Visual observations with the
61-inch Catalina Reflector

(now called the Kuiper Telescope).

I frequently work on the 61-inch Catalina Telescope I once got to use it visually. What a night that was. It was May 4/5, 1996. I was working with Seth Hansell (a Lunar & Planetary Lab grad. student) on the 61-inch. (BTW-This is the telescope that Alika Herring and Ewen Whitaker used on the moon back in the 1960's.) It is nothing short of a spectacular instrument! The optics leave little to be desired. When we were done with our requisite observations we had half a night left. We were able to use the instrument visually as the data was backed up on tape. We looked at a number of old favorites (M13, M3, NGC 4565, 6207, 6210 to name a few). The globulars were stunning. The individual stars had color to them. I don't see color well so this was a real treat. We were using one of those old WWII erfle eyepieces with a huge field of view so it was like sticking your head in the telescope and looking around! I tried to look for the "propeller" in M13 but there were just too many stars. My favorite was NGC 4565. I have always had a soft spot for that one. It stretched out both sides of the field. The nucleus looked bluish like a distant mercury vapor light in the fog and it shed a "v" shaped green light to one side of the core. Really pretty. The dust lane was rumpled and very structured. It was reminscent of when I got to look through the #2 36" 'scope on Kitt Peak at NGC 253. The arms were knots and clouds and the structure just amazed me. This was very similar. Another time I used the 4-meter for a night and took an image of NGC 891 in And. That one too showed all kinds of structure and detail. I was looking through the guiding eyepiece as they slewed the telescope (I was in the upper observing cage). It was like the old Star Trek intro with the stars whizzing by. Then the 'scope came to a sudden stop and there was 891. A very memorable incident.

But it was Pluto and the Moon that stunned us that night with the 61-inch. We found Pluto readily enough but it was very close to a star of similar brightness. We tried to figure out which was which when it dawned on us that it might just be Charon! A quick look at the Astronomical Almanac and a quick calculation convinced us that we had Charon at elongation. The two objects were seen as small dots, just touching aligned SW/NE. A check the next day confirmed that we had indeed seen Pluto and Charon at greatest separation of 0.7"!

Before quitting we turned the telescope on the moon at about 0800 UT. Petavius was near the terminator. This was the first thing I ever photographed through a telescope back in 1967. Then I was just able, with my RV-6, to capture the crack that runs from the central peaks to the crater wall. In the 61-inch we were able to see details on the edge of the crack! The crater entirely filled the eyepiece and was blindingly bright even though it was half filled with shadow. The floor of the crater was not smooth as smaller telescopes show, but rather was undulating, cracked and broken. The whole scene looked exactly like the old Nasmyth & Carpenter lithographs. What a thrill this was! We looked around. In Messier we could see the crease along the floor and in Messier A we could easily see the ejecta blanked to one side.

At this point it dawned on me that the phase was just right to make an observation of the "O'Neil Bridge". So we swung over to M. Crisium, half in shadow and prominent. Proclus was bright and striations stetching from the floor to the top of the crater walls were seen. A long ridge marked a serpentine illumination boundary through the center of the mare, very near the Luna 15 landing site. The spot where the "Bridge" was supposed to be was two ranges of mountains that almost touched. They were clear and unmistakable and the mountains were very craggy with many minor peaks and valleys. There was no impression of any sort of bridge, just normal mountain ranges and a pass between them and a few isolated peaks scattered about. In this telescope nothing was smooth, not even the floor of Crisium. I wish I could have made a drawing of the region, but that would have taken all night with the amount of detail we were seeing!

This is a great 'scope and I hope they never decommission it. There are some images of it HERE. These show the spectrograph we used to observe water vapor on Mars, Sodium on the Moon and Sodium on Mercury.