First Light

celestronI packed up the Meade this afternoon. I’ve enjoyed it but it’s time to let someone else have an adventure with it.

The delivery truck came after dark (of course!)–and late in the day there were two brief but fierce bursts of snow. One minute, gorgeous gold late-afternoon sun painting the trees and the mountainside. Next minute, the dark side of Rura Penthe. However, by nightfall, the stars had come out along with a waxing crescent moon.

Though it was after dark and after dinner, I turned on the patio lights and carefully assembled the scope, piece by piece. Then I began what will be a long process of learning how to use this fine instrument.

I bought a Celestron Omni XLT 120. It’s a refractor with a 4.72″ objective lens (120mm). The focal length is 1000mm, over 39 inches. This yields a focal ratio of 8.33, a bit slower than my old Meade, which was an f/5.  (Divide length by diameter, and don’t mix your inches and centimeters.)

The glass isn’t ED, but it seems to be high quality, and is coated with the Starbright XLT coating, which enhances transmission. (For ED glass, I would have to add a zero to the price tag.)

The scope is substantial, the focuser smooth, and there’s nearly zero vibration when focusing or locking and unlocking the axes. Mount is solid.

I chose not to extend the tripod to its full height, partly because it was so praised for stability when unextended. As a result, there was a lot I couldn’t see, either because the scope couldn’t peek over the fence or I couldn’t bend low enough to see through the eyepiece. Tomorrow I’ll extend the legs. Unextended, the tripod is rock solid, but unworkable.

The eyepiece–I’d packed up the Meade EPs, so I was down to my 26mm and 4mm mid-price EPs, bought via Agena Astro. The scope came with a rather good 25mm EP, so I used that most of the evening. At 1 meter focal length, this yields a magnification of–divide focal length of scope by focal length of eyepiece– 40x. At this magnification, the moon neatly fills the eyepiece. (I want a 2″ eyepiece next.)

Finderscope is a nice 6×30, a step up from the plastic laser-dot I had before. (The laser finder is actually still in like-new condition, a surprisingly good piece of equipment.)

For a first light on a frigid night after dark, with some snow on the ground, I thought a short session best. I found a red star near Regulus, perhaps Alphard. I spent timer with the moon, and enjoyed a clear view of Almaak. Otherwise I just slewed here and there, getting the feel of the scope. Stars were quite sharp. I noticed a fair amount of false color around the moon. The colors of Almaak were good, with a real orangey note to the larger star.

I nearly bought a Maksutov from Celestron, but balked at the idea of being tethered to a computerized alt-az mount. I don’t want to web-surf the heavens. I don’t intend to google God. I’m in this to figure it out.

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Last Light

meadeLast evening, and again in the wee hours of this morning, I gave my no-longer-new Meade reflector its “last light.” I don’t intend to use it again; it is destined to be packed up today and donated.  For many reasons, I think it’s healthy to part with this scope. It has served well, and has finally given me the chance to explore my lifelong interest in the stars. However, it’s a basic scope, and really can’t do much more than it’s already done for me.

Arriving later is my new telescope. I’ll discuss it in my next post.

But as to my Meade Polaris 130, in its classic 1960s electric blue. Early this morning I viewed Jupiter and its four Galilean moons.  Jupiter is above and to the west of Spica right now, continuing its sojourn in Virgo. Then, in a last hurrah, I had my best view yet of M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. This is the beautiful small galaxy being spooled into a larger one.

M51 lives approximately 8.58 megaparsecs away (25-ish million light years). The light that hits your retina from this complex object left its home during the Oligocene Epoch in the Paleogene Period of the Cenozoic Era. The Rocky Mountains were still aborning. Needless to say, our remarkable little species didn’t exist.

It’s worth getting up in the dark and braving the chill to take a few of these archaic photons into yourself.

On the other hand, the image wasn’t enough to excite me any longer. I’m pleased that I’ve learned how to find it easily, and in general that I’ve learned many important basics about celestial motion and how to find objects; but I’m ready for something better.

More anon. There’s so much beauty to be grateful for.

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February Stars

VenusNo school today, so I could stay up and watch Algol reach minimum light last evening. The time was right, the skies were clear, no moon, perfect.
Algol is a star in Perseus; it represents one of the eyes in the decapitated head of the Gorgon Medusa. It’s also called Beta Persei and Gorgonea Prima. It is a binary star, and the small brighter companion is eclipsed on a regular basis by its large dimmer companion. This causes a drop in brightness of over a magnitude; suggesting for the ancients the still-dangerous eye of the Medusa. This occurs about every 2.8 days.
Algol is Arabic, al-gul, “the ghoul.” It’s the origin of the English word “ghoul” and Algol is reputed to be the evillest star in the sky. But last night I watched it dim rapidly and realized it was just a binary star, and that I was lucky enough to be in the shadow of a faraway eclipse. The mythology made me feel closer to many generations who have looked upward in wonder; making me feel not spooky but very safe.
Other things on last night’s tour of the heavens… M44 (the Beehive Cluster) and faint M67, both in Cancer. Iota Cancri, a pretty binary, one yellow-white and the other bright blue. The Double Cluster near Perseus–in the next-outer arm of our galaxy from us. Kemble’s Cascade and NGC1502, both in Camelopardalis. Tonight will try for a faint glimpse of comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova. IF my other work is finished by then!

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Planet Seven

Pronounce it OOranus. I finally had a clear evening of seeing, minimal light pollution, no moon, and Pisces revealed itself, to the south and west of Aries. It’s a dim, far-flung  constellation, and of course Uranus is never more than mag. +6. However, I’m sure I found it this time. Just about on the ecliptic, more or less masquerading as another star in the southerly arm of the constellation.

I found a tell-tale pinprick of light exactly where Stellarium said it would be. Only just visible to the naked eye. Through low magnification, little more than a bright dot among lackluster companions. Defocused, unmistakably blue–my reflector isn’t great with planets but this is a good trick to detect faint colors.

Sir William Herschel discovered this planet in 1781, and wanted to name it after his patron, King George III. “Georgium Sidus,” the Georgian Planet or Planet of George, doesn’t have the classical lilt (or vulgar giggle factor) of Uranus, from the Greek ouranos, or heaven. (Also the father of Saturn in mythology.)

So, would you rather have to call this planet George? Just pronounce it OOranus and you’ll be fine. It’s worth looking for, just to say you’ve succeeded in focusing a tiny earthbound telescope on a massive, frozen giant planet a billion miles away.

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hallobservatoryI’m gaining confidence in my telescope use. I’m getting past the sense of being overwhelmed by the night sky, and becoming more pragmatic, more oriented toward simple goals.

I’ve more or less given up on a really good polar alignment, which I have to blame on a cheap mount; but I can get close. (A good spirit level confirms that the platform is level and yes, I do know how to find Polaris.) There’s a little declination drift, but it’s quite manageable.

Last evening, I was sleepless at midnight, so I went out to have a look at the skies. There was a lot of light pollution, and some high clouds, but surprisingly good seeing in any direction but south. My quest was the seventh planet. Uranus is in Pisces, near the conjoined tail of the two fish.

I set the declination to +7, west of the meridian, and slowly scanned right ascension. Stellarium confirmed that I was right on target to find the green-blue planet. However, some trees were in the way. Pisces itself was barely visible at all–already low in the sky to the southwest and swallowed up in the unusual brightness.

But the evening was a success in other ways. I practiced some careful visual astronomy, starting with constellations I know very well like Cassiopeia, Perseus, Taurus and Gemini.  Gradually I was able to work around the trees and clearly identify Triangulum, then Aries, then the brighter stars on the eastern edge of Cetus. By triangulation, this allowed me to confirm that my telescope was pointing directly where Uranus should have been… hiding behind a tree trunk.

So I asked the practical astronomical question, “Well, what’s good tonight?” and decided to look for M36, 37, and 38. These are a line of open clusters in Auriga, forming a crooked line. I chose these targets not thanks to Stellarium, but thanks to the Messier Planisphere made by Celestial Teapot Designs. It’s a big, plastic-coated, indestructible planisphere optimized for Messier viewing–see my five-star review on Amazon.

Auriga was high and clear, and I had immediate success–I could even faintly visually identify the location of M36–and was able to slew among the three of them at will for a good while.

M36 clearly displayed the bright star at its center (actually two bright stars, one brighter than the other), though higher magnification was a washout. All three were interesting little gems to contemplate, tiny but exquisitely clear.

I enjoy this self-guided tour of the heavens. One of these days I may join a club, but not yet.

Take a minute and look up.

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first tryBefore five this morning, a break in the clouds allowed a brief observation of the heavens.

Taurus was fairly high, with the Pleiades almost overhead. The distinctive “V” of the constellation was very clear, along with many smaller stars. (The “V” is also called the Hyades, a star cluster in its own right.) What a pity there’d been so much cloud cover all night!

Aldebaran, the red giant that forms the “bullseye,” was visibly red to my naked eye. If it were placed where the Sun is, it would fill all space up to the orbit of Mercury.

Taurus is the opposite of Sagittarius, my own “zodiac sign.” (I don’t believe in astrology, but the lore is charming.) The sign of the Bull lives right by the galactic anti-center, along with its neighbor Auriga and its brilliant Capella. Contrarily, Sagittarius points us to the heart of the Milky Way; it’s been compared to Las Vegas. Its popular current nickname, the Teapot, even has “steam” coming out of it–a vast star cloud!

If Sagittarius is at the center of things, Taurus is in a kind of eternal frozen wasteland. It’s beautiful to observe the contrast.

The galactic coordinate system places Sagittarius at longitude 0, and Taurus at long. 180. (Cygnus is 90, and Vela, hard to see in most of the North, is 270.)

Taurus is a beautiful and easily-spotted constellation. This morning, I could also see Orion rising up just behind it… still caught in the trees, but bright and confident.

Then the clouds rolled in and took first the Pleiades, and then everything else. So my day began!

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The Garnet Star

One of the first names that entranced me upon taking up astronomy this January was that of the Garnet Star. Also called Herschel’s Garnet Star, and officially Mu Cephei, it’s one of those heavenly objects that interested me because of the sheer poetry of its name. (Others include Kemble’s Cascade and my all-time favorite star name, Zubenelgenubi!)

Like all of Cepheus, the Garnet Star is circumpolar at my latitude: at declination +58º 51′ it is always at least 10º above the horizon. In other words, it never sets. It’s a fairly dim magnitude 4-ish, but I never have trouble spotting it, conditions permitting of course.

I saw the Garnet Star last week from a gorgeous quiet lakeside in the Adirondacks. It was fairly high in the northeast when I trained my little Newtonian on it. Its signature garnet color was very pleasing. Earlier in the evening, friends had been thrilled to see Saturn’s rings and Albireo, but I had the Garnet Star all to myself.

It occurred to me that this star should be the official star of the Adirondack region. I was, after all, barely twenty minutes away from the Barton Mine, the source of 85% of the world’s garnet. Most of it is industrial grade–an exceptionally hard form of the mineral, measuring about 8 on the Mohs Scale. It’s ground into a slurry and used to cut metal and stone. Not much of it is used in jewelry, because it tends to be flawed and has considerable color saturation. There’s one nifty shop near the mine that sells the garnet as jewelry…just one.

I have one of their Barton garnet rings, a souvenir of a few summers ago. Under sunlight it glows like a ruby, but indoors it’s very dark. When I got it, I named it Arcturus, in honor of the red giant that gleams over the lake in mid-August. Perhaps I should rename it Herschel!

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Coat Hanger

I had fun the other night locating the Coat Hanger (or Coathanger) asterism, also known as Brocchi’s Cluster. It’s a common destination; almost like boasting that you drove through Patchogue on the way to the Hamptons. But it’s pretty, and it’s fun to track it down and have a good look at it.

As its name suggests, it looks exactly like a coat hanger–a curved rod below and a hook above (in my reflector, anyway). The stars hover around the limit of unaided sight, from magnitude 5 to 7, making them easy targets for good binoculars. In my telescope, the asterism comfortably fills the eyepiece at low magnification.

You really feel you’ve stumbled upon an angelic dry cleaner’s.

What’s an asterism, you ask? The term is used in at least three different ways that I’ve seen. Here, in its commonest usage, it refers to a recognizable pattern of stars that is not a constellation. The Coat Hanger is a popular one; Kemble’s Cascade is another. (I love that one; I’ll share its story another time.)

Another common usage of “asterism” is to refer to a portion of a larger constellation, as in the Big Dipper, which is the well-known asterism in the constellation Ursa Major. (The rest of the Big Bear is faint and hard to see; however, many people assume that the Big Dipper is the whole constellation, which it’s not.) Also, there is the Summer Triangle, where the brightest stars in three constellations–Vega in Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus, and Altair in Aquila–form a recognizable large-scale structure in the sky. These kinds of asterism are very useful in star-hopping, not to mention folklore.

Lastly, I have seen “asterism” used to describe the constellation proper–the connect-the-dots pattern itself–as distinct from its larger region of space. In this usage, one would say that 145 Canis Majoris is not part of the asterism–that is, not one of the stars that form the “picture” of the Big Dog.

I find this easier to say than “not part of the constellation constellation, as in the constellation itself, but only the constellation as in the region of space, blah blah blah…”

Don’t get confused. An asterism is a pattern of stars: the constellation for which the region is named, a folk-named portion of a constellation, or a distinct little pattern popular among geeks. Something for the professionals, the amateurs, and the laity. Would that everything were so tidy!

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Ring Nebula

I found the iconic Ring Nebula last evening, just as civil twilight was ending. Lyra is riding high in the eastern sky these days, as is Cygnus, with Vega and Deneb well above the trees–Altair, which completes the Summer Triangle, is a later riser. Right near Beta Lyrae, also known as Sheliak, is the famous doughnutty nebula.

Called a “planetary nebula” partly because of its shape and partly because of an 18th century convention (or mistake), it is tiny and at first impossible to distinguish from a star. But keep looking: there is just a wee fuzziness to it that won’t resolve, even when the stars around it are pinpoints. Center on the suspiciously diffuse point of dim light (well under eighth magnitude) and re-focus, going past the focus point in both directions till settling in. Use averted vision as well.

Do all of this, at least, if you have a very basic telescope like mine. If you have a “yard cannon” with go-to, just sit back and enjoy the show, and pretend you’re aboard the International Space Station. I prefer to hunt, and then say with John Keats:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken…

And I did! And it did! The thrill of discovery is not diminished for me by realizing that millions have seen it before.

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Learning Dupré

After many false starts–interrupted for various reasons–I’m in for the distance this time. I’m hard at work on the Dupré opus 7.

I played the G minor prelude and fugue a number of times some years ago, including for my master’s audition. The other two I’ve kept deferring.

Just a few thoughts on the B-major prelude, in no especial order.

This prelude is played too fast as a rule. Certainly, what I’ve heard online bears this out. The music is not an occasion to show off your chops. If anything, it’s an opportunity to “turn the wheel” –manage the rhythm and timing so that the concussions and repercussions meet in the air, and create a mechanistic effect. When it works, the effect is uncanny.

Mechanistic? Absolutely.

This is music composed during the age of steam travel, after all. George Gershwin was honest about the “steely rhythms” and “rattlety-bang” of the railroad, and how it helped him compose Rhapsody in Blue. The same idea of “steely rhythms” will make the prelude come alive, as well as the fugue.

Follow Albert Ross Parsons’ ideas about the metronome, including his slow-down technique: to practice a passage successively slower as well as faster. Get away from the technique for the sake of technique idea.

The music is difficult, but the existential fear of it should pass after a day. Just dive in with a very slow metronome and begin to learn it, a page at a time. Set the metromone to track sixteenth notes at first, then double back and track for eighth notes, then again for quarters… each time doubling the starting point. Soon, you’ll be up to the optimistic quarter note = 112 of the score. (Providing, of course, that the room allows it.)

There is always melody to be found in Dupré. My favorite recording of the Chemin de la Croix, by Ben van Oosten, always finds the melody.

In the B-major prelude, find melody in the chunka-chunk right hand passages; in the pedal; and obviously, in the singing passages where the soprano repeats the pedal theme. (In these, an excellent fingering solution is easy to find, and the results are thrilling!)

Just playing the toccata figurations of the right hand as “knucklebusters” makes less of the music. And besides the tunes, bring out a sense of the form of the piece. (Can you assign it, more or less, to a genre? What one word would you choose? I’d choose sonata.)

“Fools admire, but men of sense approve,” said Alexander Pope. Dupré runs much deeper than his dazzling passagework or thundering finales. There is song in him. It runs deep and may be hard to find at times, but it’s there.

One final thought: there’s nothing like hearing a lot of top-drawer organ recitals in a short space of time to clear out your creative cobwebs and remind you of the joy of the whole enterprise. At the moment, I allude to the Guild’s recent Houston convention, which was superb. Still, the idea applies universally.


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