Our annual family October vacation almost never happened this year. Our car gave up the ghost, necessitating the purchase of a new one just a week before our planned trip, and then, to add insult to injury, our fan oven died, requiring us to pay out still more cash to get it replaced. Luckily, I had just received an advance on my new book, as well as my first pay cheque for my debut feature-length article in Salvo Magazine, outlining the scientific case against extraterrestrial life. Unfortunately, the holiday cottages at East Kirkland Farm were almost fully booked by the time we made our enquiries, and all the proprietors could offer us was a few days, starting on Wednesday October 16 until the end of the week. Trying to salvage some quality time away, we jumped at the chance and decided to go for it!
This was our fourth trip down to Wigtown, located at the very southwest tip of Scotland. As I have documented in previous blogs, I have enjoyed some beautiful, pristine skies here in the past, using a variety of hand-held binoculars and telescopes . What I mainly wish to report here is one night of observations, which took place at East Kirkland on Wednesday, October 16 2019.
I took along my trusty, high-performance 130mm F/5 travel Newtonian reflector in its padded aluminium case and my new pocket binocular; a Zeiss Terra ED pocket 8 x 25mm, for daylight observations of the landscape. I elected not to take my larger binoculars as there was a bright, nearly full Moon in the sky, which would rise early in the evening making observations with larger binoculars almost impossible to conduct. No, I would be using the Newtonian to carry out some observations of a suite of double stars, both easy and some more challenging, as these are largely unaffected by the presence of a bright Moon.
After driving through an active weather system in the morning, the skies cleared as we approached Wigtown and the afternoon turned out to be sunny and reasonably warm, with only a few clouds in the sky. After unpacking, I set up the 130mm on my old Vixen Porta II alt-azimuth mount in the shade of a garden tree where I was able to enjoy wonderful, ultra-high-powered views of the hinterland. As I expained in previous blogs, this little Newtonian is an excellent spotting ‘scope, possessing superior light grasp and constrast that easily exceeds the performance of conventional spotting ‘scopes that often cost considerably more. This is especially apparent in low light conditions that are all too common during the shorter days of late autumn and winter. Alas, I didn’t bring along my Vixen erecting lens but I didn’t really need it. I just drank up the views at 118x of tree trunks and branches, golden autumn leaves and bramble bushes, still drenched by the rainfall that occurred that same morning, just a few tens of yards away in the distance. Indeed, of all the kinds of optical equipment now availalble to the nature lover, conventional spotting ‘scopes make little sense to me. Why fork out so much for an instrument that is severely limited by its small (70-100mm) aperture?
The evening remained largely cloud free but I knew that a nearly full Moon would be rising early in the east, at about 7.30pm local time. Conditions were quite different to the other occasions I have observed here in past journeys. This time, there was hardly any wind all day and the evening brought some high altitude cirrus cloud and lower altitude cumulus that came and went as the evening dragged on. Still, a quick look at Delta Cygni showed that conditions were, once again, excellent(Ant I-II). The faint companion was steadily seen and observed at 354x (Meade Series 5000 UWA coupled to a 3x Meade achromatic Barlow). The Airy disks were tiny and round with a single, delicate diffraction ring surrounding the bright primary.
During our summer trip to Pembrokeshire, South Wales, I forgot to bring my flexi-dew shield, which forced me to adopt a totally different strategy while observing. Thankfully, the dew shield came with me this time and it proved indispensable as these calm conditions would bring a heavy dew.
I really got stuck in after supper, just after 8pm local time, visiting a suite of favourite double and multiple stars witth Plotina. Albireo in Cygnus was mesmerizing with lovely calm Airy disks displaying their true colours(the reflector afterall is a true achromatic telescope) in the telescope at 118x. Moving over to Mu Cygni, I cranked up the power to 354x to cleanly resolve the two close companions and a bright field star wide away. Moving into Lyra, I got a text-book perfect split of the four components of Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae at 118x but an altogether more satisfying split at 270x (4.8 mm T1 Nagler coupled to a 2x Orion Shorty Barlow) . And to give the reader an idea of how good the skies were here at this time, I was able to cleanly split Epsilon Bootis at 118x and 135x, even though it was very low in the western sky at the time of observation!
Moving to the southwest sky, I turned the little Newtonian on Pi Aquliae and was rewarded by a very crisp splitting of this near-equal brightness pair at 354x. I then moved the telescope on Polaris, the pole star and enjoyed a lovely calm view of its very faint companion at 118x. The same was true of Mizar & Alcor, which presented a downright dazzling light show in the telescope at 118x.
By 9pm, Cassiopeia was well positioned high in the sky and I turned the telescope to another system, that up to relatively recently was considered tricky by dyed in the wool refractor nuts. I speak of course of Iota Cassiopeiae, which was easily resolved into its three components at 118x. The view was far more compelling at 354x though! From there, I panned the telescope across to Eta Cassiopeiae, where the telescope presented a beautiful, ruddy primary and yellow secondary some three magnitudes fainter(magnitude +7.5)
At about 9.30pm local time, I turned the telescope on another autumn favourite; Almach; which presented gloriously with its orange and bluish components in the Newtonian at 118x and 354x. Finally, I tracked down another very close system, 36 Andromedae, a 1.0″ near equal brightness pair. Centring it in the field of view using the slow motion controls on the Vixen Porta II mount, I cranked up the power to 354x to behold a wonderful sight; two tiny Airy disks with a sliver of dark sky between the components! Reaching for the 4.8mm Nagler, and coupling it to my 3x achromatic Barlow lens, the power was increased to 405x, where I was still able to stably hold both components as they raced across the field of view from east to west.
Some folk might form the erroneous view that these conditions must be rare in the British Isles, but I have conclusively de-bunked that opinion(promulgated by lazy, arm-chair amateurs unwilling to do any field work of this nature). There are, in fact, many places in Britain and Ireland which give the same kind of excellent performance with this little Newtonian reflector. So, it has nothing to do with sheer dumb luck, but all to do with diligent enquiry!
The next day, October 17, proved a washout, unfortunately. Frequent heavy showers of rain put a severe dampener on the vacation and these showers persisted right into the early and late evening, so I didn’t bother to use the telescope. That said, I have one additional memorable observation to report during the wee small hours of October 18. Sticking my head out of doors at 1.20 am local time showed a bright waxing Gibbous Moon skirting very close to the bright star, Aldebaran. Reaching for my little Zeiss Terra pocket binocular showed me a most arresting sight! The Moon was just a few degrees directly east of the horns of Taurus, looking for all the world as if it were about to lock horns with the celestial bull. I watched in sheer amazement as some clouds blew across the Moon from west to east, blotting out some of the glory of the stars of the Hyades, but in the process, creating a wonderful display of light and colour, as the low-altitude rain clouds approached and then receded from our bright, natural satellite. I only wished I had brought along my 8 x 42 Savannah binocular to capture still brighter images of this marvellous apparition, but hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing!
It would have been nice to have another night to accumulate more data at this site but it was not to be. Still, it was good to get away, if only for a few days.
I would continue to encourage others who have a small Newtonian telescope like this to perform their own field tests on these and other double stars. I mean, it’s all very easy to falsify, isn’t it? You just need to collimate accurately and allow enough time for the telescope to acclimate fully to the outside air. That said, If time is against you, it’s best to start with the easiest pairs and move onto the tighter ones as the telescope nears full equilibration.
Good luck with your adventures!
Neil English is the author of seven books. His largest work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, provides a historical overview of many astronomers from yesteryear who used Newtonian reflectors productively in their exploration of the heavens.