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The 60mm Philosophy: Learn to Savor the View

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou’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, MizarNu Draconis (“The Dragon’s Eyes”), Omicron Cygni, Polaris, Rasalgethi, Xi Bootis, Xi Cephei   . . . . . . . . . the list goes on and on and on.

My f/16.7 60mm refractor crafted with a 1000mm focal length Carton lens and a rescued Unitron finder.  (Click on this or any of the other images for a larger view).

“The Silver Streak”:  my f/16.7 60mm refractor crafted with a 1000mm focal length Carton lens and a rescued Unitron finder. (Click on this or any of the other images for a larger view).

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.

The MIzar pair is seen here to the left of center, Alcor is opposite them at the right of center, and the star between them is Sidus Ludoviciana, Ludwig's Star. (East & west are reversed to match the refractor view, click on the image to enlarge it).

The MIzar pair is seen here to the left of center, Alcor is opposite them at the right of center, and the star between them is Sidus Ludoviciana, Ludwig’s Star. (East & west are reversed to match the refractor view, click on the image for the dark sky view).

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.

The venerable Tasco 7T-E (f/16.7) on its native mount.

The venerable Tasco 7T-E (f/16.7) on its native mount.

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.

The focuser end of a Lafayette f/13.3 60mm refractor.

The focuser end of a Lafayette f/13.3 60mm refractor.

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.   :mrgreen:

Another home built 60mm refractor -- this one has a Carton 800mm focal length lens in it, with a 6x30 Celestron finder and an Antares focuser attached. The dew shield is an exotic plastic container that once was full of yogurt.

Another home built 60mm refractor — this one has a Carton 800mm focal length lens in it, with a 6×30 Celestron finder and an Antares focuser attached. The dew shield is an exotic plastic container that once was full of yogurt, but now it yearns for a culture of starlight.


17 Responses

  1. Great post John,

    I too used to prescribe to the “There’s no substitute for aperture” theory that you mentioned. In fact I used to drag out a 12″ Dob all the way from my basement to the back yard during each observing session. At some point it became a drag to move that big lug of a scope. I now use a 120mm refactor and while objects are not as bright, as you said, they do not overwhelm each other.

    Another benefit is that I study the doubles I am observing for a much longer period of time. The view through the 120mm is much more pleasing to me, so I tend to say on a pair of doubles for a much longer time frame. This all adds up to more quality observing time.

    • Thanks, Jav!

      Yep, that’s the underlying message — make do with what you have on any given night.

      I certainly don’t have any aversion to using a five or six inch refractor when conditions warrant it, but many of the best views I’ve had of various objects were in scopes of small aperture. And when the seeing is marginal, the smaller apertures and longer focal lengths will often allow you to salvage something from the observing session. They’re a tool well worth having — and if that’s all you have, they can deliver many a satisfying observing session.


      • John I agree with all you say about 60mm scopes I find the view
        of certain objects in my Telementor is much better than through
        a 150mm reflector. For instance the view of Meissa is just
        wonderful even nicer than through the 80m Zeiss. The moon as
        well is just beautiful in the 60mm scope, as you say there is a certain quality that somehow is different in the smaller scope


  2. Hi Pat!

    Yep, that area around Meissa, which is generally the Collinder 69 area, is stunning in a small aperture instrument. It deserves much more attention than it gets. If it was over in Monoceros or Canis Minor, I suspect it would be better known. There’s way too much competition of visual feasts in Orion.

    And the moon, whether at low power or high magnification, was made for a sixty millimeter lens. I’ve always found the view of it stunning when framed by that small lens.


  3. Hi John!
    Enjoyed your passionate plea for respect, for small optics. I have an older Tasco that I actually purchased as a Christmas present for my father many years ago when I, myself, had not yet discovered my own passion for astronomy. He has since returned it to me. I will have to find a better focuser for it and then put it through its paces. I’ll let you know how I fair.

    Cheers, Chris.

  4. A thoroughly enjoyable article and wise advice for the new year! I have a 4″ refractor that is used twice as much as my 9.25 SCT and 12 Dob combined. I continually have to fight the urge to acquire a 6″ refractor just because the views would be “so much better”.

  5. Hi John.
    Great description of your experiences with these small scopes. What I would like to know as a very inexperienced observer is that is there an inherent, tangible benefit or pleasure to be had observing through such a small apeture or given the same price-point or there about , would a larger apeture win out?

  6. Thanks for the comments Mark and Derek.

    I know what that urge is like Mark — it led me to acquiring a six inch refractor, too. You can’t spend all your time resisting it! But the main thing is, as I hope I illustrated, whatever you have handy — whether its’ sixty millimeters or 100 millimeters — if you recognize the limits of that particular aperture and stay within those limits most of the time, there are many hundreds of objects that fall within the realm of pleasing views. I frequently stick with the smaller apertures because of poor seeing conditions — they’ve saved many a night that would have been very frustrating otherwise.

    Back to Dereks’ question: my message was really aimed at the more seasoned observers who have been misled into believing the smaller apertures — in this case sixty millimeters — aren’t worth their time.

    In the case of people with less experience, or little experience, you would really be better served with a four inch refractor or a six inch reflector (or SCT) as a first scope. Those instruments have enough light gathering capability to provide you with an excellent introduction to what lies within reach of the average telescope. You can buy a four inch achromatic refractor or six inch reflector for a reasonable price — a six inch SCT will be a bit more expensive.

    Once you get more experience, and (this is particularly important) become more adept at using the equipment and honing your vision, then I would recommend considering a scope with less aperture. At that point, you’ll have enough experience to be able to appreciate that they offer a different taste of the sky to you. You’ll also have become familiar with enough objects to have a good idea of where to best use the smaller apertures.

    As I said, the image they present is different, but without that experience, you won’t be able to recognize how and why it’s different, or be able to see that there is still something there that can be very appealing to the eye.


    • Hey John,

      Another great article!

      You know, those 60mm and 80mm refractors will always hold my affections as an observer.

      They just never let you down.

      Long live the classical refractor; ye olde crown & flint.



      • Hey yourself, Neil! I’m following your latest series with the 80mm refractor with a lot of interest. In particular, I really enjoyed the piece on stellar classifications and the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

        For those interested, I highly recommend Neil’s series — the first installment can be found here, and the second is located here.

  7. Two things: First, I’ve been following your site for some time now, but only recently subscribed. Love it! Getting the new posts in my email is very convenient and more timely than my past method of dropping into the website occasionally. Second, great article on the virtues of the 60mm refractor. I had one gifted to me several years ago and it’s still one of my favorite telescopes. As you say, use it withing its limits and it will give you gobs of enjoyment.

  8. John, I, too, enjoy reading this post. Yes, I have a smaller scope now; graduated “down”. I purchased a 102mm refractor after only using smt/cass reflectors ’till now; a C925. Just diving into the refractor has been a joy, namely for double stars . Understanding its limits in terms of power was only a momentary adjustment, albeit a little confusing at first. Now, I love it. And, I’ll venture to assert that the colors are more pronounced through the smaller refractor.
    Off to more observing…

    • Thanks, Mike and Steve.

      ‘Tis more to the stars than mere aperture!
      (Although it isn’t half-bad, either).


  9. Its also the EYES that are lookin’ at ’em.

  10. I didn’t know where to put this comment, but this place seemed appropriate (from my perspective).

    I just wanted to thank John and Greg for this wonderful resource. I am just returning to astronomy and was looking for something to augment my DSO interests (step #1. completed, was to build a permanent pier in my yellow zone back yard to hold my 1990’s C11). I started to go down an AP path, but found myself wanting to look into the eyepiece rather than a laptop screen. And double stars seemed like a great second path. And this bog looks like it will be a wonderful resource for this.

    FWIW, I have loaded the SAC double star database into MS Access and this site (plus the Astroleague DS observing list) will be a great help in finding (and enjoying) targets.

    BTW, I chose this “thread” to for this comment for two reasons.

    1) It so clearly points out that $5k APO refractors are hardly required here

    2) It also points out that you need to ‘exhaust’ your own scopes fulfillment before looking for more equipment to get more fulfillment.

    Thanks again for this resource that so effectively provides those 3 VERY important “IN’s”.

    INexpensive (free is pretty good in my book)


    • HI Dave,

      Thanks for the comments — both Greg and I very much appreciate them.

      You’re right — you don’t need to spend a fortune on a telescope in order to enjoy double stars. All of my refractors at present (with the exception of one) are achromatic doublets, which work perfectly well for this endeavor. I’ve added a 9.25 inch SCT for deep sky work and for the fainter doubles, but I’ve spent many a night tracking down familiar deep sky objects with a six inch achromatic refractor as well.

      A few nights ago I grabbed my Orion 90mm f/10, which cost all of ninety-five dollars, and spent a a very enjoyable hour tracking down the brighter doubles that I could visually pick out of a full-moon sky. I had very satisfying views of Epsilon Lyrae, Delta-1 and Delta-2 Lyrae, STF 2470 and 2474 (the other “double-double in Lyrae”), Albireo, Omicron Cygni, Gamma Delphini and STF 2725, and Eta Cass, all of which reminded me of how much is in reach of an in-expensive refractor. Epsilon Lyrae in particular was a stunningly delicate split at only 52x, which shows what the smaller, less expensive refractors are capable of.


  11. I don’t know but there is just something magical about these lovely long F/L refractors. I still have my first given to me by my brother back in 1965.
    mike hyrczyk

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