Astronomy with a Pocket Binocular.

Creating a new genre of amateur astronomy literature.

A work commenced November 11, Anno Domini 2019.

Subject to Copyright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premium junk.

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

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

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

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

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

And both have the same eye relief; 16mm.

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

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

A Walk through the Autumn Sky:

A favourite autumn  haunt.

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

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

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

Good companions under the stars.

Heralds of Winter

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

The constellation of Taurus.

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

‘Tis midnight! on the mountains brown

The cold round moon shines deeply down;

Blue roll the waters, blue the sky

Spreads like an ocean hung on high

Bespangled with those isles of light,

So wildly, spiritually bright.

Whoever gazed upon them shining,

And turn’d to earth without repining,

Nor wish for wings to flee away,

And mix with their eternal ray?

From Night at Sea by Lord Byron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlikely Twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What blessed illusions the stars rain down upon us!

A Field Full of Stars!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 147:4

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

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

More Leopard than Lion

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

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

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

A little rain maketh the binocular.

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

For the birds.

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

Exploring terrestrial astronomy.

What an extraordinary thing it is to be alive!

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

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

A Stupendous Accumulation of Star Matter

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

The sky is rich in mystery.

Especially for the tyro.

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

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

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

A pocket glass view of the great Andromeda Galaxy.

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

Maybe you’ll fare better?

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

The Scriptures inform:

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

John 5:17

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

Contentedness

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

1 John 2:16

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t chase the wind.

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

Happy with my chosen tools.

I am thrilled to bits with what I have.

I’m content; happy with my tools!

Surveying the Landscape

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

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

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

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

The morning Sun illumining the Cairn atop Dunmore.

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

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

How great an artist is our Creator!

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

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

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

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

                                                                                                                          Psalm 144:4

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

Orion Rising

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

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

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

Jack Frost has been busy creating a silvery landscape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

To be continued…………………………………..

 

De Fideli.

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

A grab ‘n’ go telescope on steroids.

Anno Domini MMXIX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plotina: strutting her stuff at -5C.

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

Simple pleasures of a telescope.

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

 

 

De Fideli.

 

 

 

Return to Wigtown: October 2019.

The driveway up to East Kirkland Farm, Wigtown.

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

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

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

Two wonderful travelling companions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck with your adventures!

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

 

De Fideli.

The Field of Glory.

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

Preamble

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

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

Using a monopod for big binocular astronomy on the go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

De Fideli.

Exploring the Skies Over Rural Pembrokeshire.

Slova Beach, Pembrokeshire, Wales.

De omnibus dubitandum

 

Preamble

Results from Northwest, Central and Southwest Scotland

Results from Central Scotland

Results from Northwest England

Results from the Republic of Ireland

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

Investigating the Jet Stream

Llanrhian-Berea

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

Newgale, Pembrokeshire.

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

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

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

Lower Summerhill.

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

But the next three evenings were clear.

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

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

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

Beach Gear

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

Conditions at the site:

Dusk, looking westward.

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

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

Session 1: July 31 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WinJupos computation of the GRS transit across central meridian.

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

That’s very close to the measurement I made!

Cool or what?

No’ bad,………ken.

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

 

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

 

A Curious Aside: Oculus Historiae

 

Session 2: August 1 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low tide at Solva.

Session 3: August 2 2019

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

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

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

This vigil was ended at 22:05 UT.

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

Do I attribute this to good fortune?

Sheer dumb luck?

Absolutely not!

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

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

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

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

Memories from our trip back up north:

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

The picturesque esplanade at Aberystwyth.

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

The beach at Aberystwyth.

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

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

One the amazing municipal buildings at Liverpool docklands.

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

Larger than life bronze casts of the Beatles.

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

Sunset on the Mersey Estuary.

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

Anfield Stadium( August 6 2019).

The all-important silver ware.

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

By bye to sunny skies.

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

Oh Bliss!

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

 

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

 

De Fideli.

Investigating the Jet Stream

but test everything; hold fast what is good.

                                                                           1 Thessalonians 5:21

 

My Local Weather

 

Jet Stream Data

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

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

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae

Epsilon Bootis

Delta Cygni

Pi Aquilae

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

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

Instrument Choice & Magnifications Employed:

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

 

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

Results;

Date: August 17 2018

Time: 21:20 to 21:35 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

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

Observations: Power employed at the telescope 354x

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

Delta Cygni: Faint companion clearly observed during calmer moments

Epsilon Bootis: Both components clearly resolved during calmer moments.

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

Truth seeking.

 

Date: August 19 2018

Time: 20:30 – 21:50 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland.

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

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

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

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

Date: August 22 2018

Time: 23:30-40 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

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

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

 

Date: August 22 2018

Time: 21:00-21:25UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

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

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

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

 

Date: August 23 2018

Time: 20:30-45 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Moved well south of Scotland

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

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

 

Date: August 24 2018

Time: 20:30-45 UT

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

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

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

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

A capital telescope.

 

Date: August 25 2018

Time: 20:20-21:00 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Right over Scotland.

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

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

 

Date: August 26 2018

Time: 22:30-23:05 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Well south of Scotland.

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

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

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

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

Date: August 27 2018

Time: 20:30-21:05 UT

Location of Jet Stream: West of the Scottish mainland.

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

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

Date: August 29 2018

Time: 20:25-40UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

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

Observations: Mu Cygni now replaces Epsilon Bootis.

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

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

 

Date: August 30 2018

Time: 20:45- 21:00 UT

Location of the Jet Stream:  Not over Scotland.

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

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

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

 

Date: 31 August 2018

Time: 20:30-22:00UT

Location of Jet Stream: North of the British Isles

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

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

 

Date: September 1 2018

Time: 20:30-50UT

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

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

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

 

Date: September 4 2018

Time: 19:55-20:20UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

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

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

 

Date: September 5 2018

Time: 20:35-20:55UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

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

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

 

Date: September 6 2018

Time: 20:00-25 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

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

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

 

Date: September 7 2018

Time: 20:25-40UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

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

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

Nota bene:

Know thine history!

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

Note added in proof:

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

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

 

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

 

Date: September 9 2018

Time: 21:10-25UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

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

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

Date: September 12 2018

Time: 00:10-20UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

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

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

 

Date: September 12 2018

Time: 21:40-55 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland

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

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

 

Date: September 14 2018

Time: 19:30-50UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland.

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

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

 

Date: September 16 2018

Time: 19:20-40UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

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

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

 

Overall Results & Conclusions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Scriptum:

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

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

 

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

 

De Fideli.

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

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

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

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

The Title Page.

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

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

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

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

The title page.

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

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

Book I: The Splendour of the Heavens

Book II: The Empire of the Sun

Book III: The Realm of the Stars

Book IV: Astronomical Instruments and Techniques

Book I: The Splendour of the Heavens

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

The Earth from space.

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

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

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

The realm of the galaxies.

Book II Empire of the Sun

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

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

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

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

Earth’s cloud systems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elusive markings on little planet Mercury.

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

Somewhat dubious atmospheric features of Venus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fabled Martian canals by Douglass(Lowell Observatory).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book III: The Realm of the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stellar evolution as portaryed by a Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram.

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

Book IV: Astronomical Instruments and Techniques

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

 

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

 

De Fideli.

Exploring Double Stars of Varying Difficulty During Summer Twilight.

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

June 19 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voila!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clear skies and thanks for reading.

 

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

 

 

 

De Fideli.

Book Review: “Improbable Planet” by Hugh Ross.

A Fresh Look at our World.

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying,

What is man, that You remember him?
Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him?
You have made him for a little while lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
And have appointed him over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”

For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.

                                                                                                                       Hebrews 2: 5-8

 

Title: Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home (2016)

Author: Hugh Ross

Publisher: Baker Books

ISBN: 9780801016899

Price: £12.99 (paperback) pp 283

I love my long summer vacations after another year of intense teaching, from mid-May to late August. I get to do lots of things around the house.

Recently I decided that it was high time to re-organize some of the books in my library. So I went ahead and removed all the titles by Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Fortey, Frank Drake, Seth Shostak, Richard Leakey, Jacob Bronowski and a few others, and re-shelved them in my newly enlarged fiction section.

“Heresy!” I hear you shout. Well, after reading this new book, Improbable Planet, by astronomer and Christian apologist, Hugh Ross, I was compelled to do so. Ross is no scientific shrinking violet. Holding a bachelors degree in physics from the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D in astronomy from the University of Toronto, Ross also carried out post-doctoral research on quasars at Caltech before his Christian faith led him to begin a ministry that seeks to show the harmony between science and faith; a worldview informed from the idea that the Creator provided not one, but two revelatory books; Scripture and Nature. In 1987, he founded his organisation, Reasons to Believe(RTB), in southern California, which has grown in size and influence, helping thousands of thoughtful people make the transition from unbelief to belief. Not only does RTB address astronomical topics, his team now includes PhD-trained scientists in molecular biology, chemistry and physics, as well as a number of highly trained philosophers and theologians. Ross has also built up a huge ‘extended family’ of like-minded people, not just from the sciences and medicine, but the wider community in general, which you can find in presentations of their testimonies on the RTB website.

The thesis of Dr. Ross’ book is this: far from being an ordinary planet orbiting an ordinary star in an undistinguished planetary system, lost in an obscure part of a typical galaxy adrift in a vast sea of other like galaxies, the Earth was the location of an extraordinary chain of events that took place over the aeons, where a super-intelligent agency (which he identifies as Jesus Christ), prepared our planet for its eventual seeding by human beings for the purposes of redeeming billions of souls – a sizeable minority of all the humans that have ever walked the face of the Earth. In support of these claims, Ross calls on an enormous body of scientific evidence from the fields of astronomy, cosmology, planetary science, paleontology, geology and biology to make his case.

Of course, for some, the fact that Ross identifies as a Christian is a complete showstopper. That’s unfortunate, as many will dismiss the book simply based on the man’s spiritual beliefs, but that’s a terrible argument from ignorance; no different in essence from any other kind of bigotry. But rest assured, if you enjoy science, once you settle into the work, you’ll soon appreciate how compelling his arguments are.

Ross can best be described as an Old Earth Creationist, by which I mean, he accepts the consensus view in the scientific community that the Earth and the Universe in which we find ourselves in is old. But not all OECs believe in all the same things. He defends hot big bang cosmology as the origin of space-time and all the matter and energy it contains. He believes that stars and planets evolve over time, citing a huge body of evidence in support of his beliefs. What you won’t find in this book however, is support for biological (read Darwinian) evolution. A long-time sceptic of the evolutionary paradigm, his highly trained team has expertly critiqued the ‘wooly’ scientific claims of its adherants. Now that Neo-Darwinian evolution is coming away at the seams, with an army of biologists now abandoning it by the droves, his long-held and deeply entrenched scepticism of this so-called ‘science’ has been fully vindicated.

Sadly, Ross has endured criticisms, not so much from secular scientists, who largerly respect his work, but from other Christians who hold to a Young Earth Creationist(YEC) perspective, that is, the Earth and the Universe around us are only 6,000 years old. And some YECs have acted very aggressively toward his apologetics. This is also unfortunate, since the age of the Earth is not an issue that Christians should divide over. In truth, both groups have much more in common than they have differences. Indeed, it matters not whether the Earth is 6,000 years old or billions of years old; nature alone will never produce something as complex as a living system in either scheme. Fortunately, his gentle demeanour has won over many YECs over the years and gained the admiration of still more.

That said, there will always be diehard YECs….and that’s OK.

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An interesting aside:

Dr. Ross presents some very intriguing facts about the demography of the human race over time. Consider this data found on page 229:

Date  (AD)                          # of Non-Christians per Christian

100                                            360

1000                                          220

1500                                            69

1900                                            27

1950                                             22

1980                                             11

1990                                               7

I suppose we could add a data point for today’s world as well; 3.57

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A fresh interpretation of the facts:

The opening chapters of the book assesses the big scientific picture; we live on the outskirts of an unusually large and symmetric barred spiral galaxy, our solar system orbiting the Milky Way galaxy about 26,000 light years form the centre. But astronomers have discovered that the location of our solar system lies just inside the edge of the so-called co-rotation axis of the galaxy, where stars orbit at the same speed as the nearby spiral arms. This is highly fortuitous, Ross argues, as it largely prevents the solar system from entering and leaving spiral arms which would likely have severely disrupted any life that would have developed on the planet. But we know that the solar system very likely did not form where it is located today. The evidence suggests that the unsually high metallicity of the Earth and the solar system at large, points to a location of origin much closer to the galactic centre, where the abundance of such metals are much higher than at the co-rotation axis.

Nota bene: Astronomers refer to all elements heavier than hydogen, helium and lithium as ‘metals’. Such metals were forged inside ancient stars and released to the interstellar medium when they die, either as planetary nebulae or in cataclysmic supernovae events. The incidence of the latter was much higher nearer the galactic centre where the densities of stars was considerably higher than it is at our present location. Indeed stellar metallicty peaks about 50 per closer to the galactic centre than it does at our present orbital radius.

A detailed analysis of the solar system’s elemental abundance strongly suggests that it was enriched by a number of different supernovae explosions(including a very rare type) that enriched it with unsually high levels of heavy elements, particualrly long-lived radionuclides such as uranium and thorium but also short lived species like aluminium 26. This is clearly seen in the abundance of aluminium in the Earth’s crust which comes in at about 8.1 per cent as opposed to the 0.01 per cent for the Universe at large. The rapid decay of these relatively huge quantities of radioactive aluminium released a great deal of heat which helped purge our neonatal solar system of much of the volatile material it would have otherwise ended up with. Our Sun is also anamolous in its oscillatory motion above and below the mid-plane of the Milky Way. Stars in the solar neighbourhood oscillate at right angles to the galactic plane with an amplitude of about 400 light years. In contrast, the Sun exhibits an oscillatory amplitude about half of this value, protecting it from being excessively bathed in galactic radiation, which would have also destroyed the ozone layer, resulting with an increased UV irradiance upon the Earth, scuppering future land life.

The Moon-forming event is discussed in detail, where a Mars-sized object(nicknamed Theia) collided with the neonatal Earth sometime between 50 and 100 million years after our world formed by accretion of material from the solar nebula. Ross explains that this has caused quite a bit of ‘philosophic disquiet’ among some of leading researchers in the field:

The cover article for the December 5, 2013, issue of Nature reported Canup’s concern that “current theories on the formation of the Moon owe too much to cosmic coincidences.”

pp 54

In any event, the collision produced a Moon with sufficient mass to stablise the Earth’s rotation tilt axis, protecting our planet from rapid and extreme climatic variations. Over the aeons, our Moon has gradually recessed from the Earth, slowing its rotation rate to a life-sustaining level. The Moon-forming event further removed large quantities of volatiles from the primordial Earth, preventing it from outgassing enormous quantities of water vapour which would have caused our world to end up with a choking global ocean hundreds of kilometres deep, prevening the formation of continents required for efficient re-cycling of nutrients necessary for all life.

Chapter 6 describes the dynamical history of the planets in our solar system, particualrly the formation of the asteroid belt and the ‘grand tack’ migrations of Jupiter from its rapid formation beyond the snow line of the solar system, followed by its migration inward before moving back out from the Sun to its present stable position. Indeed, the Sun’s family of planets and their positioning is unlike any exoplanetary system thus far characterised.

Chapter 7 provides a fascinating overview of the concept of a habitable zone but takes it far beyond what most science writers are willing to consider. Most of us, for example, are familiar with the water habitable zone; that annulus around a star where temperatures allow a planet to maintain liquid water over geological timescales. Ross takes this concept to a whole new level though, describing not one, but a further seven other zones that must be set in place to allow life to flourish on Earth. These include:

  1. The Ultraviolet habitable zone
  2. Photosynthesis habitable zone
  3. Ozone habitable zone
  4. Rotation rate habitable zone
  5. Obliquity habitable zone
  6. Tidal habitable zone
  7. Astrospheric habitable zone

Without revealing too much in the way of details, Ross writes concerning the UV habitable zone:

The fact that the liquid water and UV habitable zones must overlap for the sake of life eliminates most planetary systems as possible candidates for hosting life. This requirement effectively rules out all M dwarf and most K dwarf stars, as well as O-, B- and A- stars. All that remain are F-type stars much younger than the Sun, G-type stars no older than the Sun, and a small fraction of the K dwarf stars. As  described in chapter 5, only stars at a certain distance from the galactic core can be considered candidates for life support. In the Milky Way Galaxy, some 75 per cent of all stars residing at this appropriate-for-life-distance are older than the Sun. Once these and other non-candidate stars are ruled out, only 3 per cent of all stars in our galaxy remain as possible hosts for planets on which primitive life could briefly survive.

pp 85

Chapter 8 is particularly meaty from a scientific perspective, as it is in this chapter that Ross lends his decades-long studies to the thorny issue of how life appeared on Earth. He writes:

More than a decade ago, evidence indicated that the origin of life occurred within an immeasurably brief time span. The late heavy bombardment (LHB) raised the temperature of the entire planetary surface so high as to evaporate all its water and melt all its rocks. Then, according to multiple isotopic studies, just as soon as the surface temperature cooled enough for the possibility of life’s existence, life appeared. This evidence prompted paleontologist Niles Eldredge to comment, “One of the most arresting facts that I have ever learned is that life goes back as far in Earth history as we can possibly trace it…..In the very oldest rocks that stand a chance of showing signs of life, we find those signs.”

pp 97

That the Earth had life as soon as conditions were cool enough to accommodate them  seems inescapable, and Ross quotes numerous studies recently(as in the last decade) conducted on ancient zircon minerals, graphitic carbon, and metamorphosed shale that clearly show that a complex biosphere was already established as early as 3.8 billion years ago. The ‘smoking gun’ to this complex origin of life may, according to Ross, come from the isotopic signature of photosynthetic life as early as 3.7 billion years ago. He writes:

Another research team found that the carbon isotope signature of planktonic oragnisms in metamorphosed shale dating to 3.7 bliion+ year ago. In the same shale they measured a high ratio of uranium to thorium. This finding indicated a sequence whereby organic debris produced by a local reducing environment that precipitated uranium deposited in the shale sediment by oxidized ocean water. The presence of this oxidised water implies that oxygenic photosynthetic life was abundant prior to 3.7 billion years ago. Given that the simplest oxygenic photosynthetic bacteria contain over 2,000 gene products, this finding suggests that highly complex unicellular life already existed sometime before that date.

pp 98-99

How this complex cellular biochemistry originated so early completely eludes an evolutionary mechanism. It is simply incredulous that such complex cellular life could could come into being by a blind(by necessity) Darwinian process in such a short a time window. Indeed, more and more studies are revealing the same pattern: life began complex.

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Another curious  aside: What’s the status of prebiotic chemical research?

Even the first chemical steps towards life require an in-ordinate amount of human ingenuity(read intelligent design or foresight). That much was recently admitted by a high-ranking  German prebiotic chemist in a leading scientific journal. Other heavy weights in the field have also waded into this debate, including Professor James Tour (who favourably reviewed an earlier draft of Ross’ book), who has exposed the scale of ignorance exhibited by educators towards this intractable scientific problem. Furthermore a credible source(terrestrial or extraterrestrial)  of homochiral enantiomers of sugars and amino acids needed to build the first cells has not yet been identified. Indeed the origin of life is the oustanding scientific problem of our generation and will likely remain so for many decades, if not centuries to come.

Much of this is not reported in the popular science periodicals, so readers beware!

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Many people think it reasonable to believe in some vague evolutionary sequence of events simply by noting that the first lifeforms were microbes with multi-cellular organisms following them before the most complex creatures of all appeared; vascular plants and animals. But Ross entertains an entirely novel idea; the reason why life started out with microbes before introducing more complex life has nothing to do with evolution; more specifically he notes that the environment of the early Earth was very hostile to life, with large swings in temperature and pH, very high concentrations of unprocessed vital poisons** and with radiation levels(from the decay of radioactive atoms) five times higher than exist today. The reason why life started with microbes is that they are much hardier than more complex life (eukaryotes and muti-cellular lifeforms). Indeed, Ross points out that these biochemically sophisticated microbial species removed large amounts of vital poisons from the environment turning many of them into ores (many of which are now used by humanity in high technology devices).

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**

What are vital poisons?

Vital posons are elements that are toxic if ingested at too high concentrations but are needed at specified low concentrations in body tissues to enable life processes to be maintained. Such elements include boron, fluorine, iron, sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, sulphur, chromium, manganese, copper, zinc, iodine, molybdenum, cobalt and nickel etc.

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Thus, in this scheme of events, the Creator put these microbes to work as early as possible to terraform (my own terminology) the Earth’s earliest environments, clearing it of solubilised toxins which was necessary before eukaryotic and multicellular life-forms could be introduced!

In chapter 9, Ross provides an excellent overview of how primitive life functioned in maintaining the large-scale geologic health of our planet, particularly in playing a starring role in stimulating long-lived plate tectonic activity:

In 2015, two geophysicists, Eugene Grosch and Robert Hazen, noted that the subsurface fluid-rock microbe interactions could result in more efficient hydration of the early Earth’s  oceanic crust. This hydration would promote bulk melting leading to the production of felsic crust( igneous rocks rich in feldspar and quartz), which, being lighter than basaltic crust, in turn would generate microcontinents. That is, Earth’s first microbes, by faciliating extensive hydrothermal alteration of ocean floors, yielded extensive mineral diversification that soon resulted in the formation of several microcontinents.

pp 111

 

What is more, as life began to gorge on the minerals formed in Earth’s early crust, it accelerated its weathering, which in turn fed the resulting sediments into subduction zones, thereby stimulating still greater tectonic activity. This was vitally important for Earth’s future history, as the decline in long-lived radioisotopes over time might not have generated the required levels of thermal energy needed to keep the crust in a pliable state needed to build the large continents our planet would end up having. In addition, the early introduction of global  oxygenic photosynthesis drew large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to compensate for a steadily brightening Sun. What Ross makes clear is that without the early introduction of life on Earth, this planet would most likely be sterile or nearly so, by now.

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Yet another curious aside:

Our world is richly endowed with minerals. Indeed, compared with Mars and Venus, which have an estimated 500 and 1000 different types of minerals, respectively, Earth is lavished with over 4,600 known mineral varieties, many of which required the active presence of living systems to create them! See Robert Hazen’s 2013 book, The Story of Earth, for further details.

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As described in chapter 11, ongoing plate tectonic activity resulted in the formation of virtually all of Earth’s continental land mass by about 2.5 billion years ago, resulting in 29 per cent of our planet’s surface area being covered by dry land above sea level. To most onlookers, a value of 29 per cent seems somewhat arbitrary, but in fact, it may be highly fine-tuned. Greater land surface areas would induce too little precipitation in the interior of those ancient continents, preventing life from gaining a foothold in these places. On the other hand, land areas significantly less than 29 per cent would not be able to re-cycle enough valuable nutrients between the land, the sea and the atmosphere to maintain a healthy biosphere.

Chapter 13 & 14 of Improbable Planet discuss the significance of the many mass extinction events in Earth history with forensic detail. Again, at first glance, this might indicate that the cause of life on Earth has no author, but Ross begs to differ. Indeed, he suggests that the sporadic cycles of extirpation followed by rapid recovery of the biosphere with new forms of life achieved two aims;

1. The remains of these ancient life-forms yielded massive amounts of new biodeposits that would be used by humanity to launch a global civilization( think of how fossil fuels led to the Industrial Revolution, for example).

2. The lifeforms that replaced those that went extinct were more efficient collectively at drawing more greenhouse gases out of the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby compensating for the greater heating effects of an ever-brightening Sun.

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A Question for your consideration: If God designed life so that it could evolve from one kind into another, then why does Earth history reveal so many mass extinction events? Why would He bother?

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Ross calls on the second revelatory book of Scripture to advance his claims. Consider the words of the Psalmist of old:

These all wait for You,
That You may give them their food in due season.
What You give them they gather in;
You open Your hand, they are filled with good.
You hide Your face, they are troubled;
You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
You send forth Your Spirit, they are created;
And You renew the face of the earth.

Psalm 104: 27-30

Intriguingly, the fossil record agrees with the creation and extinction events discussed in Psalm 104 but, significantly, does not support a gradualistic scheme long envisaged by evolutionists.  Accordingly Ross takes his trained scientific eye and applies this to the study of the most famous explosive events in the history of life on Earth; the Avalon (574 -543 Million years ago) and Cambrian Explosions (543-533 Million years ago), the latter of which led to the sudden emergence of some 80 per cent of all existing animal body plans without any credible evolutionary antecedents! Perectly formed eyes, brains, nervous systems, skeletal systems etc, appearing as if out of nowhere.

Ross discusses the sense of bewilderment expressed by paleontologists seeking to provide an evolutionary explanation for these quantum leaps in biology, which are outlined in pages 172 to 179, quoting some leading researchers in the field, and in particular the utter failure of molecular clocks to keep pace with all the innovations wrought by these  explosive events in the history of life.

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Essential reading for the intellectually curious.

Some further reading on the Cambrian Explosion: I would highly recommend readers  consult and study Stephen C. Meyer’s New York Times best-selling book Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design(2013). Concerning this book, paleontologist Dr. Mark McMenamin(Mt. Holyoke College) said:

It is hard for us paleontologists, steeped as we are in a tradition of Darwinian analysis, to admit that neo-Darwinian explanations for the Cambrian explosion have failed miserably. New data acquired in recent years, instead of solving Darwin’s dilemma, have rather made it worse. Meyer describes the dimensions of the problem with clarity and precision. His book is a game changer for the study of evolution and points us in the right direction as we seek a new theory for the origin of amimals.

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In the final few chapters of the book, Ross outlines an extraordinary sequence of events involving continental breakup, mountain formation, ocean current changes, and ice ages that prepared our planet for the arrival of the pinnacle of God’s creation; humans. He notes that mankind’s appearance coincided with a time when solar activity flaring was at its lowest and solar luminosity (the Sudbury study) reached its greatest stability. Putting it all together he writes:

Is it mere coincidence that our one-of-a-kind long cool summer occurs simultaneously with the following unique events: (1) The Sun becomes exceptionally stable in luminosity, with minimal flaring and ultraviolet and X-ray radiation; (2) no nearby supernova eruptions occur: (3) maximization of the diversity and abundance of life on Earth; (4) various habitable zone windows align perfectly; and (5) many other coincidences described in these pages all come together? Not likely. These amazingly arranged features should give us pause to consider the meaning of our human existence.

pp 218-19

The final chapter reveals the spiritual reasons for human existence as outlined in the pages of the Bible. The enormous body of scientific ‘coincidences’ that Ross presents make it very clear that God deliberately and painstakingly prepared the Earth for humans and that our existence is truly a miracle. That said, these conditions cannot persist indefinitely. We are living in a very narrow window of time in which all these factors work optimally. The story Ross weaves makes it very unlikely that other lifeforms will exist elsewhere in the Universe, as many other scientific authorities in the field are now beginning to concede, and certainly nothing like human beings, but he does point out that we are not alone. The God of the Bible created a host of angelic creatures, the majority of which remained loyal to their Maker and have some capacity to interact with humans. It’s up to each and every one of us to accept Christ’s offer of redemption with exigency or suffer the eternal consequences.

I will leave you with the words of Professor James Tour concerning this wonderful book:

“In Improbable Planet, Ross holds the readers’ hand, leading them in a readable yet gently technical format through a compelling layer-upon-layer argument for the distinctiveness of the planet on which we live and of the preparation for inimitable life on Earth. The text is replete witth references from primary scientific articles in some of the most well-respected journals, underscoring the highest academic rigor taken in substantiating the factual claims. Only the shamefully flippant could dismiss this book as being a faith-filled presentation rather than the scholarly work it represents.”

I wholeheartedly agree!

 

Dr. Neil English is the author of a large(650+ pages) historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, recently published by Springer-Nature.

 

 De Fideli.

A Dozen “Must See” Sights in the Spring Sky.

The author’s 130mm f/5 Newtonian; used to explore northern Spring skies.

The Spring sky offers many delightful sights for the backyard observer. While the nights are shorter, the temperatures are generally milder and more conducive to observing for prolonged lengths of time. In this project I have selected what I have come to discover is a first-rate grab ‘n’ go telescope(which can be tested!!!); a customised 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector. It has a very well-figured SkyWatcher primary mirror with state-of-the-art and durable high reflectivity coatings, an upgraded secondary mirror(with the same high reflectivity coatings) with a modest 26.9 per cent central obstruction. The tube is lined with cork and overlaid with flocking material to provide excellent contrast and good thermal stability, ideally suited to high resolution work. The primary and secondary mirrors have easy to adjust hand screws to achieve ultra-precise collimation in seconds. It cools very quickly, and provides gorgeous, high-contrast images at magnifications from 26x to over 500x when conditions allow. It proved very cost-effective too; typically a small fraction of what I had already spent on similarly sized telescopes in the past. The instrument sits stably on my Vixen Porta II alt-azimuth mount, equipped with slow motion controls on both axes, and which allows me to move the telescope very smoothly and precisely, even at ultra-high powers. I can lift the telescope and tripod with one hand and whisk it into the garden where I let it acclimate for about 20 to 30 minutes (the latter if high resolution targets are being imaged) prior to use.

This choice of grab ‘n’ go didn’t come naturally though. For a decade, I was caught up in the pretentious and materialistic world of tiny, high-quality refractors costing an arm and a leg. Yes, I’ve had my fair share of ‘poodles’;

A Televue 76,

ATelevue Genesis F/5 and Televue 102,

A Meade 127mm f/9 ED

A 90mm ED

And a few other smaller 60-63mm apochromats to boot.

Only through extensive field experience did I learn that they all had their limitations. The 3- and 4 inch refractors ran out of light too quickly and didn’t have enough resolving power for my particular interest in close double stars. And while the 5-inch refractors certainly delivered more light and better resolving power, I quickly grew tired of adjusting their pivot points on a large and heavy mount on the fly, and straining to attain a comfortable observing position whilst observing objects at high altitudes.

Above all else, I learned that if you’re not comfortable observing, you won’t stick at it for very long!

Enter the modified 130mm f/5, pictured above. Its lighweight, quick cool down time and with optical performance more closely aligned with a 5-inch than a 4-inch refractor, quickly won my admiration. It was another one of those sweet experiences one ocassionally stumbles upon in life. I just found it hard to fault.

But it was the sheer ease of use, the comfortable positioning of my body in all sky orientations, that finally convinced me to give up on similar sized refractors. Nowadays, the largest refractor I have any interest in is a humble 80mm f/5 achromat; the subject of my next book. Furthermore, the fact that none of my former associates (mostly refractor nuts and “fair weathered” friends, who turned on me because I refused to become a “poodle pusher”), were willing to test and publicly report just how good a 130mm f/5 Newtonian could be, revealed to me all too loud and clear that they were in denial about its capabilities. Their reticence all too easily demonstrated the true level of their experience; which didn’t amount to very much, in retrospect!

Sorry to pour cold water over your heads boys, but you’re just not credible!

In an amusing development, I was accused of being intolerant to those who use smaller telescopes for grab ‘n’ go astronomy. Nothing could be further from the truth! You’re perfectly entitled to use any telescope you want and in some cases, only a very small and lightweight telescope is the only practical solution. But apart from these restrictions, I do question why one would use a smaller instrument when larger grab ‘n’ go telescopes such as my 130mm f/5 resolves finer details, gathers more light and are often (in the case of Newtonians and catadioptrics) less expensive than the instruments my accuser obsesses over. So it’s not so much about intolerance as it is about expressing plain common sense lol! It’s just a better all-round telescope for grab ‘n’ go!

In this article, I want to share with you some of the wonderful sights that grace the vernal heavens and which are accessible to an amateur equipped with a 4- or 5-inch telescope. The observations I will report are from a fairly dark, rural sky, which enjoys excellent transparency, owing to the frequent weather systems that sweep up particulates very effectively, as they move in off the Irish Sea. What’s more, they are fairly easy to find and are a joy to study from the comfort of my back garden.

Object 1: Messier 3

Let’s begin our journey with a visit to Messier 3, a bright(magnitude +6) globular cluster on the border between Bootes and Canes Venatici. To find it, imagine an invisible line between the bright orange star Arcturus and Cor Caroli(itself a rather fetching double star for small telescopes). Almost exactly half way between these stars, binoculars will pick up a fuzzy star about half the size of the full Moon in an otherwise unremarkable patch of sky. Keen eyed individuals from the darkest sites will likely detect it with their eyes, but so far it has eluded this author’s visual acuity.

Charged with a power of 87x (Parks Gold 7.5mm), M 3 is an arresting sight, with a bright, rather condensed core surrounded by a distinctly more ragged periphery. If conditions permit, crank up the power to 135x(an old 4.8mm T1 Nagler)  and you will be able to resolve quite a few of its outlying stars. Indeed, I find that more stellar members can be seen in M 3 than in the more celebrated M 13, even though the latter is brighter and slightly larger. Averted vision will help you see many more stellar members. Spare a thought for the prodigious distance of M 3; 27,000 light years from the solar system. At this distance, this magnificent bauble of starlight spans a diameter of about 180 light years, inside of which some half a million suns reside. M 3 was discovered by the great visual observer, Charles Messier, who first observed this globular cluster on the faithful evening of May 3, 1764.

Every increase in telescope aperture provides an improvement to the view. Seen through my 12-inch F/5 Dob at powers of 250x or above, it is a truly mesmerizing sight!

Object 2: Messier 37

Though the large and imposing constellation of Auriga is now past its best for northern viewers, it is still very well placed fairly high in the western sky immediately after sunset. Binoculars capable of delivering an 8-degree field of view can just frame the three Messier open clusters( M36, M37 and M38)  running through the belly of the constellation in more or less a straight line. Messier 37 is both the grandest and eastern-most of this trio of galactic clusters, and is easily tracked down in the finder of a small, backyard telescope.

At 26x (Celestron 25mm X-Cel LX) in the 130mm reflector, the cluster presents rather like a loosely packed globular cluster about the half the size of the full Moon, in a rich stellar hinterland of the Milky Way. But as one begins to increase the magnification beyond 60x or so, the true nature of this object manifests to the eye. The impressive light gathering power and resolution of the 130mm presents a gorgeous field of faint stardust comprising some 150 members. This cluster takes magnification quite well and is very much worth a closer look with a higher power ocular. At 118x (Meade Series 5000 5.5mm UWA), M 37 is an awe-inspiring sight, with stars of mostly equal glory filling the field of view. I feel it is the near uniformity of the brightness of the stars in this cluster that renders it so visually engaging, with a distinctly orange-tinted sun at the centre of the cluster; and you’ll definitely see that distinctive hue a little better in a larger aperture ‘scope. M 37 lies about 4,500 light years away from the solar system.

Object 3: Messier 44

The constellation of Cancer is distinguished from many others in that its brightest stellar luminaries(including Epsilon Cancri at magnitude + 6.3) are actually fainter than the most celebrated Messier object within its borders. I speak of course of the magnificent M 44, more commonly known as the Beehive Cluster, which is easily tracked down with the naked eye on a dark, moonless night as a large, roughly circular third magnitude glow, approaching the meridian about 10pm local time at the beginning of April. A wonderful object for large binoculars, which pull in about 60 stars, a medium aperture telescope greatly increases the tally of stellar members that can be seen, increasing the number to well over 100. Using my 25mm Celestron X-Cel LX eyepiece delivering a true field of 2.3 angular degrees at 26x in the 130mm f/5 Newtonian, the ~ 1.5 degree wide Beehive is very well framed for study. The field explodes with the light of mostly white stars, many of which(perhaps 20 per cent?) appear to be double or multiple in nature. Higher powers will, of course, pull in still fainter members down to magnitude +12 or so, but its glory is somewhat diminished owing to the inability of the same eyepiece to capture the entire cluster within its narrower field. This rather loosely arranged galactic cluster provides clues to its more advanced age, which is estimated to be about  800 million years. M44 is located at a distance of just under 600 light years from the solar system.

Object 4: Epsilon Bootis

Contrary to received wisdom(read parroted, armchair ignorance), Newtonian reflectors make very neat double star telescopes. I have personally been astonished how well they operate on these targets, having examined a great many systems with a variety of Newtonians over the last several years. Indeed, the 130mm f/5 has rapidly become one of my favourite instruments to divine double and multiple stars, where it has resolved pairs as tight as 0.9″ under ideal conditions. What is more, it is a decidedly better instrument than the finest 4-inch refractor money can buy, its extra light gathering power and resolution coming into its own particulalrly on fainter pairs. Our next target is not especially difficult to resolve but it does present as one of the spring sky’s most beautiful binary star systems. Also known by its more common name of Izar, it is easily located with the naked eye late on spring evenings, where it can easily be made out as a magnitude +2.5 field star off to the northeast of Arcturus. Through the 130mm reflector, Izar presents as a beautiful colour-contrast double with a bright orange primary(magnitude +2.8) and fainter, magnitude + 4.8 secondary with a soft bluish hue, giving rise to its latinised nickname, Pulcherrima (the most beautiful!). Intriguingly, the secondary is actually a sun-like star in its stage of evolution, yet the eye sees it as something altogether different!  I love to observe Izar regularly throughout the spring and summer months with the 130mm, usually charging it with a power of 260x (Parks Gold 7.5mm coupled to a 3x Meade Barlow lens). On the steadiest evenings the Newtonian presents the stars as lovely round Airy disks, surrounding by a faint first diffraction ring. Separated by about 3.0″, it is best seen when the system rises to a decent altitude above the eastern horizon, which in early April, is not attained until around midnight or later. If at first you don’t succeed with this system, try again on a calmer night when it’s higher in the sky.

Object 5: Messier 81 & 82

On April evenings, Ursa Major lies very high in the sky and is ideal for observing objects within its borders. Our next target is a pair of bright Messier galaxies easily tracked down by following an imaginary line from Phecda (Gamma Ursae Majoris) through Dubhe(Alpha Ursae Majoris) and extending this line about the same distance again. Use your finder to look for a 7th magnitude smudge. If you find it hard to track down with your finder, try using a 10 x 50 binocular. The 5.1″ Newtonian charged with a power of 26x frames both galaxies very well within the same field, where I can easily make out a round, softly glowing smudge with a noticeably brighter centre. This is the celebrated spiral galaxy M81. Just half an angular degree to the north you’ll see a cigar shaped smudge about twice as long as it is broad and about a magnitude fainter; the irregular galaxy M82. For a better view, I like to crank up the power to 59x using an Explore Scientific 11mm (82 degree AFOV), which considerably darkens the sky allowing me to study both galaxies better in the spacious 1.35 degree true field. With averted vision, I can just trace out the faint spiral arms of M81, but in many ways I think M82 looks more interesting, as its smaller size makes its surface brightness that little bit higher than M81. M 82 appears distinctly mottled to my eye owing to prominent dust lanes coursing through its mid-section. It is also actively birthing stars. Both galaxies lie about 12 million light years away.

Object 6: Messier 51 & NGC 5195

Our next port of call doesn’t lie too far away from M81 & M82. Easily spotted in 10 x 50 binoculars as a 8th magnitude glow, Messier 51( the Whirlpool Galaxy) is easily tracked down about 3.5 degrees to the southwest of Eta Ursae Majoris, the end star of the Plough handle, and just across the border in Canes Venatici. Easily discernible as distinctly non-stellar at 26x in my 5.1″ f/5 Newtonian two distinct glows can be seen at a glance in the low power field. To get a better view though, crank the power up to beyond a 100x or so to increase the image scale and darken the background sky. At 118x in my 5.5mm Meade Ultrawide angle eyepiece, the view is quite compelling. Hints of the spiral nature of M51 can just be made out in this small telescope as can its smaller companion galaxy, NGC 5195. With good dark adaptation and averted vision, you may just be able to make out the famous luminous bridge ‘connecting’ the two. I find that the sky needs to be very transparent and still to glimpse this structure. It also helps being so high in the sky at this time of year where the effects of the atmopshere are less severe. Failing that, if you place M51 just outside the field of the view, examining NGC 5195 for signs of a slight increase in brightness in the space separating the two galaxies. Of course, M51 and NGC 5195 are much better seen in larger instruments such as my 12″ telescope, but it’s always good to visit this historically significant face-on spiral, as it was first delineated using the great 72 inch Leviathan of Parsonstown back in 1845 by visual means. Astronomers reckon NGC 5195 brushed past M51 about 100 million years ago and is now ‘behind’ it. Both galaxies lie about 26 million light years away.

Object 7: Messier 67

Our next object, the rich open cluster, M67, is often overlooked on account of the greater splendour of Cancer’s most illustrious object, M44. To find it, move your telescope a little under two angular degrees west of Alpha Cancri(Acubens). Easily visible in binoculars as a rougly elliptically shaped misty patch about the size of the full Moon, my 130mm Newtonian at 59x resolves this pretty cluster into a mound of several dozen faint stars quite similar to M37 at first glance, the brightest of which shine at the 10th magnitude of glory. Cranking up the magnification to 118x allows you to pick off many more members bringing the stellar tally upwards of 100. The faintest members of this 300+ strong cluster are not resolved in this small telescope but rather presents the illusion of nebulosity wreathing its way throughout its 25′-wide frame. To my eye, the stars are arranged in curious swirls with an overall shape quite reminscent of ‘incandescent seahorse’ set adrift in a vast ocean of space. The cluster is believed to be quite advanced in age; 3 to 5 billion years by most astronomers’ reckoning, and lies at a distance of about 2,600 light years from us.

Object 8: Messier 5

Our next target, M5,  lies in Serpens and is a most rewarding sight for small tellescope owners. Probably the easiest way to get to it is to start with magnitude +2.6 Beta Librae. With my wide-angle 8 x 42 binocular, offering up an expansive 8+ degree true field, I place Beta Librae at the bottom of the field before moving it directly north for about one and a half binocular fields, where the instrument easily picks up a bloated  6th magnitude star located very close to a 5th magnitude yellow subgiant star, 5 Serpentis. A stunning sight in my 130mm f/5 Newtonian at 26x, M5 presents as a rather mottled looking ball with a very bright core a little over half the size of the full Moon. But crank up the power to beyond 100x or so and this celebrated globular cluster takes on a whole new level of complexity, with a very well resolved outer section. At 118x the Newtonian presents several dozen faint stars swarming around the core, which remains largely unresolved. It is an absolutely stunning sight in my 12″ f/5 at 256x, easily rivalling M13 in majesty. M5 lies just under 25,000 light years from the solar system. While you’re there, why not take a closer look at 5 Serpentis, located just 22′ to M5’s south and easily visible in the expansive field of my 5.5mm Meade UWA ocular(118x). A concentrated gaze reveals that it has a faint, 10th magnitude companion roughly due east of the primary and separated by about 11″ of dark sky. What a visual treat!

Object 9: Porrima (Gamma Virginis); Our next telescopic object is well positioned around 11pm local time on mid-May evenings in the south. A simple star map will easily enable you to find this magnitude +2.7 star ‘up’ and to the right of brilliant Spica(Alpha Virginis). Over the years, I’ve watched this celebrated double star widen from its minimum separation in 2005(and requiring a large aperture ‘scope to resolve the pair) to its present condition, where it is easily resolved at high power in most any small back garden ‘scope. The near equal magnitude (+3.5 and +3.4) stars present as a most commanding sight in my 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector at 260x (7.5mm Parks Gold & 3x Meade shorty Barlow), with both stars shining with an intensely white hue (both are F0 spectral class) and separated by about 2.8″ of dark sky. Their orientation is roughly north-south. This beautiful binary system lies a mere 38 light years from the solar system, with both components orbiting their barycentre(common centre of gravity) every 169 years. The pair will remain an easy target for small telescopes for the remainder of the 21st century.

Object 10: Barnard’s Star: Now for something completely different! We go in search of a faint sun that is moving rapidly against the background stars. Known as Barnard’s star, you can find it a little over 3.5 angular degrees east of the 3rd magnitude Beta Ophiuchi. The best way of distinguishing this magnitude 9.5 star from other stellar sources is to look for its deep red colour. The generous aperture offered by my 130mm F/5 Newtonian has made finding this faint red dwarf star considerably easier than a more conventional grab ‘n’ go ‘scope like an 80mm refractor or some such. Once you’re there, crank up the magnification to 80x or 100x to increase the contrast between the star and the background sky. As luck would have it, there is a fainter (magnitude 11) white star situated very near Barnard’s star, roughly to its east, making its identification a little easier in the telescope. Although attributed to the great American astronomer, E.E. Barnard, he was not the first to note it, but in 1916, Barnard did measure its enormous proper motion; a whopping 10.4″ per year relative to the Sun, owing at least in part to its very close proximity to the solar system; just 6 light years. Though small and dim, Barnard’s star is representative of an enormous population of M dwarfs; cool, low-mass stars that compromise some 80 per of all stellar real estate in the Cosmos, typically ranging in mass from 15 to 20 per cent of the mass of the Sun. Such stars are unlikely places for life to exist however, as any planets lying within their water habitable zones (one of 9 others now characterised) would orbit very close to their surfaces and thus would be tidally locked, showing the same face to their stars as they move in their orbits, overheating one hemisphere while the other one freezes. Such stars are also known to exhibit copious X-ray flaring of deadly radiation, and powerful atmosphere-stripping stellar winds, which collectively  would severely stunt any putative lifeforms that might have taken hold on their attendant planets.

Object 11: Messier 13: Our next target is another globular cluster, easily swept up in my 8 x 42 binocular in the Keystone of Hercules. A grand sight even at low power in my 130mm f/5 Newtonian, M13 shows up as a fuzzy bauble of stars about half the apparent  diameter of the full Moon amid an interesting stellar hinterland. I find it’s best to wait until the constellation is high up in the spring sky where atmospheric extinction is minimised, but which invariably means observing it after midnight on May evenings. Cranking up the power to 118x(5.5mm UWA) in the 5.1″ Newtonian greatly improves the view, allowing one to resolve a few dozen of the more outlying stars in the cluster, which is esimated to contain about 300,000 members. The core is quite condensed in this small aperture telescope and the view is always improved with an increase in telescope aperture. If you really want to see M13 at its most spectacular, I would recommend an aperture of 10 inches or greater. And a 12 inch telescope and upwards will provide views that will knock your socks off. M 13 lies 23,000 light years away and has a true diameter of about 100 light years.

Object 12: Jupiter: This time of year, the planet Jupiter is getting into position for a busy summer of telescopic observations, arriving at opposition on June 10 2019.  As mentioned many times previously, the 130mm f/5 reflector is a very decent-sized instrument to get good views of the giant planet but unfortunately, it is situated very low in the sky at these high northerly latitudes, and so the image will be compromised by greater atmospheric tubulence. Observers located at more southerly latitudes will fair considerably better though. That said, I hope to employ some colour filters to enhance the images of the low-altitude planet and experiment with a range of magnifications to see which is best during this(very unfavourable) opposition here in rural central Scotland. But very encouraging results can be achieved with small telescopes. Check out veteran observer David Gray’s(based in Yorkshire, northern England) sketches of Jove here, where he employed a fine old classic 3 inch long focus refractor to excellent effect. In addition check on the comments of this Australian observer who has waxed lyrical about the images of Jupiter he obtained using a Vixen R130SF, another rendition of the 130mm f/5 Newtonian that I have based most of this blog on. Here is an honest review of the ‘scope’s capabilities, on a Vixen Porta II no less!

Well, I hope you enjoyed this blog. Of course, there are many other targets you can enjoy with a small grab ‘n’ go telescope during spring evenings. The important thing is that you take the time to enjoy the milder nights and the many wonders they present.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Neil English’s new historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy,  shows how many dedicated observers often used modest telescopes to make significant advances in astronomical science.

 

De Fideli.