The Little Scope That Could

Observing notes from the evening of Thursday, August 20, 1998 and Friday, August 21, 1998

After many hot and hazy nights, we finally got a cold front to move through. The clear blue skies in the afternoon signaled that there would be clear skies at night. And I was right. Thursday night greeted me with dark skies with glittering stars. Unfortunately, "glittering stars" means unstable skies, but I didn't really care. The fact that I could actually see the stars was enough to motivate me.

I set up my 80mm f/11 refractor on the deck. I was a little disappointed because I wanted to use a bigger scope. Unfortunately, my 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain and my 10" Newtonian are both "in the shop" for work. But I didn't despair. There's a lot in the night sky that can be seen with a small refractor. You would be amazed at what an 80mm, or even a 70mm or 60mm telescope can do. So, with my smallest telescope, I set about to do a little observing.

My first target of the evening was the globular cluster M4, located in Scorpius. This globular looks kind of sparse to me. Low power makes it seem like it has a bar of stars across the center. I didn't notice this as much with higher powers.

All of a sudden, a flash of light somewhere in Sagittarius caught my eye. I looked in that direction, but couldn't see anything. I went back to observing M4. Then it happened again. Upon looking closer, I notice a dim "star" moving east. As I followed it, it flashed bright again, then dimmed. This "star" was of course some satellite. I decided to track it with my scope (which is an alt-azimuth). It didn't take much for me to get the satellite in my low power eyepiece. But it was moving fast. I had to constantly turn my slow motion control knobs to keep up with it. All the while it was "pulsing". It was also getting dimmer. Just as it was about to visually disappear, I ran out of travel room with my mount. Through the scope it was still a pinpoint of light, but it was pretty neat to watch.

Back to the celestial wonders, I pointed my scope at the globular cluster M13, high in the sky in Hercules. This giant cluster can't help but impress people. It is easily resolved with hundreds of tiny stars filling the eyepiece. The 3D effect almost makes you feel as if you will fall into the sky.

At this point, a particular "noise of the night" startled me. There is always something moving around in the woods behind my house. The animals have varied. I've been visited by cats, dogs, deer, rabbits, foxes, raccoons, and opossums. Although I'm not fearful of the noises, I still like to know what's making them. Well this night I heard something moving around like usual. Then all of a sudden I heard something that sounds like a combination of a growl and something crunching! That was enough for me to go in the house and bring out the Maglite flashlight. With my electric torch in hand, I searched the perimeter of the woods but found nothing. The monster must have went back into hiding or something.

My next target of the night was Uranus. Using a star chart created with computer software, I star hopped my way over to the distant world. Located in the center of Capricorn, Uranus was actually quite easy to see. At magnitude 5.7, this gas giant is readily visible in my 6x30 finderscope. Through a low power eyepiece, Uranus has a pale green glow. With the power bumped up, Uranus presents a small disk, confirming that it is not a star.

I also located Neptune using the star hop method. About 10 degrees to the west of Uranus, Neptune is just inside the boundaries of Capricorn. At a magnitude of about 7.8, Neptune just was visible in my 6x30 finder. Through the low power eyepiece, Neptune glows with a pale blue color, but the color is not as evident as Uranus. In other words, the green color of Uranus really stands out to me but the blue color of Neptune is a lot less perceptible. It takes a lot of power to see the tiny disk of Neptune. After gazing at these remote planets of our solar system, I decided to call it a night.


On my way to bed on Friday night, I looked out my window and saw the cloudless sky. I could not resist. I got dressed and was back out on my deck with my little 80mm telescope for some more observing. Again, I was greeted with beautifully clear skies, sprinkled with thousands of stars. Friday's skies were a little more stable.

My first target of the night was the king of the planets, Jupiter. Located in Pisces, Jupiter is blazingly bright and easy to see. Through the scope I could easily see the two main equatorial belts and the four main moons, two on each side. With a little more scrutiny and power, I could see a few more belts in the northern and southern regions.

Since I was working with a small telescope, I decided to visit some of the easier to find Messier objects. The globular cluster M15, located in Pegasus, was my first one of the night. Through the 80mm refractor, M15 seems to have a stellar core. I pumped up the power but found it kind of hard to resolve. It did have a fuzzy look and averted vision brought in some of the stars.

Next up was the open cluster of M11, located in Scutum. The cluster has a condensed appearance to me. There is a bright star in the cluster, but off from the center. I wonder if this is a cluster member or a foreground star?

Next up on my observing run was M71, a globular cluster in Sagitta. Although M71 is kind of dim, it's easy to find because it is between two of the bright stars of the constellation. It looked like a sparse globular, and it was easy to resolve.

Moving about 4 degrees into the constellation of Vulpecula, I spied on the planetary nebula of M27, otherwise known as the Dumbbell nebula. This is a bright, large nebula that is easy to see even in a small refractor. At low powers it seems to have a rectangular shape. It had a grayish color. Using averted vision, I could see numerous tiny stars surrounding the perimeter of the nebular.

I then moved over to a neighboring constellation. Lyra contains the planetary nebula M57, also known as the Ring nebula. This nebula is very easy to find due to its location between the bottom two stars of the parallelogram asterism of the constellation. M57 of course looks like a ring. To me, it looks like a ghostly smoke ring, just floating among the stars. It almost seems out of place.

Next up was the star Epsilon-Lyra. Also known as the Double-Double star, this star system is a great object to observe. When you first glance at the star with low power, you immediately see that it is a double star, with a separation of about 3.5 minutes. They look identical to each other and remind me of headlights. But, if you push the power on up, you'll see that each of these stars are also double stars. On this night I found them easy to split. I think the separation is about 2.5 seconds on each pair.

I then decided to move over to my favorite double star in the sky, Albireo. Located in Cygnus, Albireo is a beautiful wide double with a separation of about 34 seconds. What makes this double so pretty is that the stars are of contrasting color. The brighter primary star is a gold color while the dimmer secondary star is a blue color.

Next up was an object back over into the constellation of Lyra. Located almost 4 degrees away from Albireo is the small globular cluster of M56. The cluster is kind of dim, but can be easily resolved into the tiny stars that create it.

Next up was a golden "star" just above my house top. Actually, this "star" was the planet Saturn. The ringed planet is currently residing in the constellation of Cetus (which is not in the Zodiac). Saturn never fails to impress anyone. Even low power readily reveals its ring system. I pumped up the power and could make out an equatorial belt running across the planet. I could also see the shadow of the rings on the planet and every now the and then the Cassini division in the rings would pop into view. I could see two or three moons but don't know which ones they were.

My last targets of the night were located in Andromeda. Who could spend a night stargazing without taking a look at M31, the Great Andromeda Galaxy? M31 looks like a large oval patch of light through the low power eyepiece. I really couldn't see too much detail. I saw a hint of the dust lane. The satellite galaxy of M32 was very easy to see. M32 is round and through the small scope looks like a fuzzy star. Moving just a slight distance away from M31, in the opposite direction of M32, I found the other satellite galaxy known as M110. M110 looks like a tiny, dim oval.

Although an 80mm refractor seems small when compared to a lot of the other telescopes out there, the observations on these two nights prove that it can be quite a useful instrument. I love it as a "grab and go" telescope. It's great on the Moon and planets and as you can see, on the brighter Messier objects too. When I see the beautiful views provided by my 80mm scope on nights like these, I truly realize that it is "the little scope that could".

Jeffrey L. Polston

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