On Friday and Saturday, March 7 and 8, I drove to local dark-sky sites for observing. It was Messier marathon weekend for a lot of us. I have never done a Messier marathon -- and am not one to break tradition -- but I do undertake a Messier survey with each telescope or binocular I use, and this weekend I did a fair amount of observing with the three for which surveys are now in progress.
Friday night saw Fremont Peak (near San Juan Bautista, California) with clear sky, no fog below, and seeing that ranged from good to ratty. Conditions were similar at Henry Coe State Park (near Morgan Hill, California), on Saturday. I brought my "survey" instruments to each site: They were a 10x50 Orion UltraView binocular, a 50 mm f/12 Meade model 165 refractor, and a Brandon 98 mm f/6.7 refractor.
I have described the UltraView and the Meade here before, but not the Brandon 98. It has an unusual past: It might better be described as a Brandon 94 mm f/7 that has been hot-rodded, starting with boring out the cylinder. The telescope began as a Brandon 94, one sufficiently early that the retaining ring at the front of the lens cell reads "92 mm" -- a well-known early-production typo. Some prior owner unscrewed said retaining ring and enlarged the aperture thereof by 4 mm, thus producing a 98 mm refractor. Now, I would have been reluctant to mess with the craftsmanship of Vernonscope and of Roland Christian, yet as an occasional advocate of improving telescopes by hacksaw, I cannot but admire the spirit of the act, and the optical quality seems uncompromised -- those extra two mm of radius did not include a bad turned edge, for example.
The telescope has also been refinished -- Vernonscope's well-known robin's-egg blue is replaced by shiny black, and there is a Celestron 6x30 finder whose mounting fitting has been brazed (or perhaps TIG-welded) to the fixed part of the focuser. The job was well done, but the instrument now looks more like a slightly funky AstroPhysics Traveler than anything else. All it needs is pinstriping to complete the "hod rod" theme -- or maybe flame decals. (Drat, why can I never find a J. C. Whitney catalog when I need one?)
In any case, it is a nice telescope -- the objective is an early Christian triplet, and although later models, with whizzier glasses, have a tad better color correction, this unit is a true apochromat, with vastly less color than a conventional doublet of comparable size and speed. The mechanical parts are nice, with one exception: The Unitron two-inch focuser has too much slop and too poor control for so fast an instrument. It may have worked fine at the f/15 of old Unitrons, but the gearing of the rack and pinion is too coarse to permit the fine adjustments necessary for the focus of an f.6.7 instrument to "snap" in. It does "snap", but it takes trial and error to get the focus to stop at the crispest setting. I have heard several complaints about Brandon 94s; I bet that's a common problem.
What I bought was just an optical tube assembly with mounting rings. I put it on my Great Polaris mounting for the weekend's work, and it was right at home.
But I was talking about observing. I have been doing a Messier survey with the Brandon, which is no big deal -- 98 mm is more than enough for any Messier object -- so I will spare you the details. Perhaps of more interest are the surveys I am undertaking with the two 50 mm instruments, the 10x50 UltraView binocular and the little Meade beginner refractor.
I am almost done with the 10x50. I have only three objects to go, all relatively easy spring-sky stuff that should be readily visible.
The Meade 50 mm survey is not so far along -- only 66 objects to date -- but I have gotten all the tough ones, so there is little doubt that the Meade can do it. On the 7th and 8th of March, I worked my way through the Virgo and Coma Bernices galaxies with the Meade, at 33x and 24x. Several were difficult, but all were solid detections. The most difficult object with both 50 mm instruments was M76, on grounds of just plain faint.
The main trouble with the Virgo and Coma galaxies is not so much seeing things, as finding them -- this area of sky is star-poor, not only to the naked eye but also to the limiting magnitude 8 or so of many popular charts. _Uranometria_ goes deep enough to provide plenty of guide stars, as does the _AAVSO_ atlas. I had the Meade and the Brandon set up simultaneously, and would alternate between the two; the galaxies were all obvious in the larger aperture, so it was a most useful "observing aid" for the Meade 50 mm.
I used the Brandon to look at a couple of favorite non-Messier fuzzies, as well. One of these, NGC 4565, is an object I can count on to provide delightful views in even a small instrument. I tried it 21x, 53x and 82x, and found the best view at the higher magnification. I could hold the long streak of the galaxy and its central lens with direct vision, and with averted vision could see the star-like nucleus peeping out from the lens, and also the dimmer portion of the galaxy on the side of the obscuring dust lane that is opposite to the nucleus. How nice to have an object that reveals all the features that make it wonderful in "coffee-table" views, to visual observers using less than four-inch aperture.
The other part of my weekend observing program was double stars. Alan MacRobert and Sissy Haas both had articles in the April, 1997 _Sky_&_Telescope_, which included some doubles that I had not looked at. I made it a point to chase them down. The 98 mm Brandon had no trouble with any of them. I was particularly pleased to split iota Leonis in less than perfect conditions. This binary is a rather tough pair, of magnitudes 4.0 and 6.7, only 1.6 arc-seconds apart. It took 253x to do it, and lots of patience waiting for a moment of good seeing, but there it was. 81 Leonis, magnitudes 5.6 and 9.2, at 56 arc-seconds, was much easier. Haas suggests it requires six-inch aperture, but her estimate is too conservative.
To round out the weekend, I got several excellent naked-eye views of Comet Hale-Bopp, in both evening and morning sky. The place where I work has a long, narrow parking lot, which fortuitously points northwest, and provides an uncommonly good horizon for a suburban location; I could spot Hale-Bopp at about 6:50 PM local time on both Saturday and Sunday nights, clearly visible as non-stellar, pulling several degrees of tail in the 10x50 UltraView, all against the azure blue sky background of middle twilight. A bright comet indeed!