April Fools + 1 + Muleshoe WF

Muleshoe Wildlife Refuge, Paul’s Lake Observation Site
April 2nd-3rd, 2016

Gary Leiker & Scott Harris hauled via rented U-Haul, assembled and setup Gary’s custom tracking 30″ dobsonian
Scott Harris — 5″ ES triplet on Explore Scientific Heavy Duty Twilight II Mount
Mark Smith — old Club 10″ F/6-ish dobsonian
Your humble narrator — Celestron 102GT on Orion AstroView mount (EQ-3/CG-4 old style) and single axis clock
Robb Chapman — observer

I arrived late, which surprised none of the guys there, joining Robb, Mark, Scott & Gary at about 10:15. No less than 3 minutes after I arrived, Dr. Ram Iyer of the Math Department and his wife Mary showed up to glory in the night sky and take a look through the 30″ and 5″ refractor. The Muleshoe Wildlife Refuge is here …


… and generally offers some of the darkest skies until one gets to Caprock Canyons State Park, the alternative site for the McDonald Observatory near Quitaque, Texas. The sky conditions were, however, not as good as they normally are. There was a bit of brightness to the background we were unaccustomed to at this location. Not sure exactly why, but that’s the way it was. Also, as I arrived and surveyed the beautiful canoply of the heavens, I noted all stars up to at least 45 degrees off the horizon were twinkling rather strongly, indications of a turbulent upper atmosphere. Planetary viewing would not be optimal. Too bad, I was REALLY looking forward to great vistas of Jupiter which was at opposition on March 8th, but c’est la vie. But as less than optimal as the seeing was, this was my first astronomy outing for 2016, every Saturday night of the year so far taken by familial obligations, clouds, winds or inertia. But if you drive 70 miles into the West Texas darkness on a cool, clear April night that’s not too windy, the Lord God Jehovah shall not disappoint.  Add Gary’s 30″ dob and Scott’s 5″ triplet, and, well, disappointment is relative, and given all the conditions on your side, reasonably good eyesight, and breath, well, carpe noctem. The several meteors I saw early in the evening, appearing to eminate from Orion’s head toward the ground testified to the beauty of it all.

I had planned to test my two refractors against one another, the Kunming (Orion Premium Refractor) 102mm ED F/7 and the Celestron 102GT. By the time I finished setting up the Celestron 102GT on the AstroView equatorial mount, I got as far as assembling the SkyWatcher AZ-4 mount, never getting around to putting the OTA into the rings, but I had a few other things to do — like visual astronomy! And long before I could even get the 102GT setup, I was oogling over M42, the vast Orion Nebula, in the 30″. Although the “F” star wasn’t visible in the unsteady skies, the Nebulosity looked 3-D, like you were flying into it in this 30″ photon gathering rocket. Small push buttons near the focuser directed the voyage. The entirety of M42 wouldn’t even fit in the FOV of the 30mm 82* eyepiece, even though this scope is something like F/3.3. But the view wasn’t a problem. The layers in the nebulosity were simply stunning. Yeah, this one view made the whole trip worth it, but the best was yet to come.

We saw LOTS of targets, and I have to say that, despite the 30″s impressive display of galaxies and nebulae, refractors still offer a lot in the telescopic experience. It’s a foolish thing to say one is better than the other, exactly. They both offer something the other cannot, and complement each other quite nicely, especially on an atmospherically turbulent evening like this one. The stars are simply more pinpoint, crystal clear, and defined in the refractors. I realize, on a more optically perfect evening, there may be no difference, but I don’t get the luxury of observing under perfection, only what was available on April 2nd, 2016, at the Muleshoe Wildlife Refuge. Also, of course, the super huge perspective of the 30″ could be stepped back a bit with the refractors, to help frame the awesome views of the 30″, or not, as M101 demonstrated.

Gary has said that besides arms, he’s seen H-II regions in M101 at Muleshoe before, but we got none of that on April 2nd. M101 was a perfectly uncooperative blob. A bigger blob in the 30″, but mostly just a blob. You could make out some structure in the arms faintly, but the view was about the same in all the telescopes. Even my lowly 97mm clear aperture achromat showed M101 as a ghostly perhaps winged thing, but real definition was missing, and M101 stays coy unless the skies are particularly black. Don’t know what was causing the whitening of the sky. Cities are pretty distant (small light dome in the northwest for Muleshoe proper, but not too bad, and of course a bit of whitening to the southeast where Lubbock is, but nothing unusual — about 15-20 degrees and the darkness appears to overtake the distant urban blight).

Ironically, I noticed some mottling in M1, for the first time in my life, in Scott’s 5″ refractor. I’ve never seen that before, but there it was. I’d never seen mottling in the Crab nebula in anything smaller than a 10″ dob. Now, it looked better at Emma in the 10″ dobs I’ve seen it with there, but seeing it at all in a modest aperture refractor is an observing first for me. So even though some aspects of viewing were less than optimal, others were not. Made out some mottling in Mark’s 10″ dob.

The twinkling starred atmosphere made for inconsistent seeing, manifest with Optimus Maximus. Jovian views were limited in the ES 127 triplet and C102GT to 7mm eyepieces. Going lower didn’t help the image ever, in any telescope. In fact, the view suffered, though that’s possibly due to the eyepiece I had. I own the Meade 5000 5.5mm, and although I’m happy with it, I have to tell you an antedote that really seems to indicate the Nagler T6’s are, in fact, a cut above the ES 6.7mm’s (and Meade 5000 5.5mm?) in quality.  Scott and I were comparing views of Jupiter between his ES 6.7mm and my Nagler 7mm T6. I noticed in his 6.7mm a nice white line that seemed to run across the South Equatorial Belt. Immediately after putting in the Nagler, I didn’t see this, but eventually the seeing settled, my eye adjusted, and there it was. But something else evident I had missed was the GRS rotating into view. This might not have been fair, and simply timing related, still, I didn’t notice the GSR in the 6.7m but saw it clearly in the T6. Not that the view through the 6.7mm was bad, only that the T6 looks a little better, at least in the 7mm model. Not saying a Pentax XW or TV DeLite or Delos wouldn’t have been better. Might have been, but didn’t have those handy so can’t make a judgement one way or the other on those oculars, only what was noticed between the ES 6.7mm 82* and TV 7mm T6.

Without a doubt, M51 with NGC 5195 in tow were simply STUNNING in the 30″. The pair looked drawn into the eyepiece by an expert astronomical sketcher in a blue-gray, psychedelic 3-D style. Considerably better than Lord Rosse’s sketch — Whirlpool, indeed!

The Black Eye Galaxy, M64, had me saying “I’d rather fight than switch”, which had my friends recognizing the old Tareyton ad. Heck, I’d forgotten the brand of cigarettes and thought it was for Lucky Strikes. I was in second grade when tobacco ads were banned from TV, so I remember them, but might be a bit fuzzy on the details. But the details weren’t fuzzy in the 30″, and the Black Eye Galaxy easily lived up to its name.

A peak at the Markarian Chain galaxies was likewise glorious in the 30″. The details in M81 & M82 were also quite nice — especially M82 and its fractured edge-on self. The Leo triplet was amazing, too, which we had to pan about to the various galaxies to see. But the image looked something like this.  Honestly, you could see the dust lane in NGC 3628! The Rosette Nebula wouldn’t fit in the FOV, but one could move about and explore the various cloud formations, like a miniature M42, but still quite large-feeling.

This is not to say that the refractors brought nothing to the party. Although Jupiter, and particularly the GRS, was much brighter and colorful in the 30″ than in the refractors, the overall view of Jupiter was at least as good in the 5″, with the 30″ dob more affected by the unsteady air currents. Therefore the view through the refractors was, though not steady, more so than the dob, which offered better coloration, but no more detail in the bands, and perhaps a little less. The 5″ triplet here was MUCH better than the 97mm achromat. Interestingly, on DSO’s, the 97mm acrho did quite a good job, but on Jupiter, the chromatic aberration was more destructive to the view than I’d expected. The ES 5″ triplet is simply one fantastic telescope. It costs far more than a 10″ dob or the C102GT (more than both, in fact!), but it delivers contrast & resolution that’s hard to beat in any other single scope — and it offers a nice large TFOV, to boot.

We packed everything up by about 2:15 and headed back to Lubbock. I’ve been tired all week trying to catch up on my sleep, but this was genuinely worth it!

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