PREFACE: This entry became quite long, even by my standards. If you're an experienced wide field astronomer you might just skip to the numbered "impressions" bits in bold and have a good laugh. My primary intention here is to share some experiences with fellow beginners who might profit from my mistakes.
Part 4: First Light
I don't know about you, but for me new astronomy gear often brings nervous energy and foolish mistakes. But I've never had an optical instrument fall on my head.
Last night I drove to a dark sky (Bortle 3ish) location reserved for the Columbus Astronomical Society for a couple nights of camping under clear skies. Having left later in the afternoon than I intended, I leapt out of the car to get the gear in position before sunset. Already my first intended targets, the crescent Moon and Venus, were close to setting. A perfect opportunity for me to whip out a pair of binoculars and give it a "grab and go."
Impression 1: When folks say that 10x is the maximum magnification binocular that can be hand-held, that translates to "on the outer-edge of enjoyability." For my unpracticed hands, 10x requires a monopod to be enjoyed. By comparison, 7x35 felt like a long, slow, deep breath.
I had found the widest, lightest 10x50 pair of binoculars within my budget: the Orion Scenix WA. Coming in at 1.8 pounds, I assumed that the light weight would assist in providing pleasing views at the upper-range of handhold-ability. I was wrong. Admittedly, I was a bit amped up from racing into camp right at sunset. With every beat of my 'above resting heart rate' heart, the view in the binoculars shook visibly and distractedly.
A bit surprised, I switched to the second pair of binos I am evaluating, a refurbished Nikon 7x35 AE. Immediately things improved. While the moon was smaller, the details were more observable because the view was steadier--and quite breathtaking! Lunar craters, shadowed by the termination line of a crescent moon, all against a dusk night sky with Venus and a few trees in the frame.
Remembering a trick I had read about, I grabbed the 10x50s and headed for a camp chair with armrests, hoping that the stabilized elbows would deliver even more taken breath. No dice. While the view was better, I still found the shaking distracting.
Determined to make the 10x50s work I dove into my camera bag, pulled out a monopod, and began furiously attaching the L bracket to the 10x50s and the quick release plate. Once secured (or so I thought), I lifted the monopod above my head to extend the legs. That's when it happened.
All of a sudden the monopod got really light and a fraction of a second later, WHAM!
1.8 pounds of bino (plus the L bracket that had come off of the quick release plate) bounced off of my skull and onto the grass.
Impression 2: The dent on my skull. Also, slow down...
Having had it with binos for the moment, I set about deploying the Orion 120ST in hopes of catching the last bit of crescent moon and waiting for the stars to come out. Back at the house, I had practiced balancing the short tube frac on the VersaGo II mount with the 2+ pound ES 82 30mm. So pretty quickly I had the 600mm scope mounted, balanced, and panned over to the moon.
Impression 3: What chromatic aberration? At lower magnification (20x), it was very difficult to detect. At higher magnifications it was manageable. For a beginning astronomer, the Orion 120 ST would make a fine first scope.
For a moment I wondered whether I'd accidentally mounted the 80ED. There was no apparent CA, I puzzled. Also, boy was this frac collimated!
Same goes for the binoculars. No noticeable CA in these non-ED binos. At least at dusk. Perhaps it would be more pronounced against a dark sky?
Fumbling to keep the scope balanced, I switched the 30mm out for the 24mm EP and sure enough there was the purple, sometimes green CA. Interestingly, I noticed the effect was diminished if I kept the moon at the center of the eyepiece. Furthermore, if I repositioned my eye slightly I could make it go way. Most of all, the lunar surface itself---the good stuff-- all appeared nicely resolved.
I was also really impressed with how the focuser performed. Even with my unwieldy 30mm EP attached, the 2" focuser felt smooth and precise. This was welcome news, as the 2-speed GSO focuser that everyone raves about is on backorder until 2022.
Given its strong aperture per dollar price point, the 120ST left me with the impression that this scope would make a very fine alternative to the Dob for an all-purpose first scope.
With the moon set and the stars came out, I began sorting out my observation plan. My thinking was to take advantage of the dark sky location by working my way up the Milky Way with binos and the 120ST with the nebula filter screwed in. I figured I would unscrew the nebula filter and turn to star clusters later in the night.
As you'll see, the evening dew had other plans unfortunately... .
My first target was Lagoon Nebula. Low on the horizon and descending, this target would be three firsts for me: My first test of the 120ST's performance on DSOs, the first real test of my nebula filter (the DGM NPB), and--most nerve-wrackingly, my first attempt to locate a DSO without the help of a GoTo mount. Besides M31, I had never successfully located a DSO by hand.
Impression 4: Manual alt-az mounts are so much more fun than GoTo for lower mag targets, and a much better way to learn the night sky.
I am notorious for relying on GPS to get around. Having lived in Columbus for 5 years now, I still find myself using it to get to places like the airport or the mall even though I've driven to them dozens of times. The GoTo mount that came with my 150mm Mak was having the same effect on my stargazing.
Don't get me wrong. I really appreciate the ability of my GoTo mount to track high-mag targets on the Mak so I'm not constantly having to concentrate on keeping the target centered in the eyepiece. But I quickly realized that, much like GPS, relying upon the hand controller to locate objects in the night sky was hindering my ability to navigate the celestial sphere.
That said, I am still a bit reliant on technology. I had purchased the larger version of the Sky and Telescope Pocket Atlas last year hoping it would help me learn my way around the night sky in a more quaint and low-tech fashion. But I found that, with my aging vision and denial that I need reading glasses, it was not legible under red light. So tablet and Sky Safari it is.
Activating the night vision saving features on my iPad, I pulled up Lagoon Nebula and located some pointer stars in Sagitarius and--still scarred by my first experience with the 10x50 binos--grabbed the 7x35s and went looking for my target. To my surprise, I believe I was able to locate the faint fuzzy patch where the nebula was located. I quickly went to the Frac and began walking the red dot over to the same patch of sky.
Sadly, I was in too much of a rush to "see it bigger" in the 120ST before the nebula set, so I didn't record my impressions from staring at this part of the galactic cloud through the binos. But upon quickly locating the nebula in my 30mm eyepiece where I believed I had spotted it through the 7x35s, I became excited about how binos might assist me in my journey to be my own GoTo computer. I hope to slow down more tonight and spend more time using the binos as a primary observation tool.
First impressions of the Lagoon nebula unfiltered was that it was quite faint. I knew it would not be as dramatic as my first nebula, M42 as observed from a Bortle 1 sky in Big Bend National Park. But to my untrained eye I found myself questioning whether I'd really found the nebula, or if it was just a large and poorly resolved star cluster. So I screwed the nebula filter into my 2" diagonal and went back to the eyepiece. Bam! That's a nebula! And I nice one, too. One that invited a bit more magnification. Again, not as dramatic as M42--which was practically life-altering. But as my second nebula, quite satisfying. And a good showing for the DGM NPB filter.
I successfully studied Lagoon nebula under various magnifications using the 30mm/24mm/14mm until it set.
Impression 5: These ES 82 eyepieces are really quite nice. But I was surprised that even my two-inchers--the 30mm and 24mm--aren't perfectly parafocal. Quite close, but still require minor adjustment.
Leaving the nebula filter in place, I began working my way up the milky way andI repeated the exercise with the Eagle and Omega nebulae. Smaller and fainter, I found that these responded less well to magnification. The really satisfying view, as I recall anyways, was seeing them both well-framed in the 30mm 82* FOV. But I couldn't quite make out the eagle shape.
It being 9pm, I knew that the North American Nebula was approaching Zenith. Here I was unable to utilize the binoculars. May need to invest in one of those zero-gravity chairs everyone is raving about .
Locating pointer stars around Deneb and walking the RDF over, sure enough, there was an upside down (and flipped because my diagonal is not RACI) North America rounding the zenith. At this moment I experienced a feeling of liberation, having bagged several DSOs without the aid of a GoTo. I might be cut out for this after all.
That said, NGC 7000 was fainter than I had imagined. The area of greatest initial interest was the contrasty bit where the Gulf of Mexico would meet Mexico. But as my eyes (and expectations) adjusted, I became quite pleased with the star field shining through the gas.
This view did leave me wondering how much better it and certain other nebula are through an Oiii filter as opposed to my NPB, which I believe is of the narrowband UHC family. Of course, going back to Texas or some other Bortle 1 site would be fine also .
Impression 6: I see why visual folks sometimes opt for filter wheels too. It would be fun to be able to quickly switch back and forth between no filter, NPB and Oiii.
From the zenith, I then panned over slightly to Cygnus and found the Veil Nebulae. Or the Eastern Veil at any rate. I strained to make this nebula out with the 120ST, and was unsure if I could make out the other two. Deflated, I took out one of my favorite bargain eyepieces, the 38mm Agena 70, wondering whether the larger exit pupil of the eyepiece would play better with the nebula filter. It looked about the same as with the 30mm ES 82.
Disappointed, I then paused and thought "wait, why does it look about the same?! Besides being a hand grenade, the ES 82 was much more expensive!"
A quick survey of the lens quickly yielded the answer. Lots of coma and other optical imperfections that are invisible on my f12 Mak yet glaring on this unforgiving f5 Frac.
Either way, the 38mm Agena helped me learn something about my eyes. Going from an exit pupil of 6mm on the ES 82 to 7.6mm on the Agena 70 didn't yield better optical performance, even with the nebula filter in the lightpath.
In defense of the light-gathering abilities of this short tube frac, however, I should note that by this point in the evening I was beginning to lose ground in fighting off the dew. Not having any dew heaters, I had read that Don over at eyepieces etc used a fan to clear his optics of dew. Evidently, even just channeling the warmer ambient air over exposed glass to a point. I had been careful to replace caps and return each eyepiece to a padded case between uses to keep the temperature of the EPs up.
Before all hell broke loose, I was able to swing around to the Dumbbell Nebula and enjoy some really rewarding views at various magnifications. Here, being able to close in with the 14mm was really nice. Though the loss of brightness was significant, even in this dark sky location. Though I am now wondering if I hadn't already lost to the dew by this point...
Impression 7: Dew is hell. And blowing warmer ambient air onto exposed glass stops working as the air temperature approaches the dew point. Bite the bullet and invest in dew heaters.
My plan to spend the midnight hours turning to galaxies and star clusters was cut short as the clock struck midnight. I was working so intently to locate Andromeda that I didn't notice how the ambient temperature had reached the dew point and the field around me had turned into a fog bank. Only upon my bewilderment that Andromeda looked so unimpressive through the 120ST did I lift my eyes away from the eyepiece and realize my gear got drenched.
These articles helped clear up a lot of my own confusion on this matter, including the myth that dew falls down from above, or that I should take my gear out and let it reach ambient temperature before starting an observing session.
I plan on ordering a couple of USB dew heaters upon my return to civilization. In the meantime, before tonight's viewing I am going to head into town and purchase some chemical hand warmers and rubber bands/velcro.
Now how to safely get those dew spots off my objective lens?
I know, don't touch them....
Edited by Escape Pod, 10 October 2021 - 01:38 PM.