From the “why didn’t I think of that sooner?” department…
Binoculars are, far and away, the best way to start in observational astronomy (after you have some of the constellations figured out first, of course). The Moon reveals great new detail even at low magnification, the four Galilean Moons of Jupiter are obvious (when they’re not transiting or being “occulted” by Jupiter), all of the Messier objects are find-able (with a little practice and either lots of time or one lucky clear evening in March), and the sky becomes a busy highway of satellites that are otherwise too small to reflect significant light for naked eye viewing. Perhaps less pragmatically but nonetheless significant, the ownership of one simple, easy to produce, easy to use, easy to master piece of paired glassware connects you to the magnification-enhanced world of astronomy begun with Galileo, who used a much poorer quality and lower magnification telescope than those found in Big-Box Stores to forever and disruptively change how Western Civilization (and beyond!) placed itself in the Universe.
That all sounds profound I guess, but you’ve got a book open and are trying to keep track of a flashlight while keeping your arm still as you bounce your head back-and-forth in this really dense part of sky because you don’t know if you’re looking at M36, M37, or M38 in Auriga and you know you’ll NEVER find that part of the sky again. The, if you’ll pardon the expression, dark art of star-hoping is one that absolutely requires practice. More importantly, it requires having a proper frame of reference. I admit that I spent more than a few months with my trusty Nikon Action 12×50′s without ever actually having a handle on just how big the piece of celestial real estate I was staring at was.
It may seem obvious but is something you (well, I) didn’t think to use to your (well, my) immediate advantage. The magnification in the binos does NOT change! You are constantly looking at the same-sized region. This means that you can easily correlate magnification to real estate and know exactly what the limit of your in-eyepiece star-hopping is.
My solution, and one that is generally applicable to all your binoculars (and low-magnification eyepieces in your scope), was to buy an architects circle set. Yes, one of the green numbers with all the holes. If you have one book you’ve committed to (in my case, Sky And Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas, but I also have a copy of the Cambridge Star Atlas that hasn’t had its spine properly cracked yet), find some obvious star groupings, see how many of them you can get in your field of view, crack your book open to the right page, and overlay until your circle engulfs only what you see.
Simple! This simple tool dramatically improved my star-hopping aptitude. Keeping with my circumpolar theme this year, using the Sky Atlas and a pair of 12×50′s, I can just barely get the stars Mizar/Alcor and Alioth from the handle of the Big Dipper into the field of view – this corresponds to a 1.1250″ circle…
For the Cambridge Atlas, this same circle is 0.8125″…
I can plot the path to dim or densely-packed objects at leisure by finding bright stars or small groupings and “walking” my view along the path of overlaid circles, always knowing what I should and should not be seeing at any time (minus the odd planet, satellite, Milky Way supernova, etc.).
The same applies to scopes, although you’ll hit that smallest circle quickly (and you’ll find yourself having to flip/invert the image in the piece of paper)! My solution for that was to buy the BIGGEST eyepiece I could find to make sure I’m getting the LEAST amount of magnification. The circles get you to the object, then the magnification draws you in…
Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.
I remember my first foray into Constellation memorization, still the first thing I recommend for anyone beginning in amateur astronomy (primarily for using these imagined creations to memorize the locations of far dimmer objects when you graduate up to binoculars or small scopes, but also simply to develop a sense of, well, the space between these creations as you jump between objects).
Orion, yeah yeah… Scorpius, O.K. obvious… The body of Sagittarius looks like a teapot, that’s not bad… Cassiopeia is the great big “W” Jonathan Winters discovered in “It’s a Mad … Mad World“… The “Dippers” are dippers… Canis Minor is composed of two stars, and they happen to be in a straight line! At least it contains a bit of animal lore and the great Procyon. That should be easy to find.
Ah! Triangulum. A famed triangle of stars. Named after the famed shape called “The Triangle,” and believed to be the last Constellation drawn out by Ptolemy as one of the original 48 Constellations of Antiquity. It bet it was supposed to be “The Great Northern Spearhead,” but Ptolemy must have been a pacifist. It is believed he committed it to papyrus at 4:50 p.m. on a Friday before the scribes began copying the first edition Monday morning.
I have to admit, this Constellation seemed like an odd member of the original series, if for no other reason than the seemingly minimal amount of work (or so I thought) that must have gone into its creation. As I hope to convey to you in the next few paragraphs, this little Constellation has stood the test of time for a few good reasons.
To begin, the heart of Triangulum dates back all the way to the Babylonians (which means it likely also dates back further into pre-recorded history) who, with the inclusion of what we now know as γ-Andromeda, called this Constellation MUL.APIN, or “The Plough.” With this simple extension added in red in the image above, I hope the resemblance is now obvious. To my technologically-biased mind, the nondescript triangle of the modern sky instantaneously becomes the (seemingly) everlasting testament to the power of agriculture and the shining reminder to all of the simple tool responsible for the creation of a commodity we know today as “surplus.” I don’t think that’s going too overboard in the description.
You are here.
We have these “organic farming” discussions where people ask you “Where do you think your food comes from?” It has been quite a recent phenomenon in the long history of this little sphere Carl Sagan referred to as a “Pale Blue Dot” (that’s you at right) that the members of a society have been relieved of the strain of producing for themselves by technology that improves efficiency and, more importantly, vastly increases quantity. If I take the comparison to the extreme, the Constellations that represented tools or deities have been replaced in many societies by the gigantic billboards that celebrate the financial well-being of companies continuing their crusade to relieve you of your currency, an economic reality impossible in a society where everyone’s working entirely to maintain a base subsistence level. The world remains in transition towards a time when all are at the same technological level as the First World countries (and it is only a matter of time), meaning something as simple to many of you reading this as an animal-driven plough remains a vital key to survival in other parts of the world.
I vote we re-designate the “Summer Triangle” as the “Summer Plough!”
While it may have been a signal for a Late-Summer party at the very beginning of some harvest, the Babylonians used the presence of their Triangulum to mark the “Way of Enlil,” the apparent path of the Sun after the Summer Solstice. In a society that used the Heavens as their Calendar, this simple Constellation took on a wholly more significant meaning.
Thanks to wikipedia, I know that a more recent attribution (to only the Triangle, not the Plough) of this Constellation is to the goddess Ceres, who successfully convinced the god Jupiter to add the island of Sicily (at left, the football that the boot of Italy appears to be kicking towards the U.S.) to the Night Sky (perhaps a preferred way to leave your mark in history, esp. given the alternative taken by Atlantis).
Sicily, featuring an active Mount Etna (Image by Jacques Descloitres, NASA MODIS Land Rapid Response Team).
Given this most interesting history, is there anything to actually do with a pair of eyes or an eyepiece in this part of the sky? I’m pleased to report that this part of the sky is actually quite busy (the Star Map at this beginning of this article is about as busy as one can get without looking at Sagittarius), with Triangulum serving as a useful anchor for finding a number of objects in our Eastern sky this month.
M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. Photo by Hunter Wilson.
As it happens, one of the precious few naked eye galaxies (provided ideal viewing conditions) in the Northern Sky lies just to the South (to the right as you’re looking at it) of α-Tri. M33 (at right), appropriately named the “Triangulum Galaxy,” is a member of the Local Group of galaxies (the most famous member being our Milky Way, the second most famous being the Andromeda Galaxy) and, at 2.9 million light years away, lies (by some estimates) 700,000 light years farther from us than the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) AND, according to measurements using the Very Long Baseline Array, is moving at 190 km/second relative to us and towards M31 (the demolition derby will not be pleasant for M33, given it contains only 4% of the stars of M31 (how many mopeds are there in a semi-rig?). It is still under debate as to whether or not M33 is a companion galaxy to the more massive M31 (they do share proximity), but it certainly stands on its own as a spectacle in a good telescope on a dark night. This first recorded observation (it all comes down to paper) is attributed to Giovanni Battista Hodierna around 1650 (above at left), the most famous recorded observation (it all comes down to publication) can be given to Charles Messier (above at right) on August 25-26, 1764 (now that’s bookkeeping!).
Giovanni Battista Hodierna (left) and Charles Messier (right).
All of the other objects in the boundaries of Triangulum are dim (10>th order or dimmer), making your time spent with moderate optics in this area short compared to the time you’d likely spend just on M31 alone. As a good practice for the next Messier Marathon, you can use M33 (*1) and M31 (*2) to mark the Southern side of a rectangle composed of M33, M31, M34 (*3) and M76 (*4, these last two are right on the Perseus-Andromeda border). As M33 will give you M32 and M101, that’s a quick-six to check off as you plough your way through the list of 110.
Comet Hartley 2 and NGC 457 (the E.T. Cluster). Photo by SAS member Stu Forster.
AND, as long as were in this neck of the woods (and the tree line in this part of the sky at Darling Hill is now just becoming more bearable to the impatient observer with the falling of leaves), we can use the Babylonian form of Triangulum to quickly point our way to M76, then slowly walk the Telrad to the North (left) until we reach the Southern Double of the famed Double-Double, which then puts into view both members of the Perseus Double-Double Cluster (NGC 884 and NGC 869) and Comet Hartley 2, which is working its way through our neighborhood. Our own Stu Forster managed to capture Hartley (green glow at left) as it passed through the local neighborhood of NGC 457, more commonly known as the Owl or E.T. Cluster (yes. tha E.T., the two bright eyes work for both).
Clear skies, Damian
Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.
Those who’ve ever been told that “there are more fish in the sea…” should be relieved that we only cast our visual nets to the heavens for stars and galaxies, as this most important of animals throughout history is only represented in the Northern Hemisphere by one pair of gilled swimmers tied at the tails.
The identification of one-half of this constellation as a fish (its other half had originally been a dove) dates back to at least Babylonian times, when a second great Western civilization prospered in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the West of Egypt, home of the first great Western civilization at the Nile Delta. The two civilizations from which most of the astrology (and mythology) that turned into early astronomy was established were founded by key water sources, providing the means for irrigation, transportation, and stable food supplies in the form of fishing, the three key needs of a society that allow for growth and the ability of the few to support the many (as James Burke has considered in Connections and The Day The Universe Changed, the ability of people to NOT need to provide subsistence level support for a society is what promotes scientific growth, cultural evolution, and whatever other types of activities most of us attend to everyday while some small fraction of the U.S. harvests or raises the food that the rest of us consume with hasty abandon). The Greeks eventually solidified the tied-fish representation of Pisces, representing Aphrodite and Eros, tied to one another during their escape from the god Typhon (You can guess how he rolled… In this case, the two were tied so as not to loose one another in the river Euphrates).
This constellation is reasonably large in visual real estate compared to other members of the Zodiac, but is occupied by fairly unremarkable stars, making Pisces one of the less prominent objects in the sky (it is possible you know the location of Pisces by looking below the more pronounced square of Pegasus). Pisces is made pronounced currently by its having caught Jupiter and Uranus at its Southern side, with Jupiter now making its way through Pisces (with a small fraction of time in Cetus) on its way into Aries this time next year. Most all observers will have Jupiter in their scopes at some point this Summer and Fall, giving them a chance to take in a second of the large gas giants in our Solar system as well as one solitary Messier Object within the Pisces boundary while having to move their scopes only slightly.
The only Messier Object within the Pisces boundary is M74, a less-pronounced cousin of the also face-on Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). In Hubble images (below), the bright cloudiness almost shrouds the spiral quality of the galaxy. An infrared image taken with the Spitzer Space Telescope (below) reveals a pronounced web-like quality to this galaxy, as well as some greater definition in the M74 spiral shape.
M74, image from NASA, ESA and the GMOS Commissioning Team.
Infrared image of M74 taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope.
For those attempting to check two planets of their list while memorizing the shape of Pisces, the image below provides you a reasonable cheat-sheet for how to hop from the very prominent (magnitude of -3) Jupiter (“1″) to the markedly less prominent (magnitude 5.75) Uranus (“3″). You’ll note in the image that the four famous Galilean Satellites of Jupiter (Ganymede, Io, Callisto, and Europa) are virtually on top of one another at this “magnification,” giving you an idea of how far the motion will be to find Uranus in your eyepiece. From among the many (invisible) other moons of Jupiter (all of the labels in this image are just a fraction of the total count to date), you’ll note a 6th magnitude star at position “2″, the brightest other object in the sky in this area. A slow, cautious scope motion to your south-east (and low magnification to start) will help you capture a view of this small blue-ish globe, a fitting color to search for within this aquatic constellation.
Finding Uranus starting at Jupiter. Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.
Clear skies, Damian
Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.
Of all of the Constellations that have taken human forms through history, Aquarius the Water Bearer may have the most varied professional background. His career peaked early in human history, with the Babylonians identifying Aquarius as GU.LA, their identifier for the god Ea, Ea derived from the Sumerian god Enki. To put that into perspective, the stars of Aquarius have been recognized as a Constellation since, at the very least, 1200 B.C. (the dates of the oldest known Babylonian star catalogues. As these catalogues borrow heavily from Sumerian mythology, we can only assume his actual origins step significantly further back, although records are difficult to come by). His demotion to water bearer comes with his adoption by the Greeks and his inclusion into their mythology, with his aquatic status in Greek mythology traveling, albeit likely by land routes, as far East as India. Then, like a leisure suit-clad Pat Boone on his pre-heavy metal reinvention, Aquarius found considerable recent fame as a disco star. When one starts at the top, it would seem that careers, like water, run downhill (although he may not yet be ready for the Chinese Constellation Fenmu, the tomb composed of the upper-left set of his stars). Its importance to several cultures throughout history is of little surprise, as this collection of stars, like the other 11 members of the Zodiac, lies along the ecliptic, the perceived path of the Sun over the course of the year.
NGC 7293. From hubblesite.org
NGC 7009. From hubblesite.org
As of this writing, Aquarius and the waters spilling from his flask separate the planets Jupiter and Neptune (with Jupiter prominent in our night time sky in Capricornus) from Uranus, which lies just on the inside edge of the boundaries of Pisces. Within his borders lie several interesting objects for binocular and telescope viewers alike, including two Messier globular clusters (M2, M72), one Messier open cluster (M73), and two prominent NGC objects. Had the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293, left) been discovered in far more recent times instead of its 1824 origins, its name night instead be the Eye Nebula, a description more in line with the many Hubble and ground-based images generated in the past few years. The full-size image (HERE) is a sight to behold. The Saturn Nebula (right, NGC 7009) makes a nearly straight line with M72 and M73, making this a very dense patch of outstanding objects. Herschel documented its discovery in late 1782, but it took the Hubble telescope to again add to its fame as a beautiful and complex object.
While the star connection provided by Starry Night Pro (shown above) is as legit as any other, I found the connection pattern shown at right (from wikipedia) to perhaps be a bit easier to visualize as a human with a large jug, although this view is decidedly of a clumsier water bearer spilling the jug contents ahead of him (below). Someone should tell this version of him to not quit his day job.
Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.
This is a reprint of two articles I wrote for the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter, the Astronomical Chronicle, for April and May of this year. The series of articles is designed to introduce members and visitors to our equipment (the equipment generally found at Darling Hill) to help them decide what piece of equipment might work best for them. And so…
“What should I get?”
This is the first article in a series that hopes to provide useful answers to a commonly asked question at Darling Hill Observatory. The plan is to introduce prospective purchasers to the broad range of equipment used by the SAS regulars, including pluses and minuses, benefits and hazards, complaints and complements. For some of us, we’ve had the same core equipment for years and know their subtleties backwards and forwards. For a few others, they always have a new purchase to show and a new tale to tell (I await the show-and-tell from this past weekend’s NEAF purchases). Hopefully, having the first-hand accounts of a variety of equipment will inform you a bit more about future purchases than the flowery descriptions found on manufacturer websites.
I am beginning this series with my astro gear, with a few other members already committed to similar write-ups. We are happy to have submissions from other members! If you have a pair of binoculars or a telescope that you love or hate, consider sending off a review of your own for this series. You might help convince someone to go through with a purchase or spare them the annoyance of having to send something back!
1. Two (Myopia-Corrected) Eyes
Starting with the obvious, but it is worth remembering that, regardless of what anyone recommends, these are the original tools of the trade and the most cost-effective amateur astronomy starter-set you could ask for. You can spend many a night with your other equipment at home and still have an extraordinarily enjoyable and productive viewing session.
From our virtually never-changing vantage point on planet Earth, the Night Sky still appears to be a gigantic place. If your night observing always occurs at the same time every night all year long, you find the visible stars and constellations changing gradually over the course of the year. Such constant observing might provide you an inkling of what the ancient Egyptians (and, later, the Greeks, and, later, and Romans) realized about the cyclic nature of the Night Sky such that you begin to attribute the rise of certain bright stars to changes in the seasons or the appearance of meteor showers. You also become familiar with patterns of bright stars and find ease in remembering the shapes of these star patterns instead of the single pinpoints of light. Whether because of the connections passed on through oral history or to reinforce the mythology, you connect these patterns to religious or mythological characters. The earliest efforts to catalogue the stars into Constellations date back 6000 years in the form of tablets found in the Euphrates River Valley. Roughly 4000 years later, the Almagest by Ptolemy of Alexandria (yes, THAT Ptolemy) set in stone the 48 Constellations of the Northern Hemisphere so deeply rooted in (and passed on from) older civilizations. These constellations served as calendar markers, signs for planting and harvesting crops, navigational aids for aligning oneself (and your ship) in travels throughout the Mediterranean, and signals from the Heavens themselves that a religious observance was near.
You, on the other hand, get two nights a month in central NY when the sky’s clear enough to see anything, so you barely know what should be out on any given night and certainly don’t have the time in your busy schedule to start digging through books or googling for star charts right before a Messier Marathon. At this point in our history, you don’t really need the Constellations for anything significant unless you find yourself in the middle of nowhere without a compass or standing outside after some James Burke-ian doomsday scenario where all of the power (and I do mean ALL of the power) is out, well, like someone hit a switch.
Most amateur astronomers have taken 6000 years of pattern matching to hveart and memorized at least several of the Constellations to serve as the “coarsest” adjustment on their alignment with major astronomical objects. There are approximately 1020 “bright” stars that Ptolemy grouped in his Almagest into the 48 Northern Constellations. Imagine having only stars and Messier objects to search with without designated Constellations. To tell an observer that M42 is just above Nair al Saif only makes sense if that observer has committed several hundred bright stars to memory. Tell that same observer “M42 is just above the tip of Orion’s sword below the belt,” it’s a good guess that practically everyone will know exactly what you mean.
With rare exception, all astronomical gear requires that you have prior knowledge of where the thing you want to see is (and, if you have a GOTO scope, you still need to know how to set it up and align it, so you still have to have the locations of a few stars committed to memory). Regardless of what you use, your viewing life is made much easier by starting with unaided eyes and learning your way around the largest “objects” in the Night Sky. We ALWAYS recommend that people new to astronomy start with binoculars instead of shelling out a large chunk of change on a telescope. To get the most out of your binocular experience (and until they make GOTO binoculars), we can’t recommend strongly enough simply standing outside equipment-free and committing the Constellations to memory.
2. My Starter Scopes: Nikon Action 12×50 Binoculars
With increasing light pollution and the resulting gradual dimming of fainter stars in large Constellations, you almost need a low-power pair of binoculars to make out the fuzzy patches that used to be naked eye objects.
You can (and will) certainly hear lively debates about the merits of various scopes and eyepieces on the Hill, but there is one point all of the regulars agree on, a point we try to stress as much as possible to perspective astronomers. You are far, far better off starting your astronomical pursuits with a good pair of binoculars. Unless you’ve a quality GOTO scope that you know how to use and maintain, you can spend hours trying to aim a telescope on one object and never get that object within your sights if you don’t have a quality understanding of the signposts in the sky that help you go from the “coarsest” adjustment of your eyes to the “finer” adjustment of slight-to-moderate magnification achieved by binoculars. Every step up in equipment and every jump in magnification requires that you have a very good understanding of where things are.
My Nikon 12×50′s are my “old faithful(s)” and I spent three solid years of observing using nothing but (and I STILL haven’t seen everything I know is possible to see at this magnification). I can’t recommend them strongly enough, but there are many similarly-sized binoculars among SAS members that I would be just as happy to own. There are a few general things to look for when purchasing binoculars:
While any pair of binoculars will allow you to see more than you can with the unaided eye, there is a certain class of binoculars that are much better for nighttime observing than others. This class of binoculars maximizes the ratio of aperture to magnification. The aperture (your primary or objective lens) is the entrance in the “front” of your binoculars through which light passes. All astronomy equipment is about aperture maximization, as larger apertures mean brighter and better resolved images (because you’re allowing more light to go into your eyepiece). At the same magnification, a pair of 12×50′s is going to be better for nighttime observing than a pair of 12×25′s. If you buy binoculars locally (simply due to what most places around here commonly stock), you will find a large selection of Nx50′s (N usually being 7, 10, or 12). You will be hard-pressed to find people complain on astronomy forums about 50 mm objective lenses. Instead, they will complain that “the magnification is too high for the aperture.” For new astronomers and seasoned pros simply wanting to shake the cobwebs off, 7×42 or 7/10/12×50 binoculars are excellent.
Related to the aperture discussion above. The goal of a pair of binoculars is NOT maximum magnification. The goal is maximum magnification supported by the size of the aperture for what you want to look at. 12x magnification certainly brings out astronomical details that most of humanity has never seen, but 12x magnification with a 25 or 35 mm aperture will serve you far less than 12x on a 50 mm or larger aperture or 7x on that same 35 mm aperture. The range of easily managed binoculars at the Hill falls between 7×50 and 12×50, with 10×50 perhaps being the best compromise of magnification and image clarity (this is, of course, dependent on the quality of the optics).
C. Prisms, Glass, and Coatings
This is the technical part of the program where newcomer eyes glaze over and you consider blindly accepting whatever someone else tells you. Even seasoned amateur astronomers might not know the chemical composition of BaK-4 or the material used to coat lenses, but they know the general trend towards improved image quality with improved components. As you consider purchases, the gross generalizations below serve as useful guides.
Roof (left) and Porro (right) Prism binoculars.
Prisms: Roof and Porro
While I risk starting a war among binocular users, the difference in image quality between similar-quality roof and porro binoculars to my eyes is zero. I find porro prism binoculars to be the better design for astronomy because (1) there’s a bit more material to hold onto (most of them even have grips) and (2) it is easier to put porro prism binoculars onto tripod adapters because you’ve got more room between the primary lenses (this is of more importance when it’s 10 p.m. and pitch black). Note these reasons have nothing to do with the quality of the optics.
“BaK-4″ glass is better quality than “BK-7.” There’s a lively photophysics discussion in there somewhere. Ignoring the chemistry of the glass and the manufacturing process, BaK-4 glass has better light transmission, which means a better quality image across the entire field of view. I’ve had the rare opportunity to compare both kinds in the same 12×50 binoculars and will admit to having a better experience with the BaK-4. That said, having a higher quality of glass prism in a pair of binoculars often also means having a higher quality of production. A high quality BK-7 pair might look just as good as a good pair of BaK-4 binoculars, but you would need to have them next to one another to test this.
The optics in binoculars and telescopes let most of the incoming light through, but some small amount is reflected (most reports say 5%), the result of which is a slightly dimmed view. While a 5% loss at each air-to-glass interface might seem small, a pair of binoculars might have a dozen or more of these interfaces, meaning the actual amount of light hitting your retina might be significantly lower than the amount entering your optics. This reflection loss is greatly diminished by way of coatings, which can drop the amount of reflected light from 5% to as little as 0.25%. The larger the number of coated surfaces, the smaller the percent of reflected light and, of course, the higher the cost of the binoculars. The four categories of coatings are as follows:
C = coated. This typically means “multiple surfaces coated,” but that does NOT mean all surfaces.
FC = fully coated. All air-to-glass surfaces are coated.
MC = multi-coated. These may be layers of the same coating or combinations of different materials that yield higher transparency.
FMC = fully multi-coated. Like FC, but the magical multi-coat combination is applied to all surfaces.
Yeah, but what does it all really mean? It is very difficult to adequately describe how prism, glass, and coating quality alter the quality of a set of binoculars. All things being equal, one might say a BaK-4 FMC set of porro binoculars are the best combination for amateur astronomy. In every ranking I’ve found online, the coating order is C < FC < MC < FMC. As for whether or not FMC 42 mm aperture binoculars are as good as C 50 mm aperture binoculars, I’ve not yet found studies online. These are manufactured products, however, and I’m sure we all know examples of high-quality merchandise that went back because of defects or mid-priced merchandise that somehow magically performs better than anything else you’ve ever used.
Just cut right to the chase. Ballpark, I would expect to pay between $80 and $150 for a pair of 12×50 FMC porro binoculars that perform admirably at night. I know you can spend $1500 on a pair of 12×50′s, but I’ve never had the pleasure of using a pair to see just what it is I’m missing (although I would miss the $1500). You certainly don’t want to spend an exorbitant sum of money to buy what the pro’s wouldn’t be caught dead without, but you also want a quality-enough piece of equipment that you ENJOY using them for observing. My Nikons were $130 when I bought them and, six years later (and $30 cheaper online), they are still in great condition and are still the best pair of binoculars I’ve ever used for nighttime observing.
E. Wait. Weight!
There is one issue left to address that improved my binocular experience 10-fold.
If you’re on the Hill, you may find several people with their elbows on the tops of their cars or the sill of the Observatory rolling roof. This is for cutting down the shaking in the arms that makes focusing on a dim object virtually impossible (and certainly never for more than a second). I am both a prolific shaker in the cold and a perfectionist when it comes to perfecting my focus. Because of this, I strongly recommend buying a tripod even for small binoculars to anyone wanting to really study an astronomical object. The tripod diminishes your freedom of movement, but the added stability greatly improves your ability to make out fainter features. I’ve a cheapo $30 camera tripod and binocular adapter that is very lightweight and is remarkably stable (unless the wind really picks up). And, if it’s never come up before, the adapter for mounting most small binoculars to tripods is a separate accessory (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pair of binoculars that did not include a thread under a plastic cover in front of the focuser).
The author’s first official setup.
3. Zhumell Tachyon 25×100 Astronomical Binoculars
With three years of Nikon Action 12×50 viewing under my belt, I decided that the next logical progression for astronomical viewing was to move to a higher-magnification pair of binoculars. After as much google-searching for reviews and product comments as I could find, I settled on a pair of Zhumell Tachyon 25×100 Astronomical Binoculars and one Zhumell Heavy-Duty Tripod. Now into my third year of using these binoculars, I have a few clear insights to pass along concerning giant binoculars. The discussion I would have here about prisms, coatings, and equipment quality is addressed above, so I will jump right to the case of the equipment itself.
A. “Why buy one when you can buy two at twice the price?”
I ordered the Zhumell 25×100′s and tripod from binoculars.com (a small but stereoscopic subsidiary of telescopes.com). Upon opening the hard case these binos were shipped with, I discovered that the key for the latch lock had slipped loose inside of the case and had settled into a piece of foam just below the right objective lens. The movement of the binos during shipping had, you guessed it, caused all kinds of minor markings from the key scraping against the bottom (not the lens, which had a heavy plastic cover on it). With $500 committed to this company in binoculars and tripod, I called about a replacement. If you pay for a new piece of equipment, make sure you’re happy with it and don’t worry about the company’s cost of making you a satisfied customer. binoculars.com was happy to send me a replacement with free overnight shipping if I agreed to pay for the cost of the second pair (which they would then reimburse me for when the old mangled pair came back). That night, I took the marked-up pair onto my roof for some testing. In short, the view was phenomenal, with all four stars in The Trapezium (no splitting of the doubles!) in M42 (the Orion Nebula, also phenomenal in the binos) clear pinpoints of light. The Moon was almost too bright, which made the view at the terminator even more interesting.
Central command at last year’s Summer Seminar. Zhumell Tachyon 25×100′s and Zhumell Heavy-Duty tripod (acting as a cellphone mount for updating the SAS website).
That next evening, I packed-up the marked-up pair and took the new pair out onto the roof. In short, the view was awful. Something was wrong with the collimation and nothing could be brought into clear focus in the right eyepiece.
The next day, the new pair goes back and a THIRD pair is shipped overnight (and, yes, I am sitting on $1200 in charges to this company at this point). The next-next evening, I’ve the third pair of 25×100 binos on my roof. In short, the view was intermediate between the marked-up pair and the second pair. I then decided to keep the marked-up pair to use as an example that “it’s what’s inside that counts.”
So, what did I learn? First, if you can afford to, if you’re going to buy a pair of binoculars online and not get a chance to use the pair first, consider ordering two and keeping the better pair. This idea was not mine but was, in fact, that of the customer service rep I talked to at binoculars.com. The problem with focusing may be you, but that’s only easy to diagnose if you’ve two pair of binoculars in front of you and one of them clearly doesn’t focus as well as the other one. While my purchase of the Zhumell’s was clearly a bit of an ordeal, the final (and original) pair of 25×100′s provides incredible views. On a very good night, you can see the banding in Jupiter‘s atmosphere, the Cassini Division in Saturn‘s rings is well-defined, and all of the major moons of both planets are obvious. The nebulosity of the Orion Nebula is also pronounced at this magnification, significantly more so than with 12×50′s. Albireo, the head of Cygnus the Swan and my favorite binary star system, looks phenomenal at 25x, with the orange and blue-green pinpoints clear and well-defined. As a reference (and when visible, of course), I use Albireo to focus the independent eyepieces of the binos.
With 7-to-12×50 binoculars, a tripod can greatly improve the detail one can see while observing objects because your magnifiers are locked in place (on the tripod, that is) and the slight shaking one may experience from fatigue is removed from your observing. In the case of giant binoculars, you virtually have no choice but to tripod-mount them. With the considerable magnification and the significant weight of 20×80 or 25×100 binoculars, a stable tripod is a necessity. I found many sites and reviews that mentioned one should expect to spend half the price of the binoculars on the tripod. This makes for a considerable investment the first time, but you do want a rock-solid support for the binoculars both because you want to make sure they will not tip over without a fight and because you don’t want strong winds or shuffling bodies to cause the binos to shake while you’re trying to observe. At 20x or 25x magnification, even a moderate breeze will cause a poorly-supported pair of binoculars to rattle around.
B. So, what are the benefits of giant binoculars?
ii. You can clearly see planetary detail in Jupiter and Saturn, the phases of Venus, and the Moon is spectacular.
iii. In some giant binoculars, you can attach filters to the eyepieces, helping you to accentuate detail in planets and nebulas.
iv. The set-up and tear-down time is much faster than for a telescope, which is less important in Summer but ever-so important in the middle of Winter.
C. What are the problems with giant binoculars?
i. You see what the tripod and your neck allow you to see. Unless you have a right-angle bracket in your binos or some means of projecting the image somewhere else, the amount of sky you’re capable of viewing is severely limited by the tripod. I often find myself only looking at objects between 0 (horizon) and 40 degrees. Any steeper angle will begin to cause neck fatigue quickly and will start an awkward dance as you and the tripod try to find an equilibrium for the five associated legs. Sitting on a comfortable stool, the 0-to-40 degree angle view is generally quite pleasant. At Darling Hill, we have Syracuse to our North, Cortland to our South, the occasional Tully glow to our East, and a somewhat high tree line to our West. The wash from city lights tends to make viewing at the Horizon quite difficult, which means the “useful” angles for giant binoculars (for viewing already dim objects) reduces from 0-to-40 to 10-to-40 degrees.
ii. Two Independent Focusers – Most every pair of giant binoculars uses independent focusers for the eyepieces. While I assume many would argue this to be a benefit, I see this as more of a “practical” hindrance. Not only do you have to focus each eye independently, but the person using your binoculars at a public viewing also has to focus each eye independently (if they opt to attempt it). I spend a considerable amount of time trying to get both eyes properly adjusted some nights, which is time I’d rather spend viewing.
I had adjusted myself to the pros and cons of giant binoculars for one very important reason. I told several members of the SAS that I was NOT going to buy a telescope at any point in the near future. Why would I buy a telescope when I’d have to then shell out $10,000 for an SUV to drive it around with? It was at this point that I found in my possession the telescope that changed my mind about these one-tube wonders and finally lead me to no longer recommend giant binoculars as the best tools for next-step amateur astronomy.
4. 6″ f/5 Newtonian – The “Stu Special”
My scope of choice is a 6″ Newtonian assembled by our own Stu Forster, a scope that we’ll ceremonially pass on from SAS President to SAS President. I will NOT be addressing all of the pros and cons of telescopes in general. There are enough varieties in the SAS that people with far more experience with other types can address their operation in detail. I will instead focus on the small Newtonian variety and NOT cover (yeesh!) GO-TO varieties.
The “Stu Special.”
A. The standard “academic” benefits of Newtonians
This means that all of the different wavelengths of light are focused the same and you don’t get the slight splitting of the different colors of the rainbow as you move towards the edge of the field of view.
Only one important mirror
There is only one big mirror in a Newtonian that requires fine grinding and polishing and not the several pieces of large glass in smaller yet more compact designs. This tends to keep the cost of a new Newtonian down (and, if you’re crazy enough to build a scope by yourself (Stu’s not reading this, right?) you’ve only one piece of glass you can butcher instead of 4 possible future paper weights).
B. The standard “academic” problems with Newtonians
Coma is an aberration that causes a “flaring” of images towards the optical axis. If the object under visualization is dead-center in your scope, it will have zero coma. As you move away from the center, this flaring becomes increasingly prominent. In general, you won’t notice this with a scope with a focal ratio of f/6 or higher, f/5 is the kinda-sorta point for seeing the flaring, and f/4 and smaller scopes will have, in the absence of corrective lenses for the scope, noticeable flaring at high magnification.
Until someone designs a secondary mirror that hovers motionless in place, the support bracket that keep the secondary mirror in place (known as the “spider”) is a contrast-reducing obstruction that is most significant when looking at bright objects (for instance, the familiar “plus sign” that appears superimposed on some photographs of bright stars). There are games that can be played to reduce the obstruction, usually at the cost of secondary mirror stability.
When + is a – : Spider geometries and the view from your Newtonian (from www.fpi-protostar.com).
Newtonians tend to be a bit bigger than their, er, smaller counterparts. This means there’s more surface area to hit, shake around, bump into something in your backseat, etc., that can de-un-mis-align the primary and secondary mirrors. The act of collimation to bring these mirrors back into proper position is a straightforward but certainly care-requiring task that may need to be done on a regular basis for best viewing. In contrast, refractors and catadioptric scopes have fixed collimation (one of the many benefits you end up paying for).
And that’s all terribly interesting, but what does that have to do with me on the Hill at 11 p.m.?
C. The Big Benefits of a Small Newtonian
Usable Zoom Levels Cover the Range of Binoculars
Clearly a 6″ mirror is better than a 50mm or 100mm binocular objective lens. You have at your telescope disposal any reasonable magnification you like provided you have the right eyepiece. Furthermore, the use of successive eyepieces to zoom-in on an object is a very easy way to find objects.
A small Newtonian telescope is a win-win over binoculars when the object under investigation is right (or nearly right) above you. Objects at your Zenith are as far as they’ll ever get from the horizon (so the dimming influence of city light is minimized when you’re surrounded by cities) and you are separated from sed object by the least amount of atmosphere when you look straight up, two factors that make viewing at the zenith just about as good as any view will ever get. As the eyepiece on a Newtonian is sitting perpendicular to the length of the scope tube, when that primary mirror face is pointing straight up, the view in that eyepiece is pointing straight out at you.
Complete Freedom of Movement
For the most part, you have the entire sky accessible to you from a tabletop-mounted scope provided you can walk around the table and aim accordingly. This is in stark contrast to a tripod-mounted pair of giant binoculars.
One eyepiece to satisfy them all
There is one eyepiece to focus and one big knob to focus with. When observing with more than one person with finicky eye sight, this greatly cuts down on the amount of time spent getting the view decent for each viewer, specifically when compared to a pair of giant binoculars.
If it was good enough for Isaac Newton…
In my own opinion, after a pair of quality 7-to-12×50 binoculars, the best next-level piece of equipment one can buy (or, preferably, have handed to you) is a small (5″ to 8″ primary mirror) Newtonian scope.