Sunday, October 30, 2011

Observing the Moon with a 60mm Telescope

This article is part of a series on using and observing with a 60mm telescope, one of the most common of beginner telescopes. The information also applies to larger scopes, which can show more detail and find objects that are difficult with a 60mm scope more easily.

The 60mm scope can be a very rewarding scope to use, however, especially when getting started. They are compact, often inexpensive, even for quality scopes, and easy to use when well designed. They remain useful even when there are better scopes in the house because of their small size, light weight, and general ease of use.

I used a 60mm scope as my primary telescope for over 10 years. My first scope was a 60mm telescope, unfortunately mated to an extremely poor mount. I fought the mount for many years, if I had been less mule-headed I would have probably given up on astronomy. Fortunately, I finally decided to rebuild my mount using wood from my school's wood shop scrap bin. It looked awful, but held the scope on target and steady. The optics were actually pretty good, once they stayed where they were put.

Observing The Moon
A 60mm is enough scope to enjoy practically everything the Moon has to offer. The craters, valleys, walls, ridges and seas of the Moon will all stand out nicely at low to medium powers (25 to 150 powers). If your telescope has a clock or computer drive you will also be able to use higher powers on the Moon (150 to 250 powers). It is one of the few objects that is bright enough for high powers for a small telescope. But it will be a lot harder to get a sharp focus and to stay on your target at higher powers.

The best place to look on the Moon's surface for nice detail is near the dividing line between night and day on the Moon. This is where the contrast is the sharpest. Plus, you can see changes as time passes in these places. One of my favorite things to do is find a crater where the rim is in sun, but the floor is still in darkness. Sometimes, every so often, I can watch the Sun illuminate the central peak of a crater as I watch. It'll go from darkness to a sudden spot of light in the middle of the crater. Other times I'll look at an area, go look at other things elsewhere, then come back an hour or so to see if anything has changed in areas I've looked at earlier in the night.

Many parts of the Moon will be too bright to show much detail, or will be so bright in the telescope that it'll ruin your night vision. In this case the little Moon filters that come with many telescopes, designed to be fitted to the eyepiece, can be helpful in cutting the light down to a more tolerable level and help bring out some contrast. Unlike the little solar filters, these are safe to use. If a Moon filter didn't come with your telescope, there are many color and "neutral density" filters available that you can get inexpensively.

Neutral density filters are strictly "black and white" filters that cut down brightness without changing the colors of what you're looking at. They are my favorite for using on the Moon, especially when I'm looking for color on the Moon. One sort is a polarizing filter, which can be adjusted to different darkness levels. These are also useful for seeing cloud details on Venus, but they tend to be expensive.

Color filters also work well on the Moon. Darker colors often come in packs of different color filters that are commonly sold. About the only object these darker filters are useful on is the Moon. Dark red, orange, green, and yellow filters will each have a different effect.

Light color filters are nice for bringing out detail in areas of the Moon where there is some color in the soil. These colors are very faint, and the filter will eliminate the ability to see the colors directly, but they will bring out more detail of the surface in these areas.

Be careful of trying to take the magnification too high. It's tempting on the Moon, but more detail will actually be seen at moderate powers by relaxing (a couple of deep breaths are always good) and taking the time to let the subtle details of the image "sink in" as you view.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Observing the Sun and Planets with a 60mm Telescope

In What Can I See With a 60mm Telescope I gave brief lists of some of what you can observe with a 60mm telescope, with just the briefest of notes on hoow to do that observing. Now I'll cover some of the details of how best to observe the objects mentioned in this and subsequent articles.

First, the Sun and the planets. The Moon and the various deep sky objects are large enough subjects that I'll cover them by themselves elsewhere.


You can use both medium and low magnification on the planets when observing them. They are bright enough that even with a 60mm telescope you can enlarge the image with magnification and still see some detail where there's detail to be seen. Each planet observable with a 60mm scope is detailed below.

For a 60mm scope, low magnifications range from about 20 powers (or 20 diameters, if you prefer), to about 100 powers. Medium levels of magnification are the highest practical magnification levels for this size scope. A 60mm will not allow what is typically referred to as "high" power magnification. Medium powers run from about 100 powers to about 200 powers. Anything more in this size scope will result in such a loss of detail and contrast that you'd actually see more at lower powers.

If your scope has eyepieces that claim to give higher levels of magnification, take them out of your usual kit of stuff you take observing with you and set them aside for another telescope. You'll get the best views from your 60mm at magnifications from 40 to 120 powers, the scope is usable up to 150 powers or so, and can be used at up t0 200 powers if everything about the scope and the sky is perfect. Higher levels of magnification are theoretically possible, but are, in practice, show far less than lower powers.

In this size range of telescope, the mount is actually far more important than the optics of your scope. Most optics in this range are pretty good. The finest optics and best designed 60mm telescope will show far more, of course! But to show anything the mount must be able to hold the scope steady and on the object you've pointed it at.

Plus, to observe using higher powers (over about 120-150x), the mount will have to have either good slow motion controls or a clock or computer drive. Mounts without these will work perfectly well at the lower powers, my mount for my 60mm has no drive or slow motion controls.

First and foremost, though, the mount has to hold the scope still. It shouldn't slide down or up when locked in place. It shouldn't shift halfway across the sky when the position is locked in. It should be possible to thump the scope lightly and not have it move off target.

There are many 60mm telescopes sold with good mounts today. There are also very, very many sold with the awful mounts of yesteryear that frustrated the heck out of me. The best thing I ever did with my 60mm scope was build a new mount that actually held it in place. You can do even better, by getting a good mount that works well right from the start. If you can get one with either a drive mechanism or with slow motion controls, that's nice. If not, don't fret. You can do a lot of observation with even the simplest stable mount.

The Sun
The Sun is only safe to view if you have a solar filter that fits over the front of the telescope. The sort that goes on the eyepiece is not safe to observe with, they will overheat and crack. If somebody's eye is there when that happens, that eye will be blinded forever by the damage from the concentrated sunlight. I have literally had one of these filters crack just as I looked away from the eyepiece. Don't trust the little eyepiece sun filters, not even for a moment. If one came with your scope, throw it away before you are tempted to give it a try.

If you do have a proper filter, your scope will show you the surface of the Sun, including any sunspots visible on it. You can watch the sunspots move as the Sun turns. They are most interesting to watch as they appear and disappear at the edges of the Sun.

Rarely, either Mercury or Venus will pass between the Earth and the Sun. This is called a transit. Usually it can only be seen from a particular part of the Earth that's lined up right. But, if you have a properly outfitted 60mm telescope for solar observation, and you're in the right place at the right time with nothing blocking your view, you can observe a transit with your telescope.

More common is a solar eclipse, where the Moon passes between us and the Sun. A telescope fitted for solar observation can also be used to watch a solar eclipse close-up.

Mercury appears as a small orange-red disk in a 60mm telescope. It doesn't show any detail, but its color will change depending on the sky conditions you observe it under. It is always near the Sun, so it can only be observed near sunrise or sunset. Sometimes it can be seen during the daytime, but it is so close to the Sun that it's not really safe to observe without the chance of accidentally moving the telescope onto the Sun.

Venus appears as a small, bright, Moon-like object. It shows phases, and can be magnified to the limit of your scope's ability. Rarely, cloud detail can be viewed in a 60mm with a variable polarizer filter, though it usually takes a larger telescope to manage this.

The phases of Venus are quite distinct, looking just like phases of the Moon.

Venus can be observed safely in the daytime when it is far away from the Sun, at or near what is called "greatest elongation" which is astronomer-speak for farthest it gets from the Sun. Be very, very careful when locating it, however. Initially align your telescope without your eye at the eyepiece or the finder scope, using the shadows cast by the Sun to make sure that the scope isn't pointing at the Sun. Then, sweep away from the Sun, never toward it. If you need to go back closer to the Sun, take your eye away from the scope or the finder, move the scope while watching the shadows, don't put any body parts in line with the eyepiece (the Sunbeam that comes out of it will burn), better yet, cover the objective of the telescope when going back toward the Sun. Then again sweep away from the Sun.

When seen during the day, Venus looks like a little Moon as seen during the daytime.

Mars shows some surface detail, unlike Mercury and Venus. It will show light and dark areas at medium power. A polar cap is visible, especially when the position of Mars and its season is right, when the polar cap may cover about 1/4 of the visible planet's disk. Mars has an especially nice display about once every two years, when it is closest to the Earth.

Its two moons are too small to be seen, even in much larger telescopes, so don't expect to find them. If you see something nearby, it's likely a background star, or possibly an asteroid if it appears to move rapidly with respect to Mars (rapidly meaning about as fast as a clock's hand!)

Color filters can bring out subtle detail in Mars' surface when Earth is close enough to make Mars look its largest (it never, never gets as large as the Moon, however! That's just an internet myth.) Light colored filters work the best, I use very light yellow and blue filters, and occasionally a very light orange filter, to bring out details of light and dark areas on the surface of Mars at about 200-250 powers when everything--sky, mount, telescope, my eyes--are at their best.

Ceres and the Bright Asteroids
About a dozen asteroids are visible to a 60mm scope in any given year. Finder charts for them are online and in the major astronomy magazines and their annual supplements. None of them shows the form of a disk, they all appear as stars, at best.

They are most interesting to observe when you can watch them from night to night, seeing the movement of the "star" relative to the other stars near it.

Rarely, there will be an asteroid that is rotating at a rate that makes it brightness change as you watch. These are incredibly interesting to see, as it is so rare, and such a clear sign that that "star" is not like the others.

Jupiter is one of the things that your 60mm scope was built to view. It is a showpiece for your scope. It's what you show visitors so that they can say, "Wow," when they look through your scope.

Jupiter will show bands in its atmosphere, even at low powers. If the Great Red Spot isn't busy blending in with its background, it will be visible at the highest powers your scope can achieve (sometimes it's more visible than others.) It was very obvious back in the 1970s and 1980s, but then it began to dim and fade in with the cloud belt it is in. Now it is becoming somewhat more visible again. Hopefully it will continue to do so. Back in the 1970s it looked like a great big cherry, standing out clearly from its cloud belt even in a 60mm scope.

Larger scopes often have to block off some of the excess light from Jupiter when it is at it brightest. You are unlikely to have that problem with a 60mm. You should be able to see at least two dark bands, one above and one below, as well as the dark areas at each pole easily. That makes seven stripes (four dark, three light) that you should be able to see, even with so-so optics. Fine, high quality optics show far more, including far more detail within each of the bands such as veils, columns, rifts, bays, garlands, tails, festoons, and numerous other features. This is why people pay more for better optics, even in small scopes.

Jupiter's Moons
The four Galilean Moons will be easily visible through the 60mm scope. They will appear as small stars in line with Jupiter's equator. Occasionally, their shadows can be seen on Jupiter's surface, or they can be seen to cross in front of Jupiter if you have good optics. Their movement changes noticeably over the course of an evening, but if you just sit and watch them it's like watching the hour hand move, so memorize where they are, go look at something else, then come back for another look later.

Saturn is probably the best object to see in your 60mm telescope. My wife still tells the story of how she "discovered" Saturn in her 60mm telescope when she was young.

The planet is bright, the rings are easy to see at 40x and higher. Careful observation with a relaxed eye will show bands in the atmosphere of the Saturn. The angle of the rings varies over time. When the rings are "open", that is, tilted at a higher angle and not edge-on, the Cassini division is visible in the rings. Better optics will show other divisions and more detail in the rings.

The moon Titan shows easily in all 60mm scopes. It appears as a bright star near Saturn. Four, and possibly as many as six, other moons will be visible. Seeing all seven moons that are possible with the 60mm requires absolutely perfect conditions and the highest quality optics. Normally, Titan will be easy, and two to four other moons will be visible with varying levels of difficulty.

Uranus appears as a small disk, often with a faint greenish color to it when it is at its brightest. None of its moons are visible, nor are any details of its surface. Low powers show it the best, and throwing the image slightly out of focus may reveal color when none is visible otherwise.

Neptune appears as a very small disk at the higher powers for your scope. When at its brightest, it may show a slight blue color. No detail is visible on the disk. This is a challenging object to observe with a 60mm scope, it is often very hard to tell Neptune from nearby stars. No moons are visible.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What Can I See With a 60mm Telescope?

60mm telescopes are among the most common and most popular. They are inexpensive, generally, don't take up too much space, and easy to come by. Most of them have optics that range from decent to good, with a few very good models out there. 60mm is enough light gathering power to enjoy a lot of different objects in the sky.

I used a 60mm scope as my main telescope for over 10 years before "moving up" to a 75mm reflector. During that time I learned how to get the most out of my telescope as my abilities advanced and I learned both more about the sky and more about using a telescope. My wife still owns a 60mm telescope, and though our household has many larger scopes, it still comes out to the front yard or back porch on occasion for casual observing sessions. It's light, easy to use, and enough telescope for many objects in the sky.

The thing that holds a lot of these smaller scopes back, especially at the low end of the price range, are poor mounts. But, if you can put your scope on target and get it to stay there, here are some of the sights you can expect to enjoy with your 60mm (2.4 inch) telescope.

In this article I'll be covering a brief list of what you can see with a 60mm telescope, which may be far more than you'd expect for such a modest aperture. There are a few objects that are downright magnificent, even with such a small scope. These are the brighter objects, where the mere 60mm of light collecting power is not a disadvantage. Most objects will have much more subtle detail, however, and will require more patience at the eyepiece to appreciate fully.

There are also objects that the challenge of observing them at all in such a small instrument is part of the fun. Collecting star clusters, globular clusters, or galaxies observed in a 60mm telescope can be a rewarding occupation all on its own. Plus, if you have the opportunity to use a larger telescope, you are already skilled at finding challenging objects, and can see your old friends with far greater detail.

Here are some of the things you can see with a 60mm telescope. Subsequent articles go into more detail about observing each of the different types of objects with your small scope. These objects are also good in larger telescopes that gather more light. They'll usually be easier to locate and will show more detail in larger scopes.

The Moon
Craters, mountains, seas, rifts, valleys, searching for colored areas on the Moon. The 60mm scope turns the Moon from a bright object in the sky into a world whose terrain you can explore.

The Sun
Use only a full-aperture filter over the front of the telescope. Never use one of the little eyepiece solar filters! You can observe sunspots, transits when they occur, and eclipses.

The Planets
Mercury, Venus, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, the Galilean Moons of Jupiter, Saturn and its rings, Titan and four other moons of Saturn (possibly as many as seven moons total under perfect conditions!), Uranus, Neptune. Jupiter and Saturn are two of the finest showpieces in the sky for the 60mm scope.

Saturn and its rings

Other Solar System Objects
Typically about a dozen asteroids will be bright enough on any given year to be seen with a 60mm telescope. Also, usually two or three comets appear that can be seen, sometimes more.

The Stars
Stars are the forte of the 60mm telescope aside from the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. In particular, double and triple stars and the brighter, tighter star clusters. Mizar and Alcor in the Big Dipper make a good start for northern hemisphere observers, then zooming in on Mizar to see both Mizar and its companion, Mizar B. Just to the south of Alcor and Mizar lays double star Cor Caroli in the Hunting Dogs. Leo contains several nice double stars for observers in both hemispheres, and there are many, many more spread throughout the sky.

When observing individual stars and double stars you will be able to take your telescope to its highest practical magnification levels, about 150 to 200 powers if you have a good mount and either a clock drive or good slow motion controls on an equatorial mount. Otherwise, you will still get plenty of good observing at magnifications of about 50-100 powers. More on this is later articles.

Colored Stars
Most stars appear pretty well white. But some have a distinctive color. Herschel's Garnet Star in The Charioteer is a star that shows its color most strongly in small telescopes. In larger scopes the color begins to "wash out". It is a bright red in a small scope, becomes amber in a larger scope, and finally a watery yellow in the largest amateur telescopes. The double star Albireo in The Swan is a pair of stars of differing colors, each one setting off the color of the other, one yellow, one blue. The Red White and Blue triplet in The Swan is another close group where the color of each sets off the colors of the others. There are many nice colored stars in many constellations.

Star Clusters
When observing star clusters you will usually want to view with the lowest possible magnifications for your telescope to see as much of the sky at once as you possibly can. Many 60mm telescopes come with eyepieces that give far too much magnification for the aperture of the scope, but they don't come with eyepieces that allow the scope to work at the incredibly useful low levels of magnification they are capable of. Eyepieces of 35mm and 42mm and thereabouts make great "sky sweeping" eyepieces, and are the sort of thing you want for most "deep sky" objects.

There are many star clusters you can enjoy with the 60mm telescope. Some are too large to see all at once but can be "swept" to be enjoyed. There are two basic types of star cluster. The "open" cluster and the "globular" cluster. The globular cluster looks like a globe of stars. Open clusters vary from ones that look almost exactly like globulars to loose groups of stars that are near each other.

Here are some you can see in your 60mm:
Double Cluster in Perseus, M13 the Great Hercules Cluster, M103, M7, M6, M39, M22 the Arkenstone, M70, M54, NGC 6242, NGC 6281, M80, M4, M2, M5, NGC 6231, M45 The Seven Sisters, M11, M17, M62, M55, M28, M54, M69, M75, M26, NGC 6664, NGC 6712, NGC 6649, and many more. If that sounds like a lot of gobblety-gook, it's because I've mostly just given the "short" name of the cluster, which is a catalog number. Most of these are from the Messier catalog (the M numbers), a great list of objects to observe with a small telescope.

Deep Sky Objects
Star clusters are one type of "deep sky object", which is basically anything that isn't a solar system object or an individual star or star system (in the case of double, triple, and other multiple star systems.) You can see galaxies, nebulas (space clouds) and other things with your 60mm as well.

M31, M110, M32, M33, M65, M66, M51, M101, M108, M109.

Planetary nebulas are roundish clouds of dust and gas thrown off by some stars:
M27 The Dumbbell Nebula, NGC 40, NGC 246, NGC 1535, NGC 2392 The Eskimo Nebula, NGC 3132, NGC 3242, NGC 6210, NGC 6543, NGC 6572, NGC 6826, NGC 7009 The Saturn Nebula, NGC 7662, M57 The Ring Nebula.

Other nebula don't have any particular type of shape:
North America Nebula, Pelican Nebula, The Great Orion Nebula, M8 The Lagoon Nebula, M20 The Trifid Nebula, Rho Ophiuschi, NGC 6334, and many more, particularly near the Milky Way.

Dark nebulas are dark clouds of gas and dust that are often outlined by bright objects behind them. There is a dark nebulosity about 2 degrees south of M62, Barnard 86 is a dark nebula in The Archer in the Milky Way. There are many others, in Orion and elsewhere, that you can see.

Star clouds are areas of our own galaxy that are especially rich in stars. They are too large to be seen all at once through the scope, but they make impressive areas of the sky to sweep through with the 60mm telescope. M11 The Scutum Star Cloud, in The Shield, is the largest and most impressive but sweeping along the length of the Milky Way at the lowest power possible will turn up many areas where your view will be filled with countless stars.

In future articles I'll give more details and tips on observing these different types of objects with the small telescope. If you've got a larger scope than 60mm, remember, you can see these objects, too, and in more detail.