How Thick Are the Coatings on the Mirrors We Aluminize?

At the NCA ATM class at the CCCC, we are the fortunate inheritors of a 1960s-era vacuum chamber and aluminizer that was twice given away as surplus (first by the Federal Government or US military, and then later by American University), but which still works.

Much of the credit should be given to Dr. Bill Pala, who snagged it for AU from the US surplus system; the late Bob Bolster and Jerry Schnall, who together ran it for a long time; Dr. John Hryniewicz; Alan Tarica; and several others whose names unforotunately escape me at the moment but who have given excellent advice on repair and maintenance and even provided replacement parts.

Here are four photos of the rig, followed by two of our finished mirrors.



The question came up: (1) how thick are the coatings we generally put on our mirrors, and (2) how efficient is it — that is, of the aluminum that we vaporize, how much of it actually lands on the mirror?

Thankfully, John H actually measured how thick the coatings are as we coated a mirror. He found that the average thickness is about 93.4 nanometers (billionths of a meter, or thousandths of a micrometer, or millionths of a millimeter), and that the coatings looked like this when blown up sufficiently: ”

 I have attached some scanning electron micrographs of the top of the film.  The grain structure is very fine, you can compare the size with the scale bar at the bottom that shows you the length of the total bar (10 ticks, between each pair of ticks is 1/10 of that number).  There are some particles or perhaps larger grains on top.  They are still very submicron, a couple of tenths at most.

The way the mirrors get coated is basically three steps:

(1) We get the mirror very, very clean, using both with a special detergent (Alconox) bbefore it goes into the vacuum chamber, and high-energy electron bombardment while the pumps are working;

(2) We get the pressure in the chamber very, very low, so that there are relatively few air molecules or atoms between a coiled tungsten filament and the mirror. (We get the pressure down to somewhere in the range of 7*10^-5 to 4*10^-4 Torr, depending on which gauge you believe. This is quite low indeed – roughly the air pressure at the altitude of the International Space Station; this is needed so that the aluminum atoms won’t tend to bounce of the molecules of nitrogen and oxygen and lose their energy.

(3) We melt, and then boil off, a small quantity of pure aluminum from the filament, which goes off in all directions, fairly evenly; the Al atoms that happen to be going in the right direction ashere to the mirror. There, they form a very even, reflective layer.

You may wonder, how do we prevent this layer of aluminum from oxidizing once it comes back into contact with the normal atmosphere? Answer: we don’t. Aluminum oxide is the main component of rubies, sapphires, and corundum, which are very hard. Since the stuff we deposit is relatively pure, it doesn’t have the red or blue color of those pretty and precious gems, and it is transparent, so it forms a hard, transparent, protective layer all by itself. If your coating tarnishes or gets extremely dirty, the aluminum-and-gunk layer is pretty easy to remove with a little bit of hydrochloric acid mixed with copper sulfate. Then you clean it off and re-aluminize.

(Yes, commercial labs do overcoat their mirrors with stuff like Silicon Monoxide and Silicon Dioxide (aka quartz), but we haven’t collectively figured out how to do that with our minimal budget.)

So, again: how efficient is it? What percentage of the atoms of aluminum headed to the mirror, actually adhere to the mirror?

To answer this, it helps to pretend that the filament is at the center of an imaginary sphere, shown below, and that the mirror (facing down, towards the mirror) happens to be at the top of this sphere. Recall that to a good approximation, the aluminum that evaporates off of the coil goes in all directions, i.e., it coats this entire imaginary sphere equally – or it would, if there wasn’t all sorts of pipes and wires and glass bell jars in the way.

The filament and aluminum is located at the center of this sphere.

I measured the distance from the filament to the mirror, and found that it’s just about 20 inches, or roughly 500 millimeters. Archimedes figured out long ago that the surface area of a sphere is equal to four times the area of any circle contained in the sphere, or 4*pi*r^2 in our current notation. So that imaginary sphere, on which the aluminum is deposited, has an area of about 3.1 or 3.2 million square millimeters.

imaginary sphere for aluminization

We currently use slugs of aluminum that are about 15 mm long (give or take a couple of mm) and cut (not at right angles, because the pliers won’t do that) from wire with a diameter of 5 mm (radius 2.5 mm). If we pretend the slugs are cylinders then the math is much easier: we can use the formula pi*r^2*h to get a volume of about 295 cubic millimeters, and we will pretend that all of the aluminum boils off (and none of it sticks like glue to the tungsten) and goes equally in all directions. (Probably not the case, but in practice it doesn’t seem to matter much.)

Now if we divide the 295 mm^3 of aluminum by the total surface area, 3.2 million mm^2, we get the average thickness. I get a result of about 9.1*10^-5 mm, which converts to 91 nanometers. Which is very close to the result that John H found.

On the other hand, most of that aluminum is wasted, because it’s NOT aimed at the mirror. If you have an 8-inch diameter mirror (about 20 cm diameter or 100 mm radius), its area is 10,000*pi square millimeters, or about 31,000 mm^2 – and that’s only one percent of the area of the entire imaginary sphere.

Oh, well, aluminum wire is quite cheap.




Difficulties in Using the Matching Ronchi Test on a 12″ Cassegrain Mirror


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The other regulars and I at the DC ATM group at the CCCC have been trying to test a 12 inch Cassegrain mirror and telescope manufactured nearly 50 years ago by a company called Ealing and currently owned by the Hopewell Observatory, of which I am a member. It hasn’t been easy. I discussed this earlier on Cloudy Nights.

Reports from several people, including Gary Hand and the late Bob Bolster, indicated that the optics on this mirror weren’t good at all. Apparently the folks at the University of Maryland’s observatory were sufficiently unhappy with it that they either sold it or gave it to National Capital Astronomers, a local astronomy club, who in turn gave it or sold it to Hopewell Observatory.

With a plain-vanilla Ronchi test, we could see that the mirror was very smooth and continuous, with no turned edge, astigmatism, or bad zones. With the Foucault/Couder zonal test (aka “Foucault” test) , I got results indicating that it was seriously overcorrected: some sort of hyperboloid, rather than the standard paraboloid characteristic of classical Cassegrain telescopes, which have a parabolic primary mirror and a hyperbolic secondary mirror.

However, I have begun losing my faith in my zonal readings, because they often seem to give results that are way out of whack compared to other testing methods.

So we decided to do some additional tests: the Double-Pass Auto-Collimation (DPACT) test used by Dick Parker, as well as the Matching Ronchi test (MRT).

The DPACT is very fiddly and exacting in its setup. We used (and modified) the setup lent to us by Jim Crowley and illustrated by him at his Astro Bananas website. Our results seem to show that the mirror is in fact NOT parabolic, rather, overcorrected, which confirms my Foucault measurements. If it were a perfect paraboloid, then the ronchi lines would be perfectly straight, but they definitely are NOT: they curve one way when inside the focal point, and curve the other when the tester is outside the focal point.

We also tested the entire setup on a radio tower that was about half a mile (~1km) distant. We found that the images were somewhat blurry no matter what we did.

We also attempted the MRT on the same mirror. However, requires very accurate photography and cutting-and-pasting skills in some sort of graphics programs. What you are inspecting is the curvature of the Ronchi lines. Here is the result that Alan T and I got last night:

matching ronchi for 12 inch cass

In black is the ideal ronchigram for this mirror, according to Mel Bartels’ website. The colored picture is the one we made with either my cell phone or the device I finished making earlier this week, shown in my previous post. Here are the two images, separated rather than superimposed:


ideal ronchigram 12 inch cass ealing

The mirror’s focal length is 47.5″ and the grating has 100 lines per inch, shown somewhat outside of the radius of curvature. The little ‘eyelash’ on the lower left is simply a stray wire that was in the way, and doesn’t affect the image at all. The big hole in the middle is there because the mirror is a cassegrain.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really see any differences between the real mirror and the theoretical mirror. Do you?


So, what does this all mean?

  • One possibility is that the mirror is in fact perfectly parabolic (as apparently shown by the MRT, but contrary to what I found with Foucault and DPACT) but there is something wrong with the convex, hyperbolic secondary.
  • Another possibility is that the mirror is in fact NOT parabolic, but hyperbolic, as shown by both my Foucault measurements and the DPACT (and contrary to the MRT), which would mean that this telescope was in fact closer to a Ritchey-Chretien; however, since it was marketed as a classical Cassegrain, then the (supposedly) hyperbolic secondary was in fact not tuned correctly to the primary.
  • The answer is left as an exercise for the reader.
  • A star test would be the best answer, but that would require being able to see a star. That hasn’t happened in these parts for quite some time. In addition, it would require an eyepiece holder and a mount of some sort. Or else setting up an indoor star…

Latest Ronchi or Knife-Edge Tester for Mirrors and Other Optics Using a WebCam


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Here is the latest incarnation of my webcam Ronchi and knife edge (or Foucault) tester. It’s taken quite a few iterations to get here, including removing all the unnecessary parts of the webcam. I attach a still photo and a short video. The setup does quite a nice job of allowing everybody to see what is happening. The only problem is setting the gain, focus, exposure, brightness, color balance, contrast, and so on in such a way that what you see on the screen resembles in any way what your eye can see quite easily.


Observe the Stars at Lake Artemisia Natural Area, September 30


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On September 30, members of the public will have the opportunity to observe several planets, the moon, and other heavenly objects through some telescopes to be provided by local amateur astronomers, including members of NCA and NOVAC, at the lovely Lake Artemisia Natural Area in Berwyn Heights, MD.

The location has a wide open southern horizon over the lake, and is surprisingly well-shielded from lights from local highways and shopping centers. The address is

Lake Artemesia Natural Area, Berwyn Road and 55th Avenue, Berwyn HeightsMD 20740

Park Contact numbers are: 301-627-7755  or TTY: 301-699-2544

Normally this park closes at sunset, but it will remain open for this event, which is scheduled for 7:00 (just about sunset) to 11:00 pm (just after moonrise) on Sunday evening, September 30. The event is free. I’ve attached a couple of maps. Please note that Berwyn Road dead-ends at the Metro rail lines.


We should be able to see Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and the rising Moon, if weather permits. Volunteers with telescopes would be appreciated!

Math – How Come We Forget So Much of What We Learned in School?


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This was a question on  Quora. Here is an answer I wrote:

In the US, judging strictly on what I’ve seen from my time in the classroom as both a student, a teacher, and a visiting mentor of other math teachers, I find that math and science was very often taught as sort of cookbook recipes without any real depth of understanding. The recent National Council of Teachers of Mathematics prescriptions have attempted to correct that, but results have been mixed, and the Common Core has ironically fostered a weird mix of conceptual math marred by teachers being *OBLIGATED* to follow a script, word-for-word, if they want to remain employed. Obviously, if students are really trying to understand WHY a certain mathematical or scientific thing/fact/theorem/theory/law is true, they are going to have questions, and it’s obviously the teacher’s job to figure out how best to answer said questions — which are not likely to have pre-formulated scripts to follow in case they come up — and which are going to take time.

Another thing that is true is that not everything in mathematics has real-world applications in every single person’s life. I taught a good bit of computer programming (aka ‘coding’ today), geometry, arithmetic, probability, algebra, statistics, and conic sections, and in fact I use a LOT of that every week fabricating telescope mirrors to amazing levels of precision, by hand, not for a living, but because I find telescope-making to be a lot of fun and good mental, aesthetic, manual, and physical exercise. But I’m a pretty rare exception!

Most people obviously don’t dabble in math and physics and optics like I do, nor should they!

In fact, I have made it a point to ask professional scientists and engineers that I meet if they actually use, on their jobs, all the calculus that they learned back in HS and college. So far, I think my count is several dozen “Noes” and only one definite “Yes” – and the latter was an actual rocket scientist / engineer and MIT grad and pro-am astronomer (and wonderful, funny, smart person) who deals/dealt with orbital rocket trajectories. (IIRC).

In France, when I went to school there 50 years ago and in my experience tutoring some kids at the fully-French Lycee Rochambeau near Washington, DC, is that they go very deeply into various topics in math, and the sequence of topics is very carefully thought out for each year for each kid in the entire nation (with varying levels of depth depending on what sort of track that the students elected to go into (say, languages/literature, pure math, or applied sciences, etc), but the kids were essentially obligated to accept certain ideas as factual givens and then work out more and more difficult problems that dealt with those particular givens. No questions allowed on where the givens came from, except to note the name of the long-dead classical Greek, French, Italian or German savant whose name is associated with it.

As an American kid who was mostly taught in American schools, but who also took 2 full years of the French system (half a year each of neuvieme, septieme, premiere, terminale, and then passed the baccalaureat in what they called at the time mathematiques elementaires, I found the choice of topics [eg ‘casting out nines’ and barycenters and non-orthogonal coordinate systems] in France rather strange. Interesting topics perhaps, but strange. And not necessarily any more related to the real world than what we teach here in the US.

Over in France, however, intellectuals are (mostly) respected, even revered, and of all the various academic strands, pure math has the highest level of respect. So people over there tend to be proud of however far they got in mathematics, and what they remember. Discourse in French tends to be extremely logical and clear in a way that I cannot imagine happening here in the public sphere.

So to sum up:

(a) most people never learned all that much math better than what was required to pass the test;

(b) only a very few geeky students like myself were motivated to ask ‘why’;

(c) most people don’t use all that much math in their real lives in the first place.



Why Math?

… sharing this from a discussion on learning math on Quora. I agree with the writer on most of it:


I don’t think it’s actually a question of IQ. Anyone of average intelligence can understand mathematics provided that they learn in a sequential way and they follow a well-developed curriculum. I like to believe that mathematics is logical enough so that even the most difficult concepts can be grasped if it is explained by a patient teacher.

I’d like to posit a different question: why do people of average intelligence dislike (perhaps hate, fear, and despise) mathematics?

Here are 7 possible reasons:

  1. They had horrible teachers when they were little who humiliated them. Mathematics was weaponized by bitter people to bludgeon their student’s budding sense of identity.
  2. They missed learning essential skills in early grades which made it difficult to understand slightly more advanced mathematical steps at a higher grade level.
  3. They never got to a point where they saw the aesthetic nature of math and that nature itself appears to be entirely based on mathematical principles. (Once someone gets to this point, mathematics is as delightful as drawing, painting, or sculpting.)
  4. They resorted to memorizing formulas without understanding the underlying order of any mathematical idea.
  5. They were forced to do mathematics to pass an examination rather than introduced to it as a conceptual tool (probably the best one humans have ever invented or discovered.)
  6. They never wondered if humankind invented mathematics or if mathematics is actually the fabric of reality that astute human beings have observed and reflected on.
  7. They never marveled at the raw genius of someone like Srinivasa Ramanujan or how Issac Newton and and Gottfried Leibniz independently invented calculus during the mid 17th century. The beauty of these romantic stories about mathematics completely escapes them.

Prasad’s Home-Grown Drive Controller

Prasad D made a great mirror in our telescope-making workshop here at the Chevy Chase Community Center, and then proceeded to machine a wonderful Crayford focuser, from scratch, after I showed him how to use our 1944-era South Bend lathe. A very friendly fellow, he unfortunately (for us) moved to Philadelphia, which is not really close, but he’s kept up doing excellent ATM work.

As an example, on Tuesday last he brought in a brand new German equatorial drive and controller system that he had cobbled together from various parts. He replaced the original motors in the drive head with stepper motors, and then put together an Arduino board, a wireless communicator, and two stepper-motor controllers. All of the circuit is controlled from an app that he devised, on his Android device. We didn’t have any clear skies to try it out, but I could certainly see the motors slewing to various invisible objects such as the star Procyon and Messier Object 42..

Really first-rate job, and very nicely done! (He said he didn’t want it to look half-baked, and it doesn’t!)

Prasad asked me to “please give credit to the original creator of the electronics – Howard Dutton. He calls the system OnStep. It is based on Arduino Teensy3.2 microcomputer and it can be customized for any type of mount including Dobsonian. It is very easy to work with and your students at CCCC may find it interesting.”
I see a web page with lots of information:

I’ll post some still photos here and then upload two short videos to Youtube – which I cannot embed on this blog, but can only link to. If you click on the photos, you can see larger images.



Here is the first video that I took of his device in operation:

Here is the link to a shorter video, not as detailed, that I took of the device:

If you have problems viewing any of this, please let me know by leaving a comment. Thanks.

Quantifying Progress in the Fight Against Turned Down Edge


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By Guy Brandenburg


I describe here an attempt to quantify progress (or lack thereof) in the removal of the classic, and dreaded, turned-down edge (TDE) present on a 16.5” Newtonian glass mirror blank that I have been trying to “figure” for some years.  The figuring process means changing a piece of glass that approximates a small section sliced out of a large hollow sphere, into a highly-accurate paraboloid — with the required level of accuracy being measured in nanometers.


Many amateur and professional telescope makers have maintained that you can only fix figuring errors if you can measure them. Not being able to get good, repeatable measurements of the TDE on my mirror, I had been sort of floundering, failing to get rid of the TDE even after YEARS of work (off and on; mostly off). So a decision was made to try to quantify things.


We recently had some success in matching computer-generated Ronchi images of theoretically-perfect mirrors with photos taken of works in progress, simply by cutting and pasting – which has been recommended by Mel Bartels in particular for quite some time. For the first time, I got the hang of it, and we were able to help a first-timer (Mike L) to figure a 10” plate glass f/5.4 mirror only ¾” thick to just about exactly ¼ lambda, according to our combined, repeated, careful measurements on a mirror that was cooled both by immersion in a room-temperature water bath and by sitting in a closet in the very same testing room for an entire weekend.


Prior to this experiment, I had been taking short videos of the entire mirror, moving the ronchi grating back and forth across the center of curvature. These videos reveal and record a lot of qualitative information about the mirror, including vocal commentary, but I found it impossible to transfer the images to my laptop for closer analysis until I got home, across town, which meant that the turn-around time after testing a mirror was much too long to be of any use. I had tried quite a large number of various strokes suggested by others, by our reading various ATM manuals, and by just thinking; but the very serious TDE on this (for me, relatively ambitious) project never seemed to get any better.


I simply gave up on imaging via video clips, since they were too hard to manipulate or measure on my phone, and which required too much bandwidth to send to my laptop until I got home. This time, I took Ronchi still-images on my cell phone, between 0.2 and 0.5 inches outside of the center of curvature.

guys 16 perfect

(My experience has been generally easier to discern defects in a Ronchigram when the lines curve outwards at the top and bottom, which would mean the test grating is  OUTSIDE the COC of a partly-parabolized mirror, as you see on the left in the black-and-white image above. However, when the lines curve inwards at the top and bottom, like the images in the center and to the right, then many serious defects remain hidden. quantify TDE


A standard 100 LPI grating from Willmann-Bell and a yellow LED were used, on an XYZ stage partly fabricated by me and placed exactly twice the focal length from the primary. Images were taken with an iPhone 6, shooting images zoomed in as much as possible. An attempt was made to have matching ronchigrams, i.e., with the same number of vertical lines showing.


(This was a weak point of the experiment. For one, it’s hard to hold cell phone steady enough, and an observer will notice that the images do NOT have exactly the same number of lines. That’s because I did not have a printout of the previous image right in front of me to make comparisons to. All that needs to be fixed in subsequent iterations. Also, other imaging devices need to be tried, as well.)


I was in fact able to email individual photograph frames to my laptop at the lab. After downloading the clearest images to my laptop, I used plain old MS Windows Paint to shrink and crop the useful portion of the picture, and then pasted the result into a Geometry software (Geometer.s Sketchpad, or GSP) that I was already familiar with. GSP was then used to draw a circle around the circumference of the image of the nearly-perfectly-circular glass disk, adjusting this as well as possible. This process automatically generated the center of the disk. Using that center, a second, and smaller, circle was drawn whose circumference was placed at the location along the ronchi lines where they appeared to begin to turn outwards. GSP was then  to measure directly the radii of the two circles and to compute their ratio.


A final ratio of 0.7, just to pick a number that is easy to compute, means that just about half of the area of the mirror is covered by a wide rolled-down edge, since the ratio of areas is equal to the square of the ratio of the respective radii, and 0.7 squared is 0.49, or 49%.


In the diagram above, the images go in chronological order but COUNTER-clockwise, from upper left (labeled #1), which was made in mid- or early March, through the next three images, all taken on March 22. In between each image, various strokes were employed in figuring sessions for anywhere between 15-20 minutes to attempt to fix the TDE. All the figuring sessions involved sub-diameter laps anywhere from 8 to 12 inches in diameter that had been warm-pressed upon the mirror. The strokes were both forward and back and incorporated enough of a ‘W’ stroke to cover the entire mirror, using cerium oxide on either tempered burgundy or Acculap pitch, depending. The edge of the tool was allowed to go up to the edge of the mirror, +/- maybe 5 mm. The goal was simply to wear down the glass in the center until it caught up with the amount that the edge had been worn down. None of the laps seemed to have full contact with the mirror out to the very edge; thus the end of the stroke was NOT at the edge of the mirror.


You will notice that these ratios, circled in green, seem to increase monotonically from 69% to 80%, which is gratifying: if this real, then the fraction of the mirror that is NOT covered by TDE has gone from about 47% to about 67%, as you can see here. (Note: in figure #1, the large circle was denoted circle AB, and the smaller circle was denoted circle CD. I know that points A and C are not identical, but they are rather close; that error will be fixed in subsequent iterations.)

However: the key question is: IS THIS REAL? Or am I merely fooling myself?

I don’t know yet.

I certainly hope it is real.

But it needs to be checked with subsequent investigation.

My attempt at limiting my own subjectivity or wishful thinking was to try to draw the circles at the place where the more-or-less vertical lines began turning outwards. Hopefully that location really corresponded to the place where the turned/rolled edge began. However, it is entirely possible that the precise apparent location of the beginning of the TDE very much depends on exactly how many lines appear in the Ronchigram, thus, precisely how far from the COC the grating is located.

Unfortunately, often times I have to dismantle the entire apparatus, because we have to close up shop for the night, or somebody else needs to use the tester on another mirror. Thus, it is nearly impossible to ensure that the measurement apparatus remains undisturbed.

My next steps, I think, are these:

  1. Have a separate, and very simple ronchi apparatus that just consists of a grating and a light.
  2. Have previous images right in front of me as I prepare to take the next Ronchigrams, so that I can match the number of lines visible.
  3. Perhaps I should take a series of said standardized ronchigrams both inside and outside of COC with, say, 5 lines visible. I should also take some ronchigrams that might accentuate and expose any possible astigmatism; that is, very close to the COC. Any Ronchi lines that resemble the letters S, Z, J, U, or N would be very bad news.
  4. Attempt to attach a cheap video camera with built-in LED, Ronchi grating, and a suitable lens to make steadier images free from hand wobbles.

I would like to thank Isaac and Elias Applebaum for their diligent and noted explorations in solving a similar question relating to fixing or preventing TDE. That STEM project won them a number of well-deserved awards.



What a Great Night!

Just got back from an exciting astro expedition to Hopewell Observatory with one of the other members. Great fun!

Anybody living on the East Coast in March 2018 has just lived through a very strong, multi-day gale. The same weather system brought snow and flooding to the northeast, and here in the DC-Mar-Va area, it was cut off power to many (including my mother-in law) and caused almost all local school districts to close — even the Federal Government! Two of my immediate neighbors in DC had serious roof damage.

Today, Sunday, Paul M and I decided the wind had calmed enough, and the sky was clear enough, for an expedition to go up and observe. We both figured there was a good chance the road up to the observatory would be blocked by trees, and it turns out that we were right. My chainsaw was getting repaired – long story, something I couldn’t fix on my own – so I brought along work gloves, a nice sharp axe, loppers, and a 3-foot bowsaw. We used all of them. There were two fairly large dead trees that had fallen across the road, and we were able to cut them up and push them out of the way.

However, there was a large and very dangerous ‘widow-maker’ tree (two images above) that had fallen across the road, but it was NOT on the ground. Instead, was solidly hung up on the thick telecommunications line at about a thirty-degree angle to the ground. The power lines above it didn’t seem to be touched. You could easily walk under the trunk, if you dared (and we did), and you probably could drive under it, but of course the motion of the car just might be enough to make it crack in half and crush some unlucky car and its driver. Or maybe it might make the phone line shake a bit …

No thanks.

So, we didn’t drive under.

I called the emergency phone for the cell phone tower (whose access road we share) to alert them that the road was blocked and could only be cleared by a professional. I also attempted to call a phone company via 611, without much success — after a long wait, the person at the other end eventually asked me for the code to my account before they would forward me to somebody who could take care of it. Very weird and confusing. What account? What code? My bank account? No way. We will both call tomorrow. Paul says he knows some lawyers at Verizon, whose line he thinks it is.

But then: how were we going to turn the cars around? It’s a very narrow road, with rocks and trees on one side. The other side has sort of a ravine and yet more trees. Paul realized before I did that we had to help each other and give directions in the darkness to the other person, or else we would have to back up all the way to the gate! Turning around took about four maneuvers, per car, in the dark, with the other person (armed with astronomer’s headlamp, of course) yelling directions on when to turn, how much to go forward, when to stop backing up, and so on. Success – no injuries! We both got our cars turned around, closed them up, got our cutting tools, gloves and hats, and then hiked the rest of the way up, south and along the ridge and past the big cell phone tower, to the Observatory buildings themselves, moving and cutting trees as we went.

As we were clearing the roadway and walking up the ridge, we peered to the west to try to find Venus and Mercury, which had heard were now evening planets again. It wasn’t easy, because we were looking through LOTS of trees, in the direction of a beautiful multi-color, clear-sky sunset featuring a bright orange line above the ridge to our west. Winter trees might not have any leaves, but they still make the search for sunset planets rather tough. Even if you hold perfectly still, one instant you see a flash that’s maybe a planet, or maybe an airplane, and then the branches (which are moving in the breeze, naturally) hide it again. So what was it? Paul’s planetarium smartphone app confirmed he saw Venus. If the trees weren’t there, I think we also would have seen Mercury, judging by Geoff Chester’s photo put out on the NOVAC email list. I think I saw one planet.

In any case, everything at the observatory was just fine – no tree damage on anything, thanks to our prior pruning efforts. The Ealing mount and its three main telescopes all worked well, and the sky and stars were gorgeous both to the naked eye and through the scopes. Orion the Hunter, along with the Big Dog and the Rabbit were right in front of us (to the south) and Auriga the Charioteer was right above us. Pleiades (or the Subaru) was off high in the west. Definitely the clearest night I’ve had since my visit to Wyoming for the solar eclipse last August, or to Spruce Knob WV for the Almost Heaven Star Party the month after that.

Paul said that he and his daughter had been learning the proper names of all the stars in the constellation Orion, such as Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak. As with many other star names, all those names are Arabic, a language that I’ve been studying for a while now [but am not good at. So complicated!] Mintaka and Alnitak are essentially the same Arabic word.

After we got the scopes working, Paul suggested checking out Rigel, the bright ‘leg’ of Orion, because it supposedly had a companion star. {Rajul means “leg”} We looked, and after changing the various eyepieces and magnifications, we both agreed that Rigel definitely does have a little buddy.

I had just read in Sky & Telescope that Aristotle (from ancient Greece) may have given the first written account of what we now call an “open cluster” in the constellation Canis Major (Big Dog – that’s Latin, which I studied in grades 7 – 12) called Messier-41, only a couple of degrees south of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. A passage in a book allegedly written by Aristotle (roughly 230 BC) seems to indicate that he could see this object with averted vision. (He was trying to establish that it was a fuzzy patch in the sky that was most definitely NOT a comet, just like Charles Messier was doing almost exactly two thousand years later!)

M41 was quite attractive. But no, we didn’t then look at M42. Been there, done that many times before. And no, what you see with a telescope does not have all those pretty colors that you see in a photograph.

Instead, we looked on a multi-sheet star atlas (that stays in the observatory) near M41 and found three other open clusters, all really beautiful. We first found M38 and thought that in the C-14 and 6″ Jaegers, it looked very anthropoid or like an angry insect, if you allowed your mind to connect the beautiful dots of light on the black background. In the shorter 5″ refractor made by Jerry Short, it looked like a sprinkling of diamond dust. This cluster must have been formed rather recently. We then found M36, which was much less rich, but still quite pretty. Lastly, we found M37, another open cluster, which has a very bright yellow star near the center, against background of much fainter stars. It seemed to me that those other stars might be partly obscured by a large and somewhat translucent cloud of dust. We saw a web of very opaque dust lanes, which we confirmed by readings on the Web. Really, really beautiful. But I’m glad we don’t live there: too dangerous. Some of the stars are in fact red giants, we read.

Then we looked straight overhead, in the constellation Auriga. We decided to bypass the electronics and have Paul aim the telescope, using the Telrad 1-power finderscope, at one of the fuzzy patches that he saw there. He did, and my notes indicate that we eventually figured out that he found Messier-46 (yet another open cluster) with his naked eye! Very rich cluster, I think, and we even found the fan-shaped planetary nebula inside!

At this point we were getting seriously cold so we moved over just a little, using the instruments, to find M47, again, a very pretty open cluster.

Realizing that the cold and fatigue makes you do really stupid things, and that we were out in the woods with no way to drive up here in case of a problem, we were very careful about making sure we were doing the closing up procedures properly and read the checklist at the door to each other, to make sure we didn’t forget anything.

On the walk back, we saw the Moon coming up all yellowish-orange, with the top of its ‘head’ seemingly cut off. When it got a bit higher, it became more silver-colored and less distorted, but still beautiful.

I really thought all of those open clusters were gorgeous in their own right, and I think it would be an excellent idea to make photographs of them, but perhaps black dots on white paper, and give them to young folks, and ask them to connect the dots, in whatever way they feel like doing. What sorts of interesting drawings would twenty-five students come up with?

I am not sure which of our various telescopes would do the best job at making astro images. I have a CCD camera (SBIG ST-2000XM), with a filter wheel. What about just making it a one-shot monochromatic black and white image? I also have a Canon EOS Revel XSI (aka 450D, I think). Compare and contrast… The CCD is really heavy, the Canon quite light. I also have a telephoto lens for the Canon, which means that I have essentially four telescopes to choose from (but not a big budget!). One problem with the C-14 and my cameras is that the field of view is tiny: you can only take images of very small bits of what you can see in the eyepiece with your naked eye. This means you would need to make a mosaic of numerous pictures.

In any case, no imaging last night! Not only did I not feel like hauling all that equipment for a quarter of a mile, after all that chopping, sawing, and shoving trees, it turns out I had left my laptop home in the first place. D’oh!

I had previously found every single one of these open clusters when I made my way through the entire Messier list of over 100 objects, with my various home-made telescopes, which had apertures up to 12.5 inches. However, I don’t think I had ever seen them look so beautiful before! Was it the amazing clarity of the night, or the adventure, or the company? I don’t know!

But this was a very fun adventure, and this photography project – attempting to make decent images of these six open clusters – promises to be quite interesting!