Sunday, 28 March 2010

British Summer Time

It's that time of year again, and time for my (and other astronomers') annual moan about the clocks going forward.
If I could go on BBC2's Room 101 BST would be the third item in, after light pollution and clouds. It's stupid, pointless and a waste of time (pun not intended). It's also a thief of observing time, especially in the late spring and summer, when you can't get out to observe until late anyway and it's worse when you have work the next morning.

I don't like taking this blog away from astronomy but Southampton FC are at Wembley in the Johnstone's Paints Trophy Final (the proper title is the Football League Trophy, but it is always known by the sponsor's name). People have accused it of being a 'mickey mouse' cup but that's a load of rubbish. A trophy is a trophy and it's high time we won one, having won nothing since the 1976 Final when Bobby Stokes' goal was enough to beat Manchester United. I was only six at the time and do remember it, especially as my late uncle was a big Saints fan. I couldn't go to the game at Wembley (although I did go to some of the games in the competition) as I am keeping all my disposable income for TSP, but I will be listening to Radio Solent, in a state of extreme nerves, and mentally kicking every ball!
We've had finals since, and lost every blooming one of 'em! So...


Friday, 19 March 2010

Observing, March 15th 2010

Skies were looking good the other evening, so I dragged out the 12 inch for a Herschel session. On setting it up, though, I found the alignment was out, way out in fact, which was annoying and a problem that the new collimation springs I'd bought for it was supposed to prevent. However, I put the problem down to the fact that I'd resorted to transporting the heavy and awkward tube into the garden with a sack trolley which must have knocked the mirror and cell.

Once I'd sorted that out, I left it to cool and went inside to help my aunt with some sorting out of stuff she wanted done (the house is being re-arranged and a massive chuck-out is going on), badly slashing my thumb in the process, while trying to take down a burnt-out light fitting, and having to get it bandaged up - with my aunt on crutches after a foot operation the kitchen looked like A&E - but once this was done, the observing began.

Date 15th March 2010
Time: 2045 - 2300 UT
Conditions: chilly (around 1C), misty, no wind
Seeing: I-II
Transparency: III
NELM: 5.8-6.0 (mist causing light scatter)
Equipment: 12 inch f5 Dobsonian, 22mm Televue Panoptic (69x), 11mm Televue Plossl (138x), 8mm Televue Radian (190x) and OIII filter

First up, into Leo where NGCs 3607 and 3608 made a nice pair in the same field of view of the 22mm Panoptic. Also in the f.o.v. was NGC 3599 which is a lot fainter.

NGC 3607, galaxy in Leo - bright, oval suddenly brightens to a very bright nucleus. 69x, 138x.

NGC 3608, galaxy in Leo - slightly fainter than 3607. Also oval with slightly brighter centre. 69x, 138x.

NGC 3955, galaxy in Leo - considerably fainter than the other two, oval. Non-Herschel.  69x, 138x.

NGC 3626, galaxy in Leo - smaller than 3607/8, fainter, elongated north-south. Brightens towards centre to a bright nucleus. 69x, 138x.

NGC 3655, galaxy in Leo - elongated north-south. Brightens gradually to non-stellar core. Fairly bright, small, oval. Well defined against background sky. 69x, 138x

NGC 2903, galaxy in Leo - very bright and easy to find. Elongated north-south, oval. Slight hint of spiral structure. Brightens to very bright, almost stellar, nucleus. Nice! One I want to return to on a better night. 69x, 138x.

NGC 3344, galaxy in Leo Minor - round, almost even glow, brightening slightly towards middle. Two bright foreground stars are in the eastern half of the galaxy. 69x. 138x.

NGC 2859, galaxy in Leo Minor - small, round, with quite faint outer halo. Brightens considerably to very bright core. 69x, 138x.

NGC 2782, galaxy in Lynx - round. Not bright. Brightens gradually towards a compact core. 69x, 138x.

NGC 2371/2, planetary nebulae in Gemini - at 69x looks elongated with a distinctly 'figure of 8' look about it, or looking like a peanut. At medium power (138x) the two lobes are very obvious and one lobe (the western one) is much brighter than it's neighbour. At higher power (190x - highest I could go to on such a crummy night and with my collimation a bit out) the appearance is of two ovals adjacent to each other, each elongated approx. north-south. 69x, 138x, 190x + OIII filter.

NGC 2419, globular cluster in Lynx - round, even glow with no condensation. Nicely marked out by three bright stars in an arc pointing straight at it. Moderately bright, well defined against background sky. No stars resolved. although with averted vision some granulation (hinting at stars) appears.  69x, 138x, 190x.

Reluctantly packed up at 2300 UT; I would have gone on for a lot longer, only I had to be up at 0600 for work the following morning. It was a good session, better than I expected, despite the crummy conditions and my poor throbbing, massacred, thumb. I have now crept up to 11% of Herschels observed in the initial 400 list.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Aperture fever strikes!

Having caught a dose of aperture fever just recently - starting with a mild attack a couple of weeks ago and steadily getting worse with a couple of sessions on Owen Brazell's 20-inch Dob at IWSP last weekend - I have decided to get myself a large Dob. I am looking to get something in the range of 18 to 20 inches (preferably 20 inches), probably a David Lukehurst 20 inch. I am also looking at the Obsession scopes, but they have to be imported from the US, are more expensive and, quite apart from the shipping costs, I don't see why I should pay HM Revenue and Customs (who already take £70 a week in taxes off me) over £500 for the privilege of importing the thing. I was also thinking about a 16 inch Meade Lightbridge, but by the time I've saved for one, currently priced at £1839.12, I'd be halfway to affording a David Lukehurst 20 inch and I want something larger anyway - and besides, I think that a custom-built scope is a much higher quality product than a mass-produced item (good though LBs are). 
However, whatever I go for, I am going to have to save and, as I have calculated it and if the temp jobs keep steadily coming, I should be able to save the money for a 20 inch within 7 to 12 months. I hope David is still making them by the time I can afford one if it takes me longer than that!

But, in the meantime, I have TSP to save for (the flight's paid, but there's the accommodation and spending money to save for - and it will definitely make the aperture fever worse!) and also my car's MOT test in June will also set me back a fair amount as I know I need a new exhaust, brake linings and shock absorbers (although I might sell the car, and get an older, bigger, one for not much money as I am not sure my car, a little Citro├źn C3, is big enough to carry a 20 inch scope - and money left over will help pay for the new scope). However, after that, I can start to save and, all being well, I will be able to get a new scope by the end of the year.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

IWSP - observing

Here on the Isle of Wight we are fortunate in that we have a southerly aspect with unobstructed and un-lightpolluted views out over the English Channel, from the island's south coast where the star party is held. The only source of light pollution are passing ships and the light houses at St Catherines Point and Portland Bill (unlike the north east part of the island which is as light polluted as anywhere on the UK mainland).
This year's IW Star Party had a mix of cloud and clear spells, on the nights I was there, Friday and Saturday. Friday night was clear for an hour, then the weather closed in again and it rained for the rest of the night. Saturday was a lot better, giving us a good couple of hours and what I hear about Sunday was that it was clear for the most part, but I had to miss it because of having to be at work on Monday morning.

I was fortunate enough to share Owen Brazell's 20 inch Obsession, as well as take peeks though other people's scopes including a rather nice Orion Optics UK 14 inch Dob (which has a same length, but lighter, tube than my 12"), here are the observations all made with the 20 inch. These aren't in order, as I was scribbling the notes down on Post-it notes, a pad of which happened to be in my pocket - unlike a notebook - and they got mixed up.

Date: 13th March 2010
Conditions: chilly, cold breeze, some high cloud. No Moon.
NELM: 6.3
Seeing: Ant I-II
Instrument: 20 inch f5 Obsession Dobsonian, 21mm Televue Ethos, 13mm Televue Ethos, 8mm Televue Ethos and OIII filter.

M42 in Orion: I've seen this in every instrument I have looked through but this was the best view I have ever had. So much detail, wisps, tendrils, dark areas...and the Trapezium was as detailed as ever I've seen it. You could clearly see the hole, caused by the young stars blowing the gas away from their surroundings. The E and F components were easily seen, as were much fainter stars in the nebulosity immediately surrounding the Trapezium.

Jonckheere 900, planetary nebula in Gemini: Small, round and fuzzy. Quite bright. 318x + OIII

Jonckheere 320, planetary nebula in Orion: I have tried for this with my 12 inch from home without success. In the 20 inch it is small, not quite stellar, round and has a fuzzy appearance, this fuzziness preventing it appearing stellar. 318x + OIII

B33/IC 434 (Horsehead Nebula) in Orion: At last! I have made numerous attempts to see this, with no success. However, I suggested to Owen that we have a crack at this, so he put the 13mm Ethos and a HBeta filter in and we saw it comparatively easily. B33 (the Horsehead) stood out against IC434, as a large, dark, semicircular area cutting into the ribbon of IC434. With averted vision, we could just make out the horse's nose. For me, this was the observation - and the highlight - of the weekend. 120x

Abell 21 (aka Medusa Nebula) planetary nebula in Gemini: Eastern side is the brighter and is crescent shaped, in fact almost triangular. There is also some nebulosity on the western side. (Magnification unknown) + OIII

NGC 2022, planetary nebula in Orion: Oval, bright and slightly darker in middle. 318x + OIII.

NGC 2683, galaxy in Lynx: Large, bright edge-on spiral. Brightens beautifully towards centre.

NGC 2371-2, planetary nebula in Gemini. This is a very interesting planetary, consisting of two lobes, the western lobe being the brighter of the two. It does look like its nickname of the 'peanut' nebula, especially at low power. 318x + OIII

NGC 3242, (nickname Ghost of Jupiter) planetary nebula in Hydra: Very bright, oval with brighter middle. 318x + OIII

The clouds rolled in again just after midnight, so after a talk, I headed back to my tent (although I ended up abandoning it due to the cold!). It was a short, but good, session and the undoubted highlight was seeing the Horsehead Nebula for the first time as well as M42 in such incredible detail.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The 2010 Isle of Wight Star Party - hypothermia and the Horsehead

I have just returned from the 3rd IWSP and, while it was an enjoyable event, I have decided that camping in March is a Bad Idea. Never, in my entire life, have I been so cold so, next year, I will get a chalet instead. Because it was so cold, I ended up sleeping on someone's chalet floor (thanks Iain!)!

One corner of the star party site, showing the kitchen (self catering), the dining room area (left) and various attendees.

Some of the chalets

The Island coastline, looking south-east, seen from the campsite.

Looking south, over the English Channel. There's nothing between here and France except sea, the only light pollution comes from ships, such as the container ship heading down the Channel from Southampton seen in the distance.

The star party began on Thursday, but as I was stuck in my temp job until lunchtime Friday I didn't get there until late Friday afternoon. After going home and packing my stuff into the car I went to Brighstone via the VAS Observatory at Newchurch, which was hosting an open day for star party attendees. On leaving the observatory, the heavens opened and it was torrential rain for the next ten miles to the star party site - not a good omen. I put up my tent, amid much swearing - and with help from fellow star party attendee Richie Jarvis - in rain and wind, and wondering just what the hell I was doing.
On check in at reception I had been told that I was doing a talk and that it was on the Texas Star Party and that I was doing it that evening at eight o'clock. There's nothing like being well prepared to do a talk and I wasn't, but fortunately I had brought my remaining working laptop with me which, even more fortunately, had a load of hitherto-forgotten photos on it - including a bunch of ones from TSP 2006. With the help of Power Point I managed to cobble something together, gave the talk and it went down well, initial technical issues with my slow old laptop and the projector aside.
During my talk, it had cleared so we all got ready and went outside. We got an hour in before clouds rolled in again and I spent most of it observing with Owen Brazell and his beautiful 20" Obsession. I also took peeks through a 14" Orion Optics (UK) dob and a 12" Skywatcher dob.
The sky closed on us and we went back inside for a talk by Owen on observing galaxy clusters, which was a very interesting talk, as this is a subject I am very interested in, galaxies being my favourite deep sky targets. Once Owen's talk was complete we looked out but the sky remained obstinately shut so I headed off to my tent. This is where things started to go a bit pear shaped. I am not much of a camper but, so I thought, I'd brought enough blankets, sleeping bags and clothes that I would not go cold. By 2 am I was very cold and decidedly not happy. I got out of the tent and went over to the kitchen, where other party goers were gathered: 'Fuck camping, I'm freezing!' were, as I recall, my exact words - in fact, I was so cold I was considering gathering my valuables, putting them in my car and heading home but Richie lent me a cable and Iain Melville lent me a fan heater and I spent the rest of the night a much warmer and happier person, lying in my tent and listening to the patter of rain on the fly sheet.

The next morning, Saturday, dawned sunnier and much more pleasant. The wind was cold but, out of it in the sun, it was reasonably warm. The vendors set up, although, there was nothing I needed, and there was an astro-jumble where we could sell any unwanted items. Owen Brazell had a selection of TeleVue eyepieces he no longer needed, including a 16mm Type 2 Nagler. I didn't buy the Nagler (beaten to it by Iain) but I did bag a lovely 22mm Panoptic which has now joined my other eyepieces, snug in their case. It's made my 25mm TeleVue Plossl redundant, so I am going to have to find a home for it. I am looking forward to trying out the new arrival!
The afternoon was spent sitting around and periodically checking the football results online, via BlackBerries, iPhones and laptops. Among the amateur astronomers gathered were a QPR fan, a Spurs fan, a Southampton fan (me - and I am pleased to say Saints beat Leeds 1-0), a Crystal Palace fan and fans of various other clubs. People were also checking the Six Nations rugby scores (England could only manage an abject 15-15 draw against Scotland) and the Formula One Grand Prix qualifying session in Bahrain.
A couple of people were observing the sun, with a Coronado and a Lunt solar telescope. The Sun had some spots and the most spectacular prominence which later detatched. I tried taking a photo through the Coronado's eyepiece, with mixed results. I couldn't get the prominence but did get the spots and granulation (click for larger photo).

There was a spectacular sunset, which promised at least some observing the coming night:

After dinner, we got ready and uncovered the scopes. I am going to put the observations in a separate post, but I again joined Owen and the 20" and we looked at both the bright and famous as well as the faint and obscure. I suggested we have a crack at the Horsehead Nebula, something I have never seen, despite several attempts. We indeed saw B33 and the bright nebula it is in front of, IC 434. If it wasn't for IC 434, B33 would be invisible as it is highlighted against the 'bright' nebulosity of IC 434. Once I got my eye in, the shape was obvious and, after a minute or two of looking, could just about make out the horse's nose as well as the rest of the head. This was even better than Saints beating Leeds and was, for me, the observing highlight of the evening.
Other highlights included Abell 21, Jonckheere 320, Jonckheere 900, M42 (which was absolutely spectacular in the 20"), M82 and the Trio in Leo.

The Obsession 20"
and an Orion Optics UK 14" Dob.

After about three hours, the weather decided that it was going to be a pain again and shut us down. After listening to a late talk by Richie, we looked outside again, but the sky was so bad it wasn't worth the bother, so I headed to my tent. It was then that a mini-disaster struck, as the fan heater I was lent decided not to work anymore. By then I was cold and I certainly wasn't going to shiver in my tent all night so I found Iain and told him that his heater was either buggered or I was doing something wrong. Iain declared it 'buggered' as it was quite old and told me to get my sleeping bag, etc, and doss on the chalet floor. So, I fetched my valuables, sleeping bag and mattress from the tent and spent what was left of the night on the floor which was warm and pleasant after the tent.
After the raffle I decided to pack my car and head home. I would have liked to stay on, but work on Monday morning and the horror of the tent made it not possible so, after farewells, I came home. Between Wroxall and Whitely Bank I had a brief moment of confusion when I tried to remember where I was. I think that mild hypothermia and sleep deprivation were the cause of this and I am glad I got home in one piece.

It was a good star party, although my 'domestic arrangements' were a disaster with the conditions being so cold the tent was untenable. Next year, I will get a chalet. If it hadn't been for Iain helping me out, I'd have packed in and gone home on Friday, as I had mild hypothermia and was not a happy person. Also, the communal shower area was hideous. It wasn't dirty, but it was freezing, the stone-tiled floor was horribly cold on feet, painfully so, and the shower was uncontrollable - but at least it was hot, rather than freezing.

And, why do I never do anything in raffles? But the raffle was still worth attending, just for Owen's reaction to winning a Revelation eyepiece set! It was negative, but hilarious.

On the upside, when it was clear, the observing was good, and I managed to bag the Horsehead for the first time. There's no substitute for aperture and good, dark skies, and it shows. I now have aperture fever and am wondering how long it will be before I can afford a 20" of my own - I hope that by the time I have saved £4000 David Lukehurst is still making his big scopes.

I will make a separate post about the observing and put it up tomorrow.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Sketch the lot? Or not?

Looking back at some of my past observing sessions, I wonder if I should go about things slightly differently. I love sketching what I see as it's nice to have a pictorial record of your sessions. However, the downside of this is that I don't cover as much ground as I would like, maybe only doing five to ten objects in a session as opposed to maybe twenty or thirty. No, it's not a race, but last year I began the Herschel 400 and, because I sketch objects as well as describing them, it is progressing at a much slower rate than I am happy with - to date I have only completed a paltry 5%, although this is due in part to me being easily distracted and wandering off to seek interesting non-Herschel objects nearby - and I am thinking that maybe, for the purposes of completing the H400, I should stick to written descriptions and the odd sketch instead of trying to sketch the whole lot.
So, for my next observing sesh, I will do only written descriptions and sketch maybe one in three or one in five of the objects and see how it goes. Hopefully the result will be that I cover a lot more ground.

Finally! Some telescopic observing

Saturday night was clear and, for once, I was able to get the 12 inch out for some galaxy hunting. Once it was set up and had been left to cool for an hour, I headed for Leo and the stars in the Lion's head to see what was lurking among them before nipping over to Ursa Major.

Date: 6th March 2010:
Conditions: Cold -2C; getting a bit breezy as it got dark; no Moon (not yet risen), the odd bit of drifting cloud
NELM: c6.0-6.1
Seeing: Ant II
Instrument: 12 inch f5 Dobsonian with 35mm Televue Panoptic (43x); 25mm Televue Plossl (61x) and 8mm Televue Radian (190x)

First, Leo, and as only the head (a.k.a. the Sickle or the Backward Question Mark) was clear of the house roof, I went there.

NGC 3190. Almost-but-not-quite edge-on looking with large bulge. 190x

NGC 3193. An oval to the north east of 3190, with slightly brighter middle. 190x.

NGC 3226 and 3227 (Arp 94). Interacting pair. They are oval, with slightly brighter middles. 3227 is more elongated than 3226 and is larger. 3226 lies to the north of 3227. 190x.

Then it was across to Ursa Major and the M81 group. M81 and M82 provide a very pretty view in the 35mm Panoptic, exactly the sort of view that can have you glued to the eyepiece for ages just admiring the view - in my opinion there is no finer sight in deep sky observing than two or (even better) more galaxies in the same field of view and if they are big bright galaxies, then that's finer still. I could just see a hint of a dark lane in bright M81, while M82 (Arp 337) was full of detail, with a couple of dark rifts cutting across the bright galaxy and a 'fuzzy' appearance to the outer edge.

NGC 2976. This is a large faint, uniformly bright (or not bright!) oval with a mag 12.5 star adjacent to it and a mag 14 star to the NW. 190x

NGC 3077. Small, oval, brighter middle. 190x

Unfortunately the session was cut somewhat short because I had toothache which was steadily worsening (and, by yesterday [Sunday] it was so bad, observing last night was completely out, despite lovely clear skies; a visit to the dentist today revealed a cracked filling - but every cloud has a silver lining, I wasn't charged as it was a recent filling that had given way) but I still managed an hour and saw some nice galaxies. However, I don't think my observations are as good as they could have been, due to toothache-induced lack of concentration, and the sketches are worse.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Little sketching video

I found a nice video via the Ramblings of an Astronomer Named Matthew blog. It is a little intro to sketching at the eyepiece and is produced by Orion Telescopes.
Take a look:

Binocular quickie, 4th March 2010

Opportunities to get out and observe have been few and far between just recently, as much to do with not being able to get out as bad weather, and even on Thursday evening, which was beautifully clear, I only had an hour. So it was out with the 8x42s to knock some of the last eight or nine remaining items off my AL Deep Sky Binocular List.

Conditions: Clear, quite cold, around zero. No wind and no moon (not yet risen)
Naked eye visual magnitude: 6.1
Seeing. Ant II
Instrument: 8x42 Leica binoculars

The last few items on the list that were accessible this evening were open clusters and all, except NGC 2343 in Monoceros and NGC 2360 in Canis Major, were in Puppis, very low in the south. Here at 50 North our theoretical cut off is -40 South although, in practice, you're looking through more atmosphere so things are rendered fainter by haze and murk although, when it has been clear recently, the sky has been very clean, probably due to the biblical amounts of rain we had the week before last. I have been able to see deep into Puppis and even into Columba, the Dove - more on Columba a bit later.

I knocked five objects off the list:

NGC 2360, open cluster in Canis Major:
Fairly largish clump. Can see some stars with the good old averted vision. Elongated east to west.

NGC 2343, open cluster in Monoceros:
Small, round, clump of stars. None resolved. Quite bright.

NGC 2527, open cluster in Puppis:
This is where things get a little awkward, as this bugger is low down. Faintly seen as roundish patch.

NGC 2539, open cluster in Puppis:
Faint round patch south of M48. Looks granular when you look at it with averted vision.

NGC 2571, open cluster in Puppis:
Very crappily placed for us unfortunate northerners. Dim, know when you're really struggling to say something about an object? This is one of those times.

Having bagged those five objects and with the rest not accessible, I decided, with the help of charts, to find out how far south I could actually see. My southern horizon is not too bad, despite a low hill in the way, but the constellations were placed well enough that the one I was after, Columba the Dove, was unobstructed - well the northernmost part is. I still had to get a garden chair to stand on, just to get slightly more elevation to peer over the hedge as this stuff is even lower than the clusters I was looking at in Puppis. I managed to see Sigma Columbae, plus one or two others in that constellation, and I'm hoping to do this again next week at the IW Star Party - weather permitting - as, with nothing but sea all the way from here to the Cherbourg Peninsula, I might be able to see a bit more.
It's nice to see Leo rising in the east, spring galaxies await!

Monday, 1 March 2010

Yuck, murky conditions indeed

Clear skies were forecast for this evening so, wanting to get a bit of observing in before the Moon rose, I grabbed the binocs and headed outside, hoping to knock off some of the rest of my AL Binocular Deep Sky objects. Once my eyes had adapted it quickly became very apparent that I wasn't going to be doing much - the conditions were terrible with a high thin veil over the stars.
It is supposed to clear later on, but the moon is one day past full and is 98% of full, and was already washing out the sky it's not worth the bother, I'll just go to bed instead. I am just pleased I didn't lug out the 12 inch.

It's the Isle of Wight Star Party next week. I am looking forward to this, no matter what the weather may bring. I had intended to go to and from home and the holiday camp in Brighstone but what I might do instead is take my tent, brave the cold and camp there as I don't think I can be arsed to drive between there and home. I have managed to get next Friday afternoon off work so I can come home, get my stuff and head over there and not have to go over in the dark.