You’ll come across it sooner or later if you pick up an astronomy magazine or scan the many on-line astronomy forums. An author will make an off-hand comment, or someone on one of the forums will state categorically: “A 60mm refractor is a mere toy . . . “; “Don’t bother with one of those things since you can’t see anything with them anyway”; “There’s no substitute for aperture – get a real scope.” Etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum.
Well . . . . . . . . yes, and no. Mostly no, but a qualified no.
The first bridge to be crossed is the one that leads to optical reality: A lens is a lens is a lens —– meaning aperture is aperture is aperture. A 60mm lens can’t collect any more light than its frugal 2.36 inches of diameter will allow. So the views in a 60mm scope are limited, yes. But so are those in a five or six inch refractor, in an eight or ten inch SCT, in a ten or 12 inch reflector. When you push one of those scopes to their optical limits, the stars become faint and difficult to resolve, just as they do in a 60mm refractor. Optical reality being what optical reality is, the smaller the aperture, the sooner you discover those limits.
But that doesn’t mean you should give up on a scope with a 60mm lens – no more than you would give up on a four inch refractor in the middle of an observing session for a six inch refractor you don’t have. The key to enjoying what a scope has to offer is to work within the limits of the lens in the scope that happens to be in your hands. Put another way, adopt a lesson from everyday life and apply it to optics: make do with what you have, and turn a disadvantage into an advantage.
Applied to a 60mm lens, that means taking a deep breath and recovering some common sense – something which tends to be overwhelmed by the insidious creep of aperture envy. Point that 60mm scope at a target within its range, not at one of the Abell galaxy clusters.
What lies within range of a 60mm lens? Many more objects than many people realize. Try the moon, first – then Jupiter, then Saturn. Then take a look at a few deep sky objects – the Pleiades for starters, the Double Cluster in Perseus, M31 (the Great Andromeda Galaxy), Collinder 69 (the open cluster surrounding the head of Orion), and don’t skip the Great Nebula in Orion, M42.
And double stars? There are too many to list, but hit the showpieces for sure: Albireo, Algieba, Almach, Beta Cephei, Castor, Cor Caroli, Delta Cephei, Delta Herculis, Gamma Arietis (Mesarthim), Gamma Delphinus, Graffias, Epsilon Lyrae, Eta Cassiopeiae, Iota Orionis, Izar, Meissa, Mizar, Nu Draconis (“The Dragon’s Eyes”), Omicron Cygni, Polaris, Rasalgethi, Xi Bootis, Xi Cephei . . . . . . . . . the list goes on and on and on.
Ah, but I can hear the distant clamor and clatter of objections as they bound over the hills and through the dale and echo in the aluminum hollows of my hallowed f/16.7 sixty millimeter refractor tube: “Yeah, you can see that stuff, but it’s hardly satisfying.”
Look – you have to adopt a different approach . . . . . . . arrest that demanding and driving urge for more and more aperture . . . . . . . you’ve got to slow down . . . . . . . pause to get your breath . . . . . and give the subject some serious thought for at least a few moments . . . . . . because the inescapable fact is this: you have to learn to appreciate the sixty millimeter images for what they are. What they are . . . . . . . are different images than what you would see with more aperture.
And of course, they have to be!
Because you’re working with less light!
Which means it’s a different kind of light!
All of which means you have to learn to appreciate the basic fact that the image in the eyepiece end of your 60mm refractor has a different quality to it, a different flavor – one you have to learn to savor, and even understand. It’s that one word – different – on which you have to stay firmly focused. Until you begin to realize that, you’ll never be able to appreciate what a sixty millimeter instrument offers you so graciously:
“There’s more than one way to look at a universe!”
Let me show you.
Turn that 60mm lens to Mizar, the second star from the end of the handle in the Big Dipper asterism of Ursa Major. Drop a low magnification eyepiece into the diagonal – let’s say 25mm or somewhere close. Now line up the scope on Mizar, focus carefully, and as the image comes into view, you’ll be greeted with the second and fourth magnitude radiance of the Mizar pair, separated by about 14 seconds of arc – and opposite them in the east quadrant of the eyepiece at a distance of twelve minutes of arc you’ll spy fourth magnitude Alcor. About halfway between Alcor and the Mizar pair, dimly punctuating the black sky with its eighth magnitude light, is a star known as Ludwig’s Star (Sidus Ludoviciana), which was once mistaken for a planet, and hence was named for King Ludwig of Bavaria.
Now sit back and let your eyes rove around that field of view. Take it all in slowly, let the starlight work its magic – and you’ll begin to realize there is a certain quality to that view that is somewhat subdued, pinpoint sharp, and very . . . . . . . neat. There is just no other word for that characteristic of the view – it’s very prim, very proper. Every single star in that field of view is a precise pin prick of white light poked into the black-as-velvet darkness; every single star in that field of view looks as if it’s right where it belongs, and very satisfied to be there, too. The brighter stars don’t overwhelm the dimmer ones the way they might in a much larger scope — there seems to be a mutual degree of stellar respect for the non-optical principle of allowing each individual star its own space in which to shine.
Now of course you can’t see any 12th magnitude stars in this view – but you don’t need to! Just forget about what this image would look like in a larger scope – don’t even think about it! Banish those tempting impure thoughts of aperture envy from your mind forever! That 60mm scope in your hands right now is all the aperture you have available at this particular moment in time — look and study and focus your thoughts on that image, the one entering your eyes right NOW! It doesn’t need to to measure up to what you would see with more aperture — it can’t, because it’s not the same: it’s different!
I run into that problem myself all the time. I have 60mm refractors mounted on my four, five, and six inch refractors. And believe me, there is nothing that will make the view in a 60mm scope suffer more than peering into it immediately after viewing the same object in the larger scope. I have to jar myself back to reality, re-plant both feet firmly on terrestrial ground and remind myself – hey, it’s a different view!
And there’s one other thing to keep in mind: If, for example, you had a four inch refractor and were constantly attempting to look at objects beyond or right at the limit of its range, sooner or later (probably sooner) you would find yourself growing tired of using it. But if you backed off of the magnification for a while and picked a few objects well within the range of that four inch lens, suddenly you would be gazing at those tack sharp views with their sparkling qualities that drew you to the scope the first time you looked through it. Viewing through a 60mm refractor is no different – stay within its limits and it will provide some very aesthetically pleasing views.
Yes, you can take a 60mm scope and push it to its limits. I’ve done that many times, but that’s a different kind of viewing aimed at one specific object with one specific intent. For example, I’ve split Delta Cygni in a 60mm scope a couple of times, which is a real challenge. Achieving it is very satisfying – BUT – it’s a lot of work, exhausting even, and the image is anything but satisfying. It’s one of those things you do to test both your limits as well as those of the scope. But in no way is it an aesthetically pleasing view.
To remind myself of the real beauty that can be found in a 60mm scope, I’ll take a view of Omicron-1 and -2 Cygni anytime – you can’t get that same view in a larger scope. Or that beady little greenish dot of secondarial light tucked up right against Rasalgethi’s burnt-orange primary – nothing rivals the decoration those two orbs of light bring to an eyepiece in a 60mm refractor. And I’ll be happy to feast my eyes on the ethereal beauty of Eta Cassiopeiae any time – the orderly precision of that view is totally unlike what I see in a four inch refractor. And I wouldn’t dare forget the thrilling triple white delight served up by Beta Monocerotis in a 60mm refractor – in my Tasco 7T-E at 59x, the BC pair are so close together you can’t wedge an up or a down quark between them, even though they’re clearly two distinct circular points of light.
And that brings up the issue of optical quality, which is a curse visited on the innocent 60mm refractor by the evil department store versions that were pedaled for years, especially at Christmas time. That curse left a mark on the 60mm reputation that still lingers today. Needless to say, stay away from anything in a thin cardboard box that advertises 500x with Hubble-like images of the planets and galaxies splashed colorfully across the exterior. You best bet is to pick up an older used 60mm with labels like Tasco (roughly pre-1970), Unitron, Lafayette, Selsi, Monolux, Pentax, Carton, or Swift. I’ve even put together several of my own scopes using Carton lenses and cells, aluminum tubes, purchased focusers, and a can of spray paint. And don’t hesitate to mount them on solid modern mounts – avoid the spindly metal-legged tripods that come with some of the older scopes.
NOW –—– the next time a clear night rolls around, lock up that large refractor-reflector-SCT-or-whatever-you-have in a closet, station a ravenously hungry growling beast in front of the door to remove all temptation ——
and then turn to that innocent, lonely, neglected 60mm refractor sitting forlornly over in the corner on its mount, grab the tripod, pick the whole thing up and walk it outside, place it on the ground, pull up a chair, point the tube up into the sky at an appropriate object, drop a 20mm eyepiece into the diagonal, dial up a sharp focus, sit absolutely and reverently still —– and let those distant photons that have been blazing their way blindly to you for tens or hundreds or thousands of light years, slip through that 60mm lens, pass through the lenses of the eyepiece, and magically register their electrical impulses in the dark depths of your mind.
You’ll be a better person for it.