Skip to main content

Welcome to Houston Astronomical Society

Fostering the science and art of astronomy through programs that serve our membership and the community. Founded in 1955, Houston Astronomical Society is an active community of enthusiastic amateur and professional astronomers with over 60 years of history in the Houston area. Through education and outreach, our programs promote science literacy and astronomy awareness. We meet via Zoom the first Friday of each month for the General Membership Meeting and the first Thursday of the month for the Novice Meeting. Membership has a variety of benefits, including access to a secure dark site west of Houston, a telescope loaner program, and much more. Joining is simple; you can sign up online or by snail mail.

New Website, Renewals, and Signups LIVE

Hello all,

We have finally completed the new website and taken it live. Please feel free to renew your membership or sign up for a new membership in HAS. We have a few lingering pieces of functionality (dark site certification and bookings, for example) which we still need to wrap up. Please let us know if you encounter any issues or have any questions or feedback. Thank you very much for your patience and cooperation.

Joe Khalaf
HAS President

by Jim King

Learn the basics, then work on getting better and having more fun

BARLOW LENS: This type of lens which you install in your telescope’s focuser (and then put an eyepiece into) increases the effective focal length of a telescope and magnifies its image.  A 2x Barlow doubles the focal length and the eyepiece will provide twice the power.  If you choose the eyepieces carefully, adding a Barlow can give you a much wider range of magnifications.  

BINOCULARS: High-quality binoculars should be part of every observer’s kit.  For magnification, choose 7x, 8x or 10x.  The front lenses should be at least 50 mm across.  Smaller ones don’t collect enough light.  If your budget can stand it, check into Image Stabilized (Canon, Fuginon) binoculars to avoid having to rely on the availability of a tripod.  I have the Canon 10X30s image stabilized which are a true “grab and go” accessory for astronomy, bird-watching, etc.

CIRCUMPOLAR STAR: This term describes a star that always lies above an observer’s day or season. At the equator, no star is circumpolar.  At the North or South Pole, all stars are circumpolar.  At any other latitude, a star whose declination is greater than 90 degrees minus the observer’s latitude will be circumpolar.

COLLIMATION: Owners of Newtonian or Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes who don’t have them set up in a permanent location, should collimate their scope, or align its components, prior to each observing session.  See the telescope’s operation manual or You Tube to learn the procedure.  (I have three Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes, none of which have ever required collimation as long as proper handling and care are exercised...properly cased, not dropped or seriously bumped).

DARK ADAPTATION: In the first 30 minutes in a dark setting, the sensitivity of our vision increases 10,000-fold, with little gain after that.  Even brief exposure to bright light temporarily reverses the gain, though how much you lose depends on how long the light is on and its intensity.  Always opt to use dim red light or similar although even red lights can temporarily lessen eye acuity.

EYE PATCH: Cover your observing eye with a patch when you start to set up, and by the time you finish, you’ll have a fully dark-adapted eye.  Then, switch the patch to your other eye so you can keep both eyes open at the eyepiece, a technique that reduces eye fatigue.  Oh, and before you use your faint red light, move the patch back to your observing eye.  Interestingly, the pirates of old wore eyepatches, not because they lost an eye, but to help them see better at night.  True story. 

FOCUS: Here’s the most important tip on the list.  Each time you put your eye to your eyepiece, and whenever you change eyepieces, refocus.  If you do not, you are wasting valuable observing time.

HORIZON: We usually define the horizon as where the celestial sphere intersects Earth at every point. Here’s the problem, most non-ocean locations don’t offer a true horizon…that is, one 90 degrees from the zenith.  Mountains, hills, buildings, trees can all obstruct your view.  Be aware that the times celestial objects rise and set will be affected by your local horizon.

INTOXICATION: Ever notice that all observing guides recommend you bring nonalcoholic beverages when you observe? The reason is simple, alcohol impairs vision.

KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENT: You just bought a new telescope.  Don’t rush to take it to a remote site.  Set it up at home first, and in the daytime.  Just be careful NOT to point it at the Sun.  Any problem you uncover in the daytime, will be one issue less you’ll have to deal with in the dark.  And if you come across an issue, at least you’ll be familiar with the scope.  The Moon is frequently available to us in broad daylight.

LIMITING MAGNITUDE: The best way to get a feel for the quality of your observing site is by measuring its limiting magnitude (L.M.).  Most observers determine LM by identifying the faintest star they can see at the zenith.  Other like to use the region around Polaris because the same stars are visible year-round.  Your telescope operating manual can give a fair approximation of the telescope’s designed L.M.

MERIDIAN: An observer should always know the position of the meridian. It’s the great circle that passes through the zenith and the celestial poles.  Find, Polaris, draw a line to the zenith, and continue south.  When an object lies on the meridian, it has reached its highest point and is best place for observing.

NEW GENERAL CATALOGUE (NGC): Most observers are familiar with at least the main Messier objects.  The NGC is a more extensive catalogue of deep-sky objects.  The original catalogue (established in the year 1888) listed 7,840 objects, with 5,386 more added later.  Get familiar with the designations, and positions of some of the most impressive NGC objects to expand your repertoire.  A few of the brighter ones to consider are NGC 457 (The Owl Cluster), NGC 869 and NGC 884 (The Double Cluster), NGC 5139 (Omega Centauri), and NGC 7293 (the Helix Nebula).

OBSERVING CHAIRS AND LADDERS: When observing, comfort is everything, and nothing says comfort like a high-quality observing chair.  Good ones have sturdy construction and padded seats and are easily adjustable.  While chairs work fine for refractors and Schmidt-Cassegrain’s, large Dobsonian-mounted scopes require a ladder.  In this case, look for ladders with wide, rubber-covered steps and a utility tray.  

POSITION ANGLE: Learn where north is when you look in your eyepiece.  Many times, observing guides will give the position angle (P.A.) of one object in relation to another, brighter object.  This angle is measured from north through east.  For a double star, it’s the line joining the primary with the companion star.

SEEING AND TRANSPARENCY: Seeing is a measure of the steadiness of the air.  Transparency is a measure of how clear the sky is.  Weather has a huge impact on both. An air mass colder than the ground will produce unsteady air, but it’s also usually dust-free.  An air mass warmer than the ground can hold lots of dust, but images will be a lot steadier.  If a cold front has just passed your site, the seeing probably won’t be good for at least 24 hours.  Seeing can be good if thin cirrus clouds are above you, except when they combined with low-level crosswinds.

SITE SELECTION: When you are looking for an ideal observing site, three things count.  First, it must be free of most light pollution. Second, the air must contain few aerosols (dust, air pollution, and water droplets), And third, it should be at an altitude between 5,000 and 8,000 feet.  Of course, perfection is illusive, but close can be good.

YOUR SPEED: Some observers spend an hour or more on a single object, endeavoring to glean every bit of detail possible.  Others take a more leisurely pace between 5 and 15 objects per hour.  Take the time to discover what observing speed works best for you and plan accordingly.  Great nights are few and far-between. 

ZOOM EYEPIECES: If your budget for observing accessories is limited, consider a zoom eyepiece.  Such an accessory will provide a range of magnifications at a cost much less than each of the individual eyepieces in its range combined.  Fortunately, the quality of today’s zoom eyepieces is much better than those of even a decade ago.

Source: Adapted from Astronomy Magazine, September 2022

Ex astris scientia, y’all



by Will Sager

If you own a telescope, you probably looked first at a refractor (Figure 1). It is the quintessential telescope and if you see a telescope in a cartoon, it is probably one of these. This is first telescope invented, often attributed to Galileo Galilei in 1609 although opticians in the Netherlands probably made similar instruments a few years before. But Galileo pointed his telescope skyward, extensively documenting his observations, and became the first telescopic astronomer. Galileo’s telescope used an objective lens to focus light on an eyepiece lens, which is the basic description of this type of scope. There are many different refractor telescopes, so a beginner can get confused without some background.  The goal here is to provide the reader with some details to help understand refractor telescopes and their designs.



Figure 1. A refractor telescope (aka “yard cannon”). (source:

By the Numbers

Any telescope description comes with a bunch of numbers, so let’s first consider some important numbers that tell you about a refractor and its capabilities. Some important numbers are aperture, focal length of the objective, f-ratio, and eyepiece focal length (Figure 2). 



Figure 2. Simplified diagram of a refractor telescope. Dashed lines represent light rays entering the edges of the objective lens. (author figure)


The aperture is the width of the objective lens, which determines how much light the scope can capture and guide into your eyeball. Bigger is better. The amount of light collected depends on the objective area, which is pr2, where r is the lens radius. If you double the diameter, say from 2 inches to 4 inches, you increase the light gathered by a factor of 4. The focal length is the distance between the center of the objective and the point at which the light going through the lens comes into focus. Focal length is important for two different properties: f-ratio and magnification. The f-ratio is the focal length divided by the aperture and it is a measure of image brightness. This is the same number that you find on your camera lens, where f-ratios <2 are considered “fast”. In photography, fast means that the brighter image requires a shorter exposure to capture an image. Common refractor telescope f-ratios are about f-7 to f-15. A 102 mm (4 inch) aperture with a focal length of 714 mm (28.1 inches) has an f-ratio of 7. At f-15, the focal length is 1530 mm (60 inches). That is a long scope. Why not have lower f-ratios? Because very fast lenses are difficult to make so that the image is sharp across the whole lens (i.e., expensive). Moreover, if the f-ratio is very low, not all of the light will go in your eye (see below). What is the benefit of a “slow” refractor with a high f-ratio? It is easier to make a lens that is sharp across the field. Another benefit is magnification.


Magnification is determined by the focal length of the primary lens divided by the focal length of the eyepiece. Eyepieces come in many focal lengths, but most are between about 30 mm (1.2 inches) for low power and 5 mm (0.2 inches) for high power. For example, our 714 mm focal length refractor yields 24x (this means the image is magnified by a factor of 24) for the 30 mm eyepiece (714/30 = 23.8) and 143x (714/5 = 142.8) for the 5 mm eyepiece. The former is good for low power sweeping across the Milky Way and the latter will give decent views of craters on the Moon, but the power is not very high for discerning details, for example, on planets. Thus, many planetary scopes have longer focal lengths. By comparison, the 1530 mm f-15 scope produces 51x and 306x for the 30 mm and 5 mm eyepieces, respectively. This seems great, but there is a catch. Telescopes will give a maximum useful magnification of about 50x times the aperture in inches. Above that magnification, the image becomes dimmer and fuzzier, but no additional detail can be discerned. Thus, your 102 mm aperture refractor can get up to 205x before it is maxed out. You need a bigger objective to go higher. (But don’t despair – high power is overrated and most of your viewing will be done at low power)


As mentioned above, refractors that have very low f-ratios won’t put all of the light in your eyeball. Why not? The answer is exit pupil diameter. The exit pupil diameter is the width of the light column coming out of the eyepiece into your eyeball. When fully dilated (night adapted) in the dark, most people have pupil diameters of about 7 mm. As people age, this maximum dilation is a bit less. If the exit pupil is larger than the diameter of your pupil, the light around the edges does not go in your eye (i.e., it is wasted). To calculate the exit pupil diameter, divide the aperture by the magnification. For example, 7x binoculars never have objective lenses >50 mm because 50/7 is 7.1. Any bigger objectives and the exit pupil is too large. Considering the 102 mm refractor once again, the 30 mm eyepiece at 24x produces an exit pupil of 4.3 mm. No problem. What if that scope were much faster, say f-4? Then the focal length would be 408 mm and the 30 mm eyepiece would yield only 13.6x and the exit pupil would be 7.5 mm. Whoops, too wide for your eyeball. Such a lens would be great for photography because it is fast and astro cameras don’t have narrow pupils. 


Another consideration for high f-ratio refractors is scope length. Remember that the 102 mm aperture f-15 scope has a length of 60 inches. This is the proverbial “yard cannon” that may cause your neighbors to call the police when you bring it out. Refractors are usually mounted by a clamp around the middle. This means that the focuser with the eyepiece sticks out about 30 inches from the mount attachment point. When you turn the focus knob, vibrations are magnified by this lever arm, which makes it difficult to see when the image is in focus. Poorly mounted long refractors can jiggle for many seconds after being touched. As a result, long refractors require heavy, sturdy mounts. 


An advantage for refractor telescopes is that they have rigidly mounted lenses, so that once collimated (i.e., the lens axes are aligned) – usually during manufacture – they tend to stay collimated. In contrast, most telescopes with mirrors require periodic adjustment to collimate the optical axes. This makes refractors good for travel scopes and for astronomers who don’t like to collimate. 


Before moving on, note one particular feature of the refractor diagram (Figure1). The light beam coming in on one side of the lens ends up coming out of the other side of the eyepiece. This geometry means that refractor images are upside down and backwards. If you use your scope to look at something terrestrial, this flip will be immediately obvious. When viewing the sky, it is mainly an inconvenience of which the observer should be aware. Binoculars, which are designed to give right-side-up images, have special prisms that turn the image around. For an astronomical telescope, the extra reflections cause slight image dimming, so the erecting prism is usually left out (but you can purchase one if you want).


Achromat and Apochromat, What’s the Diff?

Looking at refractor telescope ads, you will find a huge price range for scopes of similar size. Using the 4 inch refractor for example, Celestron sells a 102 mm refractor OTA (optical tube assembly, i.e., the tube without a mount) for about $300. In contrast, Tele Vue sells a 101 mm OTA for about $4,270. Why the big difference? The Celestron scope is an f-10 with an achromat lens whereas the Tele Vue is a fast f-5.5 with a Petzval lens. The Petzval lens is much more complicated and designed to create fast, sharp images for photography. Mostly the price difference reflects how well the lens focuses the image. Making a lens that produces pinpoint stars across the field of view is difficult.


All lenses suffer from aberrations. Chromatic aberration occurs because a single lens does not focus all wavelengths of light at the same distance from the objective (Figure 3). This divergence occurs because the lens behaves like a prism. This means that a simple lens can only be designed to make a sharp image for some wavelengths. Other wavelengths will appear as out-of-focus halos. Cheap refractors with poorly corrected lenses will show such fringes on bright objects and straight edges. A remedy for chromatic aberration is to put two lenses together with different refractive indices so that the second lens bends the divergent wavelengths more closely into focus. A common inexpensive approach is a two-lens objective (doublet) using one element of crown glass and one element of flint glass. The two glass types have different elements added that change the refractive index. This two-lens design is called an achromat. This is the type of lens used in most inexpensive refractors (Figure 4).


Figure 3. Diagram illustrating chromatic aberration, caused by the glass lens having different indices of refraction for different light wavelengths. The result is that different light wavelengths have different focal distances. (source: Bob Mellish, Wikipedia)



Figure 4. Diagram of a doublet achromat objective lens pair, showing reduced chromatic aberration. (source: Bob Mellish, Wikipedia)


An apochromatic objective (aka “apo”) is one that is designed for better color correction. Such telescopes often have a three-element lens (a triplet, Figure 5), but there are some doublets made with exotic (expensive) glass elements that provide decent correction for chromatic aberration. Doublet apos are often called semi-apochromatic. One can purchase a 4-element objective, called a Petzval, which contains two doublets. More lenses and more expensive glasses give better correction, but the more lenses and more expensive glasses make these objectives expensive to manufacture. This is why high-quality apo refractors have big prices.



Figure 5. Diagram of three-element apochromat objective lens assembly, which further reduces chromatic aberration. (souce: Egmason, Wikipedia)


Multiple-element objectives also help correct other aberrations. Any telescope objective produces spherical aberration, which is caused by the fact that light rays coming through the lens at different distances from the center are not guided to the same focus point (Figure 6). Coma is another imperfection, caused by off axis light rays not focusing at the same point (Figure 7). Well-designed multiple-lens objectives do a better job at correcting these aberrations and that is why they are more desirable, especially for photography, where sharp, pinpoint stars are desirable.



Figure 6. Diagram illustrating spherical aberration, caused by a lens not bringing all light rays (blue lines) to focus at a single point. (source: Mansurov, 2019)



Figure 7. Diagram illustrating coma, which is caused by off-axis light rays not converging to a single focus point. (source:


Which Refractor Scope for Me?

If you want a refractor, which scope is the right one for you? It depends on what you want to do with it. If you will primarily use the scope for visual observations, a good achromat will probably be just fine. It should probably have a higher f-ratio (around f-10) so that the aberrations are less and the longer focal length will allow you to get up to the maximum effective magnification. You might get some color fringes on bright objects, but the cost will be affordable. If the fringes bother you, consider getting a semi-apo doublet. It will be more expensive, but will be more pleasing to your discerning eye. If you want get into astrophotography, you probably want an three or four element apo with excellent color correction. 


As you scan telescope ads, you find that size and cost go hand-in-hand. You want a larger objective to collect more light and allow more magnification. Common consumer refractors max out at about 6-inches objective diameter. You can get a decent 6-inch Celestron achromat OTA for about $1,000. Apo refractor OTA will be a factor of 4-8 times more expensive. Larger refractor scopes are too expensive to manufacture at prices that many people will pay and larger objectives also translate it large, long tubes that require sturdy mounts, often a pier fixed in an observatory. As a result, one rarely encounters a refractor with a larger objective unless you visit a professional observatory. 



Mansurov, N., 2019. What is spherical aberration?


Lens design primer:

by Loyd Overcash

IC-434 The Horsehead Nebula, Fort Davis, Texas

Exposure was 135 minutes taken in 5 minute subs with my 14.5 RC and the ZWO-2600mc camera in Bin 3 Gain 300

by David Prosper

image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie

Most planets are easy to spot in the night sky, but have you spotted Mercury? Nicknamed the Messenger for its speed across the sky, Mercury is also the closest planet to the Sun. Its swift movements close to our Sun accorded it special importance to ancient observers, while also making detailed study difficult. However, recent missions to Mercury have resulted in amazing discoveries, with more to come. 

Mercury can be one of the brightest planets in the sky – but also easy to miss! Why is that? Since it orbits so close to the Sun, observing Mercury is trickier than the rest of the “bright planets” in our solar system: Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  Mercury always appears near our Sun from our Earth-bound point of view, making it easy to miss in the glare of the Sun or behind small obstructions along the horizon. That’s why prime Mercury viewing happens either right before sunrise or right after sunset; when the Sun is blocked by the horizon, Mercury’s shine can then briefly pierce the glow of twilight. Mercury often appears similar to a “tiny Moon” in a telescope since, like fellow inner planet Venus, it shows distinct phases when viewed from Earth! Mercury’s small size means a telescope is needed to observe its phases since they can’t be discerned with your unaided eye. Safety warning: If you want to observe Mercury with your telescope during daytime or before sunrise, be extremely careful: you don’t want the Sun to accidentally enter your telescope’s field of view. As you may already well understand, this is extremely dangerous and can not only destroy your equipment, but permanently blind you as well! That risk is why NASA does not allow space telescopes like Hubble or the JWST to view Mercury or other objects close to the Sun, since even the tiniest error could destroy billions of dollars of irreplaceable equipment. 

Despite being a small and seemingly barren world, Mercury is full of interesting features. It’s one of the four rocky (or terrestrial) planets in our solar system, along with Earth, Venus, and Mars. Mercury is the smallest planet in our solar system and also possesses the most eccentric, or non-circular, orbit of any planet as well: during a Mercurian year of 88 Earth days, the planet orbits between 29 million and 43 million miles from our Sun – a 14-million-mile difference! Surprisingly, Mercury is not the hottest planet in our solar system, despite being closest to the Sun; that honor goes to Venus, courtesy its thick greenhouse shroud of carbon dioxide. Since Mercury lacks a substantial atmosphere and the insulating properties a layer of thick air brings to a planet, its temperature swings wildly between a daytime temperature of 800 degrees Fahrenheit (427 degrees Celsius) and -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius) at night. Similar to our Moon, evidence of water ice is present at Mercury’s poles, possibly hiding in the frigid permanent shadows cast inside a few craters. Evidence for ice on Mercury was first detected by radar observations from Earth, and followup observations from NASA’s MESSENGER mission added additional strong evidence for its presence. Mercury sports a comet-like tail made primarily of sodium which has been photographed by skilled astrophotographers. The tail results from neutral atoms in its thin atmosphere being pushed away from Mercury by pressure from the nearby Sun’s radiation.  

NASA’s Mariner 10 was Mercury’s first robotic explorer, flying by three times between 1974-1975. Decades later, NASA’s MESSENGER first visited Mercury in 2008, flying by three times before settling into an orbit in 2011. MESSENGER thoroughly studied and mapped the planet before smashing into Mercury at mission’s end in 2015. Since MESSENGER, Mercury was briefly visited by BepiColombo, a joint ESA/JAXA probe, which first flew by in 2021 and is expected to enter orbit in 2025 - after completing six flybys. Need more Mercury in your life? Check out NASA’s discoveries and science about Mercury at, and visit the rest of the universe at




Mercury reaches maximum western elongation on the morning of January 30, which means that your best chance to spot it is right before sunrise that day! Look for Mercury towards the southeast and find the clearest horizon you can. Observers located in more southern latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere have an advantage when observing Mercury as it will be a bit higher in the sky from their location, but it’s worth a try no matter where you live. Binoculars will help pick out Mercury’s elusive light from the pre-dawn glow of the Sun.  Image created with assistance from Stellarium



On rare occasion, Earthbound observers can observe Mercury, like Venus, transiting the Sun. Mercury frequently travels between Earth and the Sun, but only rarely does the geometry of all three bodies line up to allow observers from Earth to view Mercury’s tiny shadow as it crosses our star’s massive disc. You can see one such event in this photo taken by Laurie Ansorge of the Westminster Astronomical Society on November 11, 2019. If you missed it, set a reminder for Mercury’s next transit: November 13, 2032.

This article is distributed by NASA’s Night Sky Network (NSN).