February 7, 2016: Jupiter, Angry Mars, and Double Stars!

Happy Super Bowl 50!

After what seemed like an eternity of clouds and generally awful weather this whole winter, I finally got a beautifully clear night on Friday.  I took the scope out nice and early, at sunset, to make sure it cooled down by the end of astronomical twilight.  Normally, I’ll sit with Stellarium for a few minutes while the scope is cooling and write down a list of objects on the back of an envelope, including some bright NGCs, their magnitudes, and their angular sizes, to plan my observing session for the night.  That night, I just wanted to revisit a bunch of old favorites I hadn’t seen in a few months.

I started out with the lovely Double Cluster, moving towards the west.  Then I went onto the Orion Nebula, which was its usual glorious self.  All four stars of the Trapezium were easy to see.  Next I went over to the Pleiades.  The Mak view of them isn’t anywhere as good as it is through the ST-80, because the view through the Mak limits me to the seeing just the bowl of the dipper, not the handle, and no surrounding sky for context.  But I was just hankering to see the old girls again; I’ve missed them.  (I’ve taken the ST-80 off of the Mak for now, to avoid any further mount/clutch slippage problems, which was the cause of much grief this summer.)  It was at this point that my troubles began for the evening.

The handset just started going nuts, crashing literally every 5 minutes or so.  This had happened when I last went out over a month ago in January (the handset dutifully remembers the last date you input), but I thought it had something to do with the cold that night.  It was, after all, just below freezing then, and it was windy as well, so I figured that the handset had just frozen over while I left it out cooling down with the scope for over an hour.

Nope; that wasn’t it.  Because on Friday, it was still about 40 degrees, and I had kept the handset nice and warm inside – on the radiator, in fact – while the telescope was out cooling down on the roof.  The handset went on the fritz just the same as it had a month ago, and within 5 minutes of my turning on the scope, far too quickly for the not-so-cold weather to have effected it.  It continued to crash every 5 minutes or so for the next half hour.  This was not only intolerable, but it was infuriating as well.

It wasn’t the battery itself – I think – because it was definitely charged.  I was getting good power, good red lighting on the handset, and good fast slewing.  I’ve used this same battery, a 12 volt, 4500mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery, for over a year now, ever since I bought the scope in November 2014.  It’s been very reliable for all that time.  That is, until now.

My first thought was that there was something wrong with either the handset, or the SLT mount – again.  You might recall that I had to send the mount back to Celestron for service this summer, which ended up becoming a two-month long customer relations nightmare of an ordeal.  But before I laid the blame squarely on Celestron – again – I decided I wanted to try and eliminate as many variables as possible to see if I could isolate what was causing the crashes.  To check if it was simply something electrical, I loaded up the battery compartment with 8 new double-A batteries.  Wouldn’tcha know it, the crashes stopped “cold” as soon as I did.  (Ahem.)  Even though the handset was a lot dimmer, and the scope slewed significantly slower, the mount worked and tracked just fine for the rest of the night.

So, I quickly ordered up a replacement battery, the same one, from eBay.  My guess is that one or the other of the plug ends on the cord is just not making proper contact for whatever reason.  The weird part is that the crashing occurs with no set pattern, other than very quickly.  I can wiggle the cord around as much as I want, and I can’t get it to crash – the crashes just happen as I use the scope.  I’ll get the new battery in just under two weeks, so we’ll see if either the new battery, or the new cord that comes with it, is a cure for this problem.

But enough talk about equipment; back to observing.  As I mentioned, once I got the fresh AA batteries in place, all was well.  After the Double Cluster, M42, and M45, I looked at some other old favorites, including M44, and that quartet of open clusters, M35-36-37-38.  I tried for M1, but no dice, yet again.  M41, 47, and 48 were looking very nice.  Later that night I tried for M81, and it was around, but dimmer than I remember.  I looked carefully around for M82, right nearby.  I even took out the Baader Moon & SkyGlow filter, which I normally keep pretty much permanently screwed onto the diagonal, to squeeze out those few extra photons into my eye.  But it was just too dim, too washed out for me to pick up.

M67, a 7th magnitude open cluster in Cancer was up, so I gave it a shot.  It was a very dim scattering of stars, but I did pick it out.  In fact, I had to go inside and look at a photo to make sure I was seeing it, but I found it, all right.  And that makes 40 Messier objects in total I’ve seen from the depths of Manhattan’s light pollution.  Congratulations to me!

Jupiter was up later in the evening, of course; another old friend.  I waited until almost 11pm, so that it would be over 30 degrees above the horizon.  Although the sky was nice and clear, the seeing was a little below average; I could only go up to 154x before the image started deteriorating.  Even so, four bands were visible, and the Great Red Spot made a ghostly appearance as it was transiting just then.  Three moons were present; that is, until 11:07pm, when I saw Io reappear from being eclipsed.  Just a little BB emerging from old Jove’s side.  Jupiter never fails to please; the king has always got some action going on.

Late in the night, or actually early in the morning, I thought Mars might finally be up.  The NexStar handset knows all, so I punched it in.  The scope kept on slewing down, down, pointing lower and lower, until finally it was pointing practically right at the horizon.  Fortunately, there is a gap between the buildings right about where the ecliptic rises, so I was looking at sky.  There was nothing there to my naked eye.  But as I looked through the scope precisely at 12:57am, there was Mars, a small red disk, redder and angrier than I’ve ever seen – positively blood red.  I checked Stellarium, and it was – incredibly – just 1 and 1/2 degrees above the horizon.

In actuality, it wasn’t even really that high; it was only “apparently” that high.  In fact, it was only 1 degree and 10 minutes above the horizon.  This is because right near the horizon, the earth’s atmosphere acts as a lens, distorting the view.  For example, whenever we see a sunset, the sun has actually gone down below the horizon two minutes earlier.  But the atmosphere refracts the light so we see the sun for those extra two minutes.  The same phenomenon was occurring here:  Mars appeared to be just a little higher in the sky than it actually was.  And because I was looking at it through so many layers of atmosphere, all of the wavelengths of light other than deep red were absorbed, leaving Mars looking absolutely crimson.  This is, of course, exactly the same atmospheric effect that causes the setting sun to become so reddish as well.

Mars is currently only 7 arc seconds across, which is positively tiny compared to Jupiter, which is 43 arc seconds.  Right now, Jupiter is almost as big as it ever gets; according to Stellarium, it will max out at 45 arc seconds wide in a month, in early March.  While Jupiter goes through its cycle of maximum and minimum sizes (between about 30 and 45 arc seconds) every 13 months, it takes Mars 26 months to do the same.  This is because Mars is moving in its orbit so much faster than Jupiter is – 687 days for one orbit as opposed to 12 years.  Even as the earth tries to lap Mars, Mars keeps trying to stay ahead and not be lapped – and for 10 months, it succeeds.

Mars is approaching opposition at the end of May, when it will be almost 19 arc seconds across.  That’s pretty big; this is one of the closer ones.  I plan on doing some serious observing of the Red Planet as May approaches, and pushing the magnification as high as the telescope and the seeing will allow, as I’ve never seen any surface features on Mars.  I understand that when Mars is that large, you can even make out one of the polar caps, if you’re lucky, and the seeing is good, and the magnification is high.  Well, luck be a lady that night!

To finalize this night, I let the NexStar computer show me around some double stars.  This is something that I really appreciate about the handset, observing here in Manhattan.  Double stars are DSOs that I was practically unaware of before getting this scope.  The only double star I knew of before then was Albireo, the simply gorgeous blue and gold pair that is the eye of Cygnus the Swan.  That’s all changed now.

The handset has a good couple hundred or so of the brighter double stars programmed into it.  Some, like Cor Caroli, are lovely, colorful pairs like Albireo.  Others are interesting because they are just a couple of shiny BBs snuggled right up next to one another.  And still others are pairs that are incredibly close together, only a couple of arc seconds apart, resolvable as a pair only at high power.  Because the seeing was a little below average, I couldn’t resolve a couple of the closer doubles into separate stars.  But still, it’s always a treat to see some doubles.

Next time:  The 23mm Vite Aspheric Eyepiece

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