Stargazing on a Budget
Above you see an image of one of my favorite telescopes, my 60x1000mm Carton refractor. Yes, that is a Homemade Pipe Fitting Mount you see holding the telescope. Click on the link to see how to make your own.
What brings me to this post is the experience I had most recently with this particular telescope. An experience that reminded my of why I enjoy it so much.
I have telescopes ranging from a 2 inch refractor to a 6 inch reflector. I have different types, like a few small refractors, a small Maksutov, a 5 inch SCT, and a couple of 6 inch Newtonians. Each type has it’s own characteristics, and I really enjoy setting up a couple at a time for comparison.
But one consequence of comparing telescopes is that you find yourself very busy in the mechanics of observing, like locating the same object in each instrument, adjusting magnification in each to be comparable, and straining to see tiny details or the dimmest stars in the compared views.
What you don’t tend to get out of that experience is the simple enjoyment of viewing each target in a relaxed setting. And nothing is more relaxing than the simplicity and convenience of a 60mm refractor.
I Love My Refractor Gifts
For me, that usually means grabbing one of my two 60mm refractors or my Vixen 70mm. I have a 700mm focal length resuscitated Monolux, a slapped together from available parts 1000mm focal length Carton, and a 70mm Vixen A70lf telescope of 900mm focal length. By Carton, I mean the telescope has an objective lens made by Carton. See for yourself the simple construction of the Carton Telescope.
In case you feel at this moment that there is madness in thinking one can enjoy star gazing with a mere 60mm telescope, I challenge you to read on.
A Wonderful Madness
Take a night awhile back as a case in point. In only an hour and a half or so of observing with my 60x1000mm Carton, I observed Jupiter and a host of Messier objects, plus a couple of nice double stars. The Messier I observed were open clusters M46, M48, M35, M36, M37, and M38.
I also observed the M3 globular cluster, the M42 Orion nebula, and galaxies M81 and M82. I could just get both of the galaxies in my field of view when using a 25mm focal length Plossl eyepiece. I also took a peek at M45, the Pleiades. With the 1000mm focal length of the Carton, the field of view didn’t quite span the extent of the beautiful Pleiades, but the 700mm focal length Monolux can, and delivers a fantastic view of the sparkling stars of the Pleiades.
Now that’s not a bad evening, especially considering that a great deal of that time was spent in watching Jupiter and 3 of its moons. Ganymede and Io were approaching Jupiter from one side, while Europa was approaching from the other. I hadn’t checked my almanac that evening, so I wasn’t sure from which side of approach the moons would cross in front of the planet, and from which side the moons would disappear behind the planet.
So I spent considerable time watching what turned out to be Io and Europa inching closer and closer to the planet. I knew that if I waited long enough, one or the other would pass behind of the planet while the other passed in front, making a shadow that I thought I’d be able to see with my 60mm.
I have seen Io’s shadow with a 60mm before, so I was pretty confident in my instrument. But, as it happened, the shadow was going to become visible too late, and I’d already promised my spouse I’d come in and watch a mystery movie on TV.
So how did the Messier look through my modest 60mm?
All of the open clusters, the Pleiades, and the Orion nebula were very enjoyable views. M3 was clearly visible as a dense, small cloud. The M81 and M82 galaxies were the toughest targets for the 60mm. They were easy to see, but appeared as ghostly objects. Still, I could tell that one was a fat elliptical object, and the other a very thin (edge on) elliptical object.
How do I find the star targets?
As the above image illustrates, I’ve added setting circles to my simple pipe-fitting mount. With the setting circles, all I need now is my cell phone, and I can find any Messier, Caldwell, or Herschel 400 object that is currently up and within grasp of my telescope.
Star Pointer Web Utility
Some Good Reasons To Use A 60MM
Here’s a list of my reasons that I think justify use of such a modest instrument. The list is predicated on two things: that the telescope is of good quality, and that it is solidly mounted. Does that mean you need a $600 telescope and a $300 mount?
You can use a vintage 60mm from the past, typically available on Ebay for maybe $150, or at a garage sale for considerably less. Tune it up a bit, and you’ll find that those old 60mm telescopes were no kids’ toys.
And you can either stiffen up the mount the telescope came with, or make a Pipe Fitting Mount as I did for only tens of dollars. And that pipe mount will be the most solid tripod you’ll likely ever experience. Mine is made with 2 inch diameter pipe with polished and lubricated threads on the turning axes. You can find instructions on the link.
With that size pipe, a telescope balanced in its cradle lets me just point the telescope and look. I don’t need set screws or slow motion controls. A light tap on the telescope will move it a few arc-seconds to adjust the target position, and the vibrations damp out immediately. I can focus without causing any vibrations — the only telescope I have, commercial or otherwise, that’s rock solid enough to let me focus without inducing vibrations.
I use a “push to” method for locating objects. The starpointer web utility displays all of the up objects in a list I can use for choosing a target. If you aren’t interested in using the starpointer utility, you can alternatively use a laptop and something like Xephem or Stellarium to give the same data.
Since the pipe mount has setting circles on it, I just move the telescope to the selected target’s coordinates, and if I’ve done a decent alignment of the telescope, the object will be somewhere in the field of view.
What does the alignment procedure consist of? Even that is simple. I level the base, which has two of the three feet made from threaded bolts. Turning one or both of the bolt-feet makes leveling easy. Then I point the telescope to Polaris and turn the azimuth wheel to read zero — done!
The Starpointer utility on my cell phone will list all currently up targets for my selected catalog, so I can look up the current coordinates just by finding the object of interest in the list. The list is in Right Ascension order, starting from the Southwest. That way, the objects that might set soon are at the top of the list. That also makes the change of position from one target to the next in the list a small amount of movement for the telescope.
Once I’ve obtained a target’s azimuth and elevation data, I just move the telescope to the indicated angles. With the heavy-duty pipe tripod, there’s no need for clamps or slow motion controls — it couldn’t be easier.
Oh, and did I mention that a 60mm refractor can be producing great images within only a few minutes after setup? No need for an hour or two cool down. By the time I level my tripod and align on Polaris, I’m ready to start observing.
One more advantage of the 60mm size telescopes is portability. The telescope and tripod, even my pipe mounting one, can be left assembled and moved around without any disassembling. Mine sits ready for action in my shop. Of course, I keep the telescope tube ends covered when it’s not in use.
So there you have it, the 60mm is:
1) Quick to set up.
2) Reaches thermal stability quickly.
3) Alignment is easy.
4) Push to makes finding objects quick (or star hop if you prefer).
5) Rock steady views with a very simple mount.
Okay, it’s convenient. But Can You See Anything?
You can see a great deal. Nearly all of the Messier (some say all) can be seen with a 60mm, if you have a reasonably dark viewing site. Granted, the galaxies are dim, but most are visible. And the star clusters are great. A good deal of the Herschel 400 and Caldwell catalogs are also in reach, though many of the Herschel 400 objects will be too dim.
There are many double stars that 60mm refractors can do wonders with. And cloud bands on Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, the phases of Venus, and even some details on Mars can be seen. There’s always a couple of Saturn’s moons that are just visible, and of course you can see the Galilean moons of Jupiter.
On a clear evening, Jupiter, for example, can reveal some tantalizing details. The image above was taken through my 60mm Carton using a Celestron NexImage webcam. Actually, you can often see more detail than is captured in this image, though in a 60mm the colors don’t show up visually as in this image.
Do you notice anything unusual about the Jupiter photograph? The SEB (South Equatorial Belt) is missing! This photo was taken in 2010, when the mysterious SEB did it’s occasional disappearing act. It’s back now, so don’t despair. But just note that the disappearance and reappearance of the enigmatic SEB was quite visible through a 60mm telescope.
And the moon! Eat your heart out. The image above was taken of the Plato region (one of my favorites), using my Celestron NexImage webcam and my 60mm Carton refractor. The individual mountain peaks Piton and Pico are easily visible, as well as is the Alpine Valley.
Imagine trolling over the moon at such detail. You can, with just a decent 60mm refractor on a solid telescope mount.
The moon through a 60mm shows a wealth of detail. And each time you go out to look, the sun is illuminating the moon at a different angle, leading to different details.
This image of Tycho, also taken with the NexImage and my 60mm Carton refractor, shows one face of Tycho. At this sun angle, the internal structure of Tycho is revealed, showing a large and small mountain peak at the crater’s center. Not bad detail for a 60mm. But during a full moon, the fantastic ray system of Tycho dominates instead of the intricate details shown here.
Here’s yet another area of the moon taken with a 60mm telescope. Notice the Straight Wall at the lower right of the picture. Also you can see a lot of detail in the craters that dominate the image.
Additional photos taken through my 60mm Carton can be found at my 60mm Astrophotos webpage.
So don’t let anyone tell you that your 60mm telescope is useless. That’s true only if the telescope sits in a closet all the time. Get it onto a good mount, obtain a few decent eyepieces, and it is anything but useless. While I don’t use a 60mm all the time, as I have some larger telescopes, it’s certainly the quickest scope to set up that I have, and additionally the easiest to use.