in the direction of the Moon.

Finally, a Blood Moon indicates the coppery colour the Moon turns in mid-eclipse as it enters the Earth’s shadow, when sunlight gets refracted (bent) as it passes through its atmosphere, casting an eerie ruddy hue on the lunar surface.

Timing of the Eclipse:

Starts 02:36 UT

Partial Starts 03:33 UT

Total Starts 04:41 UT

Maximum 05:12 UT

Total Ends 05:43 UT

Partial Ends 06:50 UT

Ends 07:48 UT

 

Conditions as of 00:13UT

Dry, no wind, very cold, 0 C, a wee bit hazy, reducing transparency just a tad. Moon currently transiting the meridian.

Instrument used: 10 x 50 roof prism binocular mounted on a monopod for additional stability and comfortable viewing. Binoculars were made for watching the full Moon, an activity I’ve been enjoying these last few months. I don’t normally observe the Moon when it’s full but binoculars have made it a very worthwhile exercise, especially on nights when some cloud banks cover it. Refraction of Moonrays often produces wonderful displays of colour which are thrilling to observe with ordinary binoculars. My family will join me later during mid-eclipse. My wife will likely reach for her compact 8 x 25 Opticron LEs and the boys will likely be making use of my general purpose, 8 x 42 wide-angle roof prism binocular.

The author’s 10 x 50 binos atop a lightweight monopod.

10 x 50 binoculars are ideal for watching lunar eclipses as they offer decent image scale and a wide field of view for observing stars in the vicinity of the phenomenon.

I hope to estimate the brightness of the mid-eclipse Moon by turning the binocular around and looking through the objective lenses. This reduces the size of the Moon to something much more like a bright star and so is a useful and simple way to compare it to familiar bright winter stars.

I also hope to rate the colour of the umbral shadow, using the five point system devised by the French astronomer, A. Danjon, who proposed the following schema;

L=0 denoting a very dark eclipse, with the Moon almost invisible at mid totality.

L= 1 denoting a dark eclipse, with grey or brownish colourations but with lunar details only discerned with difficulty.

L= 2 denoting a deep red or rusty colouration, with a darker central area and progressively brighter near the lunar edges.

L= 3 denoting a brighter, redder eclipse often with yellowish colours appearing  near the edge.

L= 4 denoting the very brightest eclipse, when the Moon is a coppery red colour, often occurring with prominent bluish shadow rims.

Are we learning Iblis?

Time: 02:28 UT

Conditions remaining good as the eclipse begins. Moon now high in the western sky, a light easterly breeze has started up, bringing some sparse cloud with it. Arcturus rising in the eastern sky; Capella sinking in the west.

Time: 03:37 UT

Partial eclipse now underway; darkening of the limb clearly visible. Thin cloud has moved in and the breeze is still here but lunar visibility still fair to good.

 

Time: 03:48

Moon looks like the Deathstar out of Starwars through the 8 x 25 compact.

Time: 04:02 UT

Some faster moving cloud has rolled in. Amazing display from the clouds in colour and in texture as they move across the face.

04:26 UT

Coppery glows readily seen now. Time to wake the troops.

05:00: UT

Just a few minutes from maximum eclipse. Visibility now very poor, looks like a L=1, but there is also significantly thicker cloud cover. No stars visible for brightness estimate.

Troops a bit underwhelmed.

05:11 UT

Prominent coppery tones from southern hemisphere, brighter near northern limb. Lunar regolith pretty difficult to discern. Visibility quite poor.

Away to bed.

January 22 2019

Postscript: Thoroughly enjoyed the long build up. But as mid-totality approached, the clouds had built up to such an extent that the Moon could only be seen intermittently. The boys found the eclipsed Moon to be quite eerie looking but seeing it well in binoculars or using the naked eye was always interrupted by the encroach of cloud from the west. This cloud formed the basis of a weather system which caused it to rain for most of the day yesterday. My wife thought the event was cool but, like me, she felt that she had witnessed better lunar eclipses in the past.

The apperance of the eclipsed moon looked very much this fine depiction created by veteran sky watcher, David Gray, who is based just a few hundred miles south of our location, only that the details on the lunar regolith were far more subdued owing to the smaller apertures (50mm in our case) employed.

 

De Fideli.

 

 

Resolving Close Double Stars in a 12″ f/5 Dob during Cold Winter Weather.

Doudecim: the author’s 12″ f/5 Dob with a 8 x 50 achromatic finder astride.

 

Description of the Instrument:

Revelation Dobsonian, 305mm aperture with a focal length of 1525mm ( f/5)

Secondary mirror: 70mm minor axis, corresponding to a central obstruction of 22.9%

Primary and secondary mirror origin:  GSO

Primary mirror thickness(measured): 36mm (1.5″)

Mirror cell design: 9 point floatation system.

Both primary and secondary mirrors re-coated with enhanced HiLux coatings each with 97 per cent reflectivity.

Tube: Rollled aluminium, internally lined with a thin layer of cork and overlaid with standard flocking material.

Focuser: 2 speed Crayford style

Length of acclimation from room temperature to ambient: ~2 hours.

Fans used: none.

Finder: standard, straight-through  Revelation 8 x 50 model.

Method of collimation: collimation cap and Chesire eyepiece, verified with Hotech laser collimator.

Time required for precise collimation: 2 minutes.

Introduction:

The reflecting telescope reigns supreme in the 21st century as the telescope of choice for serious students of nearly all disciplines of amateur and professional astronomy. The reason is simple; in the case of Newtonians in particular,  they are, far easier to fabricate and mass produce than any other kind of telescope on the market, and are offered at sensible prices, allowing many people to fruitfully engage with the hobby. Today, an amateur can acquire a truly large telescope thanks to great advances in material science, where a thin layer of aluminium is vacuum deposited onto a carefully figured parabolic glass substrate, avoiding the problem of chromatic and spherical aberrations almost completely.

These days, it is not uncommon for an amateur to own extremely large aperture reflectors – in the 12 to 30 inch aperture class – at prices that don’t cost the earth. The development of the refractor, in contrast, has been severely retarded by the great difficulty and huge expense in producing optics of even moderate aperture. How many amateurs own an 8, 10 or 12 inch refractor? A little researching will soon reveal that very few of us would be willing to shell out the relatively enormous sums of money demanded by the few opticians willing to make them and even professional astronomers would laugh at the suggestion of replacing a large Newtonian or Cassegrain reflector to fund the installation of say a 10 or 12-inch ‘state-of-the art’ apochromat. As a case in point, this author vividly remembers an especially zealous refractor nut who openly called for the alumni of Universities to fund the installation of one such refractor. Not surprisingly, his clarion call fell on deaf ears.

Folk ain’t stupid.

While the Newtonian reflector has deservedly enjoyed a huge following from dedicated planetary and deep sky observers, their use in double star study has been artificially stunted by three decades of nefarious propaganda, instigated by individuals who clearly have little clue about how they behave when properly adjusted and acclimated. Like I said before, it’s easy to get a small refractor to ‘beat’ a large Newtonian if the latter is not adjusted correctly or has not been given enough time to cool down to ambient temperatures, but that hardly constitutes a fair test. Worse still, a subsection of the amateur community dismiss the Newtonian merely because they don’t look as ‘sexy’ as a long, slender refractor. Such individuals have reduced the hobby to something more akin to pornography than anything else. And you don’t have to look long to find it; check out the hysteria over this peashooter, for example. Has anyone not told them that a good 130mm f/5 or 6″ f/8 Newtonian would leave it in the dust, and for about half the price? Like moths to a lamp, they always seem to attract the same motley crew.

As a keen student of the history of astronomy, I have come across many cases where large Newtonian reflectors were used productively to pleasurably observe, or in some cases, even discover new double and multiple star systems. One need only look at the work of such luminaries as Sir William Herschel, Warren De la Rue, Sir William Lassell, the Reverend T.W Webb, William Denning and T.H.E.C. Espin, to name but a few, to see that the Newtonian reflector has been a very productive telescope in the divination of double stars, both for pleasure and for scientific gain. The archives of these historical figures reveal many extraordinary feats of resolution achieved with the Newtonian telescope.  And it is to these individuals that this author has turned to for guidance and inspiration.

Having left the world of small refractors behind, apart from my fabulous achromatic binos and my little ShortTube 80, I set out on an ambitious program of field testing Newtonian reflectors of ever increasing size, having gained intimate experience with the behaviour of the said telescopes in the 3, 5 and 8 inch range, firmly establishing that they are excellent double star instruments. What is more, this author has found through his own experience that a good 8 inch f/6 Newtonian reflector is a much better double star telescope than an optically excellent long focus classical refractor of 5 inch aperture and f/12 relative aperture.

These personal discoveries have led me to more closely investigate the performance of an even larger Newtonian reflector, a standard 12-inch f/5 Dobsonian, which has not enjoyed nearly as much field use than it should have since it was first acquired a few years ago. The limelight was firmly stolen by the smaller instruments, which are easier to deploy in the field, acclimate faster and are less sensitive to the vagaries of the atmosphere, but no more so than with a refractor, or indeed, any other kind of telescope, of the same size. That being said, I have enjoyed many wonderful nights where the traditional bugs that attend Newtonians were either minimal or non-existent, allowing me to obtain truly spectacular views of a suite of double stars traditionally considered ‘tricky’ by my astronomical peers.

In this capacity, this short blog will exemplify the techniques used and the results obtained in observing double stars with such a large, fast telescope.

Method:

What follows is a report of one night- January 8 2019 – between 22:00 and 23:10 UT

Ambient temperature: 0C at 22:00 UT falling to -1C by the end of the vigil at 23:10UT

Conditions: Slightly hazy, no wind, steady atmosphere (Antoniadi II), very cold.

The telescope was brought out from a warm, dry, indoor environment and left to passively cool for 2 hours before the commencement of observations. Though it is fully acknowledged that cooling fans can accelerate the acclimation process and help scrub away the boundary layer on the primary mirror, no such fans were used in keeping with the procedures of the aforementioned historical figures, none of whom had access to (or knowledge of) such fans.

Observer; suitably attired for cold weather observing; several layers of clothing; vest, jumper, overcoat, hand gloves, hat( me ole beanie). No dew shield used.

The following systems were examined in the 12″ f/5 Dob:

Theta Aurigae; a greatly unequal double, primary (A) , magnitude 2.6, secondary (B) magnitude 7.2. Separation 4″.

Iota Cassiopeiae: Triple system: AB- magnitudes 4.6 and 4.9 separated by 2.6″

AC: magnitudes 4.6 & 9, separation 7.1″

Eta Orionis: AB: magntidues 3.6 and 4.9; separation: 1.6″

Eta Geminorum (Propus): AB: magntidues 3.1 and 6, separation ~1.7″

52 Orionis: Classic Dawes pairing; AB equal 6th magnitude components, 1″ separation.

All systems observed either naturally or using a Baader single polarizing filter which cuts glare and increases contrast without imparting a colour shift to the stellar components.

Power employed: 277x throughout (Meade Series 5000 5.5mm UWA ocular).

Results:

The telescope resolved all 5 systems beautifully. The enormous resolving power and light gathering capability of the 30.5cm Newtonian made observing them especially thrilling. While there were many moments during the observations where the stellar images broke up or swelled slightly, there were also many opportunities where the images came together, producing text-book perfect results. As aperture increases, the size of the Airy disk shrinks, allowing the faint, close in companions to be more readily seen.

Iota Cassiopiae was quite simply stunning! All three stars appeared very bright and round as buttons in the 12 inch telescope at 277x. I have not personally experienced a better view of this triple system. Unequal pairs were always more challenging owing to the glare of the primary components, but still readily observed.

Propus(Eta Geminorum); is a particularly difficult system to crack, but on this evening the faint close-in companion presented better than I have ever seen it in my 8″ f/6 Newtonian at any power; the sheer resolving superiority of the 12 inch instrument clearly strutting its stuff.

A polarizing filter screwed into the bottom of the 1.25″ ocular significantly improved the aesthetic of the images by reducing glare and increasing contrast (read darker sky hinterland) very reminscent of a large refractor. Indeed, the filter made it significantly easier to prize the faint companion of Propus and Theta Aurigae in the same instrument.

The closest pairing observed on this evening – 52 Orionis – produced an image that was in a completely different league to any of the smaller Newtonians I have enjoyed testing. The components were much brighter, easier to see with lots of dark space between the components.

All in all; a very good short session under the starry heaven!

Discussion:

The Newtonian reflector has clearly come along way since it was first conceived of by Isaac Newton in the late 1600s. And while speculum metal allowed great gains to be made in both amateur and professional astronomy circles, it may surprise some readers just how far the reflector has been intelligently re-designed ever since those glory days of the past. Did you know, for example, that according to the studies of Dr. Wolfgang Steinicke, an expert on the telescopes at Birr Castle, that the 72 inch Leviathan of Parsonstown had a light gathering power equivalent to a modern, state-of-the-art 25 inch Newtonian reflector [see my book Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy,  as well as chapter 7 of William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse: Astronomy and the Castle in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Charles Mullan ed. 2016)]. Seen in this light, this author considers himself very fortunate indeed to have acquired such a great telescope as the 12 inch f/5 Dob for just a few hundred pounds( it was second hand).

The reader should note that these results are not at all exceptional. Indeed, the author has clocked up many similar nights where the full power of the 12 inch can be pressed into service. Neither is the author out to set any records; the closest pair thus far resolved has only been ~ 0.7″ but the same instrument is fully capable of resolving significantly closer pairs should he wish to pursue them. These results are wholly consistent with the historical archives of many of the early observers mentioned in the introduction, who managed to split extraordinarily close pairs with telescopes of broadly equivalent aperture. For example, T.W. Webb was able to resolve the components of Eta Coronae Borealis using his silver-on-glass 9.5 inch f/8 With-Berthon Newtonian, which had a separation of 0.55″ in the 1870s. Such results make it patently clear that such work can be acheived with larger Newtonians, with excellent results.

Focusing is very challenging in such a fast telescope as the f/5 Reveation Dob. The author very much appreciates the fine focus on the dual-speed Crayford that came with the ‘scope. At f/5 it is a very worthwhile tool in attaining the most precise focus possible.

Filters, such as the Baader single polarizer, are very useful in attaining the right balance between image brightness and contrast. The advantage of using the latter filter is that it does not impart a colour shift to the stellar images, allowing the observer to record the pure colours of the component stars. Using a blue filter will also help resolve the very tightest pairs, as the resolving power of the telescope scales inversely as the wavelength of light used to probe the system. When you have access to such a large telescope, it collects so much light that productive work with even deeply coloured(read low transmittance) filters becomes very worthwhile.

As always, the author would encourage others who have access to such a large Dobsonian to give such systems a try. When careful attention is givien to both collimation and acclimation, the sky’s really the limit!

Thanks for reading and keep looking up!

 

If you liked this blog and wish to support the author, please consider buying a copy of his new book: Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, newly published by Springer-Nature(available in both hardback or electronic formats).

 

De Fideli.

 

 

For the Record.

Plotina: raising the bar for grab ‘n’ go astronomy.

 

2018 was not an unusual year here in Scotland, as astronomical observing and associated note-making are concerned.

Total number of nights where observations were made in 2018: 137

Percentage of nights available for observation in 2018: 37.5 per cent.

This is in accord with the claims of several British historical observers; T.W Webb, William F. Denning & Charles Grover.

For more details on this interesting topic, see my new book: Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

De Fideli

A Winter Adventure with a 130mm f/5 Newtonian.

Plotina; the author’s 130mm f/5 Newtonian doing its stuff under a Christmas sky.

Sunday, December 23 2018

With the Christmas holidays now upon us, we were lucky enough to enjoy a beautiful  winter day, with clear blue skies illumined by a feeble Sun. This time of year, darkness falls very early, well before supper time, and as luck would have it, the sky remained clear after dark. I decided to field my trusty 130mm f/5 reflector, mounting the telescope on an old Vixen Porta II mount at about 4.00pm local time, and let it cool down to ambient temperatures, which had already reached 0 C by sunset. Accompanying the telescope was a 8 x 42 roof prism binocular, used for finding fainter objects more quickly than with the telescope and its finder alone.

The cold weather was never a concern though; afterall, the telescope has strutted its stuff many times in sub-zero temperatures, as I’ve described in many previous blogs. At 4.45pm I began my observations with a look at the Red Planet, Mars, which by now had greatly receded from the Earth, but at least had now reached a very decent altitude in the south. Inserting a Parks Gold 7.5mm eyepiece coupled to a Meade 3x achromatic Barlow lens yielding a power of 260 diameters, I was greeted by a tiny little salmon-pink orb, quite obviously gibbous in cast, with a few dark markings visible across its surface. The view was good and steady and very satisfying given the great distance to which it had receded to since its glory days during the summer, when the planet swelled to an enormous size as seen through the same telescope.

But what I was really after this evening was a suite of double stars, my staple observational targets for many years now. Having abandoned small refractors and Maksutovs for the greater efficacy of the 5.1 inch Newtonian reflector, I turned the instrument on Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae, a summer favourite, but still suitably placed for observation in the early evenings of December. Keeping the same eyepiece and Barlow in the focuser, I obtained a wonderful, text-book perfect split of all four components. And though I had seen such an apparition more times than I care to remember, it still brought a broad smile to my face to see these old friends in a Christmas sky.

From there, I moved over to Delta Cygni, a much better test of atmospheric turbulence than the four stars of Epsilon Lyrae. Carfeully centring and focusing the bright white luminary, I obtained an excellent and stable image of the faint, close-in companion at 260x. It was at that point I knew that conditions were good enough to attempt the trickier targets that were lining up in the sky.

Moving the telescope further west, I could see bright Altair, so I tried my hands at the difficult and faint Pi Aquliae nearby, which I first reconnoitred with the 8 x42, before centring it in the 6 x 30 finder ‘scope of the main telescope. Keeping the power at 260x, I achieved a reasonable split of these fairly closely matched components but I could see that it was noticeably inferior to how it looked in the late summer and early autumn, when it was higher up in southern skies. Still, I was well chuffed to have bagged this system so late in the season.

Moving several degrees east into the diminutive but lovely constellation of Delphinus, I immediately aimed for the jewel of the celestial Dolphin; Gamma Delphini. The 5.1″ reflector made light work of this easy but fetching double star which was best seen at 118x using my Meade 5.5mm Ultra-wide angle eyepiece. From there, I sped over to Cygnus again and quickly located the multiple star, o^1 Cygni using the 8 x 42. Training the telescope on the system brought another huge smile to my face, as the beautiful and wide colour constrast triple system came to a perfect focus, their tiny Airy disks and faint first diffraction rings calmly presenting themselves in the frigid air.

After that, I panned the telescope eastward until I centred Almach (Gamma Andromedae) in the 118x eyepiece and was greeted with a beautiful split of this comely, colour-contrast double star. Even after all these years of observing it, it never ceases to inspire me! “That was easy,” I said to myself, ” but let’s have a go at a much more tricky system.” With that thought I trained my binocular at a patch of sky in eastern Cygnus, specificially looking for a faint pair of stars, the brighter of which was Mu Cygni. Quickly aligning the telescope on the same patch of sky, I inserted the 260x eyepiece-Barlow combination described earlier and carefully focused. Voila! There it was; a wonderful text-book perfect split of this very close binary system, with the wider, fainter star visible in the same field comprising the triple.

Finally, I visited the endlessly lovely Albireo, now fairly low in the western sky. Needless to say, it was a sight for sore eyes. It’s true; some of the most beautiful objects in the night sky are the easiest to access!

So far, so good. I took a break for a few hours, enjoying a good, traditional Christmas roast with my family, keeping the telescope in an unheated outhouse all the while, so as to allow me to quickly engage with the night sky. Beginning again around 10:15pm, with the bright Moon having risen in the sky and the temperatures having dropped to -2C, I  started in Orion, which at the time of observation, had still not culiminated in the south. Hoping for a continuation of the steady skies experienced earlier in the evening, I trained the 130mm Newtonian on mighty Rigel. Slightly anxious, I carefully focused the bright white luminary in the 118x eyepiece and was relieved to see that the primary Airy disc was small, round and virtually free of turbulence. And there beside it was the tiny spark from its feeble, close-in companion. It was a beguiling sight!

From there I moved a wee bit to the northeast and centred Eta Orionis.This is a more difficult pair to resolve and so requires higher powers to tease apart. But at 260x it was easy; the two stars, plain white to my eye, appeared roughly east to west in orientation.

By now, mighty Auriga, the Charioteer, had risen to a great altitude, high in the east, and so I turned the telescope on its most prestigious double star; Theta Aurigae. The telescope made light work of this tricky system, the faint, steely grey companion being stably held in the frosty air.

A night of winter double star observing could never be complete without a quick look at Castor A & B in Gemini. Just east of the bright, near-full Moon, I had to battle with the glare a bit before centring the system in my 6 x 30 finder ‘scope. But at 260x, the twin white stars, pure as the driven snow, was a msemerizing sight in the telescope; the Airy disks small and round as buttons, each surrounded by a single, faint diffraction ring.

Finally, I thought I would try my hand at 36 Andromedae, which was first found with a bit of ferreting around using the 8 x 42 binocular. And sure enough, I was able to split this 1 arc second, near equally bright pair in the telescope without much effort at 260x. However, it was better seen using the higher power of a 4.8mm T1 Nagler eyepiece coupled to the same 3x Barlow yielding 408x. I was mightily impressed with just how good and stable the image remained as it shot across the field of view at this ultra-high power.

Vigil ended shortly before 11pm local time.

What a great night!

Simple pleasures with a simple telescope!

The stuff dreams are made of.

 

De Fideli.

Product Review: The Barr & Stroud Sierra 10×50 Roof Prism Binocular.

The Barr & Stroud Sierra 10 x 50 binocular with peripheral eyeshields.

 

There has never been a better time for the binocular enthusiast. Nowadays, a huge range of models are available that offer high quality optics for nature studies, birding and astronomy. Doubtless, this revolution is wrought by advances in technology; better glass, better coatings,  as well as steady progress in materials science. Greater competition among the various optics houses also helps drive prices down, so that many more people can take advantage of this new technological wave; and that is good news for a multitude of hobbyists.

I recently described my very favourable impressions of a new instrument; the Barr & Stroud Sierra 8 x 42 roof prism binocular, which offers excellent optics, good weather proofing, great compactness and very light weight compared with my old, well-worn 7 x 50 porro-prism binocular, which had served me well for three decades. The 8 x 42 is an ideal instrument for daytime applications, where its decent light gathering power and efficient transmission of light to the eye, yields images that have great colour fidelity and excellent contrast. As I also explained, the 8 x 42 can be used productively for night-time applications, where it offers good performance within the remit of its aperture.

Still, as good as the 8 x 42 is, I felt I was missing out a little were I to use the instrument for specialised deep sky viewing, compared with slightly larger instruments that have long been the staple of the binocular astronomy enthusiast; I wanted to be able to do binocular astronomy using only a binocular; under its own terms.

Enter the venerable  10 x 50. And that prompted me to seek out a high quality instrument that I could almost exclusively dedicate to night sky use. A good 10 x 50 would gain about about a half a visual magnitude over the 8 x 42 and its slightly higher magnification would be advantageous for pulling out faint deep sky objects that are not so well seen with the smaller binocular.  I had heard some great things about the Nikon Aculon 10 x 50 porro prism binocular and I seriously thought about acquiring it, since it seemed to offer a lot of bang for the buck, but when I considered its weight- 898g, it seemed rather on the heavy side. You see for me, weight is a brute fact: the heavier the binocular, the less I would likely use it.

Deeply impressed by the way the compact 8 x 42 handled various situations, I looked again for a roof prism model offering 10 x 50 specifications and it wasn’t long before my interest was piqued by the Barr & Stroud Sierra 10 x 50 roof prism binocular, which I felt was very reasonably priced. So I took the plunge and ordered one up.

Just like the 8 x 42, the 10 x 50 Sierra arrived very well packaged in an attractive box. The same soft, black carry case housed the binocular, as well as receiving the neat 10-year warranty card and single page instruction sheet.

The 10 x50 Sierra binocular in its soft carry case.

 

The binocular is very well built, with a strong, rigid bridge that is not easily moved once the proper interpupillary distance was set. Ditto for the diopter setting, which is quite stiff and thus not likely to budge in field use. Like the 8 x 42, the unit is o-ring sealed and purged with dry nitrogen gas making it fog and weatherproof (water resistant up to 1.5m for three minutes), Its weight is considerably lower than the Aculon; just 780g. The focuser is smooth and firm to the touch and offers an excellent close focus distance of just 2.5 metres (tested). It also has rubberised caps to protect both the objective lenses and the eyepieces. What’s more, they can be permanently affixed to the binocular so they won’t get lost in a hurry.

The 10 x 50 Sierra is fully multi-coated and the prisms are phase coated for optimum field performance.

 

Like the  8 x 42 Sierra, the 10 x 50 unit features fully multi-coated optics and the BaK-4 roof prisms are phase coated to maximise image brightness, contrast and colour fidelity.

Very nicely designed oculars ensure comfortable viewing, either with or without eye glasses. Note; the oculars are shown fitted with eyeshield peripheral shades (purchased separately).

The eyecups can be twisted upwards for use without eyeglasses, or can be kept fully down if oe decides to use them with eyeglasses.

Eye relief is very generous 17.8mm and the field of view offered is just under 6 angular degrees.

Full details of the 10 x 50 Sierra can be viewed here.

The very same afternoon the 10 x 50 Sierra arrived, I took off on my long country walk to see how they performed during daylight hours. The first thing I noticed was their additional weight; fully 130g heavier than the 8 x 42 Sierra. After a few miles of walking with the instrument hanging around my neck, I experienced significantly greater back strain than I was accustomed to carrying the lighter 8 x 42. This was fully expected however and affirmed my conviction that 8 x 42 would better serve me during daylight hours.

I fully expected a little more chromatic aberration, given the specifications of the 10 x 50 and this was confirmed by focusing on a distant hilltop against a bright overcast sky. Still, it was very minimal and perfectly acceptable. Certainly, it would never be enough for me to consider a model with ED glass; that would be overkill to say the least! The images served up by the 10 x 50 were beautiful, crisp and bright, with great colour fidelity and excellent contrast, although it was immediately acknowledged that I would be sacrificing some field of view over the 8 x 42.

While using the 8 x 42 for prolonged periods during my daily walks, I noticed that on bright days, light entering my peripheral vision was causing some annoying glare to seep in. This had nothing to do with the type or make of binocular but merely reflected an operational issue while using any binocular. Thankfully, I found a great solution; enter Eyeshields produced by a US-based company called Field Optics Research.

A good product for any binocular user. Eyeshields by Field Optics Research.

 

Costing £25 delivered, I received two pairs (one for the 8 x 42 and the other for the 10 x 50) of eyeshields which fit snugly onto the oculars and can be deployed at a moment’s notice. They remain permanently affixed to the eyepieces and fold down when not in use. Another neat feature of the EyeShields is that you can still use the rubberised dust caps with them on. They do a simple job, shileding your peripheral vision from stray light, but also stop wind-driven dust from accumulating on the oculars. They work really well, effectively eliminating the said glare I was encountering during my observations. Though a bit costly for what they really are- rubber eyeshields in a tin box lol –  I can certainly vouch for their effectiveness and would highly recommend them to any binocular enthusiast.

One thing caught my attention though: I noticed that the company state that the product is “patent pending”. I don’t know if something like this can really be patented though. I mean, I have similar eyeshields which came with some of my older orthoscopic and Plossl eyepieces, so it’s hardly something truly novel.

The eyeshields very effectively block peripheral light entering the eye while using binoculars in bright ambient light settings.

Ad Astra

Though I acquired the binocular at the start of November 2018, I was not able to conduct star tests until the evening of November 7, owing to a prolonged bout of cloudy, damp and misty weather, typical for this time of year, which all but extinguished the light from the stars. Seeing some breaks in the clouds after dark stoked deep feelings of joy, and I immediately grabbed the 10 x 50 to begin my observations. My first impressions were very favourable. This cost-effective instrument served up beautiful views of the Pleaides, my first target in northern Taurus. I immediately appreciated the wonderful contrast of the instrument and could instantly make out many more fainter members than I could see with the 8 x 42. The increased image scale was quite significant too, framing the asterism very well in the field of view.

Two tests of the size of the field were conducted; first with the Hyades, which was quite simply stunning in the 10 x 50 and I was delighted to see that the main ‘V’ shaped configuration was nicely framed in the binocular field with a little room to spare. The field came alive with many sparkling jewels, brighter and more numerous than in the 8 x 42. Star colours seemed even more vivid too.  Since the main part of the Hyades is in excess of 5 angular degrees wide, this comported well with the field quoted in the specifications table.

In the second test, I was able to get brilliant white Rigel just inside the same field as the Orion Nebula (M42), a distance I estimated to be about 5.7 angular degrees, so quite close to what the manufacturer claimed. It’s nice when the stated specifications agree with experience!

At tightest focus, brilliant yellow Capella in Auriga showed no fringing of any sort that my average eyes could detect, and moving the brilliant autumn luminary to the edge of the field showed that it remained agreeably sharp and tight; perhaps even a tad better than the wider field offered up by the smaller 8 x 42. I reasoned that this was not to be unexpected, as it is easier to get a better corrected field as the field shrinks in size.

Sweeping the binocular through the heart of Auriga showed its clear superiority over the 8 x 42. The 3 Messier open clusters were easier to pull out from the background sky and I was also able to more easily see a number of other fainter nebulae that were mere suggestions in the smaller Sierra binocular.

As a resolution test, I steadied the binocular on the side wall of my house and aimed it at golden Albireo, now rather low in the northwestern sky. I believe I was just able to pick off its companion, something I have not been able to achieve using the 8 x 42 after several attempts.

The weight difference between the Sierra binoculars is immediately obvious under the painted canopy of the night sky. It is harder to hold the 10 x 50 steady, but I find that this is less important for large deep sky objects than it is for studying smaller targets like individual stars, where the wondrous creation of the human eye-brain seems to act as a natural image stabiliser. I found it beneficial to move my hands further forward in order to get a better grip of the objective end of the instrument while in field use. This strategy definitely helps me to get the most stable images from the 10 x 50 during prolonged (greater than 20 seconds or so) observations.

In another test, I compared the binocular views of M 35 in Gemini, which had cliimbed out of the eastern murk, reaching a decent height just after local midnight. While both binoculars easily showed the large, roughly wedge-shaped open cluster, its sub-optimal altitude enabled only a few stellar members to be made out in the 8 x 42 but many more were discernible with the larger 10 x 50.

Some other daylight tests:

Many inexpensive binoculars often come with misaligned prisms which cut off some of the light reaching the eye. This is especially true when the product comes via courier. I’ve had a large 15 x 70 binocular in the past that came badly misaligned, which made me far more cautious about buying a binocular online. Thankfully, this was not the case with the Barr & Stroud binoculars, which were all properly and securely collimated in the factory prior to dispatch.

A simple way to test this is to examine the shape of the exit pupil of the binocular when pointed at a bright light source. A square or non circular shaped light shaft is an easy way to show if the prisms are undersized (thus losing some light) or misaligned. As the photo below shows, the exit pupils of the 10 x 50 are round, as are the 8 x 42s,  indicating that all is well.

No sign of a squared off exit pupil on the Barr & Stroud binocular.

 

Like the 8 x 42 previously tested, the 10 x 50 showed little sign of pincushion distortion while examining the profile of a horizontal roof located about 100 yards distant.

Attaining binocular stability without sacrificing mobility

As I stated previously, binocular astronomy, for me, generally means hand-held viewing, without the need for tripods or other more elaborate kinds of mounts that just get in the way. That’s one of the reasons why I eventually grew disillusioned with large and heavy binoculars. But any 10 x 50 unit, whether roof- or porro prism-based, will eventually show its limitations in regard to attaining rock steady views of star fields, or for teasing apart tighter binocular double stars, or even for seeing the most detail on the Moon. One way round the problem is to stabilise the binocular on a fence or a wall, but this convenience is not always practicle, especially if you’re on the move. The best compromise is to use a lightweight monopod and it is to this device that I turned to in field testing.

One thing the reader must be made aware of is that roof prism binoculars will not, in general, be compatible with standard porro prism binocular tripod adapters. Many of these adapters might fit the roof prism binocular but the stalk will more often than not be too wide to attain the optimum interpupillary distance so important for the most comfortable, immersive views. To that end, I ordered up a smaller adapter especially designed for medium sized (up to 50mm aperture) roof prism binoculars. I elected to go for a well machined, high-quality unit marketed by Opticron (shown below).

The Opticron tripod adapter designed for medium sized roof prism binoculars.

Having acquired a monopod some time ago for use in landscape photography, I was eager to see how the binocular would fare using this configuration, so I began a set of field tests using this device to see if it would tick all the boxes.

The Opticron adapter mates to the 10 x 50 Sierra very well, enabling the correct interpupillary distance to be maintained.

A good fitting: the Opictron tripod adapter mates to the binocular perfectly and will allow the user to re-adjust the interpupillary distance for optimum field performance.

 

The binocular with its adapter readily screws into the monopod. The whole configuration is still very lightweight, ultraportable and is now ready for testing under the night sky.

The 10 x 50 Sierra securely mounted on the lightweight monopod.

To what degree will the monopod stabilise the images in the 10 x 50? Off the bat, it will yield images that are more stable than an image-stabilised (IS) binocular, without the attending arm strain, high cost and need for battery power, but will fall short of that generated by a tripod.

Shortly before local midnight on the evening of November 15 2018, I stuck my head out my back door to discover that the sky had cleared somewhat after a rainy spell. The air was grand and mild, and the Moon had set shortly after 11pm, yielding a fine, dark sky. Pleasantly surprised, I ran in and fetched the 10 x 50 atop the monopod. The Pleiades was very high up in the south; ideally placed for binocular viewing. Settling into my recliner, I was able to negotiate a very comfortable position with the monopod securely held against the ground. Centring the asterism in the field of view, I was dumb struck by how good the view was; a blizzard of blue white stars piercing through the canopy of night in a blaze of glory! The effect of stabilising the view makes an enormous difference to what you see. Some highly experienced binocular users claim that you can go up to a magnitude fainter if the image is stabilised. I don’t know whether that’s accurate or not, but what I can say is that it was a supremely joyful experience. I just lay there for twenty minutes in the dark feasting my eyes on the celestial apparition before me. During the spell, cloud patches of varying thickness marched across the sky, diminishing the brilliance of the Pleiads by varying degrees, but as they passed through the full splendour of the cluster reasserted itself.

I will add a strong ball & socket adapter to the monopod so that I can make angular adjustments to the binocular. That way, I will increase the viewing comfort that little bit more.

That was my first experience with the monopod; a first step. In time, I’ll take another.

November 17 2018:

After rummaging around in me ole box of tricks, I selected a good ball & socket adapter for the 10 x 50 binocular. Although I had a few of these handy, I elected to use one that could carry the 780g instrument with ease. My best one, shown below, can carry cameras and other equipment up to 2 kilos in weight.

An all-metal ball & socket adapter mated to the monopod with a 2 kilo carrying capacity.

 

It worked really well with the binocular in daylight tests. Indeed, it will give me yet another degree of freedom whilst conducting my observations of the night sky.

Another view of the ball & socket adapter mounted on the monopod.

 

So, there it is; I think I’m ready for another session under the stars. What attracts me to this arrangement is its sheer simplicity; increased stability, easy to carry, easy to manoeuvre, easy to store away!

Simplicity itself.

Round about 6pm local time, I ventured out to see if the clear spells we enjoyed during the afternoon had persisted. I was in luck. The 10 day old gibbous Moon was low in the southeast, still a couple of hours before meridian transit. Eagerly, I turned the 10 x 50 astride the monocular mount at it, focused, and then carefully assessed the image.

I was very pleased! Our 70 per cent illuminated satellite showed some wonderful detail, easily superior to the smaller 8 x 42. The prominent ray crater, Copernicus, stood out a mile, as did Clavius and Tycho in the southern highlands. Eratosthenes, Plato and Archimedes proved easy too. The Apennine Mountains were clearly seen running from northeast to southwest and the various maria; Tranquillitatis, Fecunditatis, Serentatis, Nubium and Imbrium were all beautifully presented. Some faint stars in the vicinity of the Moon were easily seen in the 10 x 50. Thin, whispy clouds often ran across the lunar countenance, acting like a natural filter and increasing contrast. The upper edge of the Moon had a very thin bluish hue, whereas its southern counterpart was similarly tinged yellow. I attributed this in the main part to atmospheric refraction owing to its fairly low altitude (20 degrees) at the time the observation was made. Even at its brightest, glare was really well supressed, just like the 8 x 42 Sierra.

The Moon really comes alive in the image-stabilised 10 x 50!

The observations were conducted just standing up with the monopod, and I was able to tweak its pointing accuracy by making small adjustments to the ball & socket bearing. Turning over to the east, I aimed the binocular at Alpha Persei and made some more adjustments to the ball & socket so as to obtain the most comfortable standing observation of the binocular field. Even in bright moonlight, the rich starfields around it were wonderful and sharp almost all the way out to the edge, with excellent contrast.

Final testing: November 18-20 2018

Guid graith.

With unsettled weather being the rule rather than the exception over the last few days, my final tests were mainly conducted on a bright gibbous Moon, now rising much higher in the sky than previously reported on November 17. Whether seated, reclining or standing, the monopod is an excellent platform for image stabilised binocular astronomy, as it’s very easy to find a supremely comfortable position to conduct observations for all altitudes, from the horizon to the zenith. The lunar images remain sharp, with high contrast and very little in the way of glare evident to my eye. The extra image scale (25%) over the 8 x 42 is immediately appreciated, allowing lunar details to be more easily discerned at a glance. Some brief spells observing star fields in bright moonlight also produced very satisfying results. Suffice it to say that I cannot wait for the Moon to get out of the sky so that I can enjoy the wonders of the winter dark with this little instrument.

I have just one quibble with the 10 x 50; the soft carry case is identical to that which came with the 8 x 42. The case is ideal for the latter but is a little too small for the larger 10 x 50. Not a big deal but it should be said.

The Barr & Stroud 10 x 50 is the ideal astronomy binocular, offering exceptional perfromance at a price that meets most folks’ budgets. It’s solid construction, quality optics and very attractive price makes it an exceptional value in today’s market. Indeed, in an age where it is so very easy to get carried away by gimmicks and clever marketing ploys that pressurize individuals to depart with relatively large amounts of money, it is very reassuring to know that one can acquire this level of performance for a very reasonable financial outlay.

I heartily recommend these binoculars to stargazers everywhere and hope that they will give the reader as much joy as they have given me.

Thanks for reading.

 

Neil English is writing a new book dedicated to the ShortTube 80 achromatic telescope.

 

De Fideli.

A Visual Extravaganza Under Dark Scottish Skies.

Looking east: sunrise over Wigtownshire.

 

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.

                                                                              Psalm 19:1

 

Contrary to what you may have heard in the past, the British Isles offer many outstanding places to observe the heavens. Sure, we don’t have vast deserts or majestic mountain ranges that ascend for miles into the sky, but we are truly blessed with many sparsely populated regions, where the activities of human civilisation are minimal. Having lived in Scotland for more than half of my life, I have been fortunate enough to discover many fine locations that offer both very dark skies and good seeing conditions. One such region lies in Wigtownshire, in the extreme southwest of Scotland, in the district known as Dumfries & Galloway.

Not far as the crow flies from the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, situated to the north of the Galloway Forest Park, the site offers nearly unobstructed views of the heavens from zenith to horizon in all cardinal directions. The gardens are decorated with beautiful beech and cherry trees, the leaves of which vibrantly radiate the rich colours of autumn during sunny spells. By day, there are many places to visit nearby, including the little town itself, famous for having more bookshops than any other in Scotland, as well as rugged country walkways and picturesque seaside villages that adorn the coastline all around the peninsula.

The nearby fishing village of Portpatrick on the west coast of the Rhins of Galloway.

 

During the four nights we spent there in mid-October 2018, we were fortunate enough to encounter long clear spells every night, and with a low-lying harvest Moon setting early, the skies became wonderfully dark, allowing the full glory of the northern heavens to manifest itself. Owing to its location near the sea, the skies here are regularly swept clear of particulates, which makes for exceptionally transparent conditions, ideal for astronomy.

The shores of Loch Ken, near Castle Douglas.

I took along my best travel ‘scope; a modified 130mm f/5 Newtonian, which has proven superior to a string of other, more traditional, travel ‘scopes I have enjoyed in the past, including a TeleVue 76 & 102, a classic TeleVue Genesis Fluorite F/5,  a PrimaLuceLab ED 90 and a variety of smaller Maksutovs in the 90 to 102mm aperture class. With very generous light grasp and resolution, the 5.1” Newtonian has proven to be an enormously versatile instrument for exploring the landscape by day and by night. I also brought along my recently acquired Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 roof prism binocular to soak up ultra-wide field vistas of the northern heavens that perfectly complement the more restricted field offered up by the telescope.

Plotina: the 130mm f/5 Newtonian travel ‘scope used to explore the northern heavens.

 

To get an idea of how good the skies are here, 8 members of the Pleaides are clearly visible to my average eyes once it rises to a decent altitude, as is the North American Nebula in Cygnus. In addition, a string of Messier objects in Auriga, Perseus, Cassiopeia and Pegasus are much more easily discerned visually than at home. The glory of the Milky Way, snaking its way roughly from east to west, is intensely bright here, so much so that at times I considered it a form of light pollution lol.

The patch of land where most of the observations were conducted, looking northeastward.

 

Clear skies come and go here all the time. For a few hours, they remain resolutely clear, then the clouds roll in off the Irish Sea, occluding the celestial realm for a spell before being swept away to the east. Although many calm spells occur at this site, watching the direction of smoke billowing upwards from the chimney of the cottage’s wood-burning stove, indicates that the prevailing winds are gentle and southwesterly in direction. In addition, the site is very quiet and peaceful, naturally arousing deep spritual feelings from within. In the wee small hours, only the sound of gentle breezes whistling through the trees breaks the silence.

The first night proved profitable for outreach. Although this was our third trip to the cottage, a change of ownership occurred earlier in the Summer, when a married couple with a young family underwent a home-coming of sorts, returning to the land of their youth. Their two boys instantly struck up a friendship with our lads, and so the evening started by showing them the rugged beauty of the Moon, now at first quarter phase, through the little telescope. Nearby Mars proved a little underwhelming though, as by this time it had receded greatly from the Earth in comparison to how it looked in August last, but they were still thrilled to see its little pink disk broiling in the low altitude air close to the southern horizon.

After enjoying some supper, I ventured out later in the evening when the Moon had set to show our guests, which now included the boys’ father, some of the showpieces of the deep sky with the 8 x 42 binocular and the telescope. The Andromeda Galaxy and its spooky satellite systems – M32 and M101 – made a big impression on them. For these objects I used the 25mm Celestron X-Cel LX eyepiece delivering a clean 2.3 degree true field at 26x. The dad was deeply moved with the Perseus Double Cluster, as were his sons, but I also gave them an opportunity to see M57 in Lyra and the beautiful colour-contrast double star, Albireo, well positioned high in the northwest sky in Cygnus. The owner was very surprised to learn that the telescope I had brought was quite inexpensive and seemed genuinely interested in acquiring one for himself.

The telescopic views were complemented by carefree scanning of the heavens with the 8 x 42 binocular. Showing them where to point the instrument, they gasped with sheer delight as they beheld the riot of stars centred on Alpha Persei, now high in the southeast, as well the way the binocular broke up the frothy Milky Way into myriad pinpoint stars against a coal-black sky. I don’t think the father had realised just how good the skies over his farmstead could be. I made it clear to him that he was very fortunate indeed to have such outstanding natural beauty on his doorstep!

The second day of our trip (October 16) started cloudy with some light drizzle, but as the day progressed the rain ceased and the clouds began to break up to leave a fine evening. I waited until the Moon was out of the sky before setting up the 130mm f/5 to observe M 15 in Pegasus. Having the 8 x 42 binocular hanging around my neck at all times, I was able to quickly zoom in on this fairly bright Messier object, first with the binocular, which presented the structure as a reasonably bright fuzzy star. By using averted vision, the size of M15 nearly doubled in size to more than half the size of the full Moon. Using averted vision with binoculars is a new activity for me but it certainly pays dividends! The great darkness and transparency of the air at our observing site enabled the decent light grasp of the telescope to be used productively and I was able to resolve a few dozen of its outlying stars using a 4.8mm T1 Nagler yielding 135x; a very tiny eyepiece by modern standards but a true marvel of optical engineering. Much more compact than M 13, the core of M 15 remained very bright and highly condensed, but as it floated through the huge field of view of the eyepiece with its fairly tight eye relief, I brought to mind its prodigious distance; 34,000 light years, far out in the halo of our galaxy.

From there I sped eastwards into Perseus to see how an improved sky would present the large open cluster M 34. Again, the binocular was used to locate the cluster first before centring it in the field low power (26x) field of view of the telescope. Even at 26x, the view was very impressive, with a sprinkling of 60 or so stars haphazardly strewn across a field of view roughly the same as the full Moon. The view was immeasurably improved using my trusty Parks Gold 7.5mm eyepiece (87x) which framed the entire cluster with just a little room to spare.

At 22:36UT I recorded an extraordinarily bright fireball, which was extremely long-lived, darting across the sky from north to south. At its brightest it was maybe twice the size of the full Moon and took approximately 4 seconds to fizzle out.

The 8 x 42s also made light work of tracking down the rather elusive face-on spiral galaxy, M 33 in Triangulum. At 26x in the 5.1″ the galaxy took on a ghostly cast in an interesting field of mostly 8th and 9th magnitude stars. To my eye, it looked for all the world like a planetary nebula more than a galaxy, with a slight greenish hue. Still, the extra darkness and improved transparency of the Wigtwonshire sky certainly added to the enjoyment of the view. I was particularly delighted by how well the little roof prism binocular could pick it up, as this object has a notoriously large size and low surface brightness.

With the time rapidly approaching local midnight, it was time to have a closer look at the magnificent Pleiades asterism in Taurus. For this target, the binocular proved the superior instrument, with its low power and generously wide field of view (7.33 angular degrees). Riding high in the eastern sky, it was quite simply stunning! Much of the cluster appeared to be enveiled in a fog-like nebulosity which gave it a rather life-like translucent appearance to my eye. No words come close to describiing the full glory of this extraordinary natural beauty and I spent several silent minutes just enjoying the spectacle.

I ended the vigil that evening by examining just a few double stars in the telescope. My notes from earlier years showed how good the site is for conducting high-resolution double star observing during the Summer months, but I wasn’t out to break any records. Suffice it to say that systems that have traditionally been described as ‘difficult’ in more conventional grab ‘n’ go telescopes are beautiful and easily rendered in this instrument. For example, I achieved a most excellent split of the triple system, Iota Cassiopeiae, now very high overhead, using my favourite tools in this telescope for carrying out such work; a 7.5mm Parks Gold coupled to a Meade 3x achromatic Barlow yielding 260x. The three stars were pinpoint sharp (a result of precise collimation using my Cheshire) and the subtle colour differences easily discerned to my eye. Almach (Gamma Andromedae) was gorgeous too at the same power, as was Polaris A & B and  Delta Cygni A & B.

Simply superb for tight double stars; the author’s 7.5mm  Parks Gold eyepiece coupled to a 3x Meade achromatic Barlow lens.

 

Newtonian telescopes are excellent diviners of double stars, an attribute that still appears to be lost on many contemporary amateurs. I have cultivated a theory to explain this anomaly. I suspect that many refractor enthusiasts (onlyists?), accustomed to the hassle-free observing with small refractors, never properly learn how to collimate Newtonians(it does take a while to fully learn the skill!) and, as a result, they attribute their mediocre performance in this regard to other factors and not to badly aligned optics. It’s just a hunch, but I have good reasons to believe it!

With the Moon setting later in the evening of October 17, I gave the telescope a rest and just enjoyed the 8 x 42 binocular. Up until fairly recently, I had forgotten just how wonderful it is to use such a small and lightweight instrument on its own terms. My first target was the magnificent Double Cluster (Caldwell 14) now very high in the eastern sky, as well as the less well-known open clusters surrounding it including the fairly large Stock 2(~1 degree), found by following a curvy chain of stars northwards, away from the twin clusters, and the small and compact (~10’) NGC 957. The binocular view provides a unique perspective that just can’t be replicated in even the smallest rich field telescope.

From there I sought out Kemble’s Cascade, tucked away under Perseus in neighbouring Camelopardalis. A steady hand is a great virtue when deriving the most out of this remarkable linear arrangement of mostly 8th and 9th magnitude suns. Though the cluster is well seen from my home further north, the darker and more transparent skies here made it all the more thrilling to study. For me, binoculars are almost always about hand-held instruments, but I found it beneficial to steady the view on the wooden farm gate on the grounds, where I was able to distinctly make out the small foggy patch denoting the open cluster NGC 1502, where the cascade abruptly terminates.

A little achromatic pair.

 

Though not the best season to explore M 81 and M82 in Ursa Major (they are much higher in the sky in the Spring as seen from the UK), they were very easy to locate in the 8 x 42 binocular despite the constellation’s fairly low altitude in the northern sky at this time of year.  Considerably more challenging though was M51, the famous Whirlpool Galaxy, across the border in Canes Venatici, and even lower down in the sky, which presented in the binocular as a slightly elongated fuzzy patch.

Over in the west, about 8 degrees due south of golden Albireo and on the border with Sagitta, the Coathanger (Collinder 399) asterism was also a joy to observe with the 8 x 42, albeit ‘upside down’ in comparison with the low-power view in the 5.1” reflector. The sense of unity among the stars which comprise the asterism is a pleasant illusion however, as they are actually situated at varying distances from our Solar System. Also nearby, the binocular made light work of tracking down the large planetary nebula M27, which looked like a tiny, incandescent cloudlet against a sable background sky.

Later in the evening, the large and prominent constellation Auriga, represented by a great pentagon traced out on the sky, gained altitude in the east. At its heart, the 8 x 42 presented the three open clusters M 36, M 38 and NGC 1893 very well indeed as foggy patches in a beautiful, rich field glistening with myriad, faint Milky Way stars. M 37 was easy too, just east of the pentagon. About one third of the way in a line from M38 to brilliant yellow Capella, the binocular also swept up the small and faint open cluster, NGC 1857.

As local midnight approached, Taurus had risen to a decent height and it was the ideal time to examine it with the binocular. The generous 7.33-degree field of the 8 x 42 presented the Hyades asterism in all its wondrous detail. Brilliant orange Aldebaran(not a true member however) proved to be a mesmerizing sight, as did the many binocular doubles the instrument picked up immediately to its west. Again, telescopes can’t really do justice to this asterism, as its full glory is hopelessly lost in their much smaller field of view.

As a test, I tried my hand at locating the rather elusive M1 (Crab Nebula) centred on a spot roughly 1 degree to the northwest of the bright blue-white star, Zeta Tauri. I was unable to see anything of this Messier object just hand-holding the binocular, but I believe I achieved success by steadying the view a little on the wooden fence post. Considering that M 1 is a rather lacklustre telescopic object in small and medium aperture ‘scopes, just glimpsing the tiny, roughly 6’ x 4’ smudge was considered a notable visual achievement by this author!

I ended the binocular vigil by welcoming Gemini over the eastern horizon. Though not quite visible to the naked eye owing to its very low altitude at the time of observation, my tiny 42mm ‘double achromat’ made light work of picking up the lovely telescopic open cluster, M35, at the northwestern-most foot of the constellation, together with the fainter open cluster NGC 2158 just next door. This ‘double cluster’ of sorts will look far more impressive when the constellation gains altitude in the coming months.

By half past midnight local time, and with more of the lights from the small, sleepy town nearby having been extinguished, the sky became maximally dark. “The constellations look just like they do in my observing guide!“ I wrote in my logbook.  At the zenith stood majestic Cassiopeia, and ahead of it, Cygnus, now sinking low into the west. Behind it, as if in some kind of grand procession, came Perseus, Auriga, Taurus and mighty Orion looming large in the southeast. The view was so awe-inspiring that I set my binocular aside and just sat in silent contemplation of the lightshow presented to my weary eyes. This, I thought to myself, is the view of the heavens that was accessible to the vast majority of people who ever lived. It had a singular beauty all of its own; just the way the Creator intended it!

And that’s where it all ended on the penultimate night of our stay.

After spending our last day out at Portpatrick(October 18) and a nice family dinner at Bladnoch, we returned to the cottage after dark and to rather more overcast skies. I did venture out to have a look at the waxing gibbous Moon which culminated in the south about 20:00UT when the clouds began to break up once again. Though not a dedicated lunar observer by any measure,  the telescope delivered lovely high contrast images at low and medium powers (up to about 135x). The Moon would not be setting until much later this evening however, so I set the telescope up for work that would not in the least be affected by the encroach of lunar light; double stars.

Plotina; ready for a night of casual double star observing.

 

For this work, I charged the instrument with my Parks Gold 7.5mm eyepiece coupled to a good 3x achromatic Barlow lens yielding 260x and off I went to assess how well the telescope would do this evening. After obtaining lovely splits of Delta Cygni, Iota Cassiopeiae and Epsilon 1& 2 Lyrae, I knew conditions were very good indeed; as they are in many other places in the British Isles. The 1.5″ pair, Pi Aquilae, was a little bit more suspect though, owing to its much decreased altitude in the western sky at this time of year.

A little later, I enjoyed text-book perfect images of Gamma Andromedae, its beautiful colour contrast never faiing to bring a smile to my face. The stellar images in this telescope hardly ever fail to impress. It’s a combination of perfect collimation, modest aperture, good thermal management, adequate light baffling and high-quality optics, but it also requires clear and steady skies, which are accessible to far more observers than has been reported in the recent forum literature.

Two systems in Perseus also proved profitable; Epsilon Persei, with its very faint close-in companion which, of itself, acted as an excellent test of telescopic contrast, and Eta Persei, a lovely wide open, colour contrast double, with a magnitide +3.5 orange supergiant primary and turquoise secondary shining much more feebly at magnitude +8.5.

Finally, this was the evening that I also obtained my first clean split of the tricky system, Theta Aurigae, which was perfectly resolved in the 5.1″ reflector at 260x; my first such splitting of the new season! The difficulty with such a system is the great brightness differential between the components (+2.6/ +7.5) and close angular separation, but the 5.1″ f/5 Newtonian managed it perfectly well as it has done in previous seasons.

I made a quick sketch of how it appeared in the telescope at 22:25 UT (shown below).

An old friend: Theta Aurigae.

 

Note added in proof: On the frigid evening of October 29 at 22:15 UT, in an ambient temperature of -2C, this author took advantage of excellent seeing (Ant I) to obtain his second perfect split of Theta Aurigae of the season using the 130mm f/5 reflector at 260x from his home in rural central Scotland. The Airy disks were round as buttons with a single faint Fraunhofer diffraction ring. Almach (Gamma Andromedae) was spell-bindingly beautiful and calm in the same telescope when examined just a few minutes later.

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Concluding Comments:

The intensely curious & friendly little hens on the farmstead that cannot help but entertain the visitors!

 

It was good to get away.

The weather was settled and mild throughout, with only the occasional spot of rain. All four nights proved to be good and clear for long spells and the days were filled with worthwhile family activities out and about. This is a great place to observe the preternatural beauty of the night sky, tucked away as it is far from the cities and their horrendous light pollution.

We will certainly be visiting again!

We packed up the car early next morning with the intention of getting a good head start on the road back north. Inevitably on such trips, we always leave stuff behind. Sure enough, the owner emailed us later the same evening informing us that he had found a ” telescope cover” aka my flexi dew shield, and a set of earrings belonging to my wife. The boys were not immune to absent mindedness either, as a pair of ankle socks were found inside one of their beds. He kindly offered to post the items back in the week ahead. On Wednesday, October 24, a large yellow package arrived at our home with the said items inside. I emailed him back later the same evening, thanking him for his prompt attention to this matter but also with the offer to reimburse him fully for his efforts. He replied that there was no need:

“The astronomy lesson with the boys and myself was payment enough!”

Fair is fair I suppose lol!

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Appendix: Olber’s Paradox Redux: A Brief Mathematical Treatment of the Consequences of a Dark Sky at Night.

 

In 1823, the German physician and astronomer, Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers (1758-1840) considered an interesting question; why is the night sky dark? At the time, many scientists considered the Universe to be either infinitely old or large, or both. But Olbers considered the logical consequences of this pre-supposition. In an infinite Universe, Olbers reasoned, every line of sight should eventually meet up with the surface of a star. So, the night sky should actually look like the surface of a star. Indeed, the whole sky would appear the same; uniformly bright as a consequence of an infinitely large number of stars. This interesting conundrum is known as Olbers’ Paradox.

A system of stars (or galaxies) arranged in concentric shells with the Earth at the centre.

 

Words can only go so far though, so let us consider the problem from a simple, quantitative point of view.

Suppose we start dividing up the Universe into an infinite number of concentric shells, illustrated in the sketch I’ve made above(apologies for the crudeness of the sketch, as I’m no artist lol), centred on the Earth, with each shell having a uniform thickness, dr. Thus, the volume of each shell (dV) would be the surface area of a sphere of any considered radius r multiplied by its thickness(dr);

So dV = 4πr^2dr.

Now, if there are n stars per unit volume (denoted by asterisks in my sketch), then the total number of stars, N, in each shell will be:

N = 4nπr^2dr.

It is easy to see that the number of stars per shell will scale as r^2. However, the irradiance of each star will fall inversely as r^2, which has a cancelling effect on the overall brightness of each shell and so each shell ought to be uniformly bright.

We must slightly amend the above conclusion, as each star actually has a finite size, with the result that the nearer stars will eventually occlude the light from the more distant stellar members. Still, this would not happen until the entire sky looks as though it is covered with stars. And that returns us to the original conclusion.

Nota bene: The reader will note that each star in the diagram could be replaced by a galaxy with precisely the same consequences!

Let’s now look at possible ways to reconcile Olbers’ Paradox with what we actually witness when the Sun falls out of the sky.  For example, we might consider if the absorption of distant starlight by interstellar (or intergalactic) dust might provide a means of escaping the paradox. Unfortunately, if the Universe is infinitely old, or even existing for just a very long time (say for argument several orders of magnitude older than 13.87 Gyr), then we would expect that such dust particles would have absorbed enough radiant energy to raise their temperature to the same temperature as the surface of a star. And even if it became hotter than the surface of a star, it would merely radiate the excess energy, which the stars would absorb. The consequences are the same though; the sky would look uniformly bright in all directions.

Now consider an expanding Universe, where light is redshifted. In such a case, the energy of each photon of light would decrease as a function of radius, r, so this would help attenuate the brightness of each shell considered above. What happens when we add up individual contributions from each shell? At any fixed radius, the brightness would scale as ∫dr/r, which computes as the natural logarithm of r, i.e. ln(r). But one can readily see that if we choose an arbitrarily large radius, even the quantity ln(r) can become very large indeed, so not ultimately helping us to resolve the problem.

One way out is to consider a Universe that is not infinite in extent, so we can cut off our integral at that finite radius. But there is one other way to achieve the same result, by considering a Universe that has a finite age. Let this age be denoted by t. In this scheme of events, we will only observe stars that are close enough for their light to have traversed the Universe at the speed of light, c. Thus, the radius of that Universe is simply ct. In either scheme; a finite age or finite size, there will exist a limit to the number of concentric shells that could contribute to the brightness of the sky and so the paradox can be resolved!

I find it amazing that from the simple observation that the sky is dark at night, we can arrive at a rather profound conclusion. That said, this analysis cannot, by itself, distinguish which of those scenarios, finite size or finite age (or even both), is the ultimate reason for the darkness of the night sky, but its consequences raise other philosophic/theological questions; if the Universe had a beginning, which has long remained the consensus amongst cosmologists, who or what brought it into existence?

You can’t have an uncaused cause!

To my mind, there is little doubt that the God of the Bible provides the best and most complete answer.

 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:1

 

Thus says the Lord who stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him.

Zechariah 12:1

 

Neil English discusses the work of hundreds of astronomers from the annals of history in his new book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

 

De Fideli.