A Survey of Binocular Astronomy Literature.

Every dedicated binocular enthusiast needs a good binocular guide.

Dedicated to Steve Coe (1949-2018)

As an enthusiastic, life-long collector and reader of astronomical literature, I’ve always appreciated the power and value of the printed word.

Having re-ignited a keen interest in binocular observing, I was somewhat saddened to see that many great works of binocular astronomy were being largely ignored by amateurs. To help redress this balance, this blog will take a close look at a number of books dedicated to the art of visual observing using ordinary binoculars, where I offer short reviews of a number of inexpensive works. Their value lies in the collective knowledge of the authors who have produced these works; experience that far exeeds those offered by the self-proclaimed ‘experts’ constantly chattering on internet forums. And you will save yourself a small fortune – time and money – by heeding their advice.

Exhibit A: Discover the Night Sky through Binoculars: A Systematic Guide to Binocular Astronomy.

Author: Stephen Tonkin

Publisher: BinocularSky Publishing

ISBN: 978-1-9164850-0-6

Price: £10

1st edition: October 2018, pp 145.

Want a good binocular guide for Christmas? I have the perfect recommendation for you! Stephen Tonkin’s new book is sure to appeal to binocular enthusiasts of all ages. Tonkin is no flash in the pan. He has authored or contributed to many books I’ve acquired over the years and writes a monthly column on binocular astronomy for Britain’s BBC Sky at Night magazine. He also maintains an excellent website dedicated to binocular astronomy, which can be accessed here.

So I was in no doubt about my expectations concerning his new offering and boy does it deliver! Though it looks like a self-published book, Discover the Night Sky through Binoculars, is a witty and authoratative survey of what can be realistically achieved with binoculars. After a short introduction, the first three chapters cover all the technical stuff you’re likely to need to know about how to get the best out of a decent binocular. There is a particularly humorous mention of some rubbish models, which Tokin refers to as “binocular-shaped objects.” He avoids making specific recommendations about specific models though, which is a good thing, as many units can now be purchased fairly inexpensively that can provide a lifetime of great astronomical views.

The remainder of the book is divided up into the many binocular sights arranged in a month by month sequence. His superlative first-hand knowledge of the heavens shines through as he clearly and effectively shows the reader how to locate each target. All the showpiece binocular targets are covered in this book, and many more besides. Though the sky maps printed in the book are a bit small to see well, one can always download higher quality maps from his website which you can study at your own leisure. I love his description of a phenomenon called pareidolia, which describes the psychological condition of seeing patterns in the starry heavens that are not really there!

I spotted one howler though; on page 8 he says, “our visual system evolved using two eyes.” Mr.Tonkin ought to look at this presentation by an expert on human vision before jumping to such conclusions! Tut tut lol.

It’s very easy to use this book, especially if you already have some experience of the night sky, but it will work equallly well for newbies. Indeed, it’s almost like having an expert right beside you as you make your own binocular observations. The end of the book features several useful appendices, whch cover important topics, such as how to determine the size of your dilated pupil, how to test your binocular for defects, as well as sound advice on how to maintain your binocular in tip-top condition over the months and years.

This is a great, no-frills book, with simple black & white illustrations, but it’s packed full of excellent observing projects that will keep you blissfully happy for many years to come.

Exhibit B: Binocular Highlights: 109 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users

Author: Gary Seronik

Publisher: Sky & Telescope

ISBN: 978-1-940038-44-5

Price: £18.99

2nd Edition 2017, pp 112.

Gary Seronik is no stranger to those who have enjoyed Sky & Telescope magazine over the years. He wrote a regular column; Binocular Highlights; for Sky & Telescope between 1999 and 2016, where he thereafter became the editor of the well regarded Canadian astronomy periodical, SkyNews. This neat little book features 109 objects from all over the northern sky that can be enjoyed with binoculars. After a good introduction, Seronik summarises all the things you need to know about binoculars and makes a specific recommendation that a 10  x 50 unit is probably the best compromise between power and portability. That said, he admits that he is an avowed fan of image stablised models, such as his favourite; a Canon 8 x 42IS.

The remainder of the book is divided up into chapters covering the four seasons of the year, where he presents a series of brief but very engaging mini-essays on the most celebrated of all binocular targets, concentrating on those objects that are best seen from mid-northern latitudes, though he does have an occasional entry of sights only visible in the deep south, such as the illustrious Omega Centauri. The book is lavishly illustrated throughout, with full colour charts typifying a 10 x 50 binocular view, on pages made from thin cardboard rather than regular paper, and is ring bound for convenient use in the field.

If I have any quibbles to make about this book, they are minor; I just wish he could have included more objects. That said, I suspect that, for the vast majority of observers, yours truly included, binocular observing is not really about pushing the envelope to observe overly difficult or challenging objects. The targets themselves are so beautiful that you’re likely to observe them many times during a season, where their orientation in the binocular field changes as they wheel across the sky. Thus, Binocular Highlights is designed for observers who just enjoy looking at the same objects as the season’s progress; and that’s fine.

Now in its second edition, Seronik has added 10 new entries over the original book, which is a bonus. In short, you can’t go wrong with this excellent little field guide but all the while, I can’t help but think those lovely coloured charts go a bit to waste when manhandled in the field.

Exhibit C: Stargazing with Binoculars

Authors: Robin Scagell & David Frydman

Publisher: Philips

ISBN: 978-0-540-09022-8

Price: £13.74(second edition)

1st edition, 2007, pp 208.

It is oft stated that the best way to start out in the fascinating hobby of astronomy is to purchase a good binocular. There is a great deal of truth to this sentiment. Many folk who express a casual interest in stargazing quite often become disillusioned by it, perhaps because they live in a heavily light polluted location, or they made the mistake of purchasing a large, complicated telescope that is just a pain to set up in the field. The wonderful thing about binoculars is that they are much more versatile than dedicated astronomical telescopes, since they can be used during the day to have a good look around, for nature treks, birding, camping, watching sports and the like.

Stargazing with Binoculars takes a much more pedestrian path through the fascinating world of binocular observing. Written by two veteran stargazers, Robin Scagell and David Frydman, who have amassed an enormous amount of field experience with more binoculars than you could shake a proverbial stick at. Their book, now in its second edition, shows you how the sky works and then presents a month by month overview of what can reasonably be seen using binoculars of various sizes. Unlike the aforementioned books, the authors include sections on lunar, planetary and solar observing, before engaging in a comprehensive survey of the binocular market. This is a great book to learn about how binoculars are made, what the various models offer the observer and how to test binoculars prior to purchasing. It also features an excellent chapter on how best to use a given binocular; whether it be hand-held, harness stabilised, or securely mounted in a variety of configurations, from simple monopods to complex binocular mounts.

Stargazing with Binoculars provides a wealth of information that any interested reader will find useful, including how to estimate binocular fields using star tests, making sketches of what one sees in a binocular, as well as sections on observing comets, meteors, artificial satellites and much more besides. It also provides a comprehensive overview of the southern sky, so it is equally useful to those observers who enjoy life in the antipodean.

This is a fabulous, cost-effective book for all binocular enthusiasts, featuring a generous number of full colour images to complement the text, and although I have not seen the second edition( 2013), I’m sure it will be just as good if not better. All in all, a great stocking filler for the binocular enthusiast!

Exhibit D: Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars: A Simple Guide to the Heavens

Author: Stephen James O’Meara

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

ISBN: 978-1843155553

Price: £24.99

2008, pp 148

I’ve always been a fan of Stephen James O’ Meara, a highly accomplished visual observer, who served on the editorial staff of Sky & Telescope for many years before joining Astronomy(USA) as a regular columinist. I have collected and enjoyed all of his books over the years and would heartily recommend them to anyone.

Though he is perhaps better known for his studies of deep sky objects, observing from the big Island of Hawaii using 4- and 5-inch refractors, I was glad to see that he produced a book dedicated to binocular observing to complement his telescopic adventures.

Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars is a large book compared with all the others mentioned above, with dimensions of 12 x 8″. The book opens with a great introduction to exploring the night sky, featuring the Big Dipper as a starting point to find your way around the sky. Here, you’ll learn how to estimate angular separations between objects, how best to perceive star colours, as well as a good introduction to the physiology of the human eye. A surprising amount of information can be gleaned by studying the Big Dipper and how it points to many other interesting objects nearby in the sky. What is somewhat surprising about this work is that O’ Meara categorically states that he used inexpensive binoculars – 7 x 50s and 10 x 50s – in preparing the material for this book. He does not dwell on the intricacies of binocular construction or advocate any particular brand of binocular, in contrast to his other books, where he strongly advertises the virtues of small, expensive TeleVue refractors(been there, done that, not going back).

The book continues by taking a seasonal look at the treasures of the binocular sky, covering each season from spring, summer, autumn and winter. What is immediately obvious is that O’ Meara has an encyclopedic knowledge of the mythology of the heavens, with a particular interest in ancient Egyptian sky lore. While this is all very good, I personally would have liked less discussion on mythology and more about actual observing, but everyone has their own take on how best to present the wonders of the night sky and, in this capacity, O’ Meara carries his own torch.

All the illustrations in this book are black & white, but the charts and diagrams are very easy to read and assimilate. In addition, there is a wealth of good drawings made by the author in this book which greatly adds to the value of this work and while many targets can be seen by the averagely keen eye, some are very challenging, requiring both very dark and transparent skies and a very keen eye to fully appreciate.

Though it is a bit more pricey than the other books discussed above, anyone with a keen interest in the binocular sky will appreciate this very well written book, and I for one feel fortunate indeed to have a copy in my personal library.

Exhibit E: Handbook of Binocular Astronomy: A complete guide to choosing and using binoculars for astronomers – whether beginners or not-so-beginner.

Author: Michael Poxon

Publisher: Starman Books

ISBN: 97809562394-0-2

Price: £12.96

2009, pp 397

Now for something completely different!

Michael Poxon is a name unknown to me, but that ought not deter a curious individual from investigating a book. Often times, to my growing knowledge, it’s ordinary folk who come across as being the most sensible and the most experienced, as opposed to the loud-mouthed guffaws you see on internet forums.

And Poxon puts his all into this very large book!

It begins, as all the others do, by stressing how important binoculars can be to the novice and dedicated astronomer alike. He offers sage advice in purchasing a good binocular, you know; what to avoid and what not to avoid. Curiously, he advises against image stabilised binoculars for the following reasons; they’re often very heavy(over a kilogram) and so do nothing to stave off arm ache, they rely on battery power(which he finds to be a nuisance) because they lose their charge in a few hours. They are also very expensive and the author feels that the money is better spent on conventional optics. Furthermore, he rightly points out that better stablisation can be achieved by using a homemade monopod. In this, I wholeheartedly agree; my brief experience with an image stabilised unit a few years back left me feeling a little underwhelmed and I felt the images were, let’s say a tad “artificial.” And although Poxon certainly advocates the cheap and cheerful porro prism varieties, he also sings the praises of compact, roof-prism models because of their labour-saving low mass in comparison to the former, albeit at some additional cost to the consumer. It is also clear that Poxon is a highly seasoned enthusiast, who has travelled to many places around the world to observe the binocular heavens. Ever the practical man, he has the presence of mind to include the construction of effective, low-tech dew shields for his 10 x 50s used during his prolonged binocular surveys, which he often mounts astride his 36cm telescope.

Chapter 2 deals with the basics of the celestial sphere, the magnitude scale of stars, as well as a very useful table indicating the magnitude limits, field of view and angular resolution of various popular models used by the amateur community. He also offers up valuabale advice on how much one can gain in stabilising a binocular; on page 31, for example, we learn that one can go a hefty 1.5 magnitudes deeper on a stabilised system compared with hand holding; and I’d call that signficant!

What follows are excellent general overviews of the Sun, Moon and planets, eclipses etc. Poxon does an especially good job in helping the reader recognise the many lunar craters and mountain ranges within the resolution remit of a typical 10 x 50 binocular with simple but very effective lunar maps. In Chapter 5 (which is mistakenly printed as Chapter 3), he delves into the fascinating world of deep sky astronomy and what follows is a very impressive listing of interesting variable stars, double and multiple stars (both wide and close-in) as well as a treasure chest of deep sky objects from the entire pantheon of constellations in the sky( the whole 88 are represented).The data is arranged in the form of notes which can be easily followed by the interested observer.

While the illustrations are not of the highest quality, they are generously presented and can be followed without much fuss. The end of the book contains a series of useful appendices with particular emphasis on variable star monitoring.This is an excellent book and, true to its opening lines, has something for every level of enthusiast; from newbie to veteran. I was pleasantly surprised by its excellent content, written by a well heeled amateur.

Exhibit F: Deep Sky Observer’s Guide

 

Author: Neil Bone

Publisher: Philips

ISBN: 0-540-08585-5

Price: £9.99

2004 pp 223

An honorary mention. The late Neil Bone(1959-2009) was a highly accomplished deep sky observer, public speaker and writer. A microbiologist by profession, he spent many of his evenings observing the glories of the deep sky from his Sussex home. Despite his notoriety and universal respect by the British astronomical community, Bone used simple equipment throughout his life, which included a ShortTube 80, a 10 x 50 binocular and a small Dobsonian telescope to accomplish all his observing goals. Deep Sky Observer’s Guide is a wonderful little book for beginning stargazers, featuring a rich selection of deep sky objects that are accessible to anyone with the same equipment. The first two chapters cover the basics of deep sky observing, including a great overview of the celestial sphere as well as the equipment and observational skills amateurs use to good effect to divine its many secrets. The rest of the book has chapters dedicated to particular deep sky real estate, including galaxies, asterisms, globular clusters, diffuse nebulae, open clusters, planetary nebulae and supernova remnants. Although the book is not about using binoculars per se, Bone used his 10 x 50 to make excellent observations of many of his subjects and are preserved for posterity in the pages of this literary gem. To see just what can be accomplished with a humble 10 x 50 binocular, this now classic text is a great place to spend some time. Many of the deep sky objects he describes were observed using his trusty binocular, and despite his premature passing, his rich word pictures still have the ability to inspire me. In amatam memoriam.

 

 

Exhibit G: Binocular Stargazing

Author: Mike D. Reynolds

Publisher: Stackpole Books

ISBN: 978-0-8117-3136-2

Price: £5.99

2005, pp 213

 

Mike D. Reynolds is a name familiar to many American and Canadian observers. A professor of astronomy and Director Emeritus at Chabot Space & Science Center at Oakland, California, he is probably best known for his popular writings in Astronomy Magazine, as well as his excellent books on eclipses and meteor watching. Binocular Stargazing is a very well written and thought-out book, covering a lot of ground. After a short foreword from celebrated comet discoverer, David H. Levy, the first three chapters provide all the information you’re likely to want to know about binoculars, past and present, written in a friendly yet authoratative style. What is very refreshing to see in this title is that, like nearly all the other authors of binocular astronomy, Reynolds emphasises that one can obtain excellent results with only a modest investment; a philosophy yours truly also shares.

Chapters 4 through 7 offer excellent overviews of how binoculars can be used for lunar & solar observing, before engaging in a thorough but non-technical treatise on the wider solar system objects, the distant stars, as well as presenting a great introduction to deep sky observing. One slight niggle pertains to the author’s persistent use of the term “pair of binoculars” throughout the book. Though certainly not a big deal and still used my many observers, the phrase doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. The word ‘binocular’ implies duplicity. Better to use ‘binocular’ to refer to a single instrument and ‘binoculars’ when referring to more than one such instrument.

Chapters 8 through 12 offer up one of the best surveys of the binocular sky I’ve seen, arranged in seasons, ending with a special chapter devoted to observing from southern skies. Throughout, Reynolds displays his first-hand experience in the field and has a talent for making the subject matter very accessible. The science presentation is first-rate, as one would expect from a guy with an advanced degree in the science. Variable stars are particularly well represented in this title.

What I particularly liked is the inclusion of extensive appendices (A through I) at the back of the book. One appendix in particular, emphasises the age-old tradition of note-making and keeping, sketching and the like; an activity of great importance even in this age of instant digital gratification.

The text is quite generously illustrated in monochrome, though some of the images could have come out better, they are certainly good enough not to distract or confuse the interested reader. All in all, Binocular Stargazing is a highly recommended book for binocular enthustiasts, and I for one will continue to enjoy dipping in and out of it in the future.

Exhibit H: Touring the Universe Through Binoculars: A Complete Astronomer’s Guidebook.

Author: Philip S. Harrington

Publisher: Wiley

ISBN: 978-1620456361

Price: £18.34

1990, pp 306

It is hard to believe that nearly 30 years has gone by since the publication of Philip Harrington’s, Touring the NIght Sky with Binoculars. Back then, I was still an undergraduate with only a 7 x 50 porro prism binocular and a 60mm classic refractor to explore the night sky. Pluto was still a planet and the first CCD imaging pioneers were beginning to tinker with their crude chips to obtain electronic images of the celestial realm; most were still using photographic film. And while amatuer astronomy has changed beyond measure in only three decades, Harrington’s book provides solid evidence that some texts will never go out of fashion.

The preface of this now classic text reveals the modus operandi of the author, who admits that the book was primarily written for himself! Giving an honourable mention to Garrett P. Serviss’ 1888 work, Astronomy with an Opera Glass, Harrington weaves together an enormous body of field knowledge, which both complements and far exceeds the collective wisdom of his distinguished Victorian predecessor.

Harrington was one of the earliest amateur astronomers to call attention to the considerable advantages of using two eyes, explaining that gains of up to 40 per cent can be achieved in resolving fainter, low-contrast deep sky objects. This much is made clear in the short introduction to the book, but the march of time has thoroughly vindicated his binocular evangelism, as evidenced by the great popularity of binoviewing, as well the growth of binocular astronomy in general among the global amateur community.

The book, as Harrington makes clear, is actually a collection of concise notes which he himself compiled in his adventures under the night sky. Eschewing any discussion on equipment, the author launches into fabulous discussions of the Moon, Sun, planets and minor bodies of the solar system, before wading into the pantheon of objects existing far beyond our shores. Beginning in Chapter 7, Harrington provides concise but highly accurate depictions of a sumptuous listing of deep sky objects:- stars, open clusters, nebulae and galaxies, as seen in a variety of binoculars, both large and small.

In a departure from most other authors, Harrington recommends the 7 x 50 above the 10 x 50 as the best all round instrument for hassle-free binocular observing, but it is also evident that he has gained a considerable amount of experience behind a larger 11 x 80 instrument. Every constellation in the heavens is discussed separately, rather than approaching the subject from a season by season perspective. This works supremely well, being more reminscent of Robert Burnham Junior’s three volume work, Burnham’s Celestial Objects, than anything else.

While this hardback text was not designed to be used in the field, it is an indispensible work for planning and reflecting upon the sights seen on a clear, dark night. I find myself using it to compare and contrast it to my own observations and notes and to challenge myself to see more with a given instrument.

Remarkably, any discussions on binoculars per se are reserved for short appendices at the back of the book. Like all truly seasoned observers, Harrington avoids making specific recommendations, emphasing that one can do a great deal with modest equipment. Appendix B in particular, discusses how resourceful amateurs have hobbled together exceptional mounting strategies that greatly increase the comfort of viewing through truly giant binoculars, featuring such individuals as Norm Butler, Jerry Burns and John Riggs, to name but a few.

Although technology has certainly moved on (just look at the quaint photographs used to illustrate the text!) since Harrington first collated the work for this text, it is unlikely to be superceded by anything in the modern age. Indeed, it remains, for me, the definitive volume of binocular astronomy and shall continue to hold a special place in my astronomical library. Thoroughly recommended!

Concluding Words:

Just like in the case of telescopes, we are fortunate to live at a time in history where quality binoculars can be had for relatively small amounts of money. There is a bewildering number of models available to suit everyone’s budget, and even the least expensive units are immeasurably superior to the naked eye. But as all the authors of these books make clear, what is most important is that one gets out under a starry sky and use the instrument. Of course, one can decide to avoid the collective wisdom of these writers, but it will most likely lead the researcher down many dead ends (I speak from the well of my own experience), where one is tempted to keep buying ever ‘better’ models in the mistaken belief that grass is really greener on the other side. Unfortunately, this is largely the state of affairs on our telescope and astronomy internet forums, where folk seem to be more interested in a said instrument than actually using it. This is highly regrettable; indeed it is a very real kind of poverty, missing, as it were, the woods for the trees, but it can easily be countered by just getting on with the equipment we have.

I hope you have found these mini-reviews of some use and I do hope that amateurs everywhere will avail of these well thought out resources, written by people who have a real passion for observing the night sky and for sharing their knowledge with others.

Postscriptum:

Was it something I said?

Folk fae the fora having a guid chinwag about ‘binocular’, ‘pairs of binoculars’ etc.

Changin’ culture ken.

De Fideli.

 

 

Observing the Super Blood Wolf Moon.

Keeping it simple for the January 2019 Lunar Eclipse.

 

Date: January 21 2019

Time: 00:05UT

Yeehaw! The skies have remained clear this evening and things are looking great for tonight’s total lunar eclipse. What a difference that makes to the total washout we had here for the last one, which occurred on the evening of July 27 2018!

Okeydokey. What exactly is a Super Blood Wolf Moon?

It’s a Super Moon because the event occurs when the Moon is significantly closer to us than normal, making our natural satellite bigger and brighter than at other times.

It will be a Wolf Moon as it simply denotes a full Moon in January. The connection with wolves is a little harder to pin down, as these largely nocturnal critters are often heard howling at night and often in the direction of the Moon.

Finally, a Blood Moon indicates the coppery colour the Moon turns in mid-eclipse as it enters the Earth’s shadow, when sunlight gets refracted (bent) as it passes through its atmosphere, casting an eerie ruddy hue on the lunar surface.

Timing of the Eclipse:

Starts 02:36 UT

Partial Starts 03:33 UT

Total Starts 04:41 UT

Maximum 05:12 UT

Total Ends 05:43 UT

Partial Ends 06:50 UT

Ends 07:48 UT

 

Conditions as of 00:13UT

Dry, no wind, very cold, 0 C, a wee bit hazy, reducing transparency just a tad. Moon currently transiting the meridian.

Instrument used: 10 x 50 roof prism binocular mounted on a monopod for additional stability and comfortable viewing. Binoculars were made for watching the full Moon, an activity I’ve been enjoying these last few months. I don’t normally observe the Moon when it’s full but binoculars have made it a very worthwhile exercise, especially on nights when some cloud banks cover it. Refraction of Moonrays often produces wonderful displays of colour which are thrilling to observe with ordinary binoculars. My family will join me later during mid-eclipse. My wife will likely reach for her compact 8 x 25 Opticron LEs and the boys will likely be making use of my general purpose, 8 x 42 wide-angle roof prism binocular.

The author’s 10 x 50 binos atop a lightweight monopod.

10 x 50 binoculars are ideal for watching lunar eclipses as they offer decent image scale and a wide field of view for observing stars in the vicinity of the phenomenon.

I hope to estimate the brightness of the mid-eclipse Moon by turning the binocular around and looking through the objective lenses. This reduces the size of the Moon to something much more like a bright star and so is a useful and simple way to compare it to familiar bright winter stars.

I also hope to rate the colour of the umbral shadow, using the five point system devised by the French astronomer, A. Danjon, who proposed the following schema;

L=0 denoting a very dark eclipse, with the Moon almost invisible at mid totality.

L= 1 denoting a dark eclipse, with grey or brownish colourations but with lunar details only discerned with difficulty.

L= 2 denoting a deep red or rusty colouration, with a darker central area and progressively brighter near the lunar edges.

L= 3 denoting a brighter, redder eclipse often with yellowish colours appearing  near the edge.

L= 4 denoting the very brightest eclipse, when the Moon is a coppery red colour, often occurring with prominent bluish shadow rims.

Are we learning Iblis?

Time: 02:28 UT

Conditions remaining good as the eclipse begins. Moon now high in the western sky, a light easterly breeze has started up, bringing some sparse cloud with it. Arcturus rising in the eastern sky; Capella sinking in the west.

Time: 03:37 UT

Partial eclipse now underway; darkening of the limb clearly visible. Thin cloud has moved in and the breeze is still here but lunar visibility still fair to good.

 

Time: 03:48

Moon looks like the Deathstar out of Starwars through the 8 x 25 compact.

Time: 04:02 UT

Some faster moving cloud has rolled in. Amazing display from the clouds in colour and in texture as they move across the face.

04:26 UT

Coppery glows readily seen now. Time to wake the troops.

05:00: UT

Just a few minutes from maximum eclipse. Visibility now very poor, looks like a L=1, but there is also significantly thicker cloud cover. No stars visible for brightness estimate.

Troops a bit underwhelmed.

05:11 UT

Prominent coppery tones from southern hemisphere, brighter near northern limb. Lunar regolith pretty difficult to discern. Visibility quite poor.

Away to bed.

January 22 2019

Postscript: Thoroughly enjoyed the long build up. But as mid-totality approached, the clouds had built up to such an extent that the Moon could only be seen intermittently. The boys found the eclipsed Moon to be quite eerie looking but seeing it well in binoculars or using the naked eye was always interrupted by the encroach of cloud from the west. This cloud formed the basis of a weather system which caused it to rain for most of the day yesterday. My wife thought the event was cool but, like me, she felt that she had witnessed better lunar eclipses in the past.

The apperance of the eclipsed moon looked very much this fine depiction created by veteran sky watcher, David Gray, who is based just a few hundred miles south of our location, only that the details on the lunar regolith were far more subdued owing to the smaller apertures (50mm in our case) employed.

 

De Fideli.

 

 

Resolving Close Double Stars in a 12″ f/5 Dob during Cold Winter Weather.

Doudecim: the author’s 12″ f/5 Dob with a 8 x 50 achromatic finder astride.

 

Description of the Instrument:

Revelation Dobsonian, 305mm aperture with a focal length of 1525mm ( f/5)

Secondary mirror: 70mm minor axis, corresponding to a central obstruction of 22.9%

Primary and secondary mirror origin:  GSO

Primary mirror thickness(measured): 36mm (1.5″)

Mirror cell design: 9 point floatation system.

Both primary and secondary mirrors re-coated with enhanced HiLux coatings each with 97 per cent reflectivity.

Tube: Rollled aluminium, internally lined with a thin layer of cork and overlaid with standard flocking material.

Focuser: 2 speed Crayford style

Length of acclimation from room temperature to ambient: ~2 hours.

Fans used: none.

Finder: standard, straight-through  Revelation 8 x 50 model.

Method of collimation: collimation cap and Chesire eyepiece, verified with Hotech laser collimator.

Time required for precise collimation: 2 minutes.

Introduction:

The reflecting telescope reigns supreme in the 21st century as the telescope of choice for serious students of nearly all disciplines of amateur and professional astronomy. The reason is simple; in the case of Newtonians in particular,  they are, far easier to fabricate and mass produce than any other kind of telescope on the market, and are offered at sensible prices, allowing many people to fruitfully engage with the hobby. Today, an amateur can acquire a truly large telescope thanks to great advances in material science, where a thin layer of aluminium is vacuum deposited onto a carefully figured parabolic glass substrate, avoiding the problem of chromatic and spherical aberrations almost completely.

These days, it is not uncommon for an amateur to own extremely large aperture reflectors – in the 12 to 30 inch aperture class – at prices that don’t cost the earth. The development of the refractor, in contrast, has been severely retarded by the great difficulty and huge expense in producing optics of even moderate aperture. How many amateurs own an 8, 10 or 12 inch refractor? A little researching will soon reveal that very few of us would be willing to shell out the relatively enormous sums of money demanded by the few opticians willing to make them and even professional astronomers would laugh at the suggestion of replacing a large Newtonian or Cassegrain reflector to fund the installation of say a 10 or 12-inch ‘state-of-the art’ apochromat. As a case in point, this author vividly remembers an especially zealous refractor nut who openly called for the alumni of Universities to fund the installation of one such refractor. Not surprisingly, his clarion call fell on deaf ears.

Folk ain’t stupid.

While the Newtonian reflector has deservedly enjoyed a huge following from dedicated planetary and deep sky observers, their use in double star study has been artificially stunted by three decades of nefarious propaganda, instigated by individuals who clearly have little clue about how they behave when properly adjusted and acclimated. Like I said before, it’s easy to get a small refractor to ‘beat’ a large Newtonian if the latter is not adjusted correctly or has not been given enough time to cool down to ambient temperatures, but that hardly constitutes a fair test. Worse still, a subsection of the amateur community dismiss the Newtonian merely because they don’t look as ‘sexy’ as a long, slender refractor. Such individuals have reduced the hobby to something more akin to pornography than anything else. And you don’t have to look long to find it; check out the hysteria over this peashooter, for example. Has anyone not told them that a good 130mm f/5 or 6″ f/8 Newtonian would leave it in the dust, and for about half the price? Like moths to a lamp, they always seem to attract the same motley crew.

As a keen student of the history of astronomy, I have come across many cases where large Newtonian reflectors were used productively to pleasurably observe, or in some cases, even discover new double and multiple star systems. One need only look at the work of such luminaries as Sir William Herschel, Warren De la Rue, Sir William Lassell, the Reverend T.W Webb, William Denning and T.H.E.C. Espin, to name but a few, to see that the Newtonian reflector has been a very productive telescope in the divination of double stars, both for pleasure and for scientific gain. The archives of these historical figures reveal many extraordinary feats of resolution achieved with the Newtonian telescope.  And it is to these individuals that this author has turned to for guidance and inspiration.

Having left the world of small refractors behind, apart from my fabulous achromatic binos and my little ShortTube 80, I set out on an ambitious program of field testing Newtonian reflectors of ever increasing size, having gained intimate experience with the behaviour of the said telescopes in the 3, 5 and 8 inch range, firmly establishing that they are excellent double star instruments. What is more, this author has found through his own experience that a good 8 inch f/6 Newtonian reflector is a much better double star telescope than an optically excellent long focus classical refractor of 5 inch aperture and f/12 relative aperture.

These personal discoveries have led me to more closely investigate the performance of an even larger Newtonian reflector, a standard 12-inch f/5 Dobsonian, which has not enjoyed nearly as much field use than it should have since it was first acquired a few years ago. The limelight was firmly stolen by the smaller instruments, which are easier to deploy in the field, acclimate faster and are less sensitive to the vagaries of the atmosphere, but no more so than with a refractor, or indeed, any other kind of telescope, of the same size. That being said, I have enjoyed many wonderful nights where the traditional bugs that attend Newtonians were either minimal or non-existent, allowing me to obtain truly spectacular views of a suite of double stars traditionally considered ‘tricky’ by my astronomical peers.

In this capacity, this short blog will exemplify the techniques used and the results obtained in observing double stars with such a large, fast telescope.

Method:

What follows is a report of one night- January 8 2019 – between 22:00 and 23:10 UT

Ambient temperature: 0C at 22:00 UT falling to -1C by the end of the vigil at 23:10UT

Conditions: Slightly hazy, no wind, steady atmosphere (Antoniadi II), very cold.

The telescope was brought out from a warm, dry, indoor environment and left to passively cool for 2 hours before the commencement of observations. Though it is fully acknowledged that cooling fans can accelerate the acclimation process and help scrub away the boundary layer on the primary mirror, no such fans were used in keeping with the procedures of the aforementioned historical figures, none of whom had access to (or knowledge of) such fans.

Observer; suitably attired for cold weather observing; several layers of clothing; vest, jumper, overcoat, hand gloves, hat( me ole beanie). No dew shield used.

The following systems were examined in the 12″ f/5 Dob:

Theta Aurigae; a greatly unequal double, primary (A) , magnitude 2.6, secondary (B) magnitude 7.2. Separation 4″.

Iota Cassiopeiae: Triple system: AB- magnitudes 4.6 and 4.9 separated by 2.6″

AC: magnitudes 4.6 & 9, separation 7.1″

Eta Orionis: AB: magntidues 3.6 and 4.9; separation: 1.6″

Eta Geminorum (Propus): AB: magntidues 3.1 and 6, separation ~1.7″

52 Orionis: Classic Dawes pairing; AB equal 6th magnitude components, 1″ separation.

All systems observed either naturally or using a Baader single polarizing filter which cuts glare and increases contrast without imparting a colour shift to the stellar components.

Power employed: 277x throughout (Meade Series 5000 5.5mm UWA ocular).

Results:

The telescope resolved all 5 systems beautifully. The enormous resolving power and light gathering capability of the 30.5cm Newtonian made observing them especially thrilling. While there were many moments during the observations where the stellar images broke up or swelled slightly, there were also many opportunities where the images came together, producing text-book perfect results. As aperture increases, the size of the Airy disk shrinks, allowing the faint, close in companions to be more readily seen.

Iota Cassiopiae was quite simply stunning! All three stars appeared very bright and round as buttons in the 12 inch telescope at 277x. I have not personally experienced a better view of this triple system. Unequal pairs were always more challenging owing to the glare of the primary components, but still readily observed.

Propus(Eta Geminorum); is a particularly difficult system to crack, but on this evening the faint close-in companion presented better than I have ever seen it in my 8″ f/6 Newtonian at any power; the sheer resolving superiority of the 12 inch instrument clearly strutting its stuff.

A polarizing filter screwed into the bottom of the 1.25″ ocular significantly improved the aesthetic of the images by reducing glare and increasing contrast (read darker sky hinterland) very reminscent of a large refractor. Indeed, the filter made it significantly easier to prize the faint companion of Propus and Theta Aurigae in the same instrument.

The closest pairing observed on this evening – 52 Orionis – produced an image that was in a completely different league to any of the smaller Newtonians I have enjoyed testing. The components were much brighter, easier to see with lots of dark space between the components.

All in all; a very good short session under the starry heaven!

Discussion:

The Newtonian reflector has clearly come along way since it was first conceived of by Isaac Newton in the late 1600s. And while speculum metal allowed great gains to be made in both amateur and professional astronomy circles, it may surprise some readers just how far the reflector has been intelligently re-designed ever since those glory days of the past. Did you know, for example, that according to the studies of Dr. Wolfgang Steinicke, an expert on the telescopes at Birr Castle, that the 72 inch Leviathan of Parsonstown had a light gathering power equivalent to a modern, state-of-the-art 25 inch Newtonian reflector [see my book Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy,  as well as chapter 7 of William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse: Astronomy and the Castle in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Charles Mullan ed. 2016)]. Seen in this light, this author considers himself very fortunate indeed to have acquired such a great telescope as the 12 inch f/5 Dob for just a few hundred pounds( it was second hand).

The reader should note that these results are not at all exceptional. Indeed, the author has clocked up many similar nights where the full power of the 12 inch can be pressed into service. Neither is the author out to set any records; the closest pair thus far resolved has only been ~ 0.7″ but the same instrument is fully capable of resolving significantly closer pairs should he wish to pursue them. These results are wholly consistent with the historical archives of many of the early observers mentioned in the introduction, who managed to split extraordinarily close pairs with telescopes of broadly equivalent aperture. For example, T.W. Webb was able to resolve the components of Eta Coronae Borealis using his silver-on-glass 9.5 inch f/8 With-Berthon Newtonian, which had a separation of 0.55″ in the 1870s. Such results make it patently clear that such work can be acheived with larger Newtonians, with excellent results.

Focusing is very challenging in such a fast telescope as the f/5 Reveation Dob. The author very much appreciates the fine focus on the dual-speed Crayford that came with the ‘scope. At f/5 it is a very worthwhile tool in attaining the most precise focus possible.

Filters, such as the Baader single polarizer, are very useful in attaining the right balance between image brightness and contrast. The advantage of using the latter filter is that it does not impart a colour shift to the stellar images, allowing the observer to record the pure colours of the component stars. Using a blue filter will also help resolve the very tightest pairs, as the resolving power of the telescope scales inversely as the wavelength of light used to probe the system. When you have access to such a large telescope, it collects so much light that productive work with even deeply coloured(read low transmittance) filters becomes very worthwhile.

As always, the author would encourage others who have access to such a large Dobsonian to give such systems a try. When careful attention is givien to both collimation and acclimation, the sky’s really the limit!

Thanks for reading and keep looking up!

 

If you liked this blog and wish to support the author, please consider buying a copy of his new book: Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, newly published by Springer-Nature(available in both hardback or electronic formats).

 

De Fideli.

 

 

For the Record.

Plotina: raising the bar for grab ‘n’ go astronomy.

 

2018 was not an unusual year here in Scotland, as astronomical observing and associated note-making are concerned.

Total number of nights where observations were made in 2018: 137

Percentage of nights available for observation in 2018: 37.5 per cent.

This is in accord with the claims of several British historical observers; T.W Webb, William F. Denning & Charles Grover.

For more details on this interesting topic, see my new book: Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

De Fideli

A Winter Adventure with a 130mm f/5 Newtonian.

Plotina; the author’s 130mm f/5 Newtonian doing its stuff under a Christmas sky.

Sunday, December 23 2018

With the Christmas holidays now upon us, we were lucky enough to enjoy a beautiful  winter day, with clear blue skies illumined by a feeble Sun. This time of year, darkness falls very early, well before supper time, and as luck would have it, the sky remained clear after dark. I decided to field my trusty 130mm f/5 reflector, mounting the telescope on an old Vixen Porta II mount at about 4.00pm local time, and let it cool down to ambient temperatures, which had already reached 0 C by sunset. Accompanying the telescope was a 8 x 42 roof prism binocular, used for finding fainter objects more quickly than with the telescope and its finder alone.

The cold weather was never a concern though; afterall, the telescope has strutted its stuff many times in sub-zero temperatures, as I’ve described in many previous blogs. At 4.45pm I began my observations with a look at the Red Planet, Mars, which by now had greatly receded from the Earth, but at least had now reached a very decent altitude in the south. Inserting a Parks Gold 7.5mm eyepiece coupled to a Meade 3x achromatic Barlow lens yielding a power of 260 diameters, I was greeted by a tiny little salmon-pink orb, quite obviously gibbous in cast, with a few dark markings visible across its surface. The view was good and steady and very satisfying given the great distance to which it had receded to since its glory days during the summer, when the planet swelled to an enormous size as seen through the same telescope.

But what I was really after this evening was a suite of double stars, my staple observational targets for many years now. Having abandoned small refractors and Maksutovs for the greater efficacy of the 5.1 inch Newtonian reflector, I turned the instrument on Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae, a summer favourite, but still suitably placed for observation in the early evenings of December. Keeping the same eyepiece and Barlow in the focuser, I obtained a wonderful, text-book perfect split of all four components. And though I had seen such an apparition more times than I care to remember, it still brought a broad smile to my face to see these old friends in a Christmas sky.

From there, I moved over to Delta Cygni, a much better test of atmospheric turbulence than the four stars of Epsilon Lyrae. Carfeully centring and focusing the bright white luminary, I obtained an excellent and stable image of the faint, close-in companion at 260x. It was at that point I knew that conditions were good enough to attempt the trickier targets that were lining up in the sky.

Moving the telescope further west, I could see bright Altair, so I tried my hands at the difficult and faint Pi Aquliae nearby, which I first reconnoitred with the 8 x42, before centring it in the 6 x 30 finder ‘scope of the main telescope. Keeping the power at 260x, I achieved a reasonable split of these fairly closely matched components but I could see that it was noticeably inferior to how it looked in the late summer and early autumn, when it was higher up in southern skies. Still, I was well chuffed to have bagged this system so late in the season.

Moving several degrees east into the diminutive but lovely constellation of Delphinus, I immediately aimed for the jewel of the celestial Dolphin; Gamma Delphini. The 5.1″ reflector made light work of this easy but fetching double star which was best seen at 118x using my Meade 5.5mm Ultra-wide angle eyepiece. From there, I sped over to Cygnus again and quickly located the multiple star, o^1 Cygni using the 8 x 42. Training the telescope on the system brought another huge smile to my face, as the beautiful and wide colour constrast triple system came to a perfect focus, their tiny Airy disks and faint first diffraction rings calmly presenting themselves in the frigid air.

After that, I panned the telescope eastward until I centred Almach (Gamma Andromedae) in the 118x eyepiece and was greeted with a beautiful split of this comely, colour-contrast double star. Even after all these years of observing it, it never ceases to inspire me! “That was easy,” I said to myself, ” but let’s have a go at a much more tricky system.” With that thought I trained my binocular at a patch of sky in eastern Cygnus, specificially looking for a faint pair of stars, the brighter of which was Mu Cygni. Quickly aligning the telescope on the same patch of sky, I inserted the 260x eyepiece-Barlow combination described earlier and carefully focused. Voila! There it was; a wonderful text-book perfect split of this very close binary system, with the wider, fainter star visible in the same field comprising the triple.

Finally, I visited the endlessly lovely Albireo, now fairly low in the western sky. Needless to say, it was a sight for sore eyes. It’s true; some of the most beautiful objects in the night sky are the easiest to access!

So far, so good. I took a break for a few hours, enjoying a good, traditional Christmas roast with my family, keeping the telescope in an unheated outhouse all the while, so as to allow me to quickly engage with the night sky. Beginning again around 10:15pm, with the bright Moon having risen in the sky and the temperatures having dropped to -2C, I  started in Orion, which at the time of observation, had still not culiminated in the south. Hoping for a continuation of the steady skies experienced earlier in the evening, I trained the 130mm Newtonian on mighty Rigel. Slightly anxious, I carefully focused the bright white luminary in the 118x eyepiece and was relieved to see that the primary Airy disc was small, round and virtually free of turbulence. And there beside it was the tiny spark from its feeble, close-in companion. It was a beguiling sight!

From there I moved a wee bit to the northeast and centred Eta Orionis.This is a more difficult pair to resolve and so requires higher powers to tease apart. But at 260x it was easy; the two stars, plain white to my eye, appeared roughly east to west in orientation.

By now, mighty Auriga, the Charioteer, had risen to a great altitude, high in the east, and so I turned the telescope on its most prestigious double star; Theta Aurigae. The telescope made light work of this tricky system, the faint, steely grey companion being stably held in the frosty air.

A night of winter double star observing could never be complete without a quick look at Castor A & B in Gemini. Just east of the bright, near-full Moon, I had to battle with the glare a bit before centring the system in my 6 x 30 finder ‘scope. But at 260x, the twin white stars, pure as the driven snow, was a msemerizing sight in the telescope; the Airy disks small and round as buttons, each surrounded by a single, faint diffraction ring.

Finally, I thought I would try my hand at 36 Andromedae, which was first found with a bit of ferreting around using the 8 x 42 binocular. And sure enough, I was able to split this 1 arc second, near equally bright pair in the telescope without much effort at 260x. However, it was better seen using the higher power of a 4.8mm T1 Nagler eyepiece coupled to the same 3x Barlow yielding 408x. I was mightily impressed with just how good and stable the image remained as it shot across the field of view at this ultra-high power.

Vigil ended shortly before 11pm local time.

What a great night!

Simple pleasures with a simple telescope!

The stuff dreams are made of.

 

De Fideli.

A Visual Extravaganza Under Dark Scottish Skies.

Looking east: sunrise over Wigtownshire.

 

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.

                                                                              Psalm 19:1

 

Contrary to what you may have heard in the past, the British Isles offer many outstanding places to observe the heavens. Sure, we don’t have vast deserts or majestic mountain ranges that ascend for miles into the sky, but we are truly blessed with many sparsely populated regions, where the activities of human civilisation are minimal. Having lived in Scotland for more than half of my life, I have been fortunate enough to discover many fine locations that offer both very dark skies and good seeing conditions. One such region lies in Wigtownshire, in the extreme southwest of Scotland, in the district known as Dumfries & Galloway.

Not far as the crow flies from the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, situated to the north of the Galloway Forest Park, the site offers nearly unobstructed views of the heavens from zenith to horizon in all cardinal directions. The gardens are decorated with beautiful beech and cherry trees, the leaves of which vibrantly radiate the rich colours of autumn during sunny spells. By day, there are many places to visit nearby, including the little town itself, famous for having more bookshops than any other in Scotland, as well as rugged country walkways and picturesque seaside villages that adorn the coastline all around the peninsula.

The nearby fishing village of Portpatrick on the west coast of the Rhins of Galloway.

 

During the four nights we spent there in mid-October 2018, we were fortunate enough to encounter long clear spells every night, and with a low-lying harvest Moon setting early, the skies became wonderfully dark, allowing the full glory of the northern heavens to manifest itself. Owing to its location near the sea, the skies here are regularly swept clear of particulates, which makes for exceptionally transparent conditions, ideal for astronomy.

The shores of Loch Ken, near Castle Douglas.

I took along my best travel ‘scope; a modified 130mm f/5 Newtonian, which has proven superior to a string of other, more traditional, travel ‘scopes I have enjoyed in the past, including a TeleVue 76 & 102, a classic TeleVue Genesis Fluorite F/5,  a PrimaLuceLab ED 90 and a variety of smaller Maksutovs in the 90 to 102mm aperture class. With very generous light grasp and resolution, the 5.1” Newtonian has proven to be an enormously versatile instrument for exploring the landscape by day and by night. I also brought along my recently acquired Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 roof prism binocular to soak up ultra-wide field vistas of the northern heavens that perfectly complement the more restricted field offered up by the telescope.

Plotina: the 130mm f/5 Newtonian travel ‘scope used to explore the northern heavens.

 

To get an idea of how good the skies are here, 8 members of the Pleaides are clearly visible to my average eyes once it rises to a decent altitude, as is the North American Nebula in Cygnus. In addition, a string of Messier objects in Auriga, Perseus, Cassiopeia and Pegasus are much more easily discerned visually than at home. The glory of the Milky Way, snaking its way roughly from east to west, is intensely bright here, so much so that at times I considered it a form of light pollution lol.

The patch of land where most of the observations were conducted, looking northeastward.

 

Clear skies come and go here all the time. For a few hours, they remain resolutely clear, then the clouds roll in off the Irish Sea, occluding the celestial realm for a spell before being swept away to the east. Although many calm spells occur at this site, watching the direction of smoke billowing upwards from the chimney of the cottage’s wood-burning stove, indicates that the prevailing winds are gentle and southwesterly in direction. In addition, the site is very quiet and peaceful, naturally arousing deep spritual feelings from within. In the wee small hours, only the sound of gentle breezes whistling through the trees breaks the silence.

The first night proved profitable for outreach. Although this was our third trip to the cottage, a change of ownership occurred earlier in the Summer, when a married couple with a young family underwent a home-coming of sorts, returning to the land of their youth. Their two boys instantly struck up a friendship with our lads, and so the evening started by showing them the rugged beauty of the Moon, now at first quarter phase, through the little telescope. Nearby Mars proved a little underwhelming though, as by this time it had receded greatly from the Earth in comparison to how it looked in August last, but they were still thrilled to see its little pink disk broiling in the low altitude air close to the southern horizon.

After enjoying some supper, I ventured out later in the evening when the Moon had set to show our guests, which now included the boys’ father, some of the showpieces of the deep sky with the 8 x 42 binocular and the telescope. The Andromeda Galaxy and its spooky satellite systems – M32 and M101 – made a big impression on them. For these objects I used the 25mm Celestron X-Cel LX eyepiece delivering a clean 2.3 degree true field at 26x. The dad was deeply moved with the Perseus Double Cluster, as were his sons, but I also gave them an opportunity to see M57 in Lyra and the beautiful colour-contrast double star, Albireo, well positioned high in the northwest sky in Cygnus. The owner was very surprised to learn that the telescope I had brought was quite inexpensive and seemed genuinely interested in acquiring one for himself.

The telescopic views were complemented by carefree scanning of the heavens with the 8 x 42 binocular. Showing them where to point the instrument, they gasped with sheer delight as they beheld the riot of stars centred on Alpha Persei, now high in the southeast, as well the way the binocular broke up the frothy Milky Way into myriad pinpoint stars against a coal-black sky. I don’t think the father had realised just how good the skies over his farmstead could be. I made it clear to him that he was very fortunate indeed to have such outstanding natural beauty on his doorstep!

The second day of our trip (October 16) started cloudy with some light drizzle, but as the day progressed the rain ceased and the clouds began to break up to leave a fine evening. I waited until the Moon was out of the sky before setting up the 130mm f/5 to observe M 15 in Pegasus. Having the 8 x 42 binocular hanging around my neck at all times, I was able to quickly zoom in on this fairly bright Messier object, first with the binocular, which presented the structure as a reasonably bright fuzzy star. By using averted vision, the size of M15 nearly doubled in size to more than half the size of the full Moon. Using averted vision with binoculars is a new activity for me but it certainly pays dividends! The great darkness and transparency of the air at our observing site enabled the decent light grasp of the telescope to be used productively and I was able to resolve a few dozen of its outlying stars using a 4.8mm T1 Nagler yielding 135x; a very tiny eyepiece by modern standards but a true marvel of optical engineering. Much more compact than M 13, the core of M 15 remained very bright and highly condensed, but as it floated through the huge field of view of the eyepiece with its fairly tight eye relief, I brought to mind its prodigious distance; 34,000 light years, far out in the halo of our galaxy.

From there I sped eastwards into Perseus to see how an improved sky would present the large open cluster M 34. Again, the binocular was used to locate the cluster first before centring it in the field low power (26x) field of view of the telescope. Even at 26x, the view was very impressive, with a sprinkling of 60 or so stars haphazardly strewn across a field of view roughly the same as the full Moon. The view was immeasurably improved using my trusty Parks Gold 7.5mm eyepiece (87x) which framed the entire cluster with just a little room to spare.

At 22:36UT I recorded an extraordinarily bright fireball, which was extremely long-lived, darting across the sky from north to south. At its brightest it was maybe twice the size of the full Moon and took approximately 4 seconds to fizzle out.

The 8 x 42s also made light work of tracking down the rather elusive face-on spiral galaxy, M 33 in Triangulum. At 26x in the 5.1″ the galaxy took on a ghostly cast in an interesting field of mostly 8th and 9th magnitude stars. To my eye, it looked for all the world like a planetary nebula more than a galaxy, with a slight greenish hue. Still, the extra darkness and improved transparency of the Wigtwonshire sky certainly added to the enjoyment of the view. I was particularly delighted by how well the little roof prism binocular could pick it up, as this object has a notoriously large size and low surface brightness.

With the time rapidly approaching local midnight, it was time to have a closer look at the magnificent Pleiades asterism in Taurus. For this target, the binocular proved the superior instrument, with its low power and generously wide field of view (7.33 angular degrees). Riding high in the eastern sky, it was quite simply stunning! Much of the cluster appeared to be enveiled in a fog-like nebulosity which gave it a rather life-like translucent appearance to my eye. No words come close to describiing the full glory of this extraordinary natural beauty and I spent several silent minutes just enjoying the spectacle.

I ended the vigil that evening by examining just a few double stars in the telescope. My notes from earlier years showed how good the site is for conducting high-resolution double star observing during the Summer months, but I wasn’t out to break any records. Suffice it to say that systems that have traditionally been described as ‘difficult’ in more conventional grab ‘n’ go telescopes are beautiful and easily rendered in this instrument. For example, I achieved a most excellent split of the triple system, Iota Cassiopeiae, now very high overhead, using my favourite tools in this telescope for carrying out such work; a 7.5mm Parks Gold coupled to a Meade 3x achromatic Barlow yielding 260x. The three stars were pinpoint sharp (a result of precise collimation using my Cheshire) and the subtle colour differences easily discerned to my eye. Almach (Gamma Andromedae) was gorgeous too at the same power, as was Polaris A & B and  Delta Cygni A & B.

Simply superb for tight double stars; the author’s 7.5mm  Parks Gold eyepiece coupled to a 3x Meade achromatic Barlow lens.

 

Newtonian telescopes are excellent diviners of double stars, an attribute that still appears to be lost on many contemporary amateurs. I have cultivated a theory to explain this anomaly. I suspect that many refractor enthusiasts (onlyists?), accustomed to the hassle-free observing with small refractors, never properly learn how to collimate Newtonians(it does take a while to fully learn the skill!) and, as a result, they attribute their mediocre performance in this regard to other factors and not to badly aligned optics. It’s just a hunch, but I have good reasons to believe it!

With the Moon setting later in the evening of October 17, I gave the telescope a rest and just enjoyed the 8 x 42 binocular. Up until fairly recently, I had forgotten just how wonderful it is to use such a small and lightweight instrument on its own terms. My first target was the magnificent Double Cluster (Caldwell 14) now very high in the eastern sky, as well as the less well-known open clusters surrounding it including the fairly large Stock 2(~1 degree), found by following a curvy chain of stars northwards, away from the twin clusters, and the small and compact (~10’) NGC 957. The binocular view provides a unique perspective that just can’t be replicated in even the smallest rich field telescope.

From there I sought out Kemble’s Cascade, tucked away under Perseus in neighbouring Camelopardalis. A steady hand is a great virtue when deriving the most out of this remarkable linear arrangement of mostly 8th and 9th magnitude suns. Though the cluster is well seen from my home further north, the darker and more transparent skies here made it all the more thrilling to study. For me, binoculars are almost always about hand-held instruments, but I found it beneficial to steady the view on the wooden farm gate on the grounds, where I was able to distinctly make out the small foggy patch denoting the open cluster NGC 1502, where the cascade abruptly terminates.

A little achromatic pair.

 

Though not the best season to explore M 81 and M82 in Ursa Major (they are much higher in the sky in the Spring as seen from the UK), they were very easy to locate in the 8 x 42 binocular despite the constellation’s fairly low altitude in the northern sky at this time of year.  Considerably more challenging though was M51, the famous Whirlpool Galaxy, across the border in Canes Venatici, and even lower down in the sky, which presented in the binocular as a slightly elongated fuzzy patch.

Over in the west, about 8 degrees due south of golden Albireo and on the border with Sagitta, the Coathanger (Collinder 399) asterism was also a joy to observe with the 8 x 42, albeit ‘upside down’ in comparison with the low-power view in the 5.1” reflector. The sense of unity among the stars which comprise the asterism is a pleasant illusion however, as they are actually situated at varying distances from our Solar System. Also nearby, the binocular made light work of tracking down the large planetary nebula M27, which looked like a tiny, incandescent cloudlet against a sable background sky.

Later in the evening, the large and prominent constellation Auriga, represented by a great pentagon traced out on the sky, gained altitude in the east. At its heart, the 8 x 42 presented the three open clusters M 36, M 38 and NGC 1893 very well indeed as foggy patches in a beautiful, rich field glistening with myriad, faint Milky Way stars. M 37 was easy too, just east of the pentagon. About one third of the way in a line from M38 to brilliant yellow Capella, the binocular also swept up the small and faint open cluster, NGC 1857.

As local midnight approached, Taurus had risen to a decent height and it was the ideal time to examine it with the binocular. The generous 7.33-degree field of the 8 x 42 presented the Hyades asterism in all its wondrous detail. Brilliant orange Aldebaran(not a true member however) proved to be a mesmerizing sight, as did the many binocular doubles the instrument picked up immediately to its west. Again, telescopes can’t really do justice to this asterism, as its full glory is hopelessly lost in their much smaller field of view.

As a test, I tried my hand at locating the rather elusive M1 (Crab Nebula) centred on a spot roughly 1 degree to the northwest of the bright blue-white star, Zeta Tauri. I was unable to see anything of this Messier object just hand-holding the binocular, but I believe I achieved success by steadying the view a little on the wooden fence post. Considering that M 1 is a rather lacklustre telescopic object in small and medium aperture ‘scopes, just glimpsing the tiny, roughly 6’ x 4’ smudge was considered a notable visual achievement by this author!

I ended the binocular vigil by welcoming Gemini over the eastern horizon. Though not quite visible to the naked eye owing to its very low altitude at the time of observation, my tiny 42mm ‘double achromat’ made light work of picking up the lovely telescopic open cluster, M35, at the northwestern-most foot of the constellation, together with the fainter open cluster NGC 2158 just next door. This ‘double cluster’ of sorts will look far more impressive when the constellation gains altitude in the coming months.

By half past midnight local time, and with more of the lights from the small, sleepy town nearby having been extinguished, the sky became maximally dark. “The constellations look just like they do in my observing guide!“ I wrote in my logbook.  At the zenith stood majestic Cassiopeia, and ahead of it, Cygnus, now sinking low into the west. Behind it, as if in some kind of grand procession, came Perseus, Auriga, Taurus and mighty Orion looming large in the southeast. The view was so awe-inspiring that I set my binocular aside and just sat in silent contemplation of the lightshow presented to my weary eyes. This, I thought to myself, is the view of the heavens that was accessible to the vast majority of people who ever lived. It had a singular beauty all of its own; just the way the Creator intended it!

And that’s where it all ended on the penultimate night of our stay.

After spending our last day out at Portpatrick(October 18) and a nice family dinner at Bladnoch, we returned to the cottage after dark and to rather more overcast skies. I did venture out to have a look at the waxing gibbous Moon which culminated in the south about 20:00UT when the clouds began to break up once again. Though not a dedicated lunar observer by any measure,  the telescope delivered lovely high contrast images at low and medium powers (up to about 135x). The Moon would not be setting until much later this evening however, so I set the telescope up for work that would not in the least be affected by the encroach of lunar light; double stars.

Plotina; ready for a night of casual double star observing.

 

For this work, I charged the instrument with my Parks Gold 7.5mm eyepiece coupled to a good 3x achromatic Barlow lens yielding 260x and off I went to assess how well the telescope would do this evening. After obtaining lovely splits of Delta Cygni, Iota Cassiopeiae and Epsilon 1& 2 Lyrae, I knew conditions were very good indeed; as they are in many other places in the British Isles. The 1.5″ pair, Pi Aquilae, was a little bit more suspect though, owing to its much decreased altitude in the western sky at this time of year.

A little later, I enjoyed text-book perfect images of Gamma Andromedae, its beautiful colour contrast never faiing to bring a smile to my face. The stellar images in this telescope hardly ever fail to impress. It’s a combination of perfect collimation, modest aperture, good thermal management, adequate light baffling and high-quality optics, but it also requires clear and steady skies, which are accessible to far more observers than has been reported in the recent forum literature.

Two systems in Perseus also proved profitable; Epsilon Persei, with its very faint close-in companion which, of itself, acted as an excellent test of telescopic contrast, and Eta Persei, a lovely wide open, colour contrast double, with a magnitide +3.5 orange supergiant primary and turquoise secondary shining much more feebly at magnitude +8.5.

Finally, this was the evening that I also obtained my first clean split of the tricky system, Theta Aurigae, which was perfectly resolved in the 5.1″ reflector at 260x; my first such splitting of the new season! The difficulty with such a system is the great brightness differential between the components (+2.6/ +7.5) and close angular separation, but the 5.1″ f/5 Newtonian managed it perfectly well as it has done in previous seasons.

I made a quick sketch of how it appeared in the telescope at 22:25 UT (shown below).

An old friend: Theta Aurigae.

 

Note added in proof: On the frigid evening of October 29 at 22:15 UT, in an ambient temperature of -2C, this author took advantage of excellent seeing (Ant I) to obtain his second perfect split of Theta Aurigae of the season using the 130mm f/5 reflector at 260x from his home in rural central Scotland. The Airy disks were round as buttons with a single faint Fraunhofer diffraction ring. Almach (Gamma Andromedae) was spell-bindingly beautiful and calm in the same telescope when examined just a few minutes later.

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Concluding Comments:

The intensely curious & friendly little hens on the farmstead that cannot help but entertain the visitors!

 

It was good to get away.

The weather was settled and mild throughout, with only the occasional spot of rain. All four nights proved to be good and clear for long spells and the days were filled with worthwhile family activities out and about. This is a great place to observe the preternatural beauty of the night sky, tucked away as it is far from the cities and their horrendous light pollution.

We will certainly be visiting again!

We packed up the car early next morning with the intention of getting a good head start on the road back north. Inevitably on such trips, we always leave stuff behind. Sure enough, the owner emailed us later the same evening informing us that he had found a ” telescope cover” aka my flexi dew shield, and a set of earrings belonging to my wife. The boys were not immune to absent mindedness either, as a pair of ankle socks were found inside one of their beds. He kindly offered to post the items back in the week ahead. On Wednesday, October 24, a large yellow package arrived at our home with the said items inside. I emailed him back later the same evening, thanking him for his prompt attention to this matter but also with the offer to reimburse him fully for his efforts. He replied that there was no need:

“The astronomy lesson with the boys and myself was payment enough!”

Fair is fair I suppose lol!

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Appendix: Olber’s Paradox Redux: A Brief Mathematical Treatment of the Consequences of a Dark Sky at Night.

 

In 1823, the German physician and astronomer, Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers (1758-1840) considered an interesting question; why is the night sky dark? At the time, many scientists considered the Universe to be either infinitely old or large, or both. But Olbers considered the logical consequences of this pre-supposition. In an infinite Universe, Olbers reasoned, every line of sight should eventually meet up with the surface of a star. So, the night sky should actually look like the surface of a star. Indeed, the whole sky would appear the same; uniformly bright as a consequence of an infinitely large number of stars. This interesting conundrum is known as Olbers’ Paradox.

A system of stars (or galaxies) arranged in concentric shells with the Earth at the centre.

 

Words can only go so far though, so let us consider the problem from a simple, quantitative point of view.

Suppose we start dividing up the Universe into an infinite number of concentric shells, illustrated in the sketch I’ve made above(apologies for the crudeness of the sketch, as I’m no artist lol), centred on the Earth, with each shell having a uniform thickness, dr. Thus, the volume of each shell (dV) would be the surface area of a sphere of any considered radius r multiplied by its thickness(dr);

So dV = 4πr^2dr.

Now, if there are n stars per unit volume (denoted by asterisks in my sketch), then the total number of stars, N, in each shell will be:

N = 4nπr^2dr.

It is easy to see that the number of stars per shell will scale as r^2. However, the irradiance of each star will fall inversely as r^2, which has a cancelling effect on the overall brightness of each shell and so each shell ought to be uniformly bright.

We must slightly amend the above conclusion, as each star actually has a finite size, with the result that the nearer stars will eventually occlude the light from the more distant stellar members. Still, this would not happen until the entire sky looks as though it is covered with stars. And that returns us to the original conclusion.

Nota bene: The reader will note that each star in the diagram could be replaced by a galaxy with precisely the same consequences!

Let’s now look at possible ways to reconcile Olbers’ Paradox with what we actually witness when the Sun falls out of the sky.  For example, we might consider if the absorption of distant starlight by interstellar (or intergalactic) dust might provide a means of escaping the paradox. Unfortunately, if the Universe is infinitely old, or even existing for just a very long time (say for argument several orders of magnitude older than 13.87 Gyr), then we would expect that such dust particles would have absorbed enough radiant energy to raise their temperature to the same temperature as the surface of a star. And even if it became hotter than the surface of a star, it would merely radiate the excess energy, which the stars would absorb. The consequences are the same though; the sky would look uniformly bright in all directions.

Now consider an expanding Universe, where light is redshifted. In such a case, the energy of each photon of light would decrease as a function of radius, r, so this would help attenuate the brightness of each shell considered above. What happens when we add up individual contributions from each shell? At any fixed radius, the brightness would scale as ∫dr/r, which computes as the natural logarithm of r, i.e. ln(r). But one can readily see that if we choose an arbitrarily large radius, even the quantity ln(r) can become very large indeed, so not ultimately helping us to resolve the problem.

One way out is to consider a Universe that is not infinite in extent, so we can cut off our integral at that finite radius. But there is one other way to achieve the same result, by considering a Universe that has a finite age. Let this age be denoted by t. In this scheme of events, we will only observe stars that are close enough for their light to have traversed the Universe at the speed of light, c. Thus, the radius of that Universe is simply ct. In either scheme; a finite age or finite size, there will exist a limit to the number of concentric shells that could contribute to the brightness of the sky and so the paradox can be resolved!

I find it amazing that from the simple observation that the sky is dark at night, we can arrive at a rather profound conclusion. That said, this analysis cannot, by itself, distinguish which of those scenarios, finite size or finite age (or even both), is the ultimate reason for the darkness of the night sky, but its consequences raise other philosophic/theological questions; if the Universe had a beginning, which has long remained the consensus amongst cosmologists, who or what brought it into existence?

You can’t have an uncaused cause!

To my mind, there is little doubt that the God of the Bible provides the best and most complete answer.

 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:1

 

Thus says the Lord who stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him.

Zechariah 12:1

 

Neil English discusses the work of hundreds of astronomers from the annals of history in his new book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

 

De Fideli.

An Observing Report from the English Lake District.

Plotina: a 130mm f/5 Newtonian that just goes on debunking myths promulgated by armchair astronomers, poodle pushers and fake theorists.

 

August 15 2018

                                           

Preamble: No doubt you’ve heard one or more of these statements before;

” My skies are never good enough to get steady views”

” The bleedin’ jetstream always gets the better of me.”

“The British Isles suck when it comes to doing visual astronomy.”

” Climate change is making our skies more cloudy, making small refractors more profitable to use.”

” It’s been cloudy for weeks and months on end.”

” My refractor cuts through the seeing like nothing else!”

What do they all have in common?

Lies, more damn lies, or gross distortions of the truth!

You see, I’ve been doing my homework, testing out a modest 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector all over the British Isles, and finding that many places are plenty good enough for doing high-resolution planetary, lunar and double star observing. And from dark places, low-power, deep sky observing is also very much worthwhile.

Don’t believe me?

Do I sound like I care?

Stick this in your proverbial pipe and smoke it: if only you got off your big, fat, wicked, lazy butt and did some real testing you’d soon come to a knowledge of the truth!

Moi? I’ve observed with the same telescope from no less than five counties in Southern Ireland, the windswept Isle of Skye in Northwest Scotland, Aviemore in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, and rural Aberdeenshire in Northeast Scotland, Wigtown in Southwest Scotland, Seahouses in Northeast England and even in the heart of the large cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Most recently, I tested a site in southern Lakeland, Cumbria, the subject of the present observing report.

Thus far this year, I have logged 78 separate sessions under the stars (not all perfectly clear and not all long sessions), either at home here in my rural site just north of the Scottish Central Belt, or while on holiday, and no doubt there were still more nights when I was unable to observe or it cleared too late or some such to conduct any more observations. That’s 78 out of 226 nights, or just shy of 35 per cent! So, more frequently than one in every three nights proved profitable. But I suspect the figure is nearer 40 per cent.

How do these data resonate with the above statements?

They don’t, do they?

Get yer logbooks oot……lemme see yer logbooks.

 

Sheer dumb luck?

Don’t give me that either!

I don’t believe in sheer dumb luck. Nor do I spend my precious time haunting telescope forums, you know, drooling over this instrument or that.

Nope; I’m an observer!

So I just go observing lol. You know, actually looking through my telescope; it’s not so hard is it?

Anyone with a deep enough interest in such things would quickly draw the same conclusions, at least on the British Isles.

Do I believe these findings are unique to Britannia et Hibernia?

Hell no!

Why should they be?

Surely, most of these observations were conducted during warmer, more settled spells, like in Summer?

Nope, computer says no! Check my logbooks!

Good spells occur in all weathers, from freezing cold nights to sweltering hot ones!

Have these data any historical precedents?

Absolutely yes!

See my up-and-coming book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, for a full disclosure.

If you take the time to examine the frequency of key historical figures who loved the night sky, you’d find fairly similar results in the literature.

How do I know?

I’ve studied those historical cases.

Phew! Quite a rant there!

But better a rebuke than faint praise eh?

Now, shall we get down to business?

 

Introduction:

Plotina; the author’s ultra-portable 130mm f/5 Newtonian sampling the skies from the southern Lake District, Cumbria, England.

 

A 5.1″ f/5 Newtonian was transported in its custom aluminium case to a site in Southern Lakeland, Cumbria (Latitude: 54.5 degrees North) to establish whether conditions were good enough to resolve a number of test double stars and to more generally assess the seeing and transparency at this location. The success of this modest ultra-portable instrument at various sites within the UK and Ireland has been truly remarkable, so much so that this author has totally abandoned more traditional instruments such as Maksutovs and refractors in favour of this small Newtonian to pursue all areas of grab ‘n’ go amateur astronomy. As explained in a number of previous blogs, the telescope sports a significantly greater aperture (130mm) than your run-of-the-mill grab ‘n’ go telescopes. Possessing a high quality optical flat resulting in a modest 27 per cent (linear) central obstruction, it is significantly smaller than all commercial catadioptrics and sports very high reflectivity coatings that produce bright, crisp images, very comparable to an equivalent sized refracting telescope. In addition, its relatively low mass and open-tubed optics ensures that it cools more rapidly than a similar-sized refractor or catadioptric.

During the trip, just one evening turned out clear, namely the night of Friday, August 10-11 2018.

Conditions:

Mostly clear with some patchy cloud. Temperatures were cool (12C), with a brisk south-westerly breeze, which continued to gust for several hours, abating almost entirely by local midnight. Transparency proved very good and although there was some light pollution owing to neighboring mobile homes, the sky was good and dark. Indeed, I judged the site a little darker than at my rural observing site in Scotland, with the northern Milky Way seen more prominently, snaking its way from northeast to southwest. The northern and eastern sky was especially dark, prominently revealing the majestic constellations of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Pegasus, while high overhead lay Cygnus and Lyra. The site had a good view of the southern sky, with Aquila and Delphinus situated very close to the meridian. Two bright planets graced the southern sky low down, a dull yellow Saturn and further east, brilliant red Mars.

Method:

The telescope was precisely collimated using a good quality Chesire eyepiece and left to cool for about 20 minutes, with the open tube pointing straight into the prevailing (south-westerly) winds at the site. A working magnification of 260x was adopted to examine a number of test double stars. This was achieved by coupling a 7.5mm Parks Gold eyepiece and Meade 3x achromatic Barlow lens.

For widefield sweeping, a 25mm Celestron X-Cel LX  was used, deliverng a power of 26x in a  2.3 degree true field. Higher power deep sky views were enjoyed with a 5.5mm Meade ultra-wide angle ocular which yields a power of 118x in a 0.7 degree true field. Mars and Saturn were observed at a power of 177x (using an 11mm eyepiece and 3x Barlow), which proved more than adequate, as both orbs were situated very low down in the southern sky around local midnight.

The test double stars were chosen for their easy accessibility as well as being progressively more difficult;

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae

Epsiion Bootis

Delta Cygni

Mu Cygni

Pi Aquilae

Lambda Cygni (examined at 354x using a 5.5mm eyepiece coupled to a 3x achromatic Barlow).

Double Star Results:

The first five test systems produced text-book perfect splits at 260x, the components being very cleanly resolved, and the individual stars presenting as perfectly round Airy disks with a single but rather subdued diffraction ring. The sub-arcsecond pair, Lambda Cygni, revealed its near-equal magnitude components as ‘kissing’ at 354x. You can’t do that with a 4-inch refractor; see here for just one example.

Additionally, the wonderful triple star system, Iota Cassiopeia, was examined later in the vigil, when the constellation had risen higher in the northeastern sky. I was rewarded with a perfectly resolved rendering of all three components at 260x using the 130mm f/5 Newtonian.

Conclusions: 

Despite enjoying just one clear night at this site during our short vacation, I achieved what I have come to view as fairly typical results for many locations in the British Isles. The telescope was able to deliver excellent high-resolution results on these test double stars. As stated earlier, I do not especially attribute these results to serendipity. Indeed, I have come to expect such results when conditions are reasonable at many sites within the UK and Ireland. Such results can easily be achieved by other observers using the same (read modest) equipment with just a little attention to detail; adequate acclimation and close attention to accurate collimation, which can be executed perfectly in under a minute. I would encourage others to test these claims so that these results become as widely known as possible.

Newtonian telescopes will continue to be my instruments of choice to observe such systems in the future, so as to help dispel a particualrly virulent myth that has arisen within the amateur community; a myth born out of ignorance and old fashioned laziness. Such a myth is plainly false and will allow many more observers to pursue such targets with unpretentious instruments that are very reasonably priced.

Observing the Planets:

Although certainly not a dedicated planetary observer, I have come to appreciate the very good views of Jupiter in recent apparitions using the 130mm f/5 Newtonian. During this vigil, my family and I enjoyed very nice, crisp images of Saturn with the telescope at 177x. Despite its low altitude in the southern sky, the planet revealed its glorious white rings with the Cassini Division being plainly seen. Some atmopsheric banding was also observed but, being much farther away, these features are much more subdued than on mighty Jupiter.

Mars was examined at the same power. This was actually the very first time the planet was observed telescopically during the present apparition. The view served up by the telescope was shockingly good and to be honest, not at all anticipated owing to its even lower altitude near the southern horizon. First off, I was amazed at how large the planet looked at 177x (a rather low power for a 5.1″ telescope on such a target generally). Though the image was roiling in the perturbed atmosphere near the local horizon, I was able to make out some dark markings on the planet as well as a rather subdued southern polar ice cap. I was aware that the planet had recently experienced a planet-wide dust storm that all but occluded many of the surface features but I was pleased to see that, while much dust was still present in the atmosphere, it was clearly settling out at the time the observations were made. Mars was a big hit with the family; its large size and great brightness to the naked eye being a lively topic of conversation with my wife and sons.

Into the Deep Sky:

Plotina is a step above the rest of the grab ‘n’ go herd with regard to deep sky observing. It’s highly efficient 5.1″ primary mirror collects enough light to put it in a different league to 90 and 100mm refractors.

How do I know?

I’ve done extensive tests with a 90mm Apo (shown below) and my notes show that double stars hard to see with a four inch refractor are easier to see and resolve in the 130mm reflector. It’s not rocket science!

Faster, cheaper, better: The author’s 130mm f/5 modified Newtonian( Plotina) enjoying crisp, bright terrestrial views and in a completely different league to a 90mm f/5.5 ED apochromat(left).

With the glorious return of true darkness to northern British skies, my first port of call was the endlessly glorious Double Cluster in Perseus. This is where the 25mm Celestron X-Cel LX eyepiece really shone through for me. I don’t know if you’ve ever held on to an eyepiece because of how well it frames a deep sky object, but this ocular delivered an absolutely beautiful, expansive view of the famous open clusters. It’s very comfortable 60 degree AFOV delivers a true field of 2.3 degrees at 26x, centring the clusters perfectly in the middle of the field and showing just enough of the rich stellar hinterland to render the experience particularly memorable. The perfect achromatism of the Newtonian delivers the pure colours of the white, yellow, blue and ruby coloured suns decorating these wonders of nature, each of which are located over 7,000 light years away. I stared at these clusters for a full 10 minutes before dragging my eyeball away!

Next, I pointed the telescope into the heart of Cygnus and drank up the sumptious views of the northern Milky Way, moving the instrument slowly from field to field in awe of the sheer number of stars this wonderful 5.1-inch pulled in. Sometimes deep sky observing is not about seeking out any particular object; for me, it often involves just sweeping the telescope through an interesting swathe of sky, sitting back and enjoying the visual sensations that bring joy to the eye-brain.

My telescopic sojourns eventually took me into Vulpecula, where I quickly chanced upon Brocchi’s Cluster (Collinder 399), otherwise known as the Coathanger, owing to its extraordinary configuation of half a dozen stars arranged just like its common name suggests and spanning over 1.5 degrees of sky, which was easily handled by the 25mm Celestron ocular.

Skies were good and dark enough to observe a number of planetary nebulae in Vulpecula, Lyra and Hercules and for these, I switched out the 25mm ocular for the 5.5mm Meade Ultrawide angle delivering 118x in a fine 0.7 degree true field. Easy to pick up in my 6 x 30mm finder as an 8th magnitude smudge, the 5.1-inch Newtonian delivered an awesome view of M27, the famous Dumbbell Nebula, its enormous size occupying a space fully a quarter the size of the full Moon. I find such structures haunting in the telescope and a kind of shiver went down my spine as I studied its enormous bi-lobed morphology alone in the dark (the wife and kids having now retired for the night). Moving west into Hercules nextdoor, I sought a spot about 4 degrees northeast of the fairly bright star, Beta Herculis. With the generous, wide field of the 5.5mm I didn’t have to switch out for a lower power eyepiece to find the lovely 9th magnitude planetary, NGC 6210. The telescope made light work of picking up its distinctive oval shape and its soft bluish hue. Finally I ventured east again into Lyra, where the telescope made light work of picking up the endlessly interesting M57, the famous Ring Nebula, easily located smack bang in the middle between Beta and Gamma Lyrae. At 188x, this planetary looks big and bright with its inner and brighter outer structures showing up well. It’s amazing that this luminous smoke ring in the August sky is estimated to be a full light year in diameter!

Having studied the bright and comparitively huge globular clusters, M13 and M92 at home in Scotland with my 12″ f/5 Dob, I was impressed at how well they presented themselves in the little 5.1-inch lightcup at 118x. I was in for a bit of shock though when I eventually tracked down M56 in Lyra, located roughly half way between Albireo and Gamma Lyrae. In the 5.5mm eyepiece, this globular was considerably smaller and fainter, looking more like a nebula than anything else. When I cranked up the power to 177x, the view was little improved; just a bright but unresolved core with a smattering of faint stars hovering like little fireflies around it. The view in my 8-inch Dob is far better but still rather lacklustre. I find my 12-inch Dob to do proper justice to this cluster and its gorgeous hinterland of Milky Way stars.

I ended my vigil in the wee small hours of Saturday morning, August 11, with a ceremonial visit to M31 and its satellite galaxies, now riding about one third of the way up the eastern sky. To be honest, galaxies never do much for me and I don’t really understand why folk in possession of larger instruments want to look at them in very small telescopes. Some say it’s heroic and admirable to do that kind of thing but I think it’s bordering on nuts. Why struggle to observe such faint fuzzies when you can more easily study them in larger telescopes? Anyway, the decent light grasp and expansive 2.3 degree field of my new Celestron LX ocular delivered a sterling view of this showpiece object of the autumn sky.

It was good to get away; our first visit to the beautiful Lake District. But all good things have to come to an end I guess.

 

The author did not emerge from pond scum and cannot for the life of him understand why anyone else would have such a low opinion of themselves. Such are the false fruits of evolutionary ‘science.’

 

 

 

De Fideli.

Sampling the Skies in Ireland with a 5.1 inch Newtonian.

Plotina: the author’s 130mm f/5 travel Newtonian enjoying the skies over Cork Habour, Cobh, County Cork, Ireland.

 

July 9 through 21, 2018

It could have been altogether very different.

Having access to a suite of small, portable instruments, like a fine 90mm ED refractor, a first-rate 80mm f/11 achromat, an ETX 90 and a 90mm f/10 achromat, I’m so glad I threw tradition to the wayside and brought along my 130mm f/5 Newtonian telescope on my recent trip to Ireland. As described exhaustively in several previous blogs, the latter instrument is a superior grab ‘n’ go telescope to all of the above instruments on all targets; whether in the Solar System or far beyond. Its mirrors efficiently bring light to a sharp focus and with a relatively small central obstruction (27 per cent), it behaves more like a 5 inch refractor than anything else. Yet it is very lightweight, easy to collimate accurately and, as demonstrated previously, delivers excellent images of planets, the Moon and very tight double stars down to 0.94 seconds of arc: the absolute limit imposed by its 130mm aperture. And, as will be described shortly, it’s not too shabby as a rich field/deep sky instrument either.

These findings were all  previously established in many parts of the Scottish mainland and even on some of the Western Isles, but I was especially keen to see how the telescope would fare at no less than five locations in Munster, the southern-most province of the Irish Republic. I have very fond memories from youth using much smaller instruments, but the 130mm Newtonian promised to reveal much more.

The Journey

The telescope was carried in a sturdy aluminium case in the boot of my car from my home in central Scotland down to southern Scotand, and then by ferry across to Northern Ireland, and from there, southwards to the Republic; a day’s trip.

Upon arrival, the telescope was found to be very slightly out of collimation but a laser collimator made light work of tweaking the optics in a matter of seconds.

Locations tested:

Limerick City: Ballinacurra in the southwest of the city & Caherdavin, a few miles away on the other side of the great River Shannon, in the northwest of the city.

Cobh, County Cork.

Sixmilebridge, County Clare.

Newport, County Tipperary.

 

Conditions: Over ten days, only two nights turned out cloudy, the rest being either fully clear or partially clear. At all locations, true darkness occurred around local midnight, remaining so for about two hours. In general, all observations were conducted on grass, as this was established to be the best surface upon which astronomical observations should be made.

Eyepieces used: Just two oculars were chosen for the trip; a Celestron X-Cel 25mm, delivering a power of 26x in a 2.3 degree true field, and a Meade Series 5000 5.5mm ultra wide angle, serving up a power of 118x in a 0.7 degree true field. Additional powers of 59x and 266x could be pressed into service by attaching a Baader 2.25x Baader shorty Barlow to the 25mm and 5.5mm eyepieces, respectively.

Telescope mounting: The 130mm f/5 is a perfect match for the Vixen Porta II Alt-azimuth mount, which travelled with me along with the telescope. High magnification targets were tracked with ease using the in-built slow motion controls.

Results on the Planets: Planetary views of Jupiter and Venus were conducted earlier in the evening. Mars was not viewed owing to its very late culmination well into the wee small hours of the morning.  The extra 4 degrees of elevation in the sky owing to the sites’ lower northerly latitude (centred around 52 degrees north), proved significant; Jupiter showed a wealth of detail using the 5.5mm Meade ultrawide angle ocular delivering 118x. Much dark banding and subtle colour differences within the bright zones could be discerned. The North Equatorial Belt (NEB) was very prominent throughout all the vigils, being noticeably darker and more disturbed morphologically than its southern counterpart. On one evening, I was able to accurately establish the CM II longitude of the Great Red Spot and the finest images of Jupiter were afforded at Newport, County Tipperary, with the telescope set up on tarmac owing to a lack of a suitable grassy surface, but the relatively high elevation of the shorttube 130mm reflector astride the Viven Porta II above the surface proved an effective dampener of thermals, even though the same day and evening were hot and sunny.

Venus showed its pretty, early gibbous phase at 118x in the telescope, despite its very low altitude at the times of observation. Some atmospheric refraction yielded some false colour but this was expected and largely unavoidable.

The Moon:

On Thursday, July 19, I shared some magical moments with my elder brother, who lives in Newport, County Tipperary. Around sunset, I set the instrument on the tarmac ouside his house and aimed it at a late crescent Moon. The view in the 5.5mm Meade delivering 118x was amazing; my brother being deeply impressed at seeing the entire lunar regolith  in razor-sharp detail, floating through the huge portal hole. At first he couldn’t help but hold the eyepiece (a natural newbie reaction), but as soon as I taught him to let go, he just relaxed and let the telescope do the work. I could tell that he was quite taken aback with this strange little telescope, where you peer through its side rather than directly along the tube. With a few minutes training, he learned how to use the slow motion controls to bring Luna back into the centre of the field.

 Double Stars:

Test double stars examined included:

Epsilon Bootis ( Izar)

Delta Cygni

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae

Pi Aquilae

Such systems were chosen for their sensitivity to ambient seeing conditions and ease of location, even from an urban/suburban setting.

Results: At every location examined, the results proved very much the same: all systems were beautifully resolved at 266x, the companions being perfectly picked off from their respective primaries. One location proved to be windy (overlooking Cork Harbour in Cobh), but this turned out to be largely inconsequential to the observations made. Once the wind died down, the companions yielded easily.

 

Deep Sky Observations:

General appearance of the sky after sunset, as witnessed on a few evenings during the vacation. Such cloud formations augur good, stable summer air.

 

Naked Eye: I immediately noticed the lower elevation of the Pole Star than at home.

I recorded three bright fireball-like meteors streaking across the sky (2 on one evening, the other on a subsequent evening)  from the direction of Cassiopeia/Perseus. These were possibly early Perseid meteors, which will culminate around the middle of August.

Even from a suburban location (Caherdavin), the sky got dark enough to easily see magnitude +4.6, Iota Cassiopeiae, low in the northeast, which was not possible from my Scottish vantage owing to the encroach of twilight. From the same location, I was able to trace out the more prominent parts of the Northern Milky Way streaming through Cygnus and Cassiopeia.

The darkest skies were experienced at Cobh, which is not too surprising, but there was still a significant amount of light pollution from the adjacent harbour to the southwest of my viewing location. Still, magnitude +5.8 Messier 13 could not be seen owing to this light pollution despite its high elevation in the southwest at the times of observation.

Telescopic Impressions:

The 5.1 inch reflector set up for an observing session at Sixmilebridge, County Clare.

The 25mm Celestron X-Cel LX eyepiece proved very satisfactory with the 130mm f/5 reflector, delivering sharp, high-contrast images of star fields nearly all the way to the edge of its 2.3 degree field. I enjoyed studying the stellar hinterlands of bright stars within Cygnus, particularly Sadr and Deneb, the truly dark skies pulling out a wealth of fainter stars frankly invisible in the twilight of Scotland.

M39 in northern Cygnus was pariticularly captivating in the 25mm wide field eyepiece at Caherdavin; a rich smattering of approximately three dozen suns of the 7th magnitude of glory and fainter, arranged in a neat triangular space approximately 30′ in size. The Barlowed view with the same eyepiece at 59X was much more immersive though. M29 was dull in comparison; small wonder my guide book has nothing to say about it lol!

The 5.5mm Meade ocular was by far my most used ocular during the trip. Having become somewhat disillusioned by high-quality, small field of view oculars, such as the Vixen HR series, with their measly 40 degree fields, I very much appreciated the vastly more expansive (yet very well corrected) fields afforded by this 82 degree ocular. Such short focal length, wide-angle eyepieces are a godsend to those who enjoy manually tracking tight doubles. They are visible for longer, allowing the observer much more time to examine their morphology before having to nudge the telescope along.

The 5.5mm served up excellent, immersive views of showpiece summer deep sky objects such as M13, M92 and M57, the 118x power really helping to darken the sky. The view of M13, in particular, was most impressive, even from suburban locations, comparing very nicely with my 5″ f/12 refractor from my recollections. The outer part of the globular was well resolved with dozens of stars seen directly or by using averted vision.

The same eyepiece is especially good at observing wide ‘binocular’ doubles such as Albireo, 61 Cygni, Gamma Delphini, Beta Lyrae and the incomparable 31 (Omicron) Cygni, all of which were enjoyed with the telescope at most of the sites visited.

At 23:30 UT on the evening of July 16, I aimed the telescope from suburban Limerick (Caherdavin) at Iota Cassiopeiae, then located just above the tree line of the garden. To my sheer delight, I was able to clearly see the three components of this trple system using the Meade ocular at 118x. This was a particularly impressive observation, owing to the fairly low power employed but also because of its low elevation at this site. This is a powerful testimony to the excellent stability of Irish suburban skies.

I enjoyed some special time exploring the rich treasures of the far northern constellation of Cepheus on the evening of July 16, which is drowned out by twilight in Scotland. Delta Cephei was very captivating at 118x. The primary is an old, yellow pulsating Cepheid variable( the prototype of this stellar class) with a gorgeous blue companion; a near twin of the more famous Albireo. Xi Cephei  presented beautifuly also; its blue white and yellow suns well resolved at 118x. Omicron Cephei was also briefly visited; easily resolved at 118x but better seen at 266x; its magnitude +4.9 ochre primary and much fainter (magnitude +7.3) steely grey companion being readily observed. Then, there is the incomparable Mu Cephei, an enormous red giant star, its deep sanguine hue standing out like a sore thumb against a good, dark sky was a sight for sore eyes. Mu is comely at low or high power in the 130mm reflector.

Don’t forget Saturn!

Almost forgot!

Though it was past their bedtime, I showed my boys the planet Saturn for the very first time, located well east of Jupiter and only becoming visible to the naked eye very late in the evening. Being even lower in the sky than brilliant Jove, the telescope still did a mighty good job at 118x showing them the mottled globe of the planet, with its beautiful, icy-white ring system, the Cassini Division being easily dicsernible at a glance. The view at 266x was not so good though; a simple consequence of the blurring effect of the Earth’s atmosphere at this low altitude. Still, I showed off Saturn to friends and family where ever possible. Of all the celestial objects studied, it was the Ringed Planet that received the most oohs and aaws!

Concluding Thoughts

The experience of a truly dark sky in mid-July was a joyous event for me; accustomed as I am to ferreting out things to see in twilight at home in Scotland. The small Newtonian proved to be the perfect travelling companion, its generous aperture, light weight and easy set-up all helped to make the trip memorable and worthwhile. In many ways, Ireland is a transformed nation now (it would be naive not to think so); sadly, it has sleepwalked its way into the pernicious mire of secularism, with all its attendant depravities. But at least the skies overhead are still good to go, a comforting reminder of God’s incomparable glory and omniprescence. Though I would like to have visited a site completely devoid of light pollution it was not to be on this occasion, yet conditions were near ideal during these eight days of observations (especially for high-resolution, double star work), but surely many more such evenings occur on the Emerald Isle?

And I’d do it all again in a heartbeat!

 

Neil English is author of a large and ambitious work; Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, due out later in 2018.

 

 

De Fideli.

Observing in Twilight.

A great ‘scope to use in twilight; the author’s 130mm f/5 Newtonian which combines light weight with good optical power.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At my northerly latitude (56 degrees north) every year from about the middle of May to the first week in August, the sky fails to get properly dark and twilight dominates the northern horizon. As a result, the glory of the summer night sky greatly diminishes, with only the brightest luminaries being visible to the naked eye. But despite these setbacks, one can still enjoy a great deal of observing. In this article, I wish to outline some of the activities I get up to during this season.

Observing in twilight makes observing faint deep sky objects very difficult, so my attention is drawn to the Moon, brighter stars and the planets. Although a telescope of any size can be used during twilight observing, I find it most productive to field a telescope that has decent aperture and so I generally reach for my larger telescopes. Arguably my most used instrument during these times is a simple 130mm f/5 Newtonian, which offers good light grasp and resolution but I am also very much at home with my larger 8 and 12 inch reflectors for more specialised work. The 130mm has the advantage of being light and ultraportable and so I can move the instrument around to get better views of low lying targets.

The bright planets are very accessible during twilight and I find it fun to observe them with a variety of instruments. Venus is generally uninspiring, showing only an intensely white partial disk, but I find Jupiter much more exciting owing to its constantly changing atmospheric features and satellite configurations. But because of its low altitude in my sky, I employ colour filters to bring out the most details on the planetary disk. This is where larger apertures have their advantages, as some filters can absorb a significant amount of light and dim the images too much. The sketch below was made during twilight using my 130mm f/5 and a Tele Vue Bandmate planetary filter, power 108x, which imparts a lively colour tone to the planet, enhancing the colour differences between the dark belts and light zones. It’s also an ideal filter for enhancing the visibility of the Great Red Spot(GRS).

Jupiter as observed durng twilight at 22:55 to 23:05 UT on the evening of May 28 2018 using a 130mm f/5 Newtonian, magnification 108x and a Televue BPL filter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twilight nights are also excellent for double star work and summer often brings prolonged periods of excellent seeing at my location. Larger apertures allow higher magnifications to be pressed into service, which also helps to darken the sky making the views more aesthetically pleasing. As in all other aspects of amateur astronomy, you can be as ambitious as you want. The most demanding systems are difficult, sub arc second pairs. As a case in point, I recently trained my 8 inch f/6 Newtonian on 78 Ursae Majoris (78UMa), conveniently located near the bright star, Alioth, in the handle of the Ploughshare. Conditions were near ideal on this evening (details provided in the sketch below) and I was able to push the magnification to 600x to splice the very faint and tight secondary star from the brighter primary.

The sub arc second pair 78 Ursae Majoris 78 as seen in twilight on the morning of May 30 2018 at 23:20UT using an 8″ f/6 Newtonian reflector (no fan).

Another system that I like to re–visit in summer twilight is Lambda Cygni (0.9″), which is easier to resolve than 78UMa, as the components are more closely matched in terms of their brightness and are slightly farther apart. Because it rises very high in my summer sky, it is ideally placed for high magnification work.

Conducting sub–arcsecond work with an undriven Dob mount is certainly not for the faint hearted but does bring its unique challenges, and I for one get a buzz out of doing this kind of work. But there are many easy and visually stunning systems that can be enjoyed at lower powers and it is to some of these that I will turn my attention to in the coming nights.

Last night (the early hours of June 2 2018) my wonderful little 130mm f/5 Newtonian was used to visit a number of easy to find and visually engaging binary and multiple star systems. During warm, settled weather, and with high pressure in charge, the twilight conditions proved near ideal for studying these fascinating objects;

Some binary systems visited in twilight using a 5.1″ f/5 Newtonian.

 

 

 

 

The celebrated Double Double in Lyra as seen through the 5.1 inch reflector at 260x.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The very fetching Epsilon Bootis as seen in the 130mm f/5 Newtonian at 260x.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These observations were conducted between 23:00UT and 00:00 UT.

Indeed, of all my Newtonians, it is the 130mm f/5 that provides the most aesthetically pleasing views of double stars. Colours are always faithful and images are invariably calm owing to its moderate aperture and rapid acclimation. Contrast is excellent too. It just delivers time after time after time…..

The sky as experienced 15 minutes before local midnight on the evening of June 12 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As May turns to June, the twilight becomes ever brighter, with more and more stars becoming invisible to the naked eye. But this greater sky brightness should never deter a determined observer. On the evening of June 12 2018, I set about visiting a score of  double and multiple stars with my 130mm f/5 Newtonian, as is my custom. I turned the telescope toward Polaris at 22:45 UT  and was deligted to be able to pick up the faint 8th magnitude companion to the 2nd magnitude Cepheid primary. Looking for something more challenging, I waited another half an hour to allow the sky to darken maximally but also to allow a summer favourite to gain a little altitude but still several hours away from culmination in the south. I speak of that wonderful binary system, Pi Aquilae( Aql), a pair of yellow white stars of near equal brightness and separated by about 1.5 seconds of arc.

From extensive, previous experience, I know it is possible to split this pair in smaller telescopes than the 5.1 inch reflector, particularly a suite of refractors ranging in aperture from 80mm to 102mm. But under these June conditions, the advantages of decent aperture become readily apparent; smaller telescopes simpy run out of light too quickly when the high powers needed to splice this pair are pressed into action. Locating the 6th magnitude pair at a fairly low altitude under bright June twilight  is even a challenge for the 6 x 30mm finder astride the main instrument. To my delight though, I was able to track it down and once centred, I cranked up the power to 325x ( using a 2mm Vixen HR ocular) to obtain a marvellous view of this close binary system, the components aligned roughly east to west with clear dark space between them. Adopting these powers with smaller apertures is problematical to say the least. Why strain one’s eyes when one can view it in much greater comfort using the generous aperture of this trusty 130mm grab ‘n’ go ‘scope?

I made sketeches of both Polaris A & B and Pi Aql as I recorded them at the eyepiece (see below).

Polaris A & B and the tricky, near equal magnitude pair, Pi Aql, as seen in the 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector on the evening of June 12 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the June solstice approaches, the twilight continues to brghten the sky, but there’s still lots to see. Beginning about 10pm local time, I began observing a pretty crescent Moon sinking into the western sky. The instrument I chose this evening was a very inexpensive but optically excellent 76mm f/9.3 Newtonian reflector, which I described at length in previous blogs such as this one. Because our natural satellite is so big and bright, a small telescope like this one is ideal for casual observing. Because the sky is still quite bright at this time, I found it helpful to employ either a neutral density or variable polarising filter to increase the contrast between the lunar regolith and the background sky.

An amazing performer in June twilight: the Orion Space Probe 3 altazimuth reflector.

Observing the Moon in June twilight is fun at all magnifications, but I have discovered this little telescope can provide razor sharp images up to about 210x. You’ll not get this information from the telescope forums though; it still seems beneath them to test it and spread the word, but I digress!

On the evening of June 18 2018, I visited a suite of summer double and multiple stars with the same instrument.

At about 11.30pm local time, the sky was dark enough to track down some pretty tight double stars, as well as a variety of easier but just as comely systems. Conditions were good enough for the little Spaceprobe reflector to nicely resolve Epsilon Bootis, Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae and Delta Cygni (210x in each case). My study of the Lyra Double Double in particular with this telescope shows that it is significantly better than any 60mm refractor in terms of raw resolving power. As I have reported earlier this year, the same telescope was able to resolve Xi Ursae Majoris, Porrima, Eta Orionis, and the wonderful triple system, Iota Cassiopeiae. Sadly, the latter system, which is still present low in the northern sky in June, was hopelessly lost in the summer twilight. Bootes always presents a nice playground for easy and pretty double stars, including Kappa, Pi, Xi and Nu 1 & 2 Bootis, which were all easily split at 116x.

June is also high season for the beautiful, ghostly whisps that meteorologists refer to as noctilucent clouds. These thin, high altitude formations are lit up by the Sun while still below the northern horizon, creating quite surreal visual delights to the naked eye. I took a couple of low resolution images with my iphone (shown below).

Noctilucent clouds captured outside my house at local midnight on the evening of June 18 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another view captured at local midnight on the evening of June 18 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I shall endeavour to capture some higher resolution shots of these wonderful meteorological structures in due course.

Plotina, the author’s amazing 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector as seen at 11.10pm on the evening of June 21 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the June Solstice of 2018, I  walked through the garden in the cool of the evening, fetching my trusty Vixen Porta II mount to field my 130mm f/5 Newtonian. A gentle westerly breeze was blowing and the sky was resolutely clear, but I have learned on many past occasions that these conditions often bring very good seeing conditions for high resolution double star work. And my efforts were rewarded with text book perfect images of a suite of difficult double stars, some of which I have mentioned earlier in this report. I also ended my year long evaluation of a variety of eyepieces and Barlow lenses,varying quite considerably in price range. These studies have led to some firm conclusions regarding the effects of moving air upon Newtonian optics, as well as some very surprising results concerning the efficacy of certain oculars in regard to resolving double stars. Do you always get what you pay for? Most certainly not!

Insofar as artificiallly blowing air on a Newtonian mirror has been shown to scrub off the so-called boundary layer immediately above the reflective surface, my field testing over many nights shows that natural wind can also improve the images in exactly the same way. For this reason, I invariably point the telescope into any prevailing wind while the telescope cools and this works especially well for my larger Newtonian reflectors (8- and 12 inches). Furthermore, I am not aware of any historical precedent for this; the work of some notable telescopic ancestors of the ilk of W.F. Denning, T.H.E.C. Espin, T.E.R. Philips, A.S. Williams, T.W Webb and N.E. Green ( the selected work of which I will feature in my up-and-coming historical work) all of whom used Newtonian reflectors to great effect do not explicitly give mention to this result, though there is no doubt it is generally true.

The Vixen HR series of oculars; nice but totally overkill for high resolution double star work in medium and large aperture aperture Newtonian reflectors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On many fine evenings using a variety of Newtonian telescopes, I have compared the views through top-of-the-range eyepieces, such as the new Vixen HR series of ultra-short focal length oculars(1.4mm, 2.0mm and 2.4mm) and those derived from much more modest (but still very good) Plossls and orthoscopics coupled to decent Barlow lenses and my conclusions are that the much more expensive eyepieces do not confer any real advantages over the latter.

Ordinary eyepieces and Barlows work perfectly well with Newtonian reflectors for high-resolution double star work. Left to right; a 3x Meade achromatic Barlow, a 7.5mm Parks Gold and Baader 6mm classic orthoscopic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, the HR series do display slighly better contrast and reduced light scatter compared to Plossls and orthoscopics but the differences were never enough to count. i.e. There was never an occasion where I could not see a tight companion in one over the other at comparable magnifications. Indeed, the HR series of eyepieces have very restrictive fields (42 degrees), even compared with the modest 50 degree fields offered up by a Plossl and/or the Baader classics (which have a larger 50 degree field) when Barlowed allow for significantly larger fields to be exploited. There is thus a distinct advantage to the using the far less expensive Plossl and orthoscopic type eyepieces over the HR series (the three of which will set the consumer back a hefty £750 UK), especially when employing a non-motorised altazimuth mount such as my Vixen Porta II.

Don’t believe the hype; binary stars are very simple, just tight little Airy disks. Save your money and use it more productively on other things.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this blog and that you don’t become discouraged observing throughout the twilight season wherever you live.

Thanks for reading.

 

Neil English’s new book, Tales from the Golden Age, uses history to debunk a few myths that have crept into modern amateur astronomy. Available in late 2018.

 

 

Further Newtonian Adventures with Double Stars.

'Plotina'; the author's ultraportable 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector.

‘Plotina’; the author’s ultraportable 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this department of astronomy, the names of Herschel, South, Struve, Dawes, Dembowski, Burnham, and others are honourably associated and it is notable that refracting-telescopes have accomplished nearly the whole of the work. But reflectors are little less capable, though their powers seem to have been rarely employed in this field. Mr. Tarrant has lately secured a large number of accurate measures with a 10-inch reflector by Calver, and if care is taken to secure correct adjustment of the mirrors, there is no reason why this form of instrument should not be nearly as effective as its rival.

W. F. Denning, from Telescopic Work for Starlight Evenings (1891), pp 290-291

Eye seeth afore I measureth.

Introduction: Having spent several years enjoying the views of double stars of varying degrees of difficulty with a variety of classical achromatic and apochromatic refractors of various apertures (60mm-150mm), this author has dedicated the last 15 months investigating the prowess of Newtonian reflectors in regard to their efficacy in splitting double stars. Surprisingly, a 8″ f/6 Newtonian with traditional spider vanes and a 22 per cent central obstruction was found to be noticeably superior to a first rate 5″ f/12 glass, as well as a 180mm f/15 Maksutov Cassegrain, on all targets, including double stars.

These experiences have collectively led to a deep seated scepticism concerning the traditional claims of self appointed ‘authorities’ who have tended to downplay the Newtonian reflector as a worthy double star instrument. But as the quote from Mr. Denning’s book states above, this prejudice is not derived from sustained field experience. Instead, it is cultivated by, at best, tenuous theoretical considerations. And yet theory counts for nothing if contradictions are found by experimentation, and must be revised in light of new evidences brought to the fore by active observers.

In this capacity, this author has spent several months investigating the performance of a very modest 5.1 inch (130mm) f/5 Newtonian reflector on an undriven alt-azimuth mount. The instrument was modified  in two principal ways:

  1. The original secondary mirror was replaced with a slightly smaller flat (blackened around its periphery), giving a central obstruction of 26.9 per cent, significantly lower than Schmidt and many Maksutov Cassegrains of similar aperture.
  2. Both the primary and secondary mirrors were re-coated with ultra-high reflectivity (97 per cent) coatings delivering a light throughput broadly equivalent to a refractor of similar size.

The instrument has a single stalk supporting the secondary mirror which produces greatly reduced diffraction effects compared with more traditional  Newtonians, yet was found to be sufficiently rigid to deliver very sharp and detailed views of the Moon, planets and deep sky objects.

The single stalk, rigidly supporting the secondary of the 130mm f/5 Newtonian.

The single stalk, rigidly supporting the secondary of the 130mm f/5 Newtonian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The optical train can be accurately aligned in minutes by means of fully adjustable screws on both the primary and secondary mirrors and an inexpensive laser collimator.

The collimating screws behind the primary mirror.

The collimating screws behind the primary mirror.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preliminary field testing has shown that the telescope provides very fine high power views of stellar targets under fair to good conditions. Even at  powers beyond 50 per inch of aperture, stars remain round, free of astigmatism and perfectly achromatic. Furthermore, the diffraction spikes attributed to Newtonians are much subdued in this instrument owing to its single vane secondary support. The diagram below shows the relative intensity of diffraction spikes manifesting from various secondary mounting configurations and the reader will note the minimal effects of a single support (seen on far left).

Comparison of diffraction spikes for various strut arrangements of a reflecting telescope – the inner circle represents the secondary mirror

Comparison of diffraction spikes for various strut arrangements of a reflecting telescope – the inner circle represents the secondary mirror.

 

 

 

 

 

Materials & Methods: The telescope was mounted on an ergonomic but sturdy Vixen Porta II alt-azimuth mount equipped with slow motion controls on both axes. the instrument was carefully collimated prior to the commencement of observations using a laser collimator. No cooling fans were employed. A red dot finder was used to aim the instrument and various oculars and barlows were used to resolve pairs. For fainter stellar targets, the system was centred first using a 32mm SkyWatcher Plossl which delivers 20x and an expansive 2.5 degree true field.

Results:

Date: 12.05.16

Time: 00:00-00:30 UT

Seeing: Antoniadi II-III

Epsilon Lyrae: x 271; all four components cleanly resolved, stars round, white and undistorted. No diffraction effects noted.

Pi Bootis: Easy at 150x. Components appearing white and blue-white.

Mu Bootis (Alkalurops): Wonderful triple system; fainter pair (magnitudes 7 and 7.6) separated by 2.2″ and perfectly presented at 271x. This pair has an orbital period of just 260 years!

Epsilon Bootis: Primary (magnitude 2.5) presenting in a lovely ochre hue and its fainter companion (magnitude 4.7) easily picked off at 271x.

Delta Cygni:  Magnitudes: 2.89, 6.27, separation:  2.7″

Well split at 271x, although conditions a little turbulent and not yet at an optimal altitude for observation.

Date: 13.05.16

Time: 00:00-00:30 UT

Seeing: II. Indifferent seeing at sunset (III-IV), improving as the night advanced (II).

Temperature: +7.5C

Xi UMa: beautiful clean split of this 1.6″ pair (magnitudes 4.3 and 4.8) at 271x

Epsilon Bootis: textbook perfect split @ 271x

Delta Cygni: Child’s play this evening, separation 2.7″. Companion presented as a perfectly round, steely grey orb @271x.

Beta Lyrae: remarkable multiple star system. Four white/blue white stars framed in the same field at 271x.

O^1 Cygni: a corker at 20x, but more fetching at 81x. Orange and turquoise stars, with the former showing its blue magnitude 7 companion.

Date: 15.05.16

Time: 22:30 UT

Seeing: II-III, clear, brightening moon, twilit

Temperature: +3.5C

Iota Cassiopeiae: Just one entry tonight. More challenging to locate owing to its relatively low altitude above the northern horizon and the encroach of twilight. All thee components well resolved at 271x. This is the third successful split of this attractive multiple star system with the same instrument.

Date: 21.05.16

Time: 22:10 UT

Seeing: II, partially cloudy, twilit.

Temperature: +10C

Epsilon Bootis: Another lovely split this evening @271x. Primary(magnitude +2.5) orange and the secondary a regal blue (magnitude 4.9) separated by 2.8″.

Xi Bootis: Striking yellow and orange components (magnitudes 4.7 and 7, respectively), separated by ~6.5″ and beautifully framed @ 150X.

Rho Herculis: A comely pair of blue-white stars shining at magnitudes +4.5 and +5.4. Easily resolved (4.0″)@271X.

22:30UT

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae: textbook perfect split of all four components @271x. Subtle colour differences noted between the stars.

22:45 UT

Delta Cygni: Perfectly resolved at 271x. Magnitudes: 2.89, 6.27, separation:  2.7″

Date: 22.05.16

Time: 23:10UT

Seeing: II, very good, mostly clear, twilit, bright Moon low in south.

Temperature: +9C

Marfik(Lambda Ophiuchi): Quite hard to track down owing to an unusual amount of glare in the southern sky. System split at 271x. The components ( magnitudes 4.2 & 5.2), well resolved. Tightest system so far resolved with this instrument: 1.4″. Both stars appeared creamy white and orientated roughly northeast to southwest. Superficially, very much like Xi UMa but slightly more challenging.

No’ bad ken.

Date: 24.05.16

Time: 00:10 UT

Seeing: I-II, excellent steady atmosphere, no cloud, twilit, cool.

Temperature: +5C

Pi Aquilae: Another good target affirmatively resolved this evening. Separation 1.5″ with magnitudes of 6.3 and 6.8. Power of 271x applied. First hint of duplicity seen shortly after local midnight when the system was quite low down in the east, but much better presented at 23:45 UT when it rose a little higher.

Delta Cygni: Another textbook perfect split! This system is child’s play with this telescope, but remains a good indicator of local seeing.

I would warmly encourage others using this telescope, or its closed tubed counterpart, to confirm these findings.

Date: 28.05.16

Time: 22:45 UT

Seeing: II, good stable air for double star work, cloudless sky, twilit.

Temperature: +6C

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae: beautiful easy and dazzling split of all four components @271x

Delta Cygni: Another textbook perfect split of this very unequal magnitude pair @271x

Mu Cygni: difficult to find as it is currently lower down in the east under twilit conditions. Excellent multiple star system, A-B well split @271x, colours white and yellow (+4.8/6.2 magnitudes, respectively), separation ~1.66″. Another tight, unequal magnitude pairing. C component too faint to pick off in the twilight. D component (+6.9) seen about 3′ off to the northeast.

Doing well so far don’t you think?

Ps. Interesting findings from a few guys here.

Date: 29.05.16

Time: 23:10 UT

Seeing: II, almost a carbon copy of last night. Twilit.

Temperature: +7C

Just two targets this evening.

Epsilon Bootis: a good ‘warm up’ system. The telescope showed a textbook perfect split during the finest moments at 271X. I have found that wearing a good heat-insulating jacket and hat gives noticeably better results on cooler nights, as thermal energy from the body can sometimes distort the image at least for a wee while.

From there I moved to my target system for the evening.

Sigma 1932 AaB: a very challenging system in Corona Borealis. It is located about 3.67 degrees directly west of Alphecca (alpha CrB) which is easily seen even in twilight. My 32mm SkyWatcher Plossl, which yields a field of view of 2.5 angular degrees was used, together with my star atlas, to finally track down this magnitude 7 system. After a few false starts, I eventually centred the target system, cranked up the power to 271x and, with a concentrated gaze, obtained a good split! This binary system consists of a pair of yellowish stars with equal magnitudes (7.3 and 7.4, respectively) oriented roughly east to west and separated by 1.6″.

Battle o' the weans. In the foreground a 90mm Apo, in the backgroud, a 130mm Newtonian.

Battle o’ the weans. In the foreground a 90mm Apo, in the backgroud, a 130mm Newtonian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Date: 30.05.16

Time: 23:00-23:30 UT

Seeing: A fine and mild night, remaining very good (II), high pressure bubble stabilised over Scotland, some intermittent cloud, twilit. Midge flies back.

Temperature: +11C

Tonight, I wanted to compare and contrast two very different telescopes in respect to their ability to split a few of the tougher pairs visited thus far; a 90mm f/5.5 doublet Apo (retail price now £912 UK) and the 130mm f/5 Newtonian (~£200 UK with the modifications).

System:Delta Cygni

90mm glass; difficult split @208x

130mm speculum: much more cleanly resolved@271x

System: Pi Aquilae*

90mm glass: very dim, touching @208x

130mm speculum: cleanly resolved/brighter @271x

System;Marfik*

90mm glass: dim, elongated @208x

130mm speculum: fully resolved /brighter @271x

*Suboptimal altitude

You cannae change the laws o’ physics captain!

And ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Oh vanity of vanities!

Self-evidently, an unfair comparison: the 130mm f/5 Newtonian is clearly the superior double star instrument.

The words of the prophet, Isaiah, come to mind;

For fools speak folly,
their hearts are bent on evil:
They practice ungodliness
and spread error concerning the Lord;
the hungry they leave empty
and from the thirsty they withhold water.
Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes
to destroy the poor with lies,
even when the plea of the needy is just.
But the noble make noble plans,
and by noble deeds they stand.

Isaiah 32:6-8

Date: 31.05.16

Time: 23:05 UT

Seeing: III; significantly more turbulent than last night. Twilit.

Temperature: +10C

This evening I had intended to concentrate my observations on one target; the very difficult sub-arc second companion to Lambda Cygni, using my best instrument; a 8-inch f/6 Newtonian, in order that I might train my eyes to see this companion (separated by 0.9″) in my smaller 130mm instrument.

Using the 130mm as a seeing gauge; I found Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae to be resolved well but nearby Delta Cygni was poorly resolved. This was also found to be the case in the 8-inch aperture.

Project shelved for a better night.

Date: 01.06.16

Time: 23:30 UT

No opportunities afforded this evening owing to the encroach of haar after sunset.

Let us consider some of the optical principles relevant to splitting such a tight pair.

Diffraction theory states that the position of the first bright ring (between 1st and 2nd minima) is located at a linear radius of 1.63 lambda x F where lambda (wavelength) is quoted in microns and F is the focal ratio of the scope. By dividing this quantity by the focal length we obtain the angular radius of the 1st minimum (in radians) and this yields (1.63 x lambda)/D where D is the aperture of the scope in metres.

Now, there are 57.3 angular degrees in a radian and 3600 arc seconds in each angular degree, so if we multiply the above expression by 57.3 x 3600 = 206280 and so we arrive at 206280 x (1.63 x lambda)/D.

Setting D = 0.1m for example, and lambda = 0.55 microns (green)  yields 1849300 micro arc seconds, which is 1.85”.

Or more generally, the locus of the first diffraction ring is 185/D where D is the aperture of the telescope expressed in mm.

Applying this formula to the 200mm and 130 mm reflectors, the position of the first diffraction ring is 0.9” and 1.4”, respectively. Thus, the companion to Lambda Cygni will be located on the first diffraction ring in the 8-inch instrument, and inside the ring in the case of the 130mm telescope.

The primary has a magnitude of +4.5 and the secondary, + 6.3, so there is a magnitude differential of 1.8. The significant brightness differential makes this system more difficult to crack.

The Dawes limit for a 130mm (5.1 inches) ‘scope is given by 4.57/D in inches, which is ~0.9”.

More on this here.

Date: 02.06.16

Time: 23:30 UT

Seeing: III-IV, very turbulent

Conditions clear but remaining very turbulent. A light, northeasterly air flow is likely the culprit(see my local weather; Stirling, Scotland).

My notes show that I have glimpsed the companion to the primary on a few occasions over the last few summers with my 5″ f/12 achromatic. But I have seen it much more clearly – and also on a few occasions – with the 8″ f/6 Newtonian.

Date: 06.06.16

In order to maximise my chances with Lambda Cygni, I have decided to wait until August at the earliest, when the system will be high overhead here, in a dark sky. Patience is a virtue is it not? And I can afford to be patient with this one, as it is a very slow moving binary and so will remain very challenging for a good few years to come. So no hurry.

The capabilities of the 130mm f/5 on double stars have already well exceeded my expectations. My experiences with the smaller, 90mm refractor especially, have reinforced the notion that aperture is a vital commodity when it comes to seeing objects clearly and distinctly. It pays to remember that resolution scales with aperture. That’s why it is easier to see things in the 130mm than the 90mm, irrespective of how fancy its optics and mechanics are. And this can be tested, again and again and again…..ad nauseam.

This is factual knowledge, and facts are stubborn and immutable things!

Physics pays no attention to human hubris.

Physics cares little for hubris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the next few months I would like to return to the many beautiful and easy systems within reach of this remarkable telescope; even in heavy twilight.

Time: 23:00-59 UT

Temperature: +11C

Seeing: II, good, a little hazy, twilit.

I walked through the garden in the cool of the evening, after a very warm and sunny day. I set up the 130mm f/5 as usual and began to explore some of the nicer double stars of the sky.

Mizar & Alcor: A perennial favourite, high overhead this time of year, dazzlingly bright, the light from these stars fills the field and induces instant joy. Well framed at 81x in my trusty Baader mark III zoom.

Cor Caroli (Alpha CVn): Easy to find under the handle of the Ploughshare. Both components appearing white to the eye with magnitudes 2.9 & 5.6.

Alpha Herculis (Rasalgethi): A corker! At 108x, this pair presents as marmalade orange and blue-green, which orbit their common centre of gravity every 3600 years.

Albireo (Beta Cygni):  A stunning sight in the little reflector at 81x. Glorious contrast of colour; orange (magnitude 3.1) primary, blue-green secondary (5.1).

61 Cygni: historically very significant as the first star system to have its distance measured in 1838 by F.W.Bessel. Only 10.4 light years away. Both stars are cool, orange dwarfs with magnitudes 5.2 and 6.1.

Eta Cassiopeiae: A bit more challenging to locate in the strongest twilight coming from low in the northeast. Easily split at 81x, presenting as orange and red (magnitudes 3.5 & 7.5, respectively). These constitute a true binary system, with a period of about 480 years.

A quick peek at a more difficult pair:

Pi Aquilae: Once again, beautiful and easy to resolve in the 5.1” reflector at 243x. I have been observing this system for five years now, with various instruments. My notes from the end of July 2011 showed that it was very difficult with a high-quality 4” f/15 classical refractor, the twilight making it challenging. Observations made with variety of 5” refractors over the same period – and also in summer twilight –  show that it is not difficult in these sized instruments (only anomaly recorded in an optically so-so 6” f/8 speculum used for outreach also from 2011, where it was relatively poorly seen).  In the absence of a good 4” refractor at present, this provides good evidence that the 130mm reflector is indeed operating closer to the performance of a 5” glass than a 4” glass, which is very encouraging.

Before leaving the field, I spotted Saturn below the tree line in the south, so I decided to uplift the telescope on its Porta II mount and walk about a hundred yards to a grassy spot at the local primary school grounds, where I could better aim the telescope. Despite its very low altitude, it was a beautiful sight at ~150x, it glorious ring system now wide open for business. Cassini Division seen, as well as some banding on the Saturnian globe.

Vicious midge flies making any further observations uncomfortable, the vigil was aborted shortly before 1 AM local time.

Date: 08.06.16

Time: 23:00-30 UT

Seeing: II, good and stable, variable amounts of thin cloud, twilit.

Temperature: +10C

Polaris: Always a lovely system to study, even in the twilight. In the telescope at 108x, the 2nd magnitude primary (Polaris A) presents as a beautiful creamy white, the secondary a haunting bluish grey some 6 magnitudes fainter seen in the 10 o’ clock position in the 130mm Newtonian. A third companion lies much closer to Polaris A but is woefully beyond the powers of any backyard telescope to resolve. Interestingly, all three stars in this system, located about 430 light years away, are of the F spectral class, and thus should present with the same colours. This is readily seen with Polaris A but the exceeding faintness of the Polaris B hides its true colour. Polaris B orbits A at a distance of about 2400 further out than the Earth-Sun distance, taking over 400 centuries to complete a single lap.  Polaris A is a giant, pulsating star, part of a class known as Cepheids. With such stars, humans have been able to extend the plumbline of their reach into the realm of the galaxies. Stars like Polaris A have helped us gain a truer sense of the vastness of the Universe in which we miraculously inhabit. These are some of the things I like to ponder on, whilst spying the Pole Star.

16 Cygni: A fourth magnitude system a little to the northeast of the lovely red variable star R Cygni. In the 130mm f/5 at 81x, the decent light gathering power of the instrument presents the pair  in their natural colours: a yellow primary (magnitude 4) and golden secondary (magnitude 6), separated by about 40 arc seconds of sky.

Eta Lyrae: Located a few telescopic fields east of Vega, this is normally a very easy system to crack at low powers (~40x) with a magnitude 4.4 blue-white primary and 9th magnitude secondary wide away. In the twilight, I find a higher power of 108x is needed to see the faint secondary well, and is even better presented again at 150x. Much more gloriously presented from a truly dark sky.

Date: 17.06.16

Time: 22:30-59 UT

Temperature: +7.5C

Seeing: II-III, clear, twilit, bright waxing gibbous Moon culminating in the south. Evening made especially pleasant by the absence of midge flies, which don’t like temperatures below 10C.

After over a week long hiatus in the weather, which brought endless cloud and some rain, the sky finally cleared up this evening, allowing me to resume my adventures with my 130mm f/5 Newtonian.

Two reasonably challenging doubles to start with:

Epsilon Bootis: beautifully sharp and well resolved at 195x

Delta Cygni: Ditto @195x; always a joy to observe this system so well.

Iota Bootis: A wonderful low power system, located about 4 degrees northeast of Alkaid (at the tip of the handle of the Ploughshare). At 81x, the system was beautifully framed  and showed a yellowish primary(magnitude +4.8) well separated from a bluish secondary,  some three magnitudes fainter (+7.5). Very fetching colour contrast in the Newtonian!

95 Herculis: Found by panning some 10 degrees east of Delta Herculis. To my eyes, this nearly equal magnitude pairing(4.9/5.2) has a very subtle colour contrast: one appears silvery, the other creamy white. Easily resolved at 81x. Consulting my old Burnham’s Celestial Handbook Vol 2, there is an interesting discussion on the historical colour presentation of this pair, especially from some eccentric 19th century observers!

What colours do you see?

How wonderful it is to get outside on this beautiful mid-summer evening!

Date: 18.06.16

Time: 22:30 UT

Temperature: +10C

Seeing: II, some hazy cloud, bright Moon in south.

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae: Textbook perfect split of all four components at 243x

Delta 1 & 2 Lyrae:  Easily found in the low power (20x) field of my 32mm SkyWatcher Plossl, just a few degrees to the east of Vega. No need for higher power with this system; lovely colour contrast – red and blue-white. Stars physically unrelated i.e an optical double.

SHJ 282: Seen in the same lower power field of Beta Lyrae, some 1 degree to its northeast. Under darker skies, it forms a wonderful sight in the 2.5 degree field of the 32mm Plossl, together with the celebrated Ring Nebula (M57). At 41x, this comely system (actually triple) looks like a copy of Albireo; an aureal primary well separated from its pale blue secondary.

Date: 27.06.16

Time: 22:45-23:10UT

Temperature: +10C

Seeing: II, very good, partially clear, beautiful noctilucent clouds in the northeast, fresh westerly breeze, nae midgees.

The weather has been quite unsettled of late, with little in the way of clear skies, but this evening I grabbed an opportunity with both hands and fielded my bonnie 130mm Newtonian.

A number of systems visited this evening including:

Delta Cygni: wonderful split and (as usual) easily resolved at 243x. Lovely round stars well separated in the twilight.

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae: Textbook perfect at 243x

Epsilon Bootis: Very easy for this telescope, as I have found on many occasions now. Lovely colour contrast at 243x

Pi Aquilae: Better positioned these days. Easily split at 243x

11 Aquilae: Found by centering Zeta Aquilae in the low power (20x) field. 6th magnitude 11 Aq lies just one degree or so to its west. At powers up to 100x or so, only the white 6th magnitude primary is visible, but when the power is cranked up beyond about 150x, the much fainter 9th magnitude companion was observed wide away. Reasonable concentration is required to tease this out of the twilight. Once picked off, the greyish companion was better seen at higher powers (243x). This system is far more glorious in a fully dark sky, and I shall look forward to visiting it again in August.

All in all, a grand half hour under a Scottish summer sky. My little Newtonian reflector is most assuredly a proficient double star telescope. The unbridled joy of discovery!

Date: 29.06.16

Time: 22:45-23:20 UT

Seeing: Excellent, I-II, gentle breeze, very little cloud, twilit.

Temperature: +8.5C

After assessing the seeing in the 130mm Newtonian and judging it fine ( as evidenced by cleanly splitting Delta Cygni at 243x), I fielded my 8-inch f/6 Newtonian and turned it on Lambda Cygni, now considerably higher in the sky and applied a power of 450x. I also employed a Baader single polarising filter, which helped to reduce glare and darken the sky. I could indeed see the companion to the primary star intermittently and oriented north to south. And during the better moments I could see that it was clearly disembodied from the primary. I then turned the 130mm on the same system, employing a power of 365x with the polarising filter. Letting the image settle down as it moved across the field, I observed good elongation in the same orientation, but no separation.

This was a most exciting and encouraging vigil, the first of many more I hope.

Date: 01.07.16

Time:22:50-23:40 UT

Temperature: +7C

Seeing: II, good clear spells, some cloud, westerly gusts, cold, twilit.

After a day of heavy and frequent rain showers, I enjoyed a short clear spell around midnight.

Iota Cassiopeiae: Fairly tricky to track down in twilight, but was rewarded with a lovely clean split of this picturesque triple star system at 243x.

Eta Cassiopeiae: Picturesque colour contrast pair (A/B orange and yellow). Easy to split at powers at ~100x.

Sigma Cassiopeiaie: located a few degrees southwest of the easternmost star in the constellation ( Beta), this is a wonderful target for small telescopes. It consists of two blue-white stars separated by about 3.2″. The primary shines with magnitude 5.0 and the secondary, 7.2. Best seen at magnifications > 150x.

Delta Cephei: Beautiful and easy with the 130mm Newtonian. The stars appeared pure white and easily resolved even at low power but nicely framed at 81x. The primary is actually another Cepheid variable (described above in relation to Polaris).

Two tighter test systems visited:

Delta Cygni: good clean split at 243x

Epsilon Bootis: ditto at 243x

Date: 05.07.16

Time: 23:05-30UT

Seeing: III-IV, below average seeing, partially cloudy.

Temperature: +8C

Fairly choppy seeing this evening, as evidenced by somewhat bloated stellar seeing disks observed with the 130mm f/5 Newtonian.

Delta Cygni: barely resolved at 243x

Epsilon Bootis: split but not cleanly at 180x

Xi Bootis: yellow and orange pairing, easily resolved (6.4″) at 150x

Pi Bootis: Blue and yellow components, easily resolved (5.6″) at 150x

Zeta Coronae Borealis: Lovely yellow and blue-green components easily resolved (6″) at 150x

Mu Bootis (Alkalurops): All three components resolved easily with the 130mm Newtonian at 243x. System previously visited on May 12 last. The two seventh magnitude stars (B/C) were surprisingly well split (~2″), a consequence I suppose of their low brightness which curtails the size of their seeing disks. Fainter pairs seem less susceptible to seeing conditions.

Date: 08.07.16

Time: 22:40-23:00 UT

Temperature: +12C

Seeing: III-IV, remaining turbulent, mostly cloudy.

Further trials with the 130mm f/5 Newtonian.

Delta Cygni : unresolved at 183x

Epsilon 1&2 Lyrae: resolved at 183x

Cor Caroli: very pretty at 63x

Date: 11.07.16

Time: 22:45- 23:00 UT

Temperature: +13C

Seeing: III-IV, very turbulent mostly cloudy, a few suckerholes appearing here and there.

Two instruments fielded this evening; a 130mm f/5 Newtonian and a 90mm f/5.5 apochromatic refractor (price now hiked up to £1017?! i.e. fourth successive hike since review)

Epsilon Bootis (Izar): Companion resolved reasonably well with 130mm  reflector but very poorly (if at all) with 90mm refractor at comparable magnifications i.e.~180x. Quite revealing really!

Mission aborted owing to light drizzle.

Date: 12.07.16

Time: 22:30-23:00 UT

Seeing: III, partially clear, cool, twilit.

Temperature: +10C

The conditions were slightly improved over last night. I fielded the 130mm f/5  Newtonian again and examined the following systems. I employed a single polarising filter which does a very good job removing some glare and improving the aesthetic of the stellar images, especially in twilight.

Epsilon 1&2 Lyrae: easily split at 181x.

Epsilon Bootis: well split at 180x

Delta Cygni: good split at 180x and 243x

Low down in the east, I visited Delphinus for the first time this season.

Gamma Delphini: A corker at 181x! Located some 100 light years from the Solar System, the primary(magnitude +4.4) shines with a lovely marmalade orange hue, while the secondary (magnitude 5.0) shows up as lime-like. 9 arc seconds separates them.

Struve 2725: Seen in the same high power field as Gamma Delphini, this fainter system can be seen a little to the southwest of Gamma. This pair is a bit more challenging to spot, the primary and secondary having magnitudes of 7.5 and 8.4 respectively and orientated north to south. To my eye they both look white and are separated by 6″.

No’ bad innings for an average July evening, ken.

Date: 13.07.16

Time: 22:30-23:00 UT

Seeing: II-III, an improving picture, though not where I would like it to be. Partially cloudy, twilit.

Temperature: +10C

Systems visited this evening with the 130mm f/5 Newtonian (with single polarising filter) included:

Delta Cygni: well split at 181x

Iota Cassiopeiae: A beautiful, delicate triple system, well resolved at 181x but more compelling to behold at 243x

After spending about five minutes admiring the comely, sanguine Garnet Star (Mu Cephei), I move the instrument a little to its southwest until I arrived at a field of view containing two other stellar systems of interest:

Struve 2816: A magnificent triple system (actually quadruple). All three stars are arranged in a line running roughly northwest to southeast. A/B looks yellow to the eye (magnitude +5.6) with two equally bright stars (C and D), located 12″ and ~20″ away from the primary, respectively. A grand sight at 181x.

Struve: 2819: Just off to the northwest of Struve 2816, this is a fainter system requiring high powers to see well. Both stars appear white to the eye. The primary is magnitude + 7.4 and has a fainter companion (magnitude +8.5) ~13″ off to its northeast. Best seen at 243x.

Very much looking forward to darker and more stable skies coming back in a few more weeks.

Date: 18.07.16

Time: 22:20-30 UT

Seeing: sultry, clouded out, midge flies by the legion, twilit.

Temperature: +18C

Poodle versus Plotina

Lens versus Speculum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was hoping to get some observing done this evening, as the forecast looked reasonably promising after a long spell of very unseasonal weather (The Open at Troon sure wasn’t pretty lol). I have not been able to make any additional progress beyond what I’ve recorded but having been at this a few months now and having seen what I’ve seen, my conclusions are as follows;

The modified 130mm f/5 appears to be an excellent double star instrument! This came as a quite a surprise to me, as I was not entirely prepared for what it could deliver given its very modest cost. All of this can be tested, of course, and I’d warmly encourage you to have a go.

The instrument will comfortably outperform any 90-100mm refractor given a fair trial (proper acclimation, optical train alignment, reasonable to good seeing conditions, etc.). It is especially adept at resolving close, fainter pairs of roughly equal brightness.

Millimetre for millimetre, its performance in comparison to a refractor of equal aperture is much closer than is commonly reported (or commonly believed), though I would concede that the refractor will have an edge when pushed to the limits*.

*Valid only over the aperture ranges studied.

My conclusions are fully in agreement with the comments made by W.F. Denning (1891), reproduced above.

I will continue to monitor these and other double stars, God willing, in the coming months and years and will report back in due course.

It has been an absolute pleasure discovering the many charms of this little Newtonian. As telescopes go, there is something very endearing about their ingenious simplicity, and given half a chance, they can show you remarkable things.

As I write this, there are more encouraging signs that the prejudice traditionally attributed to Newtonians for this kind of work is being lifted and that is great to see! Just have a look at the CN Double Star forum to see some examples. I believe much of this prejudice is/has been due to the usual suspects: laziness, lack of interest, somewhat irrational, material attachment to other kinds of telescopes, and the like. You see, you don’t need a big vainglorious refractor (I should know, I’ve got one lol) to do this kind of work, and dare I say, one can actually derive a greater level of satisfaction achieving goals with these modest instruments over more traditional ones. You begin to see the hobby in a whole new light.

Thank you for following this blog.

Clear Skies!

Neil.

Updates

Date: August 17, 2016

Time: 00:05h BST

Seeing: Excellent: I, excellent definition, fairly bright sky owing to very late gibbous Moon low in the south, gentle westerly breeze.

Temperature: +12C

Instruments: 203mm f/6 & 130mm f/5 Newtonians, Baader single polariser.

Observation: The 8-inch reflector easily resolved Lambda Cygni B (0.9″), clearly seen at 450x and orientated at right angles to the direction of drift (E-W). Both components presenting as perfectly round and clean white. Deeply impressive!

The 130mm f/5 showed the system as plainly and strongly elongated N-S, power employed x325. Careful attention to accurate collimation necessary. Best evidence for the appearance of duplicity thus far recorded with this instrument.

Date: August 28 2016

Time: 23:10 BST

Seeing: Excellent (I), a bonnie evening, very steady, no clouds, no Moon, cool.

Temperature: +10C

Instruments: 203mm f/6 and 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflectors, Baader single polariser.

After obtaining an excellent high power split of delta Cygni & pi Aquilae with both instruments, I turned the telescopes toward lambda Cygni. The 8-inch served up another clear split of the 0.9″ B component at 450 diameters, just like the evening of August 17. The 130mm, once again showed strong elongation (north to south orientation) at 325x and 406x, but was not split.

 

De Fideli.