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Highlands Astronomical Society

Size Matters - Observing report

Size Matters - Observing report

Added on 19 April 2023


They say that size doesn't matter, but when it comes to telescopes that is just not true, size is everything. Well, maybe. It depends on a lot of variables, so let's take a look at a few.

First off, "the best telescope is the one you use the most often". Now that is true. A small and easily portable telescope is likely to get used a lot simply because you can just throw it in the back of the car or carry it out into the backyard and get started in a few minutes. I can personally testify to that and have had several big and unwieldy telescopes that have spent most of their life as a home to critters while languishing in a shed or cupboard under the stairs. Just very expensive door-stops.

Next is that you want to take photos with your telescope and here, a small, wide-field thing is what you want. Short exposure times and crisp, contrasting stars. As a beginner too, a small telescope is often inexpensive and affordable but gives you a taste of what is possible and doesn't break the bank before you know that this hobby is for you.

So there are lots of things in favour of a small telescope, but, and this is a BIG BUT, there are times when size and aperture trump everything and tonight was one of those times! Paul Moffat and I agreed to meet at the Culloden Observatory about 9pm for a look at the planets Venus and Mercury and maybe a few stars if it got dark enough later on.

The sky was clear like gin and as the cool Easterly breeze fell away to nothing the air was steady and the 'seeing' conditions were just amazing. Not too cold either, you could not have asked for a better night to see the stars. The planets showed themselves first as the twilight dwindled to a velvety dusk. Venus, a brilliant white beacon in the South-west sat perched above the peach and red after-glow of the sunset while Mercury was a faint yellow disk skimming the tree-tops of the Western horizon. High up in the sky, Mars was just visible too making its way Eastward through the constellation of Gemini. What a beautiful sight they made strung out across the zodiac; our nearest neighbours on their journey round the sun.

We had set-up our 'small' telescopes; Paul had a 4 inch ED refractor and I had a 4inch Vixen refractor ready to do some starwatching as the evening progressed and now as the light faded the first stars appeared. One by one the brightest stars of the spring constellations became visible; Vega, arcturus, capella, regulus and sinking in the last of the twilight, betelguse in orion. A tiny pipestrelle bat rode by silently, catching the few flies that remained before the chill of the evening sent them to wherever they go on a cold night. Now the dome of the heavens was laid out above us and the vastness of the abyss sparkled with a myriad of stars like diamonds scattered on a curtain of velvet. The air was bone-dry and mildly fragrant with the scents of spring as we set about looking for a few 'favourites' and one of the first that we looked at was M13 the huge 'globular' cluster in the constellation of Hercules. As we 'oo-ed and ah-ed' at this wonderous object I thought "wait a minute" what are we doing looking at this with a 4 inch telescope when there is a 12 inch telescope in the shed ?? !

So we dragged the great bulk of the 12 inch dobbin out into the yard and turned it to point at M13. Here is where 'size matters'! The air turned blue as we took turns to look at this awesome thing and I don't mean 'blue' visually, I mean with a constant stream of expletives! Pardon my French but WTF! this was like being in a Star-Trek film! If anyone lived out there on one of those stars and was waving at us, I swear we could have seen them. Awesome just does not go anywhere near what we saw; breath-taking, jaw-dropping, and, (running out of superlatives) yeah probably awesome would do it!

For the next few hours our little telescopes outside the compound spent the time alone. We were going on a tour of the universe with eyes the size of dinner-plates. We could see dark lanes in the sombrero galaxy (M104) and the same in the spindle galaxy (M102), the oval shape of the 'ring' nebula (M57), the eyes in the owl nebula (M97), spiral arms in the whirlpool galaxy (M51) and so much more it is hard to remember even though each thing we looked at had a profound effect on us.

We pointed it a Coma Berenices just at random and discovered our own 'deep-field' view of the huge host of galaxies that live there. They were everywhere you looked and any movement of the telescope produced more and more spectacular ones, way too many to name, some down to 12th magnitude at least. So it went on like this until after one in the morning when the Eastern sky was dominated by the summer triangle and we tried to find the Eastern veil nebula but here we were defeated as it was just too faint to be seen that low and in a bit of pale sky-glow.

After we had put everything away and locked up we just stood for a while and gazed up at sky as if we had just returned from an epic journey out there and were looking back at where we had come from. A few Lyrid meteors scudded across the dark blue sky to the south and "please" !!! will somebody stop the launch of satellites into orbit around our home! We saw more satellites than stars throughout the night. I don't remember ever having seen the sky so over-run with them. So, 'size matters' sometimes. Were it not for the fact that the big 12 inch is at the observatory and easily accessed we would not have had this wonderful experience; like I said earlier, the spiders and earwigs had more use from my old 12 inch telescope than I ever did.

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