Weekend Stargazer: December 19 – 21

Sky chart

The weekend evening sky features some of the season’s best and brightest deep-sky sights.

This weekend features the longest night of the year and a new Moon. For deep-sky observers, that calls for some serious telescope time. Indeed, there’s so much darkness available on long winter nights that it can be difficult to decide what to look at first. Given the scarcity of clear nights at this time of year though, it’s not a bad idea to check in on some favourites before digging into more challenging fare.

In the January/February 2015 SkyNews

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Few can fail to be impressed by the dazzling sight of the full Moon on a clear winter's night. But have you ever wondered which feature on the lunar surface is the brightest? The answer might surprise you. In my regular On The Moon column, I list the Moon's most intensely luminous features.

For more about what’s in the current issue, visit SkyNews.ca

In the January 2015 Sky & Telescope

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Binocular observers tend to work with the same deep-sky catalogues as telescope users, so it's no surprise that the biggest and brightest Messiers and NGCs are also the best know bino targets. But in this issue's Binocular Highlights column we stray off the beaten path to look at the Alpha Persei Association.

Binocular telescopes are one of those ideas that sound great, yet rarely seem to work out in practice. But there are exceptions. In this month's Telescope Workshop column I write up Jerry Oltion's fantastic binoscope, which features twin 12.5-inch f/4.7 optical tube assemblies.

To find out what else is in the issue, visit S&T’s web site, www.SkyandTelescope.com.

Happy reading — and as always, your comments, questions, and suggestions are welcomed.
Gary

Review: Canon’s Image-Stabilized Binoculars

Canon 15x45s

Over the years I've tested virtually every affordable image-stabilized binocular on the market for reviews appearing in Sky & Telescope magazine. Canon is the clear leader where astronomy is concerned. The company currently offers six models, each with something to interest the backyard stargazer. Some of these binoculars are among the very best available for astronomy, while some are more general purpose.

In the December 2014 Sky & Telescope

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Andromeda . . . blank. Go ahead, fill it in. Andromeda Galaxy, right? But in this issue's Binocular Highlights column I show there's more to this constellation than this well known object. Overlooked open cluster NGC 752, is also a worthy bino target.

Telescopes made to order. That promise is central to the allure of ATMing. So, if you like to stand up straight while observing, you might decide to make something like Jim Duffy's "Porter Newtonian," profiled in my Telescope Workshop column this month.

Five Reflector Performace Killers

Reflector telescope front view

The Newtonian reflector is one of the most versatile optical configurations ever created. Whether homebuilt or commercially manufactured, a good Newtonian can rival the performance of any optical design.

Knowledge is power. The more you know about your Newtonian reflector’s potential and its pitfalls, the better equipped you’ll be to ensure it’s delivering peak performance.

In the November/December 2014 SkyNews

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Who was Clavius, and why is one of the biggest craters on the Moon named after him? Not surprisingly, the answer to that question has a tangled history. In my regular On The Moon column, I delve into the lunar name game to illuminate the mysteries of lunar nomenclature.

For more about what’s in the current issue, visit SkyNews.ca

Seeking NGC7789

NGC7789 chart

Open cluster NGC7789 is located in western Cassiopeia.

Rather than simply chase down the obvious Messier objects (as fine as so many of them are), sometimes it's nice to stretch out a bit and try for some less famous targets. One of my autumn favourites is open cluster NGC7789, located in Cassiopeia.

No-Tools Telescope Collimation

Telescope front view

For optimum performance, precisely aligned optics are a must. Luckily, achieving this goal doesn't have to be difficult.

Most telescope users know that the only way to get every last drop of performance from a reflector telescope is to ensure that the optics are in good collimation. Here's a method that's simple and doesn't require tools or even a centre-dotted primary mirror.

Building the Outback Travelscope

Me at Uluru

Me, the Outback Travelscope, and a bloody big rock.
(Photo courtesy George Brandie)

When I was preparing to travel to Australia for a total solar eclipse and some dark-sky observing sessions in the Outback, I decided it was finally time to rebuild my 8-inch travelscope so that it could go into my suitcase and arrive safely at my destination.

Getting the Most From Astro Binoculars

Bino user

Binocular stargazing is full of surprises. Sometimes you stumble across a pretty cluster and wonder how you’d previously missed it. Other times, you hunt and hunt for a galaxy listed at 8th magnitude, only to come up empty handed. It’s enough to make you wonder — what makes one object a binocular standout and another difficult challenge? Compiled here are the five most important factors that determine whether or not a deep-sky wonder will turn out to be binocular trash or treasure.

The Top 5 Comets of the Past 20 Years

Comet Hale-Bopp

Magnificent Comet Hale-Bopp on April 3, 1997. It is unquestionably one of the finest comets of the past two decades, but is it the best one of all?

Few celestial objects excite the imaginations of stargazers and the general public like a good comet. The recent apparition of Comet ISON prompted me to reflect on the all the comets I've been fortunate enough to see in the past 20 years. There have been some stunners, some surprises, and a few that could have been great, but fell short. Here’s my (highly subjective) pick of the five most interesting and spectacular comets from the past two decades.

Telescope Economics: To Build or To Buy?

Sam and scope

I built my 12.75-inch Dob for less than $700 — much less than a comparable commercially made scope would have cost. But is making your own scope always a money saving proposition? That's what inquireing minds (canine or otherwise) want to know.

For diehard ATMs, building telescopes is a way of life. But for others, the decision about whether or not to make a scope often hinges on economics. Will I save money building my own? The question shows up regularly in on-line forums and in my e-mail box. Before the emergence of a large-scale commercial telescope industry, the answer was a definite “yes!” But with the current abundance of low-cost, imported Dobs, and the increasing expense (and scarcity) of telescope-making supplies, it’s reasonable to wonder if it’s still possible to save a few bucks by going the home-made route. The prevailing conventional wisdom says “no,” but my own experiences suggest the answer isn’t as cut and dried as that.

Build This Simple Binocular Mount

Bino mount in use

Requiring only a few parts, this simple and effective setup provides stable images for detailed views of the night sky.

“This is the best binocular mount I’ve ever used!”

Those were the first words out of my mouth as I came indoors from testing my just-completed binocular rig. It’s rare that I build something that actually works better than expected, but finally I’d come up with a binocular mount that provides steady views, is easy to use, very portable, and simple to build. It was a good night.

A Beginner’s Guide to Collimation

Front view

I’ve been building and using telescopes for more than three decades and I’ll share with you a secret: collimating a Newtonian reflector is easy. So why does it seem so difficult when you’re just starting out? Probably because you’ve done your homework by Googling the subject and have read and re-read everything you’ve found. And now, you’re lost in a forest of information — some of it contradictory, some of it densely technical. Truly, sometimes less is more.

Build a Hinge Tracker for Astrophotography

Scorpius stars

This image of the Scorpius Milky Way was captured from Costa Rica with a DSLR camera and the simple hinge tracker mount described here.

If you have a DSLR camera and are interested in astronomy, you’ve probably considered dipping a toe into the astrophotography waters. But a camera is only part of the equation — for exposures longer than a few seconds, a tracking mount is usually necessary. Unfortunately, most suitable mounts are relatively bulky, or expensive, or both. But not the hinge tracker. It costs less than $10 to build, takes less than an evening to assemble, and requires no batteries. And best of all, you can put one together even if you’ve never built anything more complicated than Ikea furniture.

My Photo Web Site

FilmAdvance title

I invite everyone to check out my web site, FilmAdvance.com.
In addition to astronomy, photography is a big passion of mine. So, I started FilmAdvance.com as an outlet for my photographic explorations. There will inevitably by some astronomy related content posted there, but mostly it’s about seeing the universe through the lens of a camera, instead of the eyepiece of a telescope. Look in on it from time to time to see what I've been up to with my cameras and darkroom. Enjoy!

The Big Red One: My Optimized 6-inch f/9 Reflector

Big Red 6-inch f/9

Attention to detail is what separates a regular Newtonian reflector from one optimized for high-contrast performance. This 6-inch f/9 uses every trick in the ATM’s book to deliver superb planetary and deep-sky views.

This was the first telescope I made using my own optics. Like most telescope makers, I got started the easy way, by building Dobsonians with mirrors ground by others. But one day I got bit with the mirror-making bug. I blame my friend Lance Olkovick, our local club’s mirror-making ace. But why a long-focus 6-inch? At the time I was a hardcore Jupiter junkie and was convinced that a long-focus Newtonian would deliver excellent views of my favourite subject. I also wanted to prove a point.

Exploring Low-Power Limits

Andromeda

The old saying that less is more rings true for telescope magnification, but there are many factors to consider before choosing your ultimate wide-field eyepiece.

Low-magnification views of the night sky can be breathtaking. It’s only with low power that we can fully appreciate the splendor of the Pleiades, the foggy expanse of the Andromeda Galaxy, or the wispy filaments of the Veil Nebula. But if discussions on internet forums are anything to go by, there's a lot of confusion out there about how magnification, field of view, and exit pupils relate to each other. And without understanding these factors, you might end up shortchanging your telescope’s low-power capabilities.

Beat the Heat: Conquering Newtonian Reflector Thermals — Part 1

Newtonian thermal gradient

What you need to know when it comes to optimizing your scope’s thermal behavior.

Generations of backyard astronomers have debated why, inch-for-inch, the performance of a high quality refractor usually edges out an equal-quality Newtonian reflector. This disparity is most apparent when viewing low-contrast planetary detail — the images in a good refractors often have a touch more snap to them. Is there some intrinsic shortcoming in the design of the Newtonian reflector that makes this inevitable?

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