Thursday, 29 May 2008

Off to TSP

I'm setting off for Texas tomorrow (hotel at Gatwick then transAtlantic flight to San Antonio via Atlanta mid morning Saturday).
The long-range weather forecast for the Fort Davis area looks promising - I hope it's accurate! - and I am hoping for at least a couple of good nights' observing. I have plenty of offers to share large scopes so I should - weather permitting, of course - be able to get lots of good sketches and observations...I am aiming for another TSP Observing Pin, too. Last time I got a binocular pin and I am hoping for an Advanced Pin this time.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Don't we know it!

While browsing deep sky websites I was reading Steve Waldee's excellent website and his essays. One, in particular, caught my eye - 'Astronomical Chauvinism - Alive and Well' - which is basically about how location can affect how well, or not, a particular object is seen. An observer in northern Europe might dismiss an observation of a difficult object made by an observer in California, for example, and as Steve points out, to do so is just plain wrong because the conditions in Europe are not as favourable as those in parts of the USA or Australia.
I do feel that he does rub it in slightly - albeit unintentionally - when he states that "But, would I trade the skies of Arizona and California for those of the British midlands? Certainly not." Steve, and others, are obviously in no doubt how fortunate living in those places make them and the rest of us who are not so lucky can only dream of leaving cloudy, murky, over-crowded, light polluted Britain (I'm working on it!). Steve, you could have Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Debussy (classical music does nothing for me anyway) and even Patrick Moore if we could have better observing conditions in the UK!


All being well, I'll be in Texas this time next week. I leave on Friday for Gatwick and my flight to San Antonio via Atlanta is on Saturday. I'm hoping there'll be no delays at Atlanta and - more to the point - at Gatwick. The long range forecast for the Fort Davis area is looking excellent and I really hope it holds up for the whole TSP - it's the only decent observing I'll probably get all year!
I have three more days - Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday - to endure at work before then and I have a feeling they'll drag.

Monday, 19 May 2008


During my last observing session with the 12-inch, the collimation was way off, so I was only able to use low powers which is a pain in the arse when you want a closer look at something. I couldn't suss out the laser collimator I got (it came without instructions - how stupid is that?!) although centering the beam on the primary helped a bit (but do not look down the tube to see where it is before holding a piece of paper in front of the scope to see where the return beam falls if it misses the secondary- if the beam is off, you might get an eyefull of laser and you certainly don't want that!).

However, after posting on Cloudy Nights I found out that centering the beam in the primary is not enough because that means that only the secondary is aligned. Once the beam is in the centre of the primary, you then have to adjust the screws on the primary so the laser return beam is centred on the hole in the centre of the view port on the laser - it will look like a tiny eclipse.
There is a super video on a website called Andy's Shot Glass and this is the best, most instructive tutorial on collimation anywhere I think: collimation video

The laser is great because that eliminates the need for a second person to twiddle the knobs while you look down the eyepiece. If you keep the laser view port facing the back of the scope you can see where the collimation is at and twiddle the knobs. Afterwards you can see what the mirrors look like with a collimation eyepiece (I made one from an old film canister I found in a drawer).

I am hoping for a clear night tonight so I can try it out, so it's full Moon, but that doesn't matter.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

'Observing' 13th May 2008

It was clear but the moon is on its way up, so I took the refractor out instead of the 12". Sky conditions were dreadful to say the least - there was drifting cloud, a waxing gibbous moon and the high pressure haze was awful.
Not only that, my refractor's red dot finder had stopped working, due to me leaving it switched on last time I used it, sometime back in March, so I used it as a rough guide but in all honesty a red dot finder with no working red dot is useless - naturally it doesn't take sensible batteries such as AA or AAA ones, of which plenty are lying round the house, it takes a crappy little CR2032 flat thing which I had none of until a trip to Tesco this morning.

I did manage to look at a few bright deep sky objects and some double stars. I even looked at the moon (yes, you did read that right!) and that was impressive with my 8mm TeleVue Radian.
I didn't stay out long as I hate observing in conditions like that - it was so bright I could have read a book out there and the haze was appalling. It was like observing from the middle of London (and I have observed from London - it's crap!).


Two and a half weeks to TSP (two weeks until I finish work, can't wait, expecially as I'm planning on not going back to the job, too stressful!). I have been asked to do an afternoon talk on the Thursday, and my topic's going to be Visual Deep Sky Observing (From a UK Perspective). My friend Robert Reeves is on before me, so between us we've practically taken over the Thursday PM session! I'm looking forward to getting there and seeing everyone again. Naturally I hope that we have clear skies both day and night, but the TSP being in June this year, I'm not sure what the local conditions are - more thundery, I think. Whatever the conditions are, I'm up for a good time.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Observing, 7th-8th May 2008

A much more transparent night due probably to a breeze that had been blowing during the day and into the evening. This died down when it got dark.

Set up the scope in twilight and wondered why, when I came to align the finder and check the collimation, I couldn't see a damned thing. The secondary holder had become misaligned but a quick adjustment soon sorted that out. The nut holding it had worked its way loose so two seconds with a spanner tightened it up - I'll have to keep an eye on that because the last thing I want is for the secondary to work loose and crash into the main mirror, which doesn't bare thinking about!

Date: 7th-8th May 2008:
Conditions: Clear, slight breeze (this died down after dark), cooler than previous evening, more transparent (on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is cloudy and 5 is excellent, this was around 4).
Scope: 12" f5 Dobsonian.
Place: near Sandown, Isle of Wight, UK.

As the conditions were more transparent than the previous night I looked for galaxies in Ursa Major - the 'lollipops' M81 and M82 were superb through the 12" ( a real 'wow' factor with lots of detail) and other, small, galaxies in the vicinity were easy to see: NGC 3077, NGC 2976 and, further away, NGC 2787.
Hercules was rising, so I had the obligatory look at M13 - it was a fantastic sight in the 12" with a dense core and arms of stars radiating out from it. I didn't do a sketch, that can wait until later in the year. While in the area, I decided to have a look at the galaxy near M13, NGC 6207. At low power (37x) both M13 and NGC 6207 are in the same field of view. NGC 6207 is a slightly elongated oval smudge, evenly bright.
It was on to NGC 6229 a globular cluster in Hercules. At 37x, this was obvious, next to a couple of bright stars. It's small, condensed, round and bright. Some stars resolved, but only just.
After this it was 1am and time to pack in.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

The Herschel 400

I have never been one for doing systematic observing projects, always instead doing my own thing and either just choosing targets for any given session or just deciding what to observe 'when I got there', so to speak.
However, having just seen most (70) of the Messier Objects with a pair of 8x42 binoculars which was a project brought on by financially-induced scopelessness a few years ago, I have decided to have a bash at the Herschel 400. I have probably seen a lot of the Herschel 400 anyway (I'll have to dig out old notes to be sure) but observing them with the 12" will be a fun project. I want to re-observe previously seen stuff with the 12" anyway and I daresay this'll pick up quite a lot of Herschels.
I have the Astronomical League book 'Observe the Herschel Objects' (I also have their 'Herschel II' book) so, using that as a reference, this will be an ongoing project. It's going to take me quite a long time to complete because of the UK's crappy climate and also other commitments getting in the way of observing.

The Telrad dew heater arrived this morning and I discovered a bit of a snag. I need to buy a dew controller to make it work. Bollocks!!! Oh well, I need one anyway for my refractor, so when I'm a bit more flush, I'll get one (they're around £45).

Observing 6th-7th May 2008

A beautiful day yesterday (6th May 2008) led to a clear, dry night so, as I didn't have to go to work the following morning it was time for a spot of observing.

Date: 6th-7th May 2008
Conditions: Clear, but milky sky (on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is poor and 5 is excellent, this ranked around 2.5 to 3), warm.
Scope: 12" f5 Dobsonian
Place: near Sandown, Isle of Wight, UK

Sadly, the sky was fairly milky and a lot of the fainter stuff was not visible but I did do a sketch of M51 whose spiral arms and HII regions were visible. I also located and sketched NGC 4036 and NGC 4041, galaxies in Ursa Major (and objects on the Herschel 400 list). Unfortunately a lot more UMa galaxies I wanted for the Herschel 400 were behind the tree in the garden by the time I got round to them, and will have to wait for another time.

This observing session was not without incident - the collimation went out on the scope (I need to do a few mods, I think) necessitating a lot of fiddling with laser collimater and allen keys (it's the secondary which is being a pain in the arse), I knocked my makeshift observing 'table' (an artist's rucksack cum stool) over scattering charts, pencils and sketchpad all over the adjacent flower bed and then injuring my right knee while kneeling to pick them up (I have a damaged cartilidge and it 'locks' up - painfully - from time to time) which meant I spent five minutes in agony and doing a lot of (quiet!) swearing and no observing. Combined with crappy seeing, this was a slightly frustrating session!

After checking out the Ring Nebula which was rising above the trees it was time to pack up. By then it was 1am and I'd been up since 0630 the previous morning.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

An hour of galaxies

I only had a short observing session last night due to having to be back at work today at 0730 (I am ditching this bloody job when I come back from Texas in June as the hours are crap) and I spent an hour poking around the galaxies of Virgo again. I didn't make any sketches though, just looking and seeing what was there. So many galaxies, so little time! Like I said in the previous post my 12" shows me so much more than the old 8" ever did - small faint ones, large faint ones, large bright ones, small bright ones, edge-on spirals, face-on spirals, the lot. Wonderful!

I also added M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, in Virgo to my binocular Messier list - I have observed 70 Messiers with my 8x42s to date so I am going to send them off to the Astronomical League for a binocular Messier pin - you need to observe 50 or more to qualify for the pin - and I also attempted M68, a globular cluster in Hydra, but I totally failed to see it properly, probably due to haze and its low altitude. If it clears tonight I'll give it another go.

Constantly wiping dew off the Telrad becomes tiresome very quickly and I spent a lot of time doing just that last night and the night before, so I decided to buy a dew heater off the net. Prices varied, from an outrageous £69 on one site to a more reasonable £9.99 from Telescope House, so I sent off for the latter and hopefully this should turn up by Tuesday (or Wednesday as there's a bank holiday in the way). Buying new gear always guarantees clouds, but surely a tiny, ten quid dew heater shouldn't attract the 'new equipment curse'...?

Friday, 2 May 2008

Galaxy hopping through the spring sky

A clear night at last, so after the weekly meeting down at the VAS Observatory I came home and set my scope up. It was looking extremely promising, so I decided that I was going galaxy hunting and really seeing what the 12" can do in that respect. Because of work the next day and lousy weather I've not used the scope that much since I got it in March (about four or five times) and even then the sessions were cut short or a bit hit-and-miss because of poor sky conditions.

Date: 01-02 May 2008
Conditions: Cool, clear, very dewy. The odd bit of drifting cloud but otherwise good transparency.
Place: Back garden, near Sandown, Isle of Wight, England

My first object this evening was NGC 4361, a planetary nebula in Corvus. It was extremely easy to find, although not that bright, being low in the southern sky. It was easily picked up as a roundish brightening against the background sky and an OIII filter made it stand out more. At 102x, it was not quite round and brightened in the middle, with fuzzy edges.
I didn't bother with the Antennae, as I have seen these before under better conditions in Texas and Australia.

Next it as up to Coma Berenices and Virgo and the Realm of the Galaxies. I decided - because of an article on Cloudy Nights - to have a look along Markarian's Chain in Virgo. This is a long chain of galaxies and starts with Messiers 84 and 86 and includes NGC 4438, 4435, 4458, 4461, 4473 and 4477. It's ages since I've looked at the Chain, the last time was as far back as 1993, with our local society's 18" Dob.

Also in Virgo I observed and sketched NGC's 4596 and 4608. I've also observed and sketched others, but identification can wait until tomorrow - I mean later today.

With the 12" I can see stuff I couldn't have in my old 8" - galaxies were everywhere and a good proportion of them weren't just dim little ovals like they were before. Ones that were once seen as dim little ovals in my old 8" were bright and full of detail and previously unseen galaxies now made themselves available, courtesy of those few extra inches of aperture.

I eventually packed up at 1am as I was getting cold and also drifting cloud was increasing. It was an excellent session.