Friday, 20 June 2008

Nights will draw in - thank goodness!

Depending on who you listen to, the summer solstice is either today (it bloody well felt like 'the longest day' at work today, too) or tomorrow the 21st, depending on who you listen to. On the local news today, according to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich the solstice is today, but according to other parties (New Age types and druids) it is at 0100 BST (0000 UT) on the morning of the 21st. I'll stick with the astronomers' version, I think, rather than the druidic claims.
At least the 'longest day' is now over for 2008 and thankfully the light hours will be getting fewer and those of us stuck at higher latitudes will be able to a) observe and b) observe at more reasonable hours as the nights draw in. I hate mid-summer - and the weather's crap again this year, too (I can see it going the same way as 2007 when half of England was flooded and it didn't stop raining until September).

The long-range weather forecast isn't promising for the rest of June and the whole of July. Long-range forecasts can be about as accurate as astrology although, unlike astrology, they cannot be entirely dismissed.

Slightly related to the above: I am thinking more and more about leaving the UK for a drier and warmer climate. Apart from the point of view of observing and the British weather is f**king awful for an astronomer, I also get SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder and hate the cloudy winter days. I like the long nights when it is clear and I can get out and observe, but I loathe the clouds and damp weather we mostly get. Besides I have a couple of old back and shoulder injuries, plus joint trouble, and the damp causes pain in these areas.
It's all very well for Australians and others to moan about a couple of weeks of shit observing conditions, but try living on a group of islands in the north-eastern Atlantic when shit observing conditions go on for bloody months. Then you can really bloody complain about the conditions.
I am hoping to do an IT network engineering course in September, and eventually I hope I can emigrate. A bad day in my current, menial, job and the fact it is raining - again - has put me in a bad mood!

Thursday, 19 June 2008

New toys

At TSP, I bought a 2" fit 35mm TeleVue Panoptic eyepiece (I don't really need one, but I have always wanted one which is a good enough reason). It is pretty heavy, though, and I am hoping I will not have to make too many (any!) adjustments to the balance of the scope.

35mm Panoptic

I also bought - second hand - a 4 inch Meade Schmidt Cassegrain for the bargain price of $110. I have to admit that I need an SCT like a hole in the head, but I couldn't resist it and it will be a good travel scope (unlike the little refractor travel scope I already have and which doesn't focus very well without racking it in until it will go no further and also has a godawful mount on it). This is a cute little scope. I also had to get a 2" diagonal to fit it, which cost me an additional $50 but this was also a bargain.

The Meade with the 2" diagonal and 35mm Panoptic in it

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

'Observation Manager'

While surfing various astronomy sites I came across 'Observation Manager', a German-made observing notes software. I've downloaded it as it looks interesting.
It is a nice, easy-to-use clean interface and you can enter information easily. The lack of a 'Help' menu is irritating, but the program is so easy to use that it doesn't really matter -anyway it was free so I can't really complain about anything I suppose!
To enter an observation, select 'Create Observation' and then fill in the necessary details of location, scope, etc. To add notes, click on 'Deepsky Finding Details'.
Another slight irritation is that the utterly pointless and waste-of-time 'Caldwell Catalogue' is in there and is the default option, rather than the RNGC (the RNGC is in there of course, but the list follows alphabetical order so Caldwell pops up first).
If you neglect to enter an observer or any other piece of data then the program will not let you proceed further, so you have to - annoyingly - scrap the observation, enter the required data in 'Create New...' and start again.

It's not a bad little bit of freeware though, but I'll stick with - mostly - my Deepsky program I bought at TSP a couple of weeks (a couple of weeks??!!) ago.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Some observations from TSP

Here are some observations from TSP. Of course, I did sketches too, but these aren't scanned in yet. The observations here were put together using the Deepsky software I bought at TSP. The software is good, once you have sussed out how to use it, and I like the Logbook feature (used to make the observation notes below).
You can upload your observations to a blog but this is the downside - you have to have an account with Astronomy Blogs. That's no problem because it's free and it doesn't take long to sign up but I use Blogspot (Blogger) and want to continue to use Blogspot for my blog. So, a choice would be nice. Besides Astronomy Blogs has problems - missing pages, 'funny' dates (my uploaded observations came out dated 12/31/1969 which is a month before I was born - WTF??!) and doesn't seem to be very active and I don't see it lasting. Still, I can cut and paste my observations from there to here or my main site if I want to.

Object: NGC 6572 - Emerald Nebula, PK 34+11.1

Deepsky Catalog: NGC 2000
Date Observed: 13/06/2008 19:45:28
Object RA: 18h 12.10533m
Object Declination: 6d 51.2155'
Object Type: PlnNeb
Constellation: Oph
Magnitude: 9
Size: 0.1
Locate Method: Star Hopping
Observing Location: Prude Ranch, Fort Davis, TX, USA
Primary Equipment Used: 36" Dobsonian
Power/Magnification Used: 232x
Transparency/Seeing: Deepsky Extremely Clear / Deepsky Mostly Stable
Detailed Observing Notes: Bright blue PN with a dense bright centre (central star?), surrounded by fainter halo. Beautiful object.

Object: NGC 4216
Deepsky Catalog: NGC 2000
Date Observed: 13/06/2008 19:39:47
Object RA: 12h 15.90433m
Object Declination: 13d 8.985'
Object Type: Gx
Constellation: Vir
Magnitude: 10
Size: 8.3
Locate Method: Star Hopping
Observing Location: Prude Ranch, Fort Davis, TX, USA
Primary Equipment Used: 36" Dobsonian
Power/Magnification Used: 232x
Transparency/Seeing: Deepsky Extremely Clear / Deepsky Mostly Stable
Detailed Observing Notes: A superb view with the 36". 4216 is very large, very bright and elongated, with a bright compact core.
Object: NGC 4206
Deepsky Catalog: NGC 2000
Date Observed: 13/06/2008 19:20:47
Time Observed: 23:00Local
Object RA: 12h 15.27917m Object Declination: 13d 1.438333'
Object Type: Gx
Constellation: Vir
Magnitude: 12.1
Size: 5.2
Locate Method: Star Hopping
Observing Location: Prude Ranch, Fort Davis, TX, USA
Primary Equipment Used: 36inch Dobsonian
Transparency/Seeing: Deepsky Extremely Clear / Deepsky Mostly Stable
Detailed Observing Notes: NGC 4206 is an elongated edge-on galaxy. It is in the same f.o.v. as NGC 4216 through the 36" at 232x, but is smaller, fainter and lacks a bright core.
Object: NGC 3190 group/Hickson 44
Deepsky Catalog: Hickson Catalog of Compact Groups of Galaxies
Date Observed: 03/06/2008 20:13:47
Locate Method: Star Hopping
Observing Location: Prude Ranch, Fort Davis, TX, USA
Primary Equipment Used: 36" Dobsonian
Power/Magnification Used: 232x
Transparency/Seeing: Deepsky Extremely Clear/Deepsky Mostly Stable
Detailed Observing Notes: A nice group of galaxies. NGC 3190 is the brightest member with a prominent dust lane and its elongated.
NGC 3187 is faint, round and evenly bright
NGC 3185 has a slight brightening towards the centre.
NGC 3193 is round with a dense core and a fuzzy halo.

Texas Star Party 2008 - Part 2

Here's the second - and final - part of my trip to the 2008 Texas Star Party.

Day 5 - Friday 6th June 2008:

I had put my name down for the Friday trip to McDonald Observatory but ended up not going and crossed myself off the list because I was too tired and didn't fancy a 12 mile trip in an old non-air conditioned school bus in 100 degree heat. I wasn't that bothered because I had been before in 2006.

In addition to the Globular program, I have also finished a binocular program so there's another pin to add to my collection. Cool! Talking of observing pins, I have seen several people including Ben Jones, Barbara Wilson, Larry Mitchell, Steve Goldberg, Amelia Goldberg and Matt Delavoryas wearing dozens of TSP and Astronomical League observing pins on hats, scarves and jackets. That's pretty inspiring and I am going to aim for some AL pins - one reason I joined the AL was to do their observing programs. I have just about completed my binocular Messier project - and I'll send the observations off to the AL soon. Observing programs and their associated pins are a great way of doing a structured observing program.

I have what seems to be a cold, but it could be just an adverse reaction to the dust and smoke.

Visited the 'swap-meet' at the vendors hall and somehow came away with a 4 inch Meade SCT and a 2-inch diagonal to fit it, for the bargain sum of $160 (the scope was $110). I also went into the vendors again and bought some decent-looking software 'Deepsky' from Bob Kepple's (he of 'The Night Sky Observer's Guide' and 'Astro Cards' fame) stand.

Visited Jimi Lowrey's 48 inch scope for an observing session - wow, what a beauty and a thoroughly enviable set up; Jimi is living the dream. I was there at the invitation of Larry Mitchell, who was invited and was asked to invite a few people of his choice. I was really pleased to be asked as opportunities for observing with such a big scope are few and far between.

I didn't do any sketching, not enough time as we had a big list of objects we wanted to see. I also didn't write down what we saw, but as we all saw the same things another member of our group, Jose, did and is going to send me the list.

The 48 inch makes the unobservable observable, the faint, dim and fuzzy bright and detailed and the bright and spectacular simply awesome. M51 filled the field of view - it looked like the size of a saucer - and was better than a photograph. The arms were full of detail, HII regions shone and the whole thing was akin to a 'religious experience'. The Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), the Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009) (bright blue-green and showing lobes and 'layers'), Hickson 88, Stephan's Quintet and the Ring Nebula (M57) were also incredible. The Ring showed massive amounts of detail and, for the first time ever, I actually saw a colour other than blue or green in a deep sky object. The Ring was blue-green, but the outer portion of the ring was pink. The pink was subtle but it was obvious. The central hole was filled in, giving a gauzy effect and the central star was visible.

As for the globular M13, this was more detailed than I have ever seen before. The propeller feature was very obvious, looking exactly like a ship or aircraft propeller, a black mark on a bright background.

Another first for me was seeing Neptune as a disk and its moons. The planet was a lovely blue. Jupiter's moons were also disks (these firsts keep on coming!) and as for Jupiter itself, wow! It was tack sharp in moments of good seeing and the detail was - at the risk of being cliched - photographic, with the Great Red Spot (more pale pink than red) and other spots seen, as well as belts, bands and festoons.

Jimi kept saying how the night wasn't very good and the seeing was soft - actually it was a little soft - but to someone from the UK used to really shit observing conditions it was an awesome night. It's all relative.

At the end of the night we all agreed that it was one of the most magical nights of astronomy any of us had ever had. The 'feeling' of the occasion was also helped by the native American music ('Sacred Spirit Vol II' and 'Wolves') that Jimi - who is of Cherokee descent - put on his stereo.

We eventually got back to the Prude Ranch at 0600.

Day 6 - Saturday 7th June 2008:

The last day of the 2008 Texas Star Party, sadly. It may be hot, but I wish it could go on forever. There are some ominous-looking clouds to the north of us but hopefully they will move away and we can have a final night of observing at TSP 2008.

Later: the clouds have filled the sky, it's not looking good for any observing.

The evening's talk was 'The Mysteries of the Universe' by Bob Berman of Astronomy Magazine, which was a fun and entertaining talk. The questions were almost hijacked by a guy who wanted to take Bob on on some issue until Barbara Wilson (the MC) shot him down in flames. It was the same guy who tried to bore Robert Reeves and myself to death earlier in the evening at dinner by talking about mathematics. Won nothing in the 'Great Texas Giveaway' this time, but I never do anything in raffles anyway. The grand prize this evening was a 13mm Televue Ethos. Faux prayers were offered but sadly, it was not to be.

By the time we left the meeting a spectacular lightning storm was underway, so it was time for chat and farewells before going to bed before 1am.

Lightning over the Davis Mountains - best shot I got.

Sunday 8th June 2008:

Long drive back to San Antonio via Fort Stockton for breakfast and Ozona. Heat exhaustion, tiredness and a chest problem due to dust and smoke caught up with me and, combined with plain old car sickness, necessitated a stop alongside Interstate 10 near Junction for me to get out and part with seven dollars' worth of breakfast, but this was a small price to pay for the amazing Texas Star Party we all had.

I flew home on Tuesday evening on an overnight Delta flight to Gatwick via Atlanta, arriving back on the Isle of Wight late Wednesday morning.

All-in-all this, my second, was a fabulous TSP and people were saying it was the best, observationally, for years due to the wonderfully clear skies and warm night-time conditions. The smoke on Wednesday night and the cloud-out on Saturday were minor irritations.

All that's left now is to say a MASSIVE thank you to - first and foremost - Robert and Mary Reeves (and the cats!) of San Antonio for hospitality and lifts to and from the airport and the Prude Ranch, Larry Mitchell, Amelia and Steve Goldberg, Bob Summerfield, Mike Planchon, David Moody, Richard and Connie Brown, Becky Ramatowski, Tracey Knauss, Barbara and Buster Wilson, Ben Jones, Jim and Ana Chandler, Todd Hargis, Jose Sancho, Jimi Lowrey, David Nagler, Matt Delavoryas, Bill Christian, Keith and Jan Venables (fellow 'Brits') and many others for help, telescope use and hospitality over the week.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Texas Star Party 2008 - Photos

Here are some photos from this year's Texas Star Party:

These are various views of the upper telescope field, showing how dusty it was. The Texas Star Party is (in)famous for the dust and there was plenty of it this year:

Here is the 'Belt of Venus' phenomenon, seen from the upper field.You can see the shadow clearly in the pic:

On Wednesday night there was a big grass fire to the south west and it was visible from the ranch as a glow reflected in the smoke. It was actually further away (around 20 miles distant) than it appears in this photo:

The Milky Way from the upper field:

Monday, 9 June 2008

Texas Star Party 2008 - Part 1

I am back from the Texas Star Party, although I am not back in the UK until Wednesday. I'm staying in San Antonio until my flight home tomorrow night.
The TSP was excellent and, from what I've heard and read about previous ones, one of the best ever. We had five nights (six for those who were there on the first Sunday) of outstanding observing - ok, four and a half nights as the first half of Wednesday night was affected by smoke from a massive grass fire 20 miles away to the south west of us. The days were the hottest temperatures I have ever been in, and the thermometer regularly topped 104 degrees - I have to admit that, as a British Isles resident, I found it a bit hard to live with but fortunately the air conditioning in the Prude Ranch buildings worked very well. As I overheard someone say to another person: "The heat'll kick your ass", and it did several people's, including mine.

Ok, here's a day-by-day account of the TSP (I have photos but I'll add these when I get home on Wednesday):

Day 1 - Monday 2nd June 2008:

We - that is Robert Reeves and I - arrived at the Prude Ranch in the early afternoon. The weather is hot, scorchingly so - it must be at least a hundred degrees on the Upper Field. I helped Robert set up but the most we could really do was sit on top of his cooler and drink - a lot of - beer. The sky is clear and things look promising for the night to come.
We registered and renewed friendships from before. I met Larry Mitchell again and he invited me to share his 36-inch Obsession for observing.
I observed until 0215 - I hate giving up on a superb night so quickly but I was tired because I'd been up since 5am the previous morning and we'd left San Antonio at 6.
I began the 'Globular Glory' observing program with my 8x42s to pick off the brighter and easier ones and also Larry's gigantic 6 inch Japanese binoculars (these are of World War 2 vintage and previously belonged to a Japanese battleship). I also observed with Larry's 36 inch but not do much sketching due to being tired.

Day 2 - Tuesday 3rd June 2008:

Another blisteringly hot day in the low 100's.
I visited the vendors' (always a dangerous time for my wallet) and came away with a 35mm Televue Panoptic (I have always wanted one but they are way too expensive in the UK, at least twice the price you pay in the US), a copy of Kanipe and Webb's 'The Arp Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies' (again much cheaper than at home) and an auto-collimator.

Observed until 5am with Larry's scope, the Yard Scope (another 36-incher) which I used to knock off most of my Globular Glory observing program, and Mike Planchon's 20x125mm binoculars. Did quite a few sketches of galaxies.

Day 3 - Wednesday 4th June 2008:

Again, incredibly hot. Late in the afternoon we noticed a huge plume of smoke coming from the south west and rumours spread just as quickly as the fire did. It turned out to be a massive bush fire covering some 50,000 acres. There was concern as the fire at one point was coming closer to us and the possibility of having to evacuate the Prude Ranch did cross a few people's minds, but fortunately this was not necessary. The TSP and Prude staff kept in contact with the relevant authorities by radio and phone just in case evacuation of the Prude Ranch became necessary and to keep up with the progress of the fire.
The smoke made life uncomfortable for all of us, causing eye and lung irritations. I thought I'd forgotten to bring my asthma inhalers and, although my asthma is mild and not at all serious it was beginning to make its presence felt. Luckily I found the inhalers in my jacket pocket but because of the smoke, I felt like I was getting a severe cold and chest infection.

Because of the smoke no-one did any really serious observing but I did manage to finish my Globular Glory program, courtesy of Mike Planchon's giant binoculars. I also spent time chatting with Barbara Wilson, Ben Jones, Larry Mitchell, Steve Goldberg, Jimi Lowrey (who owns a newly completed 48-inch Dobsonian in an observatory at Limpia Crossing, near the ranch) and David Nagler (he of Televue fame). We got to try out a new prototype Denkmeier binocular image intensifier through Barbara's 20-inch Dobsonian and it was pretty impressive. Is this the future of visual observing? Probably not if they aren't allowed to export it (something to do with US technology having to stay in the States - boo). The worst of the smoke cleared up at around 2 am and although people were saying how crap the seeing was it was still better than the shitty skies we get at home.

Day 4 - Thursday 5th June 2008:

The fires are still burning and from what I have heard, 50,000 acres were destroyed, including a ranch (killing the cattle). As someone noted at lunch it sounds as if half of south-west Texas is on fire.

I did my talk this afternoon and it was well-received. I was given a 'Texas Star Party Certificate of Merit' for it which was a nice touch. I also picked up my globular cluster observing pin from John Wagoner.

Another all-nighter until 0530. I spent most of it with Larry's 36 inch and did a lot of sketches. I also observed with Jim Chandler's 30 inch and Barbara Wilson's 20 inch. The most interesting object of the night was the ring galaxy Hoag's Object (PGC 54559) in Serpens Caput, seen though the 30 inch. The core was seen easily enough but the ring was tougher. Some people saw it, others didn't. I eventually saw it, but only after a lot of staring with averted vision. Part of it popped into view, then another part and eventually the whole ring appeared for a second before disappearing again.

Also observed Sharpless 2-71, a faint planetary. On Barbara's MegaStar image it looked as if it had a huge ? stamped on it but only part of this was visible through any of the large Dobs.

I managed to drop my Nikon D80 into the Prude dust but before I went to bed at 0600 I cleaned it up with no damage done - that dust is evil stuff and you don't want it anywhere near optics of any sort. I just hope none has found its way inside but as I have not changed lenses it should be ok - I hope.

Part 2 - plus photos - to follow...