Battle o’ the Specula: the Martian Opposition of 2020!

Octavius(laevo) et Duodecim.

A work begun September 18 2020.

As I have explained in previous blogs, I am a Newtonian convert, after spending more than a decade promoting small aperture and way over priced refractors. It was in January 2015 that I finally set out on a journey of transformation that gradually convinced me that for serious amateur astronomy, where high resolution targets were concerned, Newtonian reflectors offered much greater bang for buck. Indeed, a humble SkyWatcher 8″ f/6 Dobsonian costing less than £300 completely out-performed state of the art refractors costing £1500 and upwards I had used in the 5 and 6-inch aperture range. After I had convinced myself of the truth of this revelation, I began to communicate my ideas in a series of observation reports, much to the chagrin of the “refractor nuts” who I believed(and still believe) had deluded themselves for years and decades. Furthermore, I stated that one of the principal reasons for the popularity of refractors in the amateur community pertained to their lack of maintenance, as well as their rapid acclimation owing to their small apertures. Furthermore, I attributed the decline of the Newtonian reflector, at least in part, to an unwillingness of amateurs to learn how to properly collimate and acclimate their telescopes. Blinded by the instant gratification of small, unobstructed apertures, they foolishly forsake the feral but oh so sweet charms of a well-tuned Newtonian. Had they learned how to adequately set up their Newts, they would not have joined the rat race, as I once did, to buy ever larger and unwieldy instruments that unnecessarily drain amateurs of resources. To my mind, as an observer who chooses horses for courses, refractors are beginner telescopes that really lack the aperture needed to see the creation in all its detail…. warts an’ all.

Over a period of time, I embarked on a number of projects that first improved the performance of the 8-inch(Octavius) and my smaller ‘grab ‘n’ go’ instrument; a 5.1 inch(a.k.a. Plotina) f/5 reflector, which included buying in higher quality optical flats and treating the mirrors to the highest quality coatings money could buy(but still very economical in the scheme of things) as well as learning the art of precise collimation and acclimation. I also studied the problem of tube currents and how insulating the tubes greatly reduced these problems. These telescopes gave me a great deal of pleasure in pursuing the entire panoply of astronomical targets, and in my specialist area of double star observing, their fine, sharp and colour-pure images were nothing short of revelatory! And once I began exploring the long and rich history of the Newtonian reflector in the hands of highly skilled observers, I discovered that my sentiments toward these wonderful telescopes were shared by many of them. You can explore a lot of these stories in my large historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy. Failing that, take a long, hard look at the hundreds (thousands?) of testimonies about Newtonian reflectors in this ongoing blog.

In the summer of 2017, I added an even larger Newtonian telescope to my arsenal, a Revelation-branded 12″ f/5 Newtonian reflector (Duodecim). The instrument was outfitted with a GSO primary and secondary mirror. My star testing of the instrument showed that the optics were very good indeed, especially when one considers the very modest price I paid for it second hand( ~£400 as I recall) and I enjoyed many evenings of double star and deep sky observing with it. I did not elect to upgrade the 70mm secondary of this telescope unlike my smaller instruments, but only to treat both mirrors to the same state-of-the art coatings I had also applied to my other reflectors.

Despite owning this large 12 inch instrument for over three years now, I have never subjected it to serious testing on planets. This was not due to any lack of enthusiasm on my part, but simply reflected the fact that visually interesting worlds like Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were not favourably placed at my observing location to warrant any serious study of them. They were simply too low in my local skies and obstructed by trees to give the telescope a fair chance of showing off its powers. But all that changed in the autumn of 2020, when the planet Mars presented itself as a bright, morning object, rising to very decent altitudes in my sky to finally enable me to assess its performance in this regard.

So, in this blog, I wish to offer my opinions on how well it performs on the Red Planet in comparison to my smaller, but optically excellent, 8-inch reflector. The results were a long time in coming, that’s for sure, but I now have reached a very clear and unambiguous conclusion. To find out the details, read on.

Octavius (left) and Duodecim(right) looking southeast-ward at Mars.

Beginning my observations at the end of the first week in September, by God’s grace I was treated to a long spell of settled weather, which still persists to this day (September 18). I usually began my observations starting at around 23:45 UT and ended them about an hour later at 00:45 UT(add an hour for BST) by which time the planet had attained a very decent height above my south-eastern horizon but still someway from its highest altitude when it culminates in the south.

Both instruments are mounted on simple, non-motorised, lazy-Suzan Dob mounts and were fully acclimated and precisely collimated prior to making any planetary observation. The reader will also note that I do not employ any active cooling(electric fans) on either instrument, in keeping with my desire to preserve my style of observing, which is ostensibly low-tech, and in keeping with the methods employed by my astronomical forebears.

Optimal Magnifications Employed

I employed a good but very simple Orion 10mm Sirius Plossl eyepiece coupled to Barlow lenses on both instruments. The Plossl is a superb planetary ocular, owing to its technological refinement over more than a century, its small number of glass elements, and though eye relief is tight, it is considerably improved by adding a Barlow lens, which makes the viewing more comfortable and immersive!. In my testing, conducted over several nights, I gravitated toward an optimal power of 192x for the 8″ f/6 instrument and 244x on the 12″ f/5 instrument. These powers were obtained by coupling the 10mm Plossl to a 1.6x Barlow in both instruments. The reader will note however that by employing a 2x Barlow with the same eyepiece, I was also able to get very satisfactory results with the higher powers it delivered(240x and 310x for the 8- and 12-inch, respectively). A common mistake made by novice observers is to try to coax very high powers on planets to obtain a greater disk enlargement but I have found by experimentation that finer details are often gleaned by backing down the power a bit so that image sharpness is optimised over apparent disk size.

As well as observing the planets as presented by the Plossl and Barlow combination, I also studied the contrast enhancing effects of several colour filters, which included simple, inexpensive Wrattens, but also a number of interference-based filters marketed by Baader Planetarium and Tele Vue. In the next section, I will outline the results I obtained.

Results: The telescopes were set up next to each other and experienced nights of good seeing (Antoniadi II or less) as well as average seeing( Ant III) during  the wee hours of the morning. The image in the 8-inch was very bright, but the 12-inch presented intensely bright images with its attendant  diffraction spikes. That said, after a few minutes, one’s eye adjusts and more details pop out of the image. Both telescopes showed impressive levels of detail; a small south polar ice cap, a more extensive northern ice cap, very distinctly resolved darker areas and limb mist. At a glance, the 12-inch reflector showed more detail regardless of whether the conditions were above average or just average. A feature merely hinted at in the 8-inch was unambiguously discerned in the larger, 12-inch instrument. The 8 inch reflector showed less atmospheric turbulence than the 12-inch but the increase in turbulence was less than I had anticipated. I concluded that the 12-inch could be used productively as a powerful planetary telescope, which came as a great relief to me.

A variety of filters were employed to assess their contrast enhancing effects. An orange Wratten #21 proved especially good for bringing out surface details and proved equally good on both instruments. A Baader green long pass filter also proved very effective, especially in the 12-inch, showing up surface details complementary to green. The Tele Vue Bandmate Planetary filter was also excellent in both telescopes. For enhancing atmospheric phenomena, a blue Wratten # 38 A really enhanced morning limb mist. For a minimalist effect though, I tried the Baader single polarising filter, which did an excellent job increasing contrast and reducing telescopic glare without imparting any colour shift. I intend to use the single polariser in routine work on this planet as it approaches its mid-October opposition and beyond.

To get an idea of the kind of detail I could discern through the 12-inch, have a look at some sketches shown here and here, made by experienced UK-based observers employing 12-inch reflecting telescopes during the current Martian apparition.

Conclusions: Some UK-based observers in the modern era have claimed that a 12-inch is too large to use productively as a planetary instrument but I must respectfully disagree with that conclusion. Under the conditions in which I routinely observe the 12-inch proved the superior instrument. So aperture wins, though the 8-inch reflector is much easier to use because it has very smooth motions in both azimuth and altitude axes. My 12-inch Dob base moves far less smoothly but the results convinced me that I should improve its azimuth bearings or acquire a better quality base for the telescope. Such a modification will go some way to increasing both the efficacy and enjoyability of this large instrument. Suffice it to say that I am very much looking forward to observing Jupiter and Saturn at higher altitudes with my 12-inch over the coming years, God willing.

 

 

Neil English is the author of several books in amateur and professional astronomy. He is currently writing a book on how to improve the performance of budget Newtonian reflectors of various sizes, which is due out in 2021. Thanks for reading.

 

 

De Fideli.

Paradigm Shifts.

The Story of the Solar System: The Primordial Earth - skyatnightmagazine

Those who have ears ought to listen.

“Life should not exist. This much we know from chemistry. In contrast to the ubiquity of life on Earth, the lifelessness of other planets makes far better chemical sense.” So writes Professor James Tour, one of the world’s foremost synthetic organic chemists, based at Rice University in Texas. Intimately acquainted with the latest research in prebiotic chemistry, Tour has expressed severe skepticism that a plausible naturalistic mechanism for the origin of life will be found any time soon. But he goes even further:

 

“We synthetic chemists should state the obvious. The appearance of life on Earth is a mystery. We are nowhere near solving this problem. The proposals offered thus far to explain life’s origin make no scientific sense. Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations. The laws of physics and chemistry’s Periodic Table are universal, suggesting that life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our Universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the Earth.”1

 

Dr. Tour’s views have surfaced at a time when astronomers have been peering into the depths of space, searching for intelligent signals from hypothetical alien civilizations. Yet although they have been listening for more than half a century, ET has not chimed in. The quest to detect life beyond the Earth is admittedly in its infancy, but the negative results thus far produced have caused more than a few scientists to question the underlying assumptions made by the early pioneers in the quest to find extra-terrestrial life: Frank Drake and Carl Sagan.

Despite what the general media report, there are a number of serious problems with the standard origin-of-life models, for which their proponents have failed to provide good answers. For example, life on Earth requires a source of homochiral molecules, that is, molecules that are capable of rotating the plane of polarized light either to the left (L) or to the right (D). Specifically, life invariably requires L amino acids and D sugars. But so far, chemists have been unable to identify a plausible natural mechanism by which these left- and right-handed biomolecules can be generated at the high level of purity necessary for the first cells to form. Indeed, such molecules can only be synthesised under highly constrained laboratory conditions, using purified (read bought in) reagents, which have little or no relevance to the environment of the early Earth. And while meteorites have been found that contain small amounts of amino acids, they invariably are shown to contain equal amounts of L and D isomers (technically known as a racemic mixture).

In short, no conceivable naturalistic scenario could result in the generation of the large, stable ensembles of homochiral ribose and homochiral amino acids that all naturalistic origin-of-life models require, affirming why no such natural sources have ever been found.2 I recently asked Dr. Tour directly if the problem of homochirality had been solved, and he firmly responded, “No; it is far from solved.”

 

The Phosphorus Conundrum

The element phosphorus is vital for the proper functioning of living cells, being a constituent of both RNA and DNA, as well as of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the universal energy currency of all known life forms. But recent work conducted by Cardiff University astronomers suggests that phosphorus could be scarce in many parts of the universe. “Phosphorus is one of just six major chemical elements on which Earth organisms depend,” says Dr. Jane Greaves, and it is crucial to the compound ATP, which cells use to store and transfer energy. Astronomers have just started to pay attention to the cosmic origins of phosphorus and found quite a few surprises. In particular, phosphorus is created in supernovae—the explosions of massive stars—but the amounts seen so far don’t match our computer models. I wondered what the implications were for life on other planets if unpredictable amounts of phosphorus are spat out into space and later used in the construction of new planets.3

 

The Cardiff team used the UK’s William Herschel telescope, situated on La Palma in the Canary Islands, to measure the levels of phosphorus and iron in the Crab Nebula, a well-known supernova remnant. They compared those figures to measurements taken earlier from another supernova remnant known as Cassiopeia A (Cas A). Their preliminary results proved very surprising. While the measurements of Cas A showed relatively high levels of phosphorus, those from the Crab Nebula showed far lower levels. “The two explosions seem to differ from each other, perhaps because Cas A results from the explosion of a rare type of super-massive star,” said Dr. Phil Cigan, another member of the Cardiff team. “If phosphorus is sourced from supernovae,” added Greaves, and then travels across space in meteoritic rocks, I’m wondering if a young planet could find itself lacking in reactive phosphorus because of where it was born? That is, it started off near the wrong kind of supernova? In that case, life might really struggle to get started out of phosphorus-poor chemistry on another world otherwise similar to our own.4

 

Re-evaluating the Drake Equation

Ever since the American astronomer Frank Drake introduced his famous eponymous equation in the early 1960s, astronomers have produced widely varying estimates of the number of extant extra-terrestrial civilizations present in the Milky Way Galaxy. Until fairly recently, the estimates varied from 10,000 to a few million. Countering these estimates, some scientists have re-examined the so-called Fermi Paradox, posed by the distinguished Italian physicist Enrico Fermi in the form of a question: If the universe is so large, with innumerable habitable planets, then why have we not detected any sign of ET?

A team of scientists and philosophers based at the Institute of Humanity in Oxford University has taken a new look at the reasoning behind the Drake equation, and found that its optimistic expectations are linked to models like the Drake equation itself. The problem, as these researchers point out, is that all such models “implicitly assume certainty regarding highly uncertain parameters.” Indeed, following an analysis, they concluded that “extant scientific knowledge corresponds to uncertainties that span multiple orders of magnitude.” When these uncertainties are introduced, the outcome is strikingly different: “When the models are re-cast to represent realistic distributions of uncertainty, we find a substantial ex ante probability of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it.” This result, they assert, “dissolves the Fermi paradox, and in doing so removes any need to invoke speculative mechanisms by which civilizations would inevitably fail to have observable effects upon the universe.”5

 

Questioning the Mediocrity Principle

Over the past few decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of exo-planets orbiting nearby stars, so that now there is little doubt that the number of planets in the observable universe likely exceeds the number of stars. Exo-planet hunters have discovered that many of these planets orbit their stars within the so-called habitable zone—that narrow annulus around a star that allows for the stable existence of water on a planet’s surface. Nevertheless, as geologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee argued in their highly influential book, Rare Earth; Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe,6 many of the features of planet Earth that have made it suitably equipped to allow both microbial and complex life to flourish on it over billions of years are likely very rare in the rest of the Universe.

For instance, the vast majority of potentially habitable exo-planets orbit low-mass red dwarf stars, which make up 75 percent of all the stars in the galaxy.7 These stars are much more active than sun-like stars, thus exhibiting higher rates of flaring than does the Sun. Many such stars also generate strong stellar winds that could strip away the atmospheres of their planets.8 And many planets are located so close to their parent stars that they have become tidally locked, meaning that they do not rotate on an axis but constantly present the same face to their stars as they move in their orbits. Yet another issue pertains to the potential of gravitational perturbations of a habitable planet by its neighbouring planets. Even small changes to the orbital characteristics of a planet could extirpate any developing life that might exist upon it. All these conditions raise many problems for the development of any hypothetical life forms on the surface of these planets over long periods of time.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is currently being utilized in a special program called HAZMAT—Habitable Zones and M Dwarf Activity Across Time. And the early results from the program do not look encouraging. Preliminary data on just a dozen young red dwarf stars show that the frequency of flaring is much higher in them than in stars like the Sun; they typically emit flares with energies that are between 100 and 1,000 times higher than those of their elder counterparts. The most energetic red dwarf flares, dubbed Hazflares, are far more energetic than the most energetic flares ever to come from the Sun. “With the Sun, we have a hundred years of good observations,” says Parke Loyd, a member of the scientific team involved in the project.

And in that time, we’ve seen one, maybe two, flares that have an energy approaching that of the Hazflare. In a little less than a day’s worth of Hubble observations of these young stars, we caught the Hazflare, which means that we’re looking at superflares happening every day or even a few times a day.9

So-called super-earths—worlds larger than the Earth but smaller than Neptune—have recently been identified as possible candidate worlds for the development of life, but there is as yet no scientific consensus on whether they can maintain or even allow plate tectonic activity to occur in their crusts. Without plate tectonics, there will be far less efficient nutrient re-cycling, which would greatly hinder the flourishing of hypothetical life forms.

In March 2019, a team of astronomers based at the Australian National University dealt yet another blow to the prospects of finding viable exo-planetary biosystems. Modelling the magnetic fields of a large number of exo-planets, the astronomers concluded that planets with a strong magnetic field, like Earth, are likely to be very rare. “Magnetic fields appear to play an essential role in making planets habitable, so I wanted to find out how Earth’s magnetic field compared to those of other potentially habitable planets,” says Sarah Macintyre, the lead author of the paper.10 “We find most detected exo-planets have very weak magnetic fields, so this is an important factor when searching for potentially habitable planets,” she added.

 

Life on Mars or Venus?

Scarcely a year goes by without the question arising of whether or not Mars has microbial life. This issue was brought into sharp focus in June 2018, when NASA scientists announced the discovery by the rover Curiosity of organic matter in the soil of an ancient lakebed.11 But “organic matter” means different things to different people. Simply put, matter that is carbon-rich is not necessarily derived from biogenic sources.

More broadly though, if evidence of either extant or past life on Mars is uncovered, it might well also be discovered that such life originated on Earth. Indeed, it is estimated that over the 4-billion-year history of life on Earth, so much terrestrial soil has found its way to Mars that the Red Planet can boast an average of 2 kilograms of terrestrial soil per square kilometre of its surface (or about 11.3 pounds per square mile).12 It is certainly possible that some microbial life was delivered there along with the soil—in fact, the discovery of either extant microbial life or microfossils on Mars or in the clouds of Venus might well be anticipated. If that happens, astrobiologists will need to consider the possibility that it came from Earth before claiming that any such life originated on these worlds. The popular media, pushing sensationalism, would never be so cautious.

 

Questioning Biosignatures on Exo-planets

Oxygenic photosynthesis by plants is the mechanism that produces the vast majority of the molecular oxygen in the terrestrial atmosphere. So for several decades, astrobiologists have speculated that the detection of oxygen in the atmosphere of an exo-planet would provide good evidence that life must exist there.13 While the detection of substantial levels of this gas would certainly be suggestive of the presence of plant life as we know it, it pays to remember that there are established abiotic mechanisms (mechanisms derived from non-living sources) that also can generate substantial molecular oxygen.

A group headed by Chinese astronomer Feng Tian of Tsinghua University published two interesting papers in 2009 that show that stars having less than 50 percent of the mass of the Sun (i.e., the majority of stars) emit copious quantities of hard UV rays and soft X rays throughout their long nuclear burning phases of up to 10 billion years.14 They also showed that when a lifeless exo-planet possessing carbon dioxide in its atmosphere is irradiated, the rays can break down the CO2 into carbon atoms and molecular oxygen. Over time, the carbon atoms, being less massive, escape into space, leaving the molecular oxygen behind. Tian’s calculations show that this molecular oxygen can reach concentrations of a few percent and so might be confused with a genuine biosignature.

 When a team of chemists from Johns Hopkins University simulated the atmospheres of exo-planets beyond the solar system, they found that they could create simple organic molecules and oxygen under various scenarios without the mediation of life.15 “Our experiments produced oxygen and organic molecules that could serve as the building blocks of life in the lab, proving that the presence of both doesn’t definitively indicate life,” says Chao He, assistant research scientist in the Johns Hopkins Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “Researchers need to more carefully consider how these molecules are produced.” Up-and-coming missions, such as the highly anticipated ones utilizing the James Webb Space Telescope, would need to take results like these into account before jumping to any firm conclusions about the habitability of a candidate planet. The recent flap in the media about the detection of phosphine on Venus might well fall into this category of fake biosignatures also.

In a recent development, a team of planetary scientists led by Li Zeng at Harvard University estimated that as many as 35 percent of exo-planets may have impenetrable water oceans hundreds of kilometres deep.16 But while NASA has long adopted the mantra, “follow the water,” the same scientists caution that these planets are very unlikely to be habitable. Their fathomless ocean worlds would generate pressures millions of times greater than those found on Earth, resulting in exotic, rock-like ice formations many kilometres deep (such as ice VII) covering their floors. Such conditions would prevent any nutrient recycling from occurring, thus rendering these planets sterile.

Call for Caution

Investigating whether extra-terrestrial life exists or not is a profoundly important and interesting scientific endeavor, but at this point, there are good grounds for remaining skeptical about whether it actually exists. Given the arguments raised in this article, it is entirely reasonable to think that life might be extraordinarily rare in the universe, perhaps even unique to Earth. Only time will tell.

 

Notes

  1. James Tour, An Open Letter to My Colleagues (August 2017): http://inference-review.com/article/an-open-letter-to-my-colleagues.
  2. Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, Origins of Life (RTB Press, 2014).
  3. “Paucity of phosphorus hints at precarious path for extraterrestrial life” (Apr. 4, 2018): eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-04/ras-pop040318.php.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Anders Sandberg et al., “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox” (June 8, 2018):

https://arxiv.org/pdf/1806.02404.pdf.

  1. Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth; Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (Copernicus Books, 2000).
  2. “Superflares from young red dwarf stars imperil planets,” NASA News (Oct. 22, 2018):

https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/news/1527/superflares-from-young-red-dwarf-stars-imperil-planets.

  1. O. Cohen et al., “Magnetospheric Structure and Atmospheric Joule Heating of Habitable Planets Orbiting M-Dwarf Stars,” Astrophysical Journal 790 (July 2014): doi:10.1088/0004-637X/790/1/57.
  2. Ibid., note 7.
  3. “Strong planetary magnetic fields like Earth’s may protect oceans from stellar storms,” Royal Astronomical Society (Mar. 14, 2019): https://m.phys.org/news/2019-03-strong-planetary-magnetic-fields-earth.html.
  4. Jennifer L. Eigenbrode et al., “Organic Matter Preserved in 3-Billion-Year-Old Mudstones at Gale Crater, Mars,” Science 360 (June 8, 2018): https://doi:10.1126/science.aas9185.
  5. Ibid., note 2.
  6. Carl Sagan et al., “A Search for Life on Earth from the Galileo Spacecraft,” Nature 365 (Oct. 21, 1993): nature.com/articles/365715a0.
  7. Feng Tian, “Thermal Escape from Super Earth Atmospheres in the Habitable Zones of M Stars,” Astrophysical Journal 703 (Sept. 2, 2009): https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/96200/Tian-2009-THERMAL%20ESCAPE%20FROM.pdf;sequence=1; Feng Tian et al., “Thermal Escape of Carbon from the Early Martian Atmosphere,” Geophysical Research Letters 26 (Jan. 31, 2009): https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2008GL036513.
  8. Chao He et al., “Gas Phase Chemistry of Cool Exoplanet Atmospheres: Insight from Laboratory Simulations,” ACS Earth Space Chemistry (Nov. 26, 2018): https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsearthspacechem.8b00133.
  9. Li Zeng et al., “Growth model interpretation of planet size distribution,” PNAS (Apr. 29, 12019): pnas.org/content/early/2019/04/23/1812905116.

 

 

Neil English has been following developments in pre-biotic chemistry and astrobiology for the last 25 years. He holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a BSc(Hons) in physics & astronomy. His latest book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy (Springer, 2018), explores four centuries of visual astronomy. The article first appeared in Salvo Magazine Summer 2019. You can support his ongoing work by making a small donation to his website. Thanks for reading!

 

 

De Fideli.

Journey to the Northwest Highlands.

Sunset July 18, Achnasheen, Poolew, Ross-Shire.

From July 17 through 24 2020, our family took a vacation in the Scottish Northwest Highlands. We originally booked a holiday cottage in Gairloch for the week before(July 4 through 11) but the government lock-down owing to the COVID-19 pandemic quickly put paid to that plan. As luck would have it though, the same firm we booked the cottage through offered us another accommodation in the neighbouring village of Poolewe, just six miles from Gairloch for the following week, when shops and restaurants were allowed to open up. Having spent months at home, we naturally jumped at the chance!

The Northwest Highlands is not a place you would want to go for warm summer weather. But for natural beauty and a place to contemplate God’s glorious creation, I can’t think of a better place. The cottage we secured was spacious and comfortable with a large and well maintained garden. There was no internet connection – not even a telephone signal – but after months of the kids sat behind computer screens during the lockdown, it was exactly what the doctor ordered; a place where we could fully re-connect as a family and cast away our anxieties about all the dark events happening in the world.

The cottage, Poolewe.

The village itself only has about 200 inhabitants, many of which are retired couples who have sold up from the cities and moved here to enjoy their autumn years.

This part of the British Isles(57.7 degrees north latitude)  is renowned for its beautiful, pristine beaches and unspoiled coastline, making it a favourite haunt for birders and other nature lovers. In mid July, dark night time skies are out of the question owing to strong twilight. The weather forecast didn’t bode well for star gazing during this week either, so I decided against bringing along a telescope but instead decided to carry a pair of binoculars; little and large – my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 and my Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 high-power binocular which was mounted on a lightweight tripod/monopod. In addition, my eldest son brought along his 8 x 32 compact and my younger boy his 6.5 x 21 Papilio II.

But the trip was not entirely about leisure, at least for my wife. As a research technician in the Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling, her research group had been given the task of sampling the sands of the beaches all along the northwest coast to measure a number of radioactive isotopes. This work was commissioned by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). That meant that we were to visit a number of beaches centred on Poolewe, which worked well for everyone; the boys could enjoy a swim and we could get good walks in along the beach collecting the samples.

Redpoint Beach, Ross-shire. Isle of Skye seen in the distance.

I had decided to bring along my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 as my main daytime binocular, partly because I had been feeling guilty about treating it more as an ornament than a dedicated field instrument. But as I was to discover, this little binocular is built like a tank(albeit a very small one lol) and was meant to be properly used.  Indeed, I was more than delighted how well it put up with the vagaries of the northwest weather, which can change from bright, calm and sunny one minute, and then wet and windy the next. And during this week away, it endured heating in the Sun, sand, spray and even heavy downpours, coping admirably with the changing conditions. But it wasn’t exactly a free lunch; those difficult conditions meant that I had to clean the optics a couple of times during the week!

No little jessie: the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 is a rugged pocket glass built for the great outdoors.

Contrary to what some binocular commentators have made, the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 is easy to use. They claim that the small exit pupil of the binocular(2.5mm) is hard to square on with one’s eyes. But like all things in life, that’s only true for lack of practice. Indeed, I have given mention before that in strong daylight, there is little advantage to using a larger glass as one’s exit pupil shrinks to 2 or 3mm at the most. Furthermore, the best part of the your pupil is the central few millimetres, so when imaging with a small exit pupil you are minimising the optical aberrations inherent to one’s own eyes and this yields fine images only limited by the quality of the glass.

Beaches are excellent places for glassing.

Glassing on the beach is one long adventure. Many types of birds – waders and gulls especially – grace the shoreline – providing many opportunities to study their antics. The  rich colours, contours and grains of rocks, polished by the tides over countless millennia, all kinds of seaweed, beached jelly fish, crabs and other crustaceans, and brightly coloured shells of long-dead sea creatures, present many wonders to the eye, as do the ceaseless activities of the lapping waves constantly yielding their treasures as flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict. Each new binocular field presents something new and unfamiliar; endless visual riches provided by our Creator.

The pristine white sands of Melon Udrigle, Ross-shire.

For higher resolution daylight observations, I set up my Pentax 20 x 60 porro prism binocular. This fully waterproof binocular also has a small exit pupil of 3mm, and thanks to its aspherical eyepieces, it delivers a very sharp, high-contrast, flat-field images, with great centre-to-edge correction.

The optically excellent Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 binocular.

Mounted to an extra-tall but lightweight tripod, with a strong ball & socket adaptor, the 20 x 60 is ultra-stable and very easy to use and manoeuvre. I was able to enjoy great close-up views of the barren, rocky crags in the surrounding hills, and boats anchored in the shallow bay a mile or so from the cottage. It also provided excellent images of trees in the neighbourhood, where I enjoyed watching crows, wood pigeons and even the occasional collar dove drop by.

The Pentax 20 x 60 is great for monitoring the Sun in white light.

But the 20 x 60 also came in handy for continuing my monitoring of the solar disk using home-made white light solar filters constructed from Baader astro-solar material. Indeed, during brighter spells in the morning or afternoon, I could whisk the binocular-mounted tripod out from the utility room and observe the Sun at a moment’s notice. Indeed, I got a minor surprise when I spotted my second spot of the summer season at 11.43 BST on the morning of July 22. It didn’t grow or amount to very much though – just one tiny sunspot crossing the solar disk. The last time I recorded it was on the afternoon of July 31. I’ve not seen another thus far into August(22nd).

Alas, the Sun continues to be unusually quiescent.

The ultra stable and smooth ball & socket bracket used to mount and move the big 20 x 60 binocular.

There was no night during our trip where I enjoyed long clear spells. The best I got was a couple of nights where the sky was partially clear, but it was enough for me to see Comet Neowise in deep twilight shortly after midnight on the morning of July 19 near the Plough asterism. By then, it had faded back to a third magnitude object, but the image scale in the Pentax binocular was good enough for me to get a decent view of its nucleus and bright dusty tail. I also put the 20 x 60 to good use observing a few choice binocular doubles.The tripod and its ball and socket adaptor allowed me to achieve rock-solid stability and silky-smooth tracking of a number of systems, enabling me to resolve a few targets that I could never achieve using a monopod alone. The 20 x 60 served up gorgeous images of Albireo, the’ fake triple’ system of Iota Bootis, O^1 Cygni, Mizar & Alcor, the lovely orange pair 61 Cygni, Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae and the lovely chance alignment of Eta(blue) and Theta (orange) Lyrae, which presented as a grand colour contrast ‘double’ somewhat to the east of the main stars of the celestial Lyre.

On the warm and sultry afternoon of July 22, we took a stroll down the road to pay a visit to one of the most famous cultivated gardens in Scotland. Inverewe Gardens, situated on the shores of Loch Ewe, is home to some of the most exotic floral species in all of Britain, thanks to the mild Gulf Stream which keeps the site largely frost free, even in the depths of winter. Here you’ll find pre-historic trees such as the Wollemi pine, and all manner of  rhododendrons native to China, India and Nepal. Himalayan poppies adorn the beautiful walled garden at the site, as well as fascinating Tasmanian eucalyptus trees with their aromatic leaves and beautiful, variegated trunks. As you can imagine, such a visit wouldn’t have been complete without bringing along the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 ultra-close focusing binocular, which provides stunning up-close-and-personal views of the many ornate flowers that grace the grounds of this extraordinary place.

Our youngest son, Douglas, proudly carrying the wonderful little Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21.

My wife actually wanted to visit these gardens in May, but the lock-down made this impossible. But better to visit in July than not pay a visit at all, I suppose.

Magnificent trees grace the gardens, but I was especially taken by the Eucalyptus. As it turned out, I discovered the same kind of tree at the bottom of the garden in our rented cottage, so my guess is that, at one time in the past, the owners managed to plant a young tree and watched it grow to maturity over the years.

Check out the bark on this Eucalyptus tree.

Here’s a question for you: can a banana tree thrive in Scotland?

Yes!

You what mate?

A banana tree: no bananas though!

We encountered several varieties of Bamboo on our walk too:

Wild bamboo.

In one part of the garden, we stumbled across some wicker soldiers commemorating those who lost their lives in the great world wars of the 20th century:

Wicker soldiers.

The garden had many beautiful flowers in full bloom, like these Violet Geraniums:

Violet Geraniums.

The Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 proved to be the perfect instrument for examining these wonders of creation in exquisite detail. With its ultra-close focus of just 18 inches, can you begin to imagine the levels of detail one can capture?

Say, that’s a queer looking cabbage eh?

Douglas had so lost himself looking at close-up views of the foliage that I had to remind him that the instrument also served as a regular binocular; you know; for glassing objects at a distance! At one stage, I found him strolling ahead on the walk while keeping the Papilio to his eyes. Not a sensible thing to do though, as he was to find out. After issuing him a stern verbal warning, he fell headlong into a flower bed lol! Luckily no damage was done to the flowers or the glasser on this occasion. The gardeners too were none the wiser(phew!).

As I mentioned in my review of the instrument linked to earlier, the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 is a belter of a small binocular, serving up excellent high-contrast images at a very attractive price (just over £100 UK). I still use it quite often for all kinds of activities.It’s got a big, silky-smooth focuser and delivers a generous 7.5 degree true field. Indeed, I’ve not needed my Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 ever since the arrival of this instrument on the scene.

The beach sampling was more a labour of love than anything else. Always done when the tide is out, the bigger beaches required three samples, while the smaller ones only required two. My wife had to carry a GPS system to accurately record the positions of each sample and each one consisted of a few hundred grams of surface material. All of this had to be recorded while the sampling was taking place.

Doing science on the beach.

In the end, 32 bags of sand was collected from 8 beaches. And boy did the collective weight add up!

Sand ain’t light weight!

Just a few yards walk from the cottage stood an old war grave yard with an interesting pre-Christian Pictish stone. But I was much more interested in watching a platoon of screeching Swallows flitting to and fro over the weathered gravestones in pursuit of flying insects with the little Leica glass. It’s not the ideal birding binocular, that’s for sure, with its rather small field of view(6.5 degrees) and small exit pupil compared with a larger compact glass, but it certainly did the job admirably enough throughout the trip.

The old Commonwealth Grave yard, Poolewe.

The cottage had a little booklet advertising all the goings on in the catchment area. My interest was especially piqued by the number of local churches; Catholic, Church of Scotland, the Free Church and the Episcopalians to name just a few. Alas, none were open at the time of our visit but I was pleased to see that many were conducting online services on Sundays to cater for the spiritual needs of their congregations. The people of the northwest of Scotland and the Highlands and Islands still maintain a strong Christian faith; in sharp contradistinction to the secularism now all too common in the main towns and cities in and around the central belt.

The furthest north we ventured was Ullapool, located about 45 miles northwest of Inverness(the northernmost city in the British Isles). Here you can catch a ferry to the Isle of Lewis. Normally, this small seaside town is teeming with tourists at this time of year but because of the pandemic(or is it a scamdemic?) its streets and shops were unusually quiet. We enjoyed having a rummage through the various nick-nack shops looking for small gifts for our family and friends. I was delighted to find a book shop there as well, where I was able to pick up a title on introductory birding by the comedian(remember the Goodies?) and veteran twitcher, Bill Oddie. Truth be told, I had no idea how anyone could say so much about our feathered friends!

It made hilarious evening reading!

Packed full of infectious enthusiasm and many hilarious moments.

There are many fine hills and mountains to climb in the region but on this trip we did not attempt any. Perhaps the most imposing is Ben Eighe, just south of Loch Maree. Towering over 2,000 feet above the surrounding plains, it forms a chain of mountains in Wester Ross, two of which exceed 3,000 feet in elevation and are thus designated proper Munros.

Benn Eighe, Wester Ross.

If the evening remained fine, I would take a stroll down the road from the cottage to do a spot of glassing with the Leica pocket binocular along the River Ewe, linking Loch Maree with the open sea. One of the shortest rivers in the UK, at scarcely one mile long, the Ewe has long been prized by anglers for its Sea Trout and Salmon. And because it is so close to the sea, its appearance can change dramatically from hour to hour!

River Ewe- view from the bridge at high tide.

All in all, this was a very refreshing family trip away, with many fond memories of grand beaches, delicious lunches and gorgeous scenery – all provided courtesy of our Creator.

And, God willing, we will return here again some sunny day!

Looking down on Loch Maree.

Neil English is an avid optics enthusiast who is currently enjoying a new lease of life sorting out what’s what in the world of binoculars. If you like his work, why not consider making a small personal donation or consider purchasing one of his seven books. Thanks for reading!

 

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.

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.