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