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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Buy A Real Telescope!

There are two kinds of people: those who own an astronomical telescope - and those who want to own one!

If you're of the 2nd variety, you may not own a telescope on the grounds, that, "they're, just too expensive!" Well, some telescopes ARE too expensive! - like those, situated beneath state-of-the-art observatory domes on the summits of Mauna Kea, and Mauna Loa, in the Hawaiian Islands. Now, THAT'S too expensive; for most of us, anyway.

Believe it or not - there are telescopes on the market, that actually approach the optical quality, and sizes, of some of those gems of the tropics. And, there are some that DON'T! And, it's the ones that don't - that are the, truly, expensive items! I will stay clear of those kinds of "powerful", "600X"-type "mockeries", except to give a brief overview and tell you where they can most likely be found.

Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector Telescope Kit.
Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector Telescope Kit.

Certain kinds of telescopes, or, maybe more accurately, items that LOOK like real telescopes, that are marketed using high, but, ambiguous numbers - are likely to have the overall construction, as well as, overall usefulness, of a high-priced "toy". Although there are some rare exceptions, any type of optical instrument sold by department stores, or other chain store outlets, is likely to consist, mostly, of hype - and disappointment. Don't buy one. I could write a short book on my reasons for telling you that (maybe I will!) - but, not here.

There. That's that! Now, let's look at real, astronomical optical instruments that are available for the non-rich, amateur astronomer, or anyone else who wishes to acquire a well-made optical instrument, for other purposes, as well (I understand that "other" purposes exist - but, I'm not familiar with any of them!)


Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope Kit.
Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope Kit.

This will be short, and sweet, mainly because I only know of one telescope manufacturer which meets all, of what, I consider, the most important criteria: quality, price, available accessories, reputation, and general knowledge of telescopes - based on my experience and familiarity them: Orion Telescopes and Binoculars of Cupertino, California.

Because of the necessity of variety, and of combinations of variety - much of it aimed at the more advanced, "intermediate" amateur astronomer - Orion carries many types of telescopes, and telescope 'packages', which, I cannot possibly give decent coverage to here, so, before I briefly go over a few of their more 'general-purpose' telescopes, I'll just mention that, they also carry instruments for the advanced amateur, as well as, professional astronomer.

I will note here - NEVER buy a telescope, based on advertisements of "power". I think that statement should be embossed on every telescope's packaging, just above, "DO NOT USE TO LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN". Any telescope, in theory, can provide high, even very high magnifications. That's not what you're interested in. Advertising a telescope by "power"-"magnification", is a marketing device. It's done, only because it can be, and it sounds so good. But, magnification is the least of your concerns; aperture - is a major concern. The cost is a close second.

Orion SkyQuest XX12g GoTo Truss Tube Dobsonian Telescope.
Orion SkyQuest XX12g GoTo Truss Tube Dobsonian Telescope.

There are a few, basic types of scopes: Refractors, Reflectors, and Cassegrainian, "folded" optics types. All of these come in a variety of aperture sizes. Refractors, typically, are in the smaller ranges, mainly because they are more expensive to make. Reflectors, come in small, medium, and large. Folded optics types, come in medium and large. My recommendation, for a beginner, is to purchase a reflector telescope of at least 4-4.5-inch aperture, but that's because I'm partial to reflectors and there, generally, larger apertures.

Here are three scopes from Orion, that I recommend for someone who has never before purchased a telescope, and/or, is a beginning-intermediate amateur astronomer. Prices are, as of their latest catalog.

  • StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector Telescope Kit: This is a 4.5-inch tabletop model, swivel-base, Dobsonian mounting, and is supplied with two eyepieces (for change of magnification) - 17mm and 6mm (26x and 75x, respectively). 0-power finder-scope. This model features an alt-azimuth dual-axis system for manual repositioning. Best suited for the beginner. Good for observing the moon, planets, and brighter deep-space objects.

  • Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope Kit: An 8-inch "floor" model-style, Dobsonian mounting. Comes with 2x Barlow lens (doubling mag. of the eyepieces): 35mm and 25mm (34x, 48x, 68x, and 96x w/Barlow) and 0-power finder-scope. This model features an alt-azimuth dual-axis system for manual repositioning. Best suited for, beginner-intermediate. Good for observing the moon, planets, and dimmer deep-space objects.

  • Orion SkyQuest XX12g GoTo Truss Tube Dobsonian: This telescope is my personal "dream-scope". 8-inch aperture, computerized "GoTo" drive mechanism. Laser-based finder-scope. This model features the GoTo computer-automated drive. Stepper-motors, on both axes, and a hand-held computer controller, allow automatic repositioning of the telescope, based on controller input (keyed or voice). Includes 28mm and 12.5mm eyepieces and 2x Barlow (54x, 108x, 120x, and 240x). Best suited for intermediate-advanced amateurs. Good for observing the moon, planets, and harder-to-reach deep-space objects, such as distant galaxies.

I could continue down the list, as, there are other models in all of the classes I've mentioned, with varying degrees of accessory inclusion. All of the models mentioned here will be very good for observing a variety of celestial objects. Orion carries an entire line of accessories, from extra eyepieces, solar filters, to planetary and deep-space digital CCD cameras and adapters. Your best bet, though, is to view their current, full catalog on-line, at telescope.com.

Unfortunately, they no longer provide a real, paper catalog! But, according to their associate, Rick, they will likely be back (as soon as people realize that, paper, is actually, a much faster, more intuitive browse than a screen!)

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Sunday, December 8, 2019

The 2019 Mercury Transit

Transits of Mercury occur more frequently than transits of Venus, but - the next Mercurian transit won't happen again, until November 13, 2032!

A transit of Mercury happens only 13-14 times per century, currently, either in May or in November. But the reasons for their occurrence - at all - rely on Keplerian orbital elements, that, is far too complex, to even begin to describe, here.

Map of where 2019 Mercury Transit was visible from.
Map of where 2019 Mercury Transit was visible from.

The last transit before the most current one occurred on May 9, 2016. A typical transit lasts several hours. I timed the 5+ hour transit of November 11th, using SkySafari 5, for Android.

The 2019 Mercury Transit imaged on an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a Celestron Eclipsmart Solar Filter and a Canon 70D. Location was from the Costa Esmeralda Panama Republic of Panama. Images by Luis Velasquez.
The 2019 Mercury Transit imaged on an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a Celestron Eclipsmart Solar Filter and a Canon 70D. Location was from the Costa Esmeralda Panama Republic of Panama. Images by Luis Velasquez.

According to that app, the transit began (from my location at Cape Cod), at 7:31:08 EST, and ended at 12:57:25 EST, with the third contact (the eastern limb of the planet making contact with Sun's Eastern limb), at 12:55:46 - a difference of 1.79 minutes. This brief interval demonstrates the small size of the planet, against the size of the Sun.


Video of the 2019 Mercury Transit through some clouds courtesy of Luis Velasquez.


Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Saturday, December 7, 2019

What's In The Sky - December 2019

December brings cold winter nights and some of the clearest skies of the year for many locations. Bundle up to keep warm and get outside for some holiday stargazing fun with equipment and accessories from Orion Telescopes and Binoculars!

Star Party Time

Thanks to the New Moon of December 26th, skies will be dark enough for nice views of distant deep-sky objects with a telescope, making it a great night for a holiday star party. Check out open cluster M45 (Pleiades), the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and the many gems within our namesake constellation Orion, including M42 the Orion Nebula, emission nebula M78, and the large emission patch NGC 2174/2175 also known as the Monkey Head nebula. If you have a 10" or larger aperture telescope with a Hydrogen-beta filter, take advantage of the New Moon to go after views of the elusive Horsehead Nebula located near Alnitak - the easternmost star of Orion's easily recognizable belt.

IC 434 or Barnard 33 - The Horsehead Nebula imaged on ATEO-1. Image processed by Muir Evenden.
IC 434 or Barnard 33 - The Horsehead Nebula imaged on ATEO-1. Image processed by Muir Evenden.

Geminids Meteors

One of the most famous meteor showers, the Geminids, will be most active on December 14th. This impressive shower is known to produce up to 120 multicolored meteors per hour at its peak. This year, the 4-day old moon will be rather bright, causing some interference at peak. While this shower can produce meteors nightly from December 4th through the 17th, the best chance to see a high concentration of meteors will be on the night of December 14th.

Best Binocular Targets 

While 50mm binoculars are good for December stargazing, bigger 70mm, 80mm, or larger binos will reveal brighter and better views of celestial gems, of which there are plenty to enjoy in December skies. The glorious open star cluster M45, also known as the Pleiades, will be nearly overhead in the constellation Perseus. A little more north and overhead you'll find the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), which really shines in big binoculars. Slightly to the northwest of M31, you'll see the beautiful Double Cluster of Perseus.

NGC 253 - The Sculptor or "Silver Dollar" Galaxy imaged on ATEO-3. Image processed by Franck Jobard.
NGC 253 - The Sculptor or "Silver Dollar" Galaxy imaged on ATEO-3. Image processed by Franck Jobard.

Best Telescope Targets 

All of the binocular targets listed above also make great telescope quarry, but December skies offer great opportunities to see objects that require a telescope too. First, slew your scope just a few degrees southwest of M31 to find M33, a distant face-on spiral galaxy that's about 2.5 million light-years (MLY) away from Earth. In the constellation Sculptor far to the south, try to find NGC 253, the impressive "silver dollar" galaxy. There's a swarm of other galaxies to see in the general area of NGC 253 - all part of the "Sculptor Group" of galaxies. Use a star chart or the Orion StarSeek app and hunt them down! In Pisces, look for M74, another face-on spiral galaxy like M33, but one that is almost 30 MLY farther away from us. Finally, check out NGC 1300, a classic barred spiral galaxy that is approximately 61 MLY away from Earth with a monster black-hole in its nucleus.

December Challenge

With a 10" or larger telescope from a dark sky site, try to track down the picturesque Horsehead Nebula near the eastern star of Orion's belt, which is named Alnitak. Using an Orion H-Beta Nebula Filter will improve your chances of seeing this faint absorption nebula.

All objects described above can easily be seen with the suggested equipment from a dark sky site, a viewing location some distance away from city lights where light pollution and when bright moonlight does not overpower the stars.
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