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).
As the June solstice approaches, the twilight continues to brghten the sky, but there’s still lots to see. Beginning about 10pm local time, I began observing a pretty crescent Moon sinking into the western sky. The instrument I chose this evening was a very inexpensive but optically excellent 76mm f/9.3 Newtonian reflector, which I described at length in previous blogs such as this one. Because our natural satellite is so big and bright, a small telescope like this one is ideal for casual observing. Because the sky is still quite bright at this time, I found it helpful to employ either a neutral density or variable polarising filter to increase the contrast between the lunar regolith and the background sky.
Observing the Moon in June twilight is fun at all magnifications, but I have discovered this little telescope can provide razor sharp images up to about 210x. You’ll not get this information from the telescope forums though; it still seems beneath them to test it and spread the word, but I digress!
On the evening of June 18 2018, I visited a suite of summer double and multiple stars with the same instrument.
At about 11.30pm local time, the sky was dark enough to track down some pretty tight double stars, as well as a variety of easier but just as comely systems. Conditions were good enough for the little Spaceprobe reflector to nicely resolve Epsilon Bootis, Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae and Delta Cygni (210x in each case). My study of the Lyra Double Double in particular with this telescope shows that it is significantly better than any 60mm refractor in terms of raw resolving power. As I have reported earlier this year, the same telescope was able to resolve Xi Ursae Majoris, Porrima, Eta Orionis, and the wonderful triple system, Iota Cassiopeiae. Sadly, the latter system, which is still present low in the northern sky in June, was hopelessly lost in the summer twilight. Bootes always presents a nice playground for easy and pretty double stars, including Kappa, Pi, Xi and Nu 1 & 2 Bootis, which were all easily split at 116x.
June is also high season for the beautiful, ghostly whisps that meteorologists refer to as noctilucent clouds. These thin, high altitude formations are lit up by the Sun while still below the northern horizon, creating quite surreal visual delights to the naked eye. I took a couple of low resolution images with my iphone (shown below).
I shall endeavour to capture some higher resolution shots of these wonderful meteorological structures in due course.
On the June Solstice of 2018, I walked through the garden in the cool of the evening, fetching my trusty Vixen Porta II mount to field my 130mm f/5 Newtonian. A gentle westerly breeze was blowing and the sky was resolutely clear, but I have learned on many past occasions that these conditions often bring very good seeing conditions for high resolution double star work. And my efforts were rewarded with text book perfect images of a suite of difficult double stars, some of which I have mentioned earlier in this report. I also ended my year long evaluation of a variety of eyepieces and Barlow lenses,varying quite considerably in price range. These studies have led to some firm conclusions regarding the effects of moving air upon Newtonian optics, as well as some very surprising results concerning the efficacy of certain oculars in regard to resolving double stars. Do you always get what you pay for? Most certainly not!
Insofar as artificiallly blowing air on a Newtonian mirror has been shown to scrub off the so-called boundary layer immediately above the reflective surface, my field testing over many nights shows that natural wind can also improve the images in exactly the same way. For this reason, I invariably point the telescope into any prevailing wind while the telescope cools and this works especially well for my larger Newtonian reflectors (8- and 12 inches). Furthermore, I am not aware of any historical precedent for this; the work of some notable telescopic ancestors of the ilk of W.F. Denning, T.H.E.C. Espin, T.E.R. Philips, A.S. Williams, T.W Webb and N.E. Green ( the selected work of which I will feature in my up-and-coming historical work) all of whom used Newtonian reflectors to great effect do not explicitly give mention to this result, though there is no doubt it is generally true.
On many fine evenings using a variety of Newtonian telescopes, I have compared the views through top-of-the-range eyepieces, such as the new Vixen HR series of ultra-short focal length oculars(1.4mm, 2.0mm and 2.4mm) and those derived from much more modest (but still very good) Plossls and orthoscopics coupled to decent Barlow lenses and my conclusions are that the much more expensive eyepieces do not confer any real advantages over the latter.
Yes, the HR series do display slighly better contrast and reduced light scatter compared to Plossls and orthoscopics but the differences were never enough to count. i.e. There was never an occasion where I could not see a tight companion in one over the other at comparable magnifications. Indeed, the HR series of eyepieces have very restrictive fields (42 degrees), even compared with the modest 50 degree fields offered up by a Plossl and/or the Baader classics (which have a larger 50 degree field) when Barlowed allow for significantly larger fields to be exploited. There is thus a distinct advantage to the using the far less expensive Plossl and orthoscopic type eyepieces over the HR series (the three of which will set the consumer back a hefty £750 UK), especially when employing a non-motorised altazimuth mount such as my Vixen Porta II.
Don’t believe the hype; binary stars are very simple, just tight little Airy disks. Save your money and use it more productively on other things.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this blog and that you don’t become discouraged observing throughout the twilight season wherever you live.
Thanks for reading.
Neil English’s new book, Tales from the Golden Age, uses history to debunk a few myths that have crept into modern amateur astronomy. Available in late 2018.