Wednesday, October 9, 2019


Way, wa-a-a-a-y back when I was in college, a very strange book hit the bestseller lists and stayed there for seemingly forever - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Like pretty much everyone else on planet Earth at the Time, I read it. But now, 45 years later, I can really only recall one passage from the work. Fairly close to the start of the book, the author goes into some detail describing the differences between driving through a beautiful landscape in a car, and riding through it on a motorcycle. In a car, Pirsig tells us, we are curiously divorced from the outside world. Perhaps it has something to do with the windshield, or from the fact that the interior of an automobile is very much like a room. The world passing by seems "out there", while the driver remains ensconced in his mobile cabin. Meanwhile, the motorcyclist is fully enmeshed in his surroundings. There is no "out there"; he is amongst them.

I had the same experience the one and only time I had a seat up in the super elegant skyboxes at a baseball game. There were plush, living room type seats inside, and we were separated from the stadium by a window which made up one whole wall. (This was at the then brand new Washington Nationals stadium.) Well, when the national anthem started up, no one in the skybox payed the slightest attention to it. Not a soul stood up or doffed his cap, and no conversation ceased or even slowed down. Yet there was no hint of discourtesy. After all, when you watch a game at home on TV, do you stand for the anthem? Of course not. And here we were at the stadium, yet that glass wall somehow made it seem like we weren't.

So what does any of this have to do with amateur astronomy? Attend, grasshopper, and gain wisdom.

I can't count the times where I've been showing Saturn in my telescope to someone who's never had the experience before, and their reaction is "Wow. Is that real? It looks just like the pictures!" This resistance to believing the evidence of one's own eyes has always puzzled me. So when the same thing happened a few days ago for the millionth time right in my driveway, sharing with a neighbor my view of the ringed planet, I got to wondering. Does anyone upon seeing, say, the Eiffel Tower for the first time, doubt that it's real because it looks just like the pictures he's seen of it?

And I must confess to falling into the same feelings when somewhat lazily going from warhorse to old warhorse on a less than inspiring night out. My reaction to swinging over to M13 in Hercules is not that different from seeing an image of it on my computer screen. What's going on?

I'm convinced it's the eyepiece. Its presence means there's something between me and the object I am observing. My equipment has distanced me from it by more than the actual lightyears of interstellar space separating us. I have to consciously overcome this barrier to feel its reality, to get the sense that M13 and I occupy the same universe. But it's an effort worth making. I know I've succeeded when the sky no longer feels like it's above me, but rather in front of me.

There's a sort of ritual I perform on most evenings that I've been out. After I'm done for the evening, I'll tear down and stow everything away... and just look up, drinking in all the constellations and the Milky Way itself if it's in view. This can easily go on for half an hour or more, after I'm supposedly done for the night. We often fail to realize that many of the constellations we see by naked eye are as or even more beautiful than the open clusters and globulars that we peer at through our eyepieces. Yes, the Double Cluster is stunning, but so are the Pleiades and the Hyades. Yes, Kemble's Cascade is a wondrous sight, but it doesn't hold a candle to Orion in all his wintry majesty. Yes, splitting a difficult double with my highest power (and therefore narrowest field) is pure joy, but kicking back, slapping in a widefield (such as my 30mm Pentax), and looking at nothing in particular, is I believe as close to Nirvana we can come in this sorry world.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

It's not easy being green

Yesterday out at Carrs Mill, I decided to make it a Green Star night. Yes, I am well aware that there are no such things as green stars - let's get that one out of the way right up front. But there are many stars that appear to be green when viewed through the eyepiece. The most famous is Almach, a.k.a. Gamma Andromedae, a spectacularly beautiful multiple star system not far from M31. At 2nd magnitude, it is an easy naked eye object, but it takes a telescope to see that it is not a solitary star. My 102mm refractor splits it into its A and B components, A being brilliant yellow, and B looking like nothing so much as a tiny Granny Smith apple nestled up against its brighter companion. Turns out that B is not a single star at all, but three, none of them being even remotely green. (see illustration below)

No possible amateur telescope can split B into its components. The easiest and surest way to determine its true makeup is with spectroscopy. Perhaps it's all those colors being mixed up that give us the impression of a single green star?

Now that we got the low hanging (green apple) fruit out of the way, we can turn to other greens that were not so easy to observe.

Struve 2725 in Delphinus is an absolute joy to behold. First of all, it, along with neighboring Gamma Dalphini, make up a delightful cousin to Lyra's Double Double. If you stop right there it's already a "must see" item on any stargazer's list. But amp up the power and zero in on Struve 2725, and drink in the subtle colors involved - a primrose primary with a dimmer, yes, green companion star.

Moving over to Cassiopeia, we check out Sigma Cassiopeiae, a star I never would have suspected of being double had I not been informed of this fact. I found it to be a difficult split, but my effort was rewarded by seeing a 5th magnitude primary of pure white, accompanied by a 7th magnitude bluish green secondary.

I had intended to wrap up the night by observing a 4th green star, over in Pegasus - Struve 2841. But alas, a cloud had moved over to obscure that part of the sky, and it showed no signs of going anywhere. So I saved that one for another time!

I was using my 102mm Stellarvue refractor with 9, 5, and 3.5mm Nagler eyepieces.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Demon's Eyes

"What you look hard at seems to look hard at you."
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

The other night at Carrs Mill, Richard Orr asked me whether I had ever looked at the "Demon Eyes". I had to admit that I had never heard of them. The Demon Star (Algol), yes. But Demon Eyes? Nope. 

Well, we had just been talking about the Water Jar over in Aquarius, which is to me to only recognizable asterism in that entire constellation. The rest of it is just a giant 4th magnitude mess - the worst place in the sky to locate anything by star hopping.

The Water Jar consists of 4 relatively bright stars, 3 of which (Eta, Pi, and Gamma Aquarii) form a tight little triangle with a fourth (Zeta Aquarii) right in the center. All 4 stars are approximately 4th magnitude, making the asterism naked eye visible, but not particularly prominent. (Some people, myself included, consider Alpha Aquarii, a 3rd magnitude star somewhat to the east of the other four, to be part of the asterism. But that's not important here.)

To the naked eye or through binoculars, Zeta Aquarii appears to be a run of the mill solitary star of a nondescript white color. Even when I turned my 90mm refractor over to it the other night (using a 13mm Nagler eyepiece), there was nothing worth mentioning about it. But when I swapped eyepieces for a 3.5mm Nagler... Wow! There was a stunning, easily splittable double star, the two components of apparently equal brightness. They looked eerily like a pair of (rather sinister) eyes staring back at me. Just who was observing whom?

The A and B components are a true double star, with an orbital period of approximately 540 years, and the system itself is about 92 light years away. Impossible to see telescopically, the A component is itself a double star, composed of an F-type main sequence star with a companion about one 3th its mass. They orbit each other every 26 years, so they must be extremely close to each other. As for the system's main components (A and B), their separation is thought to be about 140 AU.

It's that last figure which intrigues me the most, since Neptune's orbital diameter is 60 AU. So if you can imagine one half of the distance between A and B Zeta Aquarii, that's pretty much what our own solar system would look like at a distance of 92 light years.

As an experiment, I observed the pair with my 5mm Nagler eyepiece. I could still split the double, but it wasn't as "clean" as with the 3.5mm. So if you're thinking of taking a look yourself (highly recommended),  use all the power you have. It's worth it!

Monday, August 5, 2019

Just an Observation

It's funny how when you see something often enough, you stop noticing it. Whatever it is becomes like air - it's just there. You don't think about it until it's not there, or until something goes wrong.

Well, I've just returned home from this year's Stellafane, and I do think it was (for me, at least) the best one I've so far attended. Three nights of absolutely perfect conditions, two giant planets and a million Perseid meteors (although I saw only four), a terrific keynote speaker (Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator), and at least half a dozen fascinating conversations with people at the food tent.

The food tent at Stellafane, with the observing fields behind it

And for once, I want to concentrate, not on the unbelievable list of Messier objects I took in, nor on the spectacular views of Jupiter I enjoyed, but on those conversations. In our everyday life, as we walk about grocery stores, sit at a coffee shop, or frankly wherever we go, we're surrounded by people staring at their smartphones or surfing the web on their laptops. The sight is ubiquitous, and therefore invisible. While I was living in Fells Point, there was a coffee shop about a hundred yards from my building's front door at which I was pretty much a regular. Being something of a people watcher, I did notice that practically no one ever spoke to anyone else while there. Even couples coming in together would, once they were seated, retreat to their devices and ignore their companion for the duration. Thumbs were busily twitching away whichever way I looked, people texting to invisible, distant interlocutors rather than speaking with their very visible tablemates.

Pitango Cafe in Fells Point

But not so at Stellafane. There is no cell phone reception at its location, except for at the very top of the hill in the first photo above, or atop Breezy Hill, where the clubhouse is. And there is no wi-fi anywhere. A major consequence of this absence is that, when people are between events, they actually talk to each other - even amongst strangers. You see very few individuals sitting silently, and if you do, it's likely because they're reading a (physical) book. But for the most part, conversational knots seem to spring up organically. People will turn around to take part in the conversation behind them if it interests them, or start one up based on asking about the artwork on another's t-shirt or the wording on their hat.

This year, I (silently) listened in on a lengthy debate about UFOs, talked for more than an hour with a couple my age about dogs, advised a pair of first timers on how to avoid the mistakes I made when buying one's first telescope, bemoaned the rapidly increasing extinction of dark skies with more than one person, shared with several others the results of our previous night's observing, and discussed telescopes and associated equipment, clubs, and other star parties. I listened to one guy describe mirror grinding to me, with me half the time unable to understand anything he was saying. (I kept that fact to myself.) On the last day there, I hit the jackpot, talking with someone named Steve about the history of New England stone walls for what must have been over two hours. Fascinating!

And I did not know any of these people!

So it's rather odd that, there in a gathering of folks engaged in the most technical of hobbies, all of them future oriented, they can soak in the benefits of "turning back the clock", can enjoy being "deprived" of gadgetry, and rediscovering the people around them. Refreshing.

The Stellafane Clubhouse on Breezy Hill

Sunday, June 2, 2019


I have just gotten back from a scheduled HAL Star Party at Alpha Ridge Park. The company alone was worth the drive out there, although the conditions were marginal at best. I kept waiting for Jupiter to make its appearance, until I realized that what I thought was just unusually bad light pollution to the east was actually an impenetrable cloud bank. No Jupiter. High, thin clouds over the rest of the sky drowned out all but the brightest stars no matter where you looked. Frustrated in looking in other directions, I finally settled in on the Big Dipper, which was in the darkest part of the sky this night.

I slowly scanned the sky from star to star making up this most famous of asterisms, until I came upon Mizar and Alcor. Ahh.. finally, the gods were smiling upon me. I must have observed this beautiful stellar pair for a good 20 minutes or so. With enough aperture Mizar is, of course, amongst the easiest of double stars to split, and although due to the conditions I had only bothered to set up my 60mm Stellarvue refractor (my smallest scope), I enjoyed to the utmost what was still possible to do. Using my 24mm Televue Panoptic eyepiece, Mizar could just barely be split, but it was easier than easy with my 9mm Nagler.

There was Mizar, clearly two separate stars. Alcor remained one. However, going to the googles, I learn that this system is far more complex than meets the eye. Mizar, although we amateurs can see only two stars, is actually four, whilst its (apparently) solitary companion Alcor is itself a double star. Six stars instead of one! What really fascinated me, however, were their colors. They seemed to change from moment to moment. Mizar's four components appeared in my eyepiece as two stars, one big and bright, and the other considerably dimmer and nestled right up against the brighter one. At first, the brighter looked white and the dimmer somewhat orange. But examining them again after a few minutes, I thought they looked blue and yellow respectively, not unlike Alberio. But after a bit, they appeared to swap colors - and then back again!

Now I know perfectly well that all these mutations are quite subjective - occuring in my eye, and not in the stars themselves. But to me, that just intensifies my interest in how we stargazers perceive color through our eyepieces, and reminds me that we should not be dogmatic about what colors are "out there".

FOOTNOTE: It's been almost 24 hours since I wrote the above, and now I'm wondering whether the shifting colors were a result of chromatic aberration. The seeing was frankly awful and I was using a particularly small aperture last night. Perhaps the "action" was going on, not in my eye, but in the eyepiece. I wonder. Would the colors have appeared steady had I been observing with my 102mm refractor, instead of my 60mm?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Stargazing and Peace

"Saguaro Twilight"
Watercolor by myself
Based on a photograph taken by Fr. Kurzynski

Fr. James Kurzynski, a blogger for the Vatican Observatory Foundation, recently posted a reflection on stargazing as a useful corrective for persons prone to being workaholics. The measured pace of our hobby, combined with the seeming eternity of the objects we observe, can make for a rare opportunity to slow the often all too frenetic pace by which we live.

You can read his posting here:

What I found interesting about his reflections was his recognition that we can all to easily drag our workaholic tendencies into what ought to be a restful hobby. Now everyone knows that I am not an astrophotographer, so I'm not tempted by the Byzantine complexities of astrogear that might take hours to set up, and can be the occasion for spending most of what ought to be a relaxing evening under the stars in cursing some recalcitrant piece of equipment that refuses to operate properly.  But even we purely visual stargazers can get caught up in a race (of our own making) against the clock, trying to cram the maximum number of DSOs into the minimum amount of time. I now look back with mixed emotions at my pride at observing 19 DSOs, 4 planets, plus a number of Perseids and the ISS in a single night at last year's Stellafane. Just what was I trying to accomplish? And who was I competing against? True, I knew that it would likely be the one and only clear night I would spend in all of 2018 under a really dark sky, so maybe I had some excuse for wanting to see as much as I could.

But I must confess that I can fall into the same trap right here at home in suburban Maryland, under our battleship gray light polluted skies. I find myself at times needing to take a deep breath, and just look...

One "spiritual exercise" I've found most effective is to randomly point my telescope at some spot in the sky, slap in a widefield eyepiece, and DON'T MOVE ANYTHING for a half hour or so. Don't look for things to observe - let them come to you. With my 90mm Stellarvue  refractor and my 30mm Pentax eyepiece, it takes about 2 minutes for a star to traverse the entire field of view at its widest point. This is of course, assuming I've pointed my scope due south. The further north one looks, the slower objects will move across the FOV (and if you're pointed at Polaris, it will never move at all). So every 2 minutes, the view is completely different.

And really LOOK at what's in your eyepiece. Once again, don't sweat it; that's not the point here. The object is to synchronize your mind and body to the motions of the universe, to move at its pace. And it can be amazing what you chance across in this exercise. I've "discovered" globular clusters that aren't in the Messier catalog, but go by lowly NGC designations. I've seen brilliant double or multiple star systems that I would never have otherwise looked for. On rare occasions, the faintest of all imaginable smudges will traverse my FOV, and I'm left wondering whether I've caught sight of a distant galaxy or a gas cloud within our own. But mostly, I see stars, stars, stars. Swirls and knots, streams and spatters of them, intriguing asterisms and possible open clusters.

It takes a good 10 minutes or so to "get in the groove", for your mind to settle down and abandon the urge to look at something else. After another 10 minutes, you find you don't want to stop. When you finally do come back down to Earth after 30, 40, 50 minutes, or even an entire hour, it feels like you've been there, leaping from star to star, cruising the Milky Way, tossed about by the stellar winds of distant suns.

Now I certainly do not recommend a steady diet of such stargazing, but once in a while it's good to just let go and allow the turning Earth do all the work for you.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Learning to See

I've been sketching what I see through the eyepiece practically since the day I got my first telescope, back in 2010. I still have the very first astrosketches I ever made. Here is my first planetary sketch, of Mars, from the night of 14 April of that year.

Pretty crude, I'd say. But I wasn't that experienced yet as to planetary observing, and I was only using a 120mm refractor. So perhaps I ought not be that critical. There's Syrtis Major, plain to see, and a (doubtlessly oversized) polar icecap. (To see the sketches/paintings at full resolution, just click on the image)

2 months earlier, I had finished this drawing of my first sighting of the Asteroid Vesta.

I'm fairly sure that this is my first ever astrosketch, since I have nothing older than it (and I don't throw anything out). I began it on 14 April, but didn't finish it until 2 nights later. On the 14th, I wasn't sure which of the 2 "dots" at the lower left was the asteroid. It wasn't until my second look on the 16th that I could see which one had moved.

Well, time rolls on, and my observing skills gradually improved, as did my practice at recording what I saw. For evidence of such, just look at this 2014 sketch I made of pretty much the same face of Mars that I had drawn 4 years earlier.

The scope used here was actually smaller than I one I was looking through 4 years earlier (only 90mm), but my eye was far better trained... and it showed!

The high point (so far) in my sketching career was when, on a whim, I sent in one of my lunar sketches to Sky and Telescope magazine, and by golly if they didn't publish it! (June 2016 issue, page 73) Here it is:

Hundreds of sketches later, I am still a passionate advocate of the practice. Sketching an object compels you to PAY ATTENTION to what you're looking at, to notice little nuances. Is that crater wall brighter than the one right next to it? Is it more jagged, more broken up? Which mare is darker - the Sea of Tranquility or the Sea of Serenity? And why do you think they're different?

When sketching Saturn, I find myself noticing detail that I might miss when just looking at it, such as the planet's shadow on the rings, or subtle variations in color on the surface (much harder to detect than with Jupiter).

Now most HAL members know I have a fondness for tracking down anonymous uber-faint stars. Sketching the field of view after successfully spotting them makes going back to them all the easier, because you've fixed the environment in your mind. Many years ago, I used to teach Russian at Howard Community College. I discovered that the more parts of the body a student used in learning the language, the faster (and more permanently) he expanded his vocabulary. Just reading a new word was practically useless, as far as memorization was concerned. Saying it aloud was much better. But best of all was writing it down. (Actually, better than "best" was to do all 3 at once.)

The same goes for stargazing. It's a full body sport. Just looking at NGC whatever is good, as far as that goes. There's no way to "say it aloud", so let's just skip over that step. But sketching the danged thing? Aaaah, now that's the ticket! I guarantee that you'll remember the difference between M13 and M92 after you've sketched them both, and you'll appreciate their differences.

Now lately I've expanded my repertoire a bit, and have taken up watercolor painting. (A lot harder than I anticipated before getting into it!) What with the execrable weather of late, plus another round of health scares, I haven't had much opportunity of late to "paint the sky", but I have been practicing on some more mundane objects - like trees. Here are a few examples of recent work:

Now once again, painting trees has forced me to really look at them for the first time. I never before noticed just how radically sunlight alters the perceived color of leaves, how much variation there is in light and shadow, how many varieties of shape can be seen in even 2 examples of the same species.

I hope to be able to turn my attention skyward in the next few weeks, and make use of this new (to me) medium. I'd like to get similar benefits from painting the Messier catalog. Stay tuned!