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.