At my northerly latitude (56 degrees north) every year from about the middle of May to the first week in August, the sky fails to get properly dark and twilight dominates the northern horizon. As a result, the glory of the summer night sky greatly diminishes, with only the brightest luminaries being visible to the naked eye. But despite these setbacks, one can still enjoy a great deal of observing. In this article, I wish to outline some of the activities I get up to during this season.
Observing in twilight makes observing faint deep sky objects very difficult, so my attention is drawn to the Moon, brighter stars and the planets. Although a telescope of any size can be used during twilight observing, I find it most productive to field a telescope that has decent aperture and so I generally reach for my larger telescopes. Arguably my most used instrument during these times is a simple 130mm f/5 Newtonian, which offers good light grasp and resolution but I am also very much at home with my larger 8 and 12 inch reflectors for more specialised work. The 130mm has the advantage of being light and ultraportable and so I can move the instrument around to get better views of low lying targets.
The bright planets are very accessible during twilight and I find it fun to observe them with a variety of instruments. Venus is generally uninspiring, showing only an intensely white partial disk, but I find Jupiter much more exciting owing to its constantly changing atmospheric features and satellite configurations. But because of its low altitude in my sky, I employ colour filters to bring out the most details on the planetary disk. This is where larger apertures have their advantages, as some filters can absorb a significant amount of light and dim the images too much. The sketch below was made during twilight using my 130mm f/5 and a Tele Vue Bandmate planetary filter, power 108x, which imparts a lively colour tone to the planet, enhancing the colour differences between the dark belts and light zones. It’s also an ideal filter for enhancing the visibility of the Great Red Spot(GRS).
Twilight nights are also excellent for double star work and summer often brings prolonged periods of excellent seeing at my location. Larger apertures allow higher magnifications to be pressed into service, which also helps to darken the sky making the views more aesthetically pleasing. As in all other aspects of amateur astronomy, you can be as ambitious as you want. The most demanding systems are difficult, sub arc second pairs. As a case in point, I recently trained my 8 inch f/6 Newtonian on 78 Ursae Majoris (78UMa), conveniently located near the bright star, Alioth, in the handle of the Ploughshare. Conditions were near ideal on this evening (details provided in the sketch below) and I was able to push the magnification to 600x to splice the very faint and tight secondary star from the brighter primary.
Another system that I like to re–visit in summer twilight is Lambda Cygni (0.9″), which is easier to resolve than 78UMa, as the components are more closely matched in terms of their brightness and are slightly farther apart. Because it rises very high in my summer sky, it is ideally placed for high magnification work.
Conducting sub–arcsecond work with an undriven Dob mount is certainly not for the faint hearted but does bring its unique challenges, and I for one get a buzz out of doing this kind of work. But there are many easy and visually stunning systems that can be enjoyed at lower powers and it is to some of these that I will turn my attention to in the coming nights.
Last night (the early hours of June 2 2018) my wonderful little 130mm f/5 Newtonian was used to visit a number of easy to find and visually engaging binary and multiple star systems. During warm, settled weather, and with high pressure in charge, the twilight conditions proved near ideal for studying these fascinating objects;
These observations were conducted between 23:00UT and 00:00 UT.
Indeed, of all my Newtonians, it is the 130mm f/5 that provides the most aesthetically pleasing views of double stars. Colours are always faithful and images are invariably calm owing to its moderate aperture and rapid acclimation. Contrast is excellent too. It just delivers time after time after time…..
As May turns to June, the twilight becomes ever brighter, with more and more stars becoming invisible to the naked eye. But this greater sky brightness should never deter a determined observer. On the evening of June 12 2018, I set about visiting a score of double and multiple stars with my 130mm f/5 Newtonian, as is my custom. I turned the telescope toward Polaris at 22:45 UT and was deligted to be able to pick up the faint 8th magnitude companion to the 2nd magnitude Cepheid primary. Looking for something more challenging, I waited another half an hour to allow the sky to darken maximally but also to allow a summer favourite to gain a little altitude but still several hours away from culmination in the south. I speak of that wonderful binary system, Pi Aquilae( Aql), a pair of yellow white stars of near equal brightness and separated by about 1.5 seconds of arc.
From extensive, previous experience, I know it is possible to split this pair in smaller telescopes than the 5.1 inch reflector, particularly a suite of refractors ranging in aperture from 80mm to 102mm. But under these June conditions, the advantages of decent aperture become readily apparent; smaller telescopes simpy run out of light too quickly when the high powers needed to splice this pair are pressed into action. Locating the 6th magnitude pair at a fairly low altitude under bright June twilight is even a challenge for the 6 x 30mm finder astride the main instrument. To my delight though, I was able to track it down and once centred, I cranked up the power to 325x ( using a 2mm Vixen HR ocular) to obtain a marvellous view of this close binary system, the components aligned roughly east to west with clear dark space between them. Adopting these powers with smaller apertures is problematical to say the least. Why strain one’s eyes when one can view it in much greater comfort using the generous aperture of this trusty 130mm grab ‘n’ go ‘scope?
I made sketeches of both Polaris A & B and Pi Aql as I recorded them at the eyepiece (see below).
To be continued……