Sunday, 24 July 2011


I'm not physically moving (at least I have no plans to) but this blog is. I have imported the whole lot over to my host in order to keep my website and blog under the 'same roof'. I am using a Wordpress template in any case, so I decided that moving was the easiest option, rather than maintaining two different sites.
Please come and visit! You can find the blog at
This one will remain 'live' but not updated, unless some disaster befalls my main site.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Sweet Pea

Last year, while I was in Texas, I got a chance to observe with Jimi Lowrey, Alvin Huey and Jimi's huge 48" dob up at Limpia Crossing, near the ranch where TSP is held. While we were talking over dinner before heading up to Jimi's observatory, Jimi and Alvin told me about a discovery that Jimi had recently made while looking at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey images; Alvin had also been there at the time Jimi found it on the Sloan image. It was a small round green object in Draco and, due to its colour, Jimi nicknamed it the Sweet Pea. The Sweet Pea's status isn't certain at the moment although it's believed to be a planetary nebula. The strange thing about the Sweet Pea is that it is in the galactic halo and not the disk, meaning that it could be an object captured when the Milky Way galaxy consumed a neighbour that came too close. Most stars - and planetary nebulae - are in the disk of the galaxy.

Later that night, May 11 2010, when we were observing, Jimi asked me if I wanted to see the Sweet Pea and, naturally, I said 'yes'.

Sweet Pea, planetary nebula(?) in Draco - The Sweet Pea was round and fairly faint. I didn't sketch it, although I wished I had now! I initially saw it without a filter and it was tough, seen as a round brightening against the sky. It was definitely fuzzy, not stellar and a UHC filter helped a bit. 48" Dob @ 488x. Jimi and Alvin had already seen the Sweet Pea before, so that apparently made me the third person ever to visually see it. That's pretty amazing and what hard-core deep sky observing is about.

So, why didn't I mention the Sweet Pea when I wrote about the TSP way back last May? Well, Alvin and myself were sworn to secrecy as, understandably, Jimi did not want anyone else to nip in and steal the discovery for themselves, until the astronomers up at McDonald Observatory had studied it and confirmed it. It has now been confirmed, using the Hobby Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory (although the co-ordinates are not yet released), is now in the public domain and Jimi was awarded the Lone Stargazer Award for the discovery at this year's Texas Star Party.
I understand that the Sweet Pea was a major target for Larry's 36" and others at TSP this year, although I don't know if anyone saw it or not. It was tough with a 48" under dark and transparent Texas skies, it will probably be impossible with an 18" or 20" from the UK.

Jimi and professional astronomer Steve Odewahn from the HET feature in a program on Marfa Public Radio, talking about the Sweet Pea. Click here to listen. Go to Jimi's Page on Dark Skies Apparel for more about the Sweet Pea and some of Jimi's other observations.

I am hoping to catch up with Jimi and Alvin, as well as my other friends, at TSP 2012...

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Summer observing

As those of us stuck at high latitudes know (I'm at 50° North), the long twilights of summer aren't that conducive to deep sky observing. When it does get 'dark' it's only astronomical twilight as the sun is less than 18° below the horizon. But while it may not be good for the really faint fuzzies (and here, I admit that webcam users and imagers have an advantage over us eyeball-only types) it's still dark enough for the bright DSOs. Even Messiers you've seen countless times before are worth repeated looks and, as it is really the only observing you can get during summer at these latitudes, it's better than nothing.
The good news is that sunsets started to get earlier from July 1st and from the 16th true darkness returns, only for 36 minutes on the first night but the hours of darkness soon get longer. With a reasonable 30-day forecast ('reasonable' meaning average for this time of year - warm sunshine, some showers, average/slightly above average temperatures), I should hopefully get in more observing later this month, good news as I am hoping the new 18" will be finished in around 3-4 weeks' time.
I did a little observing last night, going after the supernova in M51, which is still on show, and a little open cluster-hunting in northern Cygnus. There are several on the Herschel II list and real little gits they are too. NGC 7031, NGC 7067 and NGC 7082 were on my list as well as the bright nebula NGC 6857. I also took a look at M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra.

My notes are as sparse as the clusters themselves were!

Date: 2nd July 2011
Conditions: Cloudless, cool (12° C/53.6° F), some dew
Seeing I-II (later)
Transparency: II
NELM: Around 5.5-5.8 due to the astronomical twilight. Definitely less than 6.0. Milky Way visible all the way to Sagittarius but lacking contrast
Equipment: 12" f/5 Dobsonian; Televue Panoptic 22mm (69x), Televue Radian 8mm (190), Televue Radian 5mm (304x)

SN2011dh in M51 has got a little brighter recently. It was definitely easier to see than last time but that's probably as much to do with no Moon in the sky as it is to do with the brightness of the supernova - M51's spiral arms were certainly easier to see this time out. I didn't make a sketch this time.

NGC 7031, open cluster in Cygnus - Small and quite poor. Compressed. 69x, 190x
NGC 7067, open cluster in Cygnus - Faint, adj to 9th mag star. In rich surroundings. 69x
NGC 7082, open cluster in Cygnus - Scattered, large, cluster. In rich area. Not that great and looks more like a richer portion of Milky Way. 69x

I'll come back to these on a darker night, and the same goes for NGC 6857 which I looked for, a little over-optimistically, but didn't see. It was at this point, around midnight, that the observing was interrupted by the kids in a house the other side of the footpath putting an insecurity light on, which encroaches on our garden - although it's worse in winter because of the lack of leaves on the hedge and trees. They'd gone out into the garden do do some camping (I assume they were camping as I heard what sounded like a tent being put up and a tent zipper being opened and closed) and obviously wanted to see what they were doing. I wish they'd used torches though. I decided to pack up, an hour earlier than I'd intended, as the light was a nuisance - and I didn't want to disturb them with 'funny noises' from across the way (it's strange how loud switching eyepieces and moving around can be in the dark) and, more importantly, I didn't want them disturbing me!
At least, when I get the new scope, it will be easier to move to another location in the garden, as it will break down and have wheelbarrow handles on it. I'm intending to move my observing spot further down the garden, although the 'observashed' will remain where it is, although I can move around depending on where I am looking at the time.
I shoved the 12" back into the shed and closed the doors on it. This morning, when I went up there to put it away properly, I found I'd left the Telrad switched on. Fortunately, a Telrad reticle uses up hardly any power so the batteries were far from flat. It's not the first time I've left a Telrad on and I guess it won't be the last!


Collimation's one of those weird things that has a reputation for being awkward, annoying and downright difficult and it's viewed almost as being akin to witchcraft, with 'The Knowledge' being available to only a select few individuals. However, observers need to know how to collimate their scopes properly in order to get a decent image in the eyepiece and to achieve focus at high magnifications. There's no real risk of buggering it up as the mirrors, even if they end up miles out of alignment, can easily be put right again. My current scope, a 12", is a real git when it comes to going out of collimation and I have to fix it before each and every session. I am hoping my new 18" won't be as temperamental.
For me, cleaning the mirrors holds far more trepidation than merely aligning the things. That's where things can really go wrong...I've managed to scratch a mirror attempting to clean it in the past.

For those who can't quite 'get' collimation - and in the past I have been among those people - check out the brilliant video tutorial on the website Andy's Shot Glass, which explains visual and laser collimation, simply and perfectly. Click here to see it. I have no association with Andy or his website but it's the best and most simple explanation of the process I have ever seen. Just reading about the process doesn't make it immediately clear and it may take several re-reads in order to make sense of it; seeing it, though, makes it much clearer. There are loads of websites which offer help with collimation, and there are threads about it on Cloudy Nights, but nothing is as helpful as actually seeing something demonstrated such as in the video.
The way to do it (and the best way for a lone observer such as myself) is to use the sighting tube to centre and tilt the secondary mirror, then use a laser collimator to get the beam right into the centre of the primary. Then you go to the back of the scope and adjust the primary mirror itself, getting the beam in the centre of the laser's display window, meaning everything is centered nicely when you look in the sighting tube again and your collimation is spot on. It's not hard and takes a couple of minutes. Pure visual collimation without a laser is more awkward, as that requires two of you to perform the procedure, unless you have arms like Mr Tickle, which most people including me, don't!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Visit to Cambridge

I was asked to do a talk at the Webb Deep Sky Society's AGM, about my 'Experiences at the Texas Star Party'. The meeting was originally scheduled for December 2010 but, thanks to deep snow and dangerous travelling conditions, it was postponed until 18th June 2011.
I arranged to travel up with Don Miles, who met me at Portsmouth's Wightlink Gunwharf Terminal. It was an early start, as Cambridge is a three hour drive, at least, from the South Coast. After an uneventful drive up, with a brief stop at Clacket Lane Services, we arrived at Cambridge University's Institute of Astronomy at 0930. I hadn't been to the Webb Society annual meeting since 2005, when it was held at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, simply because of the awkwardness of getting to Cambridge, where it's been held ever since, and back in a day from the Isle of Wight. It's the Solent crossing that makes life difficult, more than anything, as it adds at least an hour to travel times and in the late evening, if you miss one ferry there isn't another for two or three hours. I left home at 0430 on Saturday morning and didn't get back until 0300 this morning, but despite the negatives of the location from a logistical point of view, the IoA is a lovely venue and has plenty of astronomical interest - not least the historic telescopes in the grounds and spectacular posters of galaxies, planets, nebulae and clusters lining the walls of the Hoyle Building.

The meeting was held in the IoA's Hoyle Building

After coffee and chat with people I hadn't seen in ages, it was time for the meeting to get under way. My talk wasn't until the afternoon, scheduled that way in case of any problems getting to Cambridge. The talks were Wolfgang Steinicke - The M51 Mystery: Rosse, Robinson, South and the Astonishing Detection in 1845 of Spiral Structure; Robert Kennicutt - The (Very...) Improbable Universe; Mark Hurn -  Star Atlases; Martin Griffiths - New Developments in  Planetary Nebula Research; Andrew Robertson - Telescopes and their Capabilities; then me with Experiences at the Texas Star Party and finally David Ratledge - New Developments in Astrophotography.
Of the talks, my particular favourites were Wolfgang and Andrew. Martin was also very good. Andrew's talk was right up my street, with plenty of pictures of large dobs and his sketches, as he is purely a visual observer but I will disagree with his assertion that we visual observers are a dying breed, though! Andrew is a member of Norwich Astronomical Society and they sound like a very active club with a thriving deep sky observing section. Not only that, they mostly have large dobs of between 16 to 24 inches, with one person with a 'minnow' (my description) 14 incher - a few years ago I wouldn't have described a 14" scope as a 'minnow', such is the rapid pace of telescope development - and are among the most active and keenest deep sky observers in the UK. As a committee member of a local society struggling to get our own membership off of its collective arse and out observing, it sounds perfect to me and made me wish I lived in Norfolk - I'm envious! Later, in conversation, Andrew claimed to me that Norfolk has better skies than the Isle of Wight. They're probably a bit drier (depending on the season, our problem here on the island is often sea fog which wipes out the southern horizon as seen from the southern coast) but I doubt they're darker although it does depend on local conditions at any given time.
My own talk went well, I was more fluent than I thought I would be but when you're speaking to like-minded people it's easy. Certainly easier than practising the talk on uninterested relatives and bewildered pets! I even managed to get laughs with stories about skunks and hazards.

I got outside and walked round the grounds at lunchtime. I joined a group having a look round the telescopes but we only had time to see the 12" Northumberland refractor before having to go back inside for the afternoon session.
Here are some photos of the grounds and domes (excuse the poor photos, I was using my Samsung compact whose image quality is not the best).

Statue of Fred Hoyle

Northumberland telescope dome
12" Northumberland refractor
Close up of focusser and eyepiece. Note brass fittings - including the eyepiece! An Ethos or UWA would look totally out of place here. To observe at or near the zenith the observer needs to lie down - sounds like my kind of observing!
Diagram of the 12" Northumberland telescope

Picture of the original Northumberland dome
The observatory housing the 8" Thorrowgood refractor; the pillar at right is one of several for Cambridge AS members to mount scopes on for public observing sessions.
The Institute of Astronomy Observatory Building, which now houses the Library.
There were a few vendors at the meeting, among them Cambridge University Press, Green Witch, a secondhand book dealer (who lost a potential customer when he said 'Faith, Hope and Charity' on learning my name. It may sound trivial and an overreaction but it is guaranteed to piss me off every time someone says it, especially when you've heard it for what seems like 54 billion times since early childhood! Don't do it, it's old, boring, unoriginal and insulting. How would people like it if I made fun of their name? 'Scuse the rant!) and the Webb Deep Sky Society themselves.
I was tempted by Wolfgang's book Observing and Cataloguing Nebulae and Star Clusters but was put off by the retail price of £90. The 'show special' was £72 but that was still very expensive so I will wait until I have a bit more disposable income. I am also probably going to get Philip S Harrington's Cosmic Challenge at some point as it looks like an excellent book.
I did, however, buy the Webb Archive DVD which has scanned copies of every Quarterly Journal and Deep Sky Observer since 1968. It also contains the Observing Section Reports. As for the OSRs, I have quite a few back copies of these but when I saw the IoA was offloading two bound volumes of them for a fiver, as part of a clearout of the Library, I couldn't resist them and snapped them up before anyone else could, so they're now sitting happy and loved on my bookshelf. The Library was also getting rid of the Millennium Star Atlas for whatever offer you made but, as it wasn't just the Millennium Star Atlas but the entire Hipparchos Catalogue, I decided against it. Despite being sorely tempted, there's no way I could have carried that lot on and off the ferry!
Something else that came out of the meeting was me agreeing to revise and update An Introduction to Visual Deep Sky Observing. I wrote the original in 1998 and a lot of it is now dated and in bad need of revision. I plan to rewrite a lot of it, plus add more content, including more sketches and photos. I also have another Webb book project (as editor, rather than author) in the planning stages, of which more nearer the time.

When the meeting finished and we'd packed up, the committee and speakers headed for a local pub in Girton for a meal and chat, eventually going our separate ways at 2130. Don and I headed back to Portsmouth, timing it so I didn't have a long wait at Gunwharf. After a mercifully brief wait (it was raining, the Wightlink waiting room smelled bad and there was a tramp asleep on the seats inside! I don't want to be rude but I don't think the tramp and the smell were unconnected!), I got the 0130 ferry home across a stormy Solent, collected my car from Fishbourne ferry terminal and got home just before 3 am.

It was an enjoyable day and it was good to catch up with people I hadn't seen for a while. Out of the people I have known for years I'd only seen Owen Brazell since 2005, at the Isle of Wight Star Party, and this May's VAS monthly meeting when he was the speaker. I would like to go next year, but I will definitely have to sort out more sensible travel arrangements because leaving home at 0430 one morning and not getting home until 0300 the following morning is just stupid. Next year, I will see if I can stay with my sister in Newbury for a couple of nights and go from there, rather than a round trip crammed into 24 hours.
Many thanks to Don for the lift up to and back to Cambridge from Portsmouth. It was a pleasant trip, where we talked about astronomy, life in general and cricket, of which I am also a fan. Don's involved with women's cricket, as photographer, selector and chairman of Sussex Women's Cricket Association. I am more of a fan of the men's game, especially Hampshire and England, but it was interesting hearing about the women's game.

After my blog post about how the UK weather isn't quite as bad as often perceived, it's done nothing but rain and blow a gale since early June and May was also fairly unsettled. I think we can blame Owen for this, as he's bought a 22 inch Obsession UC! Oh well, summer is yet young and June is often unsettled - and is probably the best month to have rotten weather as it's not much use for observing thanks to the twilight!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Supernova SN2011dh in M51

Despite my knee problem, I decided to get the scope out and look at the supernova in M51. I didn't want to wait until the knee was better (it's improving all the time) or until the Moon was out of the way as the supernova might have faded by then and I didn't want to miss it.

Date: 8th June 2011
Conditions: First quarter Moon, all-night astronomical twilight. Milky Way visible. No dew, breezy.
Seeing: II
Transparency: II
Equipment: 12" f/5 dob. Televue 22mm Panoptic (69x), Televue 8mm Radian (190x), Televue 5mm Radian (304x) and Televue 3mm Radian (507x)

I observed the supernova under less-than-ideal conditions, thanks to first quarter Moon and the all-night astronomical twilight we're cursed with at this time of year - and I have certainly seen M51 better than this. However, the Milky Way was visible and the transparency and seeing were both good. The supernova was best seen at medium to high magnifications. It wasn't immediately obvious but after a minute or two with averted vision, popped into view as an extra star. I made the sketch without a photo to guide me and checked it against a photo of the supernova's position later.
The best views were at 190x and 304x. The view at 507x was terrible, it was just smeared all over the place.

The supernova is arrowed on the sketch.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

You what?

*I had made a post under this title yesterday, but I accidentally deleted it when trying to delete something else! So here it is again, or what I can remember of it*

Being less than mobile recently, thanks to a knee injury, I have been doing a bit more reading than usual. I have been looking through my collection of Deep Sky Magazine and an article by Jeffrey Corder in DSM #6 Spring 1984, titled 'Observing Low Surface Brightness Objects', contained a sentence that caught my eye. The sentence in question read: "The reason old Reverend Webb described M33 as "Large, faint, and ill-defined" was more because his notoriously damp homeland of England is a generally poor site than because M33 is especially difficult".
Er, "...generally poor site"? That's a sweeping statement if ever I saw one and, like all sweeping statements, is actually not entirely true. Okay, England isn't great, but neither is it a 'generally poor site' and, apart from the north-west, a lot of it isn't 'notoriously damp' either, especially in the south.
Arizona is 'great', West Texas is 'great' (when it isn't on fire), the outback of Australia is 'great', Chile's Atacama Desert is 'great' and so on, but most observers - most people - don't live in these observational nirvanas, they live in areas that are as cloudy and as light polluted as England, so it does kind of annoy me when I hear and read remarks such as Jeffrey's and 'Soggy little Britain', which an American friend said to me on Facebook recently.

I used to be under the impression that people in the US, especially, had pristine home skies and spent all their spare evenings observing, so I was a little jealous! My visits to the Texas Star Party, and also reading forums such as Cloudy Nights, actually proved otherwise as most people live in areas which are cloudy and/or light polluted. People have to live in or near towns and cities for work, unless they happen to be rich or retired, and really only get dark sky observing opportunities around new Moon if the weather co-operates and they can get out of town for a night or two.

While 300+ clear nights a year would be nice, we don't do too badly here, with over 100 nights a year, give or take a few, that are observationally usable - if we ignore the Moon's phase - most particularly here on the South Coast where high sunshine levels translate into a decent amount of clear nights. I've been keeping a record of nights that are usuable for observing (partly clear as well as 100% clear) and, so far, in 2011, we've had 69 nights out of 155 that have been clear or partly clear, despite the coldest and cloudiest winter for 40 years. That's 44%, not too shabby for a 'generally poor site'. Out of those 69 nights, 52 have been totally clear. 2010 was 46% clear or partly clear (33% totally clear). Anything less than 50% clear goes down as cloudy! 50% clear is usable and I often observe on partly clear nights, as long as the Moon isn't in the way. I have to admit that even I don't observe as much as I could, as it isn't always possible, particularly in the summer when nights are very short and in mid-winter when sub-zero temperatures make it a test of endurance, and at the age of 41 I'm beginning to find that several nights in a row is hard going, particularly when I am also working during the day.

That said, the weather does have a habit of being inclement when there's an astronomical event on. Planning a public session to view an eclipse? You can bet it will probably be cloudy! However, the same goes for the USA, outside the dry and clear south west, and other countries, too. If you plan your observing around weekends because of work, particular dates or events, then there is a risk it will be cloudy or wet, as such a narrow window of opportunity means the perspective will be skewed. It doesn't mean that it's always or even mostly cloudy and wet.
Even the Texas Star Party this year wasn't an observational success, as they were clouded out for all except two-and-a-half nights. Nearby range fires, caused by lighting strikes, haven't helped either. A few past TSPs have been a bit hit-and-miss, too with 1992, 2005 and 2007 being pretty bad.

It's a bit of a ramble but what I am trying to say here is that people tend to criticise England (and Britain in general) rather unfairly, when the truth isn't as bad and it does annoy me, particularly when it often comes from people who are no better off than we are. It's true that we British do love to complain about the weather but as whingeing is a national pastime here (and, yes, I can moan with the best of 'em!), that doesn't mean much, as sunshine and 90 degree temperatures here bring as many complaints from people as any other type of weather! In short, while we don't have the best observing conditions here by no means do we have the worst either. England is probably about average in the grand scheme of things.

Light pollution is more of a menace than clouds. The UK, especially England, is overcrowded and, as such, is quite badly light polluted and we have a big problem here in that respect. Public ignorance is a major factor in this as they tend to think that turning night into day is somehow a 'good thing' and prevents crime. It isn't and doesn't. It's wasteful, adds to carbon emissions and isn't proven to reduce crime - and criminals need light to see, they don't have superior night vision compared to the rest of us!
Local council street light switch-offs, due to austerity measures, have been greated with bleating about 'blackouts' and claims of increased crime (although that's not supported by facts) and one woman in Northamptonshire claimed she fell over in the dark and injured herself. You don't just 'fall over' in the dark unless you're not taking adequate care and using a torch, unless you have a problem. It's the same with pedestrians walking along unlit roads at night - if they wear light or reflective clothing then they have far less chance of being run over, unless they do something really stupid.

The battle against light pollution is slowly gaining some ground with a lot of councils, including the Isle of Wight, beginning to put new LED lamps in. Apparently, these shine downwards and little or no light actually goes into the sky. I have read reports where amateur astronomers in areas where these have already been installed say that there is a big improvement. It's a step in the right direction and, if these lights shine where they are supposed to but the sky remains dark, then everyone will be happy. Light trespass is now an offence, so badly shielded and directed security lights have to be adjusted if a complaint is made.

Returning to Jeffrey Corder's article, as for M33 itself from here it's certainly large but it's not a hard object to see. It's a naked-eye object on a good night from here and is not that faint or ill-defined, being a nice sight in binoculars. Telescopically there's lots to see such as HII areas and, with a large enough scope, globular clusters.
Rev. Webb's impression of it was more likely down to the quality - or lack of it - of his scopes rather than any shortcomings in the quality of his sky. I daresay that telescopes back in 1984 were superior to those of the 1800s, which was Webb's era.

Monday, 30 May 2011

The sky is clearing, the good weather is returning...

...and I can't observe thanks to having done some damage to my left knee. It got twisted round at an unnatural angle yesterday morning and I felt something snap inside accompanied by an excruciating pain at the same time. I decided to ignore it in the hope it was nothing serious only for it to get worse and keep me awake last night. So, it was off to A&E this morning for them to take a look. I was in there four hours and, out of that four hours, I was actually only being seen by a member of staff for a grand total of about 10 minutes.
Anyway, when I eventually got seen, they X-rayed it, proclaimed it to be a possible ligament or cartilage tear and sent me on my way with crutches (which have to be the work of diabolical forces, I hate crutches), instructions to keep the knee up and an appointment to see a specialist next week.
This week has not got off to a brilliant start, I already have a slight bad case of the 'I wish I was somewhere else, that somewhere being the TSP' blooz and now this. It also means I can't work this week and no work means no pay. Anyway, I'll keep off it for a few days and see what happens.
Still, it's probably the best time of year to do yourself a mischief - nights are too light for any serious observing, and I was only planning to do some sketching of the brighter Messiers and DSOs anyway. Knee damage definitely rules out using the big scope but I can probably still do something with my little scopes and binoculars. Small scopes can go in bags, although I don't know what can be done about carrying my tripod outside...I must have a spare camera strap somewhere.

While feeling sorry for myself this afternoon, I browsed through some of the astronomy stuff I have gleaned from the net and other sources. There's plenty of material for observing projects when I want a change from the Herschel 2500. I've downloaded some of the TSP observing lists and I already have Larry Mitchell's Advanced Observing Lists on computer and in a paper file I brought home in 2008. I am getting an 18" f/4.5 dobsonian from David Lukehurst, thanks to a tax rebate a couple of months ago (that paid half the cost and my aunt is lending me the other half), so I have a good chance of doing Larry's lists, apart from the stuff that's too far south to be easily seen from here. An interesting project would be to sketch each of the objects on the 'easier' lists. Ok, I won't get an 'observing pin' for it, as the lists have to be completed in situ at the TSP, but it'll be a fun project to do.
The dob, by the way, should be completed by the end of July, just in time for the return of the dark skies after mid-summer. Like most deep sky observers, I have always wanted a big scope >16 inches. Life got in the way of me getting one last year, as the savings I had needed to be spent on something else but the chance came round again, thanks to the tax refund and my aunt lending me money, and I took it.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Mini observing session, 27th May 2011

After a stormy and unpromising day, Friday night cleared nicely. I was out all evening, not getting home until past 11pm although, given the light nights at this time of year, that's not really a problem. However, I didn't feel like getting the 12" out - and the weather forecast indicated that clouds were soon going to roll in, continuing May's unsettled note (May's weather quite often is rubbish but I hope this isn't the start of yet another lousy summer) so instead I brought out the little 70mm refractor, recently released from its dark prison in the depths of a cupboard. It's imprisonment wasn't intentional, it's just that I don't have a lot of use for such a small scope. Or I didn't think I had, until I decided I want a travel scope just in case I am able to go anywhere next year. Unfortunately air travel restrictions don't allow you to take anything much larger than a small refractor or Mak-Cass overseas. People better at woodwork and metalwork than I am have made collapsible 8" or larger dobs for airline travel, but that's beyond my limited practical capabilities.
Anyway, with the lack of anything else to write about on here, here's a short account (I won't say 'report' like a lot of people do on astronomy forums; I don't like the term when used for descriptions of observing sessions as I think it's too formal, making it sound compulsory and too much like work) of the Friday night mini-session with the Vixen.

Date: 27th May 2011
Conditions: Cloudless, no dew, chilly, breezy.
Seeing: II
Transparency: II
Equipment: 70mm (2.8") f/6 Vixen refractor with Televue 25mm (16.8x) and 11mm (38x) Plossl eyepieces. Lumicon 2" UHC filter.

The summer Milky Way was rising, and Cygnus was beginning to clear the nearby trees, so I aimed the little scope at the various star fields. The beauty of a small rich-field scope is that you don't need a finder to aim it. Because of the wide field views, it's easy to find what you're looking for just by sighting along the tube, something which is all but impossible with a larger, longer focal length instrument.
As well as looking round the rich Milky Way of Cygnus, I looked for individual objects, bright Messiers generally. M29, a coarse and poor open cluster in Cygnus, was easily seen at 16.8x. Despite its sparseness it was an attractive sight at 38x, standing out nicely from the Milky Way. It's seven brightest stars were all easily seen in the tiny scope.
In Lyra, M57 was easily seen at 16.8x as a non-stellar object in a rich area. Putting up the magnification to 38x showed an oval with a darker middle.
Turning to Hercules, M13 was easily seen in the scope, and was resolved, despite being at a neck-twisting angle. No surprise there, as it's a naked eye object on a good night. It wasn't quite naked eye the other night, though, as the sky wasn't quite dark enough for that. I didn't bother with M92, because of the awkwardness of the eyepiece angle - one of the areas where a reflector beats a refractor hands down.
M81 and M82 in Ursa Major provided a lovely view at 38x. M81 was oval, with a slight hint of spiral arms while M82 was a bit brighter and showed mottling.
Scorpius was rising so I decided to see what M4 looked like with the 70mm. Despite its low altitude, the view was surprisingly good and the cluster began to resolve at 38x. If it was higher, it wouldn't be bad at all with the tiny scope.
Meanwhile, Vulpecula had cleared the trees, so I looked for and easily found M27, the Dumbell Nebula, at 16.8x, as a round patch in a rich area. I was expecting to just see M27's 'apple core' shape but, somewhat surprisingly, at 38x, the fainter lobes showed up well.

Back to Cygnus and NGC 7000 and IC 5070/5067, the North America and Pelican Nebulae. NGC 7000 is a pretty easy naked eye object as a shining patch adjacent to Deneb, as by now, it was 0040 and dark enough to see fainter objects. The shape was easy to make out with the help of my Lumicon 2" UHC filter held to my eye, with the dark 'Gulf of Mexico' prominent. IC 5070/5067 was fainter and needed averted vision to see properly. It's a nice sight through my 8x42 binoculars though.

It was getting cold and it was nearly 1am, so I packed up - which was the work of less than a few seconds, another plus factor of a small scope. Unfortunately small scopes don't cut it when you want to view faint deep sky objects and, with a rich field scope such as the 70mm, you can't get enough magnification for detailed views of DSOs or the planets. However, for a 'grab and go' scope and a travel scope, it's ideal. One scope can't do it all; my 12" is way too large and cumbersome to be much use as a 'grab and go scope' (being a one-piece tube it barely fits in my car) and doesn't give wide field views. As noted Arizona observer Steve Coe once said, 'There's no such thing as an all-purpose telescope'.

The Texas Star Party begins today. Hopefully they'll have good clear skies. I wish I was there.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Deja vu

Volcanic ash. Again. At least, this year, I don't have any travel plans to be potentially disrupted but if I was going to TSP, I think I'd be a bit worried, as it starts on Sunday. I was lucky last year, I dodged the ash as the winds changed direction the day before my flight left and the worst thing that happened then was that we got rerouted north of the Arctic Circle, which turned an 8 hour flight into a 12 hour flight. Who'd have bet on lightning - or, rather, ash - striking twice in the space of 13 months when there's been hitherto years of no disruption despite plenty of Icelandic volcanic activity?

On a lighter note, I am hoping to do some travelling next year, whether the TSP or something else. I am thinking of doing something different and going on an astronomy trip to Arizona. Arizona has a fabulous climate for observers, being dry and transparent with over 300 clear nights a year (which is a lot better than us!), there are observatories you can visit - Lowell certainly has a public visitor centre - and there are, as you'd imagine, lots of amateur astronomers and astronomy clubs there. Also, while I have been to the States three times, all of these visits have been to Texas and I'd like to see a bit more of the place. It's a big country and there is plenty to see. Should I make it out to Arizona, I am hoping I can meet with other observers and clubs. Funds permitting, I would also be hoping to make a side-trip to California.
I'd like to take a little travel scope with me as my 8x42 binoculars don't quite cut it, although they are great for widefield views and I have seen most of the Messiers and quite a few brighter non-Messier DSOs with them. I have a Vixen 70mm guidescope that came in a box of bits given to me a few years ago and that should fit the bill quite nicely. I have found a suitable 1.25 inch diagonal and my Televue 25mm, 15mm and 11mm Plossls plus the 8mm Radian (which give magnifications of 16.8x, 28x, 38x and 52.5x respectively) and it gives nice views of bright deep sky objects and the Milky Way. I am not sure I'd take all four eyepieces with me but it's nice to have a variety.

I tried it out last night, on M4, M57, M81, M82 and the globulars in Ophiuchus and it worked very well indeed.

I also had a fairly unsuccessful session with the 12". Unsuccessful? Simply because the sky was a bit too light (it was 2330 local time) to find much, there was a fair bit of drifting cloud around and there was a stiff breeze (it has been pretty stormy just recently). I was after galaxies in Hercules, knowing full well it wouldn't be that successful. Hercules is best placed for viewing in June but that's precisely the wrong time of year to see it properly from these latitudes, thanks to light nights.
I did, however, find NGC 5970, a galaxy in Serpens (Caput) - it was reasonably bright and stood out well against the background sky. There wasn't much brightening towards the core, it was very slight. Core non-stellar and the edges of the galaxy were diffuse, not sharp. Elongated 2:1 NW-SE. 69x, 190x
I then had a look round some of the brighter Messier globulars in Ophiuchus before putting the 12" away and getting out the little 70mm Vixen.

Monday, 16 May 2011

A 'sound approach'?

Just recently, because I have several projects on the go at once - the Herschel 2500 among them, plus as much of the NGC as I can possibly do from 50 North as well as some smaller ones - I am just taking notes and not doing any sketching. This is because sketching slows me down far too much. While I am not in a tearing hurry I do want to get through the projects in a decent time frame, so I am just sticking to writing notes down in a lined note book.
However, there are problems with this in that I need to use a light in order to see what I am writing. Even a dim red light affects my night vision and I have found that faint galaxies and nebulae disappear for a good few seconds while my eyes readjust. Not only that, the way things are set up it means that I have to physically move away from the eyepiece to the table where my notebook is in order to write things down. This also slows me down although nowhere near as much as sketching does.Then you have the sheer awkwardness of writing with gloves or frozen fingers during the winter. Finally, my writing is dreadful at the best of times and in the dead of night by red light it goes from merely 'dreadful' to 'barely legible'!
Recently, I read about other observers using digital voice recorders (dictaphones) to dictate notes at the eyepiece, ready to be transcribed into a notebook or onto a computer later. Now, as I detest the sound of my own voice and I don't want our two sets of neighbours, whose gardens are just the other side of a footpath from ours, to think that I am a nutcase chatting away to myself outside in the middle of the night, I discounted ever getting a dictaphone. However, the more I think about it, the more sense the idea makes. Using a dictaphone means I don't have to move away from the scope, apart from when I need to look up my next object on the charts, or even look away from the eyepiece. And I don't have to talk loudly into it, a whisper should suffice which would get around the twin problems of the loathing of my own voice and the neighbours thinking I am a lunatic - I hope! I am hoping this will mean I get more objects observed in a session.
So I've decided to give it a go and went into town this morning to look for a suitable machine. I was surprised at the prices, starting at £39.99 and going up from there as I thought one of these things would be around £20 max. I shopped around and, as I don't want to save my recordings for future posterity, because I'll be transcribing them, I decided against getting one that plugs into a computer on grounds of cost and bought the cheapest I could find.
Instead of saving my inane chatter onto disk, I'll be transcribing my spoken notes into Word, then printing them off, the same as I do now only without trying to decipher my bad writing.
Anyway, here's the 40 quid piece of plastic, made by Olympus, which was somewhat over-priced for what it is. Now I need to read the book and work out how to operate the thing!

By the way, I *will* be going back to sketching, probably during the summer when the skies are not quite dark enough to go after the more elusive NGCs and ICs. I plan to carrying on a globular cluster observing project I began a couple of years back (globulars lend themselves well to light summer nights) and I'd like to sketch most, if not all, of them.

There are a couple of interesting threads on Cloudy Nights about note taking, including the use of digital voice recorders, here and here.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Observing, 8th May 2011

After getting back from my trip last Wednesday, the weather had turned nasty with thunderstorms and torrential rain (which, admittedly, was much needed, especially as the UK had forest fires everywhere) but yesterday was largely clear, apart from heavy downpours now and again.
I was hoping that the thunder and rain had cleared the atmosphere a bit and the sky was indeed more transparent than it had been for a while. Unfortunately, as night fell, there were more drifting clouds around than there had been during the evening and the waxing crescent moon, at around 30% of full,  interfered with the observing session, so it was a shorter one than I'd intended.

Date: 8th May 2011
Conditions: Mild, mostly clear although some drifting cloud about, waxing crescent Moon (30% illuminated), heavy dew, soaking wet underfoot because of heavy rain earlier in the evening.
Seeing: III
Transparency: III
Equipment: 12" f/5 dob, 22mm Televue Panoptic (69x), 15mm Televue Plossl (101x), 8mm Televue Radian (190x).

NGC 4494, galaxy in Coma Berenices - Just SW of an 8th mag star this is bright and oval, elongated NW-SE. Brightens slightly to a non-stellar core. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4725, galaxy in Coma Berenices - Bright and oval, elongated SW-NE. Brightens to a very bright but non-stellar core. There's a hint of spiral arms at 190x but the scattered light from the crescent Moon makes this hard to see properly. I want to have another look at this on a better night - it may have to wait until next spring, as we're into May and the spring constellations will soon be lost in twilight. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4314, galaxy in Coma Berenices - This is a fairly bright oval with a brighter core. The Moon interfered with this one quite a bit. 69x, 101x, 190x.

NGC 4414, galaxy in Coma Berenices - A bright oval, elongated NNW-SSE. It brightens towards the core and has a stellar nucleus. The view at 190x is not good! 101x is much better. 69x, 101x, 190x.

I packed up at 2330 because the dew was a real nuisance and the Moon, despite being a crescent, was really interfering with observations. It was due to set at 0118 but my patience had run out so I called it a night.


Back last summer, I posted about older observers who have amassed thousands of observations of deep sky objects and other astronomical objects and how I have a long way to go until I am anywhere near their records, as they have 40+ years observing experience as opposed to my 19 years. I thought about this today and it made me dig out old notebooks and sketchbooks and count up the number of DSO's I have seen.
So far, on going back through these old notebooks and sketchbooks (unfortunately I have two or three missing) I find I have visually observed best part of a thousand NGC/IC objects and non-NGC/IC objects such as anonymous galaxies and galaxy clusters. On top of that, there's all the planets (including ex-planet Pluto), double and multiple stars, the Moon(!), asteroids, a comet crashing into Jupiter, comets, lunar eclipses, partial solar eclipses with one cloud obstructed total in 1999, a transit of Venus, the Sun, occultations, meteor showers, noctilucent clouds, Mir, the ISS, the Space Shuttle and other satellites...but, sadly, no UFOs! All this with equipment of all sizes ranging from the unaided eye, binoculars and small telescopes right up to 36" and 48" dobsonians.
Not too bad, I guess, considering observing opportunites are often limited by weather, Moon and life getting in the way, including a couple of breaks from the hobby in 1999/2000 (7 months) and 2004/5 (16 months) which were the result of life totally interfering with the important stuff!


The trip I went on was quite good. Vision of the Seas was a nice ship and the weather was great. We even had clear skies but, as I predicted in a previous post, the ship was lit up like a Christmas tree (globe lights - yuck!) and only the brighter stars were visible but it was fun working out our heading by looking at the stars. Would I go on a cruise again? Unlikely because I much prefer backpacking trips, vacations which involve astronomy and birding and my visits to the Texas Star Party - and I don't like the formal dressing up on some evenings.

The cruise ship, Vision of the Seas, at Amsterdam

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Observing, 27th April 2011

Yesterday, 27th April, was largely cloudy and grey but the clouds cleared during the afternoon to leave a blue and transparent sky. It remained clear throughout the evening so I set up the scope for some observing. Given the largely hazy conditions just recently, I didn't hold out much hope for the transparency but, surprisingly, it was very good.

Date: 27th/28th April 2011
Conditions: Cloudless, chilly, no moon, no dew, slight breeze picked up later on, zodiacal light prominent.
Seeing: II
Transparency: II
NELM: 6.2 - 6.5 later
Equipment: 12" f/5 dob, 22mm Televue Panoptic (69x), 11mm Televue Plossl (137x), 8mm Televue Radian (190x)

NGC 3631, galaxy in Ursa Major - Round and reasonably bright. Diffuse halo brightens to a compact core and stellar nucleus. 69x, 137x.

NGC 4026, galaxy in Ursa Major - Located just SW of a mag 9 star. Edge-on and very bright. Elongated NW-SE, with a bright elongated core. 69x, 137x.

NGC 3998, galaxy in Ursa Major - Located adjacent to 2 stars (mag 9 and 10) 3998 is very bright and round. It has a very bright stellar nucleus surrounded by a diffuse halo. 69x, 137x, 190x.

NGC 3990, galaxy in Ursa Major - Located just west of 3998, this is much fainter and more oval with a brighter core. Elongated NE-SW. 69x, 137x, 190x.

NGC 3982, galaxy in Ursa Major - Moderately bright oval glow, oriented north-south. Brightens to centre and a non-stellar core. 69x, 190x.

NGC 3898, galaxy in Ursa Major - Bright oval, elongated NW-SE. Fairly faint halo surrounds a much brighter, elongated core. 69x, 190x.

NGC 3888, galaxy in Ursa Major - Lies to the SW of 3898. Much fainter than 3898. Fairly dim oval with a brighter core. There is a distinct row of 3 stars which lie to the NE. 69x, 190x.

A bright meteor went through south western Ursa Major and into Gemini at this point. It was a bright yellow fireball.

NGC 2950, galaxy in Ursa Major - Small, round and very bright. It has a stellar nucleus in the core. 69x, 137x, 190x.

NGC 2768, galaxy in Ursa Major - A bright, flattened oval. Oriented east-west with a bright elongated core. 69x, 137x, 190x.

NGC 5676, galaxy in Bootes - Fairly bright oval with a bright core. Elongated SE-NW. 69xx, 137x.

NGC 5689, galaxy in Bootes - Bright, almost edge-on. Elongated E-W. Brightens to core and has a stellar nucleus. NGC 5682 and 5683 lie just to the SW and NGC 5693 to the SE. 5682/83/93 are all faint and very small. 69x, 190x.

NGC 5248, galaxy in Bootes - Large, oval and bright, oriented east-west. A diffuse halo brightens to the core and a stellar nucleus. At 190x averted vision shows hint of spiral arms. 69x, 190x.
I made a sketch, which is shown at left. Click to enlarge. Excuse the poor quality sketch, by that time my fingers were frozen!

Packed up at 0100 BST. The signs of summer were already there, with Hercules up, Scorpius peeping above the horizon in the south east and Cygnus above the horizon on its side.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Observing, 25th April 2011

The recent high pressure has led to increasingly murky nights and tonight was no exception. It looked ok as dark fell and there were no light domes visible so I set up. Unfortunately, this state of affairs didn't last, as it got murkier and high clouds moved in, so it ended up being a much shorter session than intended.
I had intended to spend the session in Ursa Major but the combination of the 'dob hole' and high clouds prevented it.

Date: 25th April 2011
Conditions: Clear at first, slight breeze picked up later, slight haze, mild (11C, only needed a hoodie and observing vest on). No Moon. Conditions deteriorated badly less than an hour later, cutting the session short.
Seeing: II
Transparency: III to V (started out okay but deteriorated badly)
NELM: started out as 6.0 but got worse thanks to increasing murk and light scatter.
Equipment: 12" f/5 dob, 22mm Televue Panoptic (69x), 15mm Televue Plossl (101x), 11mm Televue Plossl (137x).

NGC 3726, galaxy in Ursa Major - Large, oval (not quite round) diffuse halo with a stellar core. Oriented north-south, with an 11th mag star on the northern end. 69x, 101x.

NGC 3675, galaxy in Ursa Major - Bright, almost edge-on. Elongated north-south. Brightens to an extended core. A scattering of mag 11/12 stars lies just to the west and a 12th mag star lies on the southern tip. 69x, 101x, 137x.

NGC 5466, globular cluster in Bootes - Faint and large. Dense. With averted vision some stars are resolved with others giving the whole thing a 'granular' appearance on a background glow. 69x.

NGC 5466 in Bootes. Image from in accordance with their image use policy (i.e. I haven't just nicked it!)

NGC 5557, galaxy in Bootes - Fairly bright and round with a bright core. 69x, 137x.

By now, the conditions had deteriorated so much that, after just three quarters of an hour and a meagre four objects, I had to pack it in and call it a night. The sky just got murkier and, in the end, it was impossible to continue with any sensible deep sky observing. It was disappointing as I was hoping for two or three hours, but 45 minutes is better than nothing.

We'll soon lose our dark skies for the summer as, from late May onwards, astronomical twilight lasts all night with no true darkness until late July/early August. I intend to carry on observing throughout, weather permitting, but I will go back to sketching the brighter stuff, something I have neglected recently as I have preferred to concentrate on seeing as much as possible because sketching is time-consuming so I get through fewer objects.

I'm off on a cruise on Friday, a four day trip on Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas from Southampton to Copenhagen via Amsterdam. I am taking my binoculars so, if the sky is clear, I'll do some binocular observing from any dark spots on the ship's deck I can find. Unfortunately, cruise ships tend to be lit up from just aft of the bridge to the stern and from the waterline to the wheelhouse roof so I don't have high expectations - either for darkness or clear skies! Hopefully by the time I get home next week, some thunderstorms and rain will have cleared out the atmosphere a bit.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Observing, 21st April 2011

'Hunting for galaxies among the dogs'

Now the Moon's on the wane, it's time to observe again. We've had some glorious weather just recently, with temperatures of 26C/78F, totally unlike April, but this has come at a price with high pressure haze (and smog in the cities). We're not in a city here, of course, but high pressure haze has been noticeable recently, with blue-white skies during the day and noticeable sky glow above the horizon at night (murk never helps the moonlight situation either, scattering it around).
However, I decided to give it a go anyway, as even hazy skies are better than nothing.

Conditions: No clouds but hazy, some dew, cool (10C/50F). Moon not risen (rises at 0048)
Transparency: III-IV
NELM: 6.0
Equipment: 12" f/5 dob, 22mm Televue Panoptic (69x), 15mm Televue Plossl (101x), 11mm Televue Plossl (137x), 8mm Televue Radian (190x)

Canes Venatici. Chart generated with MegaStar5

NGC 4258 = M106, galaxy in Canes Venatici - A nice lollipop, just to get the eye in! Large and bright with a very bright mottled core. Oval, oriented north-south. 69x, 101x

NGC 4248, galaxy in Canes Venatici - Small, faint elongated east-west. 69x, 137x

NGC 4490 = Arp 269 (with NGC 4485), galaxy in Canes Venatici - Bright, irregular galaxy. Broader on southern end than on the northern and has a mottled core. On the northern end, it is much narrower and has a 'tail' which bends towards its companion NGC 4485. Flattened on the east side. 69x, 137x, 190x

NGC 4485, galaxy in Canes Venatici - Seen easily at 69x, this is smaller and fainter than NGC 4490. Irregular with no condensation. Together NGCs 4485 and 4490 make a nice pair. 69x, 137x, 190x.

NGC 4618, galaxy in Canes Venatici - Easily located and seen at 69x. An almost round glow, brighter in centre with a stellar nucleus. 69x, 190x.

NGC 5005, galaxy in Canes Venatici - Bright. Oriented WSW-ENE. Halo surrounding a bright core. 69x, 190x.

NGC 5033, galaxy in Canes Venatici - In the same 69x field of view as NGC 5005. 5033 is slightly brighter than 5005 and oriented SSW-NNE. A faint halo surrounds a bright elongated core with a stellar nucleus. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4914, galaxy in Canes Venatici - Located adjacent to a 9th mag star. Faint halo around an elongated core. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4244, galaxy in Canes Venatici - This one is a real beaut. It's a huge, edge-on thin galaxy which cuts SSW-NNE across the field of view. In the 22mm Panoptic, it covers around a third of the diameter of the field of view, and stretches right across the field of view of the 15mm Plossl. It has no nuclear bulge in the middle but brightens slightly towards the core. The galaxy, expecially around the centre, looks mottled. Very nice indeed. It is one of the galaxies I observed at last year's Texas Star Party for Larry Mitchell's 'Super-thin Galaxies' Advanced Observing Pin. 69x, 101x

As I had to be up for work in the morning and the waning gibbous Moon would soon be rising, I packed up not long after midnight.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Observing, 8th April 2011

It was touch and go whether I'd have an observing session tonight as the antibiotics for a facial infection were making themselves felt in ways other than just clearing up the infection, but it was a reasonable evening so I made myself get the scope out. In the end I was glad I did.
The collimation, for some reason, was miles out, I think it's because generations of molehills have made the ground uneven and bumpy so the tube does get banged and rattled about in the 20 seconds or so it takes to get from inside the shed to the spot I observe from, I try and position myself so an oak tree the other side of the footpath is between me and an upstairs window of a neighbour's house so there's a few feet of bumpy lawn to negotiate. It took ten minutes in the twilight to sort it out but got there in the end, dare I say it but the Moon looked good at 190x and 304x!
I stayed in Virgo, starting in the north and east of the constellation and working my way south and west, in an effort to knock off as many Herschels (400 and 400 II) in there as possible.

Date: 8th April 2011 (into the morning of 9th April)
Conditions: Cloudless but some high pressure haze, waxing crescent Moon 22% illuminated. Some dew but not as bad as the other night.
Seeing: I-II
Transparency: II-III (improved slightly later on)
NELM: I didn't look at the naked eye limiting magnitude, as I knew it'd be a bit crap thanks to the Moon. The Moon was a crescent but was substantially affecting sky conditions so I would say it was worse than 5.8 at least. It improved later, as the Moon set.
Equipment: 12" f/5 dob, 22mm Televue Panoptic (69x), 11mm Televue Plossl (137x), 8mm Televue Radian (190x).

MegaStar 5 chart of the main Virgo area, showing Herschel 400 objects. Click to enlarge.

NGC 4754, galaxy in Virgo - In a very pretty field with NGC 4762. 4754 is oval, elongated SW-NE. Moderately bright. The core is brighter than the halo, but not stellar. Very nice indeed. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4762, galaxy in Virgo - This one is very nice indeed. It is edge-on (edge-on galaxies are my favourites) oriented SW-NE. It has an obvious nuclear bulge and there are three bright stars immediately to the west. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4698, galaxy in Virgo - Located between a pair of mag 10 stars. Round, diffuse-looking halo brightens to a non-stellar nucleus. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4866, galaxy in Virgo - Edge on, oriented east-west. Moderately bright, despite competition from moon. There's a star superimposed on the NW side. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4550, galaxy in Virgo - In the same field as NGC 4551 where they make a nice pair. Elongated east-west. Bright, condenses to bright non-stellar core. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4551, galaxy in Virgo - Just east of 4550 this is smaller, rounder and not as bright. Brighter middle. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4900, galaxy in Virgo - Fairly faint diffuse oval glow elongated E-W. Condenses towards centre. Star on southern end. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4666, galaxy in Virgo - Almost edge on, oriented SW-NE. Brightens somewhat towards an elongated core. NGC 4668 in the same field. 69x, 137x, 190x.

NGC 4668, galaxy in Virgo - This is located SE of 4666. It's a lot smaller and fainter and quite hard to see because of scattered moonlight but appeared as a soft faint glow elongated E-W. Quite small. 69x, 137x, 190x.

NGC 4665, galaxy in Virgo - Bright and round with a bright stellar core. 69x, 137x

NGC 4643, galaxy in Virgo - Small, bright and round with a stellar core. Adjacent to 11th mag star to NE. 69x, 137x.

NGC 4636, galaxy in Virgo - Round halo with bright stellar core. In a nice area. 69x, 137x.

NGC 4179, galaxy in Virgo - Lovely spindle-shaped galaxy oriented N-S. bright non-stellar core. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4030, galaxy in Virgo - Bright oval located between and just to the east of two 10th mag stars. Brightens to non-stellar core. Elongated SW-NE. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4303 = M61, galaxy in Virgo - Large and very bright. Oval, elongated N-S with a bright elongated core running N-S. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4273, galaxy in Virgo - A fairly faint oval, elongated N-S. Brightens gradually to core. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4281, galaxy in Virgo - Just east of 4273 this is at 90 degrees to it. Oval, elongated E-W. Slightly brighter than 4273. Brightens to core which is not stellar. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4277, galaxy in Virgo - Next to 4273, this is tiny and faint, elongated N-S. 190x.

NGC 4270, galaxy in Virgo - In the same group as 4281, etc. Oval, elongated SW-NE, with some brightening towards the centre. 190x.

NGC 4261, galaxy in Virgo - Bright, round and with a bright core and almost stellar nucleus. 190x.

NGC 4264, galaxy in Virgo - Located NE of 4261 this is much smaller and fainter. The core is brighter than the halo. 190x.

NGC 4546, galaxy in Virgo - Bright oval, elongated E-W. Bright non-stellar core. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4697, galaxy in Virgo - Bright, oval elongated E-W. Diffuse halo condenses to core and a bright stellar nucleus. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4958, galaxy in Virgo - Bright edge on galaxy oriented NE-SW. Very bright stellar core. 69x, 190x.

NGC 4995, galaxy in Virgo - Round glow with brighter centre. 69x, 190x.

Packed up at 0130. I didn't want to but after standing for nearly four hours, my back and feet were beginning to let me know it was time to quit! Because the Moon is now substantially interfereing, this will be my last session until after Full Moon. I was a little surprised at the fact I saw all my targets, all galaxies although none were fainter than 13th magnitude.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Observing, 6th April 2011

I hadn't been observing since 23rd March thanks to the weather. The one time it was clear was Friday and Saturday night last week and I couldn't observe thanks to dental problems (infected back tooth and root canal). Pity that because Friday night, especially, was as clear as clear could be with no haze and no light domes from nearby towns.
The weather this week has cleared up, although the high-pressure haze is back, so it was time to get into the galaxies. Among my targets were UGC 5470/Leo I (when Leo got high enough out of the murk), Hickson 44 and Hickson 56, as well as a few Herschel 400, and other, galaxies.

Click to enlarge photos and charts.

Date: 6th/7th April 2011
Conditions: Clear but with some haze, mist forming later, 9% illuminated waxing crescent moon. Chilly, around 9C. Very dewy.
Seeing: I
Transparency: II-III
NELM: 6.0
Equipment: 12" f/5 dobsonian, 22mm Televue Panoptic (69x), 15mm Televue Plossl (101x), 8mm Televue Radian (190x), 5mm Televue Radian (304x)

Hickson 56, galaxy group in Ursa Major - Just south of NGC 3718 this is a small faint group. With averted vision and plenty of looking, components 56B (UGC 6527), 56C (PGC 35618; the brightest member at mag 14.8v) and 56D (PGC 35615) all seen as an elongated area of brightening. 56A (MCG+9-19-113) and 56E (PGC 35609) were not seen. 190x, 304x.
Hickson 56, chart generated with MegaStar 5

NGC 3718, galaxy in Ursa Major - Large and bright eye candy after Hickson 56. Oval, not bright. Halo round non-stellar core. Elongated north-south. 190x

NGC 3729, galaxy in Ursa Major - Next to 3718, this is smaller and fainter. Round with non-stellar core. 190x

Hickson 44, galaxy group in Leo - Easily located in the head of Leo, this is eye candy for a Hickson! Three are visible at low power (69x) while all four are visible at higher power (190x). At 190x they all fit nicely into the field of view (31')
44A (NGC 3190/Arp 316) is the brightest member of the group. Oval with a nice dust lane on the south side of the galaxy seen at 190x. 3190 is a peculiar galaxy, Arp 316
44B (NGC 3193) is a round and bright even glow located next to a mag 9 star.
44C (NGC 3185) is oval and quite faint.
44D (NGC 3187) is the dimmest member of the group at mag13.4v. Elongated streak of light just east of 44A.

Hickson 44, chart generated with MegaStar 5
NGC 3185, photo from DSS

NGC 3190 and 3187, photo from DSS

NGC 3193 and 3190, photo from DSS

UGC 5470 (Leo I), galaxy in Leo - Next to, and just above, Regulus this is easy to find but not so easy to see. It is very dim oval glow, barely seen against the sky. 101x, 190x.

Leo I, showing position just above Regulus, concentric circles are Telrad field. Chart generated with MegaStar 5.

NGC 3412, galaxy in Leo - Small, oval, bright. Bright core. 190x.

NGC 4251, galaxy in Coma Berenices - Small and bright. Elongated east-west. Bright core. 69x, 190x

Messier 84 (NGC 4374), galaxy in Virgo - Large, bright and round galaxy in a busy area stuffed with galaxies. 69x, 101x

Messier 86 (NGC 4406), galaxy in Virgo - Next to M84, this is the same size as its neighbour and almost as bright. Also round. 69x, 101x

NGC 4388, galaxy in Virgo - Adjacent to M84 and M86 and is the apex of a triangle with the two big Messier galaxies. Considerably fainter than the Messiers. Flattened oval, elongated east-west. 190x

NGC 4438, galaxy in Virgo - Moderately faint. Oval. Elongated NNE-SSW. 190x

NGC 4435, galaxy in Virgo - Brighter and slightly rounder than NGC 4438. Elongated NE-SW. 190x

NGC 4402, galaxy in Virgo - Very faint, elongated east- west. 190x.

Packed up at 0010 BST after a quick sail around Markarian's Chain. I need to get in there properly to knock off a load of Herschels but with worsening dew I decided to call it a night.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Some photos 'from the archives'

My posts just recently have been a bit light on the visuals so, in the absence of any recent trips or new sketches, I have dug out some old star party photos, from my TSP visits, and here they are. I don't think I've posted them on the blog before (I don't want to become like one of the cable tv channels that only shows repeats!) but they are, or some are, on my website.
Click on each photo for sharper and, in some cases, larger ones.

Upper field 2008

Upper field 2008

Upper field 2008

L-R: Larry Mitchell, Stephen O'Meara, Alvin Huey, 'yours truly' and Robert Reeves, TSP 2006. I have since dyed my hair!!

Lower field 2008

Middle field 2008

82 inch dome at McDonald Observatory

Barbara Wilson's 20" Spacewalk dob

Alvin Huey's 30" Starmaster dob

Me at the eyepiece of Jimi Lowrey's 48". That ladder isn't as scary as it's scarier.

Upper field, dusk 2008

Dusk falls

And keeps falling

Larry Mitchell's 36" Obsession dob

12" dob, upper field 2006

Gateway to the TSP

Gate made famous in many astronomy magazine articles, books and web sites


Fire! The 'Great TSP Fire of 2008'

Valley of the Dobs, TSP 2006

Upper field

Upper field, another view

And another view

Yet another view

Upper field 2010 - no dust! It's green!

Bob Summerfield at the eyepiece of the 36" 'Yard Scope' (originally built by Tectron Telescopes)

I love the TSP, it's definitely my favourite vacation, and I want to go back one year, hopefully in 2012. We'll see what the rest of 2011 brings...