Sunday, 30 May 2010

TSP - The Objects: Part 3

The third night I was at TSP, Wednesday 12th May, I observed on the Ranch. Larry Mitchell invited me to observe with him and the 36”. He was putting together the Advanced List for TSP 2011, which was to be faint objects near Messier Objects.

Conditions: Clear, cool.
Location: Prude Ranch, Fort Davis, TX
NELM: 6.9
Seeing: II
Transparency:  III
Instrument: 36” Obsession; Eyepieces: 13mm Ethos

First up, we looked for a faint galaxy next to M108 in Ursa Major. This was one of Larry’s own MAC galaxies, MAC 1110+5538 but this was incredibly faint. I was not sure I saw anything in that area, maybe a slightest of brightening of the background sky but no more than that. Several people looked, including Larry, but none of us could say for sure that we saw it. As Larry said, if you can’t see it in a 36” scope, people with smaller scopes are not definitely going to see it so it was pointless putting it on the list.

M108 itself was huge in the eyepiece, stretching almost the width of the field. Evenly bright right across, apart from some mottling in the eastern part of the galaxy.

MAC 1111+5536, galaxy in UMa - this was also in the vicinity of M108, located just south of it. This was a faint, nondescript smudge in the eyepiece, elongated NE-SW. It is slightly brighter than MAC 1110+5538 at mag 17.0 instead of 17.5.

NGC 5907, galaxy in Draco – Very large and bright. Stretches across field of view. Dust lane visible. Edge on.

IC 4617, galaxy in Hercules  – Very small and quite faint. Not well defined. There’s some brightening towards the centre. Elongated.

Hickson 82 in Hercules– Nice little group, with nine galaxies visible. I sketched it but omitted a description.

NGC 4038/38, galaxies in Corvus – Huge in the eyepiece, bright and full of detail. HII regions are bright and the tidal tails are seen with relative ease. I made a sketch which I'll scan and upload at some point, but I have a few to do so it might be some time before they appear!

It was at then that the effects of only ten hours’ sleep since Sunday were making themselves felt and things were becoming decidedly ‘not fun’. I could hardly keep my eyes open, I was cold and my feet were killing me so I reluctantly told Larry that I had to give up for the night. I hated wasting half the night, as it was only 0230 but, as Larry pointed out, only ten hours’ sleep in three days is overdoing things a bit!

Saturday, 29 May 2010

TSP - The Objects: Part 2

Tuesday 11th May was my second day at TSP, but I didn't do any observing at the ranch that night as I got invites from Jimi Lowrey and Alvin Huey (who was staying at Jimi's) to go and observe with them at the 48". This was far too good an opportunity to pass up and we had an awesome observing session with good transparency and periods of good seeing.
Obviously, using such a vast scope means that faint stuff becomes fair game and we wanted to view some esoteric objects but, of course we couldn't resist looking at some eye candy as well as the dim and distant.

Conditions: Clear, cool but not cold
NELM: 7.0+
Seeing: around II-IV
Transparency: Excellent, great detail and iridescence in Milky Way when it rose.
Instrument: 48 inch f4 Dobsonian. Eyepieces: Televue Ethos 17mm (287x), Zeiss ZAO-II 10mm (488x), Zeiss ZAO-II 6mm (814x), Zeiss ZAO-II 4mm (1220x).

NGC 3242, planetary nebula in Hydra - We started off with this lovely piece of eye candy. This is, like all eye candies, pretty nice in more modest apertures but is absolutely sensational in the eyepiece of 'Barbarella'. There are two green rings, the inner ring is more oval than the outer one and is thickened at each end while the outer one has a furry appearance. The central star is bright. Between the rings is 'gauzy' looking nebulosity which has a tinge of pink to it and the whole p.n. looks three-dimensional. I try not to write 'wow' in observing descriptions, As they say. Fabulous! 814x

IC 4277 and IC 4278, galaxies next to NGC 5195 - no description written down.

UGC 9242, galaxy in Bootes - Very flat, edge on. Mottled, with knots visible. Core not bright and the whole thing is fairly evenly bright across. 814x

Arp 84 in Canes Venatici - this is an interacting pair, NGC 5395 and NGC 5394 (the smaller of the two). Nicknamed the 'Heron' and it does look like that big water bird, this is very bright and detailed. NGC 5395 is huge in the eyepiece, elongated north-south, with a bright core and spiral arms which are somewhat distorted because of the interaction with 5394.
NGC 5394 is much smaller and is bright, with a slightly brighter centre. A tail of material is trailing from NGC 5394 and a bridge of stars can be seen linking the two galaxies. 814x

Arp 105 and Ambartsumian's Knot, galaxies in Ursa Major - This is a busy area, with several galaxies and other 'bits 'n' pieces. NGCs 3561 and 3561A are the brightest galaxies in the field, with quite bright MCG+5-27-12 and an anonymous galaxy nearby. A long very, very faint tidal tail stretches off to the north with a very faint knot, VV237f, at the end of it; I could see this some of the time with averted vision and had to look for a long time to be 100% certain it was there (this is on the famous AINTNO list but when we mentioned this to Barbara and Larry the following day at the ranch they were, to say the least, skeptical. Ok, they plain didn't believe us, which was a shame. :-(  ).
Ambarsumian's Knot, VV237b, lies immediately to the south of NGC 3561 and is visible as a faint, slightly elongated smudge of light.

VII Zwicky 466, galaxy in Draco - A ring galaxy, this is small and fairly faint but the ring structure is easily visible. Elongated. Inside the ring, it is evenly bright. The ring is slightly thicker on one side. There are three other galaxies nearby, one of which is edge on. 814x

QSO0957+561 A/B, quasar in Ursa Major - The Double Quasar, visually, isn't much to look at but knowing what it is, is what makes it exciting to observe. It is a gravitationally-lensed quasar, located 8.7 billion light years away, while the lensing galaxy itself is much closer at 3.7 billion light years.
Both components easily seen, looking like a fuzzy double star, and easily split during moments of good seeing with an obvious gap between them. I could see a hint of fuzziness around the quasar(s) which may, or may not, be the lensing galaxy (this is also on the AINTNO list but, again, we were met with disbelief. :-( ) 814x

The three quasars surrounding NGC 3842 in Leo - These are also on the (in)famous AINTNO List and we saw them. Not easily, but they were there. Looking for each in turn they each popped into view during moments of good seeing. Each was a tiny, stellar-looking pinprick of light.

The Jet in M87, in Virgo - Easily seen as a faint 'pencil' of light coming from the centre of the galaxy. The orientation of the field of view meant that the jet was located at '8 o'clock' from the nucleus. Another observing ambition realised. 814x

DHW 1-2, planetary nebula in Ophiuchus - Located between two bright stars. Oval, with brightening on one side. Unfiltered, the central star pops into view during moments of good seeing. 488x

NGC 6309, planetary nebula in Ophiuchus - Very bright and blue. Elongated and rectangular. Filaments seen at sides.

Rose 13 (Shakhbazian 19), galaxy group in Coma Berenices - A tight, faint group. Three components seen, one of which was very elongated. A difficult group. 814x.

As well as all the faint stuff, we got blown off the ladder with stunning views of M51, NGC 6543 (the Cat's Eye Nebula) and M17.

What a fantastic observing session with the giant scope. It's always a treat to be able to observe with scopes such as this and Larry's 36 inch, opportunities like this don't come along often and, when they do, they have to be made the most of and I think we did just that. As much as I love viewing 'lollipops' (don't we all?) I also love looking at faint, difficult objects that few people have ever heard of and even fewer have actually seen visually - that tidal tail from NGC 3561A down to VV237f is a case in point; it would seem that only three people in the whole world have ever visually seen it and that's myself, Alvin Huey and Jimi Lowrey!

We packed up at dawn and, due to tiredness plus the prospect of walking into the ranch (not a great distance but distinctly unappealing after an all-night sesh), we slept at Jimi's before returning to the ranch later that morning - and I have to say that Jimi's sofa is far more comfortable than the Prude bunks!

Finally, a quick note of caution - you have got to be careful when observing at the top of very tall ladders. It is not an experience for those of a nervous disposition and those scared of heights. I am not keen on heights, but I feel it is absolutely worth it for the views you get. However, I am very careful, as it would be easy to drop an eyepiece and hit someone or smash the eyepiece or, worse, to forget where you're putting your feet and take a tumble. I very nearly did that, when I overbalanced and nearly went 'a over t' from the very top of the ladder before just as quickly regaining my balance. A fall would have certainly resulted in broken bones and I very much doubt if my travel insurance would pay out for falling off a ladder while standing at the top of it, on tiptoes, in the dark, looking at a very faint object through a giant telescope.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

TSP - The Objects: Part 1

I have finally got round to writing out the observations from this year's TSP and, as promised (or threatened, depending on your point of view) here are some of them. I'll begin with Monday, 10th May and the objects from Larry Mitchell's Advanced Observing List which, for 2010, was Super-Thin Galaxies. The observers were Alvin Huey, me and Dennis Beckley and we were using Dennis' 18 inch f4.5 Obsession.
We also observed stuff not on the List, if it was near something we were observing - there's no point ignoring lots of 'cool stuff' lying nearby. I did make a few sketches but I mostly restricted myself to brief notes.

Conditions: Clear, cool but not cold
NELM: 6.9
Seeing: around II
Transparency: very good
Instrument: 18 inch f4.5 Dobsonian. Eyepieces: 17mm (121x), 13mm (158x), 11mm (187x), 8mm (258x), 6mm (343x). These were a mix of Dennis' Ethoses and Alvin's Zeisses.

UGC 5267 in Leo - Edge on, easy to see, bright.
UGC 5270 in Leo - Smaller, fainter, more oval. Not on List.
MCG+2-25-42 in Leo - Very faint and small. Round. Not on List.
UGC 5341 in Leo - Very faint, edge on. Stellar nucleus.
UGC 5164 in Leo - Larger than U5341 and brighter. Edge on.
CGCG 63-37 in Leo - Lies near UGC 5164. Very faint and small. Edge on. Close to double star. Not on List.
UGC 5495 in Leo - Large, quite bright, edge on.
NGC 3279 in Leo - Bright, very thin, elongated.
NGC 3501 in Leo - Easily visible. Edge on, bright. At 258x it almost stretches across the field of view. Slight brightening towards centre.

NGC 3501. From Digitized Sky Survey

NGC 2820 in UMa - Faint but easy to find in a recognisable field. Edge on, very thin. Loc. near the face on galaxy NGC 2805.
NGC 2814 in UMa - Thin edge on. Small and quite faint. Not on List.

NGC 2820 (large edge on) and NGC 2814 (small gx at right). From Digitized Sky Survey

NGC 2805 in UMa - Faint face on spiral. Roundish fuzzy patch. Not on List.
UGC 6378 in UMa - Located in nice field of four stars in an arc. High surface brightness, edge on.
UGC 6667 in UMa - Edge on. Quite faint. Even brightness, doesn't brighten towards middle.
UGC 8040 in UMa - Edge on, fairly dim, forms nice box pattern with UGC 8046, MCG +10-19-1 and MCG +10-18-88. The others are all oval and all are equally bright, except UGC 8046 which is fainter.
UGC 8146 in UMa - Faint, thin galaxy. Almost even brightness but with very slight brightening towards centre. Very nice.
UGC 7321 in Coma Berenices - Faint, very thin. Low surface brightness. Well defined edges.
NGC 4183 in CVn - Beautiful. Edge on. Detailed with mottling.

NGC 4183. From Digitized Sky Survey

NGC 4244 in CVn - 'Silver Needle'. Very big and bright and stretches across the field of view at 258x. Thin with hardly any brightening towards centre.
NGC 5907 in Draco - Large, bright, edge on. Stretches across field of view at 258x. Brightens considerably towards large nucleus.
UGC 10043 in Serpens - Edge on with pronounced bulge. Pretty faint.
NGC 3245A in LMi - Very thin and very faint. Pops into view with averted vision. Evenly bright throughout.
UGC 4719 in UMa - Faint, edge on.

Also observed NGC 3432 in LMi, and UGC 5509 in Leo, plus two or three more which I have descriptions for, but whose names I wrote down incorrectly, which is easy to do in the dark at 3 am. I'll have to pick Alvin's brains on those!

By this time it was approaching 0430 and with more than the required 20 objects in the bag, plus a few not on the list, we called it a night and approached Larry for our pins. Mine now sits on a ball cap which I got at TSP 2006, and joins several other observing pins. Before going to bed, however, we all looked though the 36" which was aimed at M17, the Swan Nebula in Sagittarius. This was very detailed and busy, with filaments and streamers everywhere, probably the best view I have ever had of it - until I looked at it with Jimi's 48" later that week!

As I write this, it's just on a week since I left the US and I have a bad case of the post vacation blues. I seriously don't want to be back in the UK! I wish I was back in West Texas with great people under those super skies...

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Observing Vest

While at TSP, I came across a product that is so good that I can't believe that no one has invented it before - the Hooded Observing Vest. This is a large vest, so it fits over outer clothing and has pockets for eyepieces, torch, pens, pencils, filters and other bits 'n' pieces necessary for an observing session. Best of all, it has an oversized monk's hood that can be used in the same way as a black-out cloth to put over your head to block out stray light when observing faint galaxies or nebulae. This can gain you a full magnitude and beats a towel or t-shirt as it's attached to you so you don't have to keep searching for it in the dark. The product only has one down side and that is, if you take it off to put another layer on, it can be awkward to put back on again, but that's a minor detail.

Alvin Huey was wearing one of these on the Monday evening and I was like 'what on earth's that?' and he invited me to try it. I was impressed at the convenience of it and, as soon as one became available, via Jimi Lowrey, I bought it for the bargain sum of $60 and used it for the rest of my time at TSP.

These vests are made by Dragan and Anja Nikin and for more about them, here's the blurb on Dragan's website, where you can order one. I am not one for hype or overt advertising, but these vests really are pretty brilliant.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Some TSP photos

I have got round to editing some of my TSP photos and here they are. Click on them for larger view.

Larry Mitchell collimating his 36 inch

The Upper Field

People getting ready to observe as dusk falls; looking west

This is one of the Texas clubs' hang outs, one of Texas Astronomical Society, Fort Bend Astronomy Club, or Houston Astronomical Society. These clubs congregate in the north-west corner of the Upper Field and here is where you'll find the likes of Barbara Wilson, Larry Mitchell, Jim Chandler, and others.

Me 'observing' at eyepiece of 48 inch. The only way to get a picture at the eyepiece without ruining night vision.

Jimi and Alvin collimating the 48 inch. The only way to see the position of the laser is to use binoculars, because of the size of the scope.

Jimi (left) and Alvin (right) with the 48 inch.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Home Again

After an uneventful flight (during which I watched Avatar, an excellent film and better than I expected) and bus trip home from Heathrow to Portsmouth, then a ferry ride to the Island, I arrived home on Thursday afternoon. I am pleased to say that my astro-purchases also made it home in one piece. I had been concerned for my new Telrad dew shield, as that's made of brittle plastic but, thanks to a small cake tin and clean underware acting as makeshift bubble wrap, that also made it home intact. It's now been united with my Telrad and it will certainly make life easier on those humid, dewy nights.

I have hundreds of photos to sort out, process and upload and I'll put some here and also on my Flickr page. I can't do much at the moment as I have got a massive infection of my upper arm (again) and it hurts to sit up or do anything for too long but, hopefully, I'll be able to get them done by the start of the new week. I am just grateful this infection didn't happen last week.

I have come home to nice warm weather and clear skies but the moon's now in the way so there'll be no observing, although with this infection I can't do much anyway. Annoying, really, as I'm looking forward to trying out my new purchases such as the dew shield and the twist-lock adapter.

Monday, 17 May 2010

TSP Day 6 - Farewells

I hate the last day of TSP. That Saturday is always a sad occasion, as the party is done for another year - or another two, at least, in my case - and we all have to go our separate ways.
Alvin dropped me back at the Ranch late morning and, after lunch, I packed my bag and then went birding. I did, at last, find Vermilion Flycatchers and I got what I hope are good pictures of one, a lovely bright red and black male bird.

The final meal of the 2010 TSP was steak and, unlike the rest of the meals during the week, it was pretty good, with baked potatoes and corn on the cob. After that there was a talk on meteorites, then observing awards and then the Great Texas Giveaway Part 2 - and I still didn't win a thing. There was a 17mm Televue Ethos up for grabs as the grand prize but, as usual, I didn't win. You'd have thought that, with a lot of people having packed up and gone home the odds would have shortened on winning stuff. Uh uh, no. Oh well, never mind, next time maybe.

Once the meeting was over, we all left the meeting hall, and some people headed home straight away, while those of us staying the night went to the observing fields, which resembled an astronomical Marie Celeste, especially the Middle and Lower Fields with most people having packed their scopes away ready for an early departure next morning.
After farewells to various people and chatting it was time for bed, as the sky had completely clouded over so observing clearly wasn't going to happen. I finished packing and went to bed before a 6am departure back to San Antonio with Robert.

Sunday morning we headed out under the Adios, Vaya Con Dios sign on the ranch gate and, after a six hour drive which I mostly missed as I was asleep(!), arrived back in San Antonio just after lunch.

It had been a good TSP and the weather co-operated - well, co-operated most of the time - and I got some good observing with 18, 36 and 48 inch scopes. Thanks to all those who let me share their scopes: Dennis Beckley, Larry Mitchell and Jimi Lowrey - thanks guys, it is much appreciated. Also, Alvin for the invites and laughs. I got a binocular pin and a coveted Larry Mitchell Advanced Observing Pin and I got a lot of good observations and some good drawings, that I'll post when I get home next week.

It's now Monday and I am going home on Wednesday. That ash is back, though, so things could get a little interesting. I hope not.

TSP Day 5 - Jets and Quasars

It was a quiet day spent around and about on Friday. As mentioned in my previous post, I went to Indian Lodge State Park and did some birding (and, I hope, I got some decent photos; I'd brought my 400mm Canon telephoto to the US as it's my birding lens and produces excellent results) and in the afternoon, I visited fellow Brit's Keith and Jan Venables for their 4.30pm Happy Hour which is now a TSP institution. Up to 15 people gather at their bunkhouse for beer (or wine), pretzels and chat. I can't always make it, but it's a very civilised way to spend an hour on a TSP afternoon, chatting, drinking and talking astronomy.

I had made a promise to myself not to spend much money this year but guess what? Yep, entirely predictably I broke that promise and exceeded my self-imposed budget by at least $200. But, as I told myself, that prevents me being royally ripped off when I come to change US dollars back into Her Britannic Maj's British Pounds. If I had spent them on things I want here in the States, then I am not going to be shafted at the airport or the travel agent back home.
I did buy an Arcturus Telrad dew shield from Camera Concepts - I'd been looking for one for ages in the UK and not found a decent one at a non-scandalous price until TSP, plus I bagged an Antares 2-inch to 1.25 inch eyepiece adapter which, instead of having a screw to hold the eyepiece securely, twists closed. It's much more secure and there's no annoying little screw to fall out and get lost, so it will be an improvement on the one I currently use.
I also bought The Night Sky Observers' Guide Volume Three - The Southern Skies from Bob Kepple, one of the authors, plus the Digitised Sky Survey on CD Rom for $45. Both were bargains and the book was $34 which is much better than the outrageous prices charged in the UK - Amazon UK wanted a ridiculous 70 quid for a copy! I obviously won't get much of an opportunity to use it in back in the UK, but I wanted it to join my Volumes 1 and 2 and I will be taking it on my next trip to the Southern Hemisphere, whenever that will be. As for the DSS I nearly bought a copy for a hundred quid from someone at the IW Star Party earlier this year but decided against it due to the price. I also bought a Lumicon 2-inch UHC filter - I already have 1.25 inch filters but now I also have 2-inch eyepieces in my collection and using 1.25 filters with these is a pain and the filters inevitably get dropped, with the risk of loss or damage. I can also screw the 2-inch filter into the Antares adapter, which means I don't have to swap the filter between eyepieces when viewing nebulae.
I am hoping I get the dew shield home in once piece as it's made of a fairly brittle plastic and it won't take much to crack or snap it. I have borrowed a round cake tin and wrapped the dew shield up in socks and - clean! - underwear and placed it in the tin. It doesn't move around so hopefully the combination of underwear and socks acting as bubble-wrap and the metal cake tin will prevent an annoying breakage.

I also bought Turn Left At Orion - I don't need it, it's a beginner's book and I am not a beginner and haven't been a beginner since the early 1990's, but I wanted it for my collection and, besides, Dan and Brother Guy were signing copies. Plus, I also bought Brother Guy's autobiography Brother Astronomer to read on the plane home. I am interested to see how he reconciles his Catholic beliefs with science, especially as I am an ex-Roman Catholic myself. I say 'ex' as I was brought up in the Church but I am a non-believer - I believe in science and not any mythical omnipotent being. I didn't tell Brother Guy that though, when he was signing my book, that would have been rude and I would hate to cause offence!

Friday night, I was invited back up to Jimi's 48 inch for some more deepest of deep sky observing so, once the talk (a hilarious account of the making of Turn Left At Orion by Brother Guy Consolmagno - who is a Jesuit priest and also a professional astronomer at the Vatican Observatory - and Dan Davis; Brother Guy, especially, would have been a great stand up comedian) and the Great Texas Giveaway were done - as usual I won the square root of bugger all! - we headed up the hill to Jimi's place.
By the time we arrived, it was dark and the skies looked very promising indeed but, unfortunately, this state of affairs did not last long as fog and clouds built up. The humidity was already up to 63% and by the end of the session it had got up to 78%, just like observing from home!
We didn't do much, but we did see Hickson 50, an optical jet in IC1182 (the jet has a designation in Larry Mitchell's MAC catalogue, MAC 1605-1747B, as it does look like a tiny galaxy) and an uncharted lensed quasar in Lynx. As the clouds and fog were becoming a serious PITA, we called it a night and headed back to the house for a sandwich, beer and astronomy talk. I again crashed on Jimi's sofa and later in the morning, Alvin and I headed back to the Ranch.

Friday, 14 May 2010

TSP Day 4 - Thunderheads and the Skunk Nebula

The evening didn't start out too promising as, during the late afternoon huge thunderheads built up, dominating the eastern and north-eastern sky. At one point, there was one huge and evil-looking cloud that looked unpleasantly like a mushroom cloud, prompting people to make jokes that someone had dropped a nuclear bomb nearby. The effect of late sunlight on the cloud enhanced its hideous appearance and people were pleased when it began to lose its shape. No thunderstorm materialised, although there was some lightning on the horizon.

The skies weren't too great for observing, although useable, and by three a.m. we decided to pack up for the night which was a shame because we were just on halfway through another of Larry's Lists, this time the 2000 list 'Rings Over Texas'. Last night's observing was a mix of the frustrating (clouds right where you want to look, bad seeing, not being able to find things) and the hilarious - a visitation from a skunk who was on the lookout for dropped food items. Unfortunately the little cutie came far too close for comfort and we spent ten minutes keeping an eye out for him and, at one point, abandoned Dennis' 18" and retreated to a safe distance while Mr. Skunk pottered around. He investigated people's tents and my bag (and I was thinking 'please don't spray it, please don't spray it!') before wandering off somewhere into the darkness. We had to use dim red torches and averted vision to keep track of the Skunk Nebula but, luckily, he didn't deploy his chemical warfare on us so the area around us and, more importantly, our possessions remained Eau de Skunk free.

Back to the observing and before being 'skunked' (ha ha) by the clouds and deteriorating sky we managed to observe about 14 of the objects on the list:  NGC 2685, NGC 5122, NGC 2793, AM 1358-221,  MCG-4-33-27, Arp 87, NGC 3681, Minkowski 1-64, 2H24, NGC 4650A, the central star in M57 and Mayall's Object.

I also whipped quickly through the TSP Binocular list and added to my pin collection.

Going to bed at three a.m. at least meant I was able to get up early enough to go birding this morning and I saw some nice species, especially Blue Grosbeaks. I went up to Indian Lodge State Park with Keith Taggart of El Paso, TX and I got some (hopefully good) photos of different species at feeding areas specially set up. Unfortunately Vermilion Flycatchers, a species I'd particularly like to see are still eluding me at present. I am told they're common but to me that seems they're common when I am not about. That's the story of my life when birding!

TSP Day 3 - Bright and faint

Wednesday was a lazy day, spent doing not very much at all. I actually bothered to go to afternoon talks, as I wanted to hear Larry Mitchell's talk on Super Thin Galaxies and Alvin's talk about observing galaxy groups, clusters and trios. They were both excellent talks and very interesting, certainly to me as I particularly like observing galaxies.

For the night's observing, I joined Larry and his 36". Larry was working on next year's Advanced Observing List and we looked at some of the possible candidates for that list. We also looked at a mixture of eye candy and dim stuff, too, including M108 and some of the very faint galaxies around it, IC 4616 which is near M13, Hickson 82 and NGCs 4038 and 4039.
Unfortunately, by 0230, I couldn't stay awake any longer as I'd had the sum total of 10 hours' sleep since Sunday night so I had to call it quits and go to bed. I didn't like having to do that but, as the sky was beginning to deteriorate anyway, it wasn't the sacrifice it could have been.

However, I can't leave this post without mentioning the quote of the 2010 TSP so far. This came from Amelia Goldberg: "Larry, all this faint shit you're making me observe means I don't want to look at the bright stuff any more!".

TSP Day 2 - Aintnos and Ambartsumian's Knot among others

While observing on Monday night, Jimi Lowrey who is a friend of Alvin's and who I visited (along with some of the Houston gang) back in 2008 stopped by and invited me to join him and Alvin for a night on the 48". Obviously this was something not to be missed, especially as there were only going to be three of us - me, Jimi and Alvin - so just after 4pm Tuesday Alvin collected me and we headed up to Jimi's place at Limpia Crossing.
Just before dinner, Jimi and me headed over to fellow amateur Carl Swicky's place to see his 32". In the area, there are other observatories set up and there's a community of amateur astronomers. With the climate, dark skies, gorgeous birdlife and beautiful scenery I can't think of a better life, so if ever I win the UK lottery and get the chance to get out of that murky light-polluted place here is where I will come. We looked, admired and took plenty of pics (by the way, pictures will appear here but they might have to wait either until I get back to San Antonio on Sunday or when I get back to England -  I've just remembered that the World Cup begins next month, I'm looking forward to that, I love my football - on Thursday next week) including a prime focus capture of me in the 32" mirror.

After dinner, we headed up to Jimi's observatory, just up the hill from his house and set up 'Barbarella', his giant scope, for the night. The scope is collimated with huge bolts which need a torque wrench to turn and the laser collimater in the eyepiece can only be seen properly with a pair of binoculars!

Once the scope was set up and the mirror fans left to do their work (they suck air in and blow it out of the back of the mirror cell) we went back to the house to get our stuff and some supplies before returning to the observatory.

Fuller descriptions will appear later, but we observed quite a few objects, including NGC 3242 (aka the Ghost of Jupiter), UGC 9492, Arp 84, Arp 105 and Ambartsumian's Knot - including the Knot itself, the bridge between the galaxies and the streamer that comes away from the bottom galaxy. This latter component is on the famous Aintno List compiled by Barbara Wilson and Larry Mitchell but, sadly, Barbara doesn't believe us! I think Larry might, but he needs to see it for himself, he says.
Also seen were the ring galaxy VII Zwicky 466, the Double Quasar Q0957+561 A/B (nine billion light years distant, and I saw the very faint galaxy that is the gravitational lens - another Aintno, but we still can't weedle a certificate out of Larry and Barbara!), the Jet in M87 (a long-standing observing ambition of mine that I hadn't to date fulfilled, never got round to it. It was surprisingly easy but, then, I was using a 48" scope), the planetary nebula DHW 1-2, NGC 6304, the compact galaxy group Rose 13, very small and quite tough to seperate the components (I saw 3 members), NGC 5907 and NGC 6543, the Cat's Eye Nebula. We also saw three more quasars, but I need to find out what they're called and where they are as I forgot to write them down.
I'll pad this out with folks and scope photos and object descriptions later - 'later' might mean today, it might mean next week, but it will be in the near future.

The transparency was very good although the seeing was mediocre. However, we did get those moments of clarity which allowed quasars, etc, to pop into view. We packed up at 0500 and went back to the house where we all had a few hours' sleep before Alvin gave me a ride back to the Prude Ranch.

It was an awesome night and to see stuff that's totally impossible at home with a 12 inch is an opportunity you just can't refuse. Jimi, I doubt you read this,but if you do - thank you very much indeed for a wonderful night's observing! To read more about the Lowrey Observatory and Barbarella, Jimi's 48" Dob, here's his website: Lowrey Observatory. By the way, while you're there, go to the Gallery and the pic on the left side features me at the eyepiece, clinging on for dear life to the colossal ladder, taken in 2008.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

TSP Day 1 - Galaxies Galore

After a six-hour drive from San Antonio, we (that is Robert Reeves and I) arrived at the Prude Ranch on Monday afternoon. Two things were apparent when we stepped out the truck - very high winds and heat. The high winds were particularly unwelcome as they'd make observing difficult, if not impossible although we were told by ranch staff that they'd die down by dusk - and they were right, the winds did die down as dark fell. It's always nice to meet friends from previous TSPs and before long I'd run into Alvin Huey, Barbara Wilson, David Moody, Amelia Goldberg, Steve Goldberg, Keith and Jan Venables, Matt Delavoryas and many others.

The Upper Field

Depsite unpromising conditions (lots of high clouds and high winds) at first, the observing was pretty good on Monday night and Alvin, Dennis Beckley and I knocked off Larry Mitchells 2010 Advanced Observing list which, this year, was Flat and Super Thin Galaxies, Dennis's 18 inch Dob. I'll post the observations at a later date, but we observed UGC 5267, UGC 5270, MCG+2-25-42, UGC 5341, CGCG 63-37, UGC 5164, UGC 5495, MCG 3-26-39, UGC 5509, NGC 3579, NGC 3501, NGC 2820, NGC 2805, UGC 6378, UGC 6667, UGC 8040, UGC 8146, UGC 7321, NGC 4183, NGC 4222, NGC 4244, NGC 5907, UGC 10043, NGC 3245A, NGC 3432 and UGC 4719. We then claimed our pins from Larry who was pretty impressed that we'd done this in one night.

After a chat with Larry, and a peek at M17 through the 36" we went our separate ways, as it was now 0430 and some of us, including me, had been up since 0600 the previous morning.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Epic trek

I arrived in San Antonio, TX, late on Friday night after delays caused by mechanical problems with the Continental Airlines Boeing 767-400 (a fault with the hydraulics on the braking system - very important on landing!) causing us to miss our take off slot from London Heathrow and then a big detour due to the volcanic ash, which meant the flight took 11 hours instead of the usual 8.5 and fighting 100mph headwinds over Canada and the northern US didn't help. Because of this I was four hours late into Houston, and missed my connection to San Antonio.

The detour was interesting as it took us up the centre of the UK and over the coast of northern Scotland (there's still snow in the Highlands), past the Faeroe Islands and north to just over the Arctic Circle. I could see Iceland - the cause of all the ash trouble - to the south and pack ice and icebergs in the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland. Other jets were in the sky, including one on a parallel course a few miles from us, on our port side, it looked highly impressive speeding along at 500mph with the contrail streaming behind - I expect we looked just as impressive to them.

Excuse the poor quality of the photos, airliner windows are not made of optical quality glass! The crap on the windows is ice crystals; according to the flight path map data, it was -64 outside.

Pack ice in the Denmark Strait

We flew over Greenland, and from the plane there were fantastic views of the coast just north of Angmagssalik; it was clear, displaying incredibly beautiful Arctic scenery with mountains, snow, huge cliffs and, at the coast, icebergs and pack ice. It looked lovely but I would not want to live there, too cold and it doesn't get dark at all in summer although I would love to visit. 


Icebergs and pack ice on the Greenland coast


We left Greenland behind just south of Godthab (Nuuk) and flew down over Canada (which seemed to take forever), the Great Lakes and into the United States. Our route over the US took us over Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, the top left hand corner of Louisiana and into Texas before landing at George Bush Intercontinental in hot and humid Houston.
I'd missed my connection to San Antonio so, once I'd cleared US Immigration and Customs (the queueing took an hour, the actual process about three minutes) I had to go to Continental Airlines' check in desk, fully expecting to be told there were no more flights to San Antonio that evening and already forming my contingency plan (find a hotel and try to get Continental to pay for it! At least find a hotel) but, fortunately, that proved not to be the case. I got the last remaining seat on the last departure of the evening and made it to San Antonio just after 10 pm.

We're setting off for TSP tomorrow (Monday) and hoping the weather will be good. The forecast has already changed twice from good to bad to indifferent. Let's hope it changes back to good again. At the moment we're in for one totally clear night, four partially clear ones and a cloudy one with thunderstorms. I hope it improves! But, even if the weather's crap, it'll still be a fun event with great people and scenery. And it's a change of scene.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Bugger OFF!

More volcanic ash is heading our way from Iceland. At the moment it is predicted to cover Ireland and Scotland, with warnings of flight restrictions. I just hope it stays away from the rest of the UK, certainly until I am safely out of here on Friday. The winds aren't helping as they are unusually (because our winds usually come from the west but a high pressure system in the Atlantic is bringing in a northerly airflow) coming from the north and north west, although they are predicted to swing to the north east by Friday, which will hopefully help keep the stuff away.

Met Office London VAAC website latest ash prediction as of 1800Z

Sunday, 2 May 2010

New website!

I have moved my website from (who are truly excellent, but a tad limited) to a new host and I have my own domain name The reason I changed was that I was in PC World yesterday, looking for some new web-building software, and the program I bought included free hosting. How good the host is remains to be seen but you can't go wrong if you don't have to pay. If they prove to be unreliable with loads of down time then I will move in due course to another host, but they are supposed to be quite good and, normally, their hosting starts at £33 per year but they have done a deal with the makers of the software.
My new site looks great and I am really pleased with it as the software was incredibly easy to use and comes with an FTP client, which is always better than cumbersomely using a web browser. Click here to see it: FJ Astronomy

Off to TSP on Friday, all being well. I leave home on Thursday and fly to San Antonio via Houston on Friday. I'll spend a couple of days in San Antonio with Robert and Mary Reeves before driving out with Robert on Monday to the Prude Ranch. The couple of days in the city will be spend birding (I am hoping to photograph Cardinals among others) and shopping for those bits I'll inevitably forget to bring from the UK.
Eyjafjallajokull is still erupting, with ash blowing south over the Atlantic. I have my fingers firmly crossed that the winds, which are currently keeping the ash away from the UK continue to remain favourable and I can get away ok. I don't mind being stranded in the States but I'll be pissed off if I can't get there! Funnily enough I'll be going through Heathrow Departures on my way to the States and my sister, who has been to a wedding in the US Virgin Islands, will be coming through Arrivals at the same time.
I have bought myself a sweet little laptop to take with me, for blog updates, which I got in PC World yesterday. My other laptop is a big heavy thing but this is small, with a 10 inch screen and will easily go in my camera bag. It has a 250GB hard drive so I can put my photos on it as well.