Astronomy with a Pocket Binocular.

Creating a new genre of amateur astronomy literature.

A work commenced November 11, Anno Domini 2019.

Subject to Copyright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premium junk.

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

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

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

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

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

And both have the same eye relief; 16mm.

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

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

A Walk through the Autumn Sky:

A favourite autumn  haunt.

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

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

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

Good companions under the stars.

Heralds of Winter

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

The constellation of Taurus.

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

‘Tis midnight! on the mountains brown

The cold round moon shines deeply down;

Blue roll the waters, blue the sky

Spreads like an ocean hung on high

Bespangled with those isles of light,

So wildly, spiritually bright.

Whoever gazed upon them shining,

And turn’d to earth without repining,

Nor wish for wings to flee away,

And mix with their eternal ray?

From Night at Sea by Lord Byron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlikely Twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What blessed illusions the stars rain down upon us!

A Field Full of Stars!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 147:4

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

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

More Leopard than Lion

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

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

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

A little rain maketh the binocular.

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

For the birds.

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

Exploring terrestrial astronomy.

What an extraordinary thing it is to be alive!

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

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

A Stupendous Accumulation of Star Matter

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

The sky is rich in mystery.

Especially for the tyro.

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

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

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

A pocket glass view of the great Andromeda Galaxy.

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

Maybe you’ll fare better?

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

The Scriptures inform:

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

John 5:17

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

Contentedness

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

1 John 2:16

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t chase the wind.

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

Happy with my chosen tools.

I am thrilled to bits with what I have.

I’m content; happy with my tools!

Surveying the Landscape

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

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

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

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

The morning Sun illumining the Cairn atop Dunmore.

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

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

How great an artist is our Creator!

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

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

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

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

                                                                                                                          Psalm 144:4

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

Orion Rising

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

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

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

Jack Frost has been busy creating a silvery landscape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sword Handle & the Magic Furnace

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

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

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

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

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

King David of old knew it all too well:

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

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

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

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

Psalm 19:1-4

 

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

What do you hear?

Pocket Binoculars: Why the Relative Expense?

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

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

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

Small, precision optics require more effort to make well.

So, not such a great mystery afterall!

Moongazing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis 1:14-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis 8:22

Which part of this do they not understand?

The Kaleidoscopic Star

The Jewel of Canis Major: Sirius.

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

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

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

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

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

Asymmetrical Optics:

Comparing small glasses: Zeiss Terra 8 x 25(top) and Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32(bottom)

On Sunday evening, December 15 2019, I fetched all of our Christmas bling from the attic and began decorating the house with tinsel. After that, the small Christmas tree went up wiith still more tinsel and baubles and fairy lights.

After midnight, I stuck my head out the front door to be greeted by a bright waning gibbous Moon already high in the east. I fetched my little Zeiss Terra pocket and aimed it at its silvery surface. It was a fine sight with plenty of crater detail re-emerging after full Moon earlier this week. I moved the glass first left and then right laterally across the field, examining how crisp the image maintained itself as I moved the Moon off axis. Then I remembered something I had experienced in my larger 8 x 42 glass many Moons ago lol, so I re-centred Luna but this time moved it up and down, to the top and bottom of the field, respectively. There it was again! The image remained well defined at the edges of the field when moved from left to right but was noticeably softer when I examined the lunar image at the top and the bottom of the field!

Hmmm

Next, I ran inside and grabbed my 8 x 32 Celestron Trailseeker binocular to see if it would do the same thing; yesiree, I got the same result with that glass. So, out came my little Opticron LE Aspheric 8 x 25, my Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 and my 10 x 50 big guns, proceeding again with the same tests. And what do you know? I got exactly the same results with all these glasses too!

My mind was set racing and then I recalled an online review on a birding forum, where the poster was describing his impressions of his new 8 x 30 Swarovski CL Companion; and there too the gentleman reported the same result: softer top and bottom-edge images compared with right to left impressions!

Pepperidge farm remembers!

Dinnae get yer tinsel in a tangle,” I jested to myself.

I deduced that this must be a universal property of Schmidt-Pechan roof prisms. How curious a result!!

No binocular image is perfect!

Ordinary Things We Take for Granted:

The holly bushes are ready for pruning.

Here we are a week before Christmas.Daylight has become dreadfully short. On an overcast afternoon this far into the year, you might as well pull your curtains and call it a day at 2pm! Colourful things are hard to come by. But I know where to go find some. Bleeding their intense colour into the leaden air, the holly bushes near my home are ripe for the harvest. And the colour of dusky skies never cease to impress.

The light always overcomes the darkness.

Isn’t it a wonderful thing to be able to see!

Anything!

To be granted the power to explore the world around us. It is one thing to be able to see your immediate environment, but quite another to see the distant stars and the galaxies beyond. As a scientist who has rejected scientism, I’m free to ponder questions that go well beyond the ken of some of my peers, who have boxed themselves in by embracing a kind of dead-end philosophy roughly described as Humean materialism. I can ask questions only a child would ask. Why can we see the stars? Why can my pocket glass show me crisp views of a last quarter Moon rising late in the east? Lots of questions; why questions.

If we lived on a planet with thinner air, we’d be able to see the stars a little more brightly alright, and more steadily for sure. But at what price? Well, they wouldn’t sparkle as much,  and we’d likely freeze to death!  If we monkey around with the pressure of the air too much, our lungs couldn’t work well and our senses would be dulled. Seeing anything would be painful.  If the air pressure were trebled or reduced to just one third of that which we experience at sea level, we’d have reached the limits of their design. But even here some intriguing results emerge from the murk.

A Creator who has granted humanity the freedom to explore might have designed the elevation of the highest mountains to coincide with the physiological limits He imposed on his human imagers. Curiously, geophysicists have worked out a simple formula showing how the Earth’s atmospheric pressure varies with altitude;

P(h) =Poe^-0.14h

Where P(h) = pressure at any height  h (in km)), Po= the air pressure at sea level.

So P(h)/Po = e^-0.14h

Thus ln(P(h)/Po) = -0.14h

from which we arrive at h = ln(Po/Po)/-0.14

Now let’s crunch the numbers: physiologists inform us that the lowest pressure, P(h), healthy humans lungs can work at is about 0.33 atmospheres. Po we set to 1.0,  to obtain:

h =ln(0.33/1)/-0.14 = 8km!

Isn’t that interesting! It turns out that the Earth’s highest mountains(Everest is 8.8 km) are about the same size!

But what about seeing the stars? Well it turns out that the intensity of a light beam through the atmosphere of opacity k (its ability to pass light through itself) also obeys a similar law;

I(x) = Ioe^-kpx

where I(x) = the intensity of a light beam at a distance x,  Io = the intensity at x = 0, and p = the mass density of the atmosphere.

By  fiddling with the numbers, we can amuse ourselves on a cloudy night. For example,  if we were only to double the mass density of our own atmosphere, keeping everything else the same, the light from the stars would be diminshed by nearly an order of magnitude; as through a very dark glass, dimly. And what if we were placed on a larger world with a commensurately larger atmospheric column, the attenuation of starlight would follow the same rules.

Would we be able to see the stars at all?

The mind boggles!

Away in a Manger

The Beehive in Cancer as depicted on page 97 of our guide book.

The winter solstice has finally arrived. Slowly, Sol will regain its strength by tracking back northwards, climbing ever higher in the sky as it does, towards the vernal equinox and onwards to the summer solstice.

Our next target, located in the constellation of Cancer, the Crab, has a decidedly Christmas theme. But you’ll have the stay up late to get a good view of it this early in the season. Known as Praesepe, the Beehive cluster(M44), or the celestial Manger. It’s fairly easy to locate as a misty spot about three Moon diameters in size, down and a little to the left of the twins, Castor and Pollux.  On a dark night with good transparency, a pair of naked eye stars, Gamma(magnitude +4.7) and Delta(magnitude +3.9) Cancri, are seen flanking Praesepe on its eastern side. In earlier times, these were better known as Asellus Borealis(Gamma)- the southern ass – and Asellus Australis(Delta) representing its southerly counterpart. I suppose these Latinised names hearken back all the way to Roman times, when these ancient sky gazers naturally saw them as little donkeys about to tuck into tasty morsel of hay(denoted here as the Beehive).

The pocket binocular transforms the view, revealing a vivacious cluster of faint stars, very much resembling a swarm of busy bees, set in the midst of an interesting trapezium of brighter suns. In the binocular portal, the Aselli constitute the two brightest luminaries of the trapezium seen on the left-hand side of the field.

 I have spent a few late night vigils comparing the views of the Beehive in my Opticron Aspheric and Zeiss Terra, and while the Terra gives a wider field of view, the little Opticron frames the entire asterism – the Beehive and the Trapezium – that little bit better, owing to its smaller field of view. Moreover, I have not been able to convince myself that the slightly brighter daylight images served up by the Terra reveal any fainter stars in the Beehive than with the Opticron.

The Opticron pocket glass frames some celestial real esate better than the Zeiss.

Located about 590 light years from the solar system, my average eyes can make out about a dozen or so distinct stars within the Beehive with the pocket glasses. But that’s the case when it’s still a couple of hours from meridian passage in the south. Though there are several dozen fainter members in this visually stunning open cluster, the best the pocket glass can reveal of them is a rather diffused ‘nebulosity’, which imparts a somewhat ghostly cast to this communion of suns. Later in the season, when Cancer is better placed nearer the meridian at a more respectable hour of the night, I will likely ferret out still fainter members.

Praesepe as it appeared in the pocket glass at 1.20 am on the morning of December 18 2019.

Praesepe is a most beguiling sight in larger binoculars or a small, rich-field telescope. It is all the more thrilling to visit this comely little patch of sky on the lead up to Christmas, when we commemorate God’s momentous decision to send his only begotten Son into His own creation in order to redeem His fallen imagers – humankind.

As the Scriptures proclaim:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

The same was in the beginning with God.

 

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

 

In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

 

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

                                                                                                                                John 1:1-5

Storage and Maintenance

The gentleman who kindly provided a review of the Zeiss Terra and its performance in comparison to the Swarovski CL pocket binocular later stated in another thread that the Terra cannot fit inside its clamshell case without turning down the eyecups. But I have found that this is simply not so. As you can see from the following sequence of images, it most certainly can! And not only that; many reviewers have claimed that the binocular cannot fit inside its case with the strap attached. But I found a very simple solution; by wrapping the strap ’round the eyecups and the bridge as shown in the images presented below.

The folded Terra with its eyecups fully extended in comparison to the dimensions of the carry case.

The neck strap can be wound around the eyecups first and then around the bridge as shown.

The binocular with its eyecups fully extended and with the straps tightly wound around the binocular, fits snugly in the case.

Protect your investment with silica gel sachets.

The binocular snugly stored inside the clamshell.

Having the eyecups permanently in the extended position serves two useful functions. Firstly, it speeds up the length of time it takes to get the instrument up and running. Simply unfold the binocular to your correct IPD and you’re in business. Secondly, it reduces mechanical wear and so ought to significantly extend the lifetime of the eyecups. This is especially the case since it is the eyecups that are normally the first thing to malfunction on any binocular after prolonged field use.

Because moisture is the sworn enemy of all optical instruments, I store all of my binoculars in a cool pantry at about 60F with a sachet of silica gel.

I try to avoid cleaning the optics as much as possible, as the delicately applied coatings on the optics are fragile and can be damaged either by overly aggressive rubbing or cleaning them too frequently, or both. When significant amounts of grime build up on the optical surfaces, I usually start by taking a good quality lens brush to remove any loose dust or particulates on the glass. After that, I use the supplied lens cloth soaked in a little Baader Optical Wonder fluid and apply it gently but firmly to the lenses, removing any remaining grime in a single, circular stroke.

Bird & Squirrel Watching

Pocket binoculars are supremely useful in a big city.

With winter now truly upon us in the closing days of December, the birds find it more difficult to acquire food. That’s why I always put some extra seed in the bird feeder, but even then, they seem more plaintive than usual. I’ve been spending time learning how to spot and identify more bird species in the numerous copses near my home. Just recently I learned to identify Treecreepers with their speckled mantles and long, distinctively curved beaks. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to see one climbing up the branches of the Rowan tree in my back garden, but more often, I see them on my walks along the riverbank. Just a few days ago, my wife alerted me to the presence of a pair of Wrens in the garden, sounding out a very distinctive ‘tic tic tic‘ as they hopped from one branch to another. Wrens; such tiny and perfectly formed creatures!

While visiting my in-laws in the west end of Glasgow over the festive period, I took along my little Opticron Aspheric for the ride. My sister-in-law is a keen birder with many years of experience and always keeps a small binocular on her window ledge overlooking the communal garden at the back of their home. And it was here that I sighted a beautiful Waxwing for the very first time! It has a very distinctive crest, with black, white and red wings, and a lovely-ruddy brown belly. Such a handsome bird to glass! My RSPB quidebook informed me that these birds do not breed in the British Isles but migrate here from Scandinavia over the winter in search of better food sources and milder climes.

.And if the birds don’t show up, there’s always the acrobatics of Grey Squirrels to admire as they scurry about on walls, trees and even the odd telephone pole right next to a railway line! That said, I have yet to see a single Red Squirrel in the city. But I have sighted the odd one in the trees along the road up to Culcreuch Castle near my home. It’s nice to see they are still with us in the midst of the more adaptable (and common) grey species.

A Red Squirrel scampering about in a conifer tree in the grounds of Culcreuch Castle.

 

The Blessings of a Clear Sky

A beautiful crescent Moon culminating in the south at dusk on New Year’s Eve.

One of my favourite times to be outside is at dusk- that magical episode between daylight and darkness. It is often a peaceful and contemplative time, where I can more deeply ponder the wonders of creation. With no wind, a hard frost and a crystal clear sky, the only sound that is discernible is the flow of water along the shallower streches of the nearby River Endrick about a hundred yards away as the crow flies.

A beautiful waning crescent Moon hovers above the denuded horsechestnuts and my pocket glass provides a wonderful portal to behold its magnificence with its well defined craters starkly on display along the day-night terminator. I never tire of seeing this celestial wonder. The sense of awe it upwells within me is in many ways indistinguishable from an act of prayer. As the Sun continues its journey below the southwestern horizon, the colour of the sky transforms from a deep blue to a purple or pink colour, which slowly fades as true darkness wraps her cloak around the landscape.

In the east, the wonders of Taurus are already well placed for observation; the visually magnetic Pleiades and Hyades, followed fast on its heels by Orion and Gemini. With full darkness, I marvel at the beauty of the bright stars already shining prominently in the early evening; creamy Capella, ruddy Aldebaran and Betelgeuse, and low down in the west and northwest, the bright summer luminaries, Altair, Deneb and Vega shine with a soft white hue.

High overhead lie Perseus and Cassiopieia, which are always a visual treat in the tiny pocket glass, with their teeming multitudes of bright stars. Our next target lies about mid-way between the main stars of these constellations; the pictureque Double Cluster – but it’s best to wait until the Moon has set before seeing them well in the pocket glass.

The location of the Double Cluster, featured on page 206 of our guide book.

The Double Cluster (also known as Chi Persei) is easy to find this time of year, as it rides very high in the sky. Look for a smudgy patch of light about mid-way between the ‘wonky W‘ of Cassiopeia and Perseus, the Celestial Hero. Most any optical device will show an improvement over the naked eye view. My pocket glass reveals a very rich stellar milieu centred on both clusters, with only the brightest stars being distinctly resolved in the small aperture of these instruments. Like the Beehive Cluster discussed earlier, the faintest members of each cluster remain umresolved, only presenting as a generalised fog to my average eyes. Still, the Double Cluster lies in a very rich part of the sky, with the great river of stars we know collectively as the Milky Way meandering right through both constellations.

The Double Cluster is often the very first object I observe when using binoculars or a telescope, the view becoming ever more magnificent the greater the aperture employed. Both clusters lie about 8,000 light years, according to our guidebook and are quite young as open clusters come – approximately just a few million years old. Curiously, astronomers believe that a significant amount of interstellar dust lies between us and these clusters, which extinguishes much of their true majesty. Still they remain one of the most arresting sights in all of the northern heavens. Finding the sky partially clear late on New Year’s Day 2020, I made a simple sketch of these clusters and their interesting hinterland for reference. Once you’ve examined the Double Cluster with your pocket glass, it pays to re-examine it with a larger instrument to get even more spectacular views.

The Double Cluster, as it appeared in the pocket glass at around 11.45pm on New Year’s Day 2020.

Alone with a January Full Moon

Truth be told, I ascribe little significance to the coming of a New Year. While many people make New Year’s resolutions, promising to change their ways or do something better and more positive in their lives, more often than not, they soon revert to their former state. Why, praytell, does the arrival of a New Year serve as a catalyst for change? The God I love and serve promises to renew us each day, every day, if we let Him be in the driving seat of our lives. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote some 26 centuries ago:

It is of the Lord‘s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.

They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

After a day of torrential rain and high winds, the evening of January 11 2020 proved memorable. An immaculately pure Moon rose early in the east, and as the low-altitude rain clouds moved off into the North Sea, they left behind a vast array of smaller, fluffy cirrocumulus clouds, creating a beautiful, ‘mackerel sky’. Such cloud formations are commonly observed here during  the more settled, cold weather of winter. Illumined by its marble-white rays, this glorious meteorological spectacle was an arresting sight in my pocket binocular.

The Moon is our loyal companion in space. It’s always there, steadfast and dependable. Our Creator not only fashioned the Moon so that we might wonder at its beauty. Its penetrating, steely light shines through the darkness, reminding us that our God is with us, through thick and thin.

Over the long ages in the history of our world, the Moon played an indispensable role in keeping Earth habitable.  Were it not so large and so close, global weather systems would long ago have ceased to keep our climate mild enough to support such an enormous diversity of living things that help maintain the lives of billions of human beings, each one of us fashioned in God’s image.

I am constantly struck by the intensity of the whiteness seen across vast swathes of the lunar surface at full Moon. I can think of no other sight that presents such extreme whiteness. The brave Apollo astronuats who sojourned to the Moon during the late 1960s and early 1970s revealed to us a world almost completely devoid of colour; just a vast desert of bleached rock and sand enveloped by an airless, coal-black sky. In comparison with even the dullest winter day on Earth, our Moon is almost devoid of colour. Perhaps it was this great abandon of chromaticity that prompted astronaut, Michael Collins, to pen these haunting words as he gazed down in loneliness from his lofty vantage 75 miles above the new world from lunar orbit back in July 1969, hoping and praying that his colleagues would make a successful landing:

I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the Moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.

Collins spoke the truth; no one is ever truly alone. Our God, who holds all things together (Colossians 1), is always with us!

Betelgeuse Fading

By mid-January Orion the Hunter reaches the meridian before midnight, and so is much better placed for those who must rise early. But there is something most peculiar going on with its brightest star; Betelgeuse. Take another look at the photo I made of Orion back at the end of November 2010;

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

Betelgeuse is the bright red star at the top left of the constellation, while Rigel is seen shining with an intensely white hue at the bottom right of the image. The image shows that Betelgeuse is slightly brighter than Rigel, but if you go and compare both stars now, you’ll see that Rigel is actually brighter than Betelgeuse! Indeed, since October 2019, Betelegeuse has faded back from being the 10th brightest star in the heavens to now being the 21st brightest star!

The pocket glass allows you to see the colours of both stars more easily but it will also show you that Betelgeuse is a lot fainter than it was even a year ago. What’s causing this? Well, Betelgeuse is a red super-giant star that is approaching the end of its life. Unlike smaller stars like the Sun, which is fated to die as a planetary nebula, where its outer atmosphere is expelled to the cold, dark of interstellar space, Betelgeuse is destined to end its life as a spectacular supernova explosion. At its distance of 640 light years, we need not fret, as it is a safe enough distance from us. That said, it will become brighter than the full Moon and will transform the night sky on Earth for many months or even years. The best estimates made by expert stellar astronomers suggest that Betelgeuse will go Kaboom sometime in the next 100,000 years, but that means it could explode tomorrow, next year or far in the future. We simply don’t know when exactly.

Still, it is thrilling to monitor this star in the winter night sky knowing that it could be all over for it within my own lifetime. What an amazing prospect!

Two Ruby Suns & an Open Cluster in Gemini

A visit to the northern foot of Gemini.

The winter night sky has an energy all of its own. Like time and tide, it waits for no one. And though January is usually the coldest month of winter, it is also one of the best times to observe the splendour of the heavens, especially when the Moon is out of the sky. And what a magnificent procession of celestial treasure to admire with a pocket binocular! By 10 pm local time in the third week of January, mighty Orion has reached the meridian, with Gemini following fast on its heels to its east. The wonders of Taurus –  the Pleiads and Hyads –  have by now fallen lower into the western sky, sparkling over the conifer trees to the west of my house. Mighty Auriga, the Charioteer, looms high in the sky and casting my gaze northwards, both Perseus and Cassiopeia are still very well placed for observation. Beyond Gemini to the east, Cancer and Leo are beginning to assert themselves, while the Plough dominates the sky to the northeast, with the stars comprising the handle of the Ploughshare curving their way toward the eastern horizon, marking the spot where the bright spring star, Arcturus, will rise in the wee small hours of the morning.

Our next target lies at the northernmost foot of the celestial twins, indicated on page 153 of our guidebook. The pocket binocular reveals a very pretty field of view, featuring not one, but two red giant stars with a prominent ghostly patch of luminous matter about the size of the full Moon, just off to the northwest of the binocular field.  The eastern-most star is Mu Geminorum, which shines with a soft orange hue at the third magnitude of glory. Because it lies so close to the ecliptic – that narrow path followed by the Sun throughout the year – it is often occulted by the Moon and (less frequently) the brighter planets.  A little further west of Mu lies Eta Geminorum, or Propus, which shines with roughly the same brilliance. Both stars are of late spectral type M, so they are considerably cooler and more highly evolved than our Sun. Those interested in double star astronomy will find Propus to be a real challenge. Telescopes with apertures of 4 inches and above, under good seeing conditions and very high magnifications, can tease apart its very close-in companion. But it’s a lot easier said than done! The variability of such M-class giant stars means that can flare up from time to time making close companions much more difficult to prize apart.

That moon-sized foggy patch to the northwest of these ruddy stars is M35, one of the most celebrated open clusters in the northern heavens, and a wonderful sight in a small rich-field telescope at low to medium magnifications. Though far beyond the abilities of the pocket glass to resolve, M35 consists of about 200 stellar members and lies about 3,000 light years away. If you have a few minutes free to venture out of doors, now is a good time to observe this most bountiful patch of the cosmic creation.

A Surprise at Sunset

Fintry Kirk, Scotland.

I rise early every Sunday morning to walk the mile journey from my home to my local Kirk, to pay homage to my Creator and Redeemer. I enjoy the stroll, as I get a chance to gather my thoughts and contemplate the beauty of the surrounding hills, especially when the weak rays of morning sunshine illumine their summits. January 19 was a clear and frosty morning, with ice under foot, but the few clouds to the east were dappled in radiant pink hues that slowly lost their beautiful colour as the Sun rose higher in the eastern sky. The remainder of the morning was bright and sunny but as AM gave way to PM, more cloud moved in, which subdued the natural colours of my surroundings somewhat, but at least it lifted the temperature of the air.

I took off for another walk with my eldest son in the late afternoon, enjoying the dry conditions and the extra hour or so of daylight as our world hurtles northwards from the winter solstice towards the vernal equinox. As always, I carried my pocket glass to enjoy the beautiful light on the landscape as the Sun made its way towards the southwestern horizon. We stopped at Culcreuch Pond, a favourite observing place, where I like to watch aquatic birds, mostly Mallard ducks, noisy ‘kowking’ Coots, and if I’m lucky, a sighting of the more common raptors that eke out a living here, especially Buzzards,  which are often seen patrolling the skies above the farmsteads around the village, and which make their nests in the lofty crags high above the valley floor. Today my son and I were greeted by a new visitor, a Grey Herron, standing motionless in the reedy shallows, with an outstretched neck and brazen yellow beak, staring at the water below it, hoping to catch some supper. Located about 80 yards away as the crow flies, the 8x pocket glass proved ideal for getting the perfect image scale to see this beautiful, big bird hunt. Sharing a look through the glass, we were both amazed how still the Herron fixed itself in pursuit of its prey.

I was hopeful that I would also gain a glimpse of a planet that is now beginning to grace the evening sky – majestic Venus, the celebrated morning and evening star. Alas, the clouds decorating the skies above our western horizon beyond the pond made any such sighting well-nigh impossible on this occasion, but nature has a genius for creating surprises. And that surprise came just before sunset, when the sky took on a most wonderful fiery cast, reflected in the still waters of Culcreuch pond, and beautifully silhouetted by the sleepy deciduous trees arrayed along its banks.

Sunset on the evening of Sunday, January 19 2020. Looking west over Culcreuch Pond, Fintry.

When we finally arrived back home, we were inundated with a plethora of beautiful pictures of red and golden sunsets snapped by our neighbours and friends right across the country, who also took some time out to enjoy the extraordinary light show of a Scottish sunset. Irrespective of creed, colour or culture, humans have a predilection for seeking out natural beauty; a gift bestowed upon us by our mighty God, the Author and Finisher of all things winsome:

Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

Revelation: 4:11

Watching Nature and the Heavens Change

Snowdrops by the river bank.

January 2020 has been rather mild as Scottish winters go; nary a sign of snow in the lowlands just yet, but things can change rather rapidly, as previous winters have proven so abundantly. I’ve made the most of the dry and mild conditions though, as well as the lengthening days, to get out and about during my free time. Bundles of snowdrops have now popped up all along the banks of the Endrick River, a good sign that the progress of the seasons is unravelling apace. But it will be a while yet before the yellow Daffodils grace the valley with their radiant beauty.  The most dramatic colours offered by nature are still dominated by the green lichens and mosses that flourish all over the tree trunks. My pocket glasses reveal these natural wonders in astonishing clarity, filling the binocular field with riotous shades of lorne, contrasted against the grainy greys and tans of tree bark. Even on dull days, these colours are dramatic and ubiquitous, lifting both the mind and the senses.

I’ve been scanning the banks of the river for signs of more life and recently I observed a tiny little Wren drinking water at the river edge before retreating into a hole under the muddy banks. At first it seemed perturbed by my presence directly opposite it, on the other side of the river, scuttling inside the hollow for shelter, but by lying low and keeping still, it didn’t remain shy for long, poking its head out and re-emerging into the daylight. Since that afternoon, I have watched the same spot on the riverbank with my pocket glass to see if the bird had any lasting association with the place; and sure enough, I have now seen it  here a couple of times since. Maybe it’s thinking of making a nest there? Consulting my RSPB guidebook on birds, I learned that Wrens produce their young in April, so maybe my observations are a little premature. Time will tell.

In the heaven above, I’ve also been watching the fascinating fall from grace of Betelegeuse, where it continues to fade in glory and now only rivals the belt stars in general brilliance. The internet is awash with speculation about what’s going on. Some say it will go supernova, while others think it may actually collapse out of existence as a black hole. But all I know for sure is that Orion looks different now; it’s just not the same. Maybe a sign of something else? Afterall, our Lord did tell us to watch for signs in the heavens and on Earth.

And I continue to watch.

A Big Garden Bird Watch & an Encounter with Venus in the Evening

Birdwatching with the RSPB.

After a brisk, two-mile walk ’round Culcreuch Castle Estate with my youngest boy, I spent an hour spying garden birds in the mid-afternoon of Sunday January 26, as part of the RSPB Big Bird Watch, where participants were obliged to register their sightings online. It proved to be a reasonably fruitful endeavour, where I was able to record two Robins(one adult and the largest, most rotund youngster I’ve ever glassed), two Bluetits, a ‘battalion’ of Long Tailed tits(maybe 6-8 in all), one female Blackbird, and to top it all off, three large Magpies of which, I’m sure, once took up residence in my Rowan tree a few months back. The highlight for me this afternoon though was observing a big, imposing Cormorant perched majestically on a branch of a fallen tree at the far end of Culcreuch Pond, which I glassed earlier in the day during my walk. I’ve not seen Cormorants at the pond for quite a while; certainly not within the last few months, but nonetheless it was thrilling to see that it had either returned or decided to make its presence felt once again.

The day proved rather unstelled weatherwise, but just before sunset, the skies cleared and the temperatures dropped back towards their seasonal average(low single figures C). This would be a good opportunity to catch a sight of Venus, and sure enough, ’round about 5.45pm local time, during deep twilight, I sighted the planet, shining with its characteristic bright white hue, hovering above the conifer trees to my southwest. The pocket glass picked it up well, magnifying its splendour as a beacon in the evening sky, but not revealing much else of its secrets. I rushed inside and set up a better tool for that job; my 20 x 60 ‘giant’ binocular, mounted on a simple but very stable monopod, with which I was able to discern that the planet was a tiny gibbous form, enveloped in a thick layer of reflecting clouds.

Brilliant Venus in the southwest after sunset.

“Such a beautiful world,” I thought to myself, ” especially from the vantage of our clement home next door.” In reality, this earth-sized planet orbiting closer to the Sun than our own world, is as close to a living hell as is possible to conceive, with temperatures hot enough to melt lead, clouds laced with sulphuric acid and a thick, choking, light-bending atmosphere laden with carbon dioxide and particulate sulphur that is dense enough to crush human lungs in seconds. Some folk still(but not nearly as many as even a few years ago though) cling to the prospect of finding a world as clement as our own, way out there in the depths of space. They delude themselves into thinking that life can emerge naturally, from pond scum, and will thus be widespread throughout the galaxy.

Fanciful indeed!

Not in a billion light years!

nota bene: I discovered that Wrens can and do nest on river banks. My guidebook tells me; “the male builds 5-8 nests in hollows, crevices or holes in banks, walls or trees.”

There you go, straight from the horse’s mouth lol!

To be continued…………………………………..

 

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.

 

 

2019: I recorded 135 nights of clear or partially clear skies. This represents 36.9 per cent of nights available for observation.

These numbers continue to be 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 2018 book: Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

 

De Fideli

Old vs New.

How does a classic Zeiss binocular square up to a modern roof prism binocular?

Unlike telescopes, which are mainly used by dedicated amateur astronomers, binoculars, for obvious reasons, are owned and used by a much broader cross section of the general population. When my students get to know me, they will inevitably have to endure my unbridled enthusiasm for optical devices of all kinds lol, and that includes binoculars. One of my mathematics students, Sandy, expressed an unusual interest in some of my instruments, and he further informed me that his parents, who run a small ferrying business at Balmaha, on the shores of nearby Loch Lomond, used several binoculars in their everyday work. My interest was further piqued when Sandy told me that his grandfather owned a big Zeiss binocular, which was inherited by his father and would eventually be passed on to him in the goodness of time. I asked Sandy whether he would be willing to bring the Zeiss binocular by so that I could have a look at it. After checking with his parents, Sandy agreed and kindly allowed me to use it for a week in order that I could assess it and give it a good clean. Naturally enough, I jumped at the opportunity!

The instrument, a Carl Zeiss Jenoptem 10 x 50W porro prism binocular, came in a lovely leather case; a far cry form anything made in this era.

The Zeiss Jenoptem 10x 50W complete with original leather carry case.

The instrument had no lens caps and so had accumulated quite a bit of grime on both the ocular and objective lenses over the years. The Jenoptem, which was manufactured in East Germany(DDR), featured a Zeiss multi-coating, which helped me to date it to after 1978, when the company apparently began to apply their anti-reflection coatings to all the lenses and prisms in the optical train. So my guess is that it was probably acquired in the early 1980s. I believe Zeiss Jena offered a higher quality porro 10 x 50 in the Decarem line around the same period, but I have not had the pleasure of testing one of these units out.

The Zeiss Jenoptem is multi-coated.

The instrument has a very Spartan look and feel about it. Weighing in at about 1 kilogram, the Jenoptem is built like a proverbial tank, with a central focusing wheel and right eye dioptre.Turning the nicely machined metal focusing wheel first clockwise, and then anti-clockwise, all the way through its trave,l showed that it was still in excellent working condition, with zero backlash and bumping that one usually encounters with cheaper porro prism binoculars.

As expected from Zeiss, the Jenoptem has a very well made focuser that moves with silky smoothness and with zero backlash.

To begin the cleaning process, I unscrewed the objective housings from the front of the binocular in order to get at the inside surface of the objective lenses, which had a significant amount of grime as well as a small amount of fungal growth. Using a good quality lens brush, I carefully removed much of the dust before using a microfibre lens cleaning cloth soaked in a little Baader Optical Wonder fluid. In just a few minutes I was able to remove the remaining grime on both the outer and inner surfaces of the binocular objectives, as well as the surfaces of the prisms in the rear module of the instrument. The ocular lenses were also given a good cleaning.

The objectives of the Zeiss Jenoptem can be accessed by uncrewing the front of the binocular from the prism and ocular housing.

I was able to verify that the prisms were indeed coated in the same way as the objectives, although I also discovered that the steel clips holding the prisms in place had rusted significantly over time. I did not attempt to clean the clips, as I judged that doing so might throw the instrument out of collimation.

Note the rusted steel clip holding one of the prisms in place, as well as the anti-reflection coating of the second prism(after cleaning).

The objectives on the Jenoptem after cleaning. Note the anti-reflection coatings.

Seen in broad daylight, I was able to verify that the lens coatings had not suffered much in the way of wearing, looking smooth and evenly applied, giving a bluish or purple cast, depending on the angle of view.

The appearance of the objectives in broad daylight after cleaning.

 

And the ocular lenses.

Optical tests:

After screwing the objective modules back into place, I was now ready to begin my optical tests of this older Zeiss binocular. I compared the views served up by this instrument with those garnered by my Barr & Stroud 10 x 50 Sierra roof prism binocular that I use almost exclusively for astronomical viewing. After setting the right eye dioptre on the Zeiss to suit my own eyes, I started with an iphone torch test to assess how the instruments fared in suppressing glare and internal reflections.

The Zeiss 10x 50W Jenoptem(right) and my Barr & Stroud 10x 50 Sierra roof prism binocular(left).

Because the Zeiss does not have the same close focus (~2m) performance as my Barr & Stroud, I had to place my iphone torch several metres away in my hallway in order to get the Zeiss to focus on its light. As usual, the torch was adjusted to its highest (read brightest) setting. Comparing the two in-focus images, I could see that the Zeiss fared considerably worse than the Barr & Stroud. Specifically, it picked up two fairly bright internal reflections, as well as quite a lot of contrast-robbing diffused light, which rendered the Zeiss image considerably less clean and contrasted in comparison to my control binocular. The difference was quite striking!

After dark, I aimed the binoculars at a bright sodium street lamp and again compared the images served up in both instruments. As expected, the Zeiss showed much more in the way of internal reflections, with a lot of diffused light that produced a fog-like veil around the street lamp. The Sierra 10 x 50 in comparison served up a much more ‘punchy’ image with much better control of internal reflections and far less of the foggy, diffused light evidenced in the Zeiss.

Next, I compared the Zeiss and the Barr & Stroud Sierra on a daylight test, examining a tree trunk in the swing park about 80 yards from my front door. Again, the difference between both instruments was striking! Although the image was very sharp in the Zeiss at the centre of the field, it was noticeably dimmer than the Sierra. That diffused light I picked up in the iphone torch test created a foggy veil that significantly reduced its contrast in comparison to the control binocular. I was also able to discern many more low contrast details in the Sierra owing to its ability to gather significantly more light than the older Zeiss. The colour cast presented by both binoculars was also noteworthy. The Zeiss threw up quite a strong yellowish colour cast  to the Sierra, which showed a much more neutral cast in comparison.

Examining the periphery of the same field also showed that the Sierra was exhibiting a larger depth of focus than the Zeiss, which was quite unexpected, as I had been given to understand that porro prism binoculars in general show more depth of focus than their roof prism counterparts. In addition, the Zeiss showed more distortion at the edges of the field than the control binocular.

The Zeiss Jenoptem has very tight eye relief, which I estimated to be just 10mm. The Barr & Stroud Sierra, in contrast, has much more generous eye relief in comparison- 17mm – making it significantly more suitable for eye glass wearers. Indeed, I found it difficult to image the entire field in the Zeiss, having to move my eyeball around to see the field stops.

In summary, these daylight tests clearly showed that the venerable Zeiss was no match optically for the Barr & Stroud 10 x 50 roof prism I had tested it against. The latter was simply in a different league to the former, no question about it!

Handling in the Field:

The Zeiss is rather big and clunky in my small hands and is more difficult to find that optimal position while viewing for extended periods. Weighing more than 200g more than the Sierra, it is also harder to hold steady. The significantly smaller frame of the Sierra roof prism binocular is much easier to negotiate, and is simply more comfortable to use. In addition, the Zeiss has no provision to mount it on a lightweight tripod or monopod, but the Sierra, like most other modern binoculars, does.

Astronomical tests:

Though the weather proved quite unsettled during the week that I tested the Zeiss, I did get a few opportunities to test it out on the night sky. Once again, I used my Barr & Stroud Sierra 10x 50 roof prism as a suitable control. My first target was a bright, waxing gibbous Moon fairly low in the southern sky. The Zeiss threw up more in the way of internal reflections than the Sierra. The colour cast of the lunar surface appeared more yellow in  the Zeiss compared with the cleaner images of the Sierra. As I expected from my iphone torch tests, the sky immediately arround the Moon was also brighter in the Zeiss, with noticeably lower contrast than the Sierra. Moving the Moon to the edge of the field also showed that the Zeiss threw up more distortions than the Sierra control binocular.

Turning to Vega high in the northwest after sunset produced good on-axis images in both binoculars, but when moved to the edge of the field, the Zeiss threw up that little bit more distortion than the Barr & Stroud Sierra. The same was true when I examined the Pleaides and the Hyades in Taurus.

Conclusions and Implications:

The Zeiss Jenoptem was a good binocular in its day but is clearly inferior in almost every sense to the Barr & Stroud roof binocular used in comparison. 40 years ago, the Zenoptem would have set the average factory worker a whole month’s salary to acquire new. In contrast, the Barr & Stroud Sierra can be had for between £100 and £120 in today’s market.  The value of waterproofing was made manifest in the observation of rusting of some of the metal internal components of the Zeiss. The Sierra, in contrast, is fully waterproof, o-ring sealed and purged with dry nitrogen gas to inhibit internal fogging and corrosion of any metallic components used in its construction.

Enormous advances in optical technology over the last four decades, particularly full broadband multi-coatings applied to all lens and prism surfaces, higher quality optical glass, as well as phase coated prisms on the roof binocular, collectively allow very efficient light transmissions to the eye. This is all the more remarkable since roof prism designs usually have many more optical components than their porro prism counterparts.

Better eregonomics in modern roof prism binoculars as well the employment of strong, low mass polycarbonate housings in their design make them lighter and easier to use than their porro prism counterparts from a generation ago. All of these add to the comfort of using them either during the day or at night when looking at the heavens.

I had a look on ebay to see what these old Jenoptems were being offered for. I found quite a few of them selling for between £150 and £200, so not the high prices demanded by other classic binoculars.

Like with all optical firms, time has marched on, with modern binoculars offering much better performance than earlier models.

This comparison test must have implications for many people who already own or use older binoculars and who have not compared them to modern incarnations. And that’s as true for Zeiss as with any other manufacturer. Indeed, I was quite shocked at how much better my first quality roof prism 8 x 42 roof prism binocular fared compared to an old 7x 50 porro I was gifted back in the early 1990s. Technology has well and truly marched on! And while I like classic instruments just as much as the next guy, I see little point in using any when even modest instruments created in the modern age are likely to perform better than similar instruments made a generation ago. It’s just a hard fact of life.

The technology of the past is certainly interesting but it would be daft to neglect the advances offered in the modern era.

 

I would like to extend my thanks to Sandy and his parents for allowing me to test drive these old binoculars. I will be advising him to use lens caps on the optics when not in use and have also provided a sachet of silica gel dessicant to minimise moisture-induced corrosion of the optic.

 

Neil English discusses all manner of classic telescope technology in his 650+ page historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy(Springer-Nature).

 

De Fideli.

A Magical Hour with my 130mm F/5 Newtonian.

A grab ‘n’ go telescope on steroids.

Anno Domini MMXIX

My conversion to Newtonian telescopes continues apace. Though I’ve had my wonderful 130mm f/5 Newtonian travel ‘scope for a few years now, it never ceases to impress me. And my observations on the freezing night of November 18 with the same instrument only served to consolidate those sentiments.

I set the telescope out on its trusty Vixen Porta II alt-azimuth mount about 10.30pm local time and tweaked its collimation before leaving it to cool down from an indoor temperature of 20C to an outside temperature of -5C. The optical tube is quite rigid and it holds accurate collimation very well, which is fine for general observing, but I always fine-tune the alignment of its two mirrors when going after the tightest double stars. I knew conditions would be good for such an activity by noting how little Vega was twinkling low down in the western sky, while bright stars like Capella and Mirfak located high overhead shone with a steady, planet-like gleam.

The tube is insulated with a thin layer of cork and overlaid by black flocking material. I have noted that this affords extra thermal stability to the telescope, especially as temperatures drop rapidly(as occurs during acclimation on these cold nights). I do not use any air-blowing fans to accelerate cooling of the primary mirror, but this has never really been an issue with this small Newtonian telescope.

After enjoying a lengthy binocular session using my 20 x 60 on a simple monopod, I began an hour of telescopic observations on a number of seasonal double stars, beginning about 11:20pm. Orion was quite well placed  east of the merdian, so I inserted my Meade 5.5mm UWA yielding 118x on a fairly low lying Rigel, carefully focused and observed the stellar image. Wow! What an amazing apparition! I was greeted by an intensely bright image of this white supergiant star, with beautiful diffraction spikes radiating outwards from a calm Airy disk. And just a little to its southwest, its faint close-in companion was easily discerned. That was enough of a confirmation that seeing conditions were indeed very good, so from there I panned the telescope northward to the better placed belt stars of Orion, examining both Mintaka and Alnitak at the same power. The images of both stellar systems were lovely and calm, with beautiful hard Airy disks betraying their companions with ease.

From there, I moved up to a more challenging system, 32 Orionis, located just a few degrees east-southeast of Bellatrix. Coupling a 3x achromatic Barlow lens to the Meade 5.5mm yielding a power of 354x, I carefully focused the image, watching it as it raced across the field of view. Sure enough, its close-in companion(separation ~ 1.3″) proved easy pickings for this light-weight 5.1-inch telescope situated just off to the northeast of the primary. Before leaving the celestial Hunter, I had a quick look at Eta Orionis, another fine, high-resolution target, consisting of a magnitude +3.6 primary and a tight, magnitude +4.9 secondary. Both were nicely resolved at 354x, and roughly orientated east-to-west.

Pointing the telescope at majestic Auriga, now very high in the sky, I trained the instrument at Theta, an old friend, and backed the magnification down to 236x by swopping out my 3x Barlow for a 2x Orion Shorty. That was more than enough to resolve its ghostly companion in the still midnight air.

I spent the next quarter hour exploring some favourite doubles in Cassiopeia, notably the lovely colour contrast pair, Eta Cassiopeiae, admiring the textbook perfect images of its yellow primary and ruddy secondary at 118x. And from there I moved to Iota Cassiopeiae, beholding this beautiful triple system at 236x. These views inspired me to swing the instrument westward into Andromeda, where I quickly tracked down another binary superstar, Almach, where the telescope showed me a gorgeous, crisp image of the orange primary and widely separated blue secondary at 118x.

After a quick look at Castor A, B and C at 118x, I trained my eyes on Propus, the ‘orange nemesis,’ as I have come to call it, which by now was reasonably well placed but still a few hours from culminating in the south. This system requires very high powers, so I broke out my 4.8mm T1 Nagler and coupled it to my 3x Barlow lens, delivering a magnification of 405 diameters. Carefully focussing the star, I watched it cross the field of view several times, observing its behaviour at this ultra-high power. During some moments, the system swelled up to become a rather unsightly seeing disk owing to a combination of thermal stress and variations in seeing, but sure enough, there was always prolonged moments where the image came together, as it were, allowing me to carefully examine the stable Airy disk. And it wasn’t long before I began to see the little blue pimple of light from its tiny secondary touching the marmalde orange primary. Having examined this system quite a few times with the 130mm Newtonian over the last few years, I have learned that good seeing doesn’t always yield commensurately good results. This I attribute to the slightly variable nature of this post-main sequence star, which can often hide the companion. But tonight, my patience paid off!

Plotina: strutting her stuff at -5C.

I ended the vigil shortly before half past midnight local time, by moving the telescope from my back garden to the front of the house, where I was greeted by the light of a silvery last quarter Moon, hanging above the Fintry Hills to the east. Inserting the little 4.8mm Nagler delivering 135x, I enjoyed some wonderful, crisp images of the battered lunar regolith, particularly the majestic Apennine Mountains strewn across its mid-section, near the terminator, as well as the magnificent desolation of the heavily cratered southern lunar highlands.

Simple pleasures of a telescope.

It was good to get out. But it was equally nice to retire the telescope indoors and reflect on the experience, sat next to a warm coal fire.

 

 

De Fideli.

 

 

 

Return to Wigtown: October 2019.

The driveway up to East Kirkland Farm, Wigtown.

Our annual family October vacation almost never happened this year. Our car gave up the ghost, necessitating the purchase of a new one just a week before our planned trip, and then, to add insult to injury, our fan oven died, requiring us to pay out still more cash to get it replaced. Luckily, I had just received an advance on my new book, as well as my first pay cheque for my debut feature-length article in Salvo Magazine, outlining the scientific case against extraterrestrial life.  Unfortunately, the holiday cottages at East Kirkland Farm were almost fully booked by the time we made our enquiries, and all the proprietors could offer us was a few days, starting on Wednesday October 16 until the end of the week. Trying to salvage some quality time away, we jumped at the chance and decided to go for it!

This was our fourth trip down to Wigtown, located at the very southwest tip of Scotland. As I have documented in previous blogs, I have enjoyed some beautiful, pristine skies here in the past, using a variety of hand-held binoculars and telescopes . What I mainly wish to report here is one night of observations, which took place at East Kirkland on Wednesday, October 16 2019.

I took along my trusty, high-performance 130mm F/5 travel Newtonian reflector in its padded aluminium case and my new pocket binocular; a Zeiss Terra ED pocket 8 x 25mm, for daylight observations of the landscape. I elected not to take my larger binoculars as there was a bright, nearly full Moon in the sky, which would rise early in the evening making observations with larger binoculars almost impossible to conduct. No, I would be using the Newtonian to carry out some observations of a suite of double stars, both easy and some more challenging, as these are largely unaffected by the presence of a bright Moon.

Two wonderful travelling companions.

After driving through an active weather system in the morning, the skies cleared as we approached Wigtown and the afternoon turned out to be sunny and reasonably warm, with only a few clouds in the sky.  After unpacking, I set up the 130mm on my old Vixen Porta II alt-azimuth mount in the shade of a garden tree where I was able to enjoy wonderful, ultra-high-powered views of the hinterland. As I expained in previous blogs, this little Newtonian is an excellent spotting ‘scope, possessing  superior light grasp and constrast that easily exceeds the performance of conventional spotting ‘scopes that often cost considerably more. This is especially apparent in low light conditions that are all too common during the shorter days of late autumn and winter.  Alas, I didn’t bring along my Vixen erecting lens but I didn’t really need it. I just drank up the views at 118x of tree trunks and branches, golden autumn leaves and bramble bushes, still drenched by the rainfall that occurred that same morning,  just a few tens of yards away in the distance. Indeed, of all the kinds of optical equipment now availalble to the nature lover, conventional spotting ‘scopes make little sense to me. Why fork out so much for an instrument that is severely limited by its small (70-100mm) aperture?

Plotina, my wonderful 130mm f/5 travel Newtonian delivering some ultra-high powers of the terrestrial creation on the afternoon of October 16, 2019.

The evening remained largely cloud free but I knew that a nearly full Moon would be rising early in the east, at about 7.30pm local time. Conditions were quite different to the other occasions I have observed here in past journeys. This time, there was hardly any wind all day and the evening brought some high altitude cirrus cloud and lower altitude cumulus that came and went as the evening dragged on. Still, a quick look at Delta Cygni showed that conditions were, once again, excellent(Ant I-II). The faint companion was steadily seen and observed at 354x (Meade Series 5000 UWA coupled to a 3x Meade achromatic Barlow). The Airy disks were tiny and round with a single, delicate diffraction ring surrounding the bright primary.

Moonrise over Wigtown, as captured at 20:58 h on Wednesday October 16, 2019.

During our summer trip to Pembrokeshire, South Wales, I forgot to bring my flexi-dew shield, which forced me to adopt a totally different strategy while observing. Thankfully, the dew shield came with me this time and it proved indispensable as these calm conditions would bring a heavy dew.

I really got stuck in after supper, just after 8pm local time, visiting a suite of favourite double and multiple stars witth Plotina. Albireo in Cygnus was mesmerizing with lovely calm Airy disks displaying their true colours(the reflector afterall is a true achromatic telescope) in the telescope at 118x. Moving over to Mu Cygni, I cranked up the power to 354x to cleanly resolve the two close companions and a bright field star wide away. Moving into Lyra, I got a text-book perfect split of the four components of Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae at 118x but an altogether more satisfying split at 270x (4.8 mm T1 Nagler coupled to a 2x Orion Shorty Barlow) . And to give the reader an idea of how good the skies were here at this time, I was able to cleanly split Epsilon Bootis at 118x and 135x, even though it was very low in the western sky at the time of observation!

Moving to the southwest sky, I turned the little Newtonian on Pi Aquliae and was rewarded by a very crisp splitting of this near-equal brightness pair at 354x. I then moved the telescope on Polaris, the pole star and enjoyed a lovely calm view of its very faint companion at 118x. The same was true of Mizar & Alcor, which  presented a downright dazzling light show in the telescope at 118x.

By 9pm, Cassiopeia was well positioned high in the sky and I turned the telescope to another system, that up to relatively recently was considered tricky by dyed in the wool refractor nuts. I speak of course of Iota Cassiopeiae, which was easily resolved into its three components at 118x. The view was far more compelling at 354x though! From there, I panned the telescope across to Eta Cassiopeiae, where the telescope presented a beautiful, ruddy primary and yellow secondary some three magnitudes fainter(magnitude +7.5)

At about 9.30pm local time, I turned the telescope on another autumn favourite; Almach; which presented gloriously with its orange and bluish components in the Newtonian at 118x and 354x. Finally, I tracked down another very close system, 36 Andromedae, a 1.0″ near equal brightness pair. Centring it in the field of view using the slow motion controls on the Vixen Porta II mount, I cranked up the power to 354x to behold a wonderful sight; two tiny Airy disks with a sliver of dark sky between the components! Reaching for the 4.8mm Nagler, and coupling it to my 3x achromatic Barlow lens, the power was increased to 405x, where I was still able to stably hold both components as they raced across the field of view from east to west.

Some folk might form the erroneous view that these conditions must be rare in the British Isles, but I have conclusively de-bunked that opinion(promulgated by lazy, arm-chair amateurs unwilling to do any field work of this nature). There are, in fact, many places in Britain and Ireland which give the same kind of excellent performance with this little Newtonian reflector. So, it has nothing to do with sheer dumb luck, but all to do with diligent enquiry!

The next day, October 17, proved a washout, unfortunately. Frequent heavy showers of rain put a severe dampener on the vacation and these showers persisted right into the early and late evening, so I didn’t bother to use the telescope. That said, I have one additional memorable observation to report during the wee small hours of October 18. Sticking my head out of doors at 1.20 am local time showed a bright waxing Gibbous Moon skirting very close to the bright star, Aldebaran. Reaching for my little Zeiss Terra pocket binocular showed me a most arresting sight! The Moon was just a few degrees directly east of the horns of Taurus, looking for all the world as if it were about to lock horns with the celestial bull. I watched in sheer amazement as some clouds blew across the Moon from west to east, blotting out some of the glory of the stars of the Hyades, but in the process, creating a wonderful display of light and colour, as the low-altitude rain clouds approached and then receded from our bright, natural satellite. I only wished I had brought along my 8 x 42 Savannah binocular to capture still brighter images of this marvellous apparition, but hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing!

It would have been nice to have another night to accumulate more data at this site but it was not to be. Still, it was good to get away, if only for a few days.

A capital grab ‘n’ go telescope. Powered by human muscle, eyes and brains.

I would continue to encourage others who have a small Newtonian telescope like this to perform their own field tests on these and other double stars. I mean, it’s all very easy to falsify, isn’t it? You just need to collimate accurately and allow enough time for the telescope to acclimate fully to the outside air. That said, If time is against you,  it’s best to start with the easiest pairs and move onto the tighter ones as the telescope nears full equilibration.

Good luck with your adventures!

Neil English is the author of seven  books. His largest work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, provides a historical overview of many astronomers from yesteryear who used Newtonian reflectors productively in their exploration of the heavens.

 

De Fideli.

The Field of Glory.

Companion under the stars: the Pentax PCF 20 x 60 binocular.

Preamble

Visual astronomy can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. We can use the eyes our Creator designed for us to marvel at the beauty of the night sky. Or we can employ a telescope to get those up-close views, where both resolving and light gathering power are needed to make sense of what we see. But there is also the binocular perspective, which fills a niche set midway between that of the eye and that of the telescope.

On the night of August 25 2019, I found myself doing all three. After an hour of admiring dim and hard to find deep sky objects using my largest telescope; a 12″ f/5 Newtonian reflector, I sat back in my observing chair to drink up the naked eye heavens above me. The air was still, with no wind, and only the occasional screech of a barn owl breaking the silence. After a few months of twilit skies with only the brightest stellar luminaries on display, true darkness had now returned to the landscape. By 11:30pm local time, the bright constellations of Cygnus, Lyra, Hercules and Aquila had passed into the western hemisphere, with Bootes now sinking perilously close to the western horizon. And over in the northeast, Cassiopeia, Perseus and Auriga were making excellent progress climbing ever higher in the sky.  Andromeda and Pegasus were also ripe for exploration. The familiar asterism of the Plough hung low over the northern horizon, far below the North Star, Polaris, around which the great dome of the sky wheels. With no Moon in the sky, and good transparency, the river of light from the northern Milky Way stood out boldly, snaking its way across the heavens from east to west. It was the perfect opportunity to break out my big binocular, a Pentax DCF 20 x 60 and boy did it deliver the readies!

Using a monopod for big binocular astronomy on the go.

As I described at great length in the preamble linked to at the beginning of this blog, the Pentax DCF 20 x 60 combines excellent optics with great mechanical features in a relatively light weight package; ideal for use with a monopod. The instrument attaches in seconds to a strong, high-quality ball and socket mount head and can be transported easily from one place to another. Delivering a pristine, flat field some 2.2 degrees wide, the Pentax had already delivered gorgeous views of the heavens during Winter and Spring evenings, but I had not yet had an opportunity to sample the skies of late Summer/early Autumn with this powerful optical instrument.

My first target was M13, easily found about one third of the way from Eta Herculis to Zeta Herculis in the western edge of the famous Keystone asterism. I had already admired this big and bright globular cluster earlier in the 12″ telescope at high power. The 20 x 60 binocular revealed a bright fuzzy bauble about half the size of the full Moon and neatly sandwiched between two 7th magnitude field stars. Of course, the binocular could not compete with the majesty of such a cluster as presented in a large, light bucket, but it was nonetheless a lovely sight with wonderful contrast against a jet black sky.

I then moved over to Lyra and centered the bright summer luminary, Vega, shining with its intense blue-white hue across the sea of interstellar space, and surrounding it a swarm of fainter suns, including the famous Epsilon Lyrae of double star fame. Moving into Cygnus, I turned the binocular on Beta Cygni, known more commonly as Albireo. With a steady hand, I could easily resolve the beautiful, wide colour contrast double star; marmalade orange and blue-green secondary. Panning about eight degrees due south of Albireo the binocular field soon captured that remarkable little asterism that is the Coathanger (Collinder 339). What makes this a particualrly engaging visual sight is the uniformity of the stars comprising it; most shining with a soft white hue and of the sixth magnitude of glory.

Moving about five degrees to the east of the Coathanger, and forming a neat little right-angled triangle with the stars of Saggita, the celestial Arrow, I chanced upon the large and bright planetary nebula, known commonly as the Dumbbell (Messier 27). Unlike other planetary nebula, M27 is one of the few that present clearly in the relatively low power view of the binocular. Try as I might though, I could not see the hourglass shape of the nebula as seen in telescopes at higher power; it was more or less circular in form, softly glowing against the background sky at magntude 7.4.

I didn’t have to travel far for my next visual treat; M71, a faint globular cluster situated nearly exactly midway between Gamma and Zeta Saggitae. With its population of mostly 12th magnitude suns, M71 presented as a misty patch in a glittering hinterland of August star light.

Adjusting the ball & socket head of the monopod, I ventured back into Cgynus and centred the lovely binocular double,  commonly referred to as 0^1 Cygni. Like a wider version of Albireo, the 20 x 60 binocular presented their fetching colours perfectly, orange and turquoise (magnitude 3.8 and 4.8, resepctively). I could not however clearly resolve the fainter 7th magnitude component parked up against the orange member, which a small telescope so easily shows.

Eager to examine another stellar hinterland, I moved the binocular so that Deneb was centred in the field of view. Well, this binocular portal took my breath away! Hundreds of suns of varying degrees of glory smattered haphazardly across the field, and here and there the excellent contrast of the instrument also showed up some small nebulous patches set adrift among the starry hosts. With its very generous 21mm of eye relief, the big binocular was delivering very comfortable and immersive views. It was almost as if I could reach out my hand and touch the heavens!

With midnight approaching, I noticed that the great square of Pegasus was clearing the rooftop of my house, and a little further to the east, Andromeda, the Chained Lady, had by now gained a decent altitude. Eagerly, I trained the binocular on a foggy patch clearly seen with the naked eye. I had arrived at the Great Andromeda Galaxy (M31). The lenticular shaped core was big and bright and beautifully contrasted against a sable sky, and with averted vision it was not hard to trace the spiral arms all the way to the edges of the field. Its fainter companions, M32 and M110, were also seen with a concentrated gaze, the former being easier to see and just a half an angular degree to the south of M31. M110 proved much more elusive though, being larger and fainter than M32 but nonetheless fairly easy to pick off about a degree away to the northwest of the main galaxy.

Moving into Cassiopeia, the binocular presented field after field of brilliant starlight with a wonderful variety of colours. Many faint open clusters came to life as I inched the binocular through its mid-section; NGC 457(otherwise known as the E.T. Cluster) was very engaging, especially the bright, 5th magnitude white super-giant star marking its southern border, and then on into the heart of M103, a compact little open cluster just to the northeast of blue-white Delta Cassiopeiae. My notes from a good few years back informed me that the cluster presented as unresolved in an inexpensive 15 x 70 binocular, but this instrument, with its significantly higher magnification, was just beginning to hint at some individual stars within the cluster. A comely quartet of stars flanking the southeastern corner of the Messier cluster made the scene especially engaging to study. Panning very slowly eastward through the constellation, roughly from Delta to Epsilon Cassiopeiae, my eyes picked up many faint open clusters, including NGC 44, 663, 559 and 637.

By about a quarter past midnight, Perseus had risen to a good height above the northeastern horizon, and I eagerly sought out the famous Double Cluster(Caldwell 14), easily located as a foggy patch to the naked eye roughly mid-way between Perseus and Cassiopeia. With great excitement, I moved in on my target, all the while bringing to mind the stunning views I had reported with this binocular last Winter. Wow! I wasn’t disaapointed. The entire field exploded with stars of various hues; white, blue-white, creamy yellow and sanguine, the two sumptuous open clusters beautifully resolved with curious fans of stars radiating outwards from their centres. Sharpness was extreme from edge to edge, with the stars presenting as tiny pinpoints. I believe that this 20 x 60 binocular renders these awesome natural spectacles as good as you’ll ever see them; the combination of decent light gathering power and magnification using both eyes is a match made in heaven! This was a pre-season teaser though. The Double Cluster will only increase in majesty, as it continues to climb higher in our skies over the next few months.

Moving to Algol, the Demon Star, I then navigated about 5 degrees west from it, where I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I was able to pick up another lovely open cluster, M34. The powerful double eye on the sky resolved a few dozen members, mostly 7th, 8th and 9th magnitude members sprawled across an area of sky roughly the size of the full Moon. Many fainter members, largely unsresolved by the instrument, gave the cluster a very lively, translucent appearance, a consequence I suppose of the inability of the binocular to cleanly resolve its faintest members, which go all the way down to magnitude 13. Sometimes, not seeing things clearly adds to the visual appeal of deep sky objects.

From there, I moved back to Alpha Persei and placed it at the upper edge of the field of view of the 20 x 60. Even though the binocular has a fairly restricted 2.2 degree true field, it was able to pick up a generous assortment of bright O-B stars at the heart of the moving cluster Melotte 20. It was a beautiful sight!

With the time fast approaching 12:30 am, I picked up the 20 x 60 astride its monopod and moved to the front of the house, where my gaze met with the Pleiades rising above the Fintry Hills to the east of my home. Though it was still at a fairly low altitude, the 20 x 60 produced a draw-jopping view of this celebrated open cluster, its orientation being rather lobsided compared with how it appears later in the autumn. Many of its fainter members were extinguished by virtue of its low altitude, but it was still a magnificent sight. Again I would concede that large binoculars produce the best views of the Pleiads. And it will get better, night by night, as Autumn turns to Winter.

With a waning crescent Moon not far away from rising, I retired from the field of glory with a head full of vivid memories. This was just the beginning though. God willing, it will show me even grander sights as the days continue to shorten through the autumnal equinox and onwards toward the December Solstice.

 

Neil English’s new book, The ShortTube 80, A User’s Guide, will soon be published by Springer-Nature.

 

 

De Fideli.

Exploring the Skies Over Rural Pembrokeshire.

Slova Beach, Pembrokeshire, Wales.

De omnibus dubitandum

 

Preamble

Results from Northwest, Central and Southwest Scotland

Results from Central Scotland

Results from Northwest England

Results from the Republic of Ireland

5″ f/12 refractor versus 130mm F/5 Newtonian Shootout

Investigating the Jet Stream

Llanrhian-Berea

Wales is a country of outstanding natural beauty, with deep valleys, high mountains and rolling hills. Its rugged coastline boasts many pristine(blue flag) beaches and pretty little towns that are a joy to visit and explore. Like Scotland, frequent weather systems move in from the Irish Sea, purging the air of particulates that create excellent transparency for remote daytime viewing and astronomical adventures when the Sun sinks beneath the horizon.

Newgale, Pembrokeshire.

We decided on Wales because my brother and his young family had moved there last year from northeast Scotland, where he settled in a large country house dating from the mid-19th century, situated on the outskirts of the small village of Letterston, some ten miles north of Haverfordwest and 6 miles inland from Fishguard, where you can catch a ferry across the open sea to Ireland. And besides, we’d never vacationed in Wales before, so we had no good excuse but to make that 400 mile journey south from our home in rural, central Scotland.

St. David’s Cathedral, a place of worship since the 6th century AD. From the City of St. David’s, Pembrokeshire, southwest Wales.

The house is situated on five acres of choice land, secluded on all sides by woody glades, and even sports a large fish pond fed by a couple of fresh streams meandering through the estate. The homestead is surrounded by beautifully tended lawns and flower gardens that thrive because of frequent rain showers which keep them lush and well watered. It is a very peaceful place, with little in the way of light pollution, save for the glow from Haverfordwest, which illumines the southern horizon. Higher up though, the night sky is truly glorious, where the summer Milky Way winds its way from Perseus in the northeast to Sagittarius in the south.

Lower Summerhill.

We arrived late on Monday July 29, after spending much of the day travelling. I was glad that night was rainy and overcast, as I was exhausted from the journey and in no mood to pull out a telescope. Besides, we were all eager to catch up with my brother and sister-in-law, and my boys stayed up well beyond their bed times nattering to their first cousins. The next night was overcast but remained dry.

But the next three evenings were clear.

The sojourner: Plotina, the author’s nifty 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector. The pond lies in the background.

I brought along my portable 130mm f/5 reflecting telescope, which had proven to be spectacularly successful in ‘scouting out’ good sights to view the heavens from. It had already travelled a few thousand miles all around Britan and Ireland, where I had tested the skies on a number of choice double stars to establish something of the seeing conditions across the British Isles, some of which are highlighted in the links provided above.

As I have communicated many times in the past, this little Newtonian had greatly exceeded my expectations. Sporting a high-quality 5.1″ primary mirror and an upgraded secondary, when cooled and collimated, had shown me arguably some of the best views I have ever experienced with any grab ‘n’ ‘scope. With its state-of-the-art reflective coatings and modest( 26.9 per cent) central obstruction, it has consistently delivered the readies in all weather conditions, from warm, muggy summer nights to freezing winter evenings. It has proven itself to be a first rate double star ‘scope, which, under the right conditions, renders beautiful, colour-pure images of the Creation. Three eyepieces attended the instrument in its foam-lined aluminium case; a 25mm Celestron X-Cel LX, delivering a power of 26x in a well corrected 2.3 degree true field. This is my favourite wide-field scanning ocular used with the 130mm, great for observing star clusters and large deep sky objects. For medium power work, I brought along my Parks Gold 7.5mm, a delightfully simple eyepiece with wonderful contrast. Coupled to a 3x Barlow it delivers a power of 260x, which is a good working magnification to use on a variety of closer doubles. For higher power work, I also took along my Meade 5.5mm Ultra Wide Angle(UWA), delivering a power of 118x in a true field of ~ 0.7 angular degrees, useful for close up observations of smaller deep sky objects. And when coupled to the 3x Barlow yields a power of 354x, great for ferreting out the most difficult pairs. Still, it must be mentioned that this instrument can handle 100x per inch of aperture, if push comes to shove.

Beach Gear

The only other instrument I took along with me was my Pentax 9 x 28mm DCF LV roof prism binocular. I figured I would get a lot of use out of this, as we planned to visit many places where they would come in handy. I had intended to bring by trusty 8 x 42 but these had to be sent away for repair/replacement. And although the small Pentax binocular was the perfect accompaniment by day, I regretted not bringing my 10 x 50 roofs. Indeed, I really ought to have brought along both instruments with me.

Conditions at the site:

Dusk, looking westward.

Being located so close to the coast, the evenings are often breezy from onshore winds, but by dusk, they usually abate, creating very tranquil conditions. What I also noticed was how quickly and heavy the dew is at this site; significantly more aggressive than at home. Indeed, my observing sessions were limited by dew, as the telescope has no fans or dew heaters to keep it at bay. And I had forgotten to take along my flexi dew shield, so unfortunately, it was always a race against time.

I encountered no midge flies while making observations; a God send! They’d eat you alive in Scotland!! What you can get here is horse flies though. Thankfully they left me alone throughout the vigils.

Session 1: July 31 2019

The first object to emerge from the dusk was mighty Jupiter, appearing ever more bright as the twilight gave way to proper darkness and a few degrees higher in the sky than it appears up in Scotland.. Beginning around 20:55UT, I charged the telescope with the 5.5mm Meade UWA yielding 118x, and turning it on the giant planet, I was greeted with a very nice image. All four Galilean satellites were visible, a couple to the east of the planet and a couple to its west. The planet itself was revealing some very fine details, several tan-coloured bands and bright zones. The north equatorial belt was very prominent but its southern counterpart showing visible disjointing. 118x was producing a nice image scale, plenty high enough to see fine detail but not so enlarged as to wash out the same details. It was nice to greet an old friend like this. Its lower altitude back home had often blurred these finer details so much that I had all but abandoned the planet during this current apparition, holding out for better conditions when the planet gains altitude in a few years from now.

Studying the giant planet for a few minutes also suggested to me that the seeing was going to be good for double star testing, and lo, it most certainly was!

21:03 UT: Epsilon Lyrae 1& 2; beautifully resolved into four components at 260x

21:06 UT: Epsilon Bootis; text book perfect rendition of this gorgeous colour-contrast double. Beautifully rendered at 260x

21:10UT: Delta Cygni; textbook perfect split of this system with its bright primary and faint secondary. Easy picking at 260x

21:15 UT: Finder scope had already dewed up, so I detached it from the ‘scope, capped up the main telescope and brought the finder indoors to let the condensation evaporate.

21:57 UT: Resumed observations of double stars, starting with Pi Aquilae, which was very easily split at 354x

21:29UT Lambda Cygni: a sub-arc second pair. Airy disks touching at 354x but not cleanly disjointed.

21:31UT: Mu Cygni, easy split at 260x

21:50UT I turned back to Jupiter and immediately noticed the Great Red Spot (GRS) near the eastern limb. Even finer planetary details were coming through now in the darkened sky. I decided to cap up the optics on the main ‘scope once again to ward off dew, removed the finder scope and brought it indoors. This would be a good opportunity to make a measurement of the current Central Meridian (CM) II longitude of the GRS.

I re-emerged from indoors at 22:20 UT, uncovered the 130mm’s optics and re-mounted the finderscope. Aiming once again at Jove, the GRS had moved considerably further west but was not yet at the central meridian. Over the next twenty minutes I watched carefully using the Meade 5.5mm UWA(118x) throughout and was finally satisfied that the GRS was on the CM II meridian at 22:41UT.

I had to wait until I returned home to turn this timing into a CM II longitude for the GRS. Downloading the latest edition of WinJupos freeware, I entered the longitude, latitude and time I estimated the spot was crossing the meridian( 22:41 UT). The software computed a value of 312.4 degrees:

WinJupos computation of the GRS transit across central meridian.

I then searched to find a reliable source that quoted the most up-to-date CM II longitude determination of the GRS and found this recent(as of June 5 2019) posting on the Sky & Telescope website. See here for interest. The source quoted a value of 308 degrees!

That’s very close to the measurement I made!

Cool or what?

No’ bad,………ken.

Yessiree, the 130mm is a fine planetary telescope, allowing me to make some pretty challenging measurements more or less routinely.

 

Vigil ended at 22:50UT owing to build up of dew on the telescope’s secondary mirror.

 

A Curious Aside: Oculus Historiae

 

Session 2: August 1 2019

The second night was, to all intents and purposes, a carbon copy of the night before; a windy early evening which gave way to tranquil conditions as sunset approached. Starting at dusk around 21:00 UT, I set the telescope up on its Vixen Porta II mount and lowered the tripod legs a little to enable the kids to get a decent look at the two bright planets that were quite prominently on display low in the south: Jupiter and, several degrees further east, majestic Saturn. Keeping the magnification at 118x, the telescope displayed crisp views of both worlds, but alas, no sign of the GRS. My boys had seen these worlds before, of course, but not their cousins.The twins(Luca & Amabelle) were gobsmacked with the sight of Saturn, in particular, through the telescope. It was the first time they had ever seen this world ‘live.’ They chuckled among themselves saying, ” it’s just like you see in a book!”

Spying Jupiter and Saturn through the 130mm Newtonian. From left to right: Luca, Amabelle, Oscar and Douglas.

Well maybe, but the instrument was able to cleary show the Cassini Division as well as some subtle banding on this giant world 880 million miles away! I judged the image to be very good considering its woefully low altitude.Like Jupiter, it promises to yield better views for us far-northern observers in the years ahead.

A little later, my sister-in-law, Rhiannon, came to have a look at the planets and some showpiece deep sky objects. She was amazed to discover that the instrument didn’t cost very much, even with all the modifications done to it.

Beginning at 21:15 UT,  I began my double star tests, in rapid succession, and using the same magnifications I had used the previous evening. And the results were exactly the same: very good seeing conditions, enabling high resolution double star work to be conducted.

I then took myself off to visit the Ring Nebula(M57) in Lyra, three bright globular clusters, M3 in Canes Venatici,  as well as M13 and M92 in Hercules. The good light grasp and resolving power provided very engaging views in these dark skies, which I had, by now, deemed very similar in quality to another site in Wigtown, southwest Scotland (and also near the coast!) The Whirlpool Galaxy(M51) looked great at 118x, as did M81 and M82, which were still fairly high up in the north.

I ended the telescopic vigil with quick looks at some easy multiple star gems including Mizar & Alcor, Gamma Delphini, Iota Cassiopeiae (with its 3 beautiful stellar members), Albireo and the lovely O^1 Cygni system.

The telescope had dewed up by 21:50UT, at which time it was packed up for another night.

At 22:45 UT, as every one else had retired for the night, I ventured out again with my 9 x 28 binocular, enjoying the river of starlight through the Milky Way. But what most excited me was the siight of Perseus, now set much higher in the northeastern sky. Aiming at Alpha Persei, I brought the binocular to my eyes to behold that beautiful, sprawling wonder that is Melotte 20. It’s a spectacular binocular sight, even wth this small instrument. I couldn’t help pining for something larger though, like my 8 x 42, or better still, my 10 x 50. But I suppose, we live and learn!

I retreated from the field of glory around local midnight, for we had much to do the following day.

Low tide at Solva.

Session 3: August 2 2019

Like the last two days, August 2 was warm and sunny, though today some high altitude cloud produced much more in the way of hazy conditions than on the previous days. And that haze remained into the evening and over night. As a result, transparency was much reduced to my chagrin, since I wanted to do a little bit more deep sky observing. But as any regular observer worth his or her salt will inform you, hazy conditions often portend a good, stable atmosphere. Even before commencing telescopic observations it was easy to see the conditions were excellent, with the stars twinkling even less than they had done on the previous nights.

At 21:20 UT I began with a quick look at Jupiter, now near its maximum altitude for this location, with the 130mm charged with a power of 118x. Some really fine details were showing up as the planet drifted across the field of view, proving once again that such an instrument is a good choice for observing the bright planets, especially in grab ‘n’ go mode.

At 21:30 UT, I commenced my double star observations, using the same magnifications as described on July 31, and, one by one, they all succumbed to the formidable resolving power of this telescope. Conditions this evening at this site were as good as I have seen elsewhere(Ant I); there was zero turbulence, the stars resolving to beautiful, hard Airy disks in every case. I also recorded a good split of the components of Lambda Cygni this evening, separated by 0.94″  at a power of 354x, though I would have liked to have had some additional magnifying power on this tough target( I have used 405x with this system in this telescope on many occasions).

This vigil was ended at 22:05 UT.

Conclusions: On three consecutive nights, the 130mm reflector served up excellent, high-power views of a selection of double stars, adding to my list of good places to observe from. Once again, the little Newtonian delivered the goods!

Do I attribute this to good fortune?

Sheer dumb luck?

Absolutely not!

It is the observer that creates opportunities. Diligence and determination are all that is required. The British Isles offers many places to do such work and is a far cry from the bad reputation our lands have garnered on more than a few internet forums.

Britain and Ireland are open for business and I would take any comments claiming the contrary with a large dose of scepticism.

Think tooth fairy, Yeti, Darwinian evolution…..you get my drift.

One thing is certain though; you’ll never know unless you get off your backside and do some real testing!

Memories from our trip back up north:

There were a few other nights where the skies were partially clear, allowing to me to make some short binocular tours. Indeed, the pattern was much the same as I have noted at a few other places in the UK and Ireland.

The picturesque esplanade at Aberystwyth.

We said our goodbyes to our hosts on Monday morning, August 5, when we set off northward. Our first port of call was Aberystwyth, a beautiful university town set on the coast. We enjoyed a delicious lunch, followed by a walk along its magnificent esplanade  and were sorely tempted to have a dip in the sea, but time was against us, as we had to make our way across the border into England, where we would spend a night in Liverpool.

The beach at Aberystwyth.

I’m not a fan of cities in general, but I had never visited Liverpool in all my years of living in the UK. The real reason for the visit was to do a tour of Anfield, the home ground of the 2019 Champion’s League winners, Liverpool F.C. My eldest son, Oscar, was in his element, being a die-hard Liverpool fan.

After booking into our hotel and having a bite to eat, we set off on a walk down to Liverpool docks in the late evening, taking in the amazing buildings that decorate the site,

One the amazing municipal buildings at Liverpool docklands.

Liverpool is also the ancestral home of the Beatles, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before we came across a reminder of the city’s most famous sons;

Larger than life bronze casts of the Beatles.

The city lies next to the Mersey estuary. On the evening we arrived, the tide was fully out at sunset, which made for a very pretty sight;

Sunset on the Mersey Estuary.

Taking an open-top bus around Liverpool, we learned a lot of historical information from the tour guide (speaking in broad Scouse) before being dropped off at Anfield. Countless bus loads of folk were making the pilgrimage to the home turf of one of England’s most successful football teams. I suppose for the faithful, it was like a visit to Mecca.

Anfield Stadium( August 6 2019).

The all-important silver ware.

Though we enjoyed many warm and sunny days in Wales, extending into our short trip to Liverpool, as we hit the mountains of northern England, sunshine gave way to torrential rain;

By bye to sunny skies.

Indeed, much of the rest of August brought very unsettled weather to Scotland, but at least the farmers were happy. Rumour has it that this was a record summer for growing grass and making hay! Unfortunately though, it also meant that our lawns, which were trimmed before we left, had to be cut down to size again upon our return.

Oh Bliss!

It was good to get away and spend some quality time with family. No doubt, I’ll be back again to sample its excellent skies with my little Newtonian reflector.

 

Neil English travels through four centuries of time to bring you many more inconvenient truths concerning the Newtonian reflector in his tome, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

 

De Fideli.

Investigating the Jet Stream

but test everything; hold fast what is good.

                                                                           1 Thessalonians 5:21

 

My Local Weather

 

Jet Stream Data

Introduction:  One of the statements that is oft quoted by observers, particularly in the UK, is that the meteorological phenomenon known as the Jet Stream seriously affects the quality of high resolution telescopic targets. I have decided to investigate these claims to determine to what extent they are true or not, as the case may be. These data will also provide the reader with an idea of the frequency of nights that are available for this kind of testing over the time period the study is to be conducted.

Method: For simplicity, I shall confine my studies to just four double stars that have long been considered reasonably tricky targets for telescopists. To begin with, my targets will include systems of varying difficulty, ranging from 2.5″ to 1.5″ separation, and the aim is to establish whether or not I can resolve the components at high magnification. These systems include *:

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae

Epsilon Bootis

Delta Cygni

Pi Aquilae

* These systems were chosen for their easy location in my current skies, but may be subject to change as the season(s) progress.

Viewers are warmy welcomed to conduct their own set of observations to compare and contrast results in due course.

Instrument Choice & Magnifications Employed:

The 130mm f/5 Newtonian telescope used in the present investigation.

 

A high-performance 130mm (5.1″) f/5 Newtonian reflector was employed to investigate the effects of this phenomenon, as this is an aperture regularly quoted as being sensitive to the vagaries of the atmosphere. Magnifications employed were 260x or 354x (they can however be resolved with less power). The instrument at all times was adequately acclimated to ambient temperatures and care was taken to ensure good collimation of the optical train. No cooling fans used on any of my instruments.

Results;

Date: August 17 2018

Time: 21:20 to 21:35 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions: Mild, 14C, very breezy, mostly cloudy with occasional clear spells, frequent light drizzle.

Observations: Power employed at the telescope 354x

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae: all four components cleanly resolved.

Delta Cygni: Faint companion clearly observed during calmer moments

Epsilon Bootis: Both components clearly resolved during calmer moments.

Pi Aquilae: Slightly mushier view, but both components resolved momentarily during calmer spells.

Truth seeking.

 

Date: August 19 2018

Time: 20:30 – 21:50 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland.

Conditions: Mild, 13C, mostly cloudy and damp all day but a clear spell occurred during the times stated above, no wind, heavy dew at end of vigil.

Observations: Seeing excellent this evening (Antoniadi I-II); textbook perfect images of all four test systems at 354x and 260x.

Nota bene: A 12″ f/5 Newtonian was also fielded to test collimation techniques and I was greeted with a magnificent split of Lambda Cygni (0.94″) at 663X. Little in the way of turbulence experienced even at these ultra-high powers. Did not test this system on the 130mm f/5.

Clouded up again shortly before 11pm local time, when the vigil was ended.

Date: August 22 2018

Time: 23:30-40 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions: Very mild (15C), breezy, predominantly cloudy with some heavy rain showers interspersed by some brief, patchy clearings.

Observations: Just two test systems examined tonight owing to extremely limited accessibility; Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae and Delta Cygni. Both resolved well at 260x.

 

Date: August 22 2018

Time: 21:00-21:25UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions; partially cloudy, brisk southwesterly wind, bright Gibbous Moon culminating in the south, +10C, rather cool, transparency poor away from zenith.

Observations: The telescope was uncapped and aimed straight into the prevailing SW wind, as is my custom.

All four systems well resolved at 354x, although visibility of Pi Aql was poor owing to thin cloud covering.

 

Date: August 23 2018

Time: 20:30-45 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Moved well south of Scotland

Conditions: Mostly clear this evening, after enduring heavy showers all day; cool, 10C, fresh westerly breeze, good transparency.

Observations:  All four test systems beautifully resolved this evening (seeing Ant II) at 354x. Just slightly more turbulent than the excellent night of August 19 last.

 

Date: August 24 2018

Time: 20:30-45 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Just west of my observing site.

Conditions: Almost a carbon copy of last night, light westerly winds, cool (9C), good transparency and almost no cloud cover. Very low full Moon in south-southeast.

Observations: All four system resolved at 260x, but less well at 354x owing to slightly deteriorated seeing ( II-III). Delta Cygni seems especially sensitive to seeing.

Nota bene: Epsilon Bootis now sinking fast into the western sky. This test system will soon be replaced by a tougher target, located higher up in my skies; Mu Cygni.

A capital telescope.

 

Date: August 25 2018

Time: 20:20-21:00 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Right over Scotland.

Conditions: Very hazy, calm, poor transparency, cool (9C), seeing excellent (I-II)

Observations: Just three of the four systems examined tonight owing to very poor transparency. Only Pi Aquilae could not be examined. All three were beautifully resolved at 354x.

 

Date: August 26 2018

Time: 22:30-23:05 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Well south of Scotland.

Conditions: After a day of heavy rain, the skies cleared partially around 11pm local time. Fresh westerly breeze, fairly mild (12C), bright full Moon low in the south.

Observations: Mu Cygni observed instead of Epsilon Bootis owing to the latter’s sinking low into the western sky at the rather late time the observations were made.

Three systems well resolved ( Mu Cygni, Pi Aquliae and Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae) in only fair seeing, with Delta Cygni B only spotted sporadically in moments of better seeing. This system is very sensitive to atmospheric turbulence due to a large magnitude difference between components, as opposed to their angular separation. 260x used throughout.

Nota bene: Readers will take note of the frequency of observations thus far made.

Date: August 27 2018

Time: 20:30-21:05 UT

Location of Jet Stream: West of the Scottish mainland.

Conditions: Mostly cloudy, mild, 13C, light westerly breeze.

Observations: I took advantage of a few brief clear spells this evening to target my systems(including Epsilon Bootis). Seeing very good despite the cloud cover (II). All four systems easily resolved tonight at both 354x and 260x.

Date: August 29 2018

Time: 20:25-40UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

Conditions: Mostly clear, occasional light shower, cool (11C), light westerly breeze, seeing and transparencyvery good (II).

Observations: Mu Cygni now replaces Epsilon Bootis.

All systems very cleanly resolved at 354x and 260x.

Nb. All systems also beautifully resolved in a 12″ f/5 Newtonian at 277x, set up alongside the 130mm f/5.

 

Date: August 30 2018

Time: 20:45- 21:00 UT

Location of the Jet Stream:  Not over Scotland.

Conditions: Partially cloudy with some good clear spells, cool (9C), very little breeze.

Observations: Seeing good tonight (II). All  four systems nicely resolved at 260x and 354x.

Note added in proof: Local seeing deteriorated (III-IV) somewhat between 21:00 and 22:00 UT, so much so that Delta Cygni B could no longer be seen.

 

Date: 31 August 2018

Time: 20:30-22:00UT

Location of Jet Stream: North of the British Isles

Conditions: Partly cloudy and becoming progressively more hazy as the vigil progressed. Mild, 12C, very light westerly breeze.

Observations: Seeing only fair this evning (II-III), all four systems resolved at 260x and 354x, though Delta Cygni B visibility was variable.

 

Date: September 1 2018

Time: 20:30-50UT

Location of Jet Stream: to the northwest of the Scottish Mainland.

Conditions: Partially clear, very mild (16C), light southerly breeze, good transparency.

Observations: Seeing quite good (II).  All four systems resolved at 260x and even better delineated at 354x under these clement conditions.

 

Date: September 4 2018

Time: 19:55-20:20UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

Conditions: Cool (10C), mostly clear, light westerly breeze, good transparency.

Observations: Seeing very good (II).  All four test systems well resolved at 260x and 354x this evening.

 

Date: September 5 2018

Time: 20:35-20:55UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

Conditions: Very unsettled with frequent squally rain showers driven in by fresh westerly winds. Good clear spells appearing between showers. Transparency very good. 12C

Observations: All four test systems resolved under good seeing conditions (II) at 260x and 354x.

 

Date: September 6 2018

Time: 20:00-25 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

Conditions: Cool (8C), little in the way of a breeze, mostly clear, excellent transparency.

Observations: Seeing good (II). All four test systems well resolved at 260x and 354x.

 

Date: September 7 2018

Time: 20:25-40UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

Conditions: A capital evening in the glen; 11C, good clear sky, brisk westerly breeze, excellent transparency.

Observations: Seeing very good (I-II).  All four test systems beautifully resolved in the 130mm f/5 using powers of 260x and 354x

Nota bene:

Know thine history!

Any serious student of the history of astronomy will likely be acquainted with the early work of Sir William Herschel (Bath, southwest England), who employed extremely high powers (up to 2000x usually but actually he went as high as 6,000x on occasion) productively in his fine 6.3-inch Newtonian reflector with its speculum metal mirrors. The high powers employed by this author are thus fairly modest in comparison to those used by his great predecessor. Check out the author’s new book; Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, due out in October/November 2018, for more details.

Note added in proof:

With the excellent conditions maintained well after midnight, I ventured out at about 00:00 UT,  September 8, and noted Andromeda had attained a decent altitude in the eastern sky. At 00:10UT I trained the 130mm f/5 Newtonian on 36 Andromedae for the first time this season and charged the instrument with a power of 406x. Carefully focusing, I was treated to a textbook-perfect split of the 6th magnitude Dawes classic pair that are ~1.0″ apart. It was very easy on this clement  night. The pair look decidely yellow in the little Newtonian reflector. I made a sketch of their orientation relative to the drift of the field; shown below.

36 Andromedae as seen in the wee small hours of September 8 2018 through the author’s 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector, power 406x.

 

If you have a well collimated 130P kicking about why not give this system a try over the coming weeks?

 

Date: September 9 2018

Time: 21:10-25UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions: Frequent heavy showers driven in from the Atlantic with strong gusts, 11C, some intermittent clear spells.

Observations: Seeing III. 3 systems fairly well resolved this evening. Delta Cygni B only seen intermittently. Magnification held at 260x owing to blustery conditions.

Date: September 12 2018

Time: 00:10-20UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions: Very wet, windy with some sporadic clear spells, good transparency once the clouds move out of the way. 10C.

Observations: Seeing (II-III). Just three systems examined tonight; the exception being Pi Aquliae, which was not in a suitable position to observe. All three were well resolved at 260x. Did not attempt 354x owing to prevailing blustery conditions.

 

Date: September 12 2018

Time: 21:40-55 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland

Conditions: Still unsettled, blustery light drizzle and mostly cloudy with some clear spells. 10C.

Observations: Seeing (III), three systems resolved well, Delta Cygni B not seen cleanly at 260x under these conditions.

 

Date: September 14 2018

Time: 19:30-50UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland.

Conditions: Rather cool, (9C), very little breeze, rain cleared to give a calm, clear sky.

Observations: Seeing II. All four systems cleanly resolved at 260x and 354x

 

Date: September 16 2018

Time: 19:20-40UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions: Mild (12C), fresh south-westerly breeze, some occasional clear spells.

Observations: Seeing very good (II), all four systems cleanly resolved at 260x and 354x.

 

Overall Results & Conclusions:

This study was conducted over the course of one month, from mid-August to mid-September 2018, a period covering 31 days.

The number of days where observations could be conducted was 21, or ~68% of the available nights.

No link was found between the presence of the Jet Stream and the inability to resolve four double star systems with angular separations ranging from ~2.5-1.5″. Indeed, many good nights of seeing were reported whilst the Jet Stream was over my observing location. In contrast, some of the worst conditions of seeing occurred on evenings when the Jet Stream was not situated over my observing site.

There is, however, a very strong correlation between the number of nights available for these observations and the efforts of the observer.

Many of the nights the Jet Stream was located over my observing site were windy, but this was not found to affect seeing. While the wind certainly makes observations more challenging, it is not an indicator of astronomical seeing per se. That said, no east or northeast airflows were experienced during the spell these observations were conducted. At my observing site, such airflows often bring poor seeing.

The archived data (from January 16 2014) on the Jet Sream site linked to above provide many more data points which affirm the above conclusions.

I have no reason to believe that my site is especially favoured to conduct such observations. What occurred here must be generally true at many other locations.

These results are wholly consistent with the available archives from keen observers observing from the UK in the historical past. This author knows of at least two (or possibly three) historically significant visual observers who enjoyed and documented a very high frequency of suitable observing evenings in the UK.

Contemporary observers are best advised to take Jet Stream data with a pinch of salt. It ought not deter a determined individual to carry out astronomical obervations. Perpetuating such myths does the hobby no good.

Post Scriptum:

June 18 2019: Irish imager, Kevin Breen, used his C11 to obtain decent images of Jupiter under a very active Jet Stream. Details here.

July 2 2019: Another testimony of “good seeing” under Jet Stream here

 

Neil English debunks many more observing myths using historical data in his new book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

 

De Fideli.

A Brief Look at a Mid-20th Century Classic: “The Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy.”

Packed full of beautiful drawings: the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy(1966 edition).

As I’ve explained many times before, I value the printed word. When I’m looking for information, I generally lean towards authors that have a proven track record in a given discipline, rather than spending hundreds of hours on an online forum to find specific answers to questions. These are and have always been my ‘authorities’. By carefully studying the astronomical literature of the past, I have discovered many facts that the modern forum user has not known, let alone considered. Many of these discoveries are presented in my new historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy. That said, knowledge is never fixed; there is always something new to learn! And so, I have turned to what I consider to be a classic astronomy text of the mid-20th century; The Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy, to get a better insight into what people of science had learned in the human generation immediately preceding my own.

The Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy first came off the printing press back in 1959, in a unique collaboration between the French professional astronomer, Gérard Henri de Vaucouleurs (1918–1995) and his compatriot, the distinguished amateur astronomer and artist, Lucien Rudaux(1874-1947). It was a match made in heaven, for this superb fusion of art and science enjoyed a number of reprintings, first in 1962 and finally in 1966. The edition I discuss here was published in 1966, which included an introduction written by the distinguished American astronomer, Fred L. Whipple(1906-2004) of comet fame.

The Title Page.

My personal copy of this work was acquired somewhat serendipitously, when, during my year at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, studying for my Post-Graduate Certificate in Physics Education(2000-2001), I was offered this book after it was discontinued by the University library. What’s more, it was going free to a good home! How could I refuse? What I got was a beautiful, large tome, with a durable and strong cloth-over-board cover, and in excellent general condition.Neat!

The beautiful, cloth-over board cover of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy.

The book was conceived of right at the beginning of the space age, when Mankind triumphantly declared his conquest of outer space. No longer dependent on idle speculation, the authors aimed to show the reader that modern astronomical science had finally brought the heavens down to Earth. No longer were the stars, galaxies, planets and their Moons pie in the sky abstractions; these were places every bit as real as the ground beneath our feet!

Imagine my surprise when I first started combing through its thick pages only to discover that this work was not, in fact, an encyclopedia, at least in the normal sense of the word! The contents page ought to have alerted me to this;

The title page.

The contents page reveals the non-encyclopedic nature of the work.

Instead, the work is divided into 4 sections or ‘books,’ which include;

Book I: The Splendour of the Heavens

Book II: The Empire of the Sun

Book III: The Realm of the Stars

Book IV: Astronomical Instruments and Techniques

Book I: The Splendour of the Heavens

Book I, which has two chapters, deals with the elements of physical astronomy and is wonderfully illustrated throughout. It provides the reader with a basic, albeit solid grounding in how the sky works. This is classical knowledge, as true today as the day it was penned. Take a look at some of the drawings and diagrams used to illustrate these chapters:

The Earth from space.

A rapidly disappearing vista; the majesty of the Milky Way from a dark country site.

Some of the conic sections; the circle, ellipse and parabola.

Kepler’s second law of planetary motion, illustrating the concept of equal areas in equal times.

The realm of the galaxies.

Book II Empire of the Sun

Many classic stories are recounted in the text, including the once seriously considered planet Vulcan, thought to orbit the Sun closer in than Mercury. There is even a diagram showing the hypothetical orbit as envisioned by the great French astronomer, Urbain Le Verrier(1811-1877).

The hypothetical orbit of the planet Vulcan( denoted by a ‘V’) as imagined by Le Verrier.

We are prone to forget that the Earth is a planet in its own right but the Larousse Encyclopedia we get an exquisite overview of the many and various meteorological phenomena that make our world so spectacular.

Check out this page showing the kinds of clouds that grace the Earth’s atmosphere at various altitudes;

Earth’s cloud systems.

Moving on to our nearest neighbour in space, the Larousse excels with some fine, high- resolution images of the lunar regolith. What may surprise a few readers is that some very detailed lunar images were made using the 100-inch Hooker reflector atop Mount Wilson. This giant eye on the sky is far more famous for the seminal contributions it made to cosmology, especially Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the Universe is expanding. The photographs really don’t do proper justice to the actual quality of the images reproduced in the work, but will nonetheless serve our purposes here;

The first quarter Moon as imaged by the 100-inch reflector on Mount Wilson.

An amazingly detailed image of the Lunar Apennines, the great crater Copernicus, Caucasus and the Lunar Alps, as photographed by the 100-inch Hooker reflector.

The authors are unusually aware of perspective. For example, have a look at this figure, which shows the size of the British Isles in comparison to the size of the Moon.

An amusing lesson in scale: the Britsih Isles superimposed on the full Moon.

Chronicling also features a detailed chapter on the Great Meudon Refractor, located just outside Paris, which once represented the brain and glory of late 19th and early 20th century French astronomical science. The reader of Larousse will be in for quite a treat in the chapter covering the planets, as many of the exquisite drawings came directly from the French tradition. As well as drawings made by Rudaux, who was inspired by the eccentric French astronomer, Camille Flammarion(1842-1925) there are also exquisite renderings from de Vaucouleurs, who made use of a fine 8 inch classical refractor based at Houga Observatory(founded in 1933 by the amateur astronomer and electrical engineer, Julien Peridier), France, during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Many other planetary sketches were made by distinguished French observers such as Bernard Lyot,  H. Camichel and M. Gentili, making use of a superb 15 inch refractor at the Pic du Midi Observatory in the French Pyrenees.This Observatory, which is still alive and well, attracts some of the finest planetary imagers in the world (including the UK’s Damien Peach) who have produced some of the best CCD images of the major planets yet taken from the Earth, owing to the superb astronomical seeing manifested at this high-altitude site.

The relative sizes of the planets as seen through the telescope.

It is clear that while great strides had been made in the improvement of astronomical photography of the planets since the early 20th century, they were still not the equal of visual drawings made by trained observers. Larousse reflects this situation most convincingly.

Elusive markings on little planet Mercury.

Some of the drawings of the Cytherean disk featured in Larousse certainly display atmospheric details that we would consider largely illusory today.

Somewhat dubious atmospheric features of Venus.

The section on the planet Mars is partcularly interesting. As the drawings made in 1941 reveal below, even professsional astronomers like de Vaucouleurs were still actively engaged in visual observations;

A series of Martian disk drawings made by de Vaucouleurs in 1941 using an 8 inch refractor at Houga Observatory.

That such work was still being conducted during a time when the Nazis occupied France is all the more remarkable!

Part of the training of these visual observers involved recording detail from artificial Martian disks, such as the one illustrated below. The image on the top left represents a close up of an articial disk, whereas the image on the top left is a photograph of the same artificial disk taken at the same resolution as the human eye with the telescope.The bottom two images represent sketches of the artificial disk as recorded by two separate observers. One can see that while good objective agreement can be achieved with such tranining, there still exists significant inter-individual differences between the details recorded.

The planetary observers of the era used articial disks to hone their visual skills.

By the mid-20th century, astronomers were beginning to use different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to explore the Martian orb. The figure below shows two such images; one in infrared(right) and the other at UV wavelengths(left), captured by the astronomers at the Lick Observatory, USA.

Mars as imaged in the ultraviolet( left) and infrared(right).

Both the chapters on the Moon and Mars have discussions on whether life might have or could still exist on these bodies. Predictably, the fabled Martian canals are discussed at some length and the conclusions drawn by the authors seem to still hold a candle for there being life on the Red Planet. Thus, even by the mid-20th century, some planetary observers were still seriously entertaining such outlandish ideas. Of course, this was a time when living creatures were considered to be very much part of the natural order, as “inevitable” as sand grains, rocks and suns; a view that is being rapidly overturned today by the unceasing march of science.

The fabled Martian canals by Douglass(Lowell Observatory).

Still, the fecund imaginings of Rudaux are also on display in the Martian chapter. Decades before any spacecraft landed on the Red Planet, he produced an uncannily real depiction of the Sun about to set beneath the Martian horizon;

Sunset on the Red Planet. Note its smaller size in comparison to a terrestrial sunset.

From Mars, the authors continue on to discuss the fascinating asteroid belt before venturing on to my favourite world; Jupiter. As the drawings in the opening image of this blog reveal, this world shows up a wealth of detail to the keen telescopist armed with an instrument of modest aperture. The authors do a superb job of capturing the dynamism of this gas giant in all its glory:

Things change fast on mighty Jove; as these drawings reveal, taken just one hour apart.

The French planetary astronomers of this era spent a considerable amount of time learning about the nature of the four giant satellites that circle Jupiter, recording with great attention to detail, many of their many kinematic interactions, particularly transits and eclipses( mutual or otherwise);

Drawings showing some fascinating aspects of Jupiter’s large satellite system.

On the best nights of astronomical seeing, the French planetary astronomers made significant strides in recording many of the main albedo features of the Galilean satellites. The reader will note that these visual observations are exceedingly difficult to conduct, owing to the tiny angular diameters they subtend, requiring large aperture, ultra-high magnifications and good air in equal measure to do any justice to them;

Full disk drawings of the Galilean satellites as recorded by Eugene M. Antoniadi(top plate) using the 33-inch Meudon refractor, and those made by Lyot, Camichel and Gentili employing instruments at the Pic Du Midi Observatory(bottom plate).

The section on Saturn is equally engaging, with beautiful artwork showing its majestic features:

A wonderful full-colour drawing of Saturn showing its atmospheric features and majestic ring system.

It was only in the 1930s and 40s that astronomers were beginning to divine the chemical composition of the atmosphere of the outer planets and their satellites. Larousse presents good spectral data of Saturn’s mysterious satellite, Titan, as recorded by the Dutch-American astronomer, Gerard P. Kuiper, showing for the first time that it contained several simple hydrocarbons, such as methane and ethane.

When it comes to the outermost worlds in our solar system, considerable uncertainty was still the rule rather than the exception. For example, planetary astronomers were very unsure as to the size of Pluto, as evidenced by the following illustration:

By the mid-20th century, our scientfic knowledge of Pluto was very uncertain, including its estimated size. Orb C is closest to the modern accepted size.

We now know that Pluto, archetypal of a new class of bodies known as dwarf planets, has a surface area slightly less than half that of our own Moon.

After presenting an excellent overview of comets, Larousse provides an equally fascinating overview of meteors and meteorites; pieces of heaven that end their lives in Earth space:

Artistic rendition of the radiant of a spectacular meteor storm occurring on the night of October 9 1933.

Moving on to discuss our star, the Sun, Larousse provides a detailed exposition of our knowledge of the Sun and shows that solar scientists had developed technologies that enabled them to see phenomena that hitherto were quite invisible to human eyes.

For example, Larousse presents a remarkable sequence of photographs showing the evolution of a solar prominence:

A sequence of solar prominences as recorded on June 18 1929.

It even shows how astronomers were using narrow band imaging techniques to capture solar images at wavelengths centred on the Calcium K line and the Hydrogen alpha line:

Solar astronomers at Meudon Observatory were developing narrow band imaging techniques. Left hand column represents Calcium K line spectrograms, while the right hand column shows a sequence of H alpha images.

Indeed, these narrowband imaging techniques are now used by amateur solar astronomers across the world.

Book III: The Realm of the Stars

This section of the encyclopedia discusses the stars as suns. And while it is not possible to gain a full knowledge of stellar physics without treating it mathematically, the authors do a great job of explaining difficult physical phenomena in layman’s terms. The section on the nuclear physics of stellar interiors is very impressively conveyed in this volume. But there are also wonderful nuggets of information that you only infrequently encounter in other texts. For example, Larousse presents a very useful table showing the degree to which starlight is extinguished as a function of altitude;

The degree of attenuation in stellar brightness as a function of altitude.

One consequence of this attenuation of stellar brightness as altitude decreases is that we can never experience the full glory of bright stars or deep sky objects if  they remain close to the horizon. From my own location at 56 degrees north latitude, the maximum elevation of the celestial equator will be 90-56 = 34 degrees. Now, consider the bright star Sirius, whose declination is ~ -17 degrees, its maximum altitude above my southern horizon is 34 +(-17) = 17 degrees. From the table above, we see that the apparent brightness of Sirius will be a full half magnitude lower than it would appear at altitudes above 45 degrees or so. This is also true of deep sky objects. For instance, I became acutely aware of this effect as I followed the bright globular cluster M13 with my 12″ f/5 Dob during late March and much of April. Before midnight, the view was rather disappointing as the cluster was then at a low altitude in the east. I would often wait until the wee small hours of the morning to let the cluster rise as high as possible in the sky in order to achieve the best possible view. The change in the cluster’s appearance was quite striking from hour to hour but it was definitely worth the wait!

After discussing the stars, their brightness, and distribution across the heavens, Larousse presents excellent chapters on both variable and multiple stars systems that are as valid today as they were when first written. Some of the most visually stunning, colour contrast binary systems are presented in a beautiful colour plate shown below:

Beautiful artistic renderings of some of the skies most celebrated double stars.

After discussing the stars, the authors move on to consider the Milky Way Galaxy as a whole, as well as the vast reaches of intergalactic space. Here, yet again, we are presented with stunning black & white images of a variety of objects both within and far beyond our own ‘Island Universe’;

The Great Globular Cluster M 13, in Hercules as photographed by the 60-inch reflector atop Mount Wilson in 1910. The exposure was made over several nights in June and the resulting star count amounted to 40,520 !

The 20th century wrought new technologies that helped astronomers delineate the fine details of our own galaxy’s spiral arms. Larousse presents early data collated by astronomers using the 21cm microwave hydogen emission line:

Tracing the nearby structure of the Milky Way’s spiral arms centered on the Sun((marked with an x) using the hydrogen 21cm microwave emission line.

In this regard, the pioneering work of the Dutch astronomer, Dr. Jan Oort(1900-1992), of Leiden Observatory, is discussed in detail.

Larousse presents many stunning monchrome images of celebrated galaxies like this one of M 51, the famous Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici:

M51 and its companion galaxy, as photographed by the 100 inch Hooker reflector atop Mount Wilson. a 3 hour exposure made on the evening of May 15 1926.

By the mid-20th century, astronomers had discovered that the Universe was in a state of expansion with many more distance measurements of galaxies added to Edwin Hubble’s pioneering list. This helped astronomers refine the value of the Hubble constant (Ho), the reciprocal of which provided the age of the Universe. Back then, of course, there was still considerable uncertainty regarding the precise age of the cosmos but Larousse entertains timescales of the order of 5 billion years, in agreement with upper bounds established by the half lives of the most long-lived radionuclides.

In a chapter entitled Past and Future, the authors discuss the concept of stellar and galactic evolution in more or less its modern sense of the word. It also introduces some basic cosmology.

Stellar evolution as portaryed by a Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram.

There is no mention of dark energy or dark matter, of course, since these were not postulated at the time. Still, the reader can gain a fairly accurate education on some of the big questions astronomers and cosmologists were asking in the middle of the 20th century.

Book IV: Astronomical Instruments and Techniques

In this, the last section of Larousse, we learn of the magnificent ingenuity of scientists and engineers of yesteryear in designing what was then, state-of-the-art astronomical equipment. The encyclopedia is lavishly illustrated with wonderful old photos of classic telescopes including some giant ones, such as the 100-inch Hooker reflector on Mount Wilson and the venerable 40-inch Clark refractor at Yerkes Observatory, the latter of which I discuss in relation to double stars (Aitken) and planetary observing(E.E. Barnard)  in Chronicling;

The wonderful 100-inch Hooker reflector while in active service. It has now been retired from professional use.

The largest refractor ever built; the 40-inch Clark at Yerkes Observatory.

This section discusses the details of using old photographic emulsions, micrometers, photometers and many other scientific instruments that were part of the workanight instrumentation of the pros of that era. Computers were still in their infancy in those days and so their users still had to resort to doing much of their work by hand.

The business end of a 15-inch refractor used for double star mensuration.

The basic principles of radio astronomy is covered at the end of Larousse, including an early picture of Jodrell Bank Observatory;

The gigantic steerable radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, Manchester, UK, which was newly dedicated in 1945. This author reckons Sir Bernard Lovell is the character seen seated in the control room(top image).

Well, I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of a now classic text. I for one feel very privileged to have acquired it both for educational and sentimental reasons. Larousse is part of our shared astronomical heritage, and will continue to take a good place in my own ibrary. And while modern re-prints are available, it’s nice to have an original copy.

They certainly don’t make tomes like this any more!

Thanks for reading.

 

If you like this work, please support me by considering my new book on the history of our science over four centuries, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

 

De Fideli.

Exploring Double Stars of Varying Difficulty During Summer Twilight.

The Twilit skies of central Scotland in June, looking north. Image captured at 27 minutes past local midnight on June 11 2019.

June 19 2019

June is a month that usually brings mixed blessings here in Scotland. On the one hand, I have more leisure time but it also accompanies nights that never quite get dark. Indeed, any where north of the midlands, true darkness never returns until the first week in August. ’tis the season of twilight.

And while nighttime temperatures are very mild, they are often accompanied by legion midge flies which can be a source of great annoyance, especially on still, humid nights.

To add insult to injury, these last several weeks have not been good for observing,  with endless low-pressure weather systems which have brought thick rain clouds to our shores. I lay at least part of the blame at the feet of that fiery furnace at the centre of the solar system. Our star is bereft of spots. Indeed, I have not recorded a single sunspot with my 20 x 60 binocular since the afternoon of May 17 last!

But despite these drawbacks, I have savoured the odd clear night, like the one I encountered on the evening of June 9/10 last, where I carried out a number of observations of double and multiple stars with my tried and trusted 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector, with which I have enjoyed great success, owing to its excellent optics and superior light gathering power to any other grab ‘n’ go telescope I have had the pleasure of using in past years.

Plotina: my wonderful grab ‘n’ go companion under the stars.

A nefarious forum individual, hell-bent on de-railing my findings with this particular telescope(remember Mr. Bad Smell?) has made the claim that such a telescope cannot act as a true grab ‘n’ go instrument since it takes a bit of time to acclimate to ambient temperatures. But it doesn’t take more than a moment’s reflection(excuse the pun) to counter that claim. If there are large temperature differentials between inside and outside, the solution is to begin observing at lower powers and gradually increase the power as the telescope nears full equilibration.

Voila!

This has been my custom any time some acclimation is required, especially if I’m in a hurry, such as on cold, winter nights. That said, during the mild nights of summer, little or no acclimation is needed; certainly no more than 15 or 20 minutes for even the most demanding of targets.

Here I wish to show readers how you can go from low-power, low-resolution targets to higher-power, higher-resolution targets simply by choosing the order with which those systems are examined!

Polaris A & B: My first target is easy and beautiful; 2nd magnitude Pole Star, the closest Cepheid varibale star to our solar system, which has a delightful companion easily picked up in twilight with the 130mm f/5. With a power of 118x, Polaris B is seen as an 8th magnitude spark wide away from its primary.

Albireo: This lovely colour-contrast double is easily tracked down in twilight high in the eastern sky around midnight in the beak of the Celestial Swan. Any small telescope presents this stellar duo very well, but I’m very grateful for the increased light gathering power of this reflector which renders their colours especially vividly; a soft marmalade orange primary and a royal blue secondary. 118x frames the system very well, darkening the sky sufficiently enough to make the observation worthwhile.

O^1 Cygni: This comely system is a famous binocular double in Cygnus, but its majesty is greatly increased with the power of a telescope. Like a more widely spaced version of Albireo,  the 130mm Newtonian at 118x frames a stellar trio, consisting of an orange, magnitde + 3.8 primary and turquoise secondary a full magnitide fainter. In addition, the telescope easily picks up a closer 7th magnitude blue companion close by the ochre primary.

Cor Caroli: Yet another easy target for small backyard telescopes, Cor Caroli, the brightest luminary of Canes Venatici, is a stunning sight in the 5.1-inch Newtonian at 118x. Presenting with similar hues (white) to my eye, the brighter component shines at magnitude + 2.9, whereas the secondary shines more feebly at +5.9 wide away. Both stars lie about 115 light years from the solar system.

Epsilon 1&2 Lyrae: Moving up to a more challenging system, we take a visit to Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae, easily found near the bright blue-white luminary, Vega, in Lyra. Charging the telescope with a power of 270x, the two stars seen in my 6 x 30 finder ‘scope are transformed into a quartet of suns, giving rise to its more famous name, the Double Double. The generous light gathering power of the 130mm Newtonian allows me to easily make out subtle colour differences between these stars, with each pair presenting as nearly at right angles to each other. While some ar pure white, another is creamy and yet another is lemon tinted.

Delta Cygni: One of my favourite summer doubles, the 130mm f/5 makes light work of this system at 270x. The intensely blue-white primary( magnitude +2.9) presents with a  close in companion of greatly reduced glory( +6.3). It is a fine sight whenever the sky is tranquil. Both stars orbit their barycentre every 900 years.

Pi Aquilae: More challenging still is this very faint pair of white stars (both magnitide 6+), best visited later in the vigil when they rise a little higher in the eastern sky during June evenings. Separated by 1.5″ I find they are best seen by charging the telescope with very high powers. On this occasion I got particualrly good results at 405x (using a 4.8mm T1 Nagler and 3x Meade Barlow). Fainter, near-equal pairs are definitely more challenging than their brighter counterparts, especially during strong summer twilight.

25 Canum Venaticorum: This challenging system was kindly brought to my attention by Welsh amateur astronomer, Rob Nurse, a few weeks back. The primary shines at magnitude +4.98, while the secondary is considerably fainter, at magnitude + 6.95, but their separation is only 1.7″. That sounded like quite a challenge, at least on paper, but once I learned how to track it down in the western sky around local midnight, I was delighted to see that the 130mm f/5 Newtonian handled this system quite well at powers of 354x and 405x. Testing my visual skills, I noted the orientation of the secondary relative to its primary, which was almost exactly due east. Then, when I checked with the position angle data Nurse provided me, I was deligted to see that the secondary was indeed located almost due east(094 degrees) of the primary.

I made a quick pencil sketch(shown below) of all these systems as seen in the little Newtonian telescope. Vigil ended at 00:15UT

Simple pencil sketeches of the systems examined on the night of June 9/10 2019 with a 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector. All systems were examined on an undriven Vixen Porta II mount, equipped with slow motion controls on both axes.

Well, I hope that this short blog will encourage you to go outside and observe the twilit heavens. With a liitle resourcefulness, you can always find something interesting and beautiful to observe.

Clear skies and thanks for reading.

 

Neil English has penned several hundred published articles on observational astronomy and telescope testing over the last 25 years. He is also the author of seven books on telescopes, astronomical history and space science.

 

 

 

De Fideli.